Carson took a taxi home that night. Even in a limo, he could not stand driving. He told Jenna that he needed to bring a few things from his current home so that he could move into the servants’ quarters at the mansion. She understood and would not need him tonight, anyway. He brought some extra rolls of film and his box of cigarettes. On his cab ride back to the mansion, he thought about who he would ask about the wedding. Asking servants could be useful, but if he asked too many, it might blow his cover simply by gaining him too much attention.
After considering, he settled on the following plan: first he would ask a servant--an incompetent one who would not be able to spot him as a reporter. The question would be simple and casual, in the context of some larger conversation, in which Carson would not ask too many questions. If that did not work for any reason, Carson would ask Jenna herself sometime. Again, it would be casual, no pressure. The only problem with this part of the plan was that in order to carry it out, he would need the right moment, alone, with Jenna Pierce. That might not be easy.
One step at a time, he reminded himself. One step at a time.
Then he decided on which questions to ask, and in what order. If at all possible, he would want to keep his list to only a few simple questions as opposed to lots of lengthy ones. First, he could ask the servant whether or not all of Jenna’s servants were invited to the wedding. If the answer would be yes, then there would be no need for further inquiry. In the likely case that things would not be so simple, this was at least a decent starting point from which he could improvise the rest of the way. If he could have the opportunity to speak with Jenna on the subject, he could ease his way into the conversation and bring up, in order: the wedding (where and when), the guests (who), and any other secrets (if he could get that far)...
“You got a friend there?”
Carson, confused, met the taxi driver’s gaze in the rear-view mirror. “What?”
The driver explained, “Car behind us has been following all the way from your street. That someone you know?”
Carson looked through the back window and saw a grungy gray 80’s Corolla. It was difficult to see more than that now that the sun had gone down, but thanks to street and car lights, he could somewhat see the driver’s face behind the cracked windshield. This driver looked somewhat familiar, though Carson could not say why it would... especially considering that he was sure he had never seen the car before in his life.
“I have no idea who that is...” Carson squinted and tried to get a better view by shutting out some of the headlight glare, but this did not work very well, so he gave up and turned his head forward again. “Pull over for a second and let’s see what he does.”
The cab driver smiled and obeyed--smiled because his fare meter was running by time and not distance right now. They were on the freeway, so there was no logical reason why anyone would pull over except for a flat. Yet the Corolla pulled over when they did. Carson looked briefly at his watch. 7:51pm.
“I’m going to talk with him. Be right back,” said Carson.
The man in the Corolla stepped out at the same moment Carson did. The man was unarmed (which in press terms meant that he had no camera), so if Carson’s cover had been blown, at least it was not a competing newspaper that had discovered him. Carson looked him over in the street lamp’s beam and decided this person was harmless. People who were not harmless usually had better, more discrete methods of following the press and would not walk up to a reporter this willingly. Also, they tended to drive better cars (assuming they drove themselves at all), and they did not tend to wear sport coats with such high polyester content that they shimmered even at night.
They also did not tend to start the conversation. But this man did.
“Hi, Mr. Forbes? Carson?”
Carson put his hands on his hips and did not answer. He was undercover and would not fall for any cheap tricks.
“Hi, yeah. You might not know me, but I don’t know if Gerhart told you anything about me. I’m Riley; I was covering Jenna Pierce before you took over this morning.”
Carson remembered the name but not much else. At least this explained why the man looked familiar; Carson had probably seen him quite a few times around the office and cubicle area and just had not noticed him. If Gerhart’s description could be trusted, and Carson now believed it could, then that would explain the man’s incompetence in following.
Riley seemed confused at the lack of response from Carson, who in turn grew more and more amused with each passing second. Riley continued, “Yeah... I was placed on a new assignment, but I kinda wanted to complete my old one first. That and I think I could help you on this one if you want me to. I mean, I’ve been covering her for two years; you could probably use that experience on such a major assignment.”
Carson thought he was beginning to see Riley’s motive: the kid wanted to get a big story for once, because it would be good for his career. Carson could not blame him if that was true, since all novice reporters dreamed of getting their “big break,” so to speak. Still, it was clear Riley had a lot to learn if he ever wanted to get that far.
Carson broke his silence. “Tell ya what, man. You can drive me over to her place, and we’ll talk along the way.”
Riley’s entire body relaxed in an instant.
“Just let me pay the cab here, and I’ll be right back.”
Riley nodded, got back in his car, and waited. Carson may have been a jerk, but he always remembered to pay the taxi drivers--even if he refused to tip them. Refusing to tip was one thing, but Carson relied too much on the taxi service to risk not paying entirely. There was simply too great a chance Carson would see the same driver in the future and might be denied a ride because of it.
