A Record Year for Rainfall, Chapter 5
A Record Year for Rainfall is my second book, originally published in 2011.
Please note that the subject matter in this novel can be pretty graphic.
There are many theoretical things to do in Vegas on a hot, clear afternoon. The first three assumptions are based in the part of one’s brain that never lets go of things it should probably never achieve in the first place–of course there was gambling, cheap sex, and liquor every which way you went. Nothing about the temptations of Vegas were difficult; with enough luck, Bret could play the mid-western fantasy card all week. But these options didn’t appeal to him. It wasn’t that he didn’t revel in the soft-lit fantasy that Vegas promoters spread across the country–that everything stays here, dammit–because he enjoyed Ocean’s 11 as much as anyone else. It was that he had stashed very little precious lucre. So on these kind of days, Bret and Album drove into the desert and turned it into a driving range.
Album had a full set of clubs. He said they were a gift from his father. As Album handed Bret the light, thin titanium driver, he said, “My father wanted me to hit things in life. Knock em out. Kick life in the balls. That’s what I got out of it, anyway.”
Bret and Album were out six miles from the city limits, out where the desert could actually produce a quality mirage. There were mountains to the east, but mostly Album and Bret stared at illusionary western horizons. Out here, golf was mostly about hitting rocks into the abyss. Everyone who’d ever done it agreed; though it made the game infinitely more pointless, it was way more fun than paying for it in town.
Album and Bret wore khaki shorts and buttoned up light shirts. They both wore sunglasses. They’d forgotten the sunscreen.
“We’re going to burn like crazy,” Bret felt necessary to point out.
Album responded. “You’re going to burn like crazy. It’s not my fault your pale Canadian ass can’t handle the sun.”
Album was smoking a cigar. Bret was lighting his up. They were celebrating.
“Watch, watch,” Album said. “I’ll be the president.”
Album cinched up on his driver and looked back at Bret. “We’ll get those terrorists, now watch this drive.” The rock flew a hundred meters and landed on ancestry.
It had been a few days since Bret had been beaten unconscious in a back hallway of the Wynn, and he wasn’t one hundred percent. His jaw still hurt like a son of a bitch, and his sides would be splitting if not for the cornucopia of America-grade painkillers. He took too many, and felt fantastic. It had also been a few days since one of his pictures had incidentally captured Triceen Baldwin making out with a guy.
“That fake Christian fuck figured he was safe. Ha!” Album gloated, inhaling the thick Cuban smoke. “Six million hits so far. Thousands of pings. Five hundred comments. Page Six wants to advertise with us. I can’t believe you didn’t notice him until we uploaded it.”
Bret picked up a skipping rock from the pile and dropped it to the ground. He said, “I was as surprised as you. It’s not like I notice people like Baldwin, generally. He’s not exactly our kind of butter, so I never really keep an eye out. ’Sides, it was really smoky in there and I was a little distracted at the bar.”
“Gina? Was that her name?”
“Yeah,” Bret smacked the rock hard. It flew further than Albums’, but nobody was keeping score.
“I can’t believe you told her you were a producer from Toronto.”
“I know,” Bret said. “I’ve never even been to Toronto.”
Album said, “I’m not even sure where it is.”
“It’s near Detroit,” Bret said. “Other side of the lake.”
Bret swung at a smaller pebble. “You’ve never even looked at a map east of the Rockies, have you?”
“Fuck east of the Rockies.” Album said. “Gina sounded hot, you should give me her number.”
“I have her card in my apartment,” Bret said. “And you should stop spreading the stereotype that American’s can’t even find themselves on a map.”
“At least I don’t download Curling championships on Bit Torrent.”
“All right, you’ve gone through your Canadian jokes for the week.”
“It’s not a joke if you actually did it,” He said, swinging his driver and hitting his stone the farthest so far. “Beat that, one, hoser.”
“I don’t know if you’d like her,” Bret said. “She looked like the kind of girl who would get slurry after a few drinks.”
“But you don’t know for sure,” Album said. “Besides, not all girls get slurry when they drink. Some of them get bisexual.”
Bret stepped up to a new stone. It looked like it belonged at the bottom of a fast-flowing river, it was so round and smooth. He swung back and his shoulder gave out. He dropped to a knee and let out a “fuck,” before grasping it with his other hand. He could feel the muscles rip and bruise. He wasn’t nearly a hundred percent yet.
“Maybe it was too early to golf,” he said, coughing.
Album laughed. “Take it easy, buddy. You put it all up for the craft. You deserve a few days off.”
“The craft,” Bret laughed. “Funny. I didn’t realize mercenary celebrity destruction was an art.”
“It is when you do it, douche,” Album said. “I’ve never seen a pap with your kind of malice.”
