The Stand-In

by Steven Axelrod

The FBI and LAPD pursue the notorious Hollywood killer teaching a UCLA film class. 3,721words. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.


Special Agent Phillip Kennis lifted the mini-bar bottle of orange juice and toasted his image in the mirror. He hadn’t taken a real drink in fourteen years and he had never been a breakfast drunk, anyway. But he wouldn’t have minded a touch of champagne in the Tropicana this morning. He finally had something to celebrate.

After close to half a million man hours including his own team and the state police and local cops in four cities in two states; after a closed door Congressional hearing, two review boards and a suspension over his methods and attitude; after a work-related divorce and eight months of eating Stouffer’s macaroni and cheese out of the microwave, he was finally going to arrest the Auteur.

The Auteur wasn’t some Rambo-like killing machine. He wasn’t even particularly fit. He was devious, not physically intimidating. Today, he was just an ordinary guy, standing in the pit of a lecture hall, teaching a course called Directing Actors — the tabloids would have a ball with that one. It was going down this morning, in a little more than an hour, when the film classes started at UCLA.

The paperwork was done – Phil wasn’t going to make that mistake again: no more cowboy stuff, no more improvisations. The judge had signed off on the raid just before midnight, and shaken Phil’s hand with a terse, “Go get him, son.” It was an uncharacteristic moment of warmth. Judge Howard Kyle was an unapologetic civil liberties fanatic who despised the Patriot Act and the men who took advantage of it. Phil had come up against him before. But this was different. Judge Kyle had seen the captured film — part of it at least.

“I walk out of regular movies all the time,” he said. “I walked out of Inglourious Basterds when they started beating people to death with baseball bats, and that was make-believe. I saw precisely as much of this one as the letter of the law required.”

So the Auteur had brought them together in a moment of bipartisan law enforcement and judicial solidarity, when nothing else had ever come close. That felt good. The Auteur had unwittingly created that irony, along with his high-end murder porn.

The Hollywood snitch who turned in the DVD had told them that the Auteur had nicknamed himself, but not much more. Unlike mainstream film directors, the Auteur avoided the spotlight. His security precautions were meticulous, his anonymity absolute, his tradecraft faultless: an uncatchable phantom, always two steps ahead of the law. Until now.

Phil was always first man in the office, but it was especially important this morning. He didn’t want the LAPD screwing this up. He wanted a clean arrest and he wanted the credit – he might as well admit it. He’d certainly take the blame if it went south. He wanted the commendations and the promotion and, yes, the extra money in his pocket if the morning turned out right. He wasn’t a mercenary, but he was still driving that 2004 Escape and he wanted a brand new Audi.

He had assembled this case all by himself — taken the pile of jigsaw pieces, like some abandoned puzzle in a grandmother’s attic, and started fiddling with it and finally solved it. No one else had even found the corners and the straight edges that had gotten him started. Young girls disappeared all the time – some were runaways, some were kidnapped into the sex trade, some were murder victims. But the profile of the girls disappearing in Los Angeles matched the profile of the cases he had worked in Minneapolis five years before: pretty, blond, arty, ambitious. And the bodies had disappeared the same way.

There were real bad guys out there. He wanted to catch them. Evil existed. And he wanted to fight it. That was important. It could be done.

And this morning, he was going to prove it.

Phil ran a LAPD black and white off the road with his Bureau Impala on the way to the UCLA campus perimeter. He hoped to maintain the element of surprise if possible. Phil eased back into the westbound traffic and wondered again if his plan for the Auteur’s capture was flawed. With SWAT troops in the Murphy sculpture garden and the parking structure next to Melnitz Hall, and plainclothes inside the building, this was like going into safari tiger-hunt mode to get a house cat off a tree branch. But that was the Bureau’s style: full commitment, especially in a high profile case.

He could see traffic backing up for a red light on Beverly Glen. He opened his cell and hit Milligan’s number on the speed-dial. “Where’s our man?”

