The Wild Cards universe has been thrilling readers for over 25 years. Walter Jon Williams’ “Prompt. Professional. Pop!” shows that to make it in Hollywood, it’s not enough to be beautiful and talented; you’ve also got to take advantage of every opportunity that pops up.
This novelette was acquired and edited for Tor.com by George R. R. Martin.
At one in the morning I’m still driving around Culver City in a stolen car, with a satchel of hundred-dollar bills on the seat next to me and one of Hollywood’s most powerful producer-directors locked naked in his own trunk.
Time is ticking by, and I’m completely at a loss what to do next. There’s only one thing I’m sure of.
It’s Jack’s fault. It’s Golden Boy who’s responsible for all this.
He’s the one who’s wrecked my life. He’s the one who invited me to Toluca Lake, only a few weeks ago, and began the cascade of events that led to this moment, this stolen car, this satchel of money, this kidnapping.
All his fault.
The Toluca Lake home is mission style, with white stucco and red roof tiles and carob trees. It looks no more than 2500 square feet, hardly the sort of place I’d expect for someone with his kind of money—but then he lives alone, poor man.
So far as I know, he’s been alone for a long time. Maybe he needs companionship. I’m thinking that maybe that’s why he’s called me.
For the meeting I’m wearing a halter dress by J. Mendel and open-toed sandals by Louboutin. It’s a beautiful soft Southern California evening, and there’s no reason to hide my assets. I’ve had my hair and nails done and I’m wearing tasteful jewelry as glossy and gold as my mane.
I park the SLK Roadster on the curb and trot up to the house; Jack opens the door before I can ring the bell. He’s wearing a cream-colored open-necked shirt, and soft open-front khakis, and it’s all somehow Old Hollywood, which of course Jack is, because he’s immortal.
I have to say that immortality suits him. He’ll be young forever, tall and fit and blond and handsome. He looks just as he did that first season of American Hero, and he’ll look that way long after American Hero is forgotten.
And he’s supposed to be very rich. Which doesn’t hurt the eyes, either, if you know what I mean.
We say hello and kiss each other on the cheeks. He asks if I’d like coffee or a drink, and I say a drink would be nice, but I don’t want to drink alone.
“I have a nice bottle of zinfandel from my winery,” he says, and leads me into the house. My shoes clack on the deep red floor tiles, the color of old blood.
“Jack honey, you have a winery?”
“I have several, but they’re more like a hobby. On good years I break even.”
I look around at the furniture, which is heavy Spanish mission style. It’s all old and dark but in good condition. There is abstract art on the walls, but nothing from his days as a movie star, though I see some photos of Jack with people I assume were famous back in the day. I recognize one peppery older man with round glasses, I think maybe one of the presidents from way back when.
We go to a back room with a bar and a view through French windows of the lake, a sagging old pier, and a canoe. Jack pulls out a chair—it’s bull hide slung on an iron frame—and seats me at a table covered with lovely Mexican tiles. The room has an aeronautical theme: there’s a big wooden propeller over the bar, and there are photos of aircraft, and of Jack standing by old-timey planes, and a bronze bust of a pilot from back in the days when they wore leather helmets. Strangely enough the pilot is black. I didn’t know they had black pilots in those days.
Jack goes to the bar, gets a bottle of wine, puts in the corkscrew, and pulls the cork as easily as you might flick a postage stamp with a thumbnail. Because he’s one of the strongest aces in the world, maybe even the strongest of all time.
It’s really sort of thrilling to see him use his power so naturally, even in such a casual setting.
“When you called, sweetie,” I say, “you mentioned a possible project.”
I haven’t actually seen Jack Braun in person since the end of the first season of American Hero, and I didn’t get to know him well because he was only a guest star. I’ve been busy managing my career since, of course, and he’s been doing whatever it is he does when he’s not judging a reality show.
Making wine, apparently.
I hardly ever see him mentioned in the entertainment news. It’s almost as if he dodges publicity.
“The project?” Jack says. “Yes. But first, let’s just catch up, shall we?”
He brings the bottle and a couple of glasses to the table, and sits. His old-school manners are really quite fetching.
He lets the wine breathe a bit while I talk about my career. Things aren’t going as well as I’d hoped, but I’m working steadily. My last three movies were direct-to-video, not that this was my fault—terrible scripts, terrible productions. I fired the agent who brought me the projects.
The movies may have flopped, but I continue to appear as myself in sitcoms, as if I’m given to wandering into the kitchens of ordinary families to help them solve their problems. I’m a guest judge on various reality programs. I give beauty tips on afternoon television.
Sometimes I’m hired as a kind of special effect. My wild card can make things appear and disappear, and I’m cheaper than CGI or spending a whole afternoon gaffing some kind of stunt. You want a car to fall out of the sky or an elephant to vanish in front of an audience, I’m the one you call.
I always try to stay positive, but I’m afraid I show my annoyance when I talk about Cleo, my perfume. “Perfume yourself in the mystery of the Nile,” said the ads, but what people know about the Nile now is the battles and massacres that took place when the Committee went there. Dab yourself behind the ears with the burnt remains of joker babies?
No, Cleo didn’t sell. I blame the advertising.
Not that I express this in so frank a manner to Jack. I live by the Three P’s. In front of other people, I prefer to be Prompt, Perky, and Professional.
I emphasize the projects I hope to add soon to my resume. I happen to know my photo is on a lot of desks right now.
I sip the zinfandel, which has a floral taste, very pleasant in the nose.
“So Jack,” I ask finally, “what’s your project? Are you developing it yourself, sweetie?” I put a hand on his arm. “That must be exciting.”
He smiled and scrubs his blond hair with his free hand. “Well,” he says, “I was sort of hoping some more people would—”
Suddenly there’s a bang on the front door, and then the sound of the door opening and someone coming down the hall.
“Mr. Braun?” says a woman’s voice. “Are you—? Oh.”
And Rachel steps into the room.
I haven’t seen Dragon Girl since that first season of American Hero, where we didn’t get along. I really didn’t think she should have been there at all—she was far too young for the sorts of action and danger to which we were exposed. Maybe I was a little too outspoken, but honestly, all I wanted was to protect her.
She’s all grown up now, of course—nineteen, maybe? But she’s no prettier now than she was then, poor thing, with her frizzy hair and eyeglasses in a style that was hip maybe five years ago. The American Hero producers, the same ones who dressed me up as Cleopatra, put her in a red leather flying suit that looked just horrible on her. Now she’s wearing a tee-shirt and worn jeans, which don’t look horrible but aren’t attractive either, and of course the backpack with all the stuffed animals.
I understand she’s going to college now, but like me she moonlights as a special effects ace. Not only can she make her stuffed animals come alive, they become giant-sized. Having a real dragon in your picture, one that not only flies but follows direction, is immensely better, and far cheaper, than using CGI.
Cheap enough that there’s a glut of giant monster films right now. Dragons, ants, centipedes, burrowing badgers, swimming turtles, carnivorous dolphins, whatever. I don’t know why anyone would watch them, or if in fact they do.
Of course Rachel doesn’t go in front of the camera. She’s no actress, and she isn’t pretty enough to be a star. But for some reason people in the industry seem to like her. Maybe she’s less opinionated than when she was a kid.
“Rachel!” I say. “Hello, darling!” I rise from my chair, hug her, and air-kiss her cheeks. In the meantime I’m wondering if Jack has in mind some special-effects extravaganza that will require both our talents. If I don’t get an acting job out of this, I’m going to be really annoyed.
Jack rises as well and offers Rachel a glass of wine. “I’d rather have fruit juice, if you have any,” Rachel says, and Jack goes to the fridge for some kind of cranberry-mango thing.
Jack and Rachel chat for a bit, catching up—like me, he hasn’t seen her since American Hero marched off to Egypt. I get a little impatient, because they could do this on their own time. I wait for a break in the conversation before speaking up.
“So Jack, what’s this project you have in mind?”
Jack and Rachel look at each other. “Do you think anyone else is coming?” he asks.
“I doubt it,” Rachel says.
“Well.” He glances at me, then looks down at his hands. “This is a little awkward, because we’d hoped to have some more of the American Heroes cast here.”
I’m confused. “Is this some kind of reunion?”
“No. You see, we don’t know your friends, so we don’t know who else should be here.”
“Be here for what?”
“It’s an intervention!” Rachel blurts, in her usual awkward fashion.
I look at her in deep surprise. Then I look at my wine glass. “You think I’m an alcoholic?” I say. “Or a drug addict?”
“Cleonie,” Jack says, “it’s about the stealing.”
My mouth drops open and I just gape at him. My heart is beating so loudly that I can barely hear myself when I finally manage to speak.
“Stealing?” I ask. “What in the world are you—”
“Things keep disappearing,” Rachel blurts again. She blurts so much that she always sounds as if she’s accusing me of something, even when she isn’t accusing me of something.
I start to get angry. I clench the stem of my wineglass. “I’m a public figure,” I say. “I can’t use my ace power to steal! Everyone would notice!”
“Umm,” Rachel begins.
“Even if I disguised myself,” I say, “people would see it was me. What am I going to do—put on a dark wig? Then I’d just look like Cleopatra from American Hero!”
“Jack,” says Rachel, “maybe you’d just better show the video.”
Jack obediently takes an electronic tablet from a table overflowing with magazines and presses the touch screen a few times and then there’s a video, a poor-quality feed, with garish color, clearly taken from a surveillance camera.