“Thanks,” Bret said, slowly getting up, rubbing his ribs. “I think I’m done for the day. You keep swinging. I’ll stand back and remind you how much the world hates you people.”
Album stood back, rotating his driver in his hand like it was a weapon. He said, “What do you mean, you people?”
Bret laughed. It was funny because he couldn’t have picked a more American thing to do with his life, but acting as the conduit between the worshipped and the worshipping left him with few friends on either side.
Album focused on a new pebble near his feet. He toyed with it, kicking it around, looking for the best angle from which to smack it into the sun. He poked at it with the end of the driver. He had no sympathy for the rock. His arms swung back and his full weight went into the follow-through, and wouldn’t you know it, the small little goddamn pebble flew further than any rock either of them had ever swung a stick at.
“Can I ask you something that’s been bothering me?” Album asked, assuming no reward was needed for soundly kicking Bret’s ass at their favorite past time. It was very much like Album to win and then immediately change the subject. Bret was used it, so all Bret said as they strode back to Album’s 2006 Lancer was “Sure.”
“The blog is doing great numbers. That Baldwin shot alone got us front page on Digg and link-backs from TMZ and Huffington. We’re shooting millions.”
“Is there a problem hidden in there somewhere I don’t know about?”
“Call me old fashioned,” Album said. “But I sometimes get the feeling that the shallow celebrity bullshit we peddle is a little impermanent.”
They got in the car. Album turned the key and passed the Zune, attached to the stereo like a baby still attached to its mother, to Bret. As Bret scrolled around to something bearable, he thought “This is something I would worry about, not you. What’s the deal?”
“Look, I know I don’t care and all that shit, but it would be nice to leave a lasting impression, you know? Something with matter that matters, if that makes sense.”
“It doesn’t, and you don’t,” Bret said. “Need I remind you it’s people like you who are destroying the newspaper and magazine industry, giving away all this hot gossip and not charging a dime for it?”
“I consider it a public service,” Album said, slyly defending the true grit of it.
“You consider it a cash grab by your advertisers,” Bret replied. He was right. “And that’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with usurping the old guard. There’s absolutely no future in print or publishing, because bastards like us pulled the rug out.”
“Look, I know that,” Album said. “I just feel like it would be nice to do something real, something that has lasting impact.”
Album replied, “Like, what if we printed out the blog. Published it on paper.”
Bret laughed. “Let me get this straight. You’re going to spend money to print out articles that you’ve already published on the website. A website that, and I shouldn’t have to remind you, is bookmarked on every cell phone and laptop in the city. There isn’t a curious person in Vegas who doesn’t check us out at least once a day, and you want to go and ruin it by putting the stories on the same antiquated time delay as newspapers?”
“When you put it that way,” Album said. “It makes you sound like a dick.”
“I don’t know, Album,” Bret said. “There’s a time and a place for wacky backwards ideas. You’ve got a great thing with the site. Why potentially ruin it with an idea that’s failing all over the world?”
Album thought about it as they drove. They listened to random samples of music. The songs would last 30 or 40 seconds before Bret would get bored and switch them up. He’d skim to good parts. He’d rate the songs as he went, even though they belonged to Album. Not once on the ride home did they listen to a single song all the way through, and not once did either of them notice.
“Maybe,” Album said. “Maybe it’s not the idea of a newspaper that’s failing. Maybe it’s just the assholes that run them.”
Bret had no great comeback for that one, so he let it slide. The air, dry and full of dead human cells, silently judged them both.
# # #
Tess sat back on her couch in her living room and looked around at all her cheap, useless shit. Just about everything in her apartment was procured by working one promotion or another. She sat there in her free Playboy robe and slippers and drank her free Folgers instant coffee in a free brown Duracell mug. She had showered using sample-sized shampoo and conditioner bottles stolen from a hotel party a few weeks before. Her apartment was filthy with free. She looked around. She tried to smile about it. “I love my job,” she said aloud. But nobody, free or purchased, was around to hear it.
Tess had been surprised to no end when she first found the work enjoyable. She recalled the original pangs of degradation and objectivity; they seemed so antiquated in the face of the sheer amount of control she held. Not that the job was never degrading, and not that she didn’t find herself objectified. What had surprised Tess most was when she found semblances of guilty pleasure in those aspects of the job. She found herself owning the degrading aspects in ways she learned back in Vancouver. Sheer feminist drive kept her in charge. She was able to separate the self of choice with the self of charisma; she allowed only pieces of herself to be seen and sullied. When she worked, her smile was wider than when she smiled genuinely. She wore twice as much makeup on the job than off. Often, she used different names. In the past year, Tess had given dozens of fake phone numbers attached to fake names; Josephine, Irene, Lucy. She played it as she saw it, a great game of masks and chance.
