As she walked tentatively down each step, Marilyn Porter felt supreme. In this moment, she was Ginger Rogers, Queen of the movie screen. Cameras were rolling, bright lights sparkled around her and loud music filled the auditorium as she made her way down the wide staircase, each step lighting up as her foot touched down upon it. This movie marked the pinnacle of Marilyn’s career and called for her very best performance ever. She hardly dared to raise her eyes, fearing she might trip and fall and suffer the ultimate embarrassment in front of the whole crew. Briefly, she paused and drew in a long, deep breath, savouring the moment and allowing the enormity of the event to overwhelm her, when suddenly …
“Cut!” The Director yelled, approaching the stage, “Marilyn, Marilyn, Marilyn! What are you doing? I want to see confidence, I want to see beauty, I want to see glamour but what do you give me? You give me ‘fear’, you give me ‘awkward’, you give me ‘sullen’. For pity’s sake, Marilyn, you’re looking bloody terrified up there and I don’t want to see ‘terrified’. You are supposed to be Ginger Rogers. GINGER ROGERS! If Ginger was walking down these stairs I would see a light-footed, happy and glamorous descent down this fabulous staircase. So, give me ‘light-footed’, give me ‘happy’ and give me ‘glamorous’. Give me Ginger!”.
“OK, back to the top everybody, get ready to roll again and Marilyn, get it right this time. Mark my words, I will use an understudy if I have to”. The director returned to his seat, his frustration obvious to everyone.
Axel Carter was a talented director. He was renowned for creating atmospheric and colourful productions. He achieved this with lots of shouting and dramatic instruction. As he shouted and directed Marilyn he was simultaneously, carefully studying and measuring her response. She stood petulantly in her glittering gown, hand on hip, eyes turned towards the roof as if to ignore his outburst. His frustration grew stronger and the volume of his direction grew louder as he continued to try to get his message through to his leading lady. The crew watched on anxiously. There was no predicting who might get caught in the cross-fire. But this time he was focused entirely on Marilyn “Do you have any idea how much it costs every time we have to reshoot this? No? Well, let me tell you, it is a lot more than you are worth. You might think you’re a Superstar, Baby, but you’re only a Superstar if I say you are”.
Marilyn’s resolve was waning. She could see Phoebe Hamilton waiting in the wings, desperate for her big chance. I’ll bet she’s hoping I’ll trip and fall, she thought, well, I’m not going to give her the pleasure. Girls like Phoebe were everywhere, hovering around, trying to engage her in conversation, hoping for tips on how to become a success and such things.
Marilyn lifted the skirt of her gown clear of her silver strappy sandals and hastened back to the top of the staircase, cursing the Director under her breath. Did the man not realise how difficult he made it when he behaved like this? She mimicked him “Back to the top Marilyn. Do it again Marilyn. One more time Marilyn. I’m not happy Marilyn”. Axel Carter was never happy, she thought. He was the most difficult, the most obnoxious and the most unbearable man she had ever met. Even her ex-husband never spoke to her in that way.
She reached the top of the stairs and took her place on the highest step, turning slightly to the left, dropping her right shoulder forward and lifting her chin just enough so that she had to peer through her long, false eyelashes. She could feel the intense stares of Axel and Phoebe on her as she arranged the fall of her gown. She resolved to remind them and everyone else that she didn’t need Axel’s affirmation of her stardom.
She reached a long, slender arm out towards the handrail, splaying her fingers wide and gently rolling her hand so that the huge diamond on her finger caught the spotlight just right and sparkled brightly. The music blared out again, Marilyn assumed her Character, forced a beaming smile towards the bank of cameras and began her carefully choreographed decent down the illuminated staircase again. This time she made it all the way to the bottom. Her co-star approached, lightly took her hand in dance and smoothly swirled her around the stage and into his arms, lowering her back into a finishing pose.
“That’s a wrap” Axel’s voice boomed out to everyone’s relief. In an instant his mood changed, he niftily hopped up onto the stage and congratulated Marilyn with insincere praise. He kissed the air close to her face, first to the left and then to the right. “Marilyn, Baby, finally you were fabulous and that makes me a very happy man”. He wrapped an arm around her shoulder and pulled her towards him, whispering seductively in her ear, “There’s a steaming hot jacuzzi waiting for us on the roof of my hotel”. He was dialling a number on his phone as he spoke, then into his phone said “Have a chilled champagne delivered to my roof-top terrace” he instructed. He looked at Marilyn and continued “A Don Perignon White Gold is required tonight”.
