False Icons and Sacred Cows
By Nathan Allen
Copyright 2017 Nathan Allen
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“Jesus knew Satan was at work in that very hour,” Fr. Gerdtz intoned from his pulpit. “The devil had already enlisted Judas to betray him, and Christ knew the religious hierarchy in Jerusalem was being empowered by the principalities of Hell. He was also aware that a devil-inspired mob was coming shortly to take him prisoner. That was when Jesus said to the disciples, Satan, the undead one, is coming.”
Fr. Gerdtz paused when the snoring in his church became too loud to ignore.
He lifted his eyes from his notes and scanned the room for the source of the disruption. It wasn’t long before he identified the culprit. The pews were sparsely filled; only seventeen people had bothered to drag themselves out of bed that morning to give thanks for all the Lord had blessed them with. It came from the back row, where a tattered pair of mismatched shoes stuck out from the end of one pew. He didn’t need to see the shoes’ owner to know who was responsible. It was the same man who interrupted his sermons on a near-weekly basis. His name was Jefferson Slade, a local vagrant who frequently stumbled into his church to sleep off a heady Saturday night of cheap liquor, public nuisance and lascivious behavior. He was at least grateful that Jefferson was sound asleep, and not heckling and muttering profanities as he sometimes would.
Thirty seconds had elapsed since Fr. Gerdtz last spoke. None of the parishioners appeared to have noticed. Many had their heads bowed and bibles open, although it was fairly obvious they were doing this to disguise the fact that they were really looking at their phones.
A sinking feeling of disillusionment took hold as he surveyed what remained of his congregation. Thirty-six years ago, when he arrived here from Vienna, he frequently addressed packed houses. Parishioners would arrive an hour early on a Sunday morning to snare a good seat, then wait a further thirty minutes at the end just to let him know how much they enjoyed hearing him speak. But that was a different era altogether. Now his entire audience could carpool home in a minibus.
Crowds had steadily declined over the past four decades, and only a dedicated few remained. The majority were closer to the end of their lives than the beginning. They were the ones who wanted to make peace with the Lord and reserve their place in heaven before being trampled underfoot by the inevitable march of time. But the older crowd was thinning out, their numbers waning with every passing year, and a younger generation was not stepping up to take their place. The church was fighting against irrelevance, and it was a fight they were losing.
He returned to his notes and pressed on.
“Evil, of all kinds, has risen to an exceeding height in this world, and highly exalted itself against God, Christ and the church. Satan has highly exalted himself and greatly prevailed. By his subtle temptations, he brought about the ruin of the whole race–”
A loud snort erupted from Jefferson Slade’s open mouth, and Fr. Gerdtz lost his place once again. The vast emptiness of the St. James Cathedral gave the sound added volume. The high walls and ceiling amplified every one of Jefferson’s involuntary interruptions, reverberating for seconds afterwards.
Fr. Gerdtz closed his eyes and exhaled through his nostrils. He prayed that the Lord grant him the strength to carry on in the face of these constant challenges.
The parishioners filed out of the church in a slightly hurried manner following the conclusion of the service. Fr. Gerdtz found himself speaking with Lance and Colleen Robertson, a couple in their early forties who had been coming to the St. James Church for many years. He had known Colleen since she was a young girl. He had officiated at her wedding to Lance, and he had baptized their infant daughter Briony. But as was the case with many families, their Sunday attendances were growing further and further apart. It wasn’t unusual for entire seasons to pass by without an appearance.
“We’re sorry it’s been so long,” Colleen said, wheeling out the same excuse Fr. Gerdtz had heard many, many times before: “It’s just that we’ve all been so busy.”
“I understand,” he said. “It can be difficult to find the time, especially in this day and age.”
A small part of him died upon uttering these words, embarrassed by how completely devoid of meaning they were. He resisted the urge to point out that his weekly church services demanded less time than a single episode of those HBO dramas Colleen and Lance obsessively devoured. He often overheard them talking about how far behind they were in their viewing schedules, and the great lengths they would go to when setting aside time to catch up. They spoke as if scripted television was some arduous chore that had been enforced upon them against their will.
“But it’s been great to see you today,” Lance said. “We always look forward to your services. We really should try and do this more often.”
This last comment produced an involuntary but nonetheless audible huff from Briony, Colleen and Lance’s now-teenaged daughter. Briony had clearly been dragged along today against her will. She was the only person in attendance under the age of forty, as well as the only churchgoer Fr. Gerdtz had ever seen wearing a t-shirt with the words “BITCH, I’M FABULOUS” emblazoned across it.
Lance shot his daughter a stern look, imploring her to show some manners. Briony failed to take the hint. “Can we go now?” she whined.
“In a minute honey,” Colleen said.
“But we’re going to be late!”
“Briony, it doesn’t start for another four hours,” her father said.
“Only the first two hundred people through the doors will get to meet Krystal!”
“Calm down, sweetie,” Colleen said. “There’s still plenty of time.”
“You know how much this means to me! If I miss out it’s all your fault!”
Briony stormed off towards the family car. She climbed into the back seat and slammed the door closed.
“Teenagers, huh?” Fr. Gerdtz said with a raised eyebrow. It was his attempt at lightening the mood, but at that moment he was relieved to have taken a vow of chastity.
“We’re taking Briony to see Krystal Blayze,” Colleen said by way of explanation. “She’s been talking about this non-stop for weeks.”
The vacant look on Fr. Gerdtz’s face suggested he didn’t have the slightest idea who Colleen was talking about.
“You don’t know Krystal Blayze? Oh, she’s a massive star. She’s doing a book signing at the Beverly Center today.”
“She’s an author?”
“No, she’s … well, she has released three books. But she’s so much more than that. She’s a model, a DJ, she has her own TV show, a skincare range. She designs swimsuits, she’s appeared in a Chris Brown video. She’s across all media, really. Young people totally love her.”
There was a marked rise in enthusiasm as Colleen spoke. She appeared almost as excited about meeting this Krystal Blayze woman as her fourteen year old daughter. Fr. Gerdtz got the impression Colleen was turning into one of those mothers terrified of middle age; the type who believed that by sharing her daughter’s interests and being her best friend she could cling to the last vestiges of her fading youth.
The family departed a few minutes later, leaving as soon as they’d invested the minimum amount of small talk so as to not appear rude. The last of the congregation milled around until about eleven a.m.
Fr. Gerdtz was about to head back into the church when his attention was drawn to the guttural sounds emanating from around the corner. He looked across to see Jefferson Slade, now up on his feet and somewhat conscious, hunched over the newly-planted daffodils and dry-retching every few seconds.
He briefly considered ignoring this unpleasant distraction and continuing on inside, but decided the Christian thing to do would be to check in on Jefferson and make sure he was alright.
A sigh of exasperation spilled from his mouth as he made his way over. He knew he was supposed to welcome everybody to his church with open arms, but Jefferson was a never-ending test of his patience. He wasn’t alone in feeling this way; the police often picked him up following complaints from local residents and businesses regarding his offensive behavior. They would leave him in the care of a nearby nursing home, but he never stayed long. He would stick around for a day or two, mostly to harass the nurses and antagonize the other residents, then disappear in the middle of the night. These days the police mostly left him alone, just so long as he didn’t push his luck too far.
“Are you feeling alright, Jefferson?” Fr. Gerdtz asked in a tired voice.
Jefferson heaved. Unintelligible noises blurted from his mouth; a cross between a dead language and gobbledegook. It was the indecipherable dialect of a man at the lowest point in his hangover. A string of brown bile hung from his chin. He smelled like dumpster refuse.
Fr. Gerdtz looked away in distaste. “Do you need me to call someone?”
Jefferson spat twice on the grass and staggered off towards the road, no doubt looking for someone else to torment.
Fr. Gerdtz watched him as he left. He was becoming more and more convinced that Jefferson had been sent by the Lord as a test of his faith.
Fr. Gerdtz arrived home mid-afternoon. He put out some fresh food for Samson, the long-haired Angora kitten he had recently adopted, and phoned his local pharmacy to arrange a prescription refill for his arthritis medication. He then switched on his computer and set about figuring out how to sign up for a Twitter account. This wasn’t something he especially wanted to do, but many of his colleagues within the clergy had been on his back for some time about the need to embrace new media strategies. He’d put it off for as long as he could before finally giving in. It was a last-ditch effort at staying relevant, a kind of “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” attitude. He figured any medium that helped spread the word of God was worth investigating.
Creating his Twitter profile took less than ten minutes. This was something he was quite proud of; he had always found modern technology to be rather intimidating, but the computing for seniors classes he had taken in recent years had gone some way towards demystify it all.
He gained his first follower a few minutes later. It was Fr. Jenkins from the nearby United Church, one of the colleagues who had encouraged him to join social media. Fr. Jenkins had been on Twitter for several years now, and had amassed more than five hundred followers in that time. This played a large part in Fr. Gerdtz deciding to take the plunge and join up. It had been some time since he last addressed five hundred people at once.
Fr. Gerdtz followed him back, and the two priests exchanged pleasantries and a few jokes.
He then came across the Twitter page of Colleen Robertson from his church. Her most recent post featured a photograph of her and her daughter Briony, standing next to a young woman with peroxide-blonde hair and a dour face hidden behind a pair of giant cataract sunglasses. This, it appeared, was the world-famous Krystal Blayze. Briony wore an ear-to-ear smile in the photograph, while Colleen looked happier than she did on her wedding day. Krystal Blayze looked bored, like she’d rather be anywhere else than where she was at that moment.
Curiosity soon got the better of him. He simply had to know what it was about this woman that made her so alluring, since Colleen’s explanation from earlier that morning hadn’t made a whole lot of sense. It was one thing for Briony, a teenager with a brain that was still developing, to illogically worship someone like this. But a grown woman, an otherwise intelligent wife and mother? He was definitely missing something here.
He clicked onto her page to discover that Krystal Blayze had over six million Twitter followers. A few minutes later, he found that she had more than three times that number following her on Instagram.
This revelation plunged him into a state of bewilderment. It wasn’t only the gargantuan number of followers; it was more the fact that she was famous for absolutely no reason at all. All this woman appeared to do with her life was post an endless array of photographs of herself in various states of undress for the pleasure of her anonymous, grammatically-averse followers. She was pictured reclining in a swimsuit on a beach, reclining in a different swimsuit by a pool, reclining sans-swimsuit on a bed, as well as hundreds more showing her either shopping or partying. Scattered throughout was the occasional inspirational quote about self-acceptance and finding inner peace. None of her followers appeared to notice that these quotations directly contradicted the egoistical, materialistic lifestyle she openly promoted.
But it only got worse when he learned that Krystal Blayze was far from an isolated example. There were hundreds, possibly even thousands of others just like her. Ordinary, unremarkable people who had cultivated huge online followings for no discernible reason. They possessed no unique talents, nor had they done anything to benefit anyone other than themselves. There was nothing particularly interesting about any of them. In fact, many appeared to be simply horrible people – self-centered, shallow, vindictive and extraordinarily vain. Most concerning was that this behavior was actively rewarded. An ostentatious display of wealth, or a childish Twitter feud, usually resulted in the offending party gaining additional followers and becoming even more popular.
Some indigenous cultures believed that part of their soul was lost when their photograph was taken. Judging by the evidence before him, Fr. Gerdtz concluded that whenever some dummkopf took their own picture and posted it online, several million brain cells were irreparably damaged. Here was incontrovertible proof that we were all living in a post-shame world.
