A sci-fi story, as yet unpublished, and one of my personal favorites. Among other things, it's about celebrity obsession, and the difficulty of separating screen images from the actors and actresses who give them life. And it was fun to write - I love being able to write in sentence fragments, because then my brain doesn't hurt as much.
Iris in, focus.
A comfortable apartment, rain outside. The apartment is clean, full of things, all masculine. No trace of the feminine - it has been removed, leaving little rings and empty spaces on shelves, on the mantelpiece, in the closets and drawers. But everything is clean.
Then me. I am staring fixedly at a 3DO, the screen of which dominates one corner of the apartment. A Jessica Geist flick is playing, probably "Seeing Without Your Eyes," I watched that a lot. My eyes don't blink while I watch, though they tend to glaze over when other people enter the scene, when Jessica isn't alone on the screen. I am not stoned or drunk (there is no alcohol in the apartment, we have seen), but I am not all there. Or rather, I am only there when Jessica is too, when she hits the screen - and I do mean hits, but in the sense of runs, not smashes into. Like she is reaching out and suddenly, puzzlingly, finds this stretch of plastic between you and her. That is what makes her so great. She doesn't like being on the inside of the screen, though in a very passive sort of way. It's not like the way birds will explode in their cages, but more like some infinitely wise prisoner, like the pictures they used to show of Havel after the coup. You get a sense from her that she would rather be sitting next to you, watching quietly.
This should underscore my obsession sufficiently.
* * *
Shoot into the rain beyond the window, into a flashback of a rainy cemetery. It rains a lot, in almost every scene, but this is because of Seattle, not the cliche-value of rain, of weeping clouds. There is no crying here, not even from the clouds. They just rain, that's all.
We are burying my wife, the priest and I. Just the two of us. It is a very private ceremony, because neither of us had any real family. The scene is sad - the rain will help, though I won't ask it to. It will cover some things up. The early death of my wife is sufficient cause for my obsession. We will not go into how I helped it happen, or that it was a suicide. There isn't any need for that, and it wouldn't play well anyway: there were no arguments or tears, no words at all, in fact.
This, I have realized now, is how I helped it happen. My words had other uses, and she didn't have many at her disposal.
* * *
Dissolve back to the apartment. I enter, in a wet raincoat with a bag of groceries, microwaveables. Before even setting down the bag I call on the 3DO. Jessica pixellizes into being. Maybe I smile? No, I don't think so. She was very serious to me.
The scenes taken from her flicks should be carefully chosen, so they are ones that everyone will recognize, ones that really had an impact, that made people wonder whether she wasn't really acting, and not just being morphed. I never wondered, at the time. I didn't care.
There is a message on the answering machine. With a little gesture that is like asking for permission, I pause Jessica and replay the message. It is Luke, my assigner at the mult.
"This is Luke, calling at 2:12 p.m. on the 24th. I have stories for you, if you want them. There's a very good one on the illegal market in Russian voice-overs." There is a pause. Luke always left the time and the date. "Jesus, Peter, are you ever going to work again?"
Hopefully it is clear to the viewer from the expensive furnishings and the size of the apartment that I do not need to.
Jessica unfreezes. I think it could be the long close-up that begins Joan of Arc, when she says, "I am called, sister." I would laugh at that, and then stop her, again with the little look for permission, as though I am rudely but necessarily interrupting her. I call for a news program. It is awards time, and I want to see what she has been nominated for.
Naturally, there is a story about her on the first channel I opt. No sense wasting footage on the hours I spent channel-surfing, looking for her picture.
The story is about accusations of real acting in the flicks, particularly in the low-budget ones, the kind that shouldn't be able to afford the morphing equipment and the model copyrights, but claim they do in order to be eligible for the awards. Awards, the commentator points out, mean corporate sponsorship, and money.
"Then," the commentator winds up, "there are the continuing accusations against editor Edward Rochester and model Jessica Geist. These are just rumors, of course, which Rochester - a sure-fire award-winner this year for "Rain, Night, World" - vehemently denies."
A brief scene of Rochester, intense angry bigger-than-life Rochester, vehemently denying the accusations. (The clip is real; it should be used. Nothing can imitate Rochester at his best, not even morphing. He has never copyrighted himself, that I know of, probably because he knows this.)
Then the commentator: "While Ms. Geist hasn't come forward to defend herself, her agent has issued a somewhat less...(the commentator laughs)...emotionally-charged recorded statement that calls the suggestion ridiculous."