My blood runs cold. There’s a parking lot with a truck in it, then suddenly there’s a woman in a jumpsuit who just appears in the frame. She touches the truck on the front fender, the truck completely disappears, and then the woman disappears, too.
“See, it’s always trucks with a cargo of high-fashion designs,” Rachel says. “Brunello Cucinelli, Stella McCartney, Michael Kors. Sometimes just accessories that are easy to fence.”
“I’m not the only ace who can teleport,” I point out. “There’s Popinjay in New York. Not that I’m accusing him,” I add quickly, when Jack gives me a look. “I’m just pointing out that there’s more than one of us. There could be a teleporter we don’t know about.”
“And whoever’s doing this is wearing a mask and a hood,” Jack points out. “We never see the face.”
“Right!” I say.
“But then,” Rachel adds, “there’s the Alexander McQueen jumpsuit. And the Valentino boots with the strap over the instep. They both just say Cleo to me.”
“Those are the same boots you wore on American Hero,” Jack points out.
Oh, I could just spit. But I remember the Three P’s and I refrain.
“The police brought this video to me,” Jack said. “They asked me if I recognized the perpetrator. They mentioned you by name.”
I freeze. I’m so wrought up that I’m beyond speech.
“I said I couldn’t swear to your identity,” Jack says. “And I can’t, not without seeing your face. But honestly, Cleo, it’s you. It’s so clearly you.”
“I—” I begin. “I can’t believe—”
Rachel looks at me. “You’ve got to stop,” she says. “They’re onto you. They’re only waiting for you to make a mistake. Then your career will be over, and you’ll hurt all the wild cards, and . . .”
It’s the pitying look on her face that sets me off. As if I should be pitied by some stupid girl who flies around the sky on stuffed animals.
“This is outrageous!” I say. “I can’t believe you’re making these accusations!” I push my seat back. “I’m not going to stay here and listen to this!”
Jack puts a hand on my arm. He doesn’t clamp down or anything, but suddenly I’m very aware that this is the strongest man in the world, and that he’s barely touching me but I can’t stand up.
And because I can’t stand up, I just huff and glare at him. And you know, I don’t even think of teleporting away. Even though I could.
“Cleonie,” he says. He’s looking not at me but through me somehow, as if he’s focusing on something a hundred miles away. “I know you’re ambitious,” he says. “I know that you think there are certain things you need, and certain things you deserve. I know you think you need it all right now. But let me tell you that what you want—” He hesitates. “It’s not whether it’s worth having or not, it’s that it doesn’t exist. Not really.” He cocks his head and actually looks at me now, his eyes focusing on my face and not on whatever he was looking at before. “I’ve been a hero,” he says. “The greatest hero in the world. And I’ve been a villain—pretty much the worst ever, according to some people. And now—” He offers a sort of grin. “Now I’m just a clown on reality TV. But that’s okay.” He shrugs. “I have a long perspective. And what I’ve learned is that it isn’t worth it to compromise yourself this way. Not in the long run. That sort of thing never ends.”
Honest to God, I have no idea what this man is talking about.
Suddenly a ring tone booms out— it’s a riff of Drummer Boy’s, I recognize it, and when Rachel digs in a pocket for her phone I remember the cute little crush she had on Drummer Boy during American Hero—when I was sleeping with him—and I realize that maybe she’s still into him, which is just so, so pathetic . . .
She answers. “Yes. Yes. Okay, text me the coordinates.” She stands up and tosses her rucksack over her shoulder. “There’s a distress call from a yacht foundering down by Cape Esposito. They’ve asked me to check it out.”
Oh, did I mention that little Rachel does rescues? Pulls people out of burning buildings, off mountains hit by blizzards, from oil tankers breaking up off Big Sur . . . ? And they all get a free ride to safety on a stuffed animal. The Highway Patrol and the Coast Guard and the Forest Service probably all have her on speed dial.
I could do rescues. I could pop people right out of danger, easy as anything. But nobody ever calls me.
Rachel dashes out of the house and all the lights in the room go dim as energy is sucked into turning a stuffed animal into a giant flying lizard. After which there’s a roar, and a great ponderous flapping of wings as Puffy labors into the sky with Rachel as his passenger.
I look at Jack, then down at the hand that’s still resting on my arm. I have to admit that this hadn’t exactly been the skin-on-skin contact I might have wanted. “So much for your intervention,” I say.
He takes his hand off my arm. “It could have gone better,” he says.
I try to reassemble my tattered dignity. “I think I’ll be leaving now.”
He shrugs. “I won’t stop you.”
I stand and begin to clack my way across the blood-colored tiles. Jack rises to walk me out, but I ignore him.
“One more thing,” he says. I give him a look over my shoulder.
“That thing you do,” Jack says. “Where you leave your picture and portfolio on the desks of producers who might be casting, I don’t know, Meryl Streep or someone . . . ?”
My rage boils over. I spin to confront him.
“I would never compete with Meryl Streep for a part!” I tell him. “She’s far too old!”
He seems a little taken aback. “I stand corrected,” he says. As I turn to stalk to the front door, he adds, “Just wanted to let you know that you’re being talked about, and not in a way you’d like.”
Which puts the topper on my day, as you can imagine.
Anger propels me out the door and to my SLK roadster. There are people standing on the street looking at the dragon still flapping its way into the sky, and I make them jump aside as I burn rubber out of Toluca Lake as fast as I can.
Damned stupid town. Stupid lake. Stupid dragon.
I don’t calm down till I get out of the Valley and into Hollywood, where I feel more at home. By then the anger has turned to depression.
They’ve caught onto my little trick of teleporting into people’s offices along with my portfolio. I’d thought that was pretty clever.
But worse, I think as I drive, I’m going to have to call up Tomás, and tell him that our plan to hijack a truck full of Versace just isn’t going to happen.
I blame an inability to resist Latin men. That smooth skin, the soulful brown eyes, the attention to grooming . . . And of course, when they take you to clubs and you feel the way their hips move against you when doing the merengue or bachata or whatever, you know that they’re going to be able to please you later.
Tomás is a masseur at a spa, and I met him when I stopped by for a tune-up. I knew as soon as I saw him that our souls were intertwined. We got to talking as he worked and I relaxed maybe a little too much and started to complain about the high cost of being Cleo. My fans expect me to be perfectly turned out on all occasions, and to have the latest fashions and accessories, and how with my movies having flopped I was beginning to feel a financial pinch. And he said, “But can’t you just teleport what you want?” And I told him what I told Jack, that if things just vanished from the stores, everyone would know it was me. And Tomás said, well, maybe not from the stores . . .
So that’s where my adventure with hijacking began, only to end in the miserable botched intervention in Toluca Lake. I didn’t keep anything from the trucks we disappeared, because it might be traced from the robbery. Instead the contents of the trucks were sold, and I bought new clothes and kept the receipts. Because, in my business, that’s all deductible.
I didn’t make as much money out of crime as you might expect, since there was Tomás’ share as well as the fence, but I was able to keep the lifestyle my followers expect.
And now it had to end. I was going to have to go into my condo and get rid of that jumpsuit, and those Valentino boots that I’ve had forever and that I really love. And it’s all Jack’s fault. And the stupid police. And stupid Rachel.
When I call Tomás he tries to talk me out of it, but I’m firm. He begs to see me, but I tell him I’m busy. I get in the convertible and drive to Rodeo Drive and go shopping, because that’s what I do to make myself feel better.
Which is how things stand for the next two weeks. I keep busy with my projects, and I shop a lot, and I don’t see Tomás, because I’m afraid I won’t be able to resist him when he pleads for another hijacking or two. I have a fling with a competitive bodybuilder from Bolivia in hopes of forgetting Tomás, and it works, at least a little.
And that’s where things stand when I get a call from Chas. Thatcher, one of the hottest producer-directors in the business. He calls me at home, not going through my agent at all, and tells me he’d like to have lunch the next day and talk about a project. Which has me practically jumping with delight right out of my Blahnik suede pumps, because top directors don’t call you personally if they just want you for some kind of special effect, like dropping a piano on somebody.
We meet on the terrace at Mama Marais, and we get to look down on all the people jammed bumper-to-bumper on Sunset Boulevard. On a hill right behind the restaurant is a huge billboard for Chas.’s new movie, The Underground.
I’m in a sleeveless black mini dress by Balenciaga, gold Neuwirth drop earrings, and Louboutin spikes that make satisfying clicking sounds as I cross the tiles. I can tell that Chas. is deeply impressed by my appearance. He sort of half-rises from his seat, then drops back into it as the waiter draws my chair back. He bobs up again as I kiss him on both cheeks and we both settle down with our menus in front of us.
“I know you’re from the South,” he says, “so I thought I’d see if I could find some Southern food.”
I tell him he’s very thoughtful; I don’t mention that Southern and Cajun aren’t the same thing. He’s from Manitoba or someplace where all they have to eat is moose meat and cheese curds, you have to make allowances.
Chas.—he insists on the period, it’s the way he stands out from the other Chatsworths or Chastitys or whatever Chas. is supposed to be short for—is a fortyish guy in a worn black tee and bib overalls pulled up over a vast stomach. He hasn’t shaved over the last four or five days, and his black-rimmed glasses are tilted on his face. It’s all I can do to restrain myself from reaching across the glass-topped table and adjusting his specs.