As for the objectivity, Tess had found early on a deep-rooted feeling of compliment. She accepted the idea that people found her beautiful for exclusively surface reasons. This was not the most difficult concept to wrap her head around: she, like the models and the actors and the other women who use their body to make a living, felt righteous in utilizing a god-given gift. But the point she held highest was that she didn’t work promo because she had too; it was voluntary. She once told Trice she’d do it for free if the money weren’t so good.
Holding the problems at bay was sometimes too much for Tess. As much as she would successfully and honestly justify her job with the simplest addition of pleasure, the entire argument fell apart on the nights where pleasure felt forced and thoughts of the public consciousness seeped in. These happened rarely, but one was happening now.
Bret had called her the morning after the Wynn party, and she learned the feeling attached to the old cliché of being “beside herself.” She literally felt like she, her real self, was sitting a foot to the left of her professional self. She saw the promo girl that kept a snap-knife in the back of her boot, who was never accompanied to her car without friends, and who would have real trouble letting family disownment roll off her back the way Trice was forced to do. As much as she empathized with Bret, and as much as she wanted to help him with his career and help mend their shattered friendship, she could see exactly why Trice refused to simply let past mistakes go. Tess put inches between who she was and what she did. This shielded her, but it also spliced her up the middle, turning her smiling beauty into something more incomplete than she’d like.
And while Tess’ personal self felt sympathy for Bret and his mistakes, the Tess to the right claimed sly responsibility. She, the hound, once a friend of the fox, had become an instinctive predator, unknowingly giving herself an assist in the checkbox. She hadn’t known what would happen to Bret when she invited him. She was only trying to help, as she’d done a few times in the past. She did know security might be dangerous, and that Bret would have had to be at the top of his game in order to pull through. And he wasn’t, which initially confused her. She knew Bret was nowhere near as good as he had been in the past. The loss of Jenny and the breaking political story took tremendous toll on her friend.
The question she had for herself asking though, was Trice’s revenge something Tess wanted to happen?
Trice’s name appeared on Tess’ phone, and she shook off this personal mind for the time being. She picked up.
“You need a ride tonight?” Trice asked, without context.
Tess took a second to answer. “I think I’m going to call in dead for this one.”
Trice knew what this was about. She had an answer prepared.
“Tess, my girl, your ex got what he deserved.”
Tess cradled back on her couch, legs folded. Her elbows hit knees. She bundled herself as best she could with the phone still held tight. She felt cold and distant, as she often did on days when her big crazy life decision felt unreal and more punishment than epiphany.
On the other side, Trice offered solace. “Tessy, girl. I can promise you two things. The first is that if I wasn’t the one who got him, someone else would have. It was only a matter of time before he got his nose in somewhere he didn’t belong, because that’s his job, okay? It’s a paparazzi’s job, babe. They go where they’re not supposed to, and sometimes they lose out. It was bound to happen sooner and later.”
Tess remained quiet and cold. Not much was ever capable of locking her down. The only other times she’d felt this way were in deeply-entrenched arguments with Bret in the later portions of their relationship, when logic and commerce and happiness got in the way of their happily ever after tour.
“The second thing, and I definitely promise this will happen,” Trice said. “Is that you will find yourself in this position. One of those assholes will either get you or someone you love in a compromising position, and they’ll plaster that shit everywhere to make their buck. You won’t have any say in the matter except what you might do to the son of a bitch after.”
Tess the professional, Tess the coworker, the clock punching, ass-shaking feign-perplexed short blonde bombshell, she knew this was true. She’d smiled at too many cameras to think otherwise.
“And the worst part of it,” Trice continued. “The worst fucking part of it all is that at the end of the day, they weren’t taking pictures of us. We just happened to be close enough to some ugly, old, decrepit celebrity. Someone who can’t fake it like we can and can’t apply their own makeup without a fucking crew. We’re just collateral damage”
Tess tongued her cheek. “I don’t know we’re that innocent Trice.”
“Not the point, bitch,” Trice said.
Tess stammered, but then said, “I need you to promise me one thing.”
“Sure babe, just tell me you’re coming tonight. I need a friend out there.”
“Okay, I’ll come,” Tess said. “And I can’t argue with you with anything you said. I can’t really say Bret didn’t put himself in harms way. And I can’t blame you for wanting revenge. I think it’s cruel, and it’s black, and it’s a bullshit world we live in, but these things fucking happen.”
“I knew you’d see it my way,” Trice said.
“Still,” Tess cut her off. “I need you to promise me one more thing. You need to promise me that whatever shit that’s left over between Bret and you is done. He hurt you. You hurt him. You hurt him real bad, Trice. I saw the blood. I saw the swelling. The guy is in bad shape. You did your damage. Just please promise me it’s over.”