Now the sound of the 3DO fades into the silence, though we can still see the commentator's mouth moving. Slow pan to my face. The vagueness is gone. A moment of silence, as purpose gradually suffuses me.
* * *
Quick cut. An explosion of noise after the silence of the last image; an expensive restaurant, people talking and eating loudly, many windows. Rain outside (this is still Seattle). I am sitting with Luke. He is a standard second banana main character's friend, a little dumpy and not too handsome, but eminently sensible, in the slightly annoying way of people who are never main characters, even in their own stories.
I am impassioned; he is calm. And eating.
"I'm telling you, Luke, this is a story with meat. Potentially a real scoop - and how many of those are there anymore?"
He knows this, but still: "Peter, there's just no point. No one's been able to get near her. They don't even know where she lives. All contact is through her agent. Believe me, if it could be done, someone would have done it. Everyone wants to know about Jessica Geist. She's like the second coming, or something." He is somehow annoyed by this, by the way she has taken over the cables. She is the hottest topic going - along with Rochester, of course; flicks are the editor's medium, after all. His films, with her in them, are on everyone's lips.
Maybe we hear someone discussing them at a nearby table.
"You hear that?" Luke says, and I realize why she annoys him. He is an assigner for a big mult, and believes that no story deserves more than its fifteen minutes. Jessica Geist is breaking all the rules by lasting. "She doesn't even change voices or do accents."
Now I think his irritation is sort of funny, but in the restaurant I have to struggle to contain myself. She is my angel; she doesn't need to change voices, or do accents.
"Luke, she's the biggest thing to hit the news in a long time. A scoop on her would give the mult huge ratings. And I can do it."
He looks at me cynically, leaving unsaid the fact that I haven't done any reporting in the last six months, while other men's careers have been made on the stories I should have covered.
"C'mon," I say cockily, "who's the guy who uncovered the emissions scam in Singapore? Me. Who's the guy who broke Morphgate? Me. Who's the guy who's going to break Jessica Geist?"
Luke smiles at the mention of the two stories from the days when I was hot. "You," he mumbles. He has given in. The mult will back me.
"You know it! I am going to break her wide open!"
Luke's smile grows a little strained; there is something in the way I say that that bothers him, even more than the thought of Jessica Geist's unprecedented star tenure.
* * *
I am searching for clues to the reclusive Jessica Geist. I drive from Seattle (in the rain) down to Hollywood (in the smog). Along the road are billboards of her, holograms a hundred feet tall. The waitress who serves me at a diner wears a Jessica Geist T-shirt. The car ahead of me on the highway has a "Honk If You Love Jessica" bumper sticker.
How else to explain the mania that swept through people's lives, the fact of Jessica Geist? Her face looming over suburbia, over the cities, her voice on loudspeakers. The ineffable calm and beauty of that face and voice, the peace that descends over the most violent scenes when Jessica Geist is introduced.
Dare we show the church outside of San Francisco that showed her flicks instead of offering masses?
I am not alone in my obsession, but I am the only one who searches for her. The others simply wait for another flick.
In one of the shots we should see a cube of my wife, stuck to the dashboard. This will help explain my quest, which didn't really have an explanation. The viewer will think I was looking for a replacement for her, or, as so many people did then, that I viewed Jessica as a sort of savior.
I did not have a picture of my wife in the car with me. She abandoned me, leaving only the idea that her death was my fault. Not in a note or anything, but just in the silences I didn't break, and the words I didn't help her find. Again, the audience does not need to know this. For all they care, she could have died of cancer, with me by her side, when she really threw herself off a fucking building while I was in New York on an assignment.
Some people say the high average rainfall in Seattle leads to an unusual number of suicides, but my wife grew up in Seattle. She was used to it.
Hollywood: distributors, the PPV's that carry Rochester's flicks, the ones with Jessica Geist in them. Calls unreturned, interviews declined, doors shut. No one will talk about her. There is a polite line, a press packet to be handed out, and that is it. Jessica Geist is not to be - cannot be - discussed.
I corner her agent, once, finally, late at night. He thinks I'm going to mug him, because I haven't shaved since leaving Seattle and look pretty ratty, as well as completely obsessed. He talks.
We are in an underground parking lot, most of the lights have burnt out and not been replaced. He has never met the Divine Jessica. He only handles her morphing tapes, and even then only to release them to Rochester, and to send the fees to a numbered account in Diego Garcia. Rochester has the exclusive rights to her form and her voice.