When Carson entered Riley’s car, the first thing he noticed was the smell. “Oof. It’s like some kind of perfume in here,” he said.
“Oh yeah, that,” said Riley. “Last May, they came out with this new line of Jenna Brand Beauty Products. All the reporters got free samples. Mine spilled, and the car’s been like this ever since. Sorry.”
Carson doubted this story for some reason... perhaps because some of the smell came from Riley himself. Not that Riley would admit it. When they started traveling on the freeway again, Carson looked through the glove compartment without asking permission. Yep, perfume bottle was still there, half full, sitting atop five CDs: all of Jenna’s albums to date. As far as Carson could tell, there were no other albums in the car. Riley noticed that Carson was looking through his things, but he made no objection. Instead, he picked up from where their conversation had left off.
“Okay,” said Riley. “I’m not going to lie to you. I really liked working with the Paparazzi following Jenna. And now Gerhart wants me to follow Derek Mahler instead, and I don’t like that one bit. Look, I know this is your assignment, and I know that since you’re working undercover and all, you may not want my help. But I thought I might as well offer it, since I have nothing better to do, and you might be able to put my knowledge to use. I mean, I’m sure I know something that could come in handy...”
“Take this exit up ahead.” Riley took it. Other than street directions, Carson said nothing for the entire trip. Riley went on about how many little things he knew about Jenna: her favorite restaurants, cuisines, jewelry, etc.
When they arrived in front of the gate to Jenna’s driveway, Carson said, “Damn, man. It’s almost like you are her. Next thing you’re going to tell me is her shower routine.”
Riley actually considered this for a moment and had to stop himself. “That’s not the point,” he said.
“Look,” said Carson. “They’re not going to let you in here, so you may as well drop me off. I appreciate that you want to help, and I see you have... uh... extensive knowledge of the subject matter here, but I really don’t see how it’s going to be possible for us to work together.”
He stepped out of the car and said, “Have fun covering Mahler. Hey, if he goes into surgery again, you could get some pretty good stories that way.
“Anyway, thanks for the ride.”
With that, Carson left for the gate. He smirked at having gotten a free cab ride from Riley, but other than that, he did not think much of the exchange. He certainly did not feel sorry for Riley...
He’s young, Carson thought. Give him time, and he’ll get over it.
Riley, however, did not know how he would ever recover. He drove home on the verge of tears. He played his favorite Jenna tracks on the CD player and tried to sing along, but that only made him sadder.
Riley’s mood had not improved much by the next day, when he had to start covering Mahler. Riley stood with the other tabloids’ cameramen outside the old man’s mansion. The actor was supposed to make an announcement today about his next movie, a horror film about people who were able to possess others and contort their faces.
It was unclear as of yet whether Mahler would play the villain, the hero, or the entire cast, for that matter.
Some servants came out onto the lawn, where all the press members waited. Once a podium and red carpet had been laid out, Mahler came out of his mansion. Almost all the reporters cringed at the sight of him, and the few pictures taken were only the bare minimum of what would be needed to run the story later on.
Riley tried to take his usual quality photos, but everything about the job seemed awkward to him. For example, he could not say his trademark phrases now, like, “Yes, that’s it, make love to the camera!” or, “Dance for me baby. Dance for me.”
It was way too weird that he could not say that while taking photographs.
Mahler took his place at the podium and smiled, for all the world looking like a very ugly king addressing a crowd of well-wishing peasants. He acted like that, too. With youth and good looks gone, Riley reflected, ego was the one thing this man had left--well, that and millions upon millions of dollars, of course.
“Thank you, thank you all for that warm welcome,” said Mahler, his grin so wide that his cheeks rose and hid his eyes from view for a second. “I am here today to unveil my latest movie, set to come out this summer. It is called, Rage of the Face Changers. It will star me in the lead role, so in answer to the question that I know is on all your minds, yes, you have good reason to be excited.” Mahler stopped and laughed. “Oh, go ahead, take your pictures!” he said. “Don’t be shy. I know the drill:
“I have to make love to the cameras!”
The first thought across Riley’s mind: Oh. Dear. God. NO! But it could not be stopped. The fifty-eight-year-old actor pouted his lips and winked several times while blowing kisses.
Next to Riley, one cameraman seemed to love it. He took several pictures and said as he took them, “Oh yes, baby, that’s it. Dance for me!”
Riley stopped taking pictures for a moment just so he could look at this reporter and say, “What the hell is wrong with you, you sick freak?”
Unfortunately, the conference went on for another half hour while Mahler detailed his trials and triumphs in his role as hero of this movie. When it was finally over, Riley went back to his car and breathed a sigh of relief. He opened his glove compartment, sprayed a little perfume on himself, and took out the five Jenna albums, in order: Jenna Pierce, This Baby Got Back, More Back And Some Front This Time, Art Of Lust, and Yes, I Really Am That Slutty. Got A Problem With That?