Tess had exhausted her goodwill. It was one of those nights where she would close her eyes and picture sitting in her old Vancouver apartment, drinking coffee and reading used books.
Trice, on the other hand, always had an invisible body of extra energy following her around wherever she went. She stepped heavy, and looked firm, like she’d take a swing at you as easily as give you a sample pack of sponsored smokes. This kind of energy became the kind of thing a person came to expect, so Tess was understandably surprised when she heard a defeatist whimper of a sigh come through the phone.
“Fine,” Trice admitted. “But only because you still have feelings for the bastard, and because I need you.”
“You need me?”
“As a friend,” Trice said. “It’s so hard having a good fucking friend in this city. Everyone is constantly throwing one another down the well.”
Tess, relieved, loosened her limbs, took a breath, and thanked her friend. And then defended herself. “I don’t still have feelings for him. I’m just glad we’re friends again.”
“Bitch don’t even,” Trice thrust back, then hung up.
# # #
Album dominated his game. He’d learned to claw the controller the same way that gaming world champion guy had, with his index finger on the right side buttons, his middle finger on the trigger and his thumb on the right analogue. It was a painful way to play, but he won with it so often it had to be worth it. He never thought whether it was good for him to torture his hands in such painful ways. He just did it, and he’d made that decision a long time ago. Don’t think too hard. Just do. He listened to NIKE. He listened to them in ways they never intended.
The guy, the voice on the other end of the microphone, the voice with no head or anything other than a moving avatar on screen, he asked Album, “If it hurts so much, why do it? Aren’t you here to relax?”
“No,” Album replied into the tiny headset. It itched a little against his hair, but he ignored it. “I’m here because playing big war games makes me stupid, and I need to be stupid for a while sometimes. Head in the sand shit. You know.”
“You heard me. I do it because it makes me temporarily idiotic.”
“Sorry,” the voice crackled. “I have no idea what that means, what you’re saying just now.”
“Look,” Album said. “I’m not trying to be insulting. For all I know you’re doing this because it helps you study for the LSATS. But for me, this is about dull, insipid idiocy. This relaxes me because it shuts my brain right off. It takes so few brain cells to play this game and talk to you that I’m almost in a coma.”
“I really don’t know how you can’t make that sound insulting.”
“Well, it’s not. Maybe it’s insulting if this is the pinnacle of your mental prowess, but I somehow doubt it. You know? It’s not a bad thing to want to be dumb sometimes. I mean, come on. Scientifically, we’re like 3% off from baboons, right? What do baboons do all day? Shit, eat, fuck, and sleep. God, if only that’s all the world expected of us. But we’re expected to get up early, do jobs we hate, watch bad sitcoms with our boring spouses, and then have boring vanilla sex with them so that we can raise boring, selfish babies. If we didn’t have things like video games that turned us into blithering morons for a little while, we’d all go insane. Some of have…hey, look around, faggot. Some of us have sex, porn, fucking local sports teams. You know, go Patriots and that shit. UFC, beer, reality shows, home improvement, whatever.”
The voice on the other end, he wasn’t anyone Album really knew, but Album kept talking anyway.
“Sometimes it’s something we love, like a hobby or a family. Sometimes it’s something we hate, like a nemesis, but it always pulverizes the really genius part of our brains and lets us act like the half baked animals we really are. You know, like the soldier who, while explaining some philosophy he just pulled out of his ass as a distraction method, has successfully snuck up behind you and is aiming a rifle at your pretty little teabaggable head.”
Album’s right ring finger painfully pulled the trigger.
“See? Wasn’t that awesome? I may be in it for the stupidity, but I’m still going strong. And I’m better for it. Aren’t you? Aren’t we all?”
Album just heard a click, and the player disappeared.
# # #
Bret hoofed it with hot cash in hand, walking in old shoes and looking through red, pained eyes. He still hadn’t been able to sleep proper since the pounding, but he was rich in layman’s terms. Album had given him two grand in hundreds. They were tight-rolled in a pair of rubber bands, tossed into his hands as payment for his troubles. Let it never be said his line of work lacked greenery.
It was a hot, predictably dry day. He’d enjoyed the golf, and was surprised by the luscious the payout. He knew Baldwin’s picture had won big, but two grand was still a hell of a lot of cash for a single picture, no matter what the royalty. He thought about the idea of blood money. Even as a kid, he’d always looked at money as payment for something sacrificed. Money enticed people to spend time in jobs they wouldn’t otherwise take. Money got people to take their clothes off on a stage. Money was used to shut up a person, or to keep them in line. He remembered the Million Dollar Man, a wrestling character from the 80s, the way he’d maniacally laugh and state “everyone’s got a price.” The two grand in Bret’s pocket, that was an insurance policy to make sure he wouldn’t think twice about finding another career in this city. But he was thinking. Money couldn’t stop someone from thinking, only doing.