He kept on clicking over and over, unable to stop himself, viewing different versions of the same image. He saw people pouting into the camera, shots in a mirror’s reflection, post-workout images, point-of-view beach snaps, and innumerable instances of people who believed that having their tongue hanging out of their mouths made them edgy or subversive.
[Side note: Hanging Tongue Syndrome is a condition prevalent in many types of dogs. It is caused by inbreeding.]
Something about this troubled him greatly. Even if he wasn’t able to properly articulate his concerns, the fact that such superficiality was not only condoned but admired made him fear for the future of the human race. He had long suspected the world was becoming more tolerant of the gauche and the obscene – that much was obvious when the country saw fit to elect a boorish orange-faced buffoon from a reality television show as its president – but only now was the full extent of this diseased culture evident.
Celebrity had metastasized to become the new opiate of the masses. Fame was the sole aim for millions rather than the byproduct of hard work and success. Rampant consumerism and mindless celebrity worship infected every square inch of society. Everybody wanted to be somebody, and nobody wanted to be just anybody.
The public, too, was consumed with the lives of these vacuous fame-chasers, deliberately shutting out anything from the real world that might penetrate their own blinkered existence. It was a phenomenon that had spread to all segments of media. In that day’s newspaper, a suicide bombing attack in Jakarta that left thirty-three people dead was allocated just a small fraction of page fourteen. News of a Hollywood divorce and a rapper’s new shoe line both received much greater coverage. What was previously relegated to the gossip section now polluted the entire newspaper.
Fr. Gerdtz removed his glasses and rubbed his tired eyes. He was getting older, and the modern world was leaving him behind. He was so far removed from the younger generations that they may as well have arrived from another planet. They lived different lives and had different values. They no longer had any need for the church, preferring to give their attention to the unlimited entertainment options available twenty-four/seven on their massive TVs and devices that fit comfortably in their pockets. Trying to compete with that was like trying to nail custard to a wall.
His whole life had been in service to God, and now he feared it would all be for nothing. His entire existence may have been meaningless. At this rate, the world will have moved on from religion within a decade. It would all be forgotten, a relic from a bygone era. Fr. Gerdtz’s legacy would be that he was part of the generation that allowed spirituality to wither and die like a neglected pot plant.
A moment passed, and a sense of helplessness took hold.
He did what he always did during times of uncertainty and soul-searching. He bowed his head and clasped his rheumatic hands together in prayer.
“I don’t know what you expect me to do,” he whispered solemnly. “Am I wasting my time here? Should I give up and simply accept this is how the world is today? Is there anything I can do to make a difference? Or are there better ways for me to devote my energies towards helping people?”
He was silent for a long time.
“Please, Lord,” he said, a ripple of emotion entering his voice. “It’s rare that I ask for help. I know there are many more in much greater need than I. But I just need a sign. I need to know if there is something I can do.”
There was a knock at the door.
Fr. Gerdtz froze. He opened his eyes and looked up at the clock. It was 9:38 p.m. Much later than he thought. His time spent on the internet just sucked the hours away.
He was conflicted about what to do next. Should he answer the door? This was an odd time for visitors, and he wasn’t expecting anyone. But the knock occurred immediately after he asked the Lord for help. Was that a coincidence, or was God actually listening? He often told his followers there were no coincidences in life, and that everything was part of God’s divine plan. Whoever was on the other side of that door – even if they were unaware of it – would be able to provide guidance in his hour of need.
He rose from his seat and tentatively approached the door. His eye moved to the peephole. There was no one out there. Probably just some kids playing tricks. Tonight was Halloween, after all.
He turned the lock and unhooked the chain, then stepped out into the dark night.
The security light came on, and the area lit up. Funny, he thought. Whoever knocked somehow did so without activating the sensor. He looked left and right, but he could see no one around. Maybe he had imagined it. Maybe his mind was going in his old age. Or maybe it was nothing more than wishful thinking.
A light breeze blew, and a sharp chill brushed against his skin. Today had been a day of unseasonable warmth, but the night air had turned inexplicably frigid. A shiver rippled through his body.
Then he saw the parcel.
It was right in front of him, inches from his feet. By now he had been outside a couple of minutes, but had only just noticed it. It was almost as if it had materialized out of thin air. A more logical explanation was that it had been there all along, but he had failed to notice until then. He recently had the prescription for his glasses updated, but his eyesight was still poor once the sun went down.
The parcel was about the size of a shoebox. It had no note, or anything else to identify the sender. It was wrapped haphazardly in pages from a softcore pornography magazine.
Krystal Blayze dropped into one of the plush velvet sofas inside the VIP section at the Aubaine Manor nightclub. She tugged at the hem of her Halloween costume – a skimpy nurse’s outfit that a ten year old girl might struggle to squeeze into – then checked the time on her Sony Xperia 25 Premium phone. It was just past midnight, which meant she still had another hour to kill before her contractual obligations were fulfilled.
She was exhausted from another arduous day of work. She’d had to grimace her way through her fifth meet and greet in the past three days to promote her new book YOLO, Bitch!. When that was over she reviewed the script and rehearsed her lines for an upcoming episode of Blayze of Glory, her “reality” TV show that was about to start filming its third season. Next was a magazine photo shoot and two hours of phone interviews, then on to her appearance at Aubaine Manor. She had been pulling sixteen hour days for the past three months, with no letup in her schedule anytime soon. And there were still ignorant haters out there who had the nerve to dismiss her as “famous for being famous”.
More than anything, it was these nightclub appearances that drained her the most. So many people assumed it was easy money, but they had no idea what the job really entailed, nor did they understand just what she had to endure night after night. Tonight she had been trolled by a group of basic bitches looking to score their own fifteen minutes of fame, as well as being hit on by about a thousand guys who thought that telling her they’d seen her hacked photos counted as a pickup line. No matter how much she got paid, she was totally made to earn every cent.
The financial rewards weren’t even that great anymore. She had missed the golden age of the celebutante by just a year or two, a fact she lamented every time she turned up to one of these things. She still took home around $70,000 for a single appearance, which could be bumped up to $100,000 if she DJ’d as well (DJing was a process that involved connecting her phone to the console, loading a Spotify playlist, then waving her arms in the air for an hour). But it was a far cry from the quarter of a million some venues were paying not so long ago. Appearance fees had plummeted in recent years as the number of fame-wenches approached saturation point. Now there were miscellaneous “personalities” with the tiniest amount of celebrity status, all these YouTube vloggers and viral news subjects, turning up to clubs for ten grand or less. They were dragging the price down for legit stars like herself.
Her manager Nigel sauntered across and sat down next to her. “Great set, babe,” he said. “You really had the crowd moving.”
“Whatevs,” Krystal said. “This place is dead tonight, anyway.”
“Yeah, yeah, you’re totally right.” Nigel was reading a message that had just appeared on his phone and wasn’t listening to a word Krystal had said. “By the way, I spoke with the owner of this place. I let him have it over those posters. He apologized and said it wouldn’t happen again.”
“You know, the posters they had up promoting your appearance here tonight. The ones that promised ‘A special DJ performance by Krystal Blayze’, with inverted commas around the word ‘DJ’. I told him that was completely disrespectful.”
Krystal nodded along, even though she wasn’t entirely sure what the inverted commas implied.
“Also, the projections have just come through from the publisher,” he said, reading the message on his phone. “YOLO, Bitch! is on track to shift a hundred k in the first week.”
“Oh,” she said. “That’s … great?”
Nigel made a face. “You’re not happy with one hundred thousand?”
“It’s just that I have, like, twenty million followers. I thought it’d be a bit more than that.”
“Trust me honey, one hundred thousand is a lot for a book. Nobody reads actual books anymore. And it’s almost double what Slut Puppy did in its first week of release.”
Slut Puppy was Krystal’s previous book about dating and relationship advice. It sold over one million copies worldwide.
“In that case, I guess I’m allowed to chillax a little,” she said.
A server passed by holding a tray of multicolored shots. Krystal reached for one, and Nigel gave her hand a gentle smack.
“Uh, I don’t think so sweetheart.”
“What, you’re telling me what I can and can’t drink now?”
“No, I’m reminding you that we have a meeting with the head of Parlux in eleven hours’ time to discuss bottle designs for your new fragrance. It’d be nice if you turned up to a meeting sober for once.”
Krystal let out an adolescent whine. “Do I really have to go to that?”
“If you want your name emblazoned across a bottle of perfume then yes, you really do have to go to that.”
“But I’m not even sure I want my own fragrance.”
“What part of having your own fragrance do you object to? Is it the part where you take a three dollar bottle of liquid and sell it for $110?”
“Trust me princess, this is one meeting you don’t want to blow off. Having your own fragrance is like owning a money-printing factory. If you’re not willing to take advantage of this opportunity there are plenty of other scene queens who are.”
Nigel’s phone chimed with an incoming call. He leaped up off the couch. “And put something new on Instagram,” he ordered. “It’s been seven hours since your last post. Leave it any longer and the press will start drafting your obituary.”
Nigel left to take the call in a quieter corner of the club. He plucked a shot glass filled with bright blue liquid from the bar along the way and poured it down his throat.
Krystal sulked for a few minutes – she hated it when Nigel ordered her around like she couldn’t make any decisions on her own – before eventually conceding he might be right. She needed something new for Instagram.
She took out her phone and scanned the room for career advancement opportunities; namely, famous or semi-famous guys. A celebrity selfie was the surest way of enhancing your brand and keeping your name at the forefront of the public’s mind. She knew that better than anybody. A year and a half ago, a twenty second encounter with Justin Bieber saw her profile skyrocket. Rumors quickly spread that the two were romantically involved – rumors she did nothing to dispel – and Krystal’s rise from anonymous to ubiquitous kicked into warp speed. The picture received eight hundred thousand likes, and she gained half a million new followers in a single week. Her entire career – the TV show, the modeling gigs, the books, the fitness DVDs, the endorsements – could all be traced back to that one cluster of pixels. But she wouldn’t be able to rely on it forever. She had to stay relevant or risk the ignominy of fading back to obscurity.
Even though, as a feminist, she knew it was wrong that a woman could become famous purely due to her association with a successful man, she didn’t let it bother her too much. As far as she was concerned, feminism meant that a woman should be able to do whatever she wants and not be criticized for it. Anyway, nothing said Girl Power more than exploiting a man for your own personal gain.
Sadly, the VIP section of Aubaine Manor was severely lacking in A-list guys tonight. What it did have was an oversupply of second-tier professional athletes, third-tier reality-famous douches, and no-name sub-Juggalo frat-rappers. In other words, nobody Krystal could benefit from having her name associated with. In fact, being seen with any of these dickwits could only damage her brand. The name Krystal Blayze was synonymous with exclusivity, and she’d prefer to keep it that way.
If there were no other celebs of her stature to leech off she would have to rely on her regular selfie fallback. She extended her arm, gazed into the phone’s camera, and snapped off a quick dozen shots.
Scrolling through the results, she was horrified by what she saw. The pics were ghastly; she looked about thirty. The lighting in the club accentuated the bags under her eyes, her hair looked like it was a strong breeze away from falling out, and almost every shot gave her a double chin. She looked better in her mug shot than she did here. She tried fixing a couple of the better ones with filters, but this did little to make her any less of a hot mess.
