by Gabriel Bergmoser
I had a lot to be worried about the day I rode my motorbike down the main street into Los Angeles. Gigantic, life-or-death concerns that ought to have been consuming my every thought, leaving me tense, on edge and grimly worried about the inevitable chaos that was to come. Yet somehow those concerns were not the first thing on my mind.
Nor was the warmth or the undeniable beauty of the clear blue sky and the many palm trees reaching up into it, all placed out the front of brown and orange buildings with flashing signs that lit the footpaths. It was a striking sight and a brand new one for me. But one huge issue dominated everything else and as I rode towards my destination I could not banish it from my thoughts.
Why was this street called Sunset Boulevard?
It was a long and famous street; even I, who never took much notice of anything unrelated to my next article, knew about this street. So, being a street of importance it needed a fitting name. Something like ‘Movie Terrace’ or ‘Tacky Tourism Avenue’. Something that would really capture this city. But no, they had settled on ‘Sunset Boulevard’. Honestly, it annoyed me.
But I was nearing my destination and it would not do to think about sunsets and poorly named streets. I had important work to do today and I could not let myself be distracted, as worthy as the cause was. I reminded myself again what was at stake here then immediately wished I hadn’t. Now I felt sick and scared, whereas before I had felt curious and mildly annoyed. Maybe there was a reason I’d let myself become distracted.
The studio was fronted by a huge stone arch that bore the name of the place. Through it I could see many expensive cars parked, as well as people in suits and funny costumes bustling around warehouses. Welcome to Hollywood, Boone Shepard, I thought, and parked my motorbike.
I had barely crossed under the arch when a security guard waddled over, yelling something unintelligible. I glanced down at myself; I didn’t look entirely out of place. My clothes were neat, despite hours on the road. My glasses weren’t even askew.
‘I’m here to see Victor Von Vertigo,’ I said, raising my hands in surrender to his unclear threat. I had to wait a full minute for the guard to regain his breath before he could manage another question.
‘Why are you here?’
‘I get that kid. But why? He’s a busy man, don’t you know?’
I didn’t know and nor did I care. I was willing to bet whatever Victor had on his slate could wait.
‘I need to talk to him about a matter of grave importance. There’s a big problem with the film he’s planning on shooting.’
‘It’s you, isn’t it?’ the guard said.
I blinked at him.
‘You’re the problem, aren’t you?’ He was nodding earnestly, and I had no idea if he was psychic or just crazy.
‘Well, I mean—’
‘The problem is that you’re not in it.’ He laughed. ‘You’re here for auditions, right?’
‘Relax, I’ve seen plenty of your kind. Up there, first office on the left. Good luck!’
Still a little confused, I followed his directions. This, I supposed, was as good an excuse as any. What mattered was that I got in a room with the man, not how I did it.
The office turned out to be a neat, well-furnished room lined with a bunch of folding chairs. Several were occupied by nervous looking people of about my age, clutching papers and reciting lines to themselves. The secretary gestured for me to join them.
‘I need to see—’ I began, but she cleared her throat loudly and looked pointedly at the chair. Feeling a little sheepish and a little more annoyed, I sat, trying to ignore the suspicious glares of my fellow auditionees.
‘Memorised your script already?’ one muttered. ‘What, you think you’re better than us? Think you’re more suited for the role?’
‘Almost definitely,’ I replied without looking up.
One by one the others were called and, looking terrified, entered the room. Through the door I could hear recited lines, then yelling, then the auditionee left in tears. This same process was repeated until finally it was my turn. With another polite clearing of her throat the secretary sent me through and within moments I was in a room, face to face with the broad shouldered, pencil-moustached, balding mass of red-faced man that was Victor Von Vertigo, Hollywood’s biggest director in the year 1965, who was about to embark on an exciting new project that I had every intention of ruining. Beside him were two less imposing but equally stern looking women, who watched me through narrow eyes as I approached the table.
‘Right, hurry up kid,’ Victor growled, lighting a cigar. ‘We don’t have all day.’