Bret thought more than once about buying a plane ticket back to Vancouver. With two grand, Bret could buy a one-way to Vancouver International and put first and last on a downtown bachelor. Well, maybe first at least. He could take the governors advice and get out while he still had most of his teeth. He could go back to his life, back to what he did before. He thought about returning to the old job with Gas and Terry, doing what they did, not being able to tell anyone. It drove Bret nuts.
The reasons for coming to Vegas in the first place had all evaporated over the year. The city broke his relationship with Tess. The city turned him into a leprous dealer of megapixel skin. The city had torn his ties with home. He blamed himself, he blamed Album, and he blamed Tess for not bailing out when the time had come. None of this would have happened if they had kept to the plan.
Bret saw a camera store. Perhaps a ludicrously expensive impulse purchase might make the swelling go down.
Bells above the door jingled, signaling his arrival. The store was square, with one island row in the middle with new models. He noticed the camera bags, black with over-the-shoulder holsters, leather models with snaps and cushioning. He noticed the display of tripods, extenders, and water-proof cases. As he shopped around, he looked at memory cards of all shapes and sizes. One 8 gig card cost twice as much as another, with no discernible features to set it apart. Bret saw the wifi cards he’d heard of from other paps, the ones that’ll zap photos over the web as they’re taken. He found them disappointing. It was something to not have to connect a camera, but what Bret really wanted–what all paparazzi wanted–was a GPS camera that would upload shots the second they were taken. That way, even if they were assaulted, they wouldn’t lose the shots. But that sort of instant-upload technology still seemed a few years away, though he’d heard the iPhone might be able to do it when it came out, though he also heard it would have sex with you and turn into a magic carpet.
Bret took a look at the photo printers, book binding systems, software. All sorts of boxes promising fantastic photo editing, management, and distribution services. The camera store sold tablets for Photoshop users, affordable for even teenagers. He didn’t want to think it, but he couldn’t help it; when he was a kid, this shit was expensive.
Two computers with a dozen slots for easy input stood on the left wall, close to the register. People could take pictures and print them right there, right from the memory card. Bret half wondered if the guy at the counter actually had to do anything besides make sure nothing got lifted.
Bret looked at the cameras. He owned three cameras already, but all of them had taken their share of beatings over the course of time. His bulky SLR got a nasty system shock back in November when it was ripped from his neck and tossed by an overzealous Wynona Ryder. The “delete” button never worked again after that. His handy little point and shoot was scuffed all to hell, and the screen barely registered. As for the little camera he had with him last time, it worked fine. For some ungodly karmic reason, the clunky piece of spy equipment was the only thing that worked properly in Bret’s life.
In the year since Bret had bought a new camera, features had skyrocketed. Where 6 megapixels was cutting edge in 2005, 9 appeared to be the new standard. Where simple pointing and shooting was once good enough for digital cameras, touch screens and face recognition filled the description cards.
The store was lit bright, well-spaced, and half-empty, but Bret, standing close to the back of the new camera section, saw a man come into the store. He had to look twice to recognize him, and he half panicked when he did. The photographer who had ambushed his shot with Rosario Dawson.
Bret ducked, and watched the man browse the memory card shelf. He was tall and lean. He wore a leather jacket and jeans. He didn’t appear to have a camera on him. Bret circled around to the other side of the aisle. He wanted to confront him, but wanted to cut him off from the exit, first. Bret had meant to find this guy on his own time, but getting him in the daylight in a public store seemed unlikely. Then again, he was a camera man; eventually they show up in camera stores.
As the camera man browsed the new models, Bret moved around the store. As he crept, he heard the employee at the till ask the camera man if he needed any help. Bret saw him shake his head. In a few seconds, he would be right behind him.
He didn’t know what he was going to say. Bret hadn’t been given enough time to plan, but he couldn’t just leave. At first, he thought this guy was just another paparazzi, a competitor. But the balcony left no mystery; he was following Bret, trying to psyche him out.
“Why?” Bret asked allowed. He stood behind the camera man. The camera man, he stood still, didn’t turn around.
“Why?” Bret asked again. “You’ve been following me. I want to know why.”
Bret knew the cashier had heard him. It wasn’t that big of a store. If anyone else had been in there, they would have heard, too, and they would have figured Bret was nuts. Bret watched the cashiers’ eyes. The cashier thought Bret was nuts.
The camera man, he said, “Are you sure I’m following you? Don’t you think it would have been harder to sneak up on me?”
“You were outside the Venetian. You took my shot.”
“I took your shot?” The camera man asked, though it wasn’t really a question than an attempt at correction. His voice wasn’t as low as Bret thought it would be. It had flavour, a slight accent, a little bit of coffee. Bret couldn’t place it.