She would need to bring her A-game if she was to post anything worthwhile tonight. So after a quick fix of her hair, makeup and cleavage, she sucked in her cheeks, pushed out her lips, did that squint thing with her eyes that made her appear more alluring, and flashed a peace sign with her left hand.
She had taken a handful of shots when a dark figure appeared in her peripheral vision.
After taking a moment to examine the mystery package left on his doorstep, poking and prodding it in an amateurish attempt to determine if it was potentially dangerous, Fr. Gerdtz lifted it up off the ground and carried it inside his house. It was slightly heavier that he expected. He placed it on his dining room table, then carefully removed the crumpled magazine pages used as wrapping paper. Inside, he found a plain brown box with an envelope attached. The envelope contained two things – a VIP pass to a West Hollywood nightclub, and a handwritten note.
The note read: I trust you’ll know what to do with this.
He used a letter opener to slice through the tape sealing the box shut. He pulled the flaps open, just as the sky exploded with a sharp clap of thunder.
Inside was a .500 S&W Magnum revolver and a box of ammunition.
Fr. Gerdtz instinctively backed away. His hand went to his mouth in shock, and he collapsed into a kitchen chair.
He didn’t move for a full five minutes.
A range of possibilities raced through his head. A deadly weapon had just landed unannounced on his front door. Who on earth would do such a thing? Was this meant to be some sort of warning? A threat? A prank? If it was a prank, it was quite an expensive one. Even though he knew next to nothing about firearms, he did know that guns like this one, the type Harry Callahan used in all those Dirty Harry movies, didn’t come cheap.
He debated what he should do next over a strong cup of tea. This was such a bizarre event, coming so out of the blue, that he really had no idea of the correct course of action. He assumed he was supposed to report this to the police. He could see no other sensible option.
But then the note caught his eye. I trust you’ll know what to do with this. The words rattled around inside his head as he attempted to decipher their true meaning.
He couldn’t explain why, but something compelled him to reach inside the box and pick up the gun.
An otherworldly sensation ricocheted through his body as soon as his palm made contact with the rosewood grip. His entire being vibrated with a kind a euphoric energy. It was a phenomenon unlike anything he had ever felt before, and the closest he’d come to a purely religious experience in a long, long time.
A moment passed, and the pieces of this cryptic puzzle gradually shifted into place. There could be only one reason why this gun appeared on his doorstep at this exact time. He knew where it had come from, and he knew what he was meant to do with it.
Several hours later, he made his way to a nightspot on La Cienega Boulevard called Aubaine Manor. The name proved to be a slight misnomer; “Aubaine Manor” brought to mind a sophisticated establishment frequented by classy patrons, not an overcrowded and overpriced den of sin and sleaze that inflicted actual physical pain on him as he entered. He found himself surrounded by people one third his age, many outfitted in Halloween costumes more befitting the red light district than neighborhood trick or treating. Worst of all was the excruciating noise assaulting his eardrums. When he first came into the club he assumed a fire had broken out and they were sounding some sort of evacuation alarm. It soon became apparent that this was the actual music these people were voluntarily exposing themselves to. Fr. Gerdtz tried to maintain an open mind about what young people enjoyed these days, but this was one thing he’d never quite understand. The music, if you could call it that, was more like something riot police would blast in order to disperse large crowds rather than anything an entertainment venue might play to attract one.
As he wandered through the club he noticed just how much things had changed since he was a young man. The dances he had attended were a great deal more wholesome than the debauchery he was witness to here. In his day, a gentleman would signal his intentions by respectfully approaching a young lady and asking her to dance. Now it seemed acceptable for a man to show his interest in a woman by stumbling towards the dancing area and grinding his crotch against the unsuspecting target of his inebriated lust. The fact that this all occurred on the holiest day of the week only compounded his revulsion.
The VIP section was situated at the rear of the venue. He attracted a number of puzzled looks from the burly security staff, one of whom called him “bro” and complimented him on his “freaky dope-ass costume”, before his pass granted him access beyond the hallowed velvet rope.
A different type of music played in here; one with angry urban males using deplorable language whilst shouting at one another over an abrasive instrumental track. After just a few seconds of this, Fr. Gerdtz was thankful that his failing hearing dulled the full impact of this odious racket.
His eyes scoured the room. The décor was kind of retro-futuristic. The bar was made from transparent fiberglass, and the lighting came from thin neon green fluorescent tubes running along the sides of the walls and tables. A black and white art house movie was projected onto one wall, although the VIPs – none of whom appeared to be of particular importance – paid scant attention to it. They were more interested in gulping down their brightly-colored alcoholic beverages and shouting into each other’s ears.
He spotted his target in the far corner, holding her phone out in front of her. She was dressed like an extra from a Carry On film and contorting her face into something that resembled a large fish gulping for air. This was Krystal Blayze; the woman symbolic of an entire generation with an excess of confidence but absolutely no justification for it.
He made his move, striding purposefully towards her. He expected her to look up, but her focus remained solely on her phone. He reached beneath his cassock and removed the Magnum. He wasn’t one hundred percent sure what was happening here. He couldn’t tell if he was doing this all on his own volition, or if he was being compelled by an unseen force. Possibly a combination of the two.
With little hesitation, he aimed the gun and pulled the trigger.
He was completely unprepared for the recoil produced by such a powerful weapon. He lost control the instant it discharged. The force propelled him backwards and his hand flew up, the gun striking him across the face. Clint Eastwood made it look so much easier.
When he regained his balance, he saw that Krystal Blayze was now missing the top half of her head.
Time slowed to a crawl. Fr. Gerdtz stood frozen to the floor, unable to move his feet, staring at the Rorschach-shaped bloodblot trickling down the wall behind Krystal’s inert body. He anticipated screaming from the other patrons. He expected security to come in with their weapons drawn. He was prepared to be gunned down in a hail of bullets.
But it never came. Nothing happened. He turned slowly to see the party continuing as if nothing out of the ordinary had just occurred. Everyone appeared to be so caught up in their own business they failed to notice the violent murder that had just taken place right in front of them.
He carefully stashed the weapon away, then put his head down and made his way towards the exit.
He would be out on the street and climbing into a taxi before anyone noticed that Krystal Blayze’s head now resembled a novelty punch bowl.
Thirteen hours had passed since the shooting, and Fr. Gerdtz was yet to experience a wink of sleep. He sat alone in the church’s sanctum, the sequence of the previous night’s events playing on a continuous loop inside his head. He struggled to come to terms with what he had done. This wasn’t anything like him. Never in his life had he been a violent person. He didn’t handle firearms, let alone use them to murder another human being. He couldn’t even work up the nerve to jaywalk or put his trash in someone else’s bin. None of this felt real. It was like being trapped inside an extremely disturbing dream.
He removed his glasses and used a Kleenex to wipe the lenses. A slight redness appeared in the tissue, the result of a fine blood mist that sprayed across him after firing the gun. This extinguished any sliver of doubt as to whether last night had happened or not.
He was startled by a soft knocking. He spun around to see Ruth, the church’s octogenarian organist, standing in the doorway.
“Father?” she said.
“What is it, Ruth?”
“Something’s happened. Something … it’s … you have to …” She grasped for the right words. “It’s probably best if you come see for yourself,” she eventually said.
Despite having no great desire to see anyone today if he could help it, Fr. Gerdtz slowly rose to his feet and followed Ruth out. He didn’t know what was going on, but something had clearly affected her.
He was led to the church’s entrance, where he came to a complete standstill. It was the last thing he expected to see today.
People were in his church. A lot of people. At least forty, maybe more. This would be a remarkable number for any day of the week, but for a Monday it was unheard of. Even more astonishing was the ages of those in attendance. The majority were under thirty, and many looked to be in their teens. The only gray hair belonged to Jefferson Slade, but even he had made something of an effort. He wore matching shoes, his hair was combed down, and his clothes appeared to have been laundered some time in the past year. He was still heavily intoxicated and on the verge of nodding off at any moment, but a sober Jefferson would have been a true miracle.
“What’s going on?” he whispered to Ruth. “What are all these people doing here?”
“I think it’s because of that young girl, the one who died last night,” Ruth said. “Did you hear about that?”
Fr. Gerdtz answered with a nervous shake of his head.
“Oh, it was awful. Some total stranger walked up to her in a nightclub and shot her. Just like that! For no reason at all! It was a completely random attack. It makes you wonder what the world is coming to.”
“How dreadful,” Fr. Gerdtz said quietly.
“I know. Just as she was starting to pull her life together, too. She had checked out of rehab last month, then she dumped her fiancé after she found out he had cheated on her with her best friend. Such a tragic loss.”
“So all these young people … they came here to mourn her?”
Ruth exhaled quietly. “I suppose in times of trouble the youth of today need somebody they can turn to.”
Fr. Gerdtz nodded in agreement. Despite having a smorgasbord of digital stimulation at their fingertips, the relationship was still very much a one-way affair. TMZ and E! News wouldn’t be there for them in their hour of need.
He found it astonishing that this was what it took to get people back in touch with their spiritual side. Earlier in the year, a flesh-eating virus claimed the lives of tens of thousands of the world’s poorest people in Southeast Asia, and it barely caused a blip on the average person’s radar. But one quasi-celebrity eats a bullet and the world responds as if the Rapture was imminent. Perhaps it was time for some much-needed perspective. Perhaps celebrity deaths should become so commonplace that they no longer seemed remarkable.
He smoothed down his cassock with the palms of his hands, then took a deep breath and made his way inside.
The rest of his day was spent comforting those in mourning. He answered their questions, as best he could, about why a loving God would allow such a terrible thing to happen to such a beautiful person. Much to his surprise, they hung on his every word. They listened to what he had to say, gave deep consideration about the role God played in their everyday lives, and questioned what was truly important to them. For many, this was the first time they had experienced grief or loss in any form. At no point did anyone reach for their phones.
It was almost dark by the time he arrived home. He took a serving of shepherd’s pie from his refrigerator and placed it in the oven, then sat down at his computer as he waited for it to heat.
He logged on to Twitter and discovered that he now had fifty-five followers.
The murder of Krystal Blayze remained unsolved. An investigation was launched as to how her killer was able to smuggle a loaded firearm into the club, and how he managed to leave without apprehension. It was concluded that poor lighting and malfunctioning equipment allowed the gunman to avoid identification on the club’s CCTV cameras, while most patrons and staff present that night mistook the gunshot for part of the hip hop track being played at the time.
Police had few leads to work with, but suspect the shooting may have been drug-related. This theory was supported by the amount of cocaine found in Krystal’s possession, while a toxicology report confirmed the drug present in her system at the time of death. For the most part, the media chose to ignore these facts and portray this as the result of an obsessed Justin Bieber fan (Krystal had received numerous death threats from enraged tweens after photographs of her and Bieber catapulted her to stardom). They also failed to pick up on the fact that while Krystal had previously spoken out about fashion labels exploiting workers in Asian sweatshops, and supported the banning of cosmetics testing on animals, she appeared to have no qualms in contributing to the narcotics trade – an industry that murdered thousands of impoverished third-world citizens every year.
At a memorial service held in her honor, Krystal was remembered as a fun-loving free spirit who was deeply passionate about her humanitarian work. This was evident in the hundreds of socially-conscious hashtags she retweeted each year, drawing attention to causes ranging from domestic violence, to inner-city poverty, to the double-standards women faced when walking red carpets at award shows. She was a committed anti-bullying advocate, frequently drawing attention to the online body-shaming models suffered on a daily basis.