Marilyn felt disheartened. He may be a brilliant director but his arrogance was sickening. She loosened his arm away and turned to stand directly in front of him, very deliberately placing her hand firmly on his chest. “Axel, Darling! If you are happy, I am happy, so go celebrate if you must but it won’t be with me. I am going straight back to my hotel – alone (she added) – and I will see you back here at 7.30 in the morning”. She strode away from him, leaving him reaching out towards her in disbelief, his shock at her rejection plain to see, momentarily that is, until he spotted Phoebe. Oh yes, Phoebe! She was a very promising actress and though he couldn’t quite recall exactly what her role was in that moment, he was sure she was brilliant. She was very easy on the eye.
Back inside the penthouse suite of her hotel Marilyn closed the door behind her and bent to pick up a letter that had been pushed under the door. After the pandemonium of the day, the room was peacefully silent. A heady fragrance filled the room from the flowers of a dozen vases arranged around the room. She kicked off her shoes and padded barefoot over to the drinks table, dropped a couple of ice cubes into a glass and poured herself a very generous whisky. She dropped onto the deep, leather sofa and pointed a remote control at the curtains, which obediently slid open to reveal a spectacular moonlit view of the Beverley Hills landscape below. She pointed the same remote at the huge TV on the wall and the TV burst into life.
Marilyn opened the envelope that she had picked up from under the door, pulled out a single piece of paper and instantly sat bolt upright. She stared at the page in her hands, reading and re-reading the words until finally, her fingers loosened and the page floated to the floor. After a long pause, she leaned back into the cushions and brushed her hair from her face. She glanced out of the windows and sighed. Not even that spectacular view could soften the blow of the words in the letter at her feet.
And so, it had happened! Her past was finally knocking on her door and she was all too aware that all the luxury and wealth around her could not protect her from it.
She sat forward and kicked the page away angrily, sighing sadly to herself as she thought back over the past 7 years. So much effort, so much sacrifice. And for what? All of this? The irony was that none of it was even real. In truth, her life was empty and meaningless. She looked about her. Another lonely night in another empty hotel suite escaping another lecherous director. No amount of fame or money could make her feel fulfilled while she lived like this. No, Marilyn knew she wasn’t rich at all, in fact, in all but money, she was poor. Poor, poor Marilyn, lacking in anything of true value. Her peers envied her, her fans admired her, but they had no idea of the truth. The most precious thing she owned was her pride in her success. And now, she glanced down at the letter, even that was at risk.
She downed her whisky in one and returned to the table to pour another. Looking out of the window at the illuminated city below she was overwhelmed by loneliness and regret. Her mind cast back to a different life, to the life of a teenage girl who married against her parents’ wishes, certain that her groom, her first love, would be by her side forever. But he had his own dreams and they were different to hers. The more she succeeded, the further apart they grew. Soon, the day came when she had to decide whether to stay in Texas with him or move to L.A. without him. It was a hard decision but she was sure she made the right one. For a long time, her life was so full she didn’t even miss him but the life she had chosen was shallow, she had no one to come home to, no one to sit by the fire with, talking about her day. Each time she returned home to Texas, it was clear that they had grown further and further apart but she always planned to return home for good once she had made enough money. Until, that is, the day she returned to find that her husband had given up on them and had moved another woman into their home. Marilyn knew she had made some bad decisions in those early days, both in Texas and in Hollywood, but she never expected him to give up on their marriage so easily. She didn’t challenge him when he told her he was keeping everything and that she deserved nothing. The bitterness in his voice shocked her when he announced that he knew what she had done in L.A. and that he could never forgive her. Her parents showed no sympathy either. They weren’t surprised her husband had moved on. What did she expect, they argued, she’d made her choices and now she had to live with them. She never returned to Texas after that. And then it was too late, a car crash took their lives and she was officially alone. And so, she had thrown herself into her work and won more and more fame, more and more awards and more and more money. She heard on the grapevine that her husband had become a father and lost his job on the same day. Their lives were so different now, he with a family and no job, her with a brilliant job but no family. Would they ever be able to sit and chat as equals again? It was unlikely but oddly, she clung to the fact that he had never sought a divorce. Maybe one day they would find their way back together, she thought.
The lights of Beverley Hills sparkled in the darkness. Somewhere in Texas, her husband was probably enjoying an intimate evening with his family. She wiped away a bitter tear from the corner of her eye. Never had she needed comfort more than she did right at that moment. She turned her back on the view and flicked the top off a nearby box of chocolates, picked one at random and popped it into her mouth before downing her second whisky in one straight swig and pouring herself another. Half an hour later, with an empty glass in one hand and an empty bottle in the other, she stumbled into the bedroom and dropped face down onto her bed, alone.