Bret said. “You took a shot of me.”
“I see,” the camera man said. “You want answers.”
“That would be nice,” Bret said.
The camera man turned around, faced Bret, looked down on him. He was taller by a solid six inches. Leaner, too, but older by 5, maybe 6 years. The two looked one another in the eyes. Bret looked with confusion, the camera man looked with ease. Bret didn’t take it as anything. The camera man held all the cards.
The camera man asked, “What do you want to know, padre?”
The cashier, he popped his head out from behind the till and asked if there was going to be any trouble. Neither man said anything back.
Bret asked, “Why are you following me?”
The camera man smiled. On his cheeks, lines appeared. He was older than he looked. He said, “I’m following you because you need to be followed.”
Bret didn’t take long to formulate a new question, though he hadn’t begun to digest the last answer. “Who’s paying you to follow me?”
“Bret,” he said. “You should know right away that I’m not allowed to give you that kind of information.”
“Is it the governor?”
“What governor?” The camera man asked.
Bret assumed Fane had ties with shady organizations. He was his first suspect simply because he was the most powerful person Bret knew. “Is that a no?” Bret asked.
“Forgive me for being cryptic, but you must understand that some things take time to surface,” he said. “But sleep easy.”
“And why should I do that?”
“Because I’m on your side,” he said.
“Wait,” Bret said. “You’re following me, but you’re on my side?”
“That’s right,” the camera man said. “Now get out of here.”
“Who are you?” Bret asked.
The camera man tried to side-step Bret, but he wouldn’t let him go. Bret asked again.
“Who are you?”
The camera man tried to get around Bret again, but he kept blocking. An exasperated look showed up across his face, so he pretended to go one way but stood his ground. When Bret moved to block him in the aisle, he received a harsh shove. Bret fell back into the aisle, knocking several cameras off their podiums.
Bret pulled himself up, but the camera man was already at the door. Bret ran out, asking the same question again. He bolted out the door into the street, but the camera man was gone.
Bret’s back was shooting pain. He’d been beaten twice in the last week, and his injuries were piling up. Getting shoved back into rough-edged display electronics didn’t help. He held his sides and doubled over. More than anything, he felt helpless. He was being followed by a man with no name, no clear motive, and who was both faster and stronger.
# # #
As Bret trekked back to his car, he thought about Terry, his coworker back in Vancouver. Terry understood Bret’s departure more than anyone. It had everything to do with the work. Bret needed a change, and Terry suggested the states.
“Everything’s easier down there,” Terry had told him late one night. They were out at their favourite bar downtown. The place stank of pot, but they weren’t smoking. “America is a cinch. Low taxes. Everything is super cheap. Nobody assumes they have the right to know you, to ask questions. People keep to themselves.”
“That would be nice,” Bret had said, laughing. “But you’ve got to admit the irony of a gay dude advising his friends to move to America.”
“They’ll get their shit together soon enough,” Terry said. “They can’t stay in the dark ages forever. Don’t worry; they’ll elect a democrat in the next election and she’ll fix everything.”
“She’s a shoe-in,” Terry said. “She’ll clean up the whole mess. And until then, you can lay low in republican paranoia and low gas prices.”
“Just for a few months,” Bret said. “I love this city. I love you guys. I don’t want to lose this. I just need to get away for a long vacation.”
Terry, he said, “We understand. We all do. This job is hard on everyone.”
“I’ve got enough money saved up for a few weeks off, but any more than that and I’ll need to get a job. I wonder if I can do something over the net.”
“Forget that,” Terry said. “That’s the other awesome thing about the states. There’s hundreds of jobs in every city never ask you for tax info. They pay cash and don’t ask questions.”
“What kind of job does that?”
Terry thought for a second and then snapped his fingers. “Album!”
“Album? Like a record?”
“No, no,” Terry said. “I know this guy in Vegas. Album Yukes.”
“Weird name,” Bret said.
“It’s not his real name,” Terry said. “It’s his avatar.”
“He’s a professional blogger. He does celebrity gossip and shit like that.”
“What about him?”
“I was online with him a few weeks ago. He’s looking for a photographer. He wants to take his site to the next level. Apparently he wants to pay well.”
“Terry, I’ve never so much taken a picture of my mother’s cat.” Bret said, drinking his pint.
“How hard can it be?” Terry said. “Point. Shoot. Run away. Easy.”
Bret was receptive to the idea, if a little confused about the concept. “Where is this Album Yukes?”
Terry took a long drink and said “Las Vegas.”
Terry explained that the neon swell of cheap thrills and good old American excess might distract the voice that was telling Bret to burn all his possessions.
