Derek sat at his rig, flexed his fingers and put his mask in place before spinning up his own little VR construct.
There he was. Alive and waiting on the screen, ready to flatter, fluster and bemuse the waiting string of naive and desperate young things who would eventually allow him to lure them out and….
Enough. He had to get into character if this was going to work. He had to BE the character he portrayed. Ironic really, given that his construct was a struggling actor.
Jason Janus, for that was the actor’s real name (according to IMDB, who were the experts in this stuff, so they should know) was just not quite perfect enough to find any real work. Uncredited long-shots in adverts and a fiery death (also uncredited) in a minor blockbuster. He was a polymath by the standards of industry; Writer, Singer, Actor, a real triple-threat who couldn’t quite make it.
And the little girls lapped it up.
How could anybody so handsome, so well spoken, so.. so… Perceptive.. How could he not find real work?
Perhaps he needed a new fan-club leader, or social media expert, or perhaps they could just write to the major directors and work on his behalf?
Because the thing that he was hinting at was too much for somebody like them.. Wasn’t it?
Because he was perfect and he knew THEM in a way that nobody ever had.
He seemed to know just the right thing to say to cheer them up when they were at their lowest and had an uncanny ability to know exactly when they were low. Almost like their souls were bonded.
Except he’d never be crass enough to say that. He might say that he felt like he knew them in a way that he’d never felt before. He might allude to them perhaps having an ‘old soul’. Anything else usually came from them.
His little toys
They were correct though, he knew them in ways that even their best friends and parents didn’t. Every keystroke, every conversation, every whispered secret to their friends, every teardrop from a real or imagined hurt. And he had it all.
From the moment of first, meticulously researched and planned contact, he installed backdoors into their PCs, tablets and phones. Their diaries and secret thoughts were open to him.
He was an ACTOR
In this new world, Actors were somehow classed as key workers, never without a propaganda film to make, an advert to show the masses how to think, who to avoid, which class of people may be somehow filthy.
They looked at the photos on the news and entertainment websites that he directed them to. They loved it.
Look! There he is, just slightly out of focus, being punched by Jason Statham.
Look! There he is behind Dwayne Johnson on the red carpet at a premiere.
Look!!! There’s his script that has just been optioned by a major studio, directors were queuing up to take the job.
And… He had agreed that only HE could be the star!!!!!
AND. AND. AND.
He was looking for a special type of girl, somebody raw but beautiful, somebody without the layers of cynicism that he (they) despised.
He was looking.
She just had to be found somewhere.
AND OH MY GOD!!!
What were the odds of her friend in Singapore pointing her out to him online, inviting him into a chat group?
But that was how it started. Every single time, a friend that only contacted them intermittently would appear and chat for a while before mentioning THEIR new friend. This actor. He was only a friend and he seemed like the sort of person that they’d like to chat to.
Three- way chats became a two way chat at some point and they just got on SO WELL.
And let’s face it, the lockdown had fucked things beyond belief for people like her. The spirited types whose every move now was tracked by contact tracing apps. Where had she been? For how long? Who had she met?
Whole enterprises had sprung up around the apps and the New Puritanism, partly fuelled by the statist tendencies of both extremes of the political spectrum and the religious fundamentalists was now fanning big business.
If she met a boy for more than two minutes, her phone SHRIEKED and her parents would be notified. Try to go to one of the appointment-only bars and the bouncers would be on her in a heartbeat.
Oh. And her parents would be notified.
VR had caught on in a big way, but girls with wealthy parents like hers still had no leeway, they were constantly monitored and couldn’t get away with anything at all.
Or could they?
In his fourth or fifth text-only chat session, he’d suggest a private VR chat, hosted by one of his media friends, it wouldn’t be traceable and her parents would never know.
How could they resist?
And they didn’t, only one had got away.
She spooked when the VR programme glitched, seeing his real face and background. Nothing too horrible, he wasn’t ugly or fat, just much, much older and his eyes may just have looked a bit too bright, shiny and fevered for her liking.
