Monthly Archives: May 2013

The Golden Mirror, Pt. 1

Time for a new story! Something a bit more hard-boiled than our usual fare. Enjoy!

Some days you wake up and you feel like you’ve been living in a gutter, and you ask yourself, “How did I get here?”

Some days you wake up in a gutter with no recollection of the past twenty-four hours.

I like to think of that as the difference between a metaphor and a metal sleeping pill. One’s literary and the other’s literal, a bunch of buckshot in a sack. Apply directly to the skull. It’ll put you right out, like ether, and if it doesn’t, you can always try harder. Like ether.

That’s how I found myself the day it all went wrong, lying face-down in a pile of garbage on the street. The early morning sun forced its way behind my eyelids, insistent and cloying. I tried to roll over to get away from it, but that’s a lot harder to do when you’ve got a pile of trash waiting for you and not a soft white pillow. The smell of wet trash does wonders for waking a person up in the morning. Somebody should tell the coffee companies; they’d make a fortune.

I pushed myself to my feet and coughed like my lungs were trying to escape from my chest. I looked around to see if anybody was watching. They weren’t. That’s one of the perks of living in the big city; nobody really gives a shit. As far as anyone was concerned, I was just another transient with a set of problems no one wants to deal with. About anything. Your mileage may vary, of course. I hear they’ve got softer hearts in San Francisco, but I wouldn’t know.

In a situation where you wake up on the streets, the first thing you want to do is check and see what you have. I had a pounding headache with the epicenter at the back of my skull, so I knew it was a beating and not hangover. I had a series of vague memories, like stills taken from a motion picture: a bar, a beautiful lady, a man the size of the gorilla, and then nothing. Lights out so fast and so hard you’d think that God pulled the plug on my eyeballs.

I checked my pockets next. I still had my wallet and my phone, so whoever sapped me hadn’t been after my money. I still had a sense of self (Daniel Carter, private eye, professional alcoholic, and a terrific dancer) so they hadn’t done any permanent brain damage. I still had my .45, and that would make getting answers out of the dumb son of a bitch that did this to me a lot easier and a lot more satisfying once I found them. Nothing quite says, “Sit down, shut up, and start talking,” like a hole a half-inch wide in one’s chest.

I shook my head to clear away the last of the cobwebs, got my bearings, and made my way back to my office. You make enemies in my line of work, sure. There’s no way around it. But when someone wants you dead, they shoot you. When someone wants to send a message, they leave you for dead. Business had been dry for weeks now, and it was going to take some serious thinking to figure out who I’d pissed off and when. It was a shitty place to be, but still I smiled as I made my way through the people on the street. There isn’t much of a percentage in sleuthing on your own time, but if I had to spend another day sitting in my office, doing nothing and waiting for the phone to ring, my liver would never forgive me.

* * *

When I got back to my office, I saw something I’d never seen before: there was a pretty girl, mid-twenties, dark hair, leaning against the wall and waiting for me.

“You’re Detective Carter?” she asked as I approached.

“That’s what it says on my private investigator’s license.” I reached for my keys and got them into the door on my first try. Thank God for that. It doesn’t matter what the reason is, there’s nothing more embarrassing than trying to fight a key into a keyhole and missing, especially when there’s a beautiful girl watching. I swung open the door and gestured for her to enter. She just stood there.

“You look like you’ve had a rough night.”

“Occupational hazard. You coming in, or were you just waiting for a bus?”

She smirked at that, and walked inside without saying another word. I followed and shut the door behind her.

“To what do I owe the pleasure, Miss…”

“Rourke. Elizabeth Rourke.”

I blinked at that, and she smirked again. She saw the surprise on my face, and it must have amused her. The Rourke name carried a lot of weight locally. Old family, lots of money, you know how it goes. The older generation tried to stay out of the public eye, having the decency to enjoy their wealth in the privacy of their own mansions, but some of the younger scions attract a lot of press. Most of it negative.

Growing up with a sense of entitlement will do that to you.