* * *
"There is no god but Jessica, and Rochester is her prophet." Maybe I laugh when I realize how stupid I have been not to realize that. Probably.
She has only appeared in his flicks, as if only he can properly channel her, can build the digital cathedral that expresses her best.
To be fair, he was an excellent editor. Lionized when he first appeared, the best editor in years, an overnight success where geniuses burn out after ten flicks or ten months, whichever comes first. He did burn out, after three, and the appropriate awards. Then he dropped away, and since a disappearance in morphing is a non-story, no one covered it.
Rochester went into the desert, and when he came back, his flicks had Jessica Geist.
He looked older, far older than the two years he spent in obscurity could explain, no longer the boy genius with a bottle of champagne in one hand and a hot model in the other. His face was lined and more mature. The mults no longer found stories about wild parties and crazed orgies.
But there were his flicks - and Jessica Geist.
"There is no god but Jessica, and Rochester is her prophet." I saw that painted in man-high letters on the side of a building in Beverly Hills. If you could get that, it would make a great shot, but I think it has been erased.
* * *
I begin to stalk Rochester now. I call his offices, his home in Beverly Hills - it was while searching for it that I saw the graffiti credo - his accountants, his friends. I am a little smarter now. Cleanshaven, dressed respectably. But still:
"I'm sorry, Mr. Rochester is unavailable."
"Mr. Rochester doesn't speak to the media."
"Under no circumstances will Mr. Rochester discuss Jessica Geist. She has a right to privacy, you know."
"Who the hell are you?"
* * *
I get even smarter, and my eyes are fairly glowing with the cunning of obsession. I have not eaten in a long while, look thinner.
In another restaurant, a posher one than that in which I convinced Luke to back me on the story. Rochester is taking a lunch with some distributors, discussing a little vacation he'd like to take, maybe get in some riding.
"Excuse me, Mr. Rochester, I hate to bother you."
"Then don't." He was famous for his rudeness, his egotism.
"I hate to, but it's important. It's about Jessica Geist, and where she is."
Too late, I notice the bodyguards. They start in from their posts by the wall and I prepare myself for a beating, but Rochester stops them.
"What about her?" He does not seem curious - impatient rather - but the skin around his nostrils tightens and distorts his patrician nose. His eyes are hard and flat. There is no light in them.
"I'm from her hometown, an old friend. I have some important news for her, and I was hoping you could tell me where to find her."
His eyes narrow, assessing me. I see something, but he does not know I see it. I smile; he doesn't.
"Jessica doesn't have any old friends. Get out."
The bodyguards move in. Because I make no fuss and keep my mouth shut, they let me get to the exit under my own power, so there is no scene around Rochester. Outside they beat me to a pulp.
* * *
Cut to the hotel I am staying in. It is nice - Luke's backing is still good, though from the phone conversation I am having, it sounds like he's beginning to wonder. I have deliberately left the video off, so he can't see me, and tell him it's broken
Nothing broken on me, though I am all bruises. I move stiffly while I talk with Luke, telling him I have a definite lead. I am putting on dark clothes, and getting out maps of Idaho.
I am certifiable by the time I finish my call with Luke.
* * *
Cut to Rochester leaving his home in Beverly Hills. He is in a long-range copter, not going to the airport. The copter heads northeast.
* * *
Cut to the thermo I have rented, and am flying to Idaho. The cube of my wife should be in the cockpit, though I did not bring anything with me except for credit cards, a little camcorder, some other essentials. The Rockies were particularly impressive that trip, all sharp edges. It is/was spring in Idaho, and I can feel that I am getting close to Jessica's secret hideaway.
It is Rochester's house. One of several, really, but one that hasn't been covered by the media. It is technically owned by a friend, but a little careful sleuthing has told me that he paid for it, and I know the other houses are all in cities. If he means to go riding, he has to go to Idaho.
I use the motors to get me over the mountains, then cut them as I swing down into the foothills, letting the currents off their slopes carry me. There is a private beacon that I follow in - set for Rochester's use, of course, though it works just as well for me. He is not obsessive about privacy, just careful of it.
The house is strangely attractive, a hunting lodge-type construction that makes me think of a picture I once saw of Scotland. It hugs the ground, fitting snugly into a contour in the land, blending, though a thin plume of smoke rises from a chimney to mark it out from the dun hills. The smoke seems homey. There are horses in a corral out back, frisking in the early morning. It looks very pleasant.
