“You lucky bitch!” Kendra said, half-joking, half-serious. “Who the fuck messes up taking pictures of a celeb and winds up saving their life? And then you sweet talk your way into a dinner date? How are you so good at being a screw-up?”
I smiled and shrugged my shoulders. In the sense that my day up until the near-accident had been a waste, she was right. For panops like us, a fruitless day spent on the hunt was a personal failure. In a town like this, full of people like this, there were stories everywhere. Maybe not great stories; not every story is a great story. But small stories, one that would pay the bills even if it didn’t capture the imagination? Those were everywhere. You could trip over the damn things.
You could tackle them into the streets.
“Years of practice, I guess. Now, are you going to help me pick out a dress, or are you just going to stand there and be snarky?”
She smiled, rolled her eyes, and pulled a red dress out of her closet. That was Kendra’s angle. She was tall, blonde, and pretty. She knew a lot of the same doctors that celebs used, had had a lot of the same surgeries. She could have been one herself, probably, but before she’d had the work done, before she’d gotten the oculars, she used to be as an escort. I think the things she saw and did turned her off of the lifestyle, made her want to humble them and bring them down. Made her bitter.
“What about this one? It’ll show off your boobs.”
She was older than me, maybe ten years, but she was still pretty. Her age shone through in her smile, though. She wore it like a mask, and sometimes it barely covered her naked, raw cynicism about it all.
I blushed. “I’m not a starlet, Kendra. I don’t think I should be trying to compete on the same field.”
She rolled her eyes. “Fine, then. This blue one. Carrie Carlton wore one just like it at the FTTA’s last month.”
I sniffed and crossed my arms. “Are you kidding me? I’ll look like I’m trying to copy her.”
Kendra let on a long, exaggerated sigh. “The black one, then. Timeless. Classic. Sexy. Every girl should have a little black dress.” She sniffed and looked me right in the eyes. “Every. Girl.”
“I do!” I said, a little more defensively than I meant to. I held up the dress in front of me, imagined how it would look on me, at the candlelit tables of Magnolia, through the lens of some other panop recording me and James. A small smile crept across my lips. “But I don’t have one as nice as this.”
Kendra laughed softly“Honest to God, how is this not already news? How did someone else not break this? Were there no other panops there to capture you bodyslamming the silly bastard?”
I smiled and shrugged. “Guess not.” A thought occurred to me, and the smile disappeared from my face. “You’re not going to, are you?”
Kendra shook her head. “No, of course not. Professional courtesy.”
I smirked. “Didn’t you once tell me panops were nothing but a bunch of starving, vicious wolves?”
Kendra smirked back. “Yes. And I fully expect you’ll destroy whatever dress I give you if I do break the story, so there you go.”
I smiled. I couldn’t help myself. I liked Kendra.
* * *
I went with the black dress.
* * *
Magnolia is one of the better restaurants in the city, but not good enough to be the best. It probably doesn’t attract a lot of the really high class clientele for that reason, catering instead to professionals, doctors and lawyers and the like.
Not the ones in the industry, obviously. The ones that do more practical things.
I arrived ten minutes before we’d agreed to meet, but James was already there, smiling and wearing a black pants and a dark blue collared shirt.
“That dress looks good on you,” he said. “Very classy. You look beautiful.”
I studied James, really looked at him for the first time. Oh, certainly I’d seen pictures and videos, but he was different in real life. Dark eyes, dark hair. Tan skin and bright white teeth that shone against it. I let the oculars activate. 100% MATCH: JAMES CASTILLO flashed in front of my eyes almost instantly.
I smiled. “I bet you say that to all the girls.”
He chuckled. “I do, actually. But I don’t always mean it.”
I arched an eyebrow at his honesty. “Do you mean it this time?”
James tilted his head to the side and smiled. He pushed open the door to the restaurant. “I don’t know. Let’s find out.”
* * *
James was charming. He made me laugh despite me trying to steel myself, to come in as a professional first and a woman second. I only took a few pictures of him from head-on. I took more from the side when I would excuse myself and stand up; it’d be harder to figure out who took them that way. I took video just for the sound. I had enough material for a fluff piece, I figured. And I’d gotten a very nice dinner for free in the process.
He insisted on walking me to my car afterwards. We were standing by it, and I was thinking about what to say, how I could convince him to meet with me again, when he said, “This is nice. We should do it again.”
I said nothing, my face betraying my shock. I blinked stupidly. He laughed, and I could feel my face turn red. He was probably used to that reaction, used to girls blushing and giggling and acting ridiculous in front of him. Like they couldn’t believe that he actually wanted to see them again.
And to be fair, I couldn’t.
I also couldn’t believe how easy he was making my job.
I smiled at him. “I’d like that.”