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A Contract to Die For, a Horror Short
A Story by Tamara Wilhite
"Are you certain that you can make me famous?" the kid asked the agent.
The agent's slick suit was straight out of the CIA/FBI/mystery shows the kid had watched growing up. The white shirt and black tie were a sharp and clear contrast on a body that wasn't black or white or brown, hair hidden under a black hat and eyes hidden by black sunglasses suited for would be cool guys. The agent could have been anyone under that garb, unidentifiable from anyone and everyone. Except for the reputation. Everybody who knew somebody working deep in the business knew this was the guy to talk to.
"I can get you in the movies with the big names. I can get you in a hundred music videos back to back. I can get you set up as a back ground singer with every concert in town. Famous? That depends on your talent." The agent leaned forward, his hands clasped tightly together, not quite touching the kid or even the table between them.
The agent didn’t seem to want to touch anyone or anything. The little coffee shop wasn’t dirty, though the waitress/cook in the back wasn’t well scrubbed. The kid felt self-conscious, wondering if the days of living out of a suitcase and broken down car weren’t sufficiently scrubbed off at the Y before coming here.
"What is your talent?" the agent asked.
"Oh, I can do anything!" the kid grinned. "Anywhere you can fit me in!" The kid glanced about but saw no one else in the dinner. But at 2 AM, even so close to the studios, you didn't see many people out and about. There was no one here except the kid, the Agent, and the waitress. She was listening to them; it must have been more interesting than the clang of dishes and water in the back. "No. If you sing, you're a background singer. If you can dance, you'll be in a production. If you can paint, you'll make sets. Tell me what you do, and I'll have your schedule packed with the jobs that can get you a big job. That's what I do."
"I can act."
"I don't do actors."
"But that's where the big money is -"
"With the scheduling opportunities I can line you up with, you'll make a fortune."
"I want my own trailer with my name emblazoned on the side. I want -"
"I want to make a commission off the real talent doing real work. Hourly rates for long hours pays your rent."
"And your fees," the kid added.
"Yes. And my commission."
"What's your commission?"
"20% of everything."
"The more I work, the more you make."
"You make money, too."
"Would I make a lot?"
"Would I make my reputation otherwise?"
"People you place show up everywhere. Then they usually drop out of sight after a few months or -"
"Burn out is a problem," the agent muttered, not quite wanting to admit it. "Yes, the long hours can be a killer. Of someone's dreams, or their lives."
The kid waited for details. Guys who lost girlfriends they didn't see due to the schedule. Boyfriends who lost girls because they spent all their time on the set with pretty famous singers, so rumors of infidelity crept up. Dreams lost from the grind of being everywhere but getting nowhere. The agent said nothing, seemed even to avoid the kid's eyes. That's what the kid thought. But the agent's glasses were such that the kid couldn't tell that, really. It was just the way he didn't, things conveyed and hidden by how he held his head and his body.
The waitress walked past them, deftly avoiding any contact - eye or otherwise - with the agent. "Kid, can I do anything for you? Anything you need?"
The kid looked at her, curious but bothered by her interruption. Middle aged, middling weight ... probably waiting tables in between jobs that got fewer and fewer in between until there was nothing but waiting tables. There was a strain between them, yet they were familiar with each other. All of this was spoken in body language, which neither of them was willing to voice. "Hey, Angel, if the kid wanted coffee, the kid would have asked for coffee by now." Despite the dismissal, the waitress, Angel, didn’t leave. "She's never taken me up on my offer," the agent said. "And if you turn me down, you might end up like her."
"Do I really get paid union rates for all hours worked - not just a salary like those other positions I interviewed for?"
"Absolutely." The agent was enthralled and enthralling again. Not happy. Eager. He made a living as an agent, living off the lives of others. "And think of how many unpaid internships you must have gone through, just hoping to get a chance at fame. And you'll be around the big names -"
"I'll do it," the kid said. "I'll do it."
"You'll take the chance I'm giving. You'll do it. Whatever it takes."
"I promise that if you do what I say, you'll be everywhere, in everything -"
"I don't do actors. That takes too much energy … and that profession is too crowded in this town. I'll get you in the background roles, supporting roles. That's all I promise. But you’ll be well paid for your work, as long as you work. What kind of work do you want?"
"I can sing and dance."
"I know all the casting agents for the support roles, background stuff. I could get you working tonight. Just tell me in what. Once I pair you with a manager, you'll get niched really fast. I'll get you doing what you want to do, hopefully for the rest of your life."
