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Excerpt

Excerpt

Star Witness

Chapter 1

EACH TIME I SAW HER she had the same strange haunting effect on me, arousing feelings of which I had scarcely been aware. From the very beginning I knew we would be perfect together; and sometimes, when she looked at me with those lovely, intelligent eyes, I thought she knew it too. Once, while she was dancing with someone whose name I might have known but have now forgotten, she looked over his shoulder and gazed right at me. In that moment she was not with him anymore, she was with me, clinging close, dancing to music that would never stop, through a night that would never end.

It seems odd now, but I never thought of her as having her own existence, separate and apart from my own, until I read in the newspapers the first reports of her death. She was thirty-two when she died. It surprised me that she was any age at all. She never changed, not in any way I could tell. It never occurred to me that she might not always be as beautiful, as utterly irresistible, as she had always been. Dreams may die, but they never grow old.

All over the country, thousands of people who had never met her, carefully, even tenderly, placed flowers at makeshift shrines as they mourned her passing. I did not do anything like that. To tell the truth, after I put down the paper, I did not think about her at all. Even had I lived in Los Angeles instead of San Francisco, I cannot imagine that I would have joined the huge crowd that began to form outside the gated entrance to the Beverly Hills mansion where early that morning her nude body had been found floating facedown in the pool. Drawn by curiosity, but also by the sense that they knew her in ways they did not know anyone else, they kept coming, more of them all the time, until it seemed that half of Los Angeles had joined in a long silent vigil for the woman known to the world as Mary Margaret Flanders.

She was born Marian Walsh, not the kind of name that would help make someone a movie star. The rumor, which in Los Angeles, where the truth of a thing is measured by how often it gets repeated, everyone claimed to believe, was that the name Mary Margaret Flanders had been chosen to appeal to both of the usually incompatible things men wanted most in a woman. Mary Margaret seemed a rather obvious allusion to the idea of the clean, fresh-scrubbed face of the proverbial girl next door, the girl you liked, the girl you thought you might one day want to marry. What was needed was a last name that would in combination conjure up the supposed dream of every American male that the angel on his arm would also be the whore in his bed. But not, if you will, a whore of ill repute. With an instinct for the popular mind, the anonymous publicist who supposedly first suggested it, understood that the name Moll Flanders had, as it were, entered the great collective subconscious of the American culture as a symbol of all the adventure and excitement of forgivable sin. And if that were a little too psychoanalytic, or if it suggested a level of literacy higher than could reasonably be expected, there was also the fact, the importance of which no one in Hollywood was likely to undervalue, that Daniel Defoe's famous novel had after all been made into a movie.

That was the rumor, but I doubt it's true; I doubt anyone gave any serious thought at all to what Marian Walsh's new name should be. She probably chose it herself, and probably for no other reason than that she liked the way it sounded, the whole three-word thing: Mary Margaret Flanders. From what I have come to know of her since her death, I doubt she would have tried to analyze it at all, much less to anticipate what an audience, or any part of an audience, might happen to like about it. Marian Walsh had always been what most men really wanted, and she had known it better than she had known anything else.

In her first few, otherwise forgettable films, Mary Margaret Flanders, eager and erotic, was in some of the most torrid scenes ever shown in a theater. They were low-budget, artistic disasters, shot in a few short days with a script made up of three- and four-word lines; but she somehow still managed a kind of vulnerability that conveyed more of the passion of love than the dull, straightforward mechanics of sex. There are some women men want to take to bed and never want to see again; after a night with Mary Margaret Flanders you would have married her in a minute and thought you were the luckiest man in the world.

She later claimed to regret them, but those early films made her someone people began to talk about. She was someone new, someone audiences wanted to see again. She did not play the lead in any of them; she was seldom even the principal supporting actress. She was the girl whose boyfriend leaves her, the girl who falls in love with the man she later finds out is married. She played a shopgirl, a clerk, a young woman who works in an office and struggles to get by; she never played anyone either well educated or rich.

It was the genius of Stanley Roth to recognize that women liked her because they thought she was just like them, and that men liked her because they knew she was not. Stanley Roth had often been right about such things. He had become one of most powerful men in the motion picture industry because he could always see just a little bit ahead of everyone else the kind of motion picture and the kind of star the public wanted next.