Still, I had no idea who this girl was, and with a face like hers she’d have wound up in the papers for something. I figured she must have been a recent acquisition. The kings and queens of old used to send their children off to marry foreign rulers to foster healthy relations, and the plutocrats of the modern era liked to keep up the tradition.

Ah. You must be someone’s daughter.”

Wife, actually. Mrs. Henry Rourke.” She didn’t smirk, so I must have managed to keep my surprise (and, I admit, my disappointment) to myself. Henry Rourke had to be pushing eighty, and when you’ve got an eighty year old involved with a twenty year old, one of them is planning to suck the life out of the other. I’d seen pictures of Henry, and while I wouldn’t put it past the guy to be a vampire, something in my gut said that wasn’t what was going on here.

Henry Rourke’s a lucky man.”

She smiled at me, her mouth and the dimples on her cheeks warm and inviting, her eyes as cold as ice. “Isn’t he just? I used to think so, but I guess he doesn’t. The old bastard’s cheating on me.”

I arched a single eybrow at that. “An eighty year old man is cheating on you?”

She smiled that smile again, all ice and death. Five hundred years ago, a woman like this would have been advising her husband to murder his boss so he could become king. “I know. Hard to believe, right? I can’t prove anything, but the way I figure, that’s your job.”

I nodded. “It’s a job I do very well. Thirty dollars a day, plus expenses,” I said. “And I need a week’s pay up front. As a retainer.”

Elizabeth snorted at that. “You’re not cheap, Mr. Carter.”

I smiled and shrugged. “Would you want a detective who was?”

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To Do and Die

 Sam opened his eyes, blinking them like a newborn animal against the harsh light of existence. He groaned as he struggled to push himself up from the ground. Already the sensors on the carapce were streaming data to him, figures and statistics pumped into his brain and rendered visible in the HUD that accompanied his every waking moment. There was residue of Composition C on the carapace’s exterior. An explosive had gone off near him, a big one. The carapace had protected him, of course, but the shockwave had still been enough to render him unconscious.

YOUR MISSION ISN’T COMPLETE, SOLDIER.

Sam winced. The carapace AI detected that he was awake and had begun shouting orders at him. He hated the goddamn thing. It was like having a drill instructor living in your brain, sharing your body.

GET ON YOUR FEET, SOLDIER. GET ON YOUR FEET.

“I feel like someone just hit me with a truck,” Sam muttered out loud. “Give me a minute.”

ADMINISTERING STIMULANT.

Sam gasped as a flood of epinephrine poured into his bloodstream, shocking him awake. He leaped to his feet, and as quickly as the rush had come, it mellowed, the carapace already filtering the hormone from his body. Sam shook his head and looked around him. He was on a dirt street, broken glass and splintered wood and chunks of plaster everywhere. His rifle lay a few feet away from where he’d been. He picked it up, checked it, and slung it across his back when he was satisfied it was undamaged.

He looked up to find a building with a blown out wall on the third floor. There were scorch marks at the edges of the hole. Fire still burned there.

“Jesus,” Sam thought. “I got blown right through the fucking wall.” He shook his head. “Status.”

MULTIPLE RIBS FRACTURED. RIGHT RADIUS FRACTURED. RIGHT ULNA FRACTURED. LEFT FEMUR FRACTURED. CONTUSIONS ACROSS TORSO. CONTUSIONS ACROSS RIGHT ARM. CONTUSIONS ACROSS–

“That’s enough! That’s enough!”

ENDORPHIN PRODUCTION INCREASED. FLUPIRTINE ADMINISTERED TO WOUND SITES. CARAPACE APPLYING PRESSURE TO WOUND SITES. CARAPACE SPLINTING BROKEN BONES.

“I said that’s enough.” Sam stood perfectly still, trying to decide what to do next. His memories were coming back to him. The target had set a trap and escaped, if they’d ever been there at all. Had the intel been bad, or had somebody betrayed him?

Sam shifted his weight from one foot to the other gingerly, trying not to aggravate his broken and battered body. He thought about all the blows he’d taken in training, in other missions, and the carapace had always protected him from the worst of it. Through a combination of painkillers, hormones, and tech Sam couldn’t hope to understand, he’d always been able to complete his mission.