It was a stupid, crazy plan that worked until it didn’t. Somehow, Bret had never thought to blame Terry until this moment.
“Fucker,” he said to nobody. “This is all his fault.”
Bret found the keys to his car and opened the door. He started the engine, still holding his side. His back hurt against the seat. He needed some rest, some pills, and some perspective. He thought about Jenny, and how if he’d just kept his goddamn mouth shut none of this would have happened.
# # #
Fane’s campaign office was all but empty. Banners stacked six by six against the walls, next to picket signs with his name, next to a fold-up table holding bumper stickers and pamphlets, next to a series of laptops for interns and correspondents to do research, across from a series of desks for the paid employees. Four seats away from the bumper stickers, Jenny Kingston was backing up the last of the emails. She was charged with taking all of the server files, emails, jpegs, tiffs, quark files, queries, form letters, all of it, and storing two sets onto to encrypted external hard drives. Jenny sat in her black, plush, comfortable chair, sipping coffee out of a cup with Fane’s name on it. His name was in red. Jenny always thought it should have been in blue. She watched the window on her computer that showed files moving from one drive to another, the same white page floating from one yellow folder to the next. She saw the overall file size. Every single file regarding Fane’s campaign for the primaries totaled twenty four gigabytes. Every single video, photo, and communication during the last eight months fit in a space smaller than her music collection at home. It made Jenny feel old fashioned.
Jenny sat alone, watching the files float. The sun was beginning to go down. The wind was beginning to pick up. Out the front window, Jenny could see a coffee shop and a bar. It was busy. “Fuck,” she thought. “I could use a goddamn drink.”
Though she’d done her best to conceal her relationship with Bret, several of her coworkers knew the score. They knew he was a paparazzi, and they could do simple math. Once it became common knowledge that Bret had done the stakeout and taken the picture, word spread quick that Jenny might have had something to do with it. The first two days after the blog post had been the hardest. There were literally thousands of emails to defer; everyone went into crisis control mode. Everyone stayed all night trying to fan the flames. In the morning the next day, 24 hours after the post, Fane accepted the fact that it was out there. He called up a republican committee representative that handles crisis involving sexual scandals. The podium of shame came out. A press conference was called for noon. Every major news channel was in attendance. This was the kind of news that could single-handedly carry the 24/7 news cycle through a weekend.
Jenny was a little more than pissed that this story is what finally landed her a panel seat on MSNBC.
It had been three weeks since the incident. The news channels had moved onto other things. They’d scraped them clean. All there was left to do was clean up the office and go back to whatever it was they had all done before.
Jenny had a private meeting with Fane a few hours after the incident. He wanted answers about Bret. He wanted to know how it all happened. Jenny lied to save her job. She had said that Bret had figured out her password and was reading her email. She called him a jealous boyfriend. She told Fane that Bret thought the two of them were having an affair. The lie had everything going for it. It exonerated her from any real responsibility, painted Bret as the sole problem, and flattered her boss.
Reggie had smiled at the lie, at the thought that he was having an affair with his secretary. “I suppose that sort of thing has been known to happen,” he said. “And I have to give it to him. He smelled an affair.”
“Yes,” Jenny said. “But that doesn’t forgive him for what he did.”
Reggie asked her, “Are you going to keep seeing this man?”
“Reggie,” she said. “He violated my trust. He threatened my career and he went out of his way to destroy yours. If I don’t kill him, I’ll be showing incredible restraint.”
Jenny had shown incredible restraint. Over the next two days she’d kicked Bret out of her apartment. He’d gone to crash on the asshole’s couch. She threatened to burn all of his stuff, and nearly went through with it. She was white-hot angry, the kind that usually ends with a punch to the gut. That was the other thing. Even though she wanted to beat Bret within an inch of his life, she knew she’d regret it. She had to force herself down from violence a few times. She kept telling herself that she’d regret it. Over and over in her mind, the old childhood motto, violence never solved anything.
Jenny was putting a lot more Baileys in her coffee over the last three weeks.
Slowly, the files ticked along, from one folder to another.
Reggie didn’t have to fire her because the whole office was out of a job anyway. Once the files were finished downloading, she was to take one to Reggie’s house and place the other in his safety deposit box. When that was done, it was done. She was free. The campaign would be officially over.
Reggie was out of a job, too. The representatives of the party had asked for his resignation within hours of the scandal. He remained the governor of Nevada only because there were a few hundred t’s to cross. That was always the problem with being a representative. The second you stop representing the populace that voted you in, you were out. The irony, something Jenny held onto as the only amusing aspect of the whole mess, was that Reggie hadn’t really done a great job of representing the people of Nevada until he started fucking around.
Jenny sipped her coffee, and watched her job slowly transfer away.
# # #
Album had been killed by his own men for the last fucking time.