I overfly, keep going, like a harmless joyrider. The currents take me a few miles beyond, and I set the thermo down in an out-of-the-way valley.
We can omit the walk over land. Maybe just a last shot of me standing by the thermo, looking purposeful, and then setting out over the hills.
We can also omit the sono-alarm I bypassed. It was not a subtle device - just the kind of thing that blares a recorded message about trespassing and sets off a central alarm. It was designed to discourage casual visitors, range riders and the like, people who wouldn't know whose land they were on. Rochester was not expecting purposeful visitors.
I found the motion sensor, blocked it with a little device I picked up from a friend who was a cop. I left it there, by the sensor, with the bag of essentials. I only took the camcorder and the pistol, stripped practically naked for my walk.
Though spring was just on us, it was cold there, and the winds that had carried me over the Rockies in comfort bit hard when I was out of the thermo. I didn't really notice, nor did I think much of my tired feet or the fact that I had no food. She was over the next hill, or the next (the smoke was my guide) or the next, not far in any case. I just kept walking.
* * *
Cut to sunset. It was not spectacular, just fast. Boom. Dark.
But by then I could see the lodge, only a mile or so away, the lights gleaming over the hills like home. I felt like a cowboy after a long drive, or a pilgrim seeing Mecca. Jessica = Mecca. I don't want to say that.
I sneak up on the house, careless of more alarms or sensors. I come down the last hill, smell the horses shut away in their barn, hear their nighttime whickers.
The whole lodge is lit and though the windows are small, light leaks out everywhere, suggesting warmth to spare. This is a home. It has to look very homey, like everyone's dream of a good house to come home to. That's what Rochester made of it.
First window, me crouching in front of it, peeking in like your standard spy or top investigative reporter. It is a studio, a fully-equipped modern flick studio, complete with stacks of voice and figure tapes, the processors, 16-track decks for mixing, a monster 3DO all along one wall. The boards are all lit and all the deck slots have tapes in them - Rochester is working on something. I can see some of the tape cases from the window, the names of the models he's morphing, editing into the next Jessica Geist flick. If I had walked a little faster, I might have seen him shaping her, running her tape through its permutations, fixing her smile or her frown.
Next window: a gym, a huge gym, with a convection pool and what look like protein baths. I do not know yet why Rochester needs protein baths. Also workout equipment, state-of-the-art stuff. A burly woman is calibrating one, testing the pull of the weights against the display. She is dressed like a nurse. I duck away quickly, much more quickly than from the studio.
That is the back of the lodge.
The first room in the front looks like a combination of a library and a child's playroom. Real books line the walls in dense ranks, but bright-colored toys scatter the floor - rubber balls and simple hologram builders, even a few old-fashioned cloth-and-plastic dolls. There is a fireplace, too, with a fire (hence the smoke), and in front of it one of the hologram builders is still on. Someone has created a random pattern with it, an ascending scale of distorted shapes. In the flickering firelight the colors coruscate, fragment. It is disturbing in an obvious way, chaotic, ugly.
I move on, past the front door, on the other side of which is the last room on the ground floor. A grand, manorial dining room, with a long wood table elaborately set. Rochester sits at one end, smiling broadly and simply. I have never seen such an expression on his face (no one else either, probably, outside of the lodge). Jessica Geist sits next to him; the rest of the table is empty.
He is feeding her with a spoon. She is wearing a shapeless white flannel nightgown. Her hands rest in her lap, though as I watch he tries an unwanted mouthful, and they rise spasmodically in protest, waving feebly at shoulder level. He withdraws the spoon and her hands fall. His reproving expression is lost on her: her gaze is roving aimlessly around the room.
Alarms: I have gotten really careless, reached forward and touched the sill of the window, a pane of glass as well. They squeal, and I see Jessica jump, bewildered, wildly batting at the spoon Rochester has offered her. He jumps up, shouting presumably for the nurse I saw in the gym, and then runs toward the front door.
I am there before him, waiting when he throws it open and starts to shout again. He stops shouting when I shove the pistol in his face.
Did I mention the pistol? It was one of the essentials. I don't know why I brought it - maybe I thought I could rescue her.
Rochester recognizes me, gone quiet with the gun in his face. He thinks I've lost it, and when I see that in his face, I sense how much I really have lost it.
It's a long moment in the doorway, until Jessica comes out of the dining room. I can see her past Rochester's shoulder, the burly nurse trying to restrain her. She is not drooling, but the slackness about her mouth suggests it, as does the low mewling she makes until the alarms cut off.