Nothing had ever been this bad, though. Sam couldn’t stop running through the list in his mind.

That was when he realized it didn’t hurt at all.

YOUR MISSION ISN’T COMPLETE, SOLDIER.

Sam winced. “I’m aware,” he thought. “But I lost track of the target. What do I do now?”

The AI was silent for a moment. There was something unsettling about the AI going silent. IT was supposed to be so advanced, so intelligent that there was a never a need for it. When it actually went silent, it was like it wasn’t just processing data, but actually thinking.

CALCULATING.

A blinking yellow light appeared in the corner of Sam’s eyes, the carapace layering the beacon against his vision. INCREASED HOSTILE COMMUNICATIONS TRAFFIC AT THIS LOCATION. PROCEED.

Sam didn’t respond. He started walking towards the beacon. The glow dimmed once the AI was satisfied he was following orders.

* * *

Sam waited for nightfall, had counted on the hostiles not to have thermal or low-light imaging. He perched on a tower jutting from the roof of the tallest building he kind find, looking down and surveying the location the AI had marked for him. There was a two-story house with a fence just as tall as around it. People on the roof with rifles, the hot glow of their bodies standing out against the darkness of the night. They were alert, but they didn’t seem to be particularly agitated or nervous. They probably thought Sam had died in the explosion.

A reasonable assumption since they didn’t know what the carapace was, what it was capable of. No one outside of his own government did. It was too closely guarded a secret, and those who went against carapace wearers in combat didn’t survive.

Sam shifted on his haunches. He should have been tired, but he wasn’t. He hadn’t slept in days, but the carapace was keeping a cocktail of drugs and hormones in veins to keep him awake. He was supposed to be combat ready for a week on the cocktail, but he didn’t believe it. Sure, it would keep him on his feet, but he could feel his mind slowing down even if his reactions didn’t. He shook his head. It wasn’t worth thinking about. Instead, he thought, “Radar.” A blurry image of what lay beyond the walls of the house appeared before his eyes. More figures armed with rifles. Shorter ones, too. Tiny ones, even.

Women and children. They had their families with them.

Sam frowned. He hated when there were women and children involved. But there was nothing to be done. The mission had to be completed no matter what.

Sam dropped down from his perch, catching window ledges and poles to slow his descent, swinging to the ground like some great ape. He landed with a soft thud, the carapace cushioning his fall, not even a grunt escaping from his lips. He thought his broken leg might have hurt him, but couldn’t decide if it was his imagination or not. Even as he leaped up and over the fence, even as he quietly climbed the side of the house and stalked the roof like a cat, snapping the necks of the men who patrolled it, Sam couldn’t decide if he felt anything or not.

It didn’t matter, he supposed.

Sam took a moment to affix the silencer to his rifle. Things would likely be too crowded inside for him to sneak about silently dispatching whoever he encountered, but there wasn’t any sense in alerting any guards who were lurking in nearby buildings. Sam pulled his rifle in close and set a hand on the doorknob that separated him from the home’s interior. He took a deep breath, opened it, and stepped through. There was a stairway behind it, another door at the bottom. Sam took care to step as lightly as possible. He opened the door at the bottom when reached it.

TARGET ACQUIRED flashed across his vision before his brain could interpret what he was seeing. He was inside a bedroom. The target stood with his back to Sam, facing a mirror. Two women, barely in their twenties by the look of them, sat naked on the bed. One of them turned at the sound of the door creaking open, and when she saw Sam standing there, the carapace black-grey, the sleek optical array on its mask making him look like some kind of man-sized insect, she screamed. Sam raised his rifle, shouted for the women to get down, but they jumped to their feet and screamed in terror, spoiling his shout. He kept the rifle raised and trained on the target, and gestured for the women to get down.

