Lens Flare

By Aegel-maere Aetre

Archive ID: 10-Ch. Article No. 9

December 2004 - January 2005


Some people live to help others. Some people live only to help themselves. Then there are those who religiously follow their calling to make everyone else’s existence a living hell. Carson Forbes knew his calling a little too well.

He took a taxi to work not because he had to; he could easily afford a car if he wanted one. He firmly believed that such menial tasks as driving were beneath him. Stoplights, pedestrians, traffic laws... there were better things, more important things to pay attention to--like lighting his cigarette. Also, he had to read the morning releases of all the major tabloids.

He started with The Daily Fire. The front page boasted the headline, “Tonya Lancaster’s Scandalous Past: How She Really Spent Her College Years!” Carson gave the photo editor credit for a nicely done lead photo of a mostly naked woman at a frat party--her head replaced with the actress’s for the sake of selling the paper. The picture was slightly blurred so as to hide the obvious edit, but anyone with half a brain and semi-decent eyesight could still have figured out the picture was completely fake. Luckily for the tabloid business, the average person barely possessed enough brainpower to figure out how to use a remote control.

The next tabloid Carson looked at, The International Informer, led with a story about Hollywood Couple #87521’s “Heartbreaking Split.” Sure this had happened over a month ago, but why not milk it for an extra issue or a dozen? It certainly would do no harm, so long as the headline kept selling. Nothing ever did any harm so long as it kept selling. Next week, Carson would not be surprised to see this tabloid run another story about Princess Diana’s death or a similarly recycled event. The International Informer was like that lately; when new news actually came, the reporters hardly knew what to do with it anymore.

Last but definitely not least, Carson looked at the tabloid he worked for, The Comet. One of his pictures made the front page today. Carson smiled and took in a refreshingly toxic breath of cigarette smoke. The headline read, “Irons Prison Nightmare,” and the picture showed a convicted celebrity bruised and beaten on the floor of his cell. The best part of the photo was that no editing marks could be found on it--no edits had been made. Carson may have been the last photographer in Hollywood who never resorted to fraud with his work... even if this meant he had to go to drastic lengths to get the photos he wanted. This prison picture, for example, was 100% real, and all it took to get it were two bribed cops and an inmate willing to make Dusty Irons’s bruises look good enough for the camera. This was one of Carson’s lighter jobs as of late.

So who’s it gonna be today? Carson mused. I could catch up on the prostitutes’ ring and see if there are any opportunities... any celebrities having their fun on the side. Or perhaps the drug ring knows of a scandal. If not, then maybe there’ll be something interesting on the billboard. His boss, Gerhart, usually left a few backup stories that anyone could use on the billboard in front of a minor editor’s office. It was first-come-first-serve with these assignments. Other times, a story would be big enough that only a few of the more experienced reporters would be permitted to cover it. Carson was always among these, and he knew perfectly why: whereas the other tabloids would compromise the story by sending the lowest two-bit hack with a camera, The Comet had the best talent cover the best news. To get the other papers to care enough about a story to send talent, one almost had to convince them that such things mattered. In an age with digital photo editing, this all too often was not the case. It mattered to Carson, though--not because editing was dishonest, but because it took away from all the fun of being Paparazzi.

“Here we are,” said the cab driver. “That’ll be $19.50.”

Carson took a twenty out of his pocket and said, “Change, please.”

“What, no tip?”

“Tip: shut the hell up and give me my change. I don’t have time for this.”

When Carson reached the offices on the twenty-fifth floor, most of the staff had already arrived. Oddly enough, they were not just sitting around in their cubicles and trying to think up interesting headlines this morning. They walked about, talking to each other, as if they had actual work to do. This confused Carson greatly; something was up, and he would soon find out what.

A small crowd gathered around the editor’s office to read the stories posted. There were many more assignments than usual. If Carson did not think of something more exciting to do today, at least he would have no shortage of choice here. On closer inspection, though, he realized that each of the posted assignments had a name on it--they were all specifically made for one reporter or a team of two or three. This confused Carson even more. Sure, the lesser journalists had to be told what to do, but most got to pick their assignments by the time they rose above entry level. Even when Gerhart gave Carson a recommendation for a story, it remained that: a recommendation. Today, everyone, including the senior staff, seemed to take their assignments seriously. There had to be an explanation.