Riley put the last one into his CD player and shook his head.
“I’ve got to get you back, Jenna,” he said. “Carson Forbes is going to pay for taking you away from me...”
At this declaration, Riley sped off with all the determination a beat-up old Corolla could muster. Sure it may not have been impressive, but it was the thought that counted.
Back at Jenna’s mansion, Carson found his task easier than he ever dreamed it to be. The first servant he asked, a gardener, knew that the wedding would be in only two days, and that all the servants would be flown out of the country to witness the event. Jenna’s reasoning for this plan was simple: she wanted a private wedding, and servants were the most likely leaks to the press, so all servants would have to be treated as family and kept under her watch at all times.
The gardener added that because the wedding was so secret, Carson should not utter a word of this to anyone who did not work for Jenna, especially not the press. Carson said he understood perfectly and promised he would tell no one.
Carson then asked if the gardener knew where the wedding would take place. The man shrugged and said, “You’ll probably be the first to know. All I know is, we’re headed to somewhere outside the USA. Last week we got a warning that we should be prepared to pack our bags. She won’t tell any of us where we’re going, though. It’s the strangest thing... She might not even tell anyone until you have to drive her there. Then I guess you’ll be the first to know.”
Carson wondered out loud, “But if we’re going out of the country, then how will I drive? I don’t have an international license.”
“Got me there,” said the servant. “You might as well ask her yourself, then.”
Carson got a chance to do just that later that evening, when Jenna called for the limo to take her to a dinner party. Carson kept himself to only two questions during their conversation: was is true that they were flying out of the country for the wedding, and would he not need an international driver’s license if he were to take her to the event? The answers: yes, and he was a guest who would not have to drive. Her old driver, Alfonso, had an international license and would do the escort job as his final assignment before she fired him for good--she had not yet told him for this very reason.
Furthermore, Jenna assured Carson that her agent was making all the necessary arrangements, and there was no need to worry. Carson then changed the subject to the dinner that night, but this apparently reminded Jenna that she did not have to converse with the likes of servants, so she ended their talk there.
When they had arrived at the destination (another typical Hollywood mansion), Carson reclined in his seat to think things over--and in so doing, he forgot that protocol required him to open Jenna’s door for her. She reminded him with a cough, and he got up at once. Later when he did have time to think, he did so outside the limo as he leaned against it and smoked a cigarette.
Not five minutes had passed before someone approached the parked car from behind.
“Hi.” The voice was young but not childish. The tone seemed almost nervous. Almost.
“You talking to me?” Carson turned around and saw a short, skinny man in his early twenties, dressed in a shabby brown suit. He did not have a hat with the word “PRESS” written on it, but he did have a notepad out, and his pen was ready to write.
“Hi,” he said again. “I’m from The International Informer. I was wondering if you’d care to answer a few questions regarding your mistress, Jenna Pierce?”
Carson was caught slightly off guard. “Uh, we’re not supposed to talk to the press,” he said.
The reporter took out a $100 bill and slipped it to Carson. “You sure about that, sir? Because my questions aren’t all that nosy, as press inquiries go. I just want to learn a few simple, harmless things, is all...”
Carson eyed the bill in his hands and said, “Well...”
“What I want to know is, do you know when and where Jenna’s wedding is going to be?”
Carson almost laughed, but he stopped short and said, “Let’s see... Now, I do remember hearing something about that, but my mind seems a bit hazy on the subject...”
Another $100 bill. “Remember now?”
“Hm... Yeah, I think I do. It’s going to be on Valentine’s Day... and it’s in Jenna’s hometown, back in Missouri somewhere. Small church, I forget the name. She wants it to be really quaint and private, you know.”
The man took his notes rapidly and said, “Two more questions, then.”
“Do you know, if she wanted this to be ‘quaint,’ why she would announce her engagement to the press? And second, do you know who the groom will be?”
Carson bit his tongue. He too had wanted to ask those things... “No idea... But my instinct says it’s a publicity stunt. Don’t know what kind. But she’s done stunts before. And no, I don’t know who the groom is. No one does.”
“Fair enough,” said the reporter, grabbing another $100 bill. Carson waved it off, though, to signal that he really had no more information.
“You can give me money, and I won’t complain,” Carson said, “but I don’t know anything else. Now scram before someone sees you here. I don’t need anyone catching me talking to you.”
The reporter nodded and went away, taking the third $100 bill with him. Carson pocketed his $200 profit and smiled. He had only a moment to savor this before his cell phone rang.
Carson answered. “Hello?”
“Haven’t gotten a progress report from you today. Is now a safe time to call?”
Carson checked around briefly. Nobody there. Just a bunch of other limos outside a typical mansion dinner party. “Yeah, I think it’s safe.”