“He’s in the Northern Lights coffee shop, just beside Rolfe Hall. He’s with another teacher. Chatting away. I don’t have sound at the coffee shop but they’ve clearly got no worries. A new semester, a fine sunny day in the City of Angels. All’s well with the world.”

“Good. Keep it that way.”

The light turned green. Phil took off up the hill and his command post on Charles E. Young Drive, the little campus road that ran parallel to Highland along the eastern edge of the campus. Everyone was following orders, tactically coordinated, crouched at the line, waiting for the starter’s pistol.

The Auteur knew they were coming.

The question was: were they coming for him? He had organized a lovely path of disinformation, all the way from Minneapolis to Los Angeles. But maybe he had arranged it too well. Anyone smart enough to follow the markings would have to know someone had left them.

He sipped his latte and let Hugo talk. It was relaxing to let the words stream past him, and this would probably be their last conversation —  ever. One of them was going down today and never coming up again.

Hugo was working through his When Harry Met Sally essay for Film Comment, bouncing it off his favorite colleague:

“So this is how it works: Harry makes first move. Sally rejects it, a classic feint to the negative, right? So Harry digs deeper, gets specific and hits the emotional bull’s eye. She caps the moment with the "It’s impossible to hate you" speech. The scene could have ended there, you know? That would have been fine.”

The Auteur nodded. “Totally. Most writers would have been ecstatic to get that far.”

“But Ephron has one more card to play. I’m going to call it the ‘off-topic feint’ in my piece, a line that seems to draw us away from the immediate moment, or pull the characters away from each other and into the broader context of the scene — in this case, a New Year’s Eve party with ‘Auld Lang Syne’ playing as the ball drops, right?”

“Right.”

“I mean, on its own, without reference to the ultimate story strategy, this is a brilliant tactic: Harry makes an ‘off-hand’ comment that’s typically clever and charming — what the hell does this ‘Auld Lang Syne’ song mean, anyway? It sets up their reunion as a fait accompli. They can now return to ‘business as usual’ — just talking about stuff and enjoying each other’s company.”

“Sure.”

“But check it out. The great narrative coup comes just after Sally tries to answer him. She says something like – ‘Maybe it means we’re just supposed to remember we forgot them or something.’ OK? But Ephron takes this seemingly random bit of chit-chat and uses it to pull us all the way back into the thematic center and the emotional heart of her story: Sally says, ‘Anyway, it’s about old friends.’ And there it is. Boom. The whole movie in five words.”

The Auteur finished his latte. He glanced up. Hugo was waiting for a response, and the Auteur knew exactly what the big man wanted to hear. That was the Auteur’s mutant power — figuring out the expectations, and delivering.

“You make me want to see the movie again, Hugo. And then go out and make my own.”

Hugo grinned. “That’s what we’re all trying to do. Keep the art alive.”

The Auteur glanced at his watch. “Let’s go. We’ll be late.”

“They’re on the move,” Milligan said to Phil. “They’re just passing the research library, heading north through the sculpture garden. Not a cop in sight. We’ll re-deploy when he gets inside.”

Phil thought back to Minneapolis five years ago. He was one of the few agents who had tried to link up the missing girls, guessing they’d been murdered, and the only one who thought they’d all been killed by the same duo. But there just wasn’t enough usable evidence. So Phil let it go. And then he was transferred to Los Angeles.

The girls’ murders here felt too familiar, and Phil had kept poking around in his spare time, and what do you know? His two suspects had moved West – he’d nicknamed them Fake Chin and Dagwood – both living in Los Angeles now and both working at UCLA though none of the missing girls were students there.

He got more traction this time. Two men, two cities, the same M.O. And then he got an informant. That was how they finally got their hands on one of the Auteur’s movies, and found his studio, and finally  understood what had happened to all those missing girls.