“Goddamn you to the 12th circle, Gary!”
“I’m not Gary, I’m Joker143.” Gary said through his headset, two thousand miles away.
Album gave him no quarter. “Gary, I don’t care what stupid gamer tag you use. I met you at the Bloggers conference in Miami six months ago. I wanted to smack you and your gay haircut then and I definitely want to smack you now.”
“Album,” Gary said through his mic. “That’s hardly constructive.”
“Constructive, Gary, would be you not shooting my ass when you’re running behind me. Constructive would be you throwing your grenades instead of simply dropping them, so the people around you get blown the fuck up.”
“Okay, jeez man,” Gary said. “Let’s go again.”
“No, fuck this,” Album said. “I’m out. I gotta let one out I’m so angry at you right now.”
Album threw down the headset and cranked the music on his stereo from his remote. He tossed the remote down and got up to his computer. It had been a solid four hours since he’d last jerked off, and he figured he was due.
Album worked himself up into a small sweat. It wasn’t going to take long, this one. The movie he’d been watching earlier had saved his spot for him. It was great. The more the years went by online, the easier it was to enjoy whatever type of pornography you wanted to see. Album kept it simple. Fake blonde hair, fake tits, and twins. As Album stroked, he knew it would take him half of next week to get through this particular movie.
He was ready to go. As always, he tried his hardest to keep himself at 9, that state of pure anticipation without guarantee of release. He knew it wouldn’t last, though. He’d known that for years.
Just as he’d reached the point of no return, his doorbell rang.
Album knew he had, like, ten seconds to go. He ignored the bell. It rang again.
“One fucking minute!” He screamed, then, like clockwork, got it all over the bottom of his shirt.
“Fuck!” He said, hating himself but incapable of helping. “Not a-fucking-gain.”
The doorbell rang.
“Jesus Christ, one second!” He bellowed. He stood up. He took off his shirt.
He pulled back on the door handle, and couldn’t believe his hazy, weary eyes.
Reggie Fane stood in Album’s doorway, and Album smelled like fast, easy sex.
Album cleared his throat, caught his bearings. The little death held a small cloud over his head, but it was clearing. “Um, I don’t…I don’t know who you’re…”
“Cut the shit, Henry,” Reggie said in the calmest intimidating voice imaginable.
“How did you get my real…”
“Taxes,” he said. “Can I come in, now?”
Album poked his head out his apartment door. Reggie was alone.
“What do you want?” Album asked.
“To talk,” Reggie said. “Just wanted to talk to you.”
Album thought fast. “Sure,” he said. “Just let me get a shirt on. Come on in. Make yourself at home.”
Album rushed into his room as Reggie stood in the living room. Reggie looked at the couch. He noticed the half-eaten bag of chips. He saw the game controller with the microphone plugged in. Reggie noticed the stereo, the pile of burned CDs. Lastly, Reggie saw the computer.
While Reggie soaked in the habitat, Album found an old analog recorder. It was illegal to record people without their permission, but if Album hadn’t broken the law as often as he had he wouldn’t be where he is. As he turned the tape on and stuffed it into his pants pocket, he wondered how much he and Reggie had in common.
Album emerged from his bedroom with one thought in his head. He asked Reggie, “So, what did you want to talk about?”
“It’s fascinating,” Reggie said, waving off Album’s question. “That I was taken down by a man seemingly incapable of keeping his own house clean.”
“If you came here to insult me,” Album replied. “You could have just posted a comment on the blog.”
Reggie smiled. “I thought it might be good to meet my maker.”
Album cleared his throat again. “What? Are you here to shoot me or something?”
“I came to talk,” Reggie said. “Though the thought has crossed my mind.”
Album offered Reggie his second chair. He took it and sat. Album sat down on his computer chair.
“Please,” Reggie said. “Don’t insult me by thinking I didn’t see the recorder in your pants pocket.”
Album gave a quick look of surprise, but was impressed at Reggie’s eye. “I guess giant bulges in pants don’t get by you, huh?”
As Album pulled out the recorder and hit stop, Reggie smiled. “That was actually somewhat clever, so I’ll let you have it.”
“Why thank you,” Album said.
“I came here to ask you a few questions,” Reggie said. “I’ve talked to just about everyone I know about this situation. I’ve spoken to all the people that work for me, all the people who were pulling for me, and even a couple of my political opponents. I’ve spoken to the press. Some have been sympathetic, and some less so. I’ve given interviews to many people. So, for the sake of context, for the sake of getting the other side, and for the sake of being a better politician, a better representative, I’ve come to talk to you.”
Album heard the governor, but still couldn’t figure out his game. Still, this was a fascinating, terrifying, electrifying opportunity. Album said, “I’m all ears.”