Middle of Nowhere
Inside the car, the static of the radio buzzed Jamie Mills into a dazed consciousness. He blinked a few times, trying to figure out where he was. He was in total darkness except for a patch of star-speckled outerspace masked by the shape of his windshield. He struggled to right himself by rocking his bulk one way, then the other, timing his strongest pull on the steering wheel to coincide with the momentum of the maneuver, a tried and true method used by large mammals everywhere. Maybe that stupid doctor was right for once. Maybe it was time to shed a few pounds. But first things first: the money shot.
Sitting upright, he saw that his headlights were on, cutting two funnels of light into the opaque blackness. As the hiss of the radio crackled into ghostly voices talking of a police auction of abandoned cars, his memory came back to him. He was parked on the side of a desolate road scratched into the moonscape of the high desert about forty miles north of Los Angeles.
He had been driving along when his car had just died, forcing him to coast to the shoulder of the road. A bright flash came to mind, but it had been so quick he wasn't sure if it was real or his mind playing tricks on him. Either way, he had been stuck, no lights, no radio -- and when he turned the key in the ignition, nothing. Oddly, his cell phone had been dead too; 'no signal' wouldn't have surprised him, but the damn thing wouldn't even power up.
He had decided that it was probably some weird electrical phenomena that happens in the desert, some sort of St. Elmo's Fire-type thing. What else could it be? Lacking any better options, he had reclined his seat, deciding to grab a few winks until either help arrived or the electrical disruption passed. The last thing he remembered was looking up at the stars and thinking that they looked like a sea of tiny camera flashes twinkling in the night...
People had warned him about this trip, warned him about just such a possibility, that he could get stranded in the middle of nowhere with spotty cellphone service. And out here, a passing car was just as likely to be full of murderous meth dealers as someone willing to stop and help.
The landscape was vast and barren, inhospitable, alien. It looked like another planet. He could get out and walk, but where to? He would be out of his element, prey instead of predator. Plus, walking meant expending energy, something he wasn't into. No, he would wait it out with his usual cool and calm.
Any other photographer would have given up by now. Cowards, he thought, with too much imagination and not enough motivation. And that was fine by him. He didn't want to share the spotlight when it finally shone on him, when he finally rose to the top of his profession. He would be famous, or infamous -- either would suit him. He didn't care if people liked him or despised him as long as they knew who he was. In fact, he preferred infamy over fame both for the sneer factor and because he knew it made for better TV.
After tonight, he'd be rich. As soon as the tabloids heard what he had, they'd start a bidding war that would reap him millions, and get him on the talk show circuit. He envisioned signing book deals, giving lucrative seminars, and maybe even a product line bearing his name -- cameras, lenses, printers, all the tools of his trade.
Yes, this was going to be good. A few bumps in the road were to be expected. No need for panic. A broadening smile corresponded with the growing weight of his eyelids as the tendrils of his dream-state reached out and engulfed his thoughts of being The One. The Paparazzo.
He remembered a bright flash of light -- dream or real? -- then nothing.
But he was awake now, and had a task at hand. He fished around in the fast food wrappers and empty drink containers that littered the interior of his car and found his cellphone, and even better, half of a submarine sandwich he had somehow left uneaten. The cellphone now had power, but still no reception. He turned the ignition and the car fired up, no problem, as if nothing had ever happened. Any curiosity that might have naturally arisen was left to die on the side of the road as he shifted into D and zoomed off like a guided missile towards coordinates only he knew, containing the target everybody knew.
The sub still tasted so good. He bit off and chewed large mouthfuls as he drove on down the road. The static on the radio loudly crackled into a cheesy commercial from some two-bit AM station broadcasting from who-knows-where: "…so don't let pests…HISS…disturb your peace…the space-age design…HISS…and state-of-the-art technology of the Dapper Zapper is the…HISS…fast, easy, convenient way to keep your yard bug-free…HISS…luring them in, then zapping them away. No mess, no bother when Dapper Zapper is on the job! The suckers don't know what hit ‘em. It works…" The radio crackled again and hissed into some redneck's tirade about the liberals in the media undermining the nation's security from the "towelheads." He poked the radio off, lost in thought.