The Auteur was evil, vile, amoral, sadistic and pretentious, too. He had the nerve to line himself up with Welles and Kubrick, Goddard and Truffaut, as he sliced women into pieces for the pleasure of his perverted fans. That was the last straw for Phil. But there was no three-picture deal in this animal’s future. Just Potassium Thiopental to knock him out, Pancuronium to paralyze him, and Potassium Chloride to stop his miserable black unfeeling heart and kill him.

Phil had everything he needed for a quick trial. Not just the studio, with all the slaughterhouse paraphernalia and archived films, but also notes and diaries inside the Auteur’s apartment. And best of all, they would have the Auteur himself.

Now the Auteur was traversing the screen of Phil’s iPhone in streaming video, walking along with his pal, heading for the first class of the new semester, chatting and laughing, greeting students, practically skipping under the trees and across the Broad Art Center Plaza.

The Auteur was explaining the Meisner technique to his film class when the raid began. “As a director, these are the actors you want to work with. Their attention is never going to be on themselves – trying to remember some sad thing in their own lives so they can pretend to be sad for you. Their attention is going to be on the other person. They don’t pretend to listen. They actually listen. They don’t indicate emotion. They’re alive in the scene, they’re present in the moment  — and they actually feel the emotion.”

He heard doors slamming and running feet. Some of the kids were distracted. Was that a helicopter outside? He paused, gripped the lectern, but had to press on. He was the unflappable pedant today. That was his role.

“Meisner often told the story of Duse’s blush,” he continued, “Eleonora Duse, the greatest actress of the19th Century. She was acting in a play – Hermann Sudermann’s Magda, performing the title role. Her character is mortified by meeting the father of her illegitimate child, decades after their affair. This comes from George Bernard Shaw’s review. It’s a cordial social situation, no one knows the truth and it’s all going well for her until she starts to blush uncontrollably, giving herself away. How did Duse go red with embarrassment every night? What was the trick? The trick was she felt that embarrassment, every night. This is what Stanislavsky called the ‘full understanding of the given circumstances.’ She was able to — ”

The doors at the top of the lecture hall burst open, and armed SWAT soldiers charged down the stairs, shouting, “Nobody move! Hands where we can see them!” More men with machine guns and flak jackets crashed through the lower doors on either side of the blackboard.

It was over. He had failed. He had thought he was so cunning, so much better and smarter than everyone else. But he wasn’t. Someone had seen through all his jejune little tricks. What a fool that he’d actually believed his sleight-of-hand. And now boots knocked his feet out from under him. He hit the lecture hall linoleum with a head jangling crack, breath smacked out of him. A knee drilled into the small of his back as his arms were plastic-cuffed behind him. He shut his eyes. Fine: he deserved it. He had brought it on himself.

“Hugo Plaice, I am placing you under arrest for multiple counts of kidnapping, murder, felony rape and the production and distribution of pornographic materials — ”

The Auteur felt his heart leap.

Hugo Plaice.

Then it had worked, all of it. He had fooled them. He never should have doubted himself. He wanted to laugh out loud, but he was still acting. He knew his part: Professor Adam Bissinger would be feeling nothing but outrage right now.

“I’m not Hugo Plaice!” he shouted into the grimy floor. “Check my ID, take my wallet, look at my driver’s license. For God’s sake!”

Someone official appeared at the high doorway. “Let him go! You’ve got the wrong guy. Plaice is next door.”

An officer cut the plastic cuffs and the Auteur rolled over. His ribs and his right knee were screaming. His teeth didn’t line up properly. Professor Bissinger’s natural response now would be baffled confusion. That was key. What did Meisner say? The words ride the situation like a canoe on a stream.

“What is going on?” the Auteur asked the cop.

The students were ushered out. The last of the officers were retreating toward the ground floor. The Auteur organized his papers, watched Hugo being led away and spoke briefly with the genius who had organized the arrest – special agent Phillip Kennis of the FBI.