I have sweet tea and a shrimp salad, and he orders gumbo and barbecued alligator tail.
“You ever have gator?” he asks.
“Not a lot of those in Montgomery, darling,” I say. “Not even in the suburbs.”
I’m beginning to suspect that all he knows about the South is reality shows about people who live in swamps and pursue reptiles.
“Sweetie, I’m excited about The Underground,” I tell him. “It’s such a different approach.”
In fact it’s not that original an idea, it’s just the anti-mACE. mACE was about a group of aces who band together to fight evil, specifically an alien invasion. It’s based on the Committee, clearly enough, and the movie was a huge hit and has now spawned mACE II.
Chas.’s picture The Underground is about a bunch of aces hidden from public view who band together to fight an invasion, I think from a different dimension or something.
It’s all ridiculous, anyway. Aces haven’t fought aliens since before I was born.
So I tell Chas. how brilliant he is, and he agrees with me. Which makes it a typical show business conversation so far.
“Do you know what you’ll be doing as a follow-up?” I ask. Because I’m hoping he called me here to offer me a part.
“Balzac’s Pere Goriot,” he says. “Except set in an American high school.”
Normally I’d say, “Is there a part for me?”, but Pere Goriot, whatever that is, has me a little startled and throws me off my game, leaving me with no response at all. I decide to change the topic. “Honey, you must be really looking forward to the opening,” I say.
“I was,” he says. “But have you heard what that rat-bastard Dag Ringqvist has done?”
Dag Ringqvist is the creator of the mACE movies. A stunning, beautiful man, blonde and tall, with a charming accent from whatever Scandinavian country he hails from.
“No,” I say.
“Announced just yesterday. He’s opening mACE II the same weekend as The Underground.”
“Oh my gosh!” I say.
“Two big ace movies going head-to-head, and his movie’s the sequel to the biggest ace movie ever.” He rubs his unshaven cheek with one plump hand. “He says it’s just a business decision to take advantage of the Fourth of July weekend, but it’s clear that he’s declaring war on me. And he’s got all the big guns.”
“You poor man!” I tell him. “Can you move your opening?”
He gestures at the huge billboard behind him. “We’ve been advertising our opening date for sixteen months.”
“It’s all so terrible,” I say. “I wish there was something I could do to help.”
I say this because I’m beginning to wonder what I’m doing here. I have a feeling it’s not to be offered a part in Pere Goriot. (I am wonderfully youthful, with glowing, flawless elastic skin for which I give equal credit to my DNA and my dermatologist, but I’m over thirty, just barely, and I don’t think I can play a teenager anymore.)
An expression of cunning forms behind Chas.’s tilted spectacles. “Well,” he says. “Maybe you can be of service.”
A little warning shimmer goes up my spine, a warning that is only confirmed when Chas. grins and nods. “Your ace,” he says, “may come in useful.”
I sit back in my chair and frown at him. “What do you mean?” I ask.
Chas. summons a bit of indignation. “Remember,” he says, “that Ringqvist declared war on me.”
“He tried to wreck my opening weekend.” He raises a hand and flips it slowly from one side to the other. “So I wreck his instead.”
I blink. “And I can help you . . . how?”
He flashes a snarling Mad Scientist grin and leans forward, his fingers twining. “mACE II is going through post-production up at Kenyon,” he says. “What if a copy of the movie just . . . disappeared . . . and showed up for free download on every pirate site in the world?”
I think about this for a moment. It strikes me as a brilliant and totally evil idea.
“And of course,” Chas. goes on, “because the movie hasn’t finished post-production, it will suck. Rough edit, music not properly synched, lines inaudible, sound effects absent because they haven’t been Foleyed yet, guns firing blanks and sounding like cap pistols instead of real weapons.” He flashes his toothy grin. “They’ll hate it. The buzz will be dismal. And come the opening weekend, The Underground will just kill it.”
Well, you know I can see that this could certainly work. Though I am lacking incentive for the part that Chas. intends for me.
I cross my arms. “Mister Thatcher,” I say, “are you asking me to break the law?”
“I’ll pay,” he says. “A quarter-million dollars. In cash, and you can teleport it straight to whatever tax haven you want.”
He’s rather overestimating my powers here, but he has made his point.
I am never adverse to a rich man who is willing to share.
Two nights later I find myself at Kenyon Studios, which is in Valley Village just off the 101. It’s a small independent studio that hasn’t made its own features in decades, but rents its facilities and offices to other companies.
There are guards at the gate, of course, but I don’t have to use the gate. There’s another guard patrolling the grounds on an electric cart, but I can hear him coming. And there are cameras over the doors, but I don’t have to go through the doors.
It’s a measure of Chas.’s smarts that he thought of me.
The post-production facilities are in the Jobyna Ralston Building, which is on the northeast corner of the lot. I need to get to the third floor—no problem—and there I have to plant “keystroke readers,” which will record the passwords on the editing machine.
Once the passwords have been recorded, I will return the following night to do the actual job.
Chas. has given me ten thousand in advance, and I’ve used it to buy an all-cotton Yohji Yamamoto jumpsuit that looks like something worn by an exceptionally stylish member of a World War II bomber crew. I’m wearing boots by Fiorentini + Baker that have the same vintage look as the jumpsuit, and I’m wrapping a Botto Giuseppe scarf around my head and face so I won’t be recognized if I’m caught on any cameras. And of course I’m wearing gloves so I won’t leave fingerprints. They’re pastel blue surgical gloves, and they don’t go with anything.
Still, blue gloves and all, it’s a really good look for a criminal. It’s a pity that no one will know it’s me.
I’m excited, like I always am when I do crime. I’m never scared, at least not in a bad way. I just picture myself on the screen, thirty feet tall and beautiful, and I know that I’m a star and that nothing nasty can touch me, because the star always gets a happy ending.
I pop in at one o’clock in the morning, first to the very top of the twelve-foot brick wall that surrounds the property, and from there right through the windows of the Ralston Building to the third floor. I end up in a room lit only by light from the hall outside and the eerie glow of a dozen flatscreens, all scrolling through the same screensaver sequence of a horde of ugly trolls, or whatever, fighting an army of pointy-eared elves. It’s a demonstration of special-effects wizardry, particularly with regards to blood spray.
I think it’s stupid, typical geek crap. I think they should advertise something beautiful.
I’m the only person in the building at this hour. All the computers are running even though no one is logged in, so all I have to do is plug in the thumb drive and click the file that will load the keystroke monitor. There’s enough light from the flatscreens to do my work, and I install the software and pop myself right out of there.
Afterward I feel a letdown, because it all went so fast and easy. I’m still overstimulated. So I get in the SLK and put the top down and take Sunset all the way to the Pacific, where I park by the beach and listen to the surf crashing in and look at the lights on the pier, and I think about how wonderful it will be when everyone realizes how talented I am and all my dreams come true.
Next night I’m back in Valley Village, but this time I’m not alone. Chas. doesn’t trust me to do the file transfer without somehow getting it wrong, so I have to bring a tech along with me, one familiar with the equipment.
He’s a little guy, mid-twenties, somebody’s assistant. Chas. calls him “Greektown,” but his actual name is Aristotle Dimitropoulos. He wears a hoodie and huge shades to hide his face. I tell him not to worry. Nobody’s going to see him.
We walk along the outside of the fence, and we hear the guard approaching in his electric cart. I can tell that Aristotle is nervous. We wait on the far side of the wall for the cart to go by, then I pop to the top of the wall to make sure no one’s around.
Nobody is. I pop back down to the sidewalk, touch Aristotle on the shoulder, and pop him to the top of the wall.
He’s clearly not used to teleporting, so even though he’s lying atop the wall perfectly safe he begins to flail, and I quickly pop up next to him, gain a line of sight on the target, touch Aristotle on the leg, and send him into the Jobyna Ralston building. Then I follow, and find Aristotle flopping on the floor like a spastic cockroach. He’s clipped a table on his way to his landing, and seems out of his mind with terror.
“Breathe, honey,” I tell him. “You’re all right.”
“Hurts!” he says.
“Just breathe, sweetie. You’ll be fine.”
He stops flopping and breathes for a while, then slowly gets up, clutching his side and moaning, and makes his way to a terminal. I don’t find Aristotle’s dramatics entertaining, so I look around the office for something interesting, only to find the endless battle between the elves and trolls as it was before.
Aristotle checks the keystroke monitor, finds a password, and get into the system on the first try. He’s brought some portable hard drives with him, and he starts downloading stuff. This takes quite a while, because he downloads everything—not just the rough cut, but all the outtakes, and the alts, and the sound files.
I find a comfortable chair and daydream about what my life will be like when I’m a star, and the houses I’m going to live in, and the clothes I’m going to wear, and all the beautiful men who are going to be in love with me. Then Aristotle signals that it’s time to go.
He’s still clutching his side, the little drama queen.
“Can’t we just go out the door?” he asks.
“The doors have cameras,” I point out.
“All they’ll see is the back of my hood.”
I’m out of patience, so I just look out the window to gain line-of-sight on the top of the wall, touch Aristotle’s arm, and pop him out. I’m right on his heels, and before he can yell or flail from his new position atop the wall, I pop him to the sidewalk below. He makes another bad landing and I get to watch some more squashed-cockroach action before he picks himself up.
“Let’s get to the car,” I say.
“I hate that.”
“The car, sweetie.”