On the billboard, there was no story posted specifically for Carson, but there was a small note pinned in the lower left corner of the board. The words read, “Forbes, to my office. --G.”

If Gerhart really wanted to be conspicuous about this, he would not have left the note there, but instead, on the door of Carson’s office. No, this message was not meant to be hidden compared to the rest of the board; the old man had meant for all the other reporters to see exactly who was getting the special assignment while the rest of them got crap. Carson smiled and left the note where it was as he turned toward the boss’s office.

Editor-in-chief, Walter Gerhart, kept his own office as far away as possible from those of the lesser editors. Furthermore, although the billboard was by the lesser editors’ doors, Carson knew there was really only one authority figure who mattered around here, and as such, only one person responsible for the assignments. Carson could not even remember the other editors’ names--not that it made any difference.

Past the cubicles, across the hall, up three flights via the elevator, down another hall, and to the left... Carson opened the door without knocking or asking permission from the secretary. She did not seem to object, anyway.

“Glad you could make it,” said the old man from behind his desk. “You realize you’re late.”

Gerhart’s office reflected his personality well: dusty, old, dark, but perfectly organized, with an emphasis on practical function at the cost of utter disregard for aesthetics. Bookshelves lined both walls; the journals on them had not been touched for years, and their pages cracked and yellowed even with closed covers. Yet, the issues were perfectly sorted by date, and not a single one was missing. On the far wall, two windows loomed over the whole room, their shades drawn shut but their presence enormous nonetheless. There were only two lights in the room: an insufficient fluorescent light overhead, and a simple desk lamp next to the computer. The desk itself was huge, as it spanned half the office’s width. More importantly, the desk was pulled up so that most of the large office lay behind it. The point of this was to make anyone on the near side of the room feel small and cramped and intimidated. Carson did not mind it so much, though. He walked right past the desk and made Gerhart turn around in his swivel chair to talk with him.

“So what’s the deal?” Carson asked.

“Got a job for you. Quite possibly something we can milk for months if you can pull it off.”

“Go on.” Carson looked with feigned interest at the bookshelves. He knew the old man did not like it when people looked him in the eyes during conversation.

“Jenna Pierce is getting married. You heard her engagement announcement last week, right?”

“Had no idea and don’t care. Send someone to take wedding photos. That doesn’t sound so hard.”

“But there’s no groom, Forbes.”

“Yeah, that could be a problem.”

“I’m serious. She showed off the engagement ring, but she’s not telling anyone who she’s engaged to. Family aren’t talking, friends claim to know nothing, and she’ll probably insist on a secret wedding.”

Carson lit another cigarette and said, “Why would she announce an engagement to the press if she wants to be secretive about it?”

“Good question!” Gerhart said. “I want you to find out. Get me everything you can on this. You may have to follow her for a while. If I had to bet, I’d say she’s trying some publicity stunt to get the better of us, and she wants to rub it in our faces that she can pull off a wedding without us knowing anything. She’s cocky enough to try it. I’m hoping you can do some quality journalism and put the bitch in her place. What say you?”

“Now you’re speaking my language.” Carson grinned. “But don’t we already have someone covering Jenna?”

“Only a photographer covering her major events. His name is Riley, and he’s useless except when it comes to adjusting the lens. We need someone with actual investigative ability on this one. Someone who’s underhanded enough to get the dirt and come out clean. And you’re just the scumbag for the job.”

“No one’s scummier.” The grin grew wider. Carson had always been a sucker for flattery.

“This will easily be your biggest assignment since last year’s Oscars. If you succeed, you’ll receive three times your normal pay, plus bonuses for every wedding photo you can get. Double the total amount if we’re the only paper to get the story.”

“Wow, you really want this, don’t you?”

“I do,” said Gerhart. “It’s more than that, though. I get the feeling up ’til now you’ve never really had a chance to show your true skill. The ‘major’ assignments you’ve done have been, I suspect, some of the most boring for you. You didn’t really like working those Oscars, did you? All you did was sit in a camera pit and hope someone would trip on stage so you’d have a story.”

“The tripwire worked, you know.”

“Haha, yeah... And I gave you a bonus for that, right?”

