A crowd was blocking the sidewalk ahead, jostling for the door of a sandwich shop, raising voices and lifting cameras and pointing microphones—and when the door opened, a woman with a lime-yellow coat and matching hat—
Down the sidewalk in a bright corridor of sun, in a bright rush. Broadcast truck vomiting people onto the curb. Voices clamoring—
“Ms. Angronista! Ms. Angronista!”
“When will Mr. Feckidee have another piece?”
“How does he do it?”
She fought through. “Taxi!” They grabbed, she beat back, he fought and grabbed her. “Good lord—” she was in his arms and he lunged in for a kiss—“Idiot! Get off me!” She yanked him to the curb. “Taxi!”
They knew his face. They came in a wave.
“Mr. Feckidee! How do you—”
“What’s your secret?”
A taxi rolled up and Jessica threw the door open. Crash, they fell in, slammed it as the reporters piled against the car.
“Steele Pointe Apartments! Don’t let the press follow us!”
Breathless, she turned to Austin. “I’m sorry I pulled away out there. I didn’t mean it. It’s just—” she dragged him close and whispered in his ear. “We can’t be seen as a couple in public.”
“Oh?” Still too dazed to care.
“Sh! We both have personas to maintain, Austin. I’ve gone and told the world that I’m your official agent. I know I’m not—and you should find one, a good one—”
“No, no,” he said, grinning. “It’s official! I name you my official agent. Officially.” He kissed her playfully.
“Stop it!”—a slap and a shove. “Don’t be an idiot. This is serious.” She dropped her voice again, but the cabby’s radio was plenty loud. “They think I’m your agent. We have to keep up the appearance of not being a couple for as long as possible.”
“I don’t understand why you keep whispering.”
“Because if anyone—”
“Nonsense!”—stuck his head out the window—“Hello, world! Your attention, please: Jessica Angronista is my official agent, and I can have her whenever I want!”
“Shut up!” She yanked him back into the car. He could feel his stupid grin. “This is business, Austin. If we play this right, we can make far more than we already have. I’ve done a lot for you over the last few days. Did you see that crowd of reporters? They recognized me, and then you, because I’ve been giving interviews left and right. I built you up big time in that magazine article. Now I’ve gone and said that I’m your agent. If word gets out about our relationship, they’ll think all the promotion I’ve done is shameless self-interest on my part.”
“What else is it?”—snorted, giggled—fame making him giddy.
Her eyes blazed, but she closed the plastic window separating them from the driver and turned back in the privacy with a new and placid face. “Here’s the story. I, as an art critic, discovered your work and fell in love with it for its intrinsic merit. I wrote a glowing review, since that’s my job with the Modern Enquirer. Reynolds read it of course. After I did a little more PR for you—just answering inquiries directed at me, not broadcasting on my own initiative—you were so pleased with my success that you hired me on as your agent, as the head of your public relations people.”
“But I don’t have public relations people.”
“Will you stop acting like a child!” End of the placid face. “Just play my game even if you don’t get it. You’ll thank me when the checks start rolling in. I want you to capitalize on everything that’s coming your way. Do you see what I’m saying?”
“Yes, I do,” he said seriously.
“Do you understand the official story?” Eyes wide with motherly instruction.
“Yes. I saw how good you were at promoting me, so I hired you as my agent.”
“Jess, wait… what about your old job with the magazine?”
“I told them to place me on leave or fire me—that my job as your agent would be taking up all my time.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. They’ll beg me to come back. What could give an art critic more prestige than discovering the greatest artist of the age? No, I can work for any publication I choose now.”
“Jessica, you can’t just walk away from a good—”
“You are an absolute idiot! Neither of us will ever have to work again.”
And he saw through the drunken glow. She was riding him for unimaginable millions. And he was letting it happen. But she had catapulted him to fame with that article, and evidently she had done a lot for him since he had last seen her. Speaking of which, the great thing was that she had left first this time, and she had no idea that he had been gone…
But she had been working hard, and she deserved a reward. Anyway, the amounts were all the same. It was just money in his pocket—play money flowing in and out with breezy simplicity. He would throw away millions for anyone he liked; he didn’t care. Besides, she adored him, and he could have her whenever he wanted. For now, he would give her whatever it took to maintain that glowing worship.
A musty familiarity flowed out of the unlocked swung-back apartment door. The sun hanging on the wasteland’s edge (and on the windowsill) cast a shadow from the tower that must have reached almost to Steele Pointe in diffusion. On either side, the apartment air glowed ghastly orange and strangely empty.
“Jessica, where’s your stuff?”
“Oh God… it’s been a whirlwind. I lost everything on one of the flights, or maybe in the airport.”
“I wouldn’t trade it for anything, Austin.” She beamed in the dull sunset. “I live for this.”
