'If everything seems to be going well, you have obviously overlooked something.'
"He wants to meet with you," the production assistant said. "Be outside in twenty minutes. He's sending a car."
I jammed the cell between my jaw and shoulder, grappled blindly for the clock on the nightstand and squinted at the blur of numbers. "Six-thirty in the morning? You've gotta be kidding me--"
Once my confusion faded, I gazed at the dead phone in my hand and dared to hope. Six weeks I've waited for this. Six weeks of sticking to my carefully crafted plan. If God was listening, I was about to get fired.
A half hour later, I stood outside George Betterman's jumbo, on-set trailer trying to find the balls to knock. A chill snaked over my spine. You know the creepy feeling you get when you step inside a funeral parlor? Or a graveyard? Well, that's how being on the set of KILLING MICHAEL WEST felt.
Even so, I snatched a deep breath and knocked. "It's me. Noah."
"Come in, lad," a muted voice drifted out.
I entered the lion's den, a suped-up Fleetwood. The room was semi-dark, stinking of leather, strong English tea, and expensive cologne. There was a gourmet kitchen and a full bar toward the back. A brass floor lamp lit the open area upfront, its glow pooling around the base. He sat in a La-Z-Boy across from a huge theater screen calmly sipping his tea. A gazillion-dollar entertainment center lay in front of him.
"Noah." He set his cup aside. "Grab a seat."
His tone sounded so casual, I'd've sworn this was a social visit. As with most of the Hawk Entertainment execs I'd met, George wore his manners like a coat, and he tossed them aside whenever the mood suited him. To the outsider, he would appear as harmless as any other English 'bloke,' as he called himself, but I wasn't fooled. Beneath the carefully groomed salt and pepper hair, crisp white business shirt, blue slacks and Omega watch, beat the heart of a predator.
I eased into a folding chair and set my guitar on the floor. Her name was Baby.
George studied me for a long moment before speaking. "Last year you were flipping burgers in Jersey. Now you're getting knickers in the mail. All thanks to Triple Threat." He tossed a dog-eared copy of the latest Hollywood Weekly in my lap. "Half the young men in the country would kill to be in your shoes. Do you even realize how lucky you are?"
Lucky? More like cursed. You've heard the saying, 'be careful what you wish for'? Well, trust me, it's the God's honest truth.
I glared at the publicity photo of me and Jenni at the top of the press release. Having read the article a billion times, the words were sandblasted into my brain.
America's sweetheart Jennifer---Jenni---Hart, grand prizewinner of the hit reality talent show, Triple Threat, and runner-up Noah Tyler will star in KILLING MICHAEL WEST, the latest paranormal thriller from Hawk Entertainment. Shooting is set to begin on location in Virginia this week.
Based on Rivka Stein's bestselling YA novel, the film tells the story of 15-year-old Alice Mills, who travels back in time to save Michael West, an aspiring pop singer with a shocking secret.
Set insiders report Stein had final casting approval and Tyler was her first choice for the male lead. Beating out over three hundred hopefuls, including Hank Miles, Anton Rios and Zach Sorenson, Tyler said this about winning the coveted role, "Nobody's more surprised than me. The competition was tough. I just hope I can do the character justice."
The notoriously shy teen heartthrob, with his trademark mane of blonde hair and midnight blue eyes, is expected to wow moviegoers like he did on the Triple Threat stage. Only this time, the whiskey tenor will chuck his hard rocker edge for Disco, New Wave and Pop music.
Co-star Jenni Hart, who admits to being a closet fan of the '70s era, says she grew up listening to her parents' Donna Summer albums....
If serving time in Disco hell weren't reason enough to make me gag, my character's 'shocking secret' had me hugging the toilet. Michael West was a friggen weregoyle. I mean, come on. It wasn't even a real mythic creature. Just some stupid monster Rachel Stein, the author threw together.
"Needless to say, you've been given a fantastic opportunity, so whatever's going on, playtime's over," George told me.
He pointed a remote at the DVD player. The light doused and the screen came alive, drawing my attention. A fuzzy shot of what appeared to be a hospital room gradually sharpened. I leaned forward and rested my forearms on my knees. It was the skit Jenni, Pete, and me did for the Triple Threat semifinals. Not the full scene, only the last two minutes or so.
I'm not a wimp, but damn if my eyes weren't welling. Seeing Pete again like that was just ... painful and weird, mainly because this was how he actually died. In a hospital room, hooked up to monitors---and in a coma.
Anyway, in this scene, Pete's character was lying unconscious on a gurney while medical equipment beeped in the background. Makeup had painted bruises on his face and spikes of brown hair peeked through the wads of gauze they'd wrapped around his head.
The shot changed to a white line bleeding across the tiny screen on the heart monitor. Next came the telltale hum. The contestant playing the doctor--Carl Wells, I think--turned the sound down and said, "Time of death, 6:48 p.m."