“Still waiting for it.”

“No joke! Well, here’s your chance to earn it, and a lot more. Let’s see what you’ve got. You start immediately. Pierce is finishing a concert tour in London today. She comes home to her Beverly Hills mansion tomorrow. She’ll travel via private jet and limousine only. Her plans after that are unclear.

“Find out where and when the wedding is. It’ll have to happen soon. I don’t know if you’ll want Riley’s help or not. If you don’t need him, I’ve got other stars he can follow.”

“Guess I’ll know when I meet him.” A lie. No way in hell Carson would not work alone. “Is that all?”

“Keep in touch. This will take several days at the very least, and I don’t want you disappearing on me. Give me progress reports daily.”

Carson’s voice imitated that of a spoiled child sent to bed. “Yes, sir.”


Only a few reporters showed up at the airport to take pictures of Jenna Pierce coming off the plane. They kept a respectful distance, not for Jenna’s sake, but because of the bodyguards by the limo and barbed wire fence between this car and the cameras.

Riley was late in arriving, but he would not miss the show. He received a message through voicemail that he would no longer be assigned to Jenna after that day. This message reached him while he drove to LAX that morning.

Riley wondered what he had done wrong; he knew his photos were of standard if not good quality, and he loved his job very much. He returned home a day early from London as per Gerhart’s instructions and spent the night fighting off jet lag at his apartment. The airport photos, he now knew, would be his last chance probably for a while to get Jenna on film, so he decided he had better make the most of it. He held his favorite camera and waited with the other reporters at the fence.

The airplane came on time, which was better than Riley could say for most of his personal experiences in air travel. Reporters usually had the worst of luck. Well, at least Riley’s last day on the current job would be a good one...

Meanwhile, Carson watched the small mob of reporters and had to use all of his self control not to laugh or gloat over them. He looked to his right, where two of Pierce’s bodyguards stood. They were saying something to each other in a serious and almost paranoid tone of voice, so Carson would have to remain serious himself if he wanted to fit in.

“Could happen to anybody,” said the bodyguard known as Rick.

“Huh,” said the other, whose name Carson had not yet learned. “Well, how long’s he gonna be in the hospital for? A week? Two?”

“For food poisoning? Oh, he could get out in a day,” said Carson. “I shouldn’t have to fill in for long.” Just long enough.

The bodyguards did not have to go to Jenna’s private plane when she exited it; she already had enough of an entourage as it was. Carson scanned them thoroughly. Among her traveling cohorts were four more bodyguards, all four other members of her band, at least five stage crewmembers, and--worst of all--a person so close to her and so much a sycophant, he could only be her agent.

The first words Carson could hear Jenna say were, “And tell that man he can bite me.” Evidently Carson had missed out on the first half of a conversation he frankly would not have minded being in on. Celebrity anger was great for film... But now was not the time for pictures.

“Absolutely,” said her agent. Carson had done his homework; this man’s name was Palmer. First name did not matter. “I will tell him personally that you are upset.”

“Upset!” Jenna yelled. “That man portrayed women horribly in that book! How am I supposed to count that as my autobiography, hm?”

“A very good question.” They were almost to the bottom of the stairs leading out of the airplane. “You are completely right as always.”

“When I say I want to write an autobiography, I don’t want to make all women look like man-hating, feminist, anger-filled freaks! I mean, look at me! I NEVER GET ANGRY! Ooh, it’s stuff like this that makes me so angry sometimes.”

“I... couldn’t agree more.”

They reached the limousine. Jenna calmed down instantly and said, “Hi, Rick. Hi, Phil. Hi... Whoever you are. Hey, where’s Alfonso?”

“Al’s sick today, Miss Pierce,” said Carson as he tipped his chauffeur cap in greeting. “My name is Lloyd, and I’ll be filling in for him today.”

“Whatever. Just drive me home. And could you do me a favor and not drive straight into the Paparazzi, unless you plan on doing it at eighty miles per hour?”

Carson smiled. “As you wish, Miss.”

Airport security guards opened the gate to let the limo through. They did their best to keep the press out, but of course this was only partially successful. The only thing that made the cameras move out of the way in the end was the roar of the limousine’s engine. Jenna’s entourage, except for a few bodyguards and Carson, went in separate vans behind the limo.

