Smile for the Camera, Pt. 5

Damnit, I can’t believe I didn’t get the post in before midnight. Grumble grumble…

Lunch. Another dinner. Drinks. A walk in the park. Questions about what I do for a living that I don’t want to answer.

And he let them slide. I don’t know why.

Pictures. Video. Audio. A portrait of the actor as a human being. Was there money in that? I didn’t really know. Probably not. James was too young, too clean. He didn’t have a reputation one way or the other. I couldn’t paint him as a grinning phony with dark secrets, or as a tortured soul with a good heart beneath his tarnished public persona.

This went on for two weeks. I told myself I was building up my files, my story. What I was learning about James wasn’t particularly new or compelling, but there was a lot of it.

That’s what I told myself.

The truth is, he was kind. He was interesting. He was different. I felt important around him. Like someone worth watching. It was easy to imagine myself as part of the same world as him, even if I wasn’t really.

And then one day a phone call woke me up. I rolled over in my bed, fumbled for my phone. “Hello?” I mumbled. A woman’s voice responded, cold and

“It’s been three weeks since we’ve received anything from you.” It took my mind a moment to process what I was hearing, who must have been calling me, and then it hit me all at once. My eyes went wide. My breath caught in my throat. The words hung in the air like a threat.

“Is everything okay?”

“Yes,” I said, my voice barely more than a choked whisper. I cleared my throat. “Yes, I’m fine. I’m sorry about the–”

“Then why haven’t we heard from you? Are your implants malfunctioning?”

I frowned. They can monitor the oculars remotely, and everyone knows it. There’s no reason to ask a question like that except to turn the screws. “No, they’re doing fine.”

“Then what’s the issue?”

“I’m working on a project. A big one.”

“Oh, you are? Well, tell us about it.”

“I’ve… befriended… James Castillo. We’ve been–”

“Hm. He’s a B-lister. At best.”

I frowned. “Yes, well. We’ve been… going out? Hanging out? We’ve–”

“Are you dating him?”

“No, but–”

“But?”

I gritted my teeth. There was nothing the company could do to me, legally, but they made it very clear that they viwed panops as investments. And investments needed to pay off.

You didn’t want to be an investment that didn’t pay off.

“But there’s something here. Something he’s hiding. And he trusts me. We’re close. I’ll figure it out, and when I do, there will be weeks of audio and video to put it all together.” None of that was true, of course. But it sounded believable. I hoped.

Silence. My mouth felt dry. I ran my tongue over my lips. “We don’t pay for hunches, you know,” the woman said at last. “The promise of a story doesn’t cover the cost of the implants.”

“I know.”

“Good. Keep in touch.”

* * *

I called James a few hours after that. He’d given me his personal number, and I tried not to call it. I didn’t want to seem like an eager fangirl or a desperate stalker. I wanted him to think this whole thing was no big deal to me.

He picked up on the third ring. “Hey! What’s going on?”

“Do you have any lunch plans? Can we talk?”

He laughed. “Uh-oh. Are you breaking up with me?”

“What?” I said, my voice rising to a higher pitch than I wanted.

James laughed again. I could imagine him in my head, sitting at a table, his chin resting on his hand, a look of amusement on his face. “I’m just kidding. Relax. Where do you want to meet up?”

“Riccardi’s work for you?” I liked Riccardi’s. It served a lot of different, interesting dishes. It was delicious without being trendy. It also wasn’t right on the main drag downtown, so it was a good place to find people who were trying to avoid being seen.

Oculars can match a face 95% of the time if the only disguise they’re wearing is sunglasses.

“Riccardi’s sounds great.” He paused. “Can you tell me what you want to talk about, or is it a secret?”

There was a strange note in James’s voice. Concern? Apprehension? Fear, maybe? I couldn’t quite place it, but hearing it gave me the confidence to ask what I had to.

“I was wondering if I could meet some of your friends.”

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