We walk to my car, which I’ve left a couple streets away, and Aristotle surprises me by telling me to drive him to the Chateau Élysée, which is this enormous castle that dwarfs the one at Disneyland, with turrets and many pitched roofs and colorful awnings on every window, that sits on Franklin just above Hollywood Boulevard and dates from the olden days of the picture business.
“Do you live there?” I say in surprise. Because part of it is offices and so on, but it’s also a very expensive apartment building.
“No. That’s where I’ll be working on mACE II. There’s a post-production facility at the Chateau.”
“I thought you were just going to upload the rough cut to pirate sites.”
“No. I’m going to mess with it first.” He gives a diabolical little grin. “I’m going to make sure it’s a real turd before I send it out. Re-edit it to use the least effective shots and the worst acting. Add a lot of boring stuff. Make sure the action scenes fall flat, and if any of it’s been color-corrected, I’m going to undo that. And I’ll also fuck with the sound to produce the muddiest dialog and the most boring soundtrack in the history of modern cinema.”
I’m impressed by the scope of Chas.’s revenge. He might actually succeed in killing the summer’s biggest movie.
I drop Aristotle off at the Chateau, then head for home. I’m not happy about destroying someone’s film, which after all represents so many hopes and dreams; but then I think about the money and what I can buy with it, and I feel fine.
I don’t get to see Chas. until the next evening, because he doesn’t want to give me a sack of money where people will see me. I’m his last appointment, and his secretaries and assistants have gone home by the time I arrive.
He has a corner office on the fourth floor of the Marie Dressler Building at the Sony Pictures lot, which used to be MGM back in olden times. It has a view of Culver City, which is no doubt why the windows are shaded and the office filled with NBA memorabilia. Jerseys in frames, signed basketballs under glass, posters, autographed photos of players. Framed tickets to significant games. Even a pair of wilted-looking signed Nikes under a glass dome.
I’m glad for the dome, because I’d prefer not to have to smell someone’s used basketball shoes.
Chas. is in a great mood. He’s got a big smile on his unshaven face, and he’s wearing a Lakers cap over his unkempt hair.
I’m in an Alexander Wang V-neck dress and Balenciaga wedges. Not too formal, not too evening, but dressy, in case Chas. decides to take me to dinner. It’s an outfit that’s completely Professional, and I enhance it by being Prompt and Perky.
“Beautiful, baby!” he says. “You’ve saved my opening weekend!”
“Oh honey, I’m so happy I was able to help.”
“Care for a drink?” He walks to a bar installed along one wall.
“I’ll have a chardonnay.”
He pours himself a whiskey and gets out a bottle of wine, then struggles for a while with a corkscrew as he tries to pull the cork. I can’t help but compare the superb ease with which Jack Braun pulled the wine cork on that otherwise regrettable visit.
Other comparisons float through my mind as I look at the photo above the bar—last year’s Lakers, grinning over their signatures. I remember being with one of the players in his bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel, where I completely realized that our souls were entwined. I popped all over the room, pretending to run away before finally letting him catch me. I also recall being with two other players in a hot tub in Vegas, which led to one of the five most memorable nights in my life.
There’s something especially exciting about being with really large men, particularly if they’re athletic and in perfect physical condition.
If there’s more than one of them, of course, that just adds to all the possibilities.
And Chas. is such a fan. I wonder if he’d envy me if he knew about how his beloved players have played with me.
“Your drink?” I realize I’ve been daydreaming, and I take the wine he’s finally managed to pour. There are bits of cork floating on the surface, and I pick them out with a fingernail. “Are you a fan?” he asks.
“Oh yes.” Not of basketball, particularly, but the players, certainly. Which I don’t tell Chas.
“Have a seat?”
We make ourselves comfortable on the sofa. Chas. talks about the Lakers and I pretend to be interested. He’s still in a very bouncy, excited mood, and I congratulate myself on my good deed in boosting his opening weekend’s gross.
He finishes his whiskey. “Well,” he says, “I’ve got a meeting down in Marina del Rey, so I should push on.”
I’m a little disappointed that we won’t be having dinner, but I remember that I’m about to get a quarter-million dollars, and that I can buy a lot of dinners with that—dinners with men who will pay more attention to me than to a basketball team.
“We should have lunch again sometime,” I say, and he agrees.
We stand, and he goes to his desk, opens a drawer, removes a small satchel with a zip, and hands it to me.
“Here’s what I owe you,” he says.
I’m instantly suspicious. My flirtation with criminality has given me experience in dealing with bundles of cash, and this one isn’t nearly big or heavy enough. A quarter-million in hundreds should weigh twenty-five or thirty pounds, and take up as much space and weight as a phone directory might, from back in the day when there were phone directories.
“This seems a little light,” I say, hefting the bag.
“No,” he says quickly, “it’s what I owe you. Minus the ten thousand I already gave you.”
I unzip the bag. There are nice little bundles of hundreds wrapped in pink tape, but there are only fifteen of them.
“There’s only fifteen here,” I say.
He blinks at me. “That’s what I owe you. Fifteen, for a total of twenty-five thousand.”
He’s a really terrible liar. Insincerity shines off him like the sweat that’s just appeared on his upper lip.
I can feel rage boil up just below my surface, but I try to stay cool and Professional. I’m afraid that by this point I’ve pretty much lost all my Perky.
“You said a quarter-mil, sweetie,” I tell him.
“No,” he says, “I said—” And then he gives up on the lying, because he sees there’s no point. It’s just the two of us, it’s not like he’s trying to convince a jury.
“Look,” he says. “Twenty-five grand is a pretty good payday for a couple hours’ work.”
“And you’ll make millions,” I point out. “All for what I did for you. And you won’t share?”
“Twenty-five is fair,” Chas. says. A sneer twitches the corner of his mouth. “And you can hardly go to the cops about this, can you? Plus I’ve got a meeting, so I really need to— ”
He tries to brush past me, so I don’t even have to reach out and touch him to pop him up into the air.
It’s only three feet or so, but he lands badly and crumples on his carpet with a crash that seems to shake the whole Marie Dressler Building. He looks at me with wide eyes.
“Cops?” I tell him. “Why would I go to the cops about this, sugar, when I have my lovely wild card power?”
He heaves himself to his feet, then makes a run for the door. I pop the sofa in his path and he piles into it, knocking the couch over as he goes sprawling once again. I walk over to the desk, touch it, and pop it so that it blocks the door.
“Sweetie,” I say, “I think we need to talk about what you owe me, and how you’re going to pay it right now.”
He thrashes around in the wreckage of his sofa. “You’re crazy!” he shouts. “You’re out of your mind!”
“You’re crazy if you think I’m going to sit still for this!” I tell him. I walk to one of the basketballs and pop the glass case into the air. It falls eight feet and crashes to the ground with an enormous noise. Chas.’s whole body jerks at the sound, and he puts his hands over his ears.
“You might want to listen to this next part, sugar,” I say. I pick up the basketball and see the signatures written across its bright orange surface. NBA Champions, 2001.
I hold out the basketball so Chas. can see it. “How much am I bid for this?” I ask. “Maybe . . . a quarter-million?” Chas. just gobbles at me. “No bids?” I say. “Okay, sugar . . . however you want it.”
I look far, far out through the window, up into the darkening sky, and pop the basketball into the wild blue yonder. My range is awesome when there’s nothing in view but air.
Chas. gives a little shriek.
“Sugar, I bet that made it all the way to Long Beach,” I say. “You don’t know how much pleasure it’s going to give to whatever kid picks it up.”
I walked over to the plinth and pop away the dome covering the sneakers. I pop it right over the bar, and it falls in an enormous crash, taking wine glasses, decanters, and expensive whiskeys with it.
“Now what am I bid—” I begin, then turn to see Chas. in the act of heaving himself up to charge at me. His face is bright red with rage. My heart gives a lurch—he might be obese, but he’s really, really large, and I see murder and desperation in his eyes.
But he’s not very good at moving his bulk in anything but a straight line, and at the last second, I step aside, and I brush his shoulder with my fingertips, and suddenly he’s five feet above the floor, his legs and arms still pumping like Wile E. Coyote suspended above a canyon . . . and then he comes crashing down.
He has a bloody nose this time, and I guess that he’s torqued a knee, because he clutches it and moans.
“Help!” he shouts. “Help!”
“Oh, shut up for heaven’s sake,” I say. “There’s a reason you met me after working hours. Nobody’s going to hear you.”
Which, after he shouts a few more times, he finally figures out on his own. I approach the plinth again and twirl a shoelace around a finger. “Now what am I bid for this?” I ask him.
The fall and the shouting has left him breathless. “Those shoes aren’t worth a quarter mil,” he says. “A few thousand, maybe. Nothing in here is worth anything like what you want.”
“Sweetie, I’m only getting started,” I tell him. “I can make your whole house disappear, piece by piece.”
I don’t want to mention the fact that I could pop him two hundred feet straight up. But if he’s thinking straight, he already knows that.
Pain twitches across Chas.’s face. He clutches his knee. “I don’t have it,” he says. “I don’t have that much.”
I laugh at him. “Why don’t I believe that? You’re the most successful young director in town. You did Hard Stand. You did Consumer Reports. You did Freak Weather.”
Tears are shining in his eyes. “And I had two divorces. My exes took practically everything I’d made up till then. And then The Underground ran into so much trouble and went seventy million over budget, and I put everything into it. I took a second mortgage on my house, I put all my cash into it. I even raided my daughter’s trust fund!”