Despite their immense grief, Krystal’s family consoled themselves with the knowledge that she died doing what she loved most – photographing herself and being paid to party. In fact, her final ever selfie happened to capture the exact moment the bullet struck her face. The family decided to upload this image to Instagram. They believed this was what Krystal would have wanted.
The image attracted a record 8.4 million likes.
Sleep eluded Fr. Gerdtz for the next three nights. The initial excitement of the nightclub shooting and the subsequent increase in both church attendance and Twitter followers quickly wore off, and he struggled to reconcile his actions with his long-held beliefs. No matter how much warm milk and chamomile he consumed before bedtime, it failed to put his mind to rest and allow him to forget that he had broken a commandment. One of the big ones, too. One that no amount of Hail Marys and Our Fathers could ever absolve. Irrespective of how many times he tried to justify what he had done, he simply couldn’t look past the fact that he had taken an innocent life. Even if he was able to get away with it – and so far, there had been no indication that the police even considered him a suspect – he couldn’t run from his own conscience. He would have to answer for his crime sooner or later. If not to the law, then to God.
He switched on his bedside lamp and fumbled around for his glasses. After staring at the foot of his bed for an indeterminate period of time, contemplating his options and trying to ascertain if there was any other course of action, he eventually decided he had to do the right thing. He reached across for the phone.
He was midway through dialing when the rumbling began. It came from above, like a low-flying jumbo jet passing overhead. The noise grew louder and louder, the vibrations more intense. The entire house shook by its foundations. The phone’s handset fell from his grip and tumbled to the floor.
A large crack formed directly above him. The ceiling separated, and a flood of golden light filled the room. He looked up into the sky and saw a most remarkable sight. An infinite tunnel of clouds, stretching all the way to the heavens above.
An incredible vision then appeared before him. It was a vibrant mass of light and color unlike anything he, or any other mortal being, had ever witnessed. It was something so phenomenal, so indescribable, he knew he could only be looking at the face of God.
“Oh, my,” Fr. Gerdtz said. His hand clutched at his chest. His heart was pounding like a jackhammer. “My Lord, please forgive me for my sins. I know there is no possible–”
“My son, you do not need my forgiveness for you have done nothing wrong.”
The voice of God seemed to envelop him, like a fog of words coming at him from every direction at once.
“But I took the life of an innocent person.”
“Believe me, that was no innocent person you expunged from this world. She was nothing more than a vain leech whose only function was to facilitate the spread of narcissistic personality disorder. You did the right thing. You did precisely what I asked of you.”
Fr. Gerdtz took a sharp intake of breath. “That was you sending me a message the other night?”
“Of course. You asked for my help, and I responded. I could see that you were pure of heart, and that you had the integrity and the faith to do what needed to be done.”
“But … I don’t understand. Why did you need me to do this?”
“I needed you because it saddens me to see humanity lose its way. Celebrity has become the new religion of the modern world, and it is beginning to upset the balance. The traits that deserve to be admired, such as kindness, modesty and virtue, they are no longer valued. Instead, the world revolves around these vapid and vacant celebrities. It wouldn’t concern me so much if it was the brilliant minds being worshiped; the poets, the philosophers, the great leaders and intellectuals. But instead it’s these actors, pop stars, models and athletes. And that’s without mentioning those reality television and social media stars who have attained fame, or infamy, for reasons even I cannot fathom. What are their real accomplishments? What have they done to improve the lives of the less fortunate? They have done nothing to deserve such adulation. They are simply empty-headed puppets, performing for the amusement of the ignorant masses. Shallowness is now held up as something to aspire to. True heroism and selflessness goes unrewarded.”
Fr. Gerdtz struggled to comprehend all he was being told. “But hasn’t idolatry always been a part of life?” he said.
“Yes, in small doses. People have admired movie stars and professional athletes in the past. I tolerated this. I regarded it as an acceptable distraction from the banalities of everyday life. Everyone still made time for their family and their community. But it is now way out of control. The scales have tipped too far. What’s more, the mantle of celebrity is available to all, and if changes are not made the situation will only get worse. A tipping point is rapidly approaching. Something must be done before it’s too late. And that is why you have been chosen.”
“What do you want me to do?”
“The world is suffering through a terrible plague. It is the plague of celebrity. Hollywood is the host, and you are the cure.”
“I … I’m not sure I understand.”
“I’m asking that you remove anyone who is famous from this earth. At least until the rest of the world gets the message.”
“Oh, my. That sounds rather drastic.”
“Believe me, it is for their own good. It may come as a surprise to you, but I am not completely infallible. From time to time I get things wrong. The world is an ever-evolving work in progress. What’s important is that I recognize my mistakes and make efforts to rectify them, like I did with Sodom and Gomorrah and the great deluge. The time has come for another correction.”
“But what can I do? I’m just one man.”
“Noah was just one man. Moses was just one man. It only takes one man to change the world.”
Fr. Gerdtz’s head was swirling as he took this all in. “But I don’t know any celebrities. I wouldn’t even know where to start.”
“You only need to look deep within yourself. I will be there to guide you every step of the way.”
Fr. Gerdtz didn’t recall a great deal from that point on. The rest of the night was a vague blur as he drifted in and out of sleep, his dreams intertwining with reality. He awoke the next morning to discover his sheets were damp from night sweats, and he had overslept by several hours. He hurried out of bed and quickly got ready.
Before heading off to church for the day, he inspected the ceiling in his bedroom. There were several fine cracks that he hadn’t noticed before.
Fr. Gerdtz was preparing his next sermon in his office when a stabbing pain shot through his right forearm. His pen fell from his hand and he scrambled for his arthritis pills, swallowing two with a mouthful of water. He opened and closed his palm a few times and gently rotated his wrist in a circular motion, hoping to alleviate the raw discomfort. He winced as he did this; the aching was still there, and that was his third dosage for the day. He hoped his arthritis wasn’t getting any worse. Maybe he was developing a tolerance for the medication, if that was possible, since it didn’t seem to be as effective as it once was.
He did his best to ignore the pain and push through with the sermon. He had hoped to come up with something that summarized his many thoughts and feelings, especially in relation to his recent spiritual awakening. But there were simply no words that could possibly encapsulate the whole experience. He had been at his desk for hours now, and all he had to show for it was a page filled with crossed-out words and false starts, and an overflowing wastepaper basket. He had planned on opening with Luke 18:27, one of his favorite biblical passages – That which is impossible with man is possible with God – but he was yet to progress any further beyond that.
His concentration was interrupted by an urgent rap at the door. Before he could speak, a thirty-ish redheaded woman dressed head-to-toe in designer clothes invited herself in.
“Hello Father,” she said.
He looked up from his desk. He had never seen this woman before in his life. “Yes?”
She settled into a seat opposite and offered her hand. He noticed her face was shiny with perspiration, and she appeared slightly out of breath. She smelled of expensive perfume and stale cigarettes.
“My name is Madeleine Davis,” she said. “The location scout. We spoke on the phone earlier.”
“We did?” Fr. Gerdtz scanned his memory. He had made several phone calls earlier that morning, but this woman’s name wasn’t ringing any bells.
“I appreciate you seeing me at such short notice.” Her voice was pitched at a volume several decibels higher than a regular speaking voice. Fr. Gerdtz wasn’t sure if that was how she normally spoke, or if she thought he was half-deaf. It was most likely the latter. “This is an incredibly urgent matter. As I explained to you over the phone, we require a church to shoot several scenes for an upcoming Judd Apatow film. We’re having a bit of trouble obtaining permission from the other churches nearby. It won’t take up any more than two or three days of your time, and we are offering very generous compensation in return.”
It took a moment for Fr. Gerdtz to catch on to what was happening here. This woman apparently failed to hear the question mark at the end of his previous sentence. When he said “We did?” she assumed he was simply confirming that they had conversed on the phone earlier.
It wasn’t until later that it all finally clicked into place. Madeleine must have been speaking with Fr. Jenkins from the United Church on James Street, whereas she was now at the St. James Church on United Way. It wasn’t the first time such a mix-up had occurred. The two churches were constantly receiving each others’ mail, and barely a week went by without at least one guest turning up to the wrong wedding or funeral.
“I have the shooting script here,” Madeleine said, digging around inside her bag. “You mentioned that you wanted to review it before making your decision.”
She produced a document and handed it to Fr. Gerdtz. He studied the title page.
“Where’s the Love?” he said, reading the film’s title.
“Yeah, like the Black Eyed Peas song.” Madeleine lit up a cigarette, oblivious to the no smoking sign directly in front of her. “Although we may have to change that due to the trouble we’re having obtaining the rights.” She inhaled a lungful of the noxious fumes, then carelessly blew out a cloud of smoke in Fr. Gerdtz’s direction. “You know your film’s in trouble when even the Black Eyed Peas refuse to license one of their songs,” she muttered to herself.
Fr. Gerdtz opened the script at random pages and ran his eyes over the text. It didn’t take long to get the gist of the plot. It centered on a lifelong bachelor, a lothario who wasn’t ready to settle down and behave like an adult yet, and how his whole world is turned upside down when he falls for a bridesmaid while best man at a wedding. Throughout the course of the film he is forced to confront his own issues regarding commitment and monogamy, as well as being hassled by an overbearing mother and stalked by a crazy ex-girlfriend.
It was easy to see why every other church in the area had refused to allow this to be filmed on their premises. Blasphemy and vulgarity filled almost every page. In one scene, the lead character performs a deviant sex act on a female wedding guest inside the confessional while a clearly aroused priest listens in. Three pages later, a drunken old man stumbles naked through the church and relieves himself in the holy water. And the less said about where the bride and groom’s wedding rings end up after the raucous bachelor’s party, the better.
Fr. Gerdtz did his best to hide his distaste. He liked to think of himself as a fairly open-minded person; he enjoyed the odd risqué joke or dirty limerick as much as anyone. But this was a piece of writing so utterly loathsome and completely devoid of wit. If this was what masqueraded as popular entertainment in this day and age, the modern world was in a lot more trouble than he initially feared.
“I’ll be completely honest and upfront with you,” Madeleine said. “You’re kind of my last hope. Every other church I’ve approached has rejected us outright due to the film’s content. I respect that, and I imagine much of what is depicted here may not be in accordance with your teachings and values. But as I said, we are prepared to make a very generous offer in exchange for just a few days of your time. That’s money that could do a lot of good for the many wonderful programs you run here.”
She lit a second cigarette with the lipstick-stained butt of her first. Fr. Gerdtz wondered how a heavy smoker could maintain such gleaming white teeth.
“I’m just curious,” he said, trying not to choke on the growing fog of menthol and tar filling the air around him. “Will any celebrities be appearing in this film?”
“Oh yes, we have several big stars attached to this project. The two leads will be played by James Franco and Bella Thorne. Seth Rogen has been cast as the groom.”
He flicked back a few pages. In the short time he’d had to evaluate the script, the groom appeared to be a character who did little else but smoke marijuana, make repeated references to his own genitals and bodily fluids, and say “my bad” a lot.
“Courtney Cox and Billy Bob Thornton are also playing the groom’s parents,” Madeleine said.
A brief smile appeared on Fr. Gerdtz’s face. This woman, turning up out of the blue due to a misunderstanding, promising to deliver a number of celebrities right to his door? This was no coincidence. It could only be a sign.
