by Jacqueline Diamond
An unsolved Hollywood murder mystery puts the offbeat heroine in the sights of a reawakened killer.
This nitwit has been out all night, partying. She left her mind somewhere north of Sunset Boulevard and her bra in a producer’s bedroom. Her blonde hair is a mess but her face doesn’t shine. Ah, the marvels of Hollywood makeup.
She twists the knob on her apartment door and walks in. From the shadows steps a bulky figure, a muscular guy or it could be a wimp in a motorcycle jacket.
The woman turns, light falling across her pouty face and heaving bosom. Surprise mutates into fear as a hand rips away her blouse, revealing silicone-rich orbs with unnatural gravity-defying powers.
Is that a nipple? Have TV’s footloose standards been given the final boot?
Fade to black, pierced by a scream as another television bimbo bites the dust.
Across the black screen, in white, appear the words: “The murder of actress Melinda Rivers has never been solved. Someone in Hollywood knows who killed her. Maybe even someone involved in the making of this movie. Stay tuned for a look at what might have happened. Maybe even ... what DID happen.”
The title scrawls out in giant letters dripping with blood: “Melinda Rivers: The Untold Story.”
What a gimmick! Can you believe it?
The producer is Cliff Burrows, a sleazebag who, despite an overlay of chemical sweeteners, has his breath permanently set on stun. Give that man a boost in the ratings for coming up with the exploitation brainstorm of the decade. Unless he turns out to be the murderer, of course.
Leaning forward in my vinyl beanbag chair, I hit Stop and Mute. I knew I couldn’t get through this TV movie without a handful of sour-cream-and-chives potato chips and a swig of root beer. I’d forgotten to eat lunch and Melinda Rivers, The Untold Story didn’t sit well on an empty stomach.
People pay me to watch television and write about it. At the moment I was free-lancing for True Hollywood Insider, a glossy magazine that wanted all the gossip, the interviews, the inside poop on Tinseltown’s hottest resurrected murder mystery.
They’d chosen me because, earlier in my twenties, I used to be a hard news reporter with a police beat under my belt. I was supposed to examine the clues and solve the mystery, since the ending wouldn’t be revealed until airtime. Even then, it would be pure speculation.
It didn’t matter whether I came up with the same answer as Cliff, or with the truth, or with something entirely different. True Hollywood Insider will take the sizzle over the steak any time.
Look at the latest cover: a rising young actor (no pun intended) poses with a condom stretched over his hand. Across his chest is printed: “Sex In The 21st Century: What Are You Afraid Of?” It fits the tone of the Insider, hip and uncluttered by intelligence.
I made my way toward the kitchen, not a simple task. My decorating tends toward hand-me-down monstrosities: a huge driftwood coffee table, an oversize orange sofa, green velvet curtains kept permanently shut.
For the last year I’ve been leasing the guesthouse on the rundown Silver Lake estate of Merle Bennett, who once competed with Marilyn Monroe for roles. She doesn’t charge much rent because she considers me her early warning system. If I get mugged, I’m contractually obligated to scream loud.
I took a root beer from the fridge and a half-full bag of chips from the counter. On the way back, I left them on my printer stand and made a pit stop. The toilet is my favorite place to think. You sit and sag, and you don’t have to please anybody. It’s the way therapy ought to be but usually isn’t.
One of the more interesting forms of therapy I’ve used, by the way, is something called cognitive therapy. You’re supposed to redirect unwanted thoughts through relaxation exercises and prioritizing your anxieties. Sometimes it works, even on a manic-depressive like me.
I tried it now, because I was feeling a little speeded up, maybe from watching Melinda get offed. Murder bothers me, even a five-year-old reenacted murder.
So I did the relaxation stuff, starting with my feet. Tense them, count to ten, relax them, count to ten, take a few deep breaths. On to the ankles, tense them, relax them; on to the calves.
I can hear the voice of—what was his name the last time I could afford to see anybody?—Dr. Ralph. Or Rolph. You have a chronic disease. If you don’t want to take medicine, then deal with it this way, because it’s a fact of life.
Having a chronic disease clashes with the illusion that I control my destiny. Actually, from an objective point of view, nobody controls anything, and I’m doing a particularly lousy job, but at least it’s my lousy job.
I hate the Dr. Ralph Rolphs of the world. No matter how detached they start out, eventually they turn into your father, disapproving when you fail. Which you always do.
I’d rather think about almost anything other than the state of my own psyche. Even murder.
So I sat on the john studying the little wads of dust and hair that had collected in the corners, and I wondered how so much lint had managed to pile up in the corners of Melinda Rivers’ life. She was born in Santa Fe Springs, a few traffic jams down the I-5 from Hollywood. Her mother played the apron-clad wife on a 1980s sitcom called “Shake Your Booty.”
Her dad moved out when Melinda was thirteen. At seventeen, she graduated from high school and moved a few miles north, leaving behind her mother, one brother and a stepfather she claimed had molested her.
Melinda had a lot of friends, probably too many. They helped her land bit parts, they encouraged her to pose for nudie magazines and they introduced her to drugs. Somewhere along the way she started getting paid for going to parties and taking her clothes off. Legend has it that one of the payees was Cliff Burrows.
Once, long ago, I interviewed Cliff. He operates in a blare of energy that gives him a certain charm, and he possesses a sense of self-aggrandizement that impresses even me. The man will do almost anything to put himself in the public eye. In most professions, this would make him the butt of office jokes. In Hollywood, it’s made him rich.
Although I don’t think I would have liked Melinda very much, either, no one deserves to get strangled with her own pantyhose at the age of twenty-five. Very coldly and neatly strangled, with no sexual assault, no robbery. Someone choked the life out of Melinda and left her draped across her sofa for a reason that has never been discovered.
In the five years since, no one had been charged. Now some of the people who knew her, maybe including the killer himself, had been reassembled to rip off her life story.
Melinda Rivers was slated to air two months from now during November sweeps, a period whose ratings determine how much the networks can charge for advertising. The nets will go to almost any extreme, including staging sex shows in your garage, to win sweeps. This particular opus was a production of Burrows-Highgate, one of an endless stream of companies that, without warning, announce themselves in Variety. In subsequent editions they merge, split apart and finally disappear, leaving a slimy trail of fact-based movies-of-the-week.
Highgate is a British investment company. Burrows is, of course, Cliff.
He has a hell of a nerve. He actually listed himself among the suspects in the press release, citing the fact that he once fired Melinda after she showed up drunk for a production. She sued, he counter sued. The whole mess was pending when she died. If actresses got murdered over dust-ups like that, there wouldn’t be enough of them left to fill the gossip section of People magazine.
I was reclaiming my chips from the printer stand when someone tapped at the front door. It couldn’t be Federal Express. They pound loud enough to wake me at any hour of the day with press kits sent by eager publicists. It wasn’t my letter carrier, either; she rings. More likely a polite home invasion gang.
With a few well-chosen curses, I stumbled to the door. It swung open with a blinding glare.
“For God’s sake, come in before the light kills me,” I said. “You should know better than to annoy a vampire in the middle of the afternoon.”
“Merle said you had a rough cut.” A slender young man and his boxy camera bag angled through the door. “I’d sell my soul to see it. This movie is going to make me rich.”
“Everything is going to make you rich.” Gene Larosa is kind of a degenerate Peter Pan. He’s thirtyish, elfin with a hint of depravity, and my best friend. He’s the reason I got this house in the first place. Once upon a time, he took some terrific pictures of Merle with gauzy filters, and now he’s on her A-list.
He dumped his camera bag on the sofa. “Merle thinks Becky might agree to a nude shoot. Do you know what that would mean?”
Becky Bennett is my landlady’s granddaughter. She’s also the actress with the silicon boobs playing Melinda.
“It means you’d have nude shots of the real Melinda and of Becky. Big deal.” I just said it to annoy him, but he didn’t bite.
“Big poster, more like,” he said. “Big magazine spread, possibly Playboy.”
“Want some root beer?”
He took a swig and handed back the can. “It’s flat. Are you going on the set? Can I come?”
I shrugged. “If they’ll let you.” Gene is a paparazzo, one of those photographers who follow performers around. He makes a living hand to mouth, like me. “Besides, the shooting’s wrapped.”
“I’ll take what I can get. Nubile extras eager for glory. The stars signing autographs for old ladies. Anything. The market’s hot on this one.” He sat on the sofa, knowing I’d decapitate anyone who touched my beanbag chair. “Well? Have you started watching?”
“I skimmed it last night but I was about to take another look.” I clicked Play.
“Let’s skip to the suspects. That’s who I’m interested in.” Gene arranged his feet on the driftwood coffee table, which used to be his when he shared a beach house with the advertising executive who was, briefly, the man of his dreams.
“Sure.” “Untold Story” was one of those movies you could watch backwards or out of sequence without losing much.
We started at the first suspect, a shaggy teen-ager on a surfboard. The producers were thoughtful enough to show each of the possible bad guys silhouetted against a mysterious source of bright light. They also played a “danger theme.”
This fellow looked about as dangerous as mashed potatoes.
“Who’s that?” Gene asked.
“Would you believe Kyle Rivers, the victim’s brother?” I said. “Like he really drove to Hollywood in the middle of the night when he was fifteen to strangle his sister.”
“Oh, yeah, I heard about him.” Gene bumped his camera bag, registered horror and moved it tenderly to the floor. “Wants to be an actor. This must be the only part he could get.”
“As himself.” I shrugged. I didn’t blame the kid. At least now he had a credit.
The second silhouette turned out to be Terence Marcuso, best known as Lt. Rock Malone on the now-defunct TV series “Street Fever.” The point here was that Terence, who was also playing himself, might actually be a suspect.
He had been married to Melinda for about a year. They split up after he learned from a news report that she was selling sexual favors on the side. Cliff’s press release described him as subject to jealous rages. Under the circumstances, who wouldn’t be?