Stanley Roth was part of the myth of Hollywood, and not just of Hollywood: the myth that talent always leads to success. Before he was thirty he received his first Academy Award nomination for directing a picture about teenagers growing up in the hot Central Valley of California in the early l960s. He won his first Oscar for a picture about a young boy who rescues a racehorse from the cruelty of its owner and, against impossible odds, rides it to victory. More than anyone else, Stanley Roth knew how to make the conventional something everyone thought they had to see.

The movies Roth made were all as successful as they were predictable. He gave the moviegoing public all the assurance they needed that good eventually triumphs over evil and that decent people inevitably overcome whatever adversity comes their way. There was no use pointing out that his films had nothing in common with reality; for millions of the people who paid money to see them, they were reality, or at least what reality was supposed to be. His movies made him a fortune, and when he had the money with which to do it, he walked away from the studio that had made it all possible and with two other rich and ambitious executives created one of his own. From the day Blue Zephyr Pictures opened for business it was, in the eyes of people who paid attention to the subtle shifts of power in the industry, the most important studio in town. Those who had experienced firsthand the absolute control he exercised over even the smallest details of production had to wonder, however, how long any partnership of which he was a member could possibly last.

There were those who had wondered the same thing about his marriage. Even before they were married, Stanley Roth and Mary Margaret Flanders were the leading couple in town. Whatever event they attended was by that fact alone a social success; when they hosted a gathering of their own it was, at least in Los Angeles, major news. They were among that relatively small number of celebrities mentioned rather frequently in the mainstream press, and they were often seen not only at major charitable events, but at those lavish political fundraisers in which Hollywood pretends it is made up of serious people and Washington pretends to believe it.

A photograph of the two of them at a black-tie event was a study in the subtleties of power and fame. Bright-eyed and effervescent, wearing something expensively simple, Mary Margaret Flanders would be talking to some well-known figure—a politician, an actor, a studio executive—while Stanley Roth stood a step behind or just off to the side, a look of cool detachment in his hooded half-shut eyes as if, a little bored with it all, he was appraising her performance. More interesting, and more instructive, were the faces of the people with whom she was talking. Their eyes were always on her, but you could tell they were already thinking about what they could say, what they could do, to make themselves
noticed, not by Mary Margaret Flanders, but by the great Stanley Roth. Roth was the one who could decide whether to give them the chance to have everything they wanted—fame, money, power—or to make sure they would never have that chance at all.

They knew what Stanley Roth had decided about Mary Margaret Flanders, and they all knew what had happened to her. Roth had decided that she had that quality, that indefinable something that makes someone you might never notice on the street someone you can't take your eyes off on the screen. In the first picture she made for him, he gave her the starring role and spent millions promoting her as the next Hollywood sensation. The movie barely broke even, but from that point on, each of her movies made more than the one before; it was not long before the name Mary Margaret Flanders guaranteed the success of any movie she was in. She was making twenty million dollars a picture when they married, and there were those who thought that one reason he did it was to keep some of that money at home. Had Stanley Roth married entirely for love, that kind of calculation would still have crossed his mind.

I sometimes wondered what other thoughts must have crossed his ruthlessly analytical mind when he decided to marry a woman he had made famous by starring in movies in which half of America had seen her half naked. Stanley Roth could have had any woman in Hollywood he wanted. Would he have married her if he had not known that everyone who watched movies knew just how desirable she was? There was something strangely possessive in the idea of showing her that way to the public and then keeping her for your own; but then Stanley Roth was famous for taking what other people wanted, and sometimes what other people had. Whatever Stanley Roth may have thought when he married her, it was unlikely he ever imagined that it would end, just a few years later, not in divorce but in death, and that he would be the one standing at an open grave, wondering what had happened to make it all come to this.

The funeral was restricted to immediate family and close personal friends, but that apparently included every famous Hollywood star. Crowds stood respectfully outside the flagstone chapel during the service and then lined the black-paved streets as the body of Mary Margaret Flanders was taken to the cemetery. Like everything else known by the public about her, all of it was captured on film. I saw some of it that same night on the television news.

A small child, a girl of eight or nine, threw a last flower on the coffin as it was lowered slowly into the grave. A man in his mid- to late thirties with a straight, serious mouth and dark intense eyes stood next to the child, holding her hand. From the way he bent close and whispered to her just before she let go of the flower, I felt certain it must be her father, the first husband of the woman then called Marian Walsh. He was the only one with a face not famous.