Jenna screamed when Carson slammed on the gas and broke out of the gate at an alarming speed for the vehicle’s size. Carson, in the back of his mind, hoped he might actually hit one or two of the cameramen from competing tabloids, but no such luck. Everyone dove out of the way in the nick of time. Oh well, at least they hit the asphalt pretty hard.

Carson slowed down when they reached the freeway. He had to. Traffic never went quickly there. An accident up the road meant that if there had been any reporters still following them, those people could have walked and still kept up with the limo and vans.

In due time, though, Carson brought Jenna home to her Beverly Hills mansion. The singer thanked her guest chauffeur for the fun and asked how long he would be replacing Alfonso.

“As long as he’s in the hospital, Miss,” said Carson. “He should probably be fine by tomorrow.”

“Oh, screw that. He’s fired. You’re hired. Park this thing in the garage and make whatever arrangements you need to stay here.”

Later, in the mansion’s large garage, Carson surveyed the limo. There were all sorts of marks from where he had gone over curbs, but other than that, he could not see too much damage--not bad for someone who had never driven a limousine in his life and actually had not driven anything in over a year. Also, Jenna had been distracted for most of the ride because she was talking on her cell phone and did not notice the curbs any more than the potholes on the road.

Palmer, who did not ride in the limo, went from the airport to his office to file away some things from the concert tour. Carson was glad to have that man out of the way. Nobody could steal a celebrity’s attention from the cameras like an agent. Sure, they were weasels and shameless brown-nosers, but they usually knew damn well what they were doing and how to keep their celebrity from embarrassment on film. No reporter would ever consider this a good thing. In Carson’s case particularly, if this wedding turned out to be as private as the singer hoped, and if in the end Carson failed, it would be because of Palmer, no doubt. All the better Palmer did not know who Carson really was. Secrecy, as usual, was his best hope for success. Only the very heavily bribed could be trusted with his identity, and sometimes not even then. So far Carson had not bribed anyone; good pickpocketing skills last night, plus some salmonella poisoning in Alfonso’s restaurant dinner, were all it took to get the limo and keys. For a uniform, Carson bought his own hat and used an old black suit from his closet.

Carson noticed he was starting to shake, so he pulled out a cigarette to calm his nerves. So what if it was unhealthy? In Hollywood, there was only one rule: if it felt good and was not crack or heroin, nobody could blame you for doing it. Once he had relaxed a bit, he assessed the situation. He had infiltrated Jenna’s servant ranks; that was step one. He still did not know where the wedding would be or when, and he had not begun any real investigation. The reason he wanted to get inside, if even for one day, was simply because only those closest to Jenna would have been informed of the wedding plans. Perhaps relatives had been invited, but they would be too respectful of Jenna’s wishes to give away any decent information unless for a steeper price than Carson was willing to pay. Servants, on the other hand, as well as the closest sycophants like Palmer, had to know. No way Jenna would have her wedding without letting her agent plan it. And servants always knew more than their masters thought was revealed to them. At the very least, Carson could learn pretty quickly who the groom was. That would be something worth sending Gerhart.

Carson had not planned on being hired as a chauffeur permanently, but then, he was not about to complain. With this good an identity, he might be able to secure a wedding invitation... He considered all this, along with possible scenarios, for a full hour while he chain-smoked. Then he realized he was putting the cart before the horse and decided to call Gerhart on his cell phone. Carson then briefed his editor-in-chief on the surprisingly good news.


Gerhart received the call at 3:00pm. His smile grew so wide, it looked as if it would burst through the sides of his face. This could not have come with better timing. Riley was in the office now, and he was demanding to know why he had been taken off his assignment.

Gerhart put down the phone and said, “Alright, now... Where were we?”

“My last photos of Jenna.”

“Ah, yes.” The pictures had just been developed. “They look good. I like how you were able to get her full face in most of them.”

“So why are you replacing me?”

“Oh, I’m just shuffling things around a bit. We do that from time to time. It’s really just that we like to give people new assignments and let them give us some variety on the shots we get. Your style, for example, is very distinctive. I think it would be most useful in tracking any number of celebrities. And yet you’ve only done Jenna Pierce since you got here--what was that, two years ago? It’s time for you to tread new water. Eventually, I’ll take you off that person too, and then you’ll have someone else to follow. This is quite common, I assure you, and it’s not meant to be punishment. Think of it as a new beginning in your career.”

