The LAPD homicide detective had cleared it all with the Studio beforehand. Artificial trees and a little table in the woods, covered in rough linen. Her favorite champagne. A plate of marinated mushrooms. All very pastoral. They'd have a drink, take a few publicity stills, and leave.
The Studio responded to his initial query with a set of rules. He was not to kiss her. He was not to touch her forearm with its fuzz of blonde hair, or the perfumed dip in her inner wrist where her heart, it was said, visibly pounded. The Studio agreed that the forest setting was perfect. Man of dirt. Woman of air. They'd even add a trickling stream nearby, for ambience. He asked if the write-up would mention the incident. The Studio said, Of course not. It would focus only on their "chemistry" and the dashing way he poured champagne, tall in his uniform, with Los Angeles Police Department emblazoned on the chest.
She arrived with an old man bent double under the weight of the five cameras slung around his neck. "This is Waldon," she said. "He takes the best photos."
The detective gave her an awkward bow. "Where's the journalist?"
"Well, that would be Waldon, too," she said. Waldon pulled out a stenographer's pad and waved it around, then stuffed it back into his ancient pocket.
The detective poured the champagne too fast. "To Marilyn," he said, as Waldon took a photo. She didn't smile, but clinked him anyway. When they drank, tilting their necks back at the same time, a hot, breathy silence filled the forest.
"Do you like acting?" he said after a while.
"Do you like crime?"
"Some people, I guess." Her voice sounded like something full of air with a needle poked through it.
He picked at a wedge of dirt in the crease of his knuckle. As usual, his hands were throbbing. He felt scratchy inside his clothes, and a little bit desperate. Shouldn't beautiful women know how to carry a conversation? And why wasn't Waldon writing anything down?
"Do you want to tell me a work story?" said Marilyn.
"You don't want to hear about that," he said. "The dark part of life."
She raised her eyebrows and sipped her champagne. What was she thinking? What did beautiful women think, anyway? Did she live off champagne? Did she wear underwear? Waldon leaned against an artificial tree trunk and played with his cameras.
A minute passed in silence and then she sighed. "I know the dark, too," she said.
"You chased that man into the desert, didn't you?"
"The man who killed your friend."
"My colleague," said the detective.
"I read that he was your friend. In the papers."
The detective pushed his hands under the table.
"And did you kill the man who killed your friend?" she asked.
He knew better than to answer, He threw up his hands, but I shot him through his car window. I watched his head explode against the glass. So he said, "Baby, we're keeping the city safe for you."
She rolled her eyes.
"I'm not posturing," he said.
"Baby," she said. "If anyone knows posturing."
A fly landed on the marinated mushrooms and buzzed around. She didn't seem to notice and ate one anyway. He noticed her gaze flit away and lunged for his glass of champagne, but she saw.
"What's wrong with your hands?" she said.
He flushed and hid his knotted fingers back under the table. One knuckle was perpetually smeared with blood where the skin kept cracking in the dry Hollywood air. She smelled like salt. Was it true she got sea water pumped through her colon twice a week? Was it true that the insides were always the opposite of the outsides, which would mean that inside, she was a fish? Scaly and dark, stinking?
"I didn't mean to be nosy." She played with her champagne flute. "I guess I'm trying to say, what do you do exactly? At work?"
"I look for killers," he said.
"And what happens when you find them?"
"Well, I take them home."
"Not to their home."
"To their new home."
"Which is your work," she said. "I read all about you in the papers. I didn't want to come here. Don't worry, though. Waldon won't tell."
Waldon pulled out his stenographer's pad and wrote down a single word. The detective shot him a desperate look, but Waldon shrugged.
"Listen, Miss Monroe," said the detective. "Whatever you read—it's never the whole story."
Waldon limped up to them.
"Time for some close-ups," he croaked. "Look at each other."
"Please," said the detective in a low voice. "If you could just smile."
She gazed up at him, eyes heavy with near-invisible makeup. He could see that her upper lip was traced just a little bit bigger than it really was. He could see a thread of gold drawn just above her lash line. She let a slow smile spread across her face but it didn't reach her eyes. He thought, I watched him cry out for forgiveness. The mouth a gash in the earth, the eyes like California desert. Afterward, I washed and washed my hands.
"Smile, boy," said Waldon. The camera volleyed away, and Marilyn pulled her shoulders back.
"Are you happy with your date?" she said.
"I don't know. What makes a good date?"
She turned her head on her powdered neck so that Waldon got the curve of her cheek, the droop of her open lips. "Conversation, I guess. And a spark."
"Do we have a spark?"
"No," she said. "But I do like your hands."
"Why?" His head against the glass, my hands inside the car.
She looked back into her champagne. When she opened her mouth to speak, the words swam along the soft river of her breath. "They give you away," she said. Waldon took a final photo, and croaked, "That's it. I got to get Miss Monroe home."
They didn't make eye contact again. Waldon put his hand on her lower back and guided her away from the table. Her bright hair soon disappeared among the trees.
Out of nowhere, a waiter appeared with a check. "The mushrooms were on the house."
"I thought this was just a movie set."
"I'm sorry, sir, but champagne isn't free for anyone," said the waiter.
The detective pulled out his checkbook, wrote the waiter a personal check. He finished the champagne first from his glass, then from the bottle, then from her glass, which held the ghost of a lipstick mark. The glass was salty where her lips had been. I know the dark, too, she had said. And he had been too afraid to answer: Then what does it take to not know?
The waiter coughed suddenly and said, "By the way, sir, I have no idea who the lady was. It was highly confidential."
"It was just a publicity stunt," said the detective.
"Well, sir, please don't tell me her name. I could lose my job."
But the waiter was smiling and begging with his eyes. The waiter knew exactly who she was. He just wanted to hear it said aloud.
"It was—," said the detective. Insides were the opposite of outsides. So the woman he'd pretended to lunch with was a gutted fish. And he was a killer, tearing at his handcuffs with fingers gone soft and black from years without sun. But here, the waiter was pink with excitement between the artificial trees. And the little stream running by was made with real water.