Nearly twenty years older than his wife's first husband, wearing dark glasses and dressed in a dark suit, with deep furrows in his forehead and gray hair curling over the back of his shirt collar, Stanley Roth waited on the opposite side of the open grave for the flower to fall. Then, with a pensive expression, he tossed gently out in front of him a handful of dirt. It hit the lid of the casket, and a brief, barely perceptible shudder passed through him. Against his will, he took a sudden, half step back. When it was over, Roth acknowledged with a silent nod the condolences of the other mourners as one by one they slowly turned and walked away, until, finally, he was left alone at the graveside. I wondered what he called her, what name he used. I thought it must have been Mary Margaret. It was prettier than Marian, and I think for him it must have seemed more real.

I watched him, the husband of Mary Margaret Flanders, standing all alone at the side of her grave in the dying light of the late Los Angeles afternoon, watched as it dissolved into black. That was the last thing you saw, that long fading shot of the grief-stricken husband saying his final good-bye to the woman everyone loved. It was the kind of shot with which Stanley Roth had ended some of his best-known films.

Like most things that did not concern me directly, I forgot about Mary Margaret Flanders and Stanley Roth after I turned off the television set. I was just about to have dinner with Marissa Kane, the woman with whom I had been living for a little more than a year. That gives perhaps a false impression of what we were. If we had been much younger when we met—in our twenties or even our thirties—we might have become lovers and then, if we had been really quite fortunate, we might have become friends. We met instead when she was already a divorced woman with grown children and I had long since given up all thought of anything that could last.

We became friends, Marissa and I, when I came from Portland to try a case in San Francisco. Eventually we became more than friends, but just what name to put on what we had become was never easy to decide. I was not in love with her, not the way I remembered what that had been like; and I am almost certain she was not in love with me. Perhaps we had lost the capacity for the kind of passion that cannot see beyond itself; that believes it is the only thing that matters; that is convinced that it is the one thing that can never die. But we cared about each other, and as best we could we looked after each other. We even, to a point, understood each other. When the trial that had brought me to San Francisco was finally over, it did not take me long to decide that I did not want to leave, that I wanted to stay here, with her, for as long as it lasted. We lived in the house Marissa had owned for years: a chocolate-colored shingle-sided house on a steep hillside above the village of Sausalito with a view of the bay.

After I turned off the television, we had dinner, and after dinner, we went for a walk. A few restaurants were still open in the village, and from the doorway of a neighborhood bar the smoky sound of a jazz trumpet echoed out into the night. We kept walking, along the sidewalk and across the street, down by the shore where the water washed up against the rocks and the lights of San Francisco set fire to the bay.

We came here every night, an evening ritual, a last look across at the city, at San Francisco, the place where long before anyone had heard of Los Angeles, all the adventurers in the world, blown by the winds of heaven, had come, drawn by the chance to make their fortunes, and by making their fortune become someone else. That was why I had come, or why I had stayed; not to make my fortune, but to become someone else, someone I did not so much mind being. That was Marissa's gift: the way she made me feel about who I was.

"I don't like Los Angeles very much," said Marissa after I made some vague remark about the funeral of Mary Margaret Flanders. She slipped her hand inside mine. "It isn't really a place—not like this," she explained, raising her almond shaped eyes toward the city. "People come here—at least they used to come here—because they dreamed about San Francisco; people go to L.A. because they dream about themselves."

Under a sky filled with every star ever seen, the white lights of the city, like the souls of sinners released from perdition, burned bright in the darkness, lighting up the black invisible waters of the bay with an image of itself, an illusion that seemed as real as the city itself. It held you there, that late-night view of the city, and the more you looked at it, the more certain you were that it belonged to you in ways that it could never belong to anyone else.

We turned and started the slow walk home. Somewhere in the distance a woman's laughter broke the nighttime silence, and then, a little farther on, the sound of that same jazz trumpet prowled through the dark, nearly deserted street.

"Do you like it there—L.A.? You probably do, don't you?" asked Marissa as we walked along, holding hands, climbing the street to the house.

I laughed. "Why? Because I dream about myself?"

With her other hand she took hold of my sleeve and gave it a playful tug. "No," she said seriously. "Because you're always thinking about the next place you want to be, the place you haven't been."

"I like it here," I protested mildly.

"That isn't what I mean," she said with a cryptic smile.

When we reached the house we tumbled inside and went right to bed. Just before I fell asleep I thought again about Stanley Roth, bathed in the golden haze of the afternoon sun as he stood watching, while the child across from him threw a flower into his dead wife's grave. It was a fragmentary glimpse of something barely remembered, a quick glance backward at something I had seen early that evening. I did not know anything about Stanley Roth. He was someone vaguely famous married to a woman I never knew, both of them part of a world I knew only from a distance and only from the outside. When he woke me up in the middle of the night, I had at first no idea who he was or what he might want.