Riley slouched back in the chair across from Gerhart. Gerhart could not figure out why the young cameraman would look so upset. It was only a routine assignment change, which would not affect the man’s status or pay. Why should he be sad?

“So who do I follow now?” Riley asked.

“I’m going to put you on Derek Mahler.”

Riley looked as though the world were coming to an end. “Derek Mahler? But the man’s fifty and ugly and--” He seemed to check himself for some reason. “--And he won’t show up well on camera.”

“Nonsense,” said Gerhart. “He’s been an actor for three decades. He shows up great on film. So time has not been kind to him and he’s had some botched plastic surgery. Good! Try to exploit that. Sometimes that type of thing makes for a great story. We ran stuff on him for a good three weeks last year after the last attempt a doctor made at fixing his chin.”

Riley shuddered.

“Tell you what, Riley. Do this assignment for me for three months, and if you don’t like working that job anymore, I’ll assign you to someone else. Deal?”

“I guess.”

“You look tired... Must be all that jet lag from traveling. Go ahead and take the rest of the day off. Start following Mahler tomorrow. I think he’s going to announce something about his latest movie...”

Marty Riley went home in his dirty old Corolla. He had a townhouse on the outskirts of Los Angeles. The building was in total disrepair, and it was not a good neighborhood by any standard measure, but at least he owned his own home. It may not have been much, but it was his.

He had always been the type of person to be known only by surname; he never had enough friends growing up, and not even his mother called him ‘Marty’ after his thirteenth birthday. Now she would say, ‘Sweetheart’ or the like, which was really only an excuse so she would not have to call him ‘Riley’ herself. Now that he was finally living on his own, the only companion Riley had was a four-year-old gray cat named Jenna.

Riley parked his car on the street, stepped out, and locked the doors. It was unlikely anyone would try to steal the car or anything inside it, but one could never be too careful. He unlocked the front door to his townhouse and walked in. Aside from the kitchen and bathrooms, the only places important to Riley were his bedroom and the living room. He used the bedroom for pretty much everything, even as a home office. The living room was always his first stop after coming home, though. There a broken recliner faced a small projection television in the corner, while the rest of the room contained only a bookshelf and, across from that, a fireplace. The bookshelf contained no books; only photographs Riley had taken, framed. Every single one of these photographs showed only one person: Jenna Pierce. Other larger Jenna pictures and posters, some of which were his work and some of which were not, hung on the walls of the room. The largest of these hung over the fireplace.

Riley threw his sport coat and tie on the chair, and then he walked over to this fireplace. He used one of the matches sitting on the mantle to light some candles and complete the shrine.

His cat wandered into the room and meowed. Riley turned away from the shrine and said, “I forgot to feed you, didn’t I? Here, Jenna. I’ll get you something.”

He walked into the kitchen and picked the cat’s bowl up from the floor. He said, “It’s been a rough day, Jenna.”

Riley filled the bowl before continuing; he always had a problem doing two things at once. “You don’t know how hard I’ve worked, how hard I’ve slaved for that woman... how many places I’ve been, long nights spent, rolls of film used to the last picture...”

He laid the bowl before the cat. Then he walked back into the living room to gaze at the shrine--or, more accurately, the pinup poster above the mantle--but he kept talking to Jenna.

“I remember the first time I saw her... like it was yesterday. A ten-years-ago yesterday. I remember the concert... It was like she sang only for me, beckoned me with succulent lips to come to her and take her away so we could discover paradise together...

“Then, two years ago when I finally got legal permission to get within fifty feet of her again, when the paper put me on the job of capturing her--on camera this time--oh, Jenna, I was on Cloud Nine... No, Cloud Nine Thousand!”

His voice devolved to a whisper, but a strong one between deep breaths. “Two years, two blessed, blessed years, I strove to examine every inch of that body, every one of the infinite curves on that skin.”

He closed his eyes and rubbed his hands over his chest. “Ooh, and you taunted me, didn’t you, Jenna? Oh yes. Yes. You would make love to the camera every time you took the stage. You would twist and dance, and you would sing. Oh, would you sing! Even in these still photographs, that body sings to me now. Jenna...”