Sandra Pillsbury. Just thinking the name evoked the sound of ringing cash registers and the clinking of gold coins cascading upon one another in an ever-growing pile of wealth. The most beautiful woman in the world. The most sought after actress in the world. Men pursued her. Women idolized her. But no one knew much about her except that she hailed from some small one-horse town in New Mexico.
Of course her image was ubiquitous on magazine covers, cosmetics ads, and TV commercials, but up until now, not once had an unauthorized picture of her ever made it into the tabloids. Every shot of was authorized, pre-approved, and paid for. Never did there appear a picture of her with hair out of place, bags under her eyes, cellulite-pocked thighs, beer-belly showing. No. She was always looked perfect. And none of his friends or competitors had ever made a dime out of taking her picture except for some paltry sums offered up for the routine Red Carpet stuff.
It wasn't right. The world deserved to see this goddess as she really was, stripped of her disguise. People wanted to know what she really looked like when her Hollywood skin of make-up and digital touch-ups were stripped away. People wanted to see that she was just like them, and not the flawless image they were constantly bombarded with. People had an appetite for the game of celebrities' image destruction and would pay good money to feed it. The Hunt was how he made his living, a damn good living, which was about to get much better. He was on the scent and smelled blood.
The fact that no one had succeeded in taking an unauthorized photo of the world's biggest celebrity was the stuff of legend among his peers. She was secretive, elusive, and aloof, which whipped up the paparazzi dog-pack's frenzy to unparalleled levels, like a swarm of sharks around a bloody trail of chum. But the embarrassing truth was that she had, up until now, eluded the lot of them. When followed, she always managed to slip away, one way or another.
No one even knew for certain where she lived. Some had come close, usually as a result of unexpectedly coming across her leaving a restaurant, or museum, but -- always -- with no success. It was uncanny. Sometimes the camera malfunctioned. Sometimes the camera worked perfectly, but some unforeseen glare or shadow ruined the shot. Sometimes the image file stored in the digital camera was corrupted and wouldn't open. Everybody had his own close encounter which they shared over drinks, but it was hard to separate the real from the apocryphal.
At times he had suspected that it was all some elaborate publicity stunt her publicist had cooked up -- paying off certain paparazzi to spread these stories to build up the actress's mystique -- but usually dismissed it as drunken paranoia. The more the photographers failed, the harder they tried. It became their Fountain of Youth, their Atlantis, their Ark of the Covenant.
The paparazzo who got that first shot would be immortalized in the profession. Now that he had what he believed to be a solid lead to her hideout, it was only a matter of getting there and staking the place out. Sooner or later, he'd get his shot.
The location of Sandra Pillsbury's secret hideout had come to him totally by accident. The police had knocked on his door a few days ago to ask him about fellow paparazzo Bela Zhenia: he had turned up missing, without any trace. Since it was no secret that he and Bela had tossed a few back on more than one occasion, it was natural that they would want to talk to him. He had told the detectives that he hadn't seen Bela for several weeks, figured he had a job somewhere.
The cops had said that Zhenia was last seen in the company of two women leaving a popular Hollywood drinking spot.
He'd laughed. "Nothing suspicious there, officers. Bela has a weakness for a well-turned ankle -- among other things. And he's the type of guy that attracts women like a picnic attracts flies."
The police then had produced a large camera bag and asked him to look through it. Maybe he could identify it?
Jamie had recognized the bag and figured that Bela had given it to the bartender for safe keeping behind the bar. He had looked through it to make sure, noting Bela's new baby, the digital Nikon D1x with AF-S Nikkor 300mm zoom lens. There was a notebook full of Bela's godawful handwriting, a pack of mint Tic-Tacs, his lucky poker chip.
"No doubt about it, it's his," he'd told them. "He never puts his name on any of his gear in case he has to drop it and run, but I recognize the camera, and that's his handwriting."
The detectives had thanked him and left, leaving behind a card with their number to call in case he thought of anything else. He'd waved goodbye, thankful that they hadn't noticed him taking the spare memory card that Bela always kept in the camera's bag hidden pocket.
Jamie's stomach was gurgling. Eating half a sandwich had made him hungrier. He swore at himself for not packing a cooler full of food as he usually did for stake outs, but he had been in a hurry.