The voice, a voice I had never heard before, might just as well have said the name John Smith for all it meant to me.

"This is Stanley Roth," he said again.

I did not remember anyone named Stanley Roth; I certainly had not given anyone of that name my home telephone number.

"This number is unlisted," I said rather irritably. "How did you get it?"

"This is Stanley Roth. Do you know who I am?"

The voice was brusque and impatient. He had called me in the middle of the night and seemed to think I was somehow wasting his time.

"No," I replied. "Don't you?"

There was a dead silence at the other end. At any moment I expected to hear him hang up. It was the only reason I did not do it first.

"My apologies, Mr. Antonelli," he said presently in a clear, firm voice that was all business. "My name is Stanley Roth. My wife—perhaps you've heard of her—was Mary Margaret Flanders, the actress."

Turning on the lamp, I swung my legs around and sat on the edge of the bed.

"I'm terribly sorry, Mr. Roth. It's late, and I didn't realize..."

"Mr. Antonelli, I wonder if you might come to Los Angeles tomorrow. There's a matter I'd like to discuss with you. I know it's rather short notice, but it's really quite important. I'll send my plane up. My office will make all the arrangements."

He was used to having his way, and I think it never occurred to him that I might say no.

"What is it you want to see me about, Mr. Roth?"

"I'd really rather discuss it in person," he replied as if that should be the end of it.

And it almost was. I discovered that I was not as immune to the attraction of celebrity as I had thought. With a conscious effort I resisted the temptation to agree immediately to what he asked.

"I'd be very glad to see you, Mr. Roth," I said, taking refuge in formality, "but I can't possibly come there tomorrow."

Again he fell silent, but this time I did not expect him to hang up. He was thinking about what he was going to do next. When he finally spoke, there was a sense, not of panic exactly, but of concern, in his voice.

"What if I come there? Is there someplace we could meet privately? If I come to your office, someone is going to find out, and right now, I can't afford..."

He was talking faster, beginning to ramble, and, I thought, about to lose control.

"Are you in some kind of trouble, Mr. Roth?" I interjected, trying to sound as calm as I could.

The only response was a long, brooding silence. He had to be in trouble, serious trouble. Why else would he have called? No one, not even the supposedly enigmatic Stanley Roth, called a criminal defense attorney at midnight unless they were. How many times before had I been called in the middle of the night by people I did not know, people who could not wait until morning because they were afraid they might go crazy if they did not do something right away. I was still in my twenties, just out of law school, taking any case I could get, hoping I could make enough to cover the rent in the dreary two-room office in a nearly vacant Portland building, when those late-night calls started to come. Sometimes it was a drunk slurring his words from a pay phone in the jail; sometimes, as I began to acquire a reputation as a lawyer who almost never lost, the calls came from people accused of far more serious crimes. It was not long before I was the nighttime confidant of murderers, rapists, and thieves. Even after I could afford to take only the cases I wanted and had a number only a few people were supposed to know they still managed to call, desperate to talk, afraid to be alone with what they had done or what everyone was about to think they had done.

Rich or poor, famous or completely unknown, it did not matter: There was one thing they all had to say. Perhaps it was simply hearing themselves say it out loud that made them feel better. In that respect, at least, Stanley Roth was just like everyone else.

"I didn't do it, Mr. Antonelli; I swear I didn't."

They all said it, that simple, straightforward declaration of their innocence, but there was something about the way Stanley Roth said it that made me wonder whether the words had come to him unprompted, or whether he had recalled them from the memory of things he had seen, things he had heard, and perhaps even things he had written, in the movies he had made. I saw him again, standing at her grave, the last mourner left, husband and wife, director and star. And now I wondered, not what name he had called her, but whether in that last silent good-bye he had spoken any words about the way she had died or the reason she had been killed. All I knew was what everyone knew: The nude body of Mary Margaret Flanders had been found floating facedown in the outdoor swimming pool, a single silk stocking stretched around her neck, apparently used to hold her fast while a knife blade slashed deep across her throat.

"Have the police talked to you?" I asked, twisting the telephone cord between my fingers. "Or, rather, have you talked to the police?"

"Yes."

"When?"

"Yesterday, the day before the funeral," said Roth in a voice that now seemed tired. "They want to see me again. I think they're going to arrest me. They think I murdered my wife. I need your help, Mr. Antonelli. I'll pay you anything you ask."