‘No, we don’t,’ I said, placing both hands on the table and leaning towards a surprised Victor. ‘We need to talk about this book. This rare book that you apparently found and now want to make a movie from. I get that it’s exciting and well written and brilliant, but you have no idea what you’ve gotten yourself into.’
Victor glanced at one of the women, who shrugged.
‘I need you to listen to me,’ I said. ‘You are making a huge mistake. You need to scrap this whole project. Make another spy movie or something. Because I’m telling you, if you make this film you will ruin lives. Where is the book, Victor?’
‘Not here,’ he said. ‘Safe.’
‘Victor, I am not messing around.’ I gave him my most serious face, so he would know I was serious. ‘This is serious.’ I extended a hand. ‘Give me the book, Victor.’
His brow furrowed. His eyes never left mine.
‘Give me the book, Victor,’ I repeated. ‘Please. I need you to give me the book.’
There was silence for a moment. Victor stood. I held his gaze. I was ready for the refusal. Then his face broke into a grin and he started applauding.
‘Wait—’ I began, but Victor cut me off.
‘Brilliant,’ he said. ‘Just brilliant. Unconventional sure, but you sold it kid. The desperation, the commanding voice, the accent, the serious face. Man, I really thought you were serious! Kid, I think you’ve got what it takes. Hell, I know you’ve got what it takes!’
This was not going according to plan. ‘Hang on,’ I said. ‘No, I was really—’
‘A method actor!’ he exclaimed. ‘Even better. I bet you’d even have the same name as the character if I asked you.’
I could not argue with that.
‘Ladies, I thought we were in trouble,’ he said. ‘But we’ve found the guy. We’ve found the damn guy!’ He put a hand on my shoulder. ‘Kid, how’d you feel about being a star?’
Poorly. To say the least. But if the book was hidden somewhere nearby . . .
‘Be on set at nine tomorrow,’ Victor said. ‘I want to get moving on this. And as for the book,’ he winked at me. ‘Don’t you worry kid. No one gets a hold of it without my say so.’
I forced a smile. We would see about that.
Midnight. Los Angeles stretched out below me, a sea of moving lights and shapes, leading up to the scrubby green and brown of the mountains that surrounded it. It made for a nice sight, even if this new perspective still failed to explain the name of the main street.
I was sitting beside my motorbike, binoculars in hand. Across from me, on top of a nearby hill, was a huge mansion that belonged to Victor Von Vertigo. The lights had just gone out, and now I had to wait.
Reconnaissance had been a bit tricky. Considering the elevated location of Victor’s house it had not been easy to find a convenient yet distant enough point to watch from. Luckily, I had happened upon a selection of very large white letters stuck in the side of a mountain. So now my bike and I were comfortably perched on top of a large H, waiting for Victor to get to sleep so we could engage in a spot of breaking and entering.
Naturally, you can’t just go running in the moment the lights go off. People tend to be restless sleepers, so to be safe you have to wait a bit. Luckily I was used to this kind of thing. I was dressed from head to foot in black and across my back sat a long harpoon gun that was about to be very useful. Break-ins had not always gone smoothly for me, but if I wanted to be thorough it was something I would just have to keep practicing.
Once the lights had been out for an hour, I got to work. I loaded the harpoon gun, aimed for the roof of Victor’s house and pulled the trigger. With only the slightest noise, the harpoon shot from the gun, followed by thick cable, and sailed through the night. I heard nothing as it struck the top of the house. Good start. I secured the cable to the H. Now I had a taut tightrope running from the H to the roof of Victor’s house. So far, so good.
The next part was a bit trickier. With some effort, I moved my bike until it was perfectly aligned with the cable. Now I just had to hope my plan would work. Mounting the bike and trying not to pay too much attention to the vast distance between the cable and the ground, I began to move.
The moment I rolled off the H I wanted to go back, but it was too late. The cable bounced and swayed beneath me but it was crucial I went fast, otherwise I would over balance. Keeping my eyes on the destination and not the sizable drop below me, I went faster and faster, the bike rolling across the cable, the wind threatening to send me flying and the questionable strength of my makeshift bridge causing me to close my eyes until I felt the bike jolt slightly and then shore up. I had reached the roof.
