Friday, 11 December 2009

Fade to Gray

In the end, you are exactly what you are.
Put on a wig with a million curls,
put the highest heeled boots on your feet,
yet you remain in the end just what you are


It was only after he had died that the real weirdness began.

For someone who had spent the last two decades as a professional wacko, that was saying something.

It was late and I was picking my way through the usual mountain of crap produced by a Hollywood death like some kinda dung beetle. Obituaries; op ed pieces from two-bit hacks amounting to nothing but “I never met him; I never saw him live; but I looked up these facts on the internet”; critical appraisals; critical re-appraisals; souvenir full-colour pull-out collectable tributes; endless interviews with crying fans, which always give me the suspicion that the poor, tearful souls had only been ardent devotees since he bought it. I get that feeling a lot; I spend a lot of time at rich folks’ funerals.

Anyways, you all know the story. Act One: the poor black boy from the Midwest with a martinet instead of a father; with his brothers, beaten into the shape of a superstar by the age of 11; the most famous human being on the planet by the time he was 21.

Act Two: things start to go wrong. The fame gets to him. All the obsessive surgery turning a beautiful black boy into an emaciated, androgynous white man. The nutbar behaviour of a multi-millionaire recluse with the money and power to do what he wanted and no one to say No to him.

We used to play a great drinking game, wheeling out a some kinda weird story about him and then guessing whether it was a genuine rumour or not. Collecting stuffed bodies of bearded ladies and Siamese twins from the old freak shows? Tick. Making his staff wear surgical masks and gloves when near him? Tick. Having a refrigerated bedroom to stop him aging? You get the idea – real easy way to get real drunk real quick.

And then Act Three: the other, darker stuff, which I ain’t going to get into here.

Usually this job is like panning for gold. You sift through the junk for hours until you find a tiny grain of something valuable. But this time I hit the mother lode and nearly immediately.

The first piece was an unedited version of a report by his shrink, retrieved from a shredder and pieced together by a contact at the firm, Hollward & Wotton, who know about the more dark secrets and vulnerabilities of LA’s great and good than a confessional priest. Blackmail is such a dirty word, don’t you find?

The report had the usual line about a middle-aged man trying to live out a childhood he’d never had, which his people always spun into making him some kinda Peter Pan (which always creeped me out even more).

But then was a part that had been redacted in the version leaked to the press. About how he’d grown to hate fame and all it had bought him. About how he felt that that it had corroded his soul. About how he felt so many people needed a piece of him, because he made them happy or because he made them money, that there were no pieces left for himself. About how he felt that as his fame had grown he’d been stretched out to cover it, like a canvas over a picture frame on which people painted what they wanted to see. But he’d been stretched out too far, so that he felt nearly translucent and as substantial as shadow or a wisp of smoke.

It went on. He’d felt that the root of his success lay in his father’s belt and fists. Had Pa not pushed him so hard, he’d’ve ended up working in a metal working plant, reflecting on what he coulda had. But he’d come to view his fame with revulsion and resentment because of where it came from, as if the mansions and the millions condoned what his dad had done. He’d started to look at his fans in the same confused light, loving them but seeing them as complicit in his abuse.

I thought things were starting to add up but wherever my train of thought had been heading, it was about to be derailed by the second piece of gold.

I was looking at the post-mortem, pointless as the findings had been splashed over the front pages that morning, when a note fell out from between the pages. It was from the coroner, Marlowe.

It looked like it had been scribbled in a hurry. It said that he’d not been able to put in truth in the report. The tranquiliser overdose was a front to occupy the crowds. While a manslaughter case was being fought in front of the cameras, the reality was infinitely more troubling.

His heart had just stopped. There were no drugs, no sign of disease, nothing. It was as if it’d been given a set number of beats and reached the end.

There were no signs of surgery on his face. His famously blank, cadaverous face, which looked like it had been whittled to nothing by the surgeon’s knife, as if someone was trying to obliterate his likeness, was untouched. His features had just withered away.

Likewise his skin. There was no vitiligo, no skin bleaching, no make-up. His flesh had been fading to gray.

“I know this sounds impossible but God help me that’s what it looks like.”

I felt cold. You usually think about working towards the truth as stepping into the light, but here it just seemed to be leading into the shadows.

Marlowe is about the best there is. Sober, too. He wouldn’t joke around but I couldn’t work out what his motive was. Investigation 101: The simplest explanation is usually the right one. Part of me liked the idea that the rumours were wrong after all and that what had seemed like desperate denials were the truth. But part of me didn’t know what the hell the consequences of that would be.

Marlowe had put an address and a time on the bottom of the note. A bar down the street at 10.30. That was now. I grabbed my hat, my coat and my gun and headed out.

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