I did not go to Los Angeles the next day. Stanley Roth was used to having people drop everything to do what he wanted. If I was going to represent him, I wanted him to know from the beginning that I would not take orders from him or anyone else. I wanted to establish a certain distance, an independence. I was the lawyer; he was the client: I decided what I was going to do and when I was going to do it.

What a fool I was. I should have known that it would be impossible to treat Stanley Roth the same way I treated anyone else. I should have known that this was going to be a murder case unlike anything I had ever seen before or would ever see again. I should have known from the moment I got involved that it was going to change things, including things about myself, in ways I could not then have imagined. Because of Stanley Roth I was about to become not only the best-known lawyer but perhaps the least understood man in America. But then, how could I have known—how could anyone have known—when I boarded the private plane that would take me to Hollywood that before it was all over one of the most talked-about movies of all time would be a movie about me.

Chapter 2

FLASHING THROUGH THE BRIGHT MORNING SKY, the plane sent by Stanley Roth passed along the California coast and then, above Los Angeles, began its descent. We landed at the Burbank airport and taxied past the blue-and-white stucco art-deco terminal. For a moment it made me feel that I was back in the l930s: I half expected to see Howard Hughes with his pencil-thin mustache, wearing goggles and a leather jacket, boosting himself out of the open cockpit of a two-seater biplane, back from a looping flight over the orange groves that once covered most of everything between here and the sand-covered Pacific beach. A few yards from where the plane came to a stop, a limousine was waiting. Holding his gray cap in his hand, the driver struck a languid pose next to the rear door. He looked like Howard Hughes, at least the mustache and the slick shiny black hair parted neatly high up on his scalp.

While the driver took my bag, I stood on the tarmac, glancing at the pale empty sky. The air was still and it was already getting warm. The heat was different here, the sun glistening hot and dry on the skin with none of the steaming humid sweating that makes other, eastern places miserable in the summer. It lasted all year long, the cloudless skies and the endless sun, as if nature and its harsh necessities had been banished by an act of imagination. Even the haze that hung across the horizon, a gritty gray during the day turned reddish orange at night, seemed less a reminder of the snarled long-distance traffic than of the way everything was always becoming something else, taking off one identity and putting on another.

At Blue Zephyr Pictures the guard waved the limousine through and the dark blue, gold-tipped front gate rolled shut behind us. The studio had the appearance of one of those military installations put up almost overnight during the Second World War and then never torn down because it was cheaper to maintain it than to build something more permanent in its place. Everywhere you looked there were odd-shaped hangarlike structures with round roofs and wire screen windows, flat-topped two-story barracks-style buildings, and enormous square-door garages, the kind that had once housed motor vehicles and munitions. We wound our way through a maze of almost uniform sameness, along a narrow two-lane road lined on both sides by palm trees taller than any of the buildings we passed. At the end of the street we came out onto a circle. Stopping in front of a small, unpretentious bungalow, the driver told me this was where Stanley Roth had his office.

We had passed the company headquarters, housed in one of the nondescript buildings on the way. Stanley Roth had most of his meetings there. It was where he did what he liked to call the company business. The bungalow was where he did what he called his real work, the work on the movies he still produced and directed. It had been built just for him, a perfect replica of the place he worked when he achieved his first success as a young director for the studio he later abandoned. It was the habit of superstition, the belief that you should never change anything once you had reached the point where each thing you did was as great, as successful, as what you had done before. Stanley Roth never let go of anything that had once brought him luck.

The five-room bungalow was not just where Stanley Roth did his work; it was a museum of what he had already done. As soon as you stepped inside the door you knew this place was all about the movies and all about Stanley Roth. The walls were covered with posters, the kind that when he was a kid growing up in the Central Valley he used to make a few dollars putting up on telephone poles advertising the movies then playing at the only theater in town. I did not know if they still did that, and when I saw them, one for each movie he had made, framed in identical silver frames, I wondered if he had had them made specially so he could have something to remind him of how far he had come.

The posters were only the beginning. The contract he had been given for his first job in the movies, assistant director on a picture I had never heard of and probably not more than a few people had ever seen, sat in a frame, one of a hundred different documents that chronicled with retrospective inevitability the steadily advancing career of Stanley Roth. There were letters written by famous people, including at least two Presidents, one of whom I had liked, acknowledging his importance; and photographs, hundreds of them, and all of them, as far as I could tell, related one way or the other to the movies he had made. In the room he used for his office, with a double set of French doors opening onto a private patio and a small pool, there were two photographs on the small bookshelf behind his desk. In the first, Mary Margaret Flanders stood next to him, beaming up at her husband, while he held aloft the Oscar he won that night for directing. In the second, with that same unforgettable smile, she stood by herself at the lectern, clutching to her bosom the Oscar for best actress she won two years later.