I allowed myself just a moment to breathe and let my heart slow down. Being used to this stuff was one thing. Enjoying it was quite another. Once I was sure I was in one piece, I slid from the bike and scanned the roof. Wide and flat with no way in. I would have to do this the hard way.
Below the edge of the roof I could just make out the jutting shape of a balcony, as I had hoped for. Luckily it was not too far below, so it was easy to dangle myself from the roof and drop the short distance. The balcony extended out from a pair of glass sliding doors, and through the improperly closed curtains I could just make out the shape of a sleeping bulk in a bed. I had not awoken Victor, which was a start, but I also was not about to go gallivanting through his bedroom.
Several feet from the edge of the balcony was another identical one. I climbed up on to the railing and a quick jump had me over to it. Luckily this balcony was not adjacent to any sleeping directors, rather the glass doors opened on to a dining room filled with paintings and occupied by an absurdly long table. A quick scan told me the book wasn’t here, so I crept through to the hallway. I already knew that the first door would lead to Victor’s bedroom, so I moved down, checking the rooms one by one. There were five living rooms, a cinema room, a messy study with no books in sight, eight bathrooms, three closets full of suits, another two bathrooms and finally the room I was looking for.
Victor’s library, despite almost certainly being the right place to look for a book, did not fill me with confidence. For despite the large amount of superfluous or repetitive rooms in this house, the library dwarfed them all and was full, wall to wall, ceiling to floor, with books. Usually I would be impressed. Right now I was frustrated. Sure, I knew what the book looked like, but there were a lot of old books here. In fact, I had to hand it to Victor: he could not have chosen a better hiding place. At least with a safe I would know where to start.
Resigning myself to a long search, I slowly moved into the room and headed for the nearest bookshelf. I reached out to the first book I saw, laid a finger on it and suddenly everything got much, much worse.
The room was flooded with light and the wailing of a very loud alarm. Shocked, I turned just in time to see a wall of steel slide down over the doorway I had come in through. I was trapped.
‘Hello intruder,’ Victor’s voice boomed through the room. ‘I hope you’re enjoying my library.’
‘Of course, when you have a project as exciting as the one I have, you expect this kind of thing. People get jealous, especially in this business. But I’ve been in this business a long time and I know how to protect my assets. By all means, search for the book, but make it quick; my personal security team are about to make sure you don’t find any more books anytime soon. Happy hunting.’
I looked around, but all I saw was wall to wall books. There were no windows, no doors except the one that was fully sealed off; I was trapped. On the one hand, this saved me from having to be in the film. On the other hand jail wasn’t really a preferable alternative.
I ran over to the metal door and banged on it, which was obviously pointless and just meant I would have to figure out my next escape route with sore hands. Just as I was scouring the roof for any kind of weak spot I could somehow break through, I heard a series of thuds and looked over to see several books fly from a nearby shelf and hit the floor. For a moment I wondered if I was looking at an especially pathetic defence mechanism before I realised that the books had been displaced by a secret door behind them. As the door swung open I prepared for the guards to appear. But I was not so lucky, because what came through that door was a whole lot worse.
‘Hello Shepard,’ said a voice that was exactly what a smirk would sound like. ‘Having fun?’
The person I was looking at, apart from being the last person I wanted to see, was also the last person I could have expected to see. Tall, dressed in black leather with goggles around her head, long blonde hair and a face that was set in a hateful expression of pure satisfaction.
‘Promethia Peters,’ I said. ‘To what do I owe the . . . appearance?’
‘Your feeble wit is failing you Shepard,’ she said. ‘But what else is new? Seems like you’ve got yourself in a spot of trouble.’
‘What do you want, Peters? I’m a bit busy.’
‘Too busy to escape?’ She nodded to the doorway behind her.
Now I was suspicious. ‘You would get me out?’
‘Of course,’ she said. ‘You’re a colleague, Shepard. Journalists and photographers need to help each other in times of need.’
For a moment I wondered if Promethia had had a personality transplant since the last time we’d seen each other, then I realised she was still smirking.
‘What do you want?’ I asked.
‘I want to know why you’re in Los Angeles,’ she said.