He erased all traces of their chats from her devices and planted a few messages to her best friend that suggested that she’d like to be SO much more. Who’d believe what she said now?
Still, it meant that he now wore the mask and all the facial monitoring was done from within and nobody could identify him no matter what happened.
And now it was time to take the latest little starlet on to her trip with Destiny.
Little Callie Blau. School now finished and in her first year of college. Legally emancipated but restricted by the Lockdown, apps and lack of money as badly as a 19th century convent girl.
Black haired, pale skinned, dark eyed, red lipped. Genuinely beautiful in a way that none of the others had been. He was looking forward to this one more than he ever had before.
The tearing and gnashing of flesh
Callie was going to be perfect.
Mask on, he initiated the call, a few seconds of noise and there she was. She was in her bedroom as usual, a mix of schoolgirl pink and gothic black decor. She was desperate to change her image to something older, but her parents you know…?
‘Hello, I was worried that you might not call tonight, you seemed…preoccupied last night?’
He smiled. Outwardly it was warm and sweet, inwardly, it was cold and gratified that she’d walked into the setup so easily. So, so easily.
‘Wow, I can’t believe that you spotted that, I’m so sorry.. I just had something come through and it was just.. so.. so… perfect that I couldn’t believe it’
The girl smiled broadly, god, she really was perfect.
‘What? Is it your script? What is it?’
She leaned further forward into the virtual space, her usual outfit of jeans and ‘something blue’ – always blue, whether a sports top, t-shirt or hoodie. Her little joke – ‘Callie Blue’.
‘Come on, please tell me, I’ll just DIE.’
He smiled again, this was it. This was where the script that he had so lovingly prepared started to work on them.
‘Netflix have been in touch, they want to option it. I’ve played hard on this though and told them that I HAVE to play the lead and that I want to select my own leading lady. This is my only shot and I can’t take the risk. It HAS to be a newcomer, she HAS to be under 20 and she HAS to know how I think.’
‘And, I was.. I was…’
She leaned in again, the construct of the VR putting them into touching distance.
‘What? You were?’
He smiled again. The hook was set..
He leaned in, and…
FUCK.. What WAS THAT?
The girl looked perplexed, her perfect brow furrowing.
SHIT.. Had she seen the glitch? This was a weird one. He’d seen a darkened space, lit only by soft oil-burners, there may have been something in the dark – but he couldn’t be sure. Fucking software was glitching more than he’d like these days.
She was smiling nervously now, but he couldn’t see any trace of real knowledge in her eyes. He settled down again.
‘ I was wondering if you’d take a screen test? Tomorrow? After college?’
The girl was beaming now, the smile lighting up her face. This was almost going to be a shame..
‘Won’t know a thing, I’ve got a friend who can make your phone say it’s still at home and even if you’re not keen after you meet the casting director, you can keep the hack on your phone.’
The girl was all smiles now – a double-baited hook, potential fame and guaranteed work AND freedom to do whatever she wanted.
‘So how would we make it work?’
She was his now and her life could be measured in hours…
‘I’ll send a driver to pick you up, he’ll fix your phone on the spot and he’ll bring you to the studio. We’ll have a mocked-up set and I’ll be there with a cameraman and the casting director. I just know that you’re going to be right for this, you have everything the script needs. You’ll be gone for four hours max, your parents won’t even know you’re gone.’
That was true anyway, they were so used to being self-medicated after all these years of Lockdown that they were usually out of things by 9PM, knowing that the app would do their job for them. It wasn’t even like she could leave her phone behind, proximity and motion sensors had put paid to that little trick.
‘OK. Thank you, thank you, thank you, I can’t believe how lucky I am, I just can’t…….’
‘You deserve all of what’s coming, just PLEASE don’t let anybody know until after casting though, I have a non-disclosure clause that will kill the deal and take what little cash I have left.’