By now I’m beginning to get this horrid feeling that he’s telling the truth. But I really don’t want to believe it. “You put your own money in your movie?” I scream.
Because that’s just a horrible idea. Motion pictures are nearly the worst investment in the world. George Lucas, who has two of the most successful film franchises of all time, nearly lost every penny because he financed Howard the Duck with his own savings.
“I did,” Chas. sobs. “That’s exactly what I did. That’s why I need the good opening weekend so badly.”
I’m simply furious. I’m furious at Chas. for being so stupid, I’m furious at Chas. for tricking me, I’m furious at Chas. for being so weepy and useless and unable to give me what I need right now, which is a quarter-million in cash.
Doesn’t he understand that I have commitments?
I pop the signed, limited-edition basketball shoes out over Santa Monica somewhere. Not because I think it will do any good, but just because I’m angry.
Chas. just moans and shakes. Clearly I’m not going to get anything out of him now, not here in his office. But I can’t let him go—I’ve already committed felonies, and there’s no telling what he’d do if I let him loose.
I’ve got to keep control of him until I can get my money. Maybe I can demand a ransom from the studio or his friends or somebody.
I’m shaking as badly as Chas. is, but from rage. I stalk my way to the window and look down at the parking lot. There aren’t many cars left, but I see a deep blue Maserati Quattroporte parked right in front of the building. It’s the only car left in a line of reserved parking spots, and that means it belongs to Chas.
I turn to Chas. and snap my fingers. “Give me your car keys,” I say. He doesn’t do anything but clutch his knee and moan, so I walk up to him, touch his bib overalls, and pop them off his body. His legs are pale and hairy. I dig around in his pockets till I find his car keys and his cell phone, which I confiscate.
There’s CCTV cameras on the roofs of some of the buildings, so I pop over to them and make sure they’re pointed away from the parking lot, or I make them go somewhere else. Then I return to Chas.’s office, where he’s begun to look hopeful as he realizes I’ve left the building. He sees me reappear and his face falls.
I pop a window pane out of place—more crashing in the office, more shrieks from Chas.—and I point the key fob into the parking lot and press the button that will open the trunk. I look carefully to make sure no one’s looking my way—no one is—then I pop him to the parking lot, pop myself right after him, open the trunk, and pop him in. While he’s still stunned and disoriented, I pop off all his clothing, including his shoes—I don’t want him trying to kick his way out. Then I slam the trunk on him and drive his car off the Sony lot.
The car’s interior reeks of rich leather and handcrafted luxury, but I can’t help wondering who the hell would buy a Maserati sedan, as opposed to the sports cars that made their reputation. Does Ferrari make sedans? Does Lamborghini? It makes no sense.
Maybe Chas. uses the Quattroporte to take his kid’s soccer team to practice. There’s no other use for it that I can see. But still, the windows are smoked, and the guard at the gate doesn’t pay attention to anyone leaving—he’s only interested in the people trying to get in.
I’m cooling down just a little by this point, and I realize that the guards in the Marie Dressler Building lobby know I came in. I was on Chas.’s schedule for the evening. That means that if Chas. goes missing, I’m going to be a suspect.
But I can’t let Chas. or his car go. I’ve already kidnapped him, there’s no point in letting him walk away now.
So I get out of the car and pop it to the roof of a medical supply building on Venice Boulevard. That way no one will hear Chas. if he screams or tries to bash his way out. I pop myself along the rooftops till I’m across the street from Sony, then teleport myself straight into Chas.’s office.
Which is an appalling mess. The air reeks of spilled whisky. I’m a little shocked at how far I went in destroying things.
It seems clear to me that the best thing is to make it look as if someone else destroyed the office.
I lay out more glasses on the coffee table, and I pour whisky and brandy into them. I throw pillows around. I’m trying to suggest a drunken orgy with half a dozen people.
I clean up my own wine glass. I scrub fingerprints from anything I might have touched.
I step into his private bathroom and freshen up for a moment before letting myself out. I don’t forget the fifteen thousand in the little bag.
I’m glad that I’ve had a little practice at criminality before having to do all this. If it hadn’t been for Tomás and his lessons in crime, I’m sure I would have made a real mess by now.
I’m charming to the guard in the downstairs lobby, then I get in my car and leave the lot, waving cheerfully to the guard on the gate so that he knows I’ve left on my own.
By now it’s quite dark. I return to Chas.’s car, pop it down to the road, and drive off.
Which is how I find myself driving around Culver City in the early hours of the morning, with a naked producer-director in the trunk, a bag of cash on the seat, and time ticking by. I’m trying to decide whether or not to call Tomás and ask him if I can stash Chas. with him until I can arrange a ransom. But something holds me back—I’m not sure that the jump from grand theft to kidnapping is a good fit for my beautiful soulful-eyed masseur. It might make him far too nervous.
I pull over on a side street, dig out Chas.’s phone, and start flipping through the directory. I’m trying to figure out who should get the ransom demand.
Of course he’s got the private numbers of the elite of the industry. Why wouldn’t he?— he’s one of them himself. But who among these people is going to pay money for his safe return?
His agent maybe?
Then one name scrolls by. Dag Ringqvist.
Dag Ringqvist, the tall, blond, gorgeous, incredibly successful, rich, and talented creator of mACE and mACE II, the latter of which Chas. has schemed to ruin.
Ringqvist, it suddenly occurs to me, is the anti-Chas. mACE is an immensely successful ace movie; The Underground was designed as a reverse of mACE. Chas. is a social misfit living out his fantasies through his films; but Dag is the fantasy Chas. wants to live. Chas. lives among NBA memorabilia; but Dag’s house is filled with paintings and sculpture and a series of girlfriends who are almost as attractive as I am.
Dag is a blond Norse god. Chas. is a swarthy troll.
I wonder how grateful Dag Ringqvist would be to the person who let him know that Chas. has stolen his movie with the intention of sabotaging it.
Wait a minute . . . What would he do for someone who got his picture back?
“Thank you, sugar,” I say. “You’ll be hearing from my agent.”
I‘m amazed at how well Dag and I got along over the phone, especially considering that I was calling him at one in the morning with bad news. But he was extremely gracious, even after I told him that I’d met Chas. at a drunken party, and he’d boasted to me of stealing Dag’s movie, and of how he was going to ruin it by releasing a bad cut on every pirate channel in the world.
I explained that the police wouldn’t be able to prevent his work from being desecrated, because all that Chas.’s editor needed to do was upload one copy to one site, and then it would spawn practically everywhere else. So someone had to get into the Chateau Élysée, get Aristotle’s portable drives, and make sure all copies were accounted for or destroyed.
I graciously mentioned that I was willing to try to do this.
“Hell, Cleo, the Élysée is a damn Norman castle,” Dag said. (Everyone calls it that. Norman must have been the architect.)
“Walls can’t keep me out.”
“This is very generous, Cleo. Are you sure there isn’t anything I can do for you?”
My first thought is the missing quarter-million, but then I think of something better.
“You know,” I said, “I’ve always wanted to work with you.”
Then the conversation gets a bit serious, and in the end he’s agreed that if I aid in retrieving any hypothetically lost intellectual property, et cetera, Dag will cast me in mACE III, if it’s ever made (which it will be), and that my part will get at least fifteen minutes of screen time. Which doesn’t seem like a lot, except that it will be an ensemble film with a big cast, so fifteen minutes for a new character is actually very good. I’ll be noticed.
“What sort of part are you considering?” he asked. “A teleporter?”
“Teleporter or not, hero or villain,” I tell him. “You’re the genius, sugar. I know you’ll make my part interesting.”
I call my agent, who is surprised to be awakened this early in the morning, but he’s very interested when I give him an outline of what’s happened, and give him Dag’s fax number. I am told that a rough agreement will be faxed to Dag in a few minutes.
I hang up and cackle. Then I look over my shoulder and shout at Chas., hoping my voice will reach him in the trunk. “Did you hear any of that, Chas? I’ve been talking to Dag Ringqvist, and telling him how you’re trying to fuck with him!”
From the answering groan, I know he’s heard me.
While I wait to hear from my agent, I drive to my apartment in Hollywood and change out of my dress and into the Yamamoto jumpsuit, the cute Fiorentini + Baker boots, and the rest of my ninja gear. Then I drive past the Chateau Élysée. At this hour the streets are almost deserted, except for a line of kids camping out at a multiplex, waiting for opening day tickets for mACE II, which won’t be released for a couple months.
The chateau is huge, bigger than I remembered—it’s brightly lit, and surrounded by a wall. Neither the wall nor the lighting will cause difficulties for me, but the size of the place is worrisome in view of the fact that I don’t know where in this giant building I can find the post-production offices.
Something whips by me so fast I barely recognize the skinny little butt in the orange latex body suit as it rapidly recedes from me; and before my instant of recognition is over, the skater is gone.
Blrr. Who I’ve seen here and there since American Hero, mostly at auditions.
Blrr’s Hollywood career has been unusual. It should have been handicapped by the fact that there aren’t a lot of acting parts calling for a roller blader who skates faster than the cameras can properly record, even at 48fps—and without the skating, she would have been just another actress wannabee with spiky hair and a tattoo.