‘I take it you followed me here?’
‘I take it you’ve found yourself a decent story?’
‘I take it it’s none of your business.’
‘Considering I’m your only way out, it’s very much my business,’ she said. ‘What have you got? Murder on a film set? Actors robbing banks? Directors jaywalking? Come on Shepard, maybe I can help.’
‘What happened the last time you offered to help?’ I said. ‘Oh yes, you double crossed me and tried to claim the story for yourself.’
‘Well in my defence Shepard, so did you,’ she said.
‘What?’ I spluttered. ‘You did it first!’
‘You still did it,’ she said. ‘So let’s call it even.’
‘It isn’t even!’ I exclaimed. ‘I was provoked; you’re just an awful person.’
‘Maybe we should save the nasty words for another time,’ she said. ‘By my estimation you’ve got about thirty seconds until those guards get here. Will you let me in or not?’
I rolled my eyes. ‘Peters, this isn’t a story. This is personal.’
‘That’s sweet. What’s the story?’
I didn’t have time for this. ‘Fine,’ I said. ‘You’re in. Now get me out.’
She stepped aside and gestured through the door. ‘After you sir,’ she said.
Grunting a thank you, I hurried through into a dark, narrow corridor. Promethia pulled the door shut and we were plunged into total blackness.
‘Go forward,’ she whispered. ‘In about three feet—’
‘—you’ll find a staircase.’
Wincing at the pain in my stubbed toe, I hobbled up it, still having no idea where I was or where we were going.
From behind me, Promethia spoke again. ‘Now in a few moments—’
‘—you’ll find the ceiling. Push.’
Rubbing my head with one hand, I pushed. The ceiling above me lifted and I found myself climbing out on to the roof of the house. Directly in front of me was Promethia’s yellow and black gyrocopter, behind which my bike was still parked. I used the chopper to pull myself to my feet as Promethia emerged, closing the trap door behind her.
‘I didn’t realise there was a trap door here,’ I said.
‘Of course not,’ she replied. ‘That would require you planning ahead.’
‘Whatever,’ I said. ‘We need to move.’ I went for my bike.
‘Hang on,’ Promethia said. ‘First thing’s first. What’s the story?’
I turned to face her. ‘Seriously?’
‘You said you’d let me in,’ she said. ‘What’s the case?’
‘It’s not a case,’ I climbed on to my bike. ‘Peters, we don’t have time for this.’
‘Sure we do,’ she leaned against her gyrocopter. ‘Just not much time. So what’s the story, Shepard?’
‘Those guards will be up here any second,’ I said.
‘Then you’d better hurry up and tell me.’
‘No Promethia,’ I said, and started my bike.
‘Don’t make me chase you,’ she said.
I grinned. ‘I won’t.’ I raised my hand just enough to let her see the keys I had swiped from her gyrocopter. All she had time for was an expression of shock as I drove over the edge of the roof, landed on the hillside and shot off into the night.
I arrived on set the next morning tired and grumpy and not at all ready for my close up. Aside from the unexpected annoyance of Promethia Peters reappearing in my life, it seemed Victor was aware someone was onto him and I would have to spend more time here than I wanted trying to get answers.
The studio where we were filming was set up to resemble a massive dance hall. Upon arriving I was quickly whisked into costume by a group of fast talking people who in seconds had me dressed in a tuxedo with my hair slicked back. I did not remember this part from the book, but I guess Hollywood was entitled some dramatic licence.
But my ridiculous clothing was the least of my problems. The film was about to start shooting and I had to stop that from happening. I was still trying to figure out how as I was ushered back to the set, where Victor waited with a broad grin on his face.
‘Exactly how I imagined it!’ he said. ‘I can see the awards already. Now, is everyone here?’
I glanced around. I was surrounded by crew members and other people in costume. This nightmare really was about to happen and I had no clue how to stop it.
‘Good,’ Victor said. ‘Then before the shoot starts, let me introduce your leading lady!’ With a flourish, he stepped aside, revealing someone who had been concealed by his significant bulk. And my mouth fell open.