“I’m sure we could come to some arrangement,” he said.
“I have a meager seven million followers, Bevan!” James Franco said into his phone, his voice rising so he could be heard over the groan of the Jacuzzi pump. “Seven million! That’s nowhere near enough for an artist of my caliber!”
“Seven million is huge, James,” his agent assured him. “Do you know how many people that is? I mean, have you really thought about it? Your fans could fill the LA Coliseum seventy times over! That’s the population of Paris! You basically have an entire European capital following you.”
“You know what else I have, Bevan? I have five million followers less than twelve million, which is how many Chris Evans has. And who do you think was cast as the lead in the new David O. Russell film? Was it me, or was it Captain Underpants?”
“Oh, James. You don’t honestly think Instagram numbers had anything to do with being passed over for the role, do you?”
“No, I think it was his superior acting skills that landed him the part.”
“Well … he does have a vaguely likeable screen presence.”
“That was sarcasm, Bevan. The guy couldn’t act if his life depended on it. Have you seen any of those dumb Marvel movies he’s in? That’s some of the worst acting I’ve ever seen, and I watch a lot of porn.”
A heavy thumping against the door rattled the trailer. “They’re ready for you now, Mr. Franco,” a voice called out.
“I’ll be there in a minute!” James snapped.
“I really think you’re overreacting,” Bevan said. “David’s a clever guy. He wouldn’t cast anyone unless he really, truly believed they were right for the role.”
“That may have been the case ten years ago, but times have changed. Social media presence is all anyone cares about these days. The fact that I’m an Oscar nominee, a published author, a philanthropist and a licensed pilot – that all means nothing. The only thing that matters is how many people want to gaze at photos of me when I’m working out and eating my breakfast.”
He reached for the Jacuzzi’s control panel and switched off the bubbles.
“Even if that was true, I’m not sure there’s anything we can do about it,” Bevan said.
“Of course you can do something about it! You can start by buying me another ten million followers!”
The line went quiet. “You want me to purchase followers for you?”
“Don’t act so shocked, Bevan. Everyone does it. Literally everyone. You don’t really believe sixty million people want to see Katy Perry goofing around backstage or having her hair and makeup done, do you? They’re mostly fake accounts. It’s Hollywood’s dirty little secret, like hair transplants and casting couches. The thing everyone does but no one will ever admit to.”
“I, uh, I’ll see what I can do,” Bevan said, just before the call ended.
James tossed his phone aside. He leaned back in the warm water and looked up at his reflection in the ceiling mirror. Not for the first time, he toyed with the idea of parting ways with Bevan. He may have been his agent for the past fifteen years, but the world was changing and Bevan wasn’t keeping up with the times. James was growing tired of having to constantly spell out how he should be doing his job.
He held his breath, then slid beneath the water until he was fully submerged.
Today had been an endless cortège of disasters. It all started when he arrived on set to discover the “gym” he had requested for his trailer was nothing more that an exercise bike and some free weights. The Jacuzzi was coated in grime, and when switched on was louder than a lawnmower. The refrigerator was stocked with Diet Coke when he specifically asked for Coke Zero.
But that was nothing compared with the fiasco of having to cancel his weekend in Vegas to fulfill his promotional duties at Comic-Con for Hemisphere, his upcoming sci-fi film. He honestly could not think of a more depressing way of spending his precious downtime. He hated Comic-Con. Hated it. Every actor did. To them, Comic-Con was purgatory. They would rather have their faces chewed off by rabid AIDS-monkeys than pander to a screaming crowd of excitable film nerds, the very people they had spent a lifetime making fun of. It reminded him of when he was a kid and his parents would force him to attend the birthday party of the most unpopular kid in school. He had to smile and act nice, pretending that he hadn’t mocked the fat loser behind his back every other day of the year.
He reluctantly hauled himself out of the Jacuzzi and reached for a towel.
The icing on today’s cake came when he learned he had been overlooked for a highly-coveted role in the new David O. Russell film, the one he was certain would deliver his long-overdue Oscar, in favor of a bland waxwork model who was yet to enjoy a hit movie that didn’t involve pulling on spandex and surrounding himself with a more talented and popular cast. Despite being a veritable black hole of charisma, Hollywood still appeared to be doing everything in its power to make Chris Evans happen.
He was midway through drying himself off when he caught a glimpse of his reflection in the trailer’s 8×3 ft wall mirror and decided this was a moment that deserved to be shared with the world. He snapped a quick twenty or thirty shots, his wet hair slicked back and the towel hanging loose around his waist, then uploaded the best one to Instagram.
His Dolce & Gabbana embellished ripped jeans were barely on when the comments started rolling in. Even though they were pretty much the same as every other photograph he had ever posted – “OMG James u r so hott!!”, “I luv ur new moustache!”, the weirdos who called him “daddy”, the usual discussion surrounding his nipples – it still delivered the validation and sense of self-worth every performer desires. James smiled. This was the perfect relationship to have with his fans. He gave them exactly what they wanted, but at a comfortable distance. He didn’t have to meet any of them face to face and put up with their inane questions or halitosis or unsolicited critical analysis of his work. Of course, if he did want to meet any of his fans face to face, that could easily be arranged too.
There was a further pounding at his trailer door. He threw on a tight white v-neck tee, then flung the door open.
“I said I was coming–”
Expecting an acne-faced PA minion, he instead found himself looking at a wrinkled old man. He wore wire framed glasses and was dressed entirely in black, with wavy white hair that was unusually full for a man of his age. James thought if he grew it out a little it would look like one of those wigs that judges wore in court.
“Can I help you?” he said.
“Are you James Franco?” the stranger said. He had the accent of an eighties action villain.
James let out a long sigh. “Have you read your contract?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Page three, about two thirds of the way down,” he recited in a bored voice. “Background artists are forbidden from approaching the talent and face instant dismissal if they in any way attempt to communicate with an actor.” He offered a shrug in lieu of an actual apology. “I don’t make the rules, man. I’m sure your daughter, or granddaughter, is a huge fan. But if I sign stuff for you I have to sign for everybody.”
This wasn’t the first time James had been forced to reprimand an extra for forgetting their place in the film set caste system. The situation had been getting progressively worse for some time. He believed this was due to many contracts removing the “no eye contact” rule that was once standard. They took it out because it made actors look like prima donnas, but the rule existed for a reason – to keep the extras in line. As soon as it was omitted they began to see themselves as equals. They were given an inch and they took a mile.
James made a mental note to have the rule reinstated for any future films he was a part of.
“I’m a nice guy, so I’ll let it slide this one time,” he continued. “But if you speak to me again, or to any of the other real actors, I’ll have no choice but to have you fired.”
The old man’s forehead creased. “Who do you think I am?”
“It’s obvious, isn’t it?” James gestured to the man’s cassock and detachable white collar. “You’re the dude playing the dirty old priest. Aren’t you?”
The old man shook his head. “No. I’m not.”
“Well, you certainly look the part,” James smirked. He pushed past the stranger and made his way towards the set.
“You know, you really are an arschloch,” the man said as James left.
“So shoot me,” came the dismissive reply.
James took out his phone as he walked. He fired off a quick tweet: Can’t wait for #ComicCon this Sat 2 talk about my new film #Hemisphere. See u all at Hall H!
Seconds after this was posted, a deafening blast echoed around the film set.
Crew members rushed to the scene to find James Franco lying motionless on the gravel. He was face down, with blood gushing from the grapefruit-sized hole in his back.
The brutal slaying of five actors resulted in an unprecedented outpouring of grief, sending shock waves through Hollywood that were felt in every corner of the globe. Fans flooded social media to post their overwrought tributes and mourn the loss of their heroes. They struggled to comprehend how someone could simply walk onto a film set, murder James Franco, Bella Thorne, Seth Rogen, Courtney Cox and Billy Bob Thornton, and then leave without anyone noticing.
Television stations switched to round-the-clock coverage as reporters tried to articulate the mix of raw emotion surrounding such an inexplicable event. The devastating mudslide in Bangladesh, responsible for the loss of over two hundred lives, slipped from the public’s consciousness after being overshadowed by a much greater tragedy.
A period of intense anger and soul-searching followed as the world attempted to make sense of it all. Some blamed violent movies and video games, while others took aim at national gun laws. But until the police made an arrest and uncovered a motive, the public would be left with no real answers.
The one thing everyone could agree on, and the phrase that would be repeated over and over for days and weeks to come, was that today was Hollywood’s Darkest Day.
Watching from the comfort of his couch with a hot cup of Earl Grey and an oatmeal cookie, Fr. Gerdtz could barely conceal his delight. Hollywood’s darkest day? Not even close.
Not if they had any idea what he had planned.
The St. James Cathedral was filled beyond its capacity for its next Sunday service. From front to back, every space in every pew was occupied. Latecomers had to squeeze through the crowd to find a spot in the standing room only section. Many more would crowd around outside the door to listen in, unable to get any closer.
The tragedy on the set of Where’s the Love? had shaken the world to its core, coming less than one week after the brutal slaying of social media influencer Krystal Blayze. And then just two days ago, a popular musician known as Skrillex and celebrity clothes horse Cara Delevingne were both gunned down in separate incidents.
If one silver lining could be gleaned from the events of the past week it was that they had brought people together. The public needed some way of making sense of these horrific slayings. Famous people dying was too much for many to handle. For some, it was like losing a family member. For others, it brought their own mortality into focus. If their favorite actor or model could die so suddenly, they could too – especially since a large percentage of the population suffered from the grandiose delusion that one day they too will be famous.
People longed to be comforted during this bleak moment in history. In such a godless and materialistic world, demand for spiritual nourishment far outpaced supply. Some who hadn’t set foot inside a church in years rediscovered their long-lost faith. They had been reminded of what a precious gift life was, and how it could be taken away at any given moment.
But while the past few days had been a sobering experience for many, it was a hurricane of activity for Fr. Gerdtz. Due to the massacre occurring on the grounds of his church, it fell upon him to assume the mantle of spokesperson when the media descended. He fronted up before the cameras the morning following the tragedy to offer his condolences to the families and fans of the deceased. When asked how or why a horrific event like this could occur he could provide no real answers, other than to wonder aloud as to whether it may have been a sign that the world was no longer listening to God. He suggested it was time for everyone to take a step back and consider what was truly important in their lives, and that maybe we should cease this illogical obsession with the rich and famous.
His words struck an immediate chord with the general public. It was exactly what they needed to hear, and perfectly articulated their thoughts and feelings at such a bewildering time. He soon found himself in high demand, agreeing to dozens of media appearances over the next three days, from local morning TV shows to late-night news programs on the opposite side of the world.
His schedule was at times exhausting, but inside he was buzzing. This was the most invigorated he had felt in decades. Something extraordinary was happening here, and it was all his doing.
His many media appearances boosted his Twitter followers to 8,571. A Google search for “Fr. Arthur Gerdtz” returned over one hundred thousand results.
He now faced an unfamiliar sight as he assumed his position behind the pulpit. Hundreds of pairs of eyes were looking back at him. Never in his life had he performed Mass for so many people. He expected to have at least some nerves, but he felt nothing but serenity. This was exactly where he belonged. These people were in need of a spiritual rebirth, and he would be the one to deliver it.
He took a sip of water and cleared his throat. The congregation leaned forward slightly, ready to absorb his every word.