The camera swung to me. I stood huddled in a corner, white-faced and trembling, my gaze latched on the monitor. Watching myself always weirded me out, so I never viewed the performance tapes when the cast hooked up after the show aired, but now I couldn't look away.
The sound of footsteps thundered from George's speakers as Jenni burst into the hospital room at a full clip. She looked flushed and wild-eyed. "How is he?"
I directed her gaze to the monitor. As soon as she saw the flat line, her brilliant green eyes went from dry to wet. No menthol crystals for Jenni, she could cry on command.
George scooted forward, his attention glued to the screen. "Now watch this," he whispered in a semi-amazed voice.
The lens zoomed in on me for an extreme close-up. I remember exactly what went through my mind at that moment. It's when I first realized I'd fallen for Jenni. Right there. On camera. In front of billions of people. Everything I'd hidden and denied all those weeks showed plain as day on my face and in my eyes. It was embarrassing.
If I noticed it, surely everyone else had.
The shot widened when I approached her. "Our hands were tied," I said in a raw voice. My Adam's apple bobbed. "He signed a 'Do Not Resuscitate' order. I tried to-to stop them...."
Jenni's knees gave and I caught her in my arms. We both sank to the floor.
"I'm sorry." Rocking her while she sobbed, I tucked her silky black hair behind her ear. Kissed the cheek I'd just bared. Her breath smelled like cherry Lifesavers. The fragrance mixed with the sweet scent of peaches on her soft skin. "I--he loved you," I told her. "Those were his last words."
The camera came in for one more close-up as a tear rushed down my face.
We exchanged another thirty seconds of dialogue while I held her. Our scene ended with roaring applause from the studio audience.
The screen froze. My eyes were shut, one hand cradled Jenni's cheek, and I'd buried half my face in her hair.
For several moments, the silence in the trailer was thick enough to peel.
"Powerful stuff." George inched back. "That scene was the fodder of talk shows all week. You two sizzled together." Light filled the trailer again. He still held the remote. "I wanted to bring you both in for a chat, but I thought a one-on-one would be better."
I frowned. "A one-on-one for what?"
"I trust you've seen the dailies? You had chemistry back then, now it's gone. What happened? Did you quarrel?" George had never minced words, but his next question still surprised me. "Or is it that you fancy her?"
He eyed me inquisitively. "Jenni. Do you fancy her?"
"W-why do you ask?"
"Come now. Surely, you're not that naive. Romantic squabbles affect chemistry, and chemistry is the bread and butter of effective filmmaking, and what affects my film, affects me."
Out of nowhere, Rick the prick's voice screamed in my head. He was Jenni's dad. "I see how you look at her," he'd said, drawing me aside the day after KMW's production launch party three and a half months ago. "Try anything and I'll make sure they toss your ass in Club Fed. Those rump rangers love pretty boys like you."
Yep, he'd threatened me. Stay away from Jenni, or share a prison shower with a tattooed wonder named Tiny. This is why I've avoided her like a cold sore.
She's 15. I'm 18.
Can you say 'jailbait?'
"Answer the bloody question, Noah." George's narrowed eyes all but impaled me to my seat. "What's going on between you?"
He swung his chair all the way around. "Well, Jenni's frustrated with your acting as of late, and she's not alone. Anton and the others are miffed too."
I didn't know whether to be pissed or glad. Anton Rios played my best friend Duncan in the movie, and he fit the temperamental artist stereotype to a T. His hair-trigger temper was legendary. Small wonder. That pole up his ass had to hurt. 'ACTORS' like Anton didn't think me and Jenni deserved to be here. We hadn't paid our so-called dues.
Didn't help that he'd auditioned for the part of Michael West too.
George crossed his legs, one foot swinging in a steady rhythm. "You've given me nothing but wooden acting and stilted delivery since filming began. We've tried shooting around you, but we can't do it forever." He shook his head. "Why are you so unhappy, Noah?"
As if he didn't already know. Hawk first tried to bully me into auditioning for the movie during the Triple Threat tour over five months ago. Even then, I'd resisted. I wasn't into acting. I told them I was a musician and I'd only tried out for TT to get a break for my band, The Ark, but did they listen?
I finally put my foot down, skipping a costume fitting and a bunch of other film-related appointments. That's when George showed up---uninvited---at me and my best friend Bry's birthday bash waving a copy of my Triple Threat contract like a flag. This was the night before I skipped town. I'd just caught Bry and my girlfriend---correction, ex-girlfriend---Lois going at it in the rain, so I was already in a mood.
Anyway, George stormed into my condo and ordered me to go over all thirteen pages, with the juicy parts highlighted in bright yellow. Took two read-throughs to realize how screwed I was. The show ended half a year ago, but all Triple Threat contestants are bound for seven months after the season finale. Now here's the kicker. Hawk had the option to retain the top three finalists for an additional two to five years.
Had I not won my category, my obligation would've ended six weeks from now. In short: Hawk owned me. My voice. My image. My ass.