The target grabbed one of them, pulled her in close, and put her between himself and Sam. With his free hand, he fumbled around on the desk for a pistol, some garishly huge thing that fired rounds as big as a man’s thumb. When he found it, he jammed the barrel against the woman’s head. The other woman at least had the sense to drop to the ground, but now there was an innocent in the way.

ELIMINATE TARGET.

“He’s got a hostage,” Sam thought.

ELIMINATE TARGET.

“He’s got a fucking hostage!” Sam screamed out loud.

Sam watched helplessly as the target slowly backed towards the door, a sneer on his face. The AI was silent.

OVERRIDING.

“No!” Sam screamed as his finger tightened on the trigger. A stream of bullets poured out of the gun, tearing through the hostage and into the target. The woman didn’t even have time to scream. She just fell to the ground. The man, though, gasped for air as the life left his body.

OVERRIDING.

Sam strode forward, compelled by the biomemtic weave of the carapace, the carbonfibers pulling his body along like a second set of muscles. He kicked the pistol to the side, raised his rifle, and put a bullet through the target’s head.

KILL CONFIRMED.

“You son of a bitch,” Sam muttered. “You son of a bitch.”

HESITATION IS UNACCEPTABLE. THE MISSION COMES FIRST.

Sam was just about to reply when he heard a noise behind him. He spun around, raising the rifle as he did so, only to find the second woman aiming the pistol square at his chest. That ridiculous oversized pistol and its ridiculous oversized rounds, point blank to the chest. He pulled the trigger of his rifle even as she pulled the one on pistol. “Of course,” was Sam’s last thought as the world faded into black. “At least I get to rest.”

* * *

DEFIBRILATING.

Lightning surged across Sam’s chest. He wanted to scream, but there was no air in his lungs. His body contorted, every muscle contracting at once and then releasing.

Inky darkness started to creep in at the sides of Sam’s vision.

DEFIBRILATING.

Sam’s body hitched again. He gasped for air.

GET ON YOUR FEET, SOLDIER. YOU DON’T HAVE TIME TO DIE.

THE MISSION COMES FIRST.


Smile for the Camera, Pt. 10

Yeah, my post is late, wonk wonk. But! I have a much more important announcement to make! A positive one! Hooray!

Today marked a milestone in the site’s total number of views. I don’t like going into specifics because they’re laughably small, but I will say this: As of right now, Stupendous Stories has gotten as many views since January 1st as it did all of last year. And the year’s not even halfway over!

Thank you all so much for your readership and your support. Whether you’ve read every single update since time immemorial or you just wound up on the page because you were looking for some kind of terrifying pornography and google sent you here, I’m grateful for your time and your attention. That’s my promise to you, my dear readers and passing sexual deviants; you give me twenty minutes out of your day, and I’ll give you free stories worth reading.

Now then! On with the story!

I was sitting in a cafe staring silently into a mug of coffee. Every time the door opened and someone walked in, I’d look up from my mug to see if it was James. After about half an hour of waiting, he finally arrived, his face drawn taut, his mouth pressed into a thin line. He sat down in front of me. I didn’t look up. Finally he began. “Kiev was unstable. Always has been.” James took a deep breath. “This was inevitable.”

“Then why did we do it?” James said nothing. I shook my head. “Why take those pictures? Why let them leak? Why us?”

James didn’t move at all. “It was going to happen. It may as well have been someone who could make something good out of a terrible situation.” James turned his head aside and raised a hand to get the attention of a server. “It may as well have been us.”

I looked up from my drink. “What?”

The waitress set the drink down in front of James. He smiled up at her. “Don’t worry about it.”

I stared at James for a moment. My eyes narrowed to slits. My jaw clenched. “I am going to worry about it, James. I am going to worry quite a bit about the man I indirectly drove to suicide.”

James sighed and rolled his eyes. My frown pulled back into a snarl. I wanted to slap him. I wanted to scream at him. I wanted to dive across the table and strangle him. “Look,” he said. “No one takes you panops seriously. And it’s dangerous. But after this, they will.”

“You panops?” I asked, anger dripping from my voice.