Roth followed my eye.

"I directed her in that picture." He assumed the expression of someone who always thought about what he said. "I directed her in all her pictures, all the ones that were any good."

 

The room was dark and cool. Roth sat in the shadows behind his desk, his ankle crossed over his knee, his arms folded loosely across his chest. He seemed almost too tired, or too preoccupied, to lift his head. When he spoke, he managed to raise his eyes, but then, when he finished, his gaze would drift away. He was not inattentive; he listened quite carefully to everything I said. His eyes would narrow and he would bite down on the edge of his lower lip, the attitude of someone concentrating on what he thinks may be important.

"I followed your advice, Mr. Antonelli. I told the police that I had already told them everything I knew, and that there was no point my telling them again."

He kept his eyes on me just long enough to measure my reaction, to see what effect this expression of confidence in my judgment had produced.

"Do you still think they're going to arrest you?" I asked.

His eyes came back to me. He nodded his head.

"Yeah. I'm almost sure of it."

"You told them everything you knew?" Before he could answer, I asked: "What exactly did you tell them?"

We stared at each other, searching each other's eyes, wondering how far we could trust one another, or whether we could trust each other at all.

"There's something I've been thinking about since the other night when we talked. You're one of the most famous criminal lawyers in the country. You never lose, and..."

"That's not true," I interjected with a quick shake of my head. "I've lost."

Roth had no patience for what he thought false modesty. He cocked his head and gave me an incredulous look.

"The murder of Jeremy Fullerton? The U.S. senator who wants to be President? The accused is a black kid no one in San Francisco wants to defend? The jury finds him guilty, and then you discover who the real killer is and you save an innocent man. You call that a loss? I call that a great movie." 

A great movie? It seemed a strange way to characterize what had very nearly cost someone his life.

"I've lost other cases, Mr. Roth; but that case was the first time a jury brought back a guilty verdict against a defendant I knew had not done a thing. You may not think that was a loss—maybe it would make a great movie—but if you knew how I really found out who killed Jeremy Fullerton you might not be quite so certain that things always work out the way they should."

A knowing smile darted across his mouth. He seemed to think I had proved his point.

"Yes, exactly. Even when you lose, you somehow manage to win. That's what I've been thinking about. If you're my lawyer, won't people start to believe I must be guilty because why otherwise would I need Joseph Antonelli?"

Stanley Roth had spent his life convincing audiences that the way things looked was the way things were.

"The only thing that counts, Mr. Roth, is what the prosecution can prove. It doesn't matter what anyone believes."

"I meant before there is a trial, before I'm even charged." A trace of impatience began to creep into his voice. "If I already have you, won't people think I must have known I was in trouble, that I have something to hide?" 

He was still clinging to the hope that he might not be arrested after all; that the police might change their mind and look elsewhere for the killer. If he hired a criminal defense lawyer, would he not in effect be telling them that they were right in suspecting that he had something to hide? 

"Suppose we set aside for the moment the question about when—or even whether—I represent you. Let's talk instead about what happened, that night, the night your wife was killed."

Roth put both feet on the floor and planted his elbows on the desk. A plaintive expression fell across his face.

"I don't know what happened that night."

"You were in the house...when your wife was killed?" I asked tentatively.

Roth had a sense for the subtle changes in the meaning of words. He also knew that the silence between them sometimes said more than the words themselves.

"I was in the house; I don't know that she was."

"She?"

"My wife."

"Your wife?"

"Yes, Mary Margaret," he explained, wondering why he needed to.

"You didn't call her Marian?"

"No, of course not."

He said it as if he had never known her by any other name than the one by which the world had known her. He must have known that her name was Marian, but from the slightly incredulous look he gave me I began to think that after years of calling her Mary Margaret he might have forgotten that it was not real.

"What do you mean, you don't know that she was? Why would you not know whether your wife was home?"

"Mary Margaret had gone to a party. I'm in the middle of a picture—late nights, early mornings, very early mornings. I got in about eleven and went straight to bed. We were starting again at five and I had to be up at four. I was exhausted. If she came in, I didn't hear her. When I got up, I got dressed and left."