Promethia Peters, wearing a long, close fitting red dress and covered in makeup that could barely hide her devious grin, waved at me. ‘Hello,’ she said. ‘I’m so excited to be here.’
‘I’ll bet you are,’ I managed.
‘This is Promethia Peters,’ Victor said. ‘And she is about to become the biggest name in Hollywood.’
‘Oh stop it you,’ Promethia giggled.
‘I caught her trying to break into my house last night and I was impressed with the audacity and stomach she displayed in the process,’ Victor went on. ‘I had to cast her on the spot.’
I was starting to suspect that Victor Von Vertigo possibly had Hollywood’s worst instinct for casting, but that was hardly the issue at hand. My job had just gotten much, much harder.
‘Let’s start with the dance scene,’ Victor said. ‘I want to see those sparks fly between my leads! Places everyone, and get ready for action!’
The cast and crew quickly dispersed, leaving Promethia and I still staring at each other in the middle of the dance floor.
‘What are you waiting for partner?’ she said. ‘Let’s see what you’ve got.’
Stiffly, I moved towards Promethia and we got into position for a waltz. I tried not to meet her eyes as the music began to play and she took the lead.
‘Action!’ Victor called. ‘Let’s make magic, people!’
‘What are you playing at?’ I hissed.
‘Why Boone,’ she replied innocently as we jerked across the floor, ‘I just want to be a star.’
‘Be a star on your own time,’ I said. ‘I already told you there’s no story.’
‘And I don’t trust you,’ she replied. ‘If you’re sniffing around this set, there’s a story. So we can either do this the easy way or the hard way.’
‘Any option involving being near you is not easy,’ I said.
‘You say that now,’ she said. ‘You haven’t heard what the hard option is.’
‘I don’t care. I’m not doing either of them.’
‘You don’t have a choice.’
‘I thought I did? Easy or hard?’
‘Oh, shut up Shepard.’
I stopped dancing and pulled away from Promethia. ‘Victor!’ I yelled. ‘Stop the music!’
With a frown, Victor raised a hand and the music stopped. He hurried over to us. ‘What is it?’
‘I can’t do this,’ I pointed at Promethia. ‘I’m a method actor, a serious method actor, and I can’t work under these conditions. This woman has to go.’
‘This woman is your leading lady,’ Victor said. ‘She’s perfect for the role.’
‘Apart from that being offensively untrue, I have to insist,’ I said.
‘Fire him Victor,’ Promethia said. ‘You can’t have your actors talking to you like that.’
‘She’s unprofessional, rude, belligerent and entirely wrong for the part,’ I said. Then, quickly, I added, ‘I’m sure if you have another look at the source material you’ll find I’m right.’
Victor’s eyes narrowed. He watched me for a second and I braced myself for an explosion, then he nodded. ‘You’ve got guts boy. I admire your honesty. Alright, put a halt in filming while I have another look at that book. Henrietta!’ He pointed to one of the women who had been in the room yesterday. ‘Bring forth the book! I must examine it.’
My heart sped up. As Henrietta strode away and Victor returned to his chair, I scanned the edges of the set. Over by one of the cameras was a coil of rope. I began moving toward it.
‘What the hell are you playing at?’ Promethia said.
Ignoring her, I hurried over and picked up the rope. Then I turned back towards Victor.
Four men in suits had entered, carrying between them a gilded old chest. Henrietta led them towards Victor, who waited with crossed arms as they placed the chest in front of him and lifted the lid.
‘Everybody back away!’ Victor demanded. ‘This is top secret.’ He reached into the chest and removed the battered little book.
I saw my chance and I took it. Letting the rope uncoil in my hand and holding on to one end, I flicked it like a whip. Yells and gasps came from around the set as the end struck Victor’s hand; with a yelp he dropped the book and jumped back.
I ran. In the confusion nobody stopped me as I reached the book and snatched it up.
‘Sorry Victor,’ I said to the stunned director. ‘But some secrets need to remain hidden.’ With that, I turned and made for the exit.