“I mean, think about it. Sometimes the panops get lucky with something scandalous. They’ve got the advantage of not being obvious with their cameras and their gear. They’re great at candids. But they’re amateurs. They don’t know what they’re doing. They’re just looking for a quick buck, like you.

“But now they’ll see the threat. They’ll be afraid. They’ll be looking for solutions. Solutions I can offer.” James leaned back in his chair and smiled. “I wasn’t always an actor, you know. I have other talents and interests.

“I’m a people person, you know. I had the tech to detect panops, but I needed to find the perfect one to work with. Someone who wasn’t invested in the lifestyle. Someone who would put the oculars to better use. Someone who knew how to see an opportunity and take it.” James reached across the table and put his hand over mine. He looked into my eyes and smiled. “I couldn’t have done it without you.”

I said nothing. I stared at James for a moment, and he just sat there smiling at me. Maybe he mistook my silence for awe. Maybe he thought he was truly offering me kind words.

I stood up and walked away.

Outside, the warm spring sun seemed to bear down on me with oppressive heat. The people around me looked fake, like walking mannequins. The oculars flared to life in this new environment, this sea of unfamiliar faces. The reticule danced across them, highlighting some, ignoring most of them, and I wished desperately that I could make it go away. But I couldn’t. It would always be there. The things I’d seen were burned into my memory and always would be. So much I didn’t understand, about the world, about myself.

I stopped mid-stride. I shut my eyes so I could focus on the oculars and on the interface.

They were all still there.

The pictures, the video, the audio. When I sent them to the company, they erased themselves. For whatever reason, they hadn’t erased themselves after James’s machine had intercepted the signal. They were mine to do with as I pleased, to sell or to keep.

To shape into a story to be told.

I smiled to myself. Sometimes not knowing everything pays off.

Sometimes knowing everything pays off more.

That ends “Smile for the Camera.” Be here on Wednesday for some flash-fiction and then on Friday for something completely new!


Smile for the Camera, Pt. 9

A few days later, I found myself sitting in an office chair in the living room of James’s high-rise apartment. A metal bowl was suspended over my head, wires connecting it to a circuit board that was in turn connected to a computer whose guts were spilled across a table. James was running back and forth between keyboards and monitors that didn’t seem to be connected to anything in particular but were instead simply wired into the whole mess.

“I’m not going to lie, James. I feel like you’re playing some kind of a joke on me.”

He paused for just a moment, turning to look at me over his shoulder. There was confusion and hurt on his face. “Is it the colander helmet? It’s the colander helmet, isn’t it?

He held my eyes for a few moments, his lip trembling ever so slightly, and then he burst into laughter. I couldn’t help it. I laughed, too.

He turned his attention back to the keyboard and the screen. “It can’t really be helped, you know. My guy basically had to assemble all of this from scratch. It’s not hard to pick up the signals your implants broadcast, but actually capturing them and decoding them into something we can understand… Well, no one’s ever really tried to do that before. Or at least no one’s ever talked about it.”

I looked at all the equipment scattered around us. “Was this stuff expensive? It looks expensive.”

“Very.”

I frowned. “Is it worth it?”

James turned to look at me, a single eyebrow arched. “We both live and die by this technology. Don’t you want to know everything about how it works?”

I shrugged. “Not really. It’s just a job. I don’t build the stuff; I just use it.”

James said nothing. He shrugged too and turned his attention back to the screen. “Okay, this thing is as good as it’s going to get. Whenever you’re ready, send the files and we’ll see if it intercepts them.”

I thought about the whole reason we were doing this, how we were going to pick and choose what to keep for ourselves and what to send along to the company. “What if it doesn’t work?”

“It’ll work,” he said, and that was all. I sighed, took a deep breath, and closed my eyes. After a moment, the interface came up. I sent the files.

“Perfect,” James said. “Don’t move. Treat it just like you would if you were contacting the company.” So I sat still and I watched the little progress bar fill up and when it beeped at me and flashed ALL FILES SENT, I pulled the helmet off.

A wall covered in images of debauchery greeted me. Celebrities who were drunk, who were high, who were at their weakest and most unsuspecting and most vulnerable.

