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.
“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.
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.
“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.
“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.