“If you want to file a complaint, I understand completely,” Kennis said.

“No, no,” the Auteur replied. “I’m just glad it’s over.”

Special Agent Kennis accepted Professor Bissinger’s benediction with transparent gratitude and relief. The Auteur drove away from the campus to Sunset and the 405. He got on the freeway, merging with light traffic, and headed north over the pass into the Valley. He needed to move this morning; red-line his old Volvo and swallow miles and burn gas and let the adrenaline subside.

But there was more: he needed to talk to someone. And there was only one person in the world who could serve that purpose today: Bissinger’s pal, his former community college film class student, his conduit to the inner halls of Hollywood – Andrew Lake.

Andy would appreciate what the Auteur had accomplished today; in fact he was the only one who could.

Andy lived in Bel Air, now. He drove a Mercedes S class, and smoked Cuban cigars at some club in Beverly Hills and had his shoes made at Di Fabrizio on Fairfax. He had embraced every cliché of gargantuan success: the flat screen TVs in every room, the eight burner Wolf range he never used, the disposable women, the expensive divorce, the kid he never saw.

The Auteur pulled off the freeway and called Andy’s landline from a gas station pay phone because cell calls were too easy to monitor. Andy picked up after the first ring.

“Lake on the line.” It was his standard greeting.

“It’s Adam.”

“Adam? Oh my God… I thought… I heard on the news — ”

“I’m coming over, traveling under the radar. Send the staff home. Turn off the surveillance cameras and leave the gate open.”

The Auteur headed for the 28-room house on Chalon Drive. The Auteur cruised up the long driveway to the port-cochere. The front door was open and the Auteur roamed around the living room then walked into the giant kitchen, opening a bottle of Duckhorn Cabernet when Lake appeared.

“What the hell happened today?” Lake asked. “The name was withheld, but they said there was a raid at UCLA this morning and they caught you. I mean – obviously they didn’t, but – “ He laughed. “They sure as hell caught somebody.”

“Hugo Plaice, that’s the name. He’s innocent, Andrew. He has an extensive porn collection. Otherwise, a perfectly nice fellow. And I just annihilated his life. I had fun.”

“Jesus Christ, you are so fucked up.”

“Should I leave?”

“No, no – it’s awesome. I just… Jesus. That guy is going down.”

“Good thing. Or you might have had to finish my new film.”

“Hey, man. I would never presume.”

“Still, you could help. You could be a part of it. Just like we were talking about last month.”

Lake brightened. For a sociopath he had an endearing innocence and enthusiasm, a dog-like quality. He even looked like a dog, with his incipient jowls and his big toothy smile.

“What can I do?” Lake asked.

“Well, the girl in this film actually … volunteers, I guess you could say. A good Catholic girl, filled with good Catholic guilt. So she writes a suicide note before she goes to the filming. She knows what’s going down. She welcomes it. Problem is, I want an insert of the note and my handwriting is totally fucking illegible. So who am I going to ask? Who can I trust to do it?”

Lake was grinning.

“Get a pen and a piece of paper," the Auteur instructed. "OK, let’s see … ‘I don’t want to live any more, People say they know me but no one knows me. No one knows my sins. I’ve been a bad, bad girl. I’ve done bad things and I need to pay for them. I need to die. I want to die over and over again but I can’t. So this one will have to make up for all the others. The world will be better without me. Have a nice day.’”

“Have a nice day? Oh my God, That’s a classic,” Lake gushed as he wrote.

“I thought you’d like it.” The Auteur topped off Lake wine’s glass. “Come into the living room and sit with me, Andy. I want to explain what happened today. I want to tell you the whole story.”

The Auteur began.