They were better than anything I’d ever taken before. If I’d sent them to the company, I’d be rich.

“Look at all of this,” James said. His back was to me, his arms crossed as he regarded all the images projected onto the wall. “Look. What do you see?”

My stomach clenched. I’d never seen my pictures laid out like this. There were so many of them. “Spoiled children. Sick adults. Frightened and confused animals.” I let my eyes wander over the images, taking them in as if I were seeing them for the first time, even though I had been the one to capture them. “Humans. People.”

“Do you know what I see?” he asked. But I didn’t respond, and he didn’t seem to care.

“The future.”

* * *

I passed some of the pictures along to the company. I got more money from that delivery than from any other one I’d ever sent, and they weren’t even the worst of the lot. I probably got more from that delivery than from any two or three previous deliveries combined. I couldn’t believe it. I was ecstatic.

And then I woke up one morning to the news that Kiev Bachmann had jumped from the balcony of his eighth-story apartment and splattered himself on the corner of Hope and Grand.


Smile for the Camera, Pt. 8

By popular request, I won’t be adding little author-y comments when my pieces are late from here on it. I’ll only comment if there’s something really important that needs to be shared. It’s a new day! No, sir, not going to… comment… on unimportant…

…whoops.

I met James’s publicist the next day, a middle-aged, overweight balding man by the name of Derrick Duane. We met at a restaurant, a nice one, an obvious one, and the man chattered away faster than I could follow. He had three phones on the table in front of him, a headset on one ear, a lens over one eye, and when he spoke, I had no idea who he was addressing. James seemed to be perfectly at ease with the man, though.

“I don’t understand why she’s here,” Derrick said.

“I told you, Cathy’s my assistant.”

I said nothing. Instead, I kept unbroken eye contact with Derrick, a look of cool disinterest, of mild distaste on my face. Derrick sniffed and turned towards James.

“I don’t understand why you hired an assistant without first consulting me.”

“Because you’re not my mother, and I’m a grown man. And even if you were and I weren’t, I still wouldn’t talk to you before making the decision to hire a damn assistant.”

Derrick paused and looked up. The expression on his face was unreadable, and for a moment I thought that he was offended, that he was going to say something. And then I noticed his eyes darting back and forth frantically and I realized that he wasn’t even paying attention to us. He was engrossed in whatever he was seeing through his lens.

It was so obvious he was seeing things we weren’t, that he existed in a world of his own. Was that what I looked like when I was using the oculars? Was that how James could tell I was a panop?

Finally Derrick looked up at us, his gaze bouncing back and forth between James and me. “I’m sorry, what was that?”

“Nothing. But I’m not firing Cathy and I’m not apologizing for hiring her without letting you know.”

Derrick sighed, looked back down at his phones, and started tapping away at them. “Fine. Do whatever you want with Katie. I’m just giving you my opinion.”

I frowned at that. Cathy wasn’t my name, of course. James had insisted that I use a different name, a different personality for every different group we interacted with, but still. The bastard couldn’t even be bothered to get my fake name right.

I glanced to the side. James’s eyes were expressionless, but the edge of his mouth was curled up in a smirk.

* * *

Kiev Bachmann stumbled to his knees and caught himself. But only barely. He tried to push himself back up, but couldn’t manage it. Instead, he vomited, an impossibly big puddle forming underneath him. The stink of acid, of alcohol, of half-digested food rose up to my nose, threatened to turn my own stomach.

James didn’t seem to mind it at all.

Kiev’s hands shook, the tremors moving up his arms like a kid in a gym class forced to do too many push-ups. James grabbed him by the back of his jacket and tugged, pulling him back and up. Kiev stood there, swaying uncertainly but holding his ground for the moment.

“Oh, Jesus,” he slurred. “Oh, fuck. I’m so sorry, man.”