His doctor had warned him about his diet and the consequences of ignoring his weight problem. Idiot. Eating fast food was an occupational hazard. True, he embraced it with more enthusiasm than others, but hey, nobody's perfect. Plus, who knew he was going to end up in the middle of nowhere with no drive-thrus in sight? He'd have to tough it out. After all, if he knew where she lived, others might too. Even though he had a head start, it was still a race. For one thing, Bela himself might turn up.
When he had popped Bela's memory card into his reader, he found an assortment of photos Bela had taken: Colin Farrell eating lunch at the Cat & Fiddle, Sharon Stone in a Pilates class, some artsy shots of a pretty young woman, some pornographic shots of the same young woman, a photo of the crippled guy who polished the stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and finally a close-up of a piece of paper. He zoomed into the image and had his breath taken away with what he saw: it was a handwritten name and address, with a crude hand-drawn map. The name: Sandra Pillsbury.
Damn, he'd thought, Bela was good. Where had he found this? He would ask the next time he saw him. Bela would be mad that his memory card had been stolen, but eventually he would understand, knowing that if the positions had been reversed, he would have done the same. The question now was, was this where Bela had disappeared to? Had he already gotten the prize? Sure, he didn't have his camera, but even a shot from a disposable camera could fetch thousands. There wasn't any time to lose.
Jamie pressed down on the gas pedal. Just then, something jumped out of the darkness flashing through his headlights before disappearing into the darkness of the other side. He jerked the steering wheel to the left, swerving sharply to avoid it, his SUV screeching onto two wheels before tumbling back down.
His heart almost beat out of his chest, blood pounding drums in his ears. What the hell was that? It looked like a wolf, but had to be a coyote, wolves couldn't survive in this ecosystem. Was it an omen? No need scaring myself, he thought, accelerating down the road once again. Next time, he decided, he'd just run over anything that got in his way.
He noticed a soft glow of light over the next hill. What could that be? There weren't any signs indicating any upcoming gas stations or any other markers of civilization. He finally saw what it was: a donut shop.
What the hell was it doing way out here? It was a small building with large plate glass windows on three sides with Venetians blinds. Light leaked out of the horizontal slants onto a couple of cars parked next to the structure. One of the cars looked like an old beater that Bela used when he was trying to be inconspicuous, but he was here, maybe the prize was still up for grabs. Even if Bela had a hundred candids of Pillsbury, with no cellphone service, he couldn't have e-mailed any pictures out...
Jamie couldn't see in, but there was a strange stillness to the place. Despite the light and cars, the place looked dead. No matter, the thought of a half dozen donuts and a large cup of coffee made him so hungry he saw it as a godsend. But no, he couldn't afford to stop now. He had to keep going. He had photos to take, pedestals to knock over. There was no second place: either he would be the first, or all was for naught. He stepped on the gas. That address should be somewhere nearby, according to his GPS locator...
A few hundred yards down the road, the SUV's brake lights came on. The SUV made a U-turn and slowly made its way back towards the donut shop. It turned off the road, its large treaded tires crunching on the loose pebbled surface surrounding the shop. It rolled to a stop, the lights shut off leaving total darkness save the inviting glow of the donut shop.
Jamie got out and stretched for a moment, inhaling the delicious aromas wafting from the nearby building. What he was doing made no sense, but the smell had been irresistible, even with the SUV's windows closed and the A/C cranked up. "Five minutes," he said. "I'll just grab a dozen assorted and a large coffee, then head out."
He slowly crunched his way to the door trying to see in, but it too had blinds. He cautiously opened the door causing the small attached bell to tinkle from the movement. He peered in, then stepped across the threshold, the door swinging shut behind him.
The soft chiming of the door's bell gave way to the soothing rhythmic chirping of unseen crickets in the surrounding night valiantly fending off total silence. Suddenly the soft glow of the donut shop surged into a blinding brilliance accompanied by a near-deafening hum. A sharp crackling noise sounded above the hum after which darkness and silence returned like an ocean wave washing ashore.
The crickets' bore silent witness to a wisp of burnt smell wafting up towards the stars. After a moment of echoing silence, the crickets' continued their soft serenade to the soft glow of the small donut shop in the middle of nowhere.
© 2006 by Feza Akcasu
E-mail: Feza Akcasu
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