He squirmed inside. “Well… we’ll get you more clothes…”
“Tomorrow. I’m way too tired.”
“Right. You can wear some of my pajamas.”
“You actually have clean pajamas?” she laughed, punching him.
They made simple sandwiches and sat down at the table. Now the sun had set and the apartment’s vision of emptiness was a thought only, and the wasteland, too, hid its desolation with a twilit panorama that overflowed the drawn-back curtains.
“Did you start on the museum commission yet?”
“What were you doing?” she laughed. “You had two full days!”
He shrugged. “I’ll start it… soon.”
“Did they give you a timetable?”
“Not that I know of.”
She shook her head. “You should be able to give me a definite answer! Did you even read the paperwork?”
“Some of it. I don’t have a copy yet.”
“It’s probably waiting for me down in the mail room.”
“You artists,” she sighed. “Oh!” Leaning forwards. “I got… let’s see… five or six new commission offers.” Her eyes glittered. “I told them that all offers would have to be made in writing. In fact, you probably have some waiting in your mailbox right now. I’ve been giving out this address as being my agency office.”
He shot her a puzzled glance but didn’t pursue it. If she hadn’t thought about the fact that 16 Parker Avenue, apartment 1158 was clearly a residential address, he wasn’t about to bring it up.
“It’s just simpler that way,” she went on. “People think they’re sending mail to your agent, but in reality it’s coming straight to you.”
He frowned. “Will they let me open your mail?”
She shrugged. “Who cares? We’ll go get it together and you’ll open it in private. You really are a child.”
There were several pieces of mail addressed to Jessica, as well as an envelope from the Museum of Modern Art. This and Jessica’s mail were marked rush post.
Austin handed her envelopes to her as they came back into the apartment. “Here, you’d better open these.”
“Austin, they’re for you! I know they are!”
“They’re addressed to you. I can’t open them.”
“Austin.” On the verge of annoyance again. “I’m your girlfriend. I hereby authorize you to open my mail.”
He shrugged and opened his envelope from the museum as they sat down at the table.
“What did they send you?” she asked as she began openings hers.
“The commission document. They said they would rush it to me.” Silent, reading.
“Let me see it when you’re done.”
He looked up. “What did you get?”
“All commission offers for you, like I said.”
“Oh.” He handed her the document from the museum. “Can I see those?”
“I thought you couldn’t read my mail!”
He took the three letters from her: all commission offers from various institutions, with proposed compensation laughably insignificant. He tossed the letters on the table without reading them.
“This is good. This is really good. Of course they can’t pay you as much as Reynolds—they’re a public institution. But this is the best thing that could have happened to you after Reynolds. He’ll introduce your work to the art world, but the museum will introduce it to the people.” Her beaming smile. “You’re in a good place, Austin.”
“Excellent.” He shrugged.
“Do you care?”
“You don’t care about this commission, and you should. You can’t fail now, Austin!”
“Good lord! No one said anything about failure.”
“But you seem—”
“Listen. I don’t like kissing up to people, and that’s what I’m doing by accepting the commission from the museum.”
“Oh my God!”—tossed the paper on the table, squeezed her face in her hands—“You are an ass.” She looked up. “What about those other three commissions?”
“Oh… low bids.”
“Really!” She picked the letters up again and scanned them. “Huh. Do they realize what league they’re playing in?”
“Are you going to accept them?”
“I don’t know. I have to do something for that museum commission first. I can’t really commit to anything else.”
“Of course you can!” she snorted. “You could take some of your drug, go in there right now, and bust out four pieces in half an hour! I know these offers are bad, but don’t think about the money; think about the exposure.”
“It’s not the money. I don’t care about that.”
“Austin, I know what it is: you don’t trust yourself.”
A sharp glance. “What?”
“You don’t trust yourself. Sorry, it’s true.”
“You need a self-confidence boost. And besides, I’ve been thinking: you have at least two more commissions coming for sure, probably three more—and that was just over the last few days. Those are the ones I demanded in writing. Austin, we should put on an art show. We can broadcast it to the world; we have the platform now. But we’ll select the guests to keep things manageable—you know, we’ll hire security and all that. We can get all these nobodies together in one room with some wine and hors d’oeuvres and let them fight it out. Oh, and they’ll fight, with your art on display.”
He couldn’t help but smile. “You’re good, Jess. You’re good. I’m not. See, that’s why I need you. Hell, I don’t even have to mess with that museum com—”
“Don’t be an imbecile! You already signed!”—shaking the papers in his face—“You owe them art. I bet they’re already wiring you the first payment.”
“You need to grow up, Austin. This is the real world; this is real life. I know they probably told you a lot about it—what it would be like, what you would have to do to make it work. Well, guess what: this is it. So stop acting like a child. Grow up and start taking care of yourself.”
He looked away thoughtfully.
“An art show?” He grinned at her. “I like it.”