He paused, moved back from the desk, and turned a little to the side. He was dressed in a light-colored pair of slacks and a faded tan sports jacket. The gray dress shirt he wore open at the collar revealed a few gray hairs curling from his chest. He had a deep tan, the kind that in Southern California seems never to fade away. His eyes, bluish gray and not very large, moved slowly from one thing to the next, taking their time. 

"I was on the set when I first learned she was dead," added Roth as he lowered his eyes. In a gesture that seemed oddly out of place, he spread his fingers and appeared to inspect his clean, close-cut nails. He had spoken of his wife's death without emotion. I had assumed it was because of a decent impulse not to inflict upon someone still a stranger any of his own despair; now I was not sure what he felt, or if he felt anything at all. 

"Your wife was out. You went to bed. Early in the morning you got up, got dressed and left. Is that right?" I asked, raising an eyebrow.

He searched my eyes to find out what he had not made clear enough for me to understand.

"You didn't notice that your wife was not there when you got up, when you dressed, when you left?" 

He seemed almost relieved that it was so easy to explain.

"When I was working, when I had to get up that early, I slept in a different room."

He read something else in my eyes, something I did not know was there.

"I didn't say we didn't normally go to bed together. But I would sleep in the other room."

A slight smile hovered at the edge of his mouth, a brief advertisement of his own superiority, an admission that he knew everyone had wanted what he had. I started to ask another question, but he held up his hand and abruptly shook his head. He wanted to correct something he had just said.

"We didn't go to bed together very often." A wry expression took hold of his mouth. He looked at me with sudden interest. "Do you know why? Because she was not all that attractive, and because she wasn't all that sexy." He paused, smiling to himself. "You have a hard time believing that, don't you? You thought you knew her, Mary Margaret Flanders; you thought she was everything you'd ever want, didn't you?"

I started to protest, but he again cut me off.

"A lot of people who come to see me pretend they're not affected by what they see on the screen; that they're too smart, too sophisticated to fantasize about someone they saw in a movie. But you did, didn't you? I saw it in your eyes. That's when I decided you might be someone I could trust."

Roth glanced slowly around the room until his eyes came to rest on the Oscar that sat in the middle of an otherwise vacant bookshelf. 

"You don't have to be very smart to do well in this business. I'm not saying you can be completely stupid, but it doesn't take what I would call serious talent. But one thing you have to have is an eye, the ability to see how someone will look on the screen. Or the way they can be made to look on the screen. I invented Mary Margaret Flanders. She was my best work. She was..."

He stopped, as if he had realized that he might be going too far.

"All I'm trying to say is that in person, without all the makeup, without all the clothes, without all the lighting, without the camera...That was it, the camera. I don't mean how she looked on camera, I mean the camera." 

He hesitated, trying to think of exactly the right words to explain it.

"It's the way someone reacts to a camera. Most people—most actors—become self-conscious. I don't mean they shy away from it. It's the other way around: They become too aware of themselves. They think about the way they're going to look, and then they try to look a certain way. With her it was different. That's what I could tell about her, the first time I saw her. When she was on camera, everything came alive—and it was all instinct....It was like watching a woman who has just fallen in love: the glow, the uncanny sense of precisely the right way to move, the perfect intuitive grasp of what the man she's in love with wants to see next—before he knows it himself. That's what she was: a young woman in love, but not with a man—with a camera: any camera, not just a motion picture camera. You've seen photographs of her. You couldn't take your eyes off her, could you? That's what she lived for: to be on camera, to be on film, to have other people watch her. You should have seen her, watching one of her own movies. She couldn't take her eyes off herself. She would sit there, in the dark, delighted, her mouth forming each of the words she was saying on screen, as if she was hearing them for the very first time."

Roth rolled his head from one side to the other and stared into space. A laugh, bitter and self-deprecating, escaped his lips.

"Sometimes I thought the reason she had so little interest in making love was because there wasn't a camera in the room. You know the story of Narcissus: He saw his own reflection in the pool and died because he could not stop looking at himself. Mary Margaret could have passed a mirror a thousand times and never given it more than a passing glance. She did not want to look at herself alone, she wanted everyone else to be looking at her. That's when she felt really alive, when she was up there on that screen, with all those other people huddled together in the dark, watching her."

Roth had become his own audience, listening to what he said like someone hearing for the first time things he had thought about but never put into words. In the silence that followed, he seemed to be thinking about what he had just heard, trying to decide how close it really came to what he knew about the woman who had, in his own mind at least, been the creature of his own invention.