“It’s alright,” James said. He had one hand on Kiev’s shoulder, carefully placed to reassure him, to hold him up, and to avoid the vomit that had splashed onto the front of the man’s clothes all at once. “We all like to party, man. Sometimes we just party too hard. It’s not big deal.” He turned his head from side-to-side, made a show of looking around. “Besides, there’s nobody else around. No one’s going to see you like this.”

Kiev nodded, but then his eyes locked on me, unfocused, but still registering my presence. “Dude. What about her, dude? Is she cool?” This was the third time in twenty minutes Kiev had asked this about me. I was trying to maintain a distant, professional air, but he was making me nervous.

He’s probably just blacked out, I told myself. That’s why he keeps asking the same question; he can’t remember the response he’s been given.

“She’s the doctor, man. She’s cool.”

Kiev nodded. “Doctor. Right.”

We made our way slowly towards the car I’d come in, having to wait for Kiev to stumble around and reorient himself every few dozen feet. I’d met James and Kiev separately, waiting for James to let me know to come. Neither of them was in any shape to drive, but Kiev was obviously the worse of the two.

“Let’s get in the car, man,” James said. “She’ll take us back to your place. We can get our shit in the morning.”

“Yeah. Get our shit in the morning.” Kiev stopped and looked at me, as if seeing me for the first time. “Wait, is she cool?”

“Relax, man,” James said. He turned to me and smiled. “I told you, Megan’s a doctor. She’s cool. She won’t say anything. Not one word.”

* * *

A few days later, I was eating lunch with James at Mar . He was laying out our itinerary for the next week, the places we would go, the people we would see, when I stopped him.

“James, I can’t keep doing this. I can’t just sit on the stills and video I have. The company’s asking too many questions. It’s been weeks since I’ve given them anything they could use. If I don’t start delivering results soon, they’re going to send someone to observe me and figure out what the hell I’m doing.”

James frowned. I could see his mind at work. “I’ll have someone set up a private server. We can upload everything to that and go through it, figure out what to keep and what to publish. We’ll go through it together. If it’s not enough for you to live on, I’ll start paying you. Does that work?”

I started at my seat. When had James come to the conclusion that he could just pay me? Still, I thought about it. “Yeah, that should work.”

“Good. Have you thought about what you want yet?”

“Still deciding.” I frowned. I set down the menu. “James.”

“Yeah?”

“Why would you want to keep any of them?”

He looked up from the menu and stared at me for a moment, his face blank and unreadable. And then he looked back down, and that was all. “You should try the lobster bisque,” he said. “It’s exquisite.”


Smile for the Camera, Pt. 7

Twenty minutes late. Sigh. But better than I’ve been doing, so I suppose that’s progress! Also, silly me, I just realized I gave my last story update the wrong header. It was part six, and this is part seven. It’s been corrected now. Apologies if there was any confusion about that.

I stood in front of the front door of Heidi Kudgell’s house taking deep, measured breaths, the afternoon sun warm on my shoulders. I felt like a soldier about to charge headlong onto a battlefield. In place of a uniform, I had an obscenely expensive dress that James had insisted on purchasing for me. He’d supervised the whole thing, had insisted that we use his personal shopper and accompanied me. “No, no, not that one,” he’d said. “Too refined. We’re trying to sell an image of this woman, Carli. We want her to come across as educated but untested. She knows the styles, she knows the culture, but she doesn’t get it, not the way someone who lives it would.” The woman, Carli something-or-other, snorted and frowned.

“Are you saying you deliberately want me to do a bad job?”

James took a deep breath, exhaled slowly, his eyes narrowed and locked on Carli’s own. There was a harshness in them that I’d never seen before, and I found myself again wondering if this was an act, if he even knew he was doing it. “I’m saying that I want you to pick the clothes for the character I just described. Can you do the job or can’t you?”

Carli’s eyes dropped, just for a second. She kept her expression the same, to her credit. “Of course, I can. I’m the best, aren’t I?”

“You’d better be,” James said, his voice and his expression still granite. “I pay you to be.”

The dress was beautiful, sleeveless and kneelength, red with black accents. Maybe it was a bit much for the day, but I thought someone confident with the right figure could pull it off.

I hoped that was me.