“In times of great crisis, when terrible things happen to decent people for no good reason, it is natural to ask questions,” he began. “We ask ourselves what kind of God could allow this to happen. We wonder if God cares for us at all. It can sometimes be difficult to accept that God has any plan, but He does. It may be something we fail to understand it at first, but the Lord works in mysterious ways.”
Three nights later, police were called to a party at the Malibu mansion of Hollywood super-producer Martin Krauth after the bullet-ridden body of actor Ansel Elgort was discovered in the hot tub. Police cordoned off the scene and took statements from all guests in attendance, but as yet no arrests have been made.
Later that same night, rock musician David Lee Roth was found backstage at the Whisky a Go Go following a performance with his band. The cause of death was currently being investigated by the coroner.
Meanwhile on the opposite side of the city, a twenty-three year old pharmacy assistant by the name of Nicola Jeffries dialed a number and waited for an answer. It rang four times before she heard a click and a recorded message:
“Hello, you have reached the home of Fr. Arthur Gerdtz. I am unable to come to the phone right now, so please leave your name and contact details and I will return your call at my earliest convenience. Thank you and God bless.”
“Good evening Father,” Nicola said following the beep. “This is Nicola Jeffries from the Westwood Center Pharmacy. I’m afraid there’s been a slight mix-up with your recent prescription, where we believe we may have given you the wrong medication by mistake. Please call us back as soon as you get this message, or come in and see us and we can have this issue resolved right away. Thank you.”
Nicola was struck by a slight feeling of irritation once the call had ended. Even though she knew Fr. Gerdtz was in his seventies, it was still unusual for a customer to have only a landline phone. She found it hard to believe in this day and age there were still people who couldn’t be reached at any time of the day or night. Even her grandparents had cell phones.
Of more pressing concern was her slightly unprofessional slip-up – she had mixed up his arthritis pills with medication used to treat insomnia – but she didn’t think it would create too many problems. At least, she hoped not. She assumed Fr. Gerdtz would have figured out by now the pills he had been given were not his usual ones. Even if he had taken them by mistake, the consequences would not be particularly dire. He may experience some unpleasant side-effects such as headaches, nausea and dizziness. At worst, a bad reaction could result in Fr. Gerdtz becoming delusional; he may hear strange voices or experience unusual, vivid dreams and bizarre hallucinations. But thankfully he was not at risk of long-term damage, and any side-effects would cease as soon as he stopped taking the medication. It was an embarrassing mistake, but nothing that couldn’t be undone.
A few minutes after making the call, Nicola finished her shift and called her boyfriend to come pick her up.
Twenty-three minutes later, William Shatner was gunned down while filming an advertisement for frozen pizza.
The Staples Center was teeming with fans this Saturday night in the week before Christmas. It was an audience that traversed many demographics including giddy fanboys, urban youths, trend-chasing hipsters, career women, and more screaming teenage girls than a Glasgow maternity ward. Over twenty thousand viewed the performance, the majority through the four and a half inch LCD screens of their smartphones.
A single spotlight focused on the beloved pop star as she stood center stage, tearing through a maudlin ballad about holding on to hope in the midst of seemingly insurmountable pain and suffering. Outfit by Marc Jacobs. Shoes by Giuseppe Zanotti. Cost: more than what an average fan earned in one year. Total number of times the pop star will wear said outfit: one.
A touching montage paying tribute to all the stars who had tragically passed in recent weeks played on the massive screens behind her. The audience saw the smiling faces of the dearly departed Krystal Blayze, James Franco, Seth Rogen, Bella Thorne, Courtney Cox, Billy Bob Thornton, Sonny “Skrillex” Moore, Cara Delevingne, Ansel Elgort, David Lee Roth, William Shatner, Kelly Osbourne, Marvin “Meat Loaf” Aday, Tobey Maguire, Mark Harmon, Alice Eve and Larry the Cable Guy.
The music ended, the pop star stretching the final note out a further forty-five lung-busting seconds. The crowd rose as one to applaud this spine-tingling, emotionally uplifting performance. She paused respectfully to give the moment the appropriate levity.
The final image faded to black and was replaced by a single line of text. The screens now displayed eighteen giant characters that said more than complete sentences or well thought out debate ever could: “#FamousLivesMatter”.
“That was my new song,” the pop star announced. “It’s called ‘Crying Wit’ Open Eyez’, and I dedicate it to everyone we have lost these past few weeks. It will be available exclusively on Tidal from tomorrow.”
Further manic cheering from the crowd.
“And now, I would like to invite some of my dearest friends onto the stage tonight for a very important message.”
Out came the cavalcade of megastars, one by one. Leading the way was her husband, a successful rapper famous for his intricate and inventive lyrics that alternated between gritty street vignettes and shameless product placement for his multiple corporate masters. Next came the frontman from a multiplatinum middle-of-the-road British rock group, popular with both the very young and the very old. Several famous actors, all of whom were eager to push their social causes if they happened to coincide with their film promotion duties. Another well-known female pop star, successful but not so famous that she threatened to steal the limelight from the one true star of the show. And a fashion designer, allowed to tag along tonight as a reward for all the free clothes he had gifted the pop star over the years.
There were seventeen celebrities in total. They joined hands and stood side-by-side to form one united front.
“Celebrities, all of us in the public eye, we perform an important service to the world,” the pop star said. “We deliver hope to those who have none. We give you something to aspire towards when you have lost your way. We brighten your day, and we rescue you from a mundane existence. We selflessly let you into our lives, and we ask for nothing in return.”
The crowd lost their collective minds at this historic moment. With so many luminaries in the one place at the one time, there was the very real prospect of a riot erupting at any moment.
“It has never been easy to do what we do,” she continued. “I know that may be difficult for ordinary people like you to understand. But believe me, being famous just keeps getting harder and harder. The shocking deaths of so many of our fellow stars has affected us greatly. Famous lives matter. But we are strong. We are survivors. Together we stand as one to fight this evil. We will not give in to any violence or intimid–”
Her stirring speech was cut short when the designer’s chest exploded. His body was thrown forward, and he was dead before his head hit the stage.
A quarter-second of stunned silence passed before the place erupted into pandemonium.
The celebrities all made a desperate dash for safety, but they had a whore’s chance in heaven of escaping the unremitting gunfire. The British rock singer caught a bullet to the stomach. He fell to the floor, bleeding out in front of thousands of terrified fans. One of the actors dived into the audience and attempted to use several fans as human shields. The shot somehow sailed past the innocent bystanders and grazed the actor’s throat. A jet of blood spurted out from the ruptured artery.
The pop star ran as fast as it was possible to move in a glittery pair of six-inch heels. A blast rang out seconds before she was about to reach a point of safety behind a large speaker, and her kneecap was obliterated. She collapsed in agony.
Fr. Gerdtz emerged from the darkness. In his hands was his newest toy – a Remington M870 pump action shotgun. It had appeared on his doorstep several days earlier, and in the time since he had done little else but search for an opportunity to put it to use.
He stepped around the bodies sprawled out across the stage, finishing off the remaining few displaying any signs of life, and made his way over to the injured diva.
When Fr. Gerdtz first became aware of this much-adored pop star, the biggest name in popular music this century, he hoped he had finally discovered a celebrity deserving of such unadulterated fawning. For someone to be so universally respected and admired by everyone from housewives to presidents, she must have surely achieved some extraordinary feats. But the further he looked, the more despondent he became. This woman was far from a hero. She had not been forced to overcome any great hardship in her life to get to where she was now. She had been raised in a comfortable upper-middle class environment. She had been part of the entertainment industry since her teens, which meant she never suffered the gross indignity of having to work a real job. She liked to portray herself as an icon of female empowerment, but was in actuality a self-absorbed puppet who relied on dozens of men to do everything for her, from writing, producing and performing her music to managing her business interests. She loudly and proudly supported progressive causes such as civil rights and gender equality, but only after making absolutely certain it wouldn’t harm her record sales. The last thing she wanted was to offend the wrong people. She waited for braver, less-famous artists to test the waters first, then ran it by her management and focus groups before finally jumping on the bandwagon. She appeared far more interested in expanding her empire and raking in dollars than helping out anyone less fortunate than herself.
As far as Fr. Gerdtz could tell, her only contribution to the world was a string of mildly inoffensive pop songs containing the kind of vaguely inspirational or motivational messages one might find inside a greeting card. She was a triumph of PR over talent, a product as soulless as the cans of Pepsi she spruiked.
In summation, she was no different from every other pampered starlet with a runaway ego and deluded sense of self-worth. A perfect symbol for a shallow and materialistic generation who idolized her for the money she made and the magazine covers she adorned.
The pop star tried crawling to safety, but could only make it a few feet before the excruciating pain prevented her from going any further.
Fr. Gerdtz stood over her body, lying prone on the stage. He rested the barrel of the shotgun against her throat.
“Wait … ” she wheezed. “Don’t you know who I–”
He pulled the trigger. A two foot wide crater was carved into the stage, and the pop star’s head became liberated from her body.
An apocalyptic howl tore through the stadium. It was the cry of thousands of disciples witnessing the demise of their messiah.
Fr. Gerdtz looked out into the crowd. He took a moment to drink in all the chaos he had created. A large proportion of the audience had bolted for the exits as soon as the shooting commenced, but many remained in their seats. Whether this was due to being paralyzed by fear, or whether they were simply unable to look away, he wasn’t sure. But he saw that he now commanded the biggest audience of his life. The eyes of the world were upon him, and he had to make the most of this opportunity.
He reached down to collect the wireless microphone lying beside the pop star’s headless body. He cleared his throat in preparation for his most important sermon to date.
“You all believed this woman was a living goddess,” he began. “You believed she was something extraordinary. Something beyond a mere mortal.”
He clasped a handful of bloodied hair extensions and lifted the pop star’s disembodied head into the air. Screams of terror rippled around the auditorium as her lifeless eyes opened up and stared back into the crowd.
“She appears quite mortal to me. She is very human. Nothing but the manufactured byproduct of songwriters, stylists, choreographers and stage parents. A mega-millionaire who used poverty and violent imagery as stage props and set dressing, then retreated to the safety of her limousines, bodyguards and fortress-like mansions. And you dare worship her as an icon? This woman has performed no miracles. No halo rest atop this head.”
The words flew from his mouth with a righteous fury.
“Salvation may be too late for her,” he continued, tossing the head aside. “But it’s not too late for all of you. You need to open your eyes and recognize the virus of celebrity for what it is – a tool of the devil, used to manipulate those with weak wills and indolent minds. Reject these false icons. Give your life to the one true God.”
He held the microphone out at arm’s length and released it from his grasp, a move he had seen others employ to convey a sense of faux-rebellion. It hit the stage with a jarring clunk and a squawk of feedback.
He took a step back and disappeared into the shadows. By the time security rushed in with their weapons drawn, he was gone.
Twenty-four hours later, “Crying Wit’ Open Eyez” was the world’s most downloaded and streamed song. Subscriptions for the struggling music streaming service Tidal had increased a further three million.
The pop star’s shocking and very public demise marked an apparent turning point in how society viewed the nature of celebrity. People saw they could no longer tolerate being nothing more than fawning drones to the stars and had to face up to their own complicity in this terrible state of affairs. This could not go on.