But somehow she managed to parlay her American Hero experience into a starring role in a sitcom, Who’s That Grrl?, in which she basically played herself and which ran for several seasons. Which was downright odd, because sitcom stages are tiny and she had no real opportunity to use her power.
If I were making a TV series with Blrr, it would have been an action series, with lots of chases. Foot chases, car chases, motorcycle chases, helicopter chases . . . anything that would let Blrr use her power. But instead she was cast in a sitcom.
I don’t understand it. I can be funny. Why didn’t I get a sitcom? I can use my power right onstage.
Blrr’s career has been on hiatus since then, but Blrr’s punk stylings were perfect for the outsider aces in The Underground, and Chas. cast her. Which would have set me to wailing and gnashing my teeth, if I weren’t so Perky and Professional that it would never have occurred to me to complain.
Now it looks as if Blrr’s been set to guarding the treasure Chas. is hiding in the castle. I wonder if she knows what it is she’s guarding.
But it’s her career at stake, so my guess is that she won’t care. I certainly wouldn’t.
She zips past me again when I’m stopped at a light but I turn off Franklin and find a place to park in the hills behind the chateau, on Foothill Drive. I’m not worried about Blrr so much—I can just pop around her—but I’m starting to get worried that there might be other aces guarding the treasure. Maybe it’s my turn to call in some reinforcements just in case I run into trouble.
But who do I know that I can call at this hour of the morning?
I call Jack Braun anyway. Because this is all his fault, somehow.
He sounds sleepy when he answers the phone. “There’s this weird situation,” I tell him. “I’m wondering if you can help.”
I explain as quickly as I can. When I finish, there’s this long silence, then Jack says, “You want me to help you steal something.”
Another long pause. “Isn’t this what we talked about?”
“No,” I say, “this is different. I’m not stealing anything, I’m rescuing it from the people who stole it in the first place.”
“I think it’s still a felony, Cleonie,”
“All I’m asking for,” I tell him, “is a little backup. In case I run into trouble.”
“Cleonie,” he says, “they’ll recognize me.”
“You can disguise yourself.”
“I glow gold when I use my ace powers. Nothing can disguise that.” There’s another long pause, then he sighs and says, “All right. Tell me where I can meet you.”
Suddenly I’m overwhelmed with gratitude. “Thank you, honey!” I say. “I’ll make sure you won’t regret this!”
“Yeah,” he says. “Because no one has ever said that to me before.”
While I wait I think about who else I can call. There’s Drummer Boy, but his band is touring Asia. Of the other competitors on the show, I’ve lost touch with all of them except the ones that stayed in L.A., and most of those sort of hate me . . . which is hurtful, because they don’t understand that it was a game, we were supposed to try to win, and all those things I said about them on camera were just a part of the scenario and not malicious in any way . . .
I’m frustrated, I can’t think of anyone else, so I call her.
“Rachel?” I say. “Sweetie, you’re not busy, are you?”
Half an hour later, my agent tells me there’s a signed preliminary agreement with Dag, and Jack and Rachel are meeting me on Foothill Drive a couple blocks from the Maserati, because I don’t think they’d react well if they found out that I’d made them accessories to kidnapping.
I’m trying to spare them the knowledge of something bad, though I’m afraid they’ll never know or appreciate how much I’m trying to protect them.
But it isn’t long before I’m thinking I might as well not have called them at all, because they’re useless. Jack won’t do anything because his glow will give him away. And Rachel won’t help because her powers are too recognizable.
“If the cops see a sixty-foot penguin attacking the castle,” she says, “they’re gonna know who to call.”
“Look,” Jack says finally. “Keep your phone on speaker so we can hear what’s going on. And if you run into trouble, we’ll try to pull you out.”
Well, that’s about all I can hope for. So I wrap the Botto Giuseppe scarf around my face and set out.
I scout the castle from the roofs of the surrounding buildings. I see Blrr zooming along far below, moving so fast that I’m sure she can’t see me.
At this hour most of the windows are unlit. I look for a row of windows all lit up, particularly if they’re otherwise dark but lit with the blue shimmer of video monitors. I see nothing like that from my limited perspective, but there’s a line of windows lit on the fourth floor, east side, so I jump into a corner, where I hope I can find cover if I need to.
I don’t need to. I’m in a series of law offices, and I hear a vacuum cleaner a few offices away, which tells me that cleaners are here. I find the nearest exit and walk through it, to find myself in a corridor.
I wish I could just go to the lobby and look at the directory that’s bound to be there. But the lobby is also guaranteed to have security, and that would be bad news.
I’m wandering randomly on the fourth floor when I feel my cellphone throb in my pocket. I look at it and see that Rachel’s sent me a text message.
“Argyll Productions,” it says. “Map on web page says 5th fl E side.” Fifth floor, east side. Only one floor up from where I am right now.
I’m sure I would have thought of checking online myself if I hadn’t been so frazzled. But still, it’s nice that Rachel’s paying attention instead of just playing with her stuffed animals and being useless.
“Thx,” I text back—because I am Prompt and Professional—and find an elevator.
Which turns out not to be the best idea, because when the elevator doors open on the fifth floor, there’s Rosa Loteria sitting in a chair, obviously guarding the place. And she’s looking right at me—but while she might not recognize me, I’m sure she knows a very fashionable ninja when she sees one.
I’m as surprised as she is, so I pop over next to her and say, “Hi, Rosa.”
Which gives her a jolt, and me a great deal of satisfaction.
Rosa and I have a history, and it’s not a nice one. In fact she’s one of the very few people on the planet that I hate. We were both on American Hero, where I was convinced that my soul was entwined with that of Drummer Boy, and he and I were doing fine until Rosa started shaking her tits at him. And she was always saying nasty things about me, and I was tempted to reciprocate—though I didn’t, because she lied about me and I only told the truth about her.
Since then I’ve seen her at auditions, where I’m pleased to say she hasn’t been doing all that well.
Rosa can’t use her ace power on camera, because it’s all tied up with her antique deck of Spanish cards, and she can only turn into the character that she draws randomly, and there are something like a hundred cards in a lotería deck. Though some of her characters are enormously powerful, she can’t keep a whole film crew standing by while she shuffles through her deck time after time trying to come up with the right card for the scene.
And she hasn’t been doing all that well playing non-ace characters. I’m guessing that’s because there aren’t a lot of speaking roles for skanky Chicana whores.
Oh—was that less than Professional? Like I care.
Rosa gives a jump and stares at where I’ve just materialized on her right side, so I pop to her left side and say, “Chas. didn’t tell me you were a part of this.”
She jumps again and starts to get pissed off.
“Chas. and I go way back,” she hisses at me. “I’m in his damn movie, which is more than I can say about you.”
It must be a pretty minor part. I hadn’t heard she was in it at all.
And I bet she had to fuck him first, while he fantasized about the Lakers. Because hanging onto another guy’s sneakers is totally a symptom of sexual health, right?
I pop right in front of her, just inches away. She controls her reaction better this time, but still I see the flinch. She’s toying with her cards, and I know I’ve got to get rid of her before she tries to draw one.
Of course I could touch the cards and pop them out the nearest window, which would mean she has no ace powers at all. But I think that might just turn her from a whore ace into a non-ace whore who is enraged, violent, and murderous, so I think that’s not the best idea.
“Do you know what you’re guarding here?” I ask. “Or do I have to tell you?”
She thrusts her lower lip at me. “‘Course I know,” she says. “Chas. and I are tight, you know.”
“Okay,” I say. “I’m here to tell you that word’s got out, and the cops are on their way as soon as they can get a, a what-do-you-call it, a subpoena.”
“You mean a warrant, bitch?” Sneering.
“Yeah, a warrant. They’re on their way, and I’m supposed to pop the disks off to where they can’t be found. And you just need to leave before you’re recognized.”
She falls for it, the stupid bimbo. She walks right past me to the elevator and presses the button, and I’m cackling behind the scarf that’s wrapping my lower face.
I wait for Rosa to leave, then call Jack.
“Rosa Loteria was here,” I tell him. “I told her the cops were coming and talked her into leaving, but see if you make sure she doesn’t have any second thoughts.”
“Okay.” There’s a pause. “Maybe I can send one of Rachel’s pets on a scout.”
“If that’s possible.” Given that all her toys are the size of King Kong.
I hang up and walk to the front doors of the Argyll offices. They’re big, heavy, pretentious carved wooden doors, completely opaque, so I can’t pop myself through them. They’re unlocked, however, so I just walk through.
I walk past the reception desk and there’s a big, long room full of monitors, and I see Aristotle staring into one of several flat screens that are arrayed in a semicircle around him. There’s a hot coffee smell in the air and blaring, discordant music. His work space is half-buried in snack food wrappers, empty cans of energy drink, and foam coffee cups.
I undo the top buttons of the jumpsuit to show some of my assets. I’ve noticed that men generally seem less intelligent when I do that.
Aristotle looks up at the sound of my cute Fiorentini + Baker boots on the tile entryway. He’s still wearing his hoodie, but the hood is pulled down to show a surprisingly tiny head, with spiky hair and sharp features.
I pull the scarf down around my neck so he can see my face. “We’re in trouble,” I tell him. I walk briskly, I speak briskly, as if there’s no time.
“Police will be here as soon as they get a, a—a warrant. You’ve got to get mACE II off the computers. Off so completely that even experts won’t be able to find it. And the same with the cloud and the servers or whatever.”
I have only a vague idea of what the cloud and servers might be, but Aristotle seems to understand.