“Good,” said Gerhart. “So, anything new?”
“Suffice it to say, you’ll have your pretty pictures between forty-eight and seventy-two hours from now.”
“Pictures? You mean--”
“It’s gonna be sooner than we’d thought. But from here on out, I gotta ask that you not call. I’ll get back to you in two or three days. Is that alright?”
“Yeah, sure. Uh... One thing, though.”
“What is it?”
“Oh, nothing big. I just wanted to remind you that secrecy is the most important thing we have on our side right now.”
“The other papers are trying to get this story too, remember. I think there might be a reporter snooping around this dinner party tonight, since everyone knew this was on her public schedule. See if you can find any reporters and throw them some bogus information.”
Carson smiled but showed no teeth. “Thanks for the heads up. I’ll see what I can do.”
“Best of luck.”
Carson put his phone away and leaned against the limo. Some of the other chauffeurs were talking with each other further up the U-shaped driveway. He thought about joining them, but as long as he was keeping a low profile, the fewer people he talked with tonight, the better. Eventually he took out his cell phone again and played some games to pass away the time.
Two hours later, Jenna left the party early and returned to the limo. Her agent, Palmer, walked with her. Carson found it odd that he should be there. Moreover, it looked as though the pair had been arguing for some time now.
“But everybody knows you’re getting married, and this will be a great chance for publicity. Why can’t we announce it? Let it leak at the last second, and before you know it, you’ll be all over the papers again, and with perfect timing for another album release announcement.”
“A deal’s a deal,” said she as they walked. “I announced the engagement, now isn’t that enough?”
The tone in her voice had changed, Carson noted. It was no longer the dominant, cocky voice he was used to hearing; now she sounded tired, withdrawn. So it is a publicity stunt after all, Carson thought.
Jenna continued, “I don’t like it when people break their promises, Palmer. And you promised a private wedding. I will not be denied that.”
The agent sighed. He had argued enough for one night. “I still don’t think it’s possible, Jenna. Now that the press knows you’re engaged, they’ll stop at nothing to get information on the wedding. And they’re going to find out sooner or later, and likely sooner.”
“If they do, you’re fired,” she said.
“But why? This could be a great thing, Jenna!”
“No. I’m fine with publicity, but not at my wedding.”
Carson opened Jenna’s door for her and smiled as he shut it. He could not help but smirk in Palmer’s direction as he walked back around the car to get in the driver seat. Palmer did not notice this. Instead, his eyes were fixed on Jenna. He sighed again, his stout figure slouching as he exhaled. But he said nothing more.
“Less than seventy-two hours, eh?”
Riley sat in the bushes across the street from Carson’s limo--well, really, he was across the driveway... and really, it was Jenna’s limo. But that was beside the point. He had overheard both of Carson’s conversations--everything except for what Gerhart had to say. Riley knew the Valentine’s Day story was a lie, though; why would Carson tell the truth to another paper’s reporter? Technically, Riley did not know that Gerhart was the one calling Carson, but Riley could make educated guesses. “You’ll have your pretty pictures” could only mean one thing, after all.
Riley would have followed Carson everywhere for an endless number of days if he had to--and he would be more stealthy than he had been on the freeway last night--but this news was rather fortunate. If the wedding were going to be in two days, and if Jenna had to travel anywhere for it, she would have to do so tomorrow. Riley made another educated guess that if Jenna wanted privacy, she would not stick around Los Angeles or let her limo be followed to the wedding chapel. This meant she would be on an airplane tomorrow...
Riley’s cell phone started buzzing at his side less than a minute after Carson and Jenna had left.
“Hi, sorry to call you so late.” It was Gerhart. “Paper’s got some big political headlines, so it’ll be one of those long nights for me. Just wanted to tell you, though, that we’re running a story on Mahler tomorrow, and two of your pictures are going to make the print. Congratulations; you did an excellent job for your first day on a new assignment. Very excellent indeed.”
“Yeah, I think I’ll have you cover him all the way through this summer at least, so you can get into the premier of this movie.”
“But you said I could switch after three months!”
“Screw that. Your pictures will keep making the paper so long as you keep up this quality work. Keep that in mind, and you’ll get a promotion at the end of the year, maybe. Okay?”
Much later, thought Riley. I’ll call in sick tomorrow... Jenna travels on a private plane, so I’ll have to secure a spot on that jet somehow... That won’t be easy. But if scum like Carson Forbes can get away with it, then so can I.
He stepped out of the bush--carefully, because it had thorns--and hurried down the driveway, past the other conversing chauffeurs, then two blocks over, where his car sat. He would go home and pack quickly, then go to the office to do some research on Jenna’s airplane crew. Then he would get to the airport very early...