The girl nodded frantic assent and he moved to wrap the call up as soon as possible, knowing that she would be writing all this up in her ‘secret’ diary. He’d be wiping that before she left the house tomorrow.
The next day passed in a blur, so much to do, so much.
Print a Key Worker pass for one of his aliases.
Change the number plates on his people-carrier
Check his tool bag
Monitor the girl’s phone and activate the tracking programme he’d installed that would spoof her location to the Lockdown control app monitoring stations.
Check his tool bag again
All the good stuff was at the studio but he had a few things in there, just in case he needed them.
Check the VR programme. – that glitch was spooky and it wasn’t one of his scenes – no sign of it, but still a worry. He’d uninstall it after this and start from scratch
Print ‘the script’, the girl could read that while he drove her to the studio,
Shower, dress for the part, black suit, white shirt, dark tie.
It was an hour’s drive to the girl’s house and another hour from there to the studio- and it was a studio.
An uncle had left him an industrial park and a sizeable amount of cash. He’d taken one of the units and converted it to a working soundstage with lights, cameras and a full remote control setup.
The lights were already on and warming the space and he allowed himself a smile as he saw the girl waiting for him in the arranged place.
He pulled in, flashed his lights and watched her come to the door.
Even more beautiful in the flesh, she GLOWED , there was no other word for it. A simple blue dress, heels and no apparent makeup.
‘Good evening miss, can I have your phone please?’
She handed it over and he made a pantomime of making changes to it, opened up the app that he’d inserted and returned it. She climbed into the back seat , did up her seat-belt and he drove off.
He watched her in the rear-view mirror as she watched the app on her screen and saw that her phone was still apparently within 50 metres of her house.
‘Can I offer you a drink of water for the journey?’
Her dark eyes smiled at him from the mirror, her perfume was understated and smelled vaguely like incense, surprising for one so young – and very intoxicating.
‘No thank you, how long will the journey be?’
‘Just under an hour, Mr Janus is already there and he’s left a copy of the script for you in that envelope.’
That smile again.
A rustle of paper and she began to read, he watched her as often as he could while she did so and was a little worried by what seemed to be dark amusement in her eyes.
‘So Mr Janus, Jason.. wrote this by himself?’
‘ I believe so miss’
‘It’s a little dark, does the girl have to die?’
‘Oh. You haven’t read it. It seems a bit bleak.’
And yet she seemed to be smiling, was there something wrong with her?
‘We’re nearly there now miss, just another mile or so.’
‘Your voice seems familiar, have we spoken before?’
‘Ah Ok. I asked Jason, Mr Janus a question last night.’
‘Yes. I couldn’t believe that I was so lucky and I asked Jason if he was doing this just because he wanted to, that he wanted to give this dream to me.’
That strange question from last night, he’d brushed over it with a glib ‘Yes of course, you deserve this’, now here it was again.
Just in time to save him answering the question, the open doors and blinding lights of the soundstage came into view, illuminating the inside of the car and highlighting her perfect features.
‘DO YOU think he meant it? That he’s giving this to me freely?’
There was definite amusement there, if she suspected him, she should be scared, but.. she wasn’t. Why wasn’t she bothered? Why was she…. amused?
‘I.. don’t know miss, I can’t speak for him.’
‘Are you sure?’
The lights in the unit were dimming somehow, the blinding glare was retreating into a dull red glow where no lights should be.
“I.. I.. don’t know what you mean miss, I’m just a….’
She had taken his hand and was looking deeply into his eyes. That dark amusement was all that he could see now.
Fuck… How had he thought that she was young, she was so old.
‘Derek, the time for lies is over. You gave yourself freely to me last night and promised me whatever I wanted. Me Kali Blue, you gave yourself to me. You and that long trail of souls that you carry around you like a shroud.’
Fuck… she knew his name.. She knew about the others… How? How?
“Enough now Derek, it’s time.’
Tightening her grip on his hand, still with that dark amusement in her GLOWING eyes, she led him into the warm darkness.