Hell, I should've known they were control freaks when George pressured me to take a drug test a month into the show. He'd said he'd heard 'rumors.' Trust me, I may drink on occasion, but I don't do drugs. Despite that, the show's physician---a bald gnome with a wicked case of halitosis---took a billion quarts of blood and made me piss in a cup.
Now I was stuck in a contract straight from the pit of hell. That pretty much whittled my options down to one. I had to force them to fire me without getting sued in the process. This was the loophole I'd been aiming for. Two entertainment lawyers and my uncle who's a judge had confirmed everything.
So guess what I'd been doing for the past six weeks?
Being a first-class fuck-up.
George tossed the remote aside. He dragged a piece of paper from his breast pocket, slipped his glasses on and began reading. "You got pissed at the launch party, but I forgave that. Even after you passed out. Then you went AWOL, which set production behind a full two weeks. After that, you dyed your hair black and the time wasted making you blond again set us back two whole days." He glanced at me over his glasses. "The row at the pub the other night was the last straw. You're not even old enough to be in there, Noah. You've got an image to maintain. Hawk has an image to maintain."
"Oh, come on. The guy shoved a camera in my face."
"So you dump a pint down his trousers?" He wagged his head and gave a longsuffering sigh. "It took ten grand to make him go away. That's coming out of your salary, you know. The Fuzzy Navel---and all other pubs---are off limits from now on." He started reading again. "Another five thousand for the complaint at Motel 6...."
More like complaints. So many the film's unit manager moved me into the Whitmore Lodge, the same log cabin resort where the rest of the cast and crew stayed. The compound was set in a wooded area surrounded by a sleepy lake. They'd rented the entire mosquito-infested place for the duration of the shoot.
"You bought a bloody motorbike," George continued, "knowing full well our contract forbids it. Your disdain for rules and authority is troubling."
Yep, I was definitely getting canned.
"Failure to follow direction. Missing marks. Forgetting lines---" He glared at me. "How hard is it to learn a few pages of dialogue every day?"
Not hard at all. I had a photographic memory, not that I'd ever tell him. "I'm sorry." No I wasn't. "I'll try harder."
"Bollocks!" George crumpled the list and shoved to his feet, tossing the balled paper aside. His chest pumped up and down. Anger radiated in his dark blue eyes. "I can spot talent faster than a slag drops her knickers! And you're a natural, lad. Acting comes as easy as breathing to you."
"Listen, y-you don't---"
He stabbed a finger at me and I blinked. "No, you listen. When you whinged about the disco music, we switched to classic rock. Allowed your band to do a song for the soundtrack. Even tossed in a songwriting credit for Bryan." He tore away and started pacing. "But you're still driving everyone half mad. Henri especially."
Henri Le Blanc. KMW's award-winning director. The man of a thousand takes. He was a greasy looking troll doll with bloodshot eyes, fat cheeks, a tree trunk for a neck, and a potbelly. Worst of all, he stank.
George turned to face me. "What did you say when I sat you down before the semifinals?"
Who knew? I said so much bullshit back then.
"You told me you loved performing," he answered. "And I believed you."
"Music, George. Not acting."
He scowled, snatched his glasses off and jammed them into his breast pocket. "I have ... big dreams for you, Noah, and I will not allow you to fail. Do you get what I'm saying, lad?"
Aw, crap. This didn't sound good.
He stood over me again and motioned to the photographs, posters and awards draping the trailer's walls. They were of all the Triple Threat finalists who'd gone on to mega stardom. To this day, not one person had left Hawk, which seemed strange to me.
"A few of my artistes had trouble realizing their full potential. That's why they needed a nudge in the right direction." Then, in a dark voice, he murmured, "Others needed a push."
My butt went numb.
George cleared his throat and turned away. "I've taken a keen interest in you. More than past contestants."
God only knew why.
"So stop acting a pratt and get your arse in gear before...."
His voice was soft, but urgent. "Before it's too late."
That didn't sound like a prelude to a pink slip. Now I was officially terrified.
George smoothed his shirt back in place with a brisk gesture, then returned to his seat and crossed his legs again. He stared off into space. "TV Guide wants you for a cover. Teen Magazine's got a spread planned, and we've lined up an on set Q&A with Hollywood Tonight. I can only hope you'll at least try and give a decent performance this time."
Interviews. I suck at them, by the way.
He pinned me with his gaze. "We've invested a lot in you, Noah, so everything you do has ... consequences." His gray brows drew together in a stern line. "The motorbike goes back today. Now run along."
I tore out of there without a backward glance and sagged against the back of the trailer with Baby's case dangling from my limp hand. Crewmembers and extras trickled by as I gaped up at the early morning clouds, my mind going in circles. This must be what it's like to go crazy.
Trapped in an endless loop of fear and frustration, I closed my eyes and tried to focus on something more linear. So I zeroed back in on my goal, but I hit a brick wall. No doubt about it, Hawk Entertainment had me by the balls.