“Put everything you’ve got onto as few disks as possible,” I say. “Then give them to me, and I’ll pop out of here along with them. You can just walk out, and if the police stop you, they won’t find anything on you.”
I’m very proud of my little plan. If I hadn’t found Aristotle here, or someone like him, I would have been at a loss to manage this all by myself.
After all, Aristotle knows I’m part of Chas.’s conspiracy. He has no reason to doubt what I’m telling him.
And apparently he doesn’t. He bends over his keyboard and starts calling up files. “It’ll take a bit of time to erase these thoroughly,” he says. “Even if I zero out the file, there are forensic tools now that can reverse it. So now I have to overwrite the damn thing a zillion times—” He flashes me a jittery grin over his shoulder. “Fortunately I wrote a utility for that.”
He goes on speed-babbling this sort of nonsense as he works at his keyboard, his voice raised to carry over the blaring music. Clearly the poor child has swallowed far too much caffeine.
“Do we have to listen to that music?” I ask. I don’t want to interrupt the music if it’s vital to his process, but its blaring chords are giving me a headache. It’s like the soundtrack to every bad Biblical epic of the 1950s, all of which I had to watch when I was growing up in Alabama and all of which I hated.
I mean, Victor Mature? Who thought he could be a star?
Aristotle cackles and turns the music off. “Horrible, isn’t it? It’s generic music from old B movies. You can download it for cheap. I was putting it on all Lars’ big dramatic scenes, so they’d seem as low-end and corny as the music.”
I shudder. I think that’s punishing viewers far too much.
Aristotle detaches the cables from his portable drives, then hesitates. Then he pull a flip-phone from his shirt pocket and calls up the speed dial.
A warning sizzles through my nerves. “Who are you calling?”
“Chas. I need to know if he wants me to erase the software, too. I don’t think they can trace it to me, and it’ll take twenty or thirty minutes to overwrite those tracks enough times to make sure they can’t reconstitute it . . . ”
“If it can’t be traced, just leave it.” But then I realize that it doesn’t matter, because Chas. is in my trunk and won’t be answering his phone.
Which promptly begins to sound its ringtone, Lil Wayne’s “Rich as Fuck,” which is a problem because the phone is in my jumpsuit pocket. I’d forgotten I had it with me.
Aristotle looks at my pocket, and the raucous ring tone booms out into the big room. I reach into my pocket and pull out the phone, and I try to figure out some way to refuse the call, but I have to jab it several times, each jab more frantic than the last, before it finally turns off.
Aristotle narrows his eyes. “That’s Chas.’s phone?”
“Yeah,” I say. “There must have been some kind of mix-up.”
I try to look cute and confused and adorable. I bend over a little bit to show my assets under the jumpsuit.
But Aristotle seems immune to my girly act. I figure he’s got to be gay.
“What’s going on?” he asks. Suspicion has entered his tone.
I’m really terrible at improvisation. It took me some time to come up with the plan I’m following, and now that it’s falling apart, I don’t know how to respond.
“It doesn’t matter!” I say. “We’re going to get busted if we don’t get out of here!”
He puts a protective hand on his portable disk drives. “Maybe I’d better hang onto these,” he says.
“That’s not what Chas.— ”
“I don’t know what Chas. wants,” he says, almost snarling.
“I told you . . . “
“There’s something weird here,” says Aristotle. “And I’m not letting go of these until I hear from Chas. himself.”
All I have to do, really, is lean over, touch the drives, and pop them across the room. Then pop myself to the same place, pick up the drives, and get my shapely butt out of the Chateau Élysée.
And really, I’m out of ideas, and the more I talk, the less Aristotle believes me. So I lean over, touch the drives, and pop them twenty feet down the room, in the direction of the exit.
And I’m about to follow them when Aristotle bolts out of his chair. And because I’m so surprised, he beats me to the drives and scoops them up.
He doesn’t run like anyone I’ve ever seen. He moves with incredible speed, but instead of being visible along his entire path he seems to skip from one point to the next, as if his path was being illuminated by the flashes of a strobe. Behind him he trails a series of afterimages along his path, each of which shows him frozen in the act of running.
It’s as if he’s on a strip of film, but only every tenth or twentieth frame is projected, so that he seems to teleport about a yard, flash into existence, then teleport again, and again, and again.
And when he teleports, the images show him in the act of running. Which isn’t how I do it—when I teleport, I arrive in the same posture as when I left. I don’t have to dash around, I just go there. He has to actually transit the space between himself and his target, and that takes time—not much time, but a little.
He stops, the portable drives in his hands. The afterimages he’s left behind fade away, one after the next, as if he’s sucked them into himself. He looks at me and laughs at the baffled expression on my face.
“Oh?” he says. “Nobody mentioned I was an ace?”
“Chas. stiffed me,” I tell him. “He didn’t pay what he owed. And he’s not going to pay you either.”
He sneers. “He’s already paid me, Pop Tart. I’m in his movie. Right now I’m just trying to make sure the movie’s a big hit.”
I don’t like being called Pop Tart, and anyway I’m starting to get really angry—and the last time I got angry, I wrecked an office and teleported a pair of limited-edition basketball shoes off to Santa Monica.
I don’t remember reading about any ace named Aristotle in Chas.’s movie, but then maybe Aristotle Dimitropoulos isn’t the best name for an aspiring movie star, at least outside Athens or wherever, so he’s picked a new one.
Or maybe he’s just an exceptionally loyal film editor. Who knows?
It doesn’t matter anyway. I pop next to him and reach for the disk drives. He spins away—flash-flash-flash—but I grab his hoodie and I manage to pop it, with Aristotle in it, into the air over his work station. He comes down with a satisfying crash in a blizzard of crushed coffee cups and cardboard fast food containers, but then there’s that blinding speed again, and I see, flash-flash-flash, like a strobe light, as he picks himself up and begins a race for the exit.
I pop a chair in his path and he piles right into it, knocking himself and the chair sprawling . . . the portable drives skitter across the carpet as they spill from his fingers. I pop to the drives and grab them, and he jumps to his feet with completely unnatural speed and swings at me with a fist. My heart gives a leap, and with a fraction of a second to spare I pop clean to the other side of the room and watch his fist flail the air.
Then there are the swift series of strobes as he comes at me, as he picks up the fallen chair and slings it through the air right at my head . . .
I pop away but I don’t have time to spot my landing properly, so one leg twists under me and I fall. I feel a jolt of pain as I bang my shoulder on the corner of a table, and though I’m half-stunned I know that Aristotle is on his way, so I give a desperate glance under the table toward the far side of the long room and pop myself as far as I can see, which is about halfway before my view is blocked by a long planter full of ferns.
I’m still lying on the floor, but at least I’m not where Aristotle thinks I am, and I have a chance to lurch to my feet before he can take another run at me. Pain shoots through my twisted ankle as I rise, and I clench my teeth. I am trying to work out how to escape.
The big wooden office doors are opaque, so I can’t pop through them, and if I just run through them Aristotle will catch me. My other option is suggested by the big windows looking out onto Hollywood, but the problem is that it’s dark, and I can’t spot my landing. I’d have to pop high up into the air, then hope to spot a safe landing and teleport to it as I fell tumbling through the sky, and if I got it wrong I could impale myself on someone’s picket fence, crash through the roof of a car, or just turn into a bloody splotch on the pavement somewhere.
Still, I’m desperate and on the verge of trying exactly that. But then I realize I have a third option, which is to kick the living crap out of Aristotle.
Or not kick, exactly. I could teleport him up just below the twelve-foot ceiling and let gravity do my kicking for me while I preserve my ladylike composure.
Prompt. Professional. Pop.
All this rushes through my head in the second or two it takes for Aristotle to realize I’m not where he thought I was. He looks at me and I see anger twitch across his tiny little face, and now here he comes, flash-flash-flash.
I teleport out of his path and he races past me. I reach out to snag him so that I can pop him into the air, but my bad ankle folds under me and I stagger, barely able to keep my feet. He stops dead, turns, rushes again with his arms thrown out to catch me. I do my little side-pop again, reach out, and this time I catch one of his outthrust arms.
So I pop him up to the ceiling. And this time he actually does his flash-flash-flash strobe action all the way down, except he hits just as hard as if he fell normally and then splays like Wile E. Coyote on the ground.
I’ve seen a lot of Wile E. in the last few hours.
“Had enough?” I ask.
He heaves himself to his feet. There’s blood on his face, but his expression has hardened somehow, and hatred blazes in his eyes.
“Oh no, bitch,” he says. “We’re not done at all.”
His eyes half-close and his face hardens. His fists clench by his side. He’s nearly vibrating with concentration. And suddenly there’s two of him, then four.
He’s not running, he’s splitting himself up somehow, and the different versions of himself aren’t fading away like they did before. Suddenly they all look at me with the same malign expression, and one of them comes after me.
I pop away, but then a second Aristotle charges, and I teleport only to see a third Aristotle come flashing toward me . . . Between them all they’re covering the big room very thoroughly, and I realize that I can’t outrun all four of them, that one of them is bound to catch me sooner or later.
Panic seizes my heart. I pop again, and I decide to take a blind jump out the window, into the sky over Hollywood, and hope I can make a safe landing. Except that as I glance outside, I see something move out there, something huge and viscous and gleaming, and for an unsettled moment I freeze in my place and Aristotle Number Four almost overruns me . . . I pop away, desperate, my head swimming . . . A fist belonging to another Aristotle swishes within an inch of my face . . .