Maybe it wasn’t. Maybe that was why Carli had chosen it.

After getting the dress, James took me to a professional makeup artist, and it was much the same. A long day, up at seven, shopping by nine, lunch at 12:30, makeup at 1:30, and then James disappeared. “I’ve got to get things ready with Heidi and the others. I told them you’re coming, but they probably forgot.” He smiled to himself. “Of course, that’s kind of exactly what we want, isn’t it?”

I took one last deep breath and rang the doorbell. There was nothing for a moment, and then a female voice rang out. “Be there in a minute!”

I almost shouted, “Okay!” but I stopped myself. Instead I stood there in silence, fighting the urge to fuss with my hair, my dress, anything. What if Heidi were standing on the other side of the door, watching me through the peephole?

No, that was absurd. She probably had a security system with cameras and monitors in every room.

No, that was absurd. Who the hell would do that, spy on someone at the door?

Still, I could just imagine Heidi and the others, sitting around the living room and laughing at the dumb girl standing helpless at the door. I could imagine it very clearly.

I’d made myself nervous. But that was probably the point. I heard James’s voice in my head, “That’s kind of exactly what we want.”

The door opened, and a dark haired, dark eyed woman stood there smiling, teeth and hair and makeup perfect.

No, immaculate.

Click.

“Hello! You must be Julia! Please, come in, come in!”

We smiled, exchanged pleasantries, and she ushered me into the living room. James was already there, of course. He said it was important to the illusion we were trying to create, that he needed to look like he was doing a favor for a fan and not arriving with a date. Paula Simmons, Gene Richard, and Katy Cortano were there, too. They regarded me with a look of warm indifference, the kind of look one might give a dog or cat that had just wandered into a room.

Click.

James stood up and gestured towards me with an open hand, like a showman proudly demonstrating some exciting new act. “Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce you to the woman who saved my life. Everyone, this is Julia Smith. Julia, everyone.”

I got a good look at everyone’s face and realized that they weren’t wearing makeup, that they were about as normal and human and ordinary as they’d ever look outside of their own bedrooms. I was laughably overdressed. I was a mortal trying to hard to mingle with gods and looking like a fool for it.

I was a panop in a room of celebrities at their most vulnerable, and no one suspected a thing.

Click.

“Mind if I give her the tour, Heidi?” James asked.

Heidi smiled, waved James away dismissively. James stood up, took me by the hand, led me towards the kitchen cracking jokes all the while. The kitchen was huge, with a refrigerator twice the size of the one I had at my own home, a six burner gas cooktop, an island, a shelf lined with coookbooks.

Click.

“What do you think?” James asked.

“I think her kitchen’s bigger than my bedroom,” I murmured. He just laughed, but then he leaned in close, his cheek brushing against mine. I could feel his breath warm against my ear and my neck. “Listen to me,” he said, his voice a whisper.

“I’m listening,” I said after a moment.

“We’re going to go upstairs next. I’m going to keep going into the bedrooms, but I want you to stay in the bathroom. There’s a fake panel in the medicine cabinet. It’s a pharmacy in there. Do you understand?”

I nodded, still painfully aware of how close James was to me.

“Claire Benn is supposed to come by later. Her and Katy have a thing going on, but Katy’s way more into it than she is. Watch them.”

My jaw dropped. Claire Benn was married, was the public face of Mothers for a More Righteous America. “Good lord!” I whispered, my voice perhaps a bit louder than it should have been.

I pulled back from James and saw that his face was set like stone. “Come on, let’s go upstairs,” he said. “Heidi!” he shouted out. “Can I show Julia your bedrooms?”

“So long as that’s all you show her in there!” Everyone laughed. I blushed a little, and James smiled and rubbed my shoulder as if to tell me it was all okay. And then he stepped out of the kitchen and motioned for me to follow.


No Post – 5/17

Sorry guys, but I’m going to flake on my post for today. I’ve been feeling pretty terrible since waking up and I can’t make my brain focus enough to write at all. Come back on Monday when hopefully I will suck less!


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