"Come to see your old hometown friend?" Rochester speaks, drawing a fine line between sarcasm and pacifying the lunatic with the gun.
"What's wrong with her?" My voice is little better than Jessica's. I am practically crying, grating out my question with a thick tongue.
No bodyguards yet. I didn't even think about it then - I was far gone - but Rochester must not have brought them to the lodge, so they couldn't see Jessica.
"It's cold. Can I shut the door?"
He motions me inside, carefully showing that he means no tricks. I follow and shut the door with my foot, repeat my question. Jessica is staring wide-eyed and gurgling at me, the nurse is trying to restrain her. Rochester gives Jessica a look and she quiets down, reluctantly allowing the nurse to pull her back into the dining room. Rochester indicates the library with a nod. I let him precede me.
I am still holding the gun, though I am not aware of it.
Rochester sits in a big leather arm chair by the fire. I stay standing. The chaotic hologram is between us.
"What's wrong with her?"
It's a very simple story; Rochester tells it well - he's a great editor.
Jessica Geist met him at a party when he was just making his name, and took him by storm. She was nothing like the image I - everyone - knew from the flicks. She was sexy, crude, ambitious, vulgar, driven. She'd been turned down by every other editor in town. No one wanted to tape her, no one wanted her to morph her form. She had scraped together enough money to cut her own voice tape, but no one even wanted that, though nowadays editors all over the world would pay millions for the copyright.
In time-honored tradition, she offered to sleep with him for a part. He was drunk - the party they met at was to celebrate his second flick - and agreed. She spent the night, but in the morning he kicked her out, telling her to go peddle her goods somewhere else.
He says that final rejection broke her. She attacked him, tried to claw his eyes out, then ran, bawling, half-naked, out of his house.
He didn't see her again for a month. His second flick won a bunch of awards, he got a lot of corp bonuses, started on a third.
She called him from San Francisco to tell him she was pregnant.
You have to give him credit for this, if you believe him: he says he told her to get on a plane and come to Hollywood immediately. He says he wasn't thinking about an abortion, that he meant to marry her. He says he has some principles.
I believe him.
The plane crashed.
They pulled her out of the wreckage, her brain was mostly gone, the child gone as well. Rochester claimed her body, and blew his bonuses on rejuvenation treatments and skin grafts. When her body was finally restored, he went into the desert - or Idaho. He took her to the lodge, and started taking care of her.
Jessica Geist is a practical vegetable. The protein vats were for her, and the exercise equipment, and the nurse, to keep her body going and in shape. She plays with the toys and the hologram builders, she made the chaos sculpture that stands between me and Rochester.
He says he didn't even think about flicks for almost two years, and then he found the old voice tape she had made and left in his house in Hollywood. With her body in shape, it was no problem to make the necessary modeling tapes, and he says he edited "Seeing Without Your Eyes" in less than a week. She morphs the best of anyone he's ever seen, but that should be obvious, if you've ever seen one of her flicks.
If you check carefully - and the Economic Transparency Laws make it relatively easy - you'll find that most Rochester makes huge, regular donations to various research organizations, most of which specialize in repairing brain trauma.
* * *
Cut to dawn. He has given me a lift to my thermo, and we are standing in the little valley by it. The gun has been left at his house. We face each other.
"Are you going to tell?"
* * *
Cut to Luke and me in his office in Seattle. It is raining again. It always rains in Seattle.
He is running the piece I have written, clucking. He is disappointed in spite of himself.
"Is she really that boring?"
* * *
My story deflates a lot of the mania around Jessica Geist. Who can idolize a simple Idaho girl who likes to ski and be by herself? Stories begin to surface of her time in Hollywood, before the plane crash, and there is a marked drop in the number of girls trying to sell themselves to the industry on the basis of their "Geistness."
* * *
I move on. There are other stories, I write them - some of them are good.
I never meet Rochester again, though after the story comes out he sends me a photo of Jessica Geist. It is an old headshot, an actual paper print, not a cube. She looks sultry and she is wearing a short red dress. Her eyes sparkle meanly. I stare at the picture for almost an hour, then burn it.
* * *
This will never be a flick. People still watch Jessica Geist, even if it is in the same way they watch the old videos, with nostalgia. Besides, it would only work if you could get a tape of Rochester to morph. He is an original - no model could be edited to replace him - and I don't think he's ever been taped.
For that matter, neither have I.