Numerous public figures including George Takai, Tom Waits, Amy Adams, Rod Stewart, Art Garfunkel, Paul Giamatti, Rupert Grint, Jamie Lee Curtis, Vincent D’Onofrio and Björk renounced their celebrity status and retreated from the limelight, never to be seen or heard from again. Taylor Swift, a popular singer who often invited arbitrary celebrities onto stage for no reason other than to allow her fans to scream at them, ceased performing altogether. She also disbanded her Sycophant Squad of celebrity buddies.
Irish singer Enya quit music to focus on her environmentalism and her efforts to save endangered whales. Legendary Queen frontman Adam Lambert retired from showbiz and now volunteers in an orphanage for Syrian refugees. Rapper Azealia Banks dropped her “crazy bitch” act and accepted a job as a loans officer at a local financial institution.
However, many stars resisted calls to tone down their spotlight-hogging lifestyles, stubbornly declaring that to do so would mean “the terrorists had won”. Seminal punk rock group 5 Seconds of Summer carried on performing, but were later forced to abandon a planned world tour due to an unforeseen drummer beheading. Twilight star Taylor Lautner was found bludgeoned to death in his hotel room, hours before he was due to accept a lifetime achievement award at the MTV Movie Awards. Maroon 5 singer Adam Levine was discovered backstage at the same event, lying face-down in a pool of blood with a knife protruding from his back. Non-famous band members Jesse Carmichael, Mickey Madden, James Valentine, PJ Morton and Matt Flynn all escaped unharmed.
Months went by, and the killings continued unabated. The wave of carnage was as relentless as it was indiscriminate. No apparent distinction was made between “good” celebrities and “bad” celebrities. If they were famous, they were in the crosshairs.
Actors Vince Vaughan, Gary Sinese, Ben Affleck, Bruce Willis, Sean Penn, Jeremy Renner and Kevin Sorbo were all shot and killed, as were musicians Ice T, Ted Nugent, Miranda Lambert and Kid Rock. Nugent was gunned down wearing an NRA-approved t-shirt bearing the slogan “Guns Don’t Kill People, Crazy Priests Kill People”.
A number of suspects were currently being held by police following the murders of Ryan Reynolds, Dana Carvey, Max Landis, Adele, Jessica Simpson and Seth MacFarlane. These were believed to be copycats inspired by the mysterious priest, who presently remained at large.
Despite multiple eyewitnesses to his many crimes, little was known about the man responsible beyond the fact that he was “white”, “old” and “foreign”. Much of the cell phone footage obtained from the concert was too shaky or out of focus to be of any use to investigators. The police and Catholic Church both stated that it was unlikely the suspect was an actual priest, and that his attire was either a gimmick or meant to be interpreted as some sort of metaphor.
Celebrity president Donald Trump implored the public to not be afraid in the face of these attacks. He declared the best response was for people to carry on living their lives as normal. He made this statement shortly after increasing the annual Homeland Security budget by $10 billion and tripling the number of secret service agents assigned to protect him.
Instagram went into liquidation once the rich and famous deactivated their accounts and deserted the app en masse. Of those who remained, the majority took to posting landscapes and inspirational quotes rather than mirror selfies and red carpet glamor shots. Snapchat filed for bankruptcy, while Twitter was now predominantly used as an emergency broadcast system.
Sales of balaclavas, burqas and niqabs rose as celebrities sought to conceal their identity and protect themselves from prying eyes. They discovered that your anonymity was a lot like your virginity – once it was lost, there was nothing you could do to get it back.
One by one, reality television programs disappeared from the air. The once fame-hungry subjects were now less enthusiastic about exposing every aspect of their lives to millions of strangers, while soaring insurance premiums made their production increasingly unviable. Entertainment-based TV shows and celebrity-centered magazines were next on the chopping block. Their content ran dry when fewer and fewer stars were willing to give up their time to speak with them.
Book burnings were organized by concerned citizens groups, worried about the insidiousness of celebrity culture slowly creeping into society. Copies of Kim Kardashian’s Selfish, Paris Hilton’s Confessions Of An Heiress and Krystal Blayze’s YOLO, Bitch! were all incinerated.
With shrinking demand for their services, members of the paparazzi sold their cameras and commenced new careers as telemarketers, parking attendants and debt collectors, attaining levels of self-worth and self-respect they never believed possible.
Over time, the lives of the regular non-famous population were also affected, but in substantially different ways. They left their homes more, and began interacting with their neighbors and their community. They accepted the fact that they would never become famous, and they were perfectly fine with that. They realized it was more important to be a kind and decent person, and they didn’t need the approval of millions of strangers to feel good about themselves. They reverted to using real language when conversing with one another, forming complete sentences without having to quote popular television shows or internet-spawned buzzwords and infantile catchphrases. Parents paid more attention to their own children and less to Angelina Jolie’s and Jennifer Garner’s offspring. Academic performance improved across the world now that trivial matters no longer occupied students’ minds.
Worldwide church attendances steadily increased to levels not seen since the end of the Second World War, reversing a seventy-year downward trend that commenced with the advent of television. Charity work and volunteerism rose, while atheism sunk to an all-time low.
Fr. Gerdtz saw his Twitter followers rise to over twenty thousand.
Time passed. Life went on, and the horrors of recent events faded from the public’s memory. Fr. Gerdtz disposed of his weapons and resumed a life of relative normality. He carried on with his work at the church, speaking to captive audiences and near-full houses on a weekly basis. His Twitter following peaked at just over twenty-four thousand before gradually receding. It now sat at around sixteen thousand.
His appearances in the media dried up, and he no longer Googled himself.
Despite all the blood spilled and lives lost, he felt an immense satisfaction with everything he had accomplished. The cult of celebrity had been all but wiped out. People rediscovered their faith, and each other. They showed less interest in material wealth and placed greater value in spiritual enrichment. Strangers were kinder to one another and were quick to help out those who had fallen on hard times. Citizens said hello to passers-by in the street rather than move around wordlessly with their faces glued to their digital screens. They consulted doctors and nutritionists when seeking dietary advice, and stopped mindlessly following the fad diets favored by the stars. They read newspapers and listened to respected journalists and academics when forming opinions on politics and current events now that celebrities no longer told them what to think.
Hollywood continued to produce films and television programs, but the public understood that the actors appearing in them were simply attractive-looking ciphers, and their job was of no more importance than that of a dentist or plumber. When their work was done they were paid an adequate rather than excessive wage, and they lived normal lives away from the glare of the cameras. Corporations no longer showered them with free luxury items, and universities ceased their bizarre practice of awarding them honorary degrees.
Everything was as it should be.
Until one night, when Fr. Gerdtz’s peaceful sleep was interrupted by his ceiling separating and a familiar kaleidoscopic mass of light and color flooding inside. He opened his eyes, and the face of God appeared before him once again.
“You have done something remarkable,” God told him. “You have changed the world for the better. But I have one more task for you.”
“I’m finished with all that,” Fr. Gerdtz said. “I did what was asked of me. We achieved what we set out to achieve. The celebrities have been put in their place. No more unnecessary killing.”
“Your job is not yet complete. The virus may be dying, but it has not been completely eradicated. It lies dormant, awaiting the right moment to reemerge. And when it does, it may return stronger than ever.”
Fr. Gerdtz pulled his blanket up to his chin. “Get somebody else to do it. I’ve put my guns away. For good.”
“You may reconsider when you hear what they have planned.”
God informed him of an event due to take place in the coming weeks. It involved hundreds of former celebrities converging on the one location to revel in their excess and fawn endlessly over one another. While almost all high-profile gatherings had been canceled in light of recent events, the organizers of this particular one refused to give in.
“That can’t be true,” Fr. Gerdtz said. “After everything that has happened, surely no one would risk hosting something like that.”
“You fail to understand the mindset of the faded star,” God said. “They suffer from a chronic ailment known as Limelight Deprivation Syndrome. Their former status in the world haunts them like a twitching phantom limb. They refuse to live as normal civilians, working regular jobs and living regular lives. These people have become addicted to the exposure. Despite the inherent risks, they are physically incapable of staying away. And if this event is allowed to go ahead it could mark the beginning a celebrity resurgence. It will undo everything you have accomplished.”
Fr. Gerdtz closed his eyes for a moment. “Can I at least have some time to think about it?”
“Of course. But before you make your decision, you may want to take a look outside your front door.”
The light faded away a moment later. Fr. Gerdtz climbed out of bed and pulled on his robe and slippers.
Another mystery package was on his doorstep. This one was much larger and heavier than any of his previous deliveries. He had to strain to lift it up.
He carried it to the kitchen table and slowly removed the wrapping. Despite his reservations about this latest proposal, he couldn’t deny the tiny spasm of excitement he felt as he cut through the packing tape. He was like a child unwrapping a present in the early hours of Christmas morning.
The weapon contained within the box was unlike anything he had seen before. In fact, it was unlike anything anyone had seen before, as it had been specifically assembled just for him. It had an assortment of switches, buttons, dials and digital screens, along with dozens of hi-tech features and settings. At the bottom of the box he discovered a seventy page instruction manual.
The cover page said: How To Use Your New LMN-8R.
It was the perfect setting for Fr. Gerdtz’s final performance.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art had hosted its annual Met Gala on the first Monday in May since 1946. It was ostensibly billed as their annual fundraising event, but it was more or less an excuse for the rich and uber-famous to flaunt their extravagance and exclusivity to an obscene degree before the world’s media. It was a gathering of some of the planet’s most superficial inhabitants, a place where the fashion and entertainment worlds intersected to form an axis of imbeciles.
The event often coincided with a spike in ISIS membership. There was no greater illustration of Western decadence than a bunch of self-centered divas in overpriced rags celebrating their indulgent lifestyles and basking in one another’s reflected glow.
Many of the invited celebrities may project a down to earth, I’m-just-a-regular-person-like-you kind of image, but that was a mask they wore to hide their true selves. Deep down they were all incredibly haughty and terribly needy, harboring irrational desires to be loved and admired by everyone. It was for this reason they flocked to events such as the Met Gala, the senior prom in the world’s biggest high school. Scoring a ticket was a measure of one’s relevance, and confirmation they existed on a higher plane to the rest of society.
There had been talk of the gala being permanently canceled, but the organizers opted to go ahead, publicly stating that they would not allow fear to dictate their lives. The mysterious gunman had been inactive for well over a year by now, so they assumed his violent crusade had come to an end. Just to be on the safe side, a small army of private security guards had been employed to watch over proceedings.
There were also concerns that they may have had trouble attracting the usual quality of guests to this year’s event, but these worries were put to rest when almost everyone who had been invited RSVP’d. Many stars had attempted to leave the limelight behind and lead normal lives, obtaining entry-level employment in offices and on construction sites, only to discover that living like a regular civilian was humiliating beyond belief. They were ill-equipped to live in the real world after so many years of being pampered and mollycoddled, unable to perform the most basic of tasks without constant direction or help from an assistant. They missed the privileges and elevated status of their previous lives terribly. Without exception, they all leaped at the chance to leave their brief dalliance with reality behind and resume their lives inside their hermetically sealed Hollywood bubbles.
Fr. Gerdtz made his way inside the building at 5:45 p.m., just as the last of the partygoers were arriving. Despite the heavy security presence, gaining entry was surprisingly straightforward. He only had to display his pass and identification, telling the guards he was part of the catering team, and he was waved on through. He submitted to a full body scan with a metal detector wand, but they neglected to check the trunk he was wheeling in behind him. When asked what was in the trunk, he gave a vague explanation about urgently required replacement parts for the catering equipment.