"The marriage was...convenient," he said, looking up at me. It seemed deliberately ambiguous. Then he added, rather too quickly, I thought: "Don't misunderstand. I loved her, I really did; but it wasn't always easy."

I had the feeling he wanted to tell me more, but there would be plenty of time later to talk about his relationship with his wife; right now I needed to know more about what happened the night she died, and why he seemed so certain the police thought he had killed her.

"Who found the body? Who was at the house?"

"The maid. She found her—in the swimming pool."

"And the maid was there that night?"

"Yes."

"And she didn't hear anything, see anything?"

"No. Her room is just behind the kitchen, at the opposite end of the house. She goes to bed early. She doesn't speak that much English. I talk to her in Spanish. I asked her if she had heard Mary Margaret come in. She said she had not. I assume she told the police the same thing."

Though it would have been hard to imagine them living in anything else, I knew from the television coverage of her death that their house was one of those Beverly Hills mansions, hidden behind iron gates and tropical foliage, the only approach a long driveway curving up through a lawn tended with the same meticulous care lavished on the greens of country clubs that cater to the very rich. The house even had a name of its own, The Palms, given to it by its first owner, a star of the silent screen. For all those who believed in that shadowy, legendary epoch known as the Golden Age of Hollywood, it sounded much more romantic to hear that Stanley Roth had purchased The Palms as a wedding present for his wife, than that he had simply bought her a house.

"I assume you had a fairly elaborate security system?" I wanted to learn everything I could about how an outsider might have gotten in.

"No one broke in," said Roth, watching me closely, measuring my reaction. "There are sensors all around the perimeter. If anyone comes across the wall, if anyone climbs over the gate, a silent alarm is set off at the security office and someone is there within two minutes. Surveillance cameras are activated and everything is captured on film. Nothing happened that night. There was no alarm; the cameras never went on."

I looked at him sitting behind his desk in the cool darkness of the room where he did the work that had made him famous and where he decided who the moviegoing public would fall in love with next, and wondered if he had thought about his own situation with the same kind of detachment with which he must have gone through every script change in every film he had ever made. There were only two possibilities left and he must have known what they were.

"Everyone at the party said Mary Margaret left alone," remarked Roth. He held his hand in front of his mouth and with the tip of his little finger scratched his chin. A world-weary smile, the kind a gambler gets when he knows he has just lost everything, passed over his mouth. "The police seem convinced there were only three people in the house when she was killed: Mary Margaret, the maid, and me. I can tell you something else," he added, leaning forward, the smile a little larger. "No one thinks the maid did it."

It was not quite airtight; there was still a way a fourth person could have been there.

"Do the cameras operate whenever someone drives through the gate?"

The smile on Roth's face became intense.

"No, and that's how it happened; that's how it had to have happened. She may have left the party alone, but she brought someone here. The gate works on a combination. You enter the code, the system is deactivated, and the gate opens. The system is activated again when the garage door is closed. She brought someone home and whoever she brought home killed her."

"Did she...?" I began tentatively.

"Did she often bring people home, late at night? I don't know the answer to that. Did she sleep with other men? I'm sure she did; but I couldn't say with any certainty who they were or when it happened. I imagine it happened every time she was away on location. It excited her to know that people wanted her."

The soft morning breeze rustled through the palm trees stretching high above the street outside. The light softened to a pale yellow as the shadows began to draw back across the thick green lawn. The scent of orange blossoms drifted through the room.

"No one broke in. There were no signs of a struggle. I'm the only suspect, because I'm the only one they know was there." He hesitated, as if he was struggling with himself, before he added: "I suppose there is something else you should know. I got into an argument with her—a bad argument—once. I lost my temper. I did more than that," said Roth, looking at me from under his lowered brow. "I hit her, I hit her hard. The truth of it is, I damn near killed her." 

He raised his head and looked straight at me, as if he wanted to show me he would not back down from what he was about to say.

"I should have killed her for what she did. There were times after that I wished I had. But I didn't. I swear I didn't."

 

Excerpted from STAR WITNESS © Copyright 2003 by D.W. Buffa. Reprinted with permission by Penguin Putnam. All rights reserved.

Star Witness
by by D. W. Buffa

  • Genres: Fiction, Suspense
  • paperback: 417 pages
  • Publisher: Onyx
  • ISBN-10: 0451411331
  • ISBN-13: 9780451411334