Suddenly the windows burst in, and a bundle of huge gleaming purple tentacles lunge into the room.
Oh great, I think. Chas. has another ace working for him.
One of the tentacles wraps around me and I scream at the slimy touch. Then I see the Aristotles yelling, all four of them, as they’re swept up by the purple leviathan, and I wonder dazedly who the monster is actually working for, Chas. or Dag Ringqvist or maybe even a third producer come crashing the party.
The tentacles withdraw, and suddenly I’m outside and I realize that I am the captive of a giant purple octopus that is oozing, like a great squishy balloon filled with sea water, across South Yucca and into an area filled with large apartment buildings.
In the battle of Giant Octopus vs. Norman Castle, I realize, the castle doesn’t stand a chance. Or Norman, either.
I also realize, after my initial moment of terror, that I can pop to safety whenever I want to, but what I really want to do is catch my breath, and since Aristotle can’t hurt me right now, that’s exactly what I do.
But then there’s a blur, and there’s Blrr, who’s just rocketed up South Yucca in her orange jumpsuit, and discovered the octopus retreating with me and the Aristotles . . . and she stops dead in the middle of the street and stares.
Because what can she do, exactly? Her ace power is to skate really fast, which isn’t of much use when Godzilla, or the Empire State Ape, or any other giant critter turns up. She can run away, sure, but Jack the Octopus Killer she is not.
After a moment’s thought, she zips away to a safe distance, then gets out her cell phone. After which Chas.’s phone, still in my pocket, begins to play “Rich As Fuck” all over again. Which makes me laugh.
The octopus oozes along, then pauses in a passage between two apartment buildings. Three of the Aristotles have faded away, leaving only the one I presume is the original sagging and panting in the grip of a purple tentacle. Dividing himself into four seems to have taken a lot out of him, and he’s a long way from his stack of energy drinks.
The octopus draws me close to one of its huge yellow eyes, and I hear a voice come from the direction of its beak. (Did you know that octopuses have beaks? I didn’t.)
“Did you get what you came for?” Rachel’s voice.
“Can you pop where you need to go?”
“Then do that. I’ll take care of what’s-his-name here.”
“Strobe!” Aristotle has revived enough to shout. “I’m called Strobe!”
“He’s called Greektown,” I say, before spotting the roof of the apartment building and popping myself there. I look around, and I listen for the sound of sirens, and it seems that at this hour of the morning, even Hollywood hasn’t noticed a giant purple octopus mooching around. I pop a couple more times till I’m standing next to Jack, who’s leaning on his car, and I hand him the disk drives.
“Can you take care of these?” I say. “Greektown comes after you, you can knock his block off.”
“Who?” he asks.
“You’ll know him if you see him.”
I glance down to where Rachel is sitting on the curb. She’s a little abstracted because she’s controlling her octopus telepathically. Poor dear, at this hour, and with her wiry hair sticking up all over the place, she looks even less attractive than usual. A few minutes later the octopus itself comes slouching down the street, pauses between a couple of palm trees, then turns into a stuffed animal. The streetlights give an extra flare at the released energy. Half a block away, one of the streetlights explodes.
Rachel hops up from the curb, picks up the stuffie, and puts it in her rucksack.
I run up to her and give her a big hug. “Thank you, sugar,” I say. “You saved me from that, that person.”
“Greektown? I dropped him off on top of a building.”
“Let’s hope that slows him down.”
Rachel’s phone gives a beep, and she fishes it out of her jacket and looks at the text. “Gotta go,” she says. “There’s a boat gone missing.”
“Thanks again, sweetie!” I tell her. “Let’s have lunch some time!”
But she’s already getting out the stuffed dragon, and within only a few seconds she’s flapping into the sky.
“That should help her establish her alibi,” Jack says. “And we should establish ours.”
“Rich As Fuck” begins to play again. I take out Chas.’s phone and offer it to Jack.
“Can you crush this?” I ask. Jack obliges, and Lil’ Wayne’s rap comes to an end in a strangled squawk. Dust and crushed electronics spill from Jack’s hand, and a thrill goes through me at this demonstration of his power, and for a minute I forget how everything is his fault.
“Sweetie,” I say. “Could you do me one more favor?”
He gives me a look.
“I am not going to like this, am I?” he asks.
But in fact this is where Jack shines—or maybe I should say glows—as the peacemaker who settles everything just the way it should be settled. He offers to let Dag Ringqvist and Chas. meet in his Toluca Lake home to mend fences. I call Dag, and he agrees once I tell him that Jack has the disks of mACE II in his possession.
I guarantee that Chas. will show up, but even so maybe Jack and Dag are a little surprised when I back Chas.’s Quattroporte into Jack’s driveway and pop the trunk to reveal one of Hollywood’s most powerful men naked and lying like a beached white whale in the belly of his own Maserati.
Dag just stands and watches with considerable interest as Jack helps Chas. out of the trunk and supports him as he limps inside. I’m limping myself as I walk up to Dag and smile. As I believe I may have mentioned, Dag is tall and blond and handsome, with an oversized nose that makes his face interesting, and he’s dressed in what I recognize as Bruno Cucinelli flannel trousers and a chambray shirt from Alexander Olch. He looks magnificent.
On my way to Toluca Lake I’ve given myself a few moments to freshen up, and I’ve tried to remove any evidence of the night’s proceedings. I’ve brushed my hair till it has exactly the right amount of bounce, and I’ve kept the military-style jumpsuit and boots even though they’re marked with octopus slime, because I think that makes me look a little more authentic. Dag should know what I’ve gone through on his behalf.
Besides, the outfit is just so dashing and perfectly criminal.
“I think everything’s worked out,” I tell Dag, and I take his arm and walk with him into Jack’s living room, with its mission-style furniture, abstract art, and photographs of people who are dead, and those blood-red tiles he had in his bar. There are roses of an interesting mauve shade in a tall vase, presumably picked from Jack’s garden out back.
“Are you all right?” Dag asks. “You’re limping.”
“I twisted an ankle,” I tell him, “but I’ll be all right.” I wince a little, just to let him know I’m putting on a gallant show after being injured on his behalf.
I sit with Dag on a sofa. The scent of roses drifts gently through the room. Jack appears with Chas., who has been given a bathrobe that doesn’t come close to fitting him. Chas sits on an easy chair, and Jack takes his place in a brown leather armchair at the head of the room. He puts his fingertips together, and holds the silence for a long time.
“This stops now,” he says finally. “I don’t know exactly what’s going on, or why or how, but it needs to stop.” He points at Chas. “You’re not allowed to steal someone else’s movie and release it.”
He squirms. I can tell he’s on the verge of claiming he never did that, but his courage fails him at the last second and finally he just stares at the floor and nods.
Jack turns his finger to Dag. “No retaliation,” he says. “This has gone far enough. There’s been violence, there’s been property damage, there’s been some kind of abduction.” His eyes turn to me in an accusing way.
“It appears no harm was done to me,” Dag says, with his thrilling Scandinavian accent. “I have no grudges against anyone.”
Which was nobly said, I thought. I squeeze his arm to show him my support.
“And one last thing,” Jack says. “Nobody talks. Nobody talks about this to anyone. Because if word gets out, everyone in this room gets fucked.”
We all nod.
“We’re all agreed, then?” Jack says. He’s speaking with perfect authority, as if he were some Mafia don instead of a washed-up actor. And the others are respecting him, which makes me think he might be a better actor than I thought.
“Well then,” Jack says. “Why don’t we all go home?”
We all get up, and I run over to Jack and give him a peck on the cheek. “That was just perfect!” I tell him.
“Cleo,” he says. “Next time you’re in trouble, I’d be thankful if you find someone else to call.”
“I don’t plan to be in trouble ever again!” I tell him, Perky as you please, and I ignore his skeptical look and bounce back to Dag Ringqvist. I take his arm.
“Could you give me a ride back to my car?” I ask. I don’t tell him it’s all the way down in Culver City.
He looks at me with stunning blue eyes. “It would be my pleasure,” he says.
And right away, I know we have a connection. It’s as if our souls are already singing in harmony with each other.
I’m going to get to know Dag better, I realize. I’m going to be in his next big picture, and I’m going to need to see a lot of him in order to talk about my character and her situation and how I should portray her.
It’s going to be a very fruitful partnership, I think.
We walk through the front door into a morning that smells of desert flowers, and I see Chas.’s car in the driveway with the trunk still hanging open. “Oh, wait a minute,” I say. “I forgot my bag.”
Which is the little satchel with the fifteen thousand in it, which I take. Dag looks at me over the Maserati’s roof.
“Ready?” he asks.
“Of course!” I tell him.
He’s got an Audi R8 Spyder in a deep gunmetal color. The interior smells of leather and money and power.
He reaches across the console to make sure my safety harness is in place. I put my hand on his arm. He starts the engine and hundreds of horsepower split the air with their song. The eastern sky is just beginning to lighten.
I’m ready, I think. I’m ready for Dag, I’m ready for stardom, I’m ready for my close-up.
Acceleration punches me back into the seat.
Fade, I think. Roll titles.
Dag and I roar off into the dawn.
“Prompt. Professional. Pop!” copyright © 2014 by Walter Jon Williams
Illustration copyright © 2014 by John Picacio