He navigated his way through a maze of back corridors and hallways before locating the main arena.
He was a little overwhelmed by what he found when he slipped inside. On his previous jaunts, he’d devoted a great deal of time and energy in tracking down individual celebrities, figuring out where they would be at a certain time, and how he could gain access in order to carry out his work. Now he was surrounded by hundreds of them. They were literally everywhere he looked – all these models, actors, reality television stars, pop singers, fashion industry bigwigs and assorted hangers-on. A room full of phony people with fake looks and fake confidence, sipping expensive cocktails and listening to a performance by some mediocre EDM duo, competing with one another in a desperate worldwide popularity contest.
No one paid him any attention as he wheeled the trunk into a corner and rested it against the wall. Even when he flicked open the locks and removed the LMN-8R, none of the guests seemed to notice.
The bazooka-sized weapon was rather cumbersome and awkward to handle. The weight made it difficult to hold for prolonged periods of time. His bad back and arthritic joints weren’t doing him any favors, either. He used a stool to prop up his leg, then rested the weapon on his knee for support.
He wrapped the palm of his hand around the grip. Only then did it occur to him that he was yet to test the weapon out. This would be the first time he had ever fired it. He wasn’t even one hundred percent certain of how it all worked, despite twice reading the instruction manual cover to cover. He figured he’d work most of it out as he went along.
He pressed the on button, and the touch screen lit up. He selected assault rifle from the available settings, said a quiet prayer, then pressed his finger against the trigger.
A dozen bullets were spat out in the space of half a second. A posse of Victoria’s Secret models standing in the direct path of the gunfire were instantly cut in half. They fell to the floor in a bloody heap.
Everything from that point on appeared to play out in a dreamlike state. The music abruptly cut out, and a stunned silence followed.
Then a cacophony of screams erupted as the guests saw what had happened, and the absolute horror when they realized what was about to go down. A frenzied dash for the exits ensued.
Fr. Gerdtz held the trigger down and sprayed the room. Celebrities hit the floor and dived for cover behind anything solid enough to withstand the brutal assault. Anyone too slow was mown down like a blade of grass. The bodies of Amy Schumer, Justin Long and Macklemore were filled with hot lead.
Panic spread through the room like head lice through a kindergarten. It was every A-, B- and C-lister for themselves in the mad rush for safety. Slower and weaker guests were shoved aside and trampled on as their stronger and fitter peers scrambled to make it out alive. Celebrity wife Chrissy Teigan was among those who lost their footing in the mayhem and fell to the floor. She made several attempts at regaining her footing, but was knocked back down in the stampede every time. After suffering fifteen or twenty stiletto heels to her cranium, she stayed down for good.
Bottlenecks soon formed around the doors. Hundreds found themselves trapped inside, sitting ducks unable to move an inch further. The harder they pushed, the worse it became.
Fr. Gerdtz selected grenade launcher mode from the menu and pressed fire. A small olive-colored ball lobbed over towards a clogged exit. Two Jonas brothers and four Modern Family cast members were among those ripped apart in the subsequent explosion, coming to rest in a messy pile of random limbs and torn frocks.
The blast tore a chunk out of the building’s wiring. The power cut out and the room plunged into darkness, heightening the sense of chaos by an exponential degree. The hysteria intensified with every second that ticked over.
Out of nowhere, a powerful spotlight flicked on. It was the only source of light in the room, and it landed directly of Fr. Gerdtz.
Dozens of security guards converged on the scene with their guns drawn. “Drop your … whatever the hell that is!” one of the guards shouted at Fr. Gerdtz.
He ignored this directive and selected the LMN-8R’s flamethrower option. An epic wall of fire belched out from the nozzle, instantly engulfing Gerard Butler. The smell of propane and charred flesh filled the room within a matter of seconds. He swung the weapon around and gave the button another tap. Karl Largerfeld’s face melted away like a Ken doll on a hotplate.
Security opened fire, but Fr. Gerdtz made no move to escape. He simply kept aiming and firing indiscriminately into the crowd, alternating between the three different modes of attack, taking out everyone in his sights. He didn’t care who he hit. As far as he was concerned, there were no innocent victims here. Everyone was either famous or a fame-chaser. They needed to be eradicated for the good of the world.
Celebrities went down like dominoes, one after another. First Anna Kendrick, then Calvin Harris. Then Chelsea Clinton, Drake, Kendall Jenner and Bradley Cooper.
A stray bullet ricocheted off a steel beam and dislodged a chandelier. It crashed down on top of Idris Elba, pinning him to the floor.
Blake Lively and John Mayer both caught bullets to the face.
Lorde and Aziz Ansari were swallowed up by thousand-degree flames.
The spent cartridges piled up and the death toll mounted until there were more dead bodies covering the floor than there was actual visible floor. Fr. Gerdtz pictured what the chalk outlines would look like once the deceased had all been hauled away. He imagined it would be something like those famous Keith Haring murals.
When his crusade first began, back in that nightclub with Krystal Blayze another lifetime ago, he was torn up by his actions. He may have been fulfilling a direct order from God, but there were many moments where he was emotionally conflicted about what he was doing.
No such feelings bothered him tonight. It was only now, illuminated by this lone spotlight, watching all the heads snap back and limbs blown off and blood spray into the air, that he realized how much he missed the thrill of it all. This was what gave his life true meaning. This was how he wanted future generations to remember him.
He may have earlier declared tonight to be his final mission, but at that moment he knew he wouldn’t stop unless someone else stopped him first. He was simply having too much fun.
Darnell Leviston fumbled for his Hi-Point 9mm compact pistol as he sprinted down the long corridor, sidestepping the terrified staff fleeing in the opposite direction, using the screams and gunshots to navigate his way to the main arena. He was operating on nothing but instinct and adrenaline. He knew if he stopped for even a second to think about what he was getting himself into, his natural instincts for self preservation would kick in and prevent him from taking another step.
He had been patrolling the west side of the building when the crackle of gunfire range out, just a couple of minutes ago. He quickly abandoned his post and bolted for the nearest entry point.
He arrived to find a scene of pure carnage. It was as if some brutal war zone had been picked up from somewhere in the Middle East and dropped into this historic Manhattan building. He knew immediately what had happened. It was the one thing they all feared, the absolute worst-case scenario. The past six weeks had been spent preparing for the possibility of this very moment, and now it had arrived.
The deranged priest was here. He was armed with some sort of modified ultra-weapon, and he was taking great glee in putting it to use.
Bullets flew in all directions. Deep puddles of blood formed on the floor. The air was thick with the stench of death.
The power was out, albeit with one spotlight still operating, shining directly on the priest. The muzzle flashes from the shootout and the occasional burst of flame gave some additional strobing light.
Dozens of guards fired at the priest from every angle, but so far had failed to take him out. The sheer force of his weaponry kept them at a distance, while the number of civilians in the area made getting off a clean shot near-impossible.
Darnell saw that he happened to be the guard nearest to the gunman. The priest had his back to him, and was as yet unaware of his presence. He swallowed down his fear. Like it or not, it was his responsibility to take control of the situation.
He raised his gun out in front of him, his finger tightening around the trigger. He moved in tentative half steps towards his target. A sick feeling churned in his stomach. He had never fired at anyone; he had never even reached for his gun in the line of duty. The only time his handgun had been discharged was at a firing range. He had no idea if what he was feeling at that moment was normal or not.
The other guards ceased fire when they saw what he was doing, allowing him to get as close to the assailant as possible.
Little by little, he inched his way over towards the priest. He was thirty feet away. Then he was twenty-five feet, then twenty. His weapon had quadrupled in weight in just the past few seconds. His hands trembled but his aim never wavered.
A jet of flame shot out, and Darnell felt a blanket of searing heat sting his eyes. He blinked several times until the pain subsided and his vision steadied.
He now stood less that ten feet away. Another couple of steps and he could reach out and touch him. He had a clear, unobstructed shot. There was no way he could possibly miss from here.
Summoning every ounce of courage and resolve he had within him, he steadied his aim and squeezed the trigger over and over. Five seconds later, his clip was emptied.
But the priest remained standing.
Not a single bullet had so much as grazed his skin. The hair on his head remained as immaculate as when it was combed that morning. The crusade of carnage continued without interruption.
A sense of confusion and disbelief rained down on Darnell as he tried to comprehend what the hell just happened. Eight rounds had been fired from point-blank range, and yet he missed everything. That simply was not possible.
The other guards resumed firing. Darnell snapped out of his stupor and dived for cover.
He lay face down on the ground, his body pressed hard against the cold marble floor, doing all he could to awaken himself from this wretched nightmare. Bullets flew inches above his head. Other people’s blood soaked his clothes. A piercing howl rang in his ears. This could not be happening, he told himself, over and over. That was the best he could deduce from such an absurd situation. None of this could possibly real.
Until he saw the trail of dust on the floor surrounding the old man. It was arranged in a perfect circle, about five feet in diameter. Darnell watched for a moment longer. Piece by piece, the true cause of this enigma became apparent.
The bullets weren’t missing at all. They were disintegrating. Every single bullet fired at the priest broke up and turned to a fine powder the instant they reached the light. The priest stood in the center of the ring of ground ammunition particles, growing larger with every subsequent shot fired.
It was the spotlight. It somehow acted as an impenetrable force field, protecting him from harm.
Darnell’s rational mind knew this was completely ridiculous and illogical. He wouldn’t have believed it if he hadn’t been here to see it with his two own eyes. But he couldn’t deny it. It was happening.
He followed the trail of light with his eyes, high up into the roof, above the rafters, searching for the source. But there was nothing there. This beam of incandescence did not come from a spotlight, or from any other artificial source. It came from a place much higher up. The powerful pure white stream had somehow, incredibly, penetrated the museum’s ceiling.
A tunnel of clouds stretched far into the sky and the heavens beyond, going and going as far as the eye could see. It was a sight both surreal and stupefying.
He lay there in a state of paralysis, gazing with wonder at the vision above him. He could do nothing except stare into this awe-inspiring vista with his mouth hanging open and tears welling in his eyes. Even if he wanted to, he could not look away.
Darnell had not had an easy life. In and out of foster homes, his upbringing had been marked by years of poverty and violence. He had endured numerous tragedies over the years, events which caused him to openly question his faith. Years had passed since he last tried speaking with God.
But any skepticism or doubts he may have had evaporated like dry ice the moment he viewed the startling phenomenon before him. He knew his life could never be the same again. After seeing what he was seeing, there was simply no way he could look at the world through the same eyes.
A sense of calm came over him, and he slowly picked himself up off the floor. He was a different man now to when he entered the room just a few minutes ago. His life had renewed purpose. He knew what he was put here on the earth for, and what he could do to make the world a better place.
He reloaded his weapon, oblivious to the orders being screamed at him by the other guards. He ignored the bullets whizzing by and strolled over to the far side of the room.
He climbed up on the elevated stage area. He found The Chainsmokers, the musical act booked for the evening, cowering beneath the DJ booth.
He smiled at them both, then unloaded his full clip.
FALSE ICONS AND SCARED COWS is Part I of , a three-part story. Part II, THE HONEY TRAP, will be released in June 2017. Part III, THE SHARPEST KNIVES IN THE DRAWER, will be released in July 2017.
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FALSE ICONS & SACRED COWS is part one of HOLLYWOOD HACK JