Is it a case of mistaken identity or masterful acting? 2,153 words. Part One. Part Two. Part Three. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
"I’ve solved the case."
In the name of showmanship, I had come through
the tunnel and into the house from the wine cellar,
though without any wine. Jade barely lost her composure,
greeting me as though I’d been expected. "I was wondering
how long it would take you to find the other end,"
she said. "Have you made any progress?"
She sounded genuinely hopeful.
"Yes. I even know who moved the body.
We should have champagne to celebrate."
I went to the fridge, lifted the metal cap off the half-filled
bottle of Taittinger, made a point of noticing that
that no pressure was released, and said,
"What do you know? It’s flat. Those things usually work so well."
"Well, tell me. That’s what I’m paying you for, isn’t it?
It wasn’t a superintendent of police, was it?
That would be too much to ask for."
"No," I said, taking a hit off the bottle. Only
private eyes can enjoy flat champagne. "It was you."
"Me?" Her eyes opened, but only by a fraction, with mild
indignation mingled with anticipation. "Why would I
move her, and where would I move her from?
Are you saying I killed her?" "Oh, no. That wouldn’t
line up with 1957. In fact, symmetry with the events
at The Spider Pool may be the only reason you took
the trouble to move her at all, since you only
moved her from the jacuzzi to the pool."
She smiled, indulgently. "Our screenplay
appears to have gone off the rails," she said.
"There’s no record of you ever taking a commercial flight from Mazatlán.
That’s because you chartered a plane, and returned a day
early to surprise someone. Your cast mates and crew in Mexico
thought you were still there, in your bungalow with a Do Not Disturb
sign on the door. Ordinarily, you would have had your
on-call car service pick you up at LAX. But when you called
them, you found out they’d already dispatched a car
to pick you up, not at the airport but at your house,
formerly known as The Spider Pool. You ended up cabbing
home, but when you got there, the place was empty.
Your house-sitter was nowhere to be found.
"This is fun," she said. "It’s like a kid being told
a story all about herself. What happened next?"
"Your surprise had gone flatter than this not so fizzy wine.
So you slipped out of your clothes, and took the bottle of champagne
you’d brought home in the cab out to the jacuzzi to wait for her."
"To wait for who? Who was I trying to surprise?"
"Your house-sitter, your friend, your lovely new young lover.
I knew the date circled on that event calendar—
pointing to the refrigerator—"had a hidden meaning,
but it wasn’t hidden very deeply. Someone was anxiously
awaiting your homecoming, someone who loved
you and wanted to welcome you with a fancy dinner.
But it wasn’t the dinner of a grateful house-sitter.
The old-vine zin, the organic vegetables from Erewhon,
the ahi fillets, the homemade desert, everything about it was romantic.
But it wasn’t until I spent a lot of your money
greasing the palms of a pilot and a cabbie
that I knew the meanings were actually two in number.
The date was a day later than you actually returned.
When you came home a day early to surprise your darling,
it ended up accidentally spoiling both of your surprises.
The midnight supper supplies I saw in the fridge weren’t there when you arrived.
They weren’t there yet because your friend had summoned the
car service—whose driver mistook her for you—
and gone way down to Erewhon on Beverly Drive
in the Fairfax district to do the dinner shopping.
That’s why you’d been obliged to take a taxicab."
"OK. Then what did I do?" Again, she sounded
like a little girl reliving her origin story.
The color of her eyes could shift, within minutes and
without the help of contacts, from her namesake stone
to aquamarine, and thence to the hazel of an enchanted wood,
and her portable patch of shade—as if an invisible handmaiden
held an equally invisible parasol over her at all times—
became dappled for a moment, illumined by
shafts of sunlight that lay along her hair.
It happened at that moment.
"You took off your clothes and carried the bottle of champagne
out to the jacuzzi. You had intended to open it in front of her,
but since you had to wait, you popped into the whirlpool and
started to hit on it by yourself. You’d had a number of drinks
already on the plane, and a few more in the cab. So you were
rather plastered when you slid into the warm water with
the cold champagne. Half a bottle later, you passed out.
When the car service returned from the store, you were quite dead."
She laughed. Like her surprise and her sense of anticipation,
her laughter seemed quite real. It was real. Everything she did in character
was as true as me or you. And she was always in character.
"Wait. I thought I moved her from the jacuzzi to the pool."
"And so you did. For a long time, you’d been seeing yourself as Jade Bellinger,
in the way that lovers have of identifying with one another.
Now you began to see yourself as the writer-director
of a movie that wouldn’t need a distributor
because it was made to be seen by only one man, myself.
You had to wait for a day. A day during which she would stay
face down in the pool and you could prepare for the part
you would play for the rest of your life.
What do you say we make a couple of real drinks, and go
sit in the jacuzzi where the whole mess started and have a
sort of script conference? You can tell me why you hired me
and maybe we can decide how to put our screenplay to bed."
"Do you like my suit?" It was a fifties one-piece, not
at all daring but maddeningly attractive nonetheless.
"It belonged to Mildred Davis. I bought it on eBay."
"In that case, I’ll be your Harold Lloyd and stay silent
while you pick up the story and tell me how it all went down."
"She was my dearest friend," she said, "who became my greatest love.
When I couldn’t locate a pulse, I tried to breathe life back
into her, but our last kiss was entirely one-sided.
I think she was gone before I got back.
While I sat there, weeping and nearly paralyzed with shock and grief,
I found myself remembering everything she had
told me about the history of her house, about The Spider Pool.
The story of the movie star, the drowned girl, and the detective.
What part could be harder to play, I thought,
than an actress greater than oneself? At first I was terrified.
I expected I’d be caught out within minutes.
But no one called me on it. When the police responded
to my distress call, they assumed I was her.
I answered her door, after all. I was wearing her clothes,
which fit me perfectly, since we’d always been the same size.
My clothes and purse, with I.D. in it, were slung over a
pool chair to give the impression that she’d
decided to take a swim and stripped off.
She had been in the pool long enough when the
law arrived that her face was a bit bloated.
And I spent the twenty-four hours before calling a response team
making sure my hair and make-up duplicated her own style.
"If they’d thought Jade Bellinger had drowned,
the police and the press would have been all over it for weeks.
Declarations of war, famine, pandemic and plague
would be pushed off the front page.
A celebrity coroner would be put in charge of the autopsy.
But if a nobody, some wanna-be from Podunk
(and I really am from Podunk, by the way)
got liquored up and gargled too much chlorine, who would care?
"The answer, sadly, is nobody. I knew from our long talks
that she had cut her ties with her family years ago. And I
have no family. So, as her closest friend, I was, ironically enough,
asked to identify the body. I also knew she wanted to be cremated,
so I was obeying her wishes when I had her earthly remains
quickly translated into ashes, which also meant no one
could disinter the body to be autopsied afterwards.
Then, day after day, I waited for someone to challenge me.
No one ever did. It was Jade herself who gave me the idea.
She snuck me in one time through the tunnel,
so she could dress me and send me back out
through the front door, wearing a head scarf
the tabloid photographers had seen her in before.
I took a long walk down the road to the convenience
store on the flats. They all followed me, slavishly.
It gave Jade a chance to slip out undetected to meet her sweetie.
I wasn’t ever sure of what laws I might be breaking.
Fraud? Identity theft? Does it still count if the identity
belongs to someone who’s dead? Elvis impersonators
make a perfectly good living, after all, pretending to be
someone who looms large in the public consciousness.
I broke up with her boyfriend over the phone
(something she’d been considering doing anyway).
I had to assume he would know something was wrong
when I behaved differently in bed. I had no idea what,
well, you know, what kind of things they did together.
I considered telling him that I was trying out new ways
of kissing and talking and fucking and stuff
as a kind of method actor’s means of preparing to
play a new role, Catherine the Great maybe.
Instead, I just phoned him and broke it off.
He took it surprisingly well.
The love interests of high profile actors are always ready
for the chop. Too much temptation, especially on location."
"But you… she… are… were… one of the most recognizable people on earth."
"Did you recognize me?" No, I had recognized who I thought she was.
What is it that they say in the old movies? The mind can play strange tricks.
"I had no future as myself. My only speaking role had been left on the
same cutting room floor where I’d gone all the way with the director
in order to get the part in the first place. I couldn’t bring her back,
but maybe, in a way, I could. I could give up my life to keep her alive."
"And to become a fabulously wealthy, world renowned
movie star," I said. "Let’s not forget about that."
"I don’t expect you to understand," she said.
"We were the sisters neither of us had ever had.
We were very close, closer than close, if you know what I mean."
"I believe I do."
"You know that movie where she plays the falsely accused teacher?"
"Yes. In fact, I saw a few scenes from it the other day in a nursing home."
"Well, that’s how it started. She wanted to do research for playing
a bi-sexual. She had never been with a woman. Neither of us had.
At first, it was merely exciting. Since we might almost have been twins,
it was sort of like masturbating in front of a mirror. And it was
convenient for her. She didn’t need to go on the prowl, as it were.
Her steady beau was off making a movie in Singapore,
giving her plenty of time to concentrate her ‘research’ on myself.
We already slept together sometimes," she said,
"in a sisterly way. So it was only a matter of scooting
a few inches closer to begin our … studies."
She blushed, and I wondered if you could fake a blush.
"So you were the movie star’s girlfriend, which makes you
the girlfriend, and are now the movie star herself.
As her, you are-were the director Jack McDermott, and you were,
as you, the superintendent because you moved the body. You only
failed to be the movie star’s wife."
"But I do have her old swimsuit, so I can still
get an Oscar for best wardrobe," she said.
I’d been asking myself the wrong question.
The question wasn’t who she was. The question was who she wasn’t.
"So why hire me? It makes no sense."
"I’ve been playing her for about two months now,"
she said, "but only in real life.
I haven’t yet given a performance as Jade Bellinger.
You were my warm-up. If I could fool you, I mean royally,
I felt I’d be ready for the big screen. But I always intended to tell you,
I need to know that you know. Yours is the only review I’ll ever get."
This is an edited excerpt from the full manuscript