In the scene before us, he was gazing tenderly at Melinda/Becky, who stood with her back to us. The light fell across Terence’s smoldering eyes as his lips framed sweet nothings. His hands smoothed the sweater up Becky’s back and his jaw twitched meaningfully.
I could give you one of those romance novel descriptions of what made Terence so irresistible but we all know it isn’t the height or the broad shoulders. It’s the vulnerability in the way he looks at you.
Or rather, the way he looks at the camera. If actors made love to women the way they make love to the camera, maybe their marriages would last longer.
“Desperation time.” Gene found a couple of corn chips in the sofa and ate them. “He hasn’t had a decent role all year. Can you imagine how low he has to sink to take this part?”
“It’s put his name back in front of the public,” I said. “I hear he’s up for a steamy thriller, big budget.”
“Never happen,” said Gene.
“Anyway, he’s directing the thing,” I pointed out. “Good career move.”
Next we encountered Ewell Mace, the young black actor playing Melinda’s friend Bokeem Falasi. In this scene, Bokeem was warning her that “audition” wasn’t supposed to be a synonym for “strip-tease.”
It was Bokeem who had elevated the whole sordid strangulation of Melinda Rivers to front-page news. A fellow struggling actor, he’d found her body when, so he said, he came by her apartment to check on her. The police dragged Bokeem’s name through the mud, then dismissed charges amid hints that he’d done it but couldn’t be nailed. Outraged African-American citizens charged racism and staged protest marches.
The poor guy attempted to kill himself by smashing his sports car into a wall but survived with only a broken toe, courtesy of his air bag. The owner of the wall sued Bokeem for damages. Last I heard, he changed his name and limped off into the sunset.
“Whatever happened to him?” I asked.
Gene reached for my root beer and grimaced on finding it empty. “Nobody knows.”
We watched the actress playing Melinda’s roommate as she came home one evening and gasped at finding Melinda rolling around on the couch with a strange man. A superscript noted that the roommate, Jocelyn Day Sumner, was a scriptwriter and that the real Jocelyn had written—you guessed it—this very movie.
I know Jocelyn Day Sumner. She’s one of my run-into-you friends. We cross paths every few months at screenings, commissaries and Women in Film meetings. We have coffee and talk intently about all kinds of things until my watch buzzes or her beeper beeps.
skipped ahead, watching bits and pieces of scenes. There was Cliff Burrows
as himself, riding a camera boom a` la John Huston, or maybe I’m
thinking of Howard Hawks. As the telltale white light glared behind him,
Cliff called Melinda a drunkard and yelled that she’d screwed up his
production for the last time (more danger music here). All the while, he
wore a little Tom Arnold smile that said, Look at me, pretending to be
There was nothing after that. The rough cut didn’t include the climactic scenes, some of which supposedly hadn’t been shot yet. Even the critics weren’t supposed to get a look at them, if anyone had the nerve to show this thing to a critic.
Gene sighed. “Incestuous, exploitive—a work of genius.”
“If I were the murderer,” I said, “I’d want to find out what their ending was going to be.”
“They’ll probably say she killed herself,” said Gene. “What’s the Insider doing for art, anyway?” By “art,” he meant photographs.
“Publicity handouts,” I said.
“Cheapskates. How much are they paying you?”
He shrugged. “Not bad for a small magazine, but you’re a hell of a writer. If you weren’t such a flake, Kenny, you could make a lot more.”
“I’m not a flake,” I said. “I’m manic depressive. It’s a disease, not an excuse.”
“If I were straight, I’d fall in love with you.” Gene stretched languorously, which he does very well, then spoiled the effect by blowing upward to disarrange his bangs.
“For my writing?” I said.
“Certainly not for your cooking.”
The phone rang. I grabbed it before the answering machine-cum-fax could pick up. “Kenny Rubin.”
“Oh, good, I caught you!” May Perkins, head publicist for Burrows-Highgate, bubbled at me through the receiver. “Listen, Terence is on the set today, I just found out. I don’t know how much longer he’ll be here but he’s agreed to talk to you. And Jocelyn, you know, our screenwriter, is coming by, so you can kill two birds with one stone. I told them you’re eager to get started. Jocelyn promised she’d hang around. Can you get over here right now?”
The DVD had only arrived yesterday. Normally I like to take time to think about my angle and develop questions, but Terence Marcuso was known for his impatience with the press, and that’s putting it mildly. Not a fun guy to interview, and not a guy to keep waiting.
An image of him flashed into my mind, in the virile persona of Lt. Rock Malone, homicide detective. The wind teased his dark-blond hair and his shirt collar fell open. He was tugging irritably at his tie.
He was a big guy, unless all the actors playing opposite him had been midgets. I barely scrape five foot two on a good day. The prospect of confronting Terence Marcuso gave me a twinge.
Oh, hell. “I’ll be there,” I said.
It didn’t take long to throw on some navy pants and a clingy scarlet shell to remind the world that actresses aren’t the only women with breasts. I stuck my bare feet into low-heeled pumps, grabbed my oversize purse and set out with Gene right behind me.
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