“I was living in Minneaoplis. As a kind of insurance policy, I decided to create the possibility of suspicion around someone else. I researched one of my victims and found a man she had dated a few years before – Hugo Plaice. He taught some undergraduate film courses at a college there. It was too perfect. I used a geek in the computer science department to set up some missed appointments on the nights I took the girls. Plaice was under suspicion, I didn’t expect an arrest – though I did plant some nasty stuff in Hugo’s apartment just to heat things up a little. I wanted a trail someone could follow if they were smart enough to start looking. I went where Hugo went, so when he got the job teaching at UCLA, I came out West, too.

“A few years later, I got lucky one night when I was checking his apartment. He actually had a black market tape of one of my early films. There’s no such thing as an innocent man. I found him on a snuff film chat room. He was asking about my work and I traced the posts back to his IP. I emailed him,  got to know him. And I kept picking girls I’d seen him with, girls the cops could connect to him. Anyway, a month ago. I noticed a new surveillance camera outside the little grocery store across from my studio. I knew instantly it was high end stuff. So I just drove on. Somehow they’d found me. That meant it was time to put Hugo into play.”

Pause. “I know what you did, Andy.”

Lake seemed to shrink back against the arm of the couch.

“You betrayed me to the FBI. You tried to recruit the wrong person for my cult fan base. It was bound to happen. He went to the cops and the cops came to you. You didn’t give up my name, because you knew that would lead me back to you, and you were scared. But you told them about the studio. As soon as I saw that surveillance camera, I knew what must have happened. I sent Hugo there and then just waited. Someone smart enough would follow the trail back to Minneapolis and come for Hugo. Someone a little smarter would see through it all and come for me. It was not a fun morning, Andy. Until the end.”

“Wait. Wait. What was I supposed to do? They had the witness.”

“You were supposed to stay silent, Andy. Now you kill yourself. They’ll read the suicide note you gave me tonight.”

“That was a girl’s note, it couldn’t — ”

“A girl? Or a cross-dresser? That’s the conclusion the police will arrive at when they find your corpse dressed in your wife’s clothing.”

The Auteur reached under the pillows for his friend’s Luger which the Auteur had planted as he’d entered Lake’s home. The gun detonated the left side of Andy’s face in a particulate fog of blood and brain matter. The Auteur eased the gun into Lake’s slack palm and curled Andy’s finger around the trigger. He lifted Lake’s arm and squeezed for him. The crime scene people would record the all-important gun-shot residue on the corpse’s hand and wrist and find no other prints on the pistol. Then the Auteur dressed Lake in one of Madeline’s matching bra and thong sets, with a lovely Herve Legere outfit on top. It was the same style Emily Blunt had worn to the Oscars recently.

Lovely dress; perfect crime.

The Auteur grabbed a bottle of champagne from inside the refrigerator and left the house a few minutes later. He drove West, letting the cool ocean air flood the car, blissful and determined and calm. He could do anything he wanted now. He could even start grazing among his UCLA students, at long last. He had never felt so free.

About The Author:
Steven Axelrod
Steven Axelrod is an author and screenwriter who has written for Gil Cates, Irvin Kerschner, Roger Spottiswood, Howard Intl, Hemdale, Concorde, Tapestry and Arama Films among others. Son of writer/producer George Axelrod, Steven is currently writing mystery novels for Poisoned Pen Press. This book excerpt is from his work in progress Hollywood Parking.

About Steven Axelrod

Steven Axelrod is an author and screenwriter who has written for Gil Cates, Irvin Kerschner, Roger Spottiswood, Howard Intl, Hemdale, Concorde, Tapestry and Arama Films among others. Son of writer/producer George Axelrod, Steven is currently writing mystery novels for Poisoned Pen Press. This book excerpt is from his work in progress Hollywood Parking.

  4 comments on “The Stand-In

  1. Hey, thanks for the comment! You can read the longer version in the published book. Paste in the URL … http://www.gutterbooks.com2012/12/heat-of-moment-by-steven-axelrod.html

    1. Please read all three parts involving this compelling character. And I disagree: the excellent writing isn’t ‘clunky’ at all.

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