The notion of escaping, however, was very ambitious. Guards quickly blocked off the door and were moving towards me. Frantic, I looked around. There were people everywhere, and none of them were about to help my getaway. I glanced down at the rope in my hand, then over to a set of portable stairs in the corner that seemed to lead nowhere. I ran for them. I could hear the grunting and panting of the guards giving pursuit, but I was faster and more desperate. I pounded up the stairs, reaching the top with a racing heart and hardly any breath left. Below me the set stretched out, and the door at the far end was unprotected; all the guards were behind me. My eyes landed on a hanging light in the centre of the studio roof and, without letting myself think about it for a second, I whipped the rope again, aiming it at the light. The rope wrapped around and, just as I heard the first guard coming up behind me, I jumped.
For a moment I was airborne, sailing down over the heads of the shocked cast and crew, legs kicking wildly as I held on for dear life. Reaching the middle of the set I began to rise again and was preparing to let go and sail triumphantly through the door when, of course, the rope gave way and with a very painful thud I hit the floor.
For a moment I sat there, dazed and unsure. Then, wincing, I managed to sit up. I opened one eye and wished I hadn’t. I was completely surrounded.
‘What the hell are you playing at!’ Victor roared, bursting through the assembled guards and angry crew members.
With some difficulty, I got to my feet. ‘I’m sorry Victor,’ I said. ‘I really am. But this book cannot become a film. There are some stories that can’t ever be told and this is one of them. There are secrets no-one can ever know, terrible secrets that will put a lot of people at risk should they emerge. I know it seems exciting, but it’s more than just a book. It’s a box of snakes that cannot be opened. And I will do everything in my power to make sure it never sees the light of day.’
Victor raised an eyebrow. ‘Kid, you’re talking about Pride and Prejudice.’
‘No I’m not, I . . .’ I looked down at the book. Hang on. I opened the front cover and suddenly I was very, very confused.
‘But . . . all the secrecy,’ I spluttered. ‘The security and the talk about how it’s a rare, never before told story!’
It’s called hype, kid,’ Victor said, as Promethia appeared beside him, looking delighted. ‘Ever heard of it? Spread the word in Hollywood that you have some amazing project and people will fall over themselves to see it. Even if you fudge the truth a little.’
‘But . . .’ I was trying and failing to wrap my head around this. ‘But that can’t be right.’
‘Course it can!’ Victor said. ‘It’s a great story repackaged. Romance, adventure, swashbuckling, magic, mystery. All the good stuff!’
‘I think you’re reading Pride and Prejudice wrong,’ Promethia said.
I looked down at the book again. ‘I, uh . . . I’ve made a huge mistake.’
‘Damn right you have,’ Victor snatched the book from me. ‘To think you were this close to being a star. You’ve got two minutes to get the hell off my set.’
‘Sorry about him,’ Promethia said. ‘Working with amateurs is hard—’
‘Me!’ Promethia exclaimed. ‘What did I do?’
‘I only cast you so you could match with him!’ Victor snapped. ‘You’re both as annoying and impertinent as each other; it was a match made in heaven is what it was! Without him I ain’t got no use for you. Now, that’s one minute and forty seconds to get off my set.’
I didn’t need telling again. Followed by an annoyed looking Promethia, I headed for the door, very aware of my reddening face as the cast and crew snickered at us behind their hands.
‘Well you made a right mess of that,’ Promethia said as we emerged into the sunlight.
‘Thanks,’ I muttered, still feeling embarrassed.
‘Can I have my keys back?’
I handed them to her.
‘But hey, at least one good thing came out of it,’ she said.
I turned to look at her. ‘What’s that, Peters?’
She grinned. ‘Now I know you’ve got a secret. A battered, rare old book that you don’t want anyone to know about. That you’ll do anything to hunt down.’
‘Promethia,’ I said, ‘don’t. Some things should be left alone. Leave this alone.’
‘Boone,’ she said, ‘make me.’
And with that, she turned on her heel and, whistling loudly, strode away down the drive.
I stared after her. Just in case my day needed to get any worse, now I had to deal with that. Still, I had a head start on Promethia Peters. I just hoped it would be enough.
I looked up at the clear blue sky and sighed. Waste of time and money, the whole thing. And to think, I was this close to leaving my underpaid job behind and becoming a star.