But the man she had been yearning for wasn’t in Texas. He was standing in the street, staring up at the penthouse suite of her very exclusive Beverley Hills hotel, certain he had found the right place.
At precisely that same moment, Axel Carter left the film studio with his arm around Phoebe Hamilton’s waist. His fingers reached as far and discreetly as possible, as Phoebe waved excitedly to her friends. One of those friends stood with his head down as she left, kicking at an imaginary stone on the floor. He raised his eyes just in time to see Axel’s hand lower to stroke Phoebe’s behind, as he helped her into his limo. Stuart Perryman turned away again and kicked the legs of his camera stand in frustration. He knew exactly where Phoebe was heading tonight and probably every night in the weeks to come. He knew, too, that she would probably never look back or give him a second thought. He thought she was different but it seemed she was just another Marilyn Porter.
Stuart left the studio and headed home. His journey took him past Marilyn’s hotel. He glanced up at the penthouse enviously, wondering what he had to do to make a woman like Marilyn remember someone like him. Ironic, he thought, considering how much of her he remembered. When she’d arrived on set earlier that week she hadn’t recognised him at all. She had strode passed him in all her glory, completely unaware that the man behind Camera 3 was the same man who had filmed her very first movie, seven years earlier. Would she have blushed with embarrassment if she had known, he wondered? Or would she have just ignored him as though she didn’t recognise him? Maybe she did recognise him, after all. He paused outside the overstated entrance to her hotel. He could always ask her.
Axel’s limo had passed by Marilyn’s hotel, too, en-route to town. Even as he poured fizzing champagne into 2 flutes in the back of the car, it didn’t escape Phoebe’s notice that he sneaked a quick look up to the top of the hotel before turning his attention back to their overflowing drinks. Well, she thought, she may not have been his first choice for tonight but she had plans for Axel and she was certain she would be his first choice by morning.
Very early the next morning Phoebe Hamilton awoke from her sleep. She opened her eyes to a room she didn’t recognise. The sound of angry voices and babies crying in the distance confused her. Her head was pounding and she felt a waft of cool air pass over her bare stomach from a ceiling fan above. She pulled the quilt up over her naked body, thankful that she was alone in the bed. She tried her best to remember the previous night but couldn’t recall how she’d ended up there or who she’d been with. She glanced about, looking for clues. Old wallpaper and flaking paint. Grey silk sheets and pillows. It felt like a man’s room. An empty beer can on one bedside table and a wine glass on the other suggested she hadn’t been alone all night. Phoebe felt a knot of worry in her stomach. She tried to force a memory but her mind was blank.
As she lifted herself upright she felt the pain of bruises on her arms and legs. What had happened to her? Looking down at her body she saw small red dots all over her torso. She touched one. It was sore. Cigarette burns? They couldn’t be! How could she have cigarette burns all over her body and not even remember being burned? Suddenly, Phoebe felt real fear. She froze for a moment, listening carefully. Was the person who did this to her in another room? Desperate to get out and escape, she quietly climbed out of the bed and gathered up her clothes that were scattered around the floor. She dressed hurriedly, grabbed her bag and made for the door, then noticed a note on a dresser which read simply “Lock the door behind you. This never happened”. With relief, she realised this probably meant she was alone in the flat. She grabbed the note, pushed it into her bag then opened the door and left with her head down, afraid that anyone who saw her might know where she’d been. But Phoebe hadn’t realised that it was unlikely anyone would have seen her leave, it was only 5.00am and the streets were deserted.
At precisely that same moment, across the city, a forensic team were combing a hotel room looking for clues, while a woman’s body lay strewn across the bed with her unseeing eyes staring at the ceiling above and the tell-tale red burn of strangulation around her neck indicating the cause of her death.
Detective Inspector Bob Simmons had seen all he needed to see in the bedroom and returned to the suite’s sitting room. Another dead celebrity! That was all he needed. He looked out onto the spectacular view of the city below. In a couple of hours, all those people out there would be waking to the shocking news that Marilyn Porter was dead. Somewhere out there was a killer who had taken the life of this beautiful, young woman and he, Bob Simmons, was determined to find him.
“Sir, you need to see this”. A colleague offered him a piece of paper with newspaper cuttings pasted onto it.
“Bag it” DI Simmons replied without taking it, “and then let’s get out of here and get some breakfast. It’s gonna be a long day”.