The last words were laden with emotion. The agent wanted him to more than another body to fill in the grind of production - the agent wanted the kid to work for him.
Angel was watching the kid closely, too. "You'll never have a life again," she said. She was concerned, but refused to say what for. "You'll never -"
"What? Like yours is so great?" the kid retorted. "How do I sign up?"
"Just shake on it," the agent said. "I'll see to the rest."
"What about papers?" the kid asked.
The agent patted his briefcase, sitting beside him on the bench. "Give me a handshake, and we'll do the papers after."
The kid held out an eager hand to the agent. "Shake on it."
The agent grinned broadly, predatory and proud. He took the kid's hand. “Then it’s a deal.” At the moment of physical contact, the kid felt the life begin to drain from one to the other. "Oh, I like working with young, eager things like you. So much energy. So much life." The handshake became a death grip.
The Angel turned away then, despairing. The kid could feel the beginnings of tears that refused to come for either of them. Angel had seen this happen before. She'd tried to stop the transaction, but could not, would not say it. "You're making a deal with the devil," she finally said.
"The kids are always free to make their own choices. They knew the terms," the agent retorted.
"Not all of it."
The kid desperately wanted to ask why she never said pure evil was involved, that one lost their soul and maybe even their lives in the transaction. The terror flared to hot anger before dying to a buzz of annoyance.
"I'm a waitress. I can't throw in metaphysics or religion or even morality into a discussion. To be here, I have to be just like everyone else. I can warn people what they're getting into, within the context of the situation."
The agent's grip began to loosen. The agent’s grip was now a normal handshake. "Everyone knows that everyone will sell their souls in Hollywood. It's why they came here in the first place." The agent threw a side glance at the Angel, mocking grin on the agent's face. "And this place costs everybody their heart or soul or their lives, if they stay here long enough. Even you."
The agent let go of the handshake. The kid no longer felt drained, but couldn’t seem to care about the waitress earlier words. The kid couldn’t care about anything anymore. "That's enough for now."
The Agent’s briefcase was whipped out and flipped open. Several pounds of paperwork neatly spilled out onto the table. He did it old school, paperwork, nothing digital. "You'll be signing all of these."
The kid dimly remembered that a few minutes before, it would have been right to ask what the contracts said before signing. The Agent held out a pen. “Sign the papers.” The kid's hand mechanically picked up the offered pen and began signing everywhere the agent pointed. There were still thoughts moving glacially through the kid’s mind, but it felt right to do whatever the agent said to do. The agent turned the pages, page after page. The kid lost all track of time, but never felt tired. The kid could keep on doing whatever the agent said as long as the agent said to do it. The thoughts solidified a little. The kid felt breathing and a beating heart, but no hunger or thirst.
The waitress plopped down a cup of water anyway, sympathetically meant for the kid, but she was the only one of the three who cared. “Drink it,” the agent said. The kid did so. “You’ll need your strength. I’m going to have you booked 20+ hours a day for the next few months. As long as you can take it.”
“You work these kids to death.”
“It is better than destroying their souls, like the porn industry does. It beats sucking the life out of them, like some of my cohorts do at the big studios – some literally, some figuratively. It is better than destroying their lives, like some of the tabloids end up doing to those who succeed. This place takes everything from everybody – eventually.” The agent shrugged as if that didn't matter to him. "At least I was honest about what I would take up front."
Five minutes before, there would have been questions as to what the Angel had lost to stay here. The kid didn’t even think to ask them now.
"I die a little each time I see this happen," she whispered just loud enough for the kid to hear. "It kills me slowly. But because I've been here so long, and will be here as long as he is, I die over and over again. But I have to try ... it's all I have left of my life."
"Not like you had a ghost of a chance of doing anything else with your life," the Agent muttered. "And, due to Divine irony, you keep doing it, even after you lost your life. A ghost of a chance that will ever change. This town consumes everybody, eventually."
"Except you," Angel said. "You lure them in, so you don't get consumed yourself."
"All life feeds on life. It's the rule of life."
"So you take them in the earliest stages, so you don't die like they will. Then they work those hours, those jobs, automatons, painting and scrubbing, maybe dancing like marionettes or signing mechanically to boring melodies."
"And then, one day, they'll be too tired to work, and they'll go rest and –“
Angel shivered and turned to walk away. "And that's the rest of the story you don't tell them," she said as she left.