The cat, uninterested, kept eating in silence. It was used to this type of behavior from its master.

“I was living my dream!” Riley yelled suddenly. “And now they take it away, right after she announced to the world that she was getting married. I could have been a cameraman covering her on the happiest day of her life! But no... Gerhart, that old scrooge, took me off the job to put someone else in... And whoever he is, he probably won’t appreciate Jenna... won’t worship Jenna for all Jenna is. No. He will only take pictures as if they mean nothing, as if she were nothing more than just another untalented teeny bop singer whose music the industry shoves down people’s throats on mass radio.

“Oh, Jenna, I know you better, though. I’ve seen the way your lips quiver every time you sing...” His breathing quickened. “...I’ve watched your breasts heave as you draw more air for the high notes...” He closed his eyes. “I can’t let them take you away from me, Jenna. I mustn’t!”

With this, he ran upstairs to his bedroom and grabbed from the closet a warmer sport coat than he had worn to work that day. January had been mild this year, but it could still be cold in the evenings, and it might be late by the time he got home again.

He had to get back to the office. He had to find out who had taken his assignment. He had to beg for a trade. He had to do something.

When Riley arrived back at The Comet’s offices, Gerhart was too busy talking with others and did not have any more openings in his schedule for the rest of the day. Also, none of the other reporters or cameramen knew who had taken the Pierce job. Everybody had been reassigned, though, according to notices on the board outside the lesser editors’ offices. Riley could look on that board and see if anyone there was assigned to Jenna. When he discovered this, he immediately went to look.

There were at least fifty notices, but nothing had Jenna’s name anywhere on it. In the lower left corner was a message for Forbes to see Gerhart in his office, but that could have been for any number of reasons not having to do with Jenna. Thus discouraged, Riley went across the hall to his own cubicle so he could think things over. His pictures, the ones he took at the airport a few hours ago, were waiting on his desk. All the photographs there--as well as the hundreds that adorned the cubicle walls--contained Jenna in them somewhere. Today’s shots were, as Gerhart had rightly said, pretty good as pictures came. Riley captured her face several times, and it was always perfectly centered. Riley would not have it any other way. Some of the pictures were close-ups, and some showed a wider view with other people in them.

Riley envied those people, all of the ones in these pictures, who got to travel with Jenna. The bodyguards looked so smug... the agent so insincere, the band tired and for some reason not even talking to Jenna after they left the plane. Jenna was not smiling, but Riley still viewed her as the most attractive personality there. In fact, in all the pictures, the only person who seemed happy was the chauffeur. Riley had a picture of the man tipping his cap to Jenna. Riley remembered that this man had almost run over him with the limousine.

Then Riley thought for a second... That chauffeur looked very familiar... Where had Riley seen him before? Certainly not as chauffeur...

Wait, he thought. Isn’t this man a reporter? One of the big shots around here who has an office instead of a cubicle? Yeah, he looks just like that man--what’s his name... Forbes...

It took fifteen seconds for Riley to figure out what was going on.

“He’s going to secure a spot at the wedding,” Riley said out loud. No. This could not be. “But if he can get in, then surely I...”

A hundred thoughts flooded his mind at once. He simply had to be there. He had to witness this wedding, even if she were marrying someone other than Riley himself. Oh, or better yet, maybe he could charge the altar when the preacher said, “If there is anyone here who can say why this couple should not be joined in holy matrimony, let them speak now or forever hold their peace...”

Even as he imagined that scene, though, he knew it could never happen. She was too good for him, and he would have to be satisfied with being happy for her. He could do that if he had to. Besides, by keeping his cool at her wedding, he could prove to her that he was not a total basket case. He wanted her to know that he had changed since the last time...

I must get to Forbes, he thought. He can get me into the wedding. He’s got to know how. He looked to the side of his computer monitor, where one of his favorite Jenna portraits rested in a cheap plastic frame. Don’t worry, Jenna, he mouthed, afraid someone might overhear him in his cubicle if he spoke out loud. Daddy’s coming for you, baby. Daddy’s gonna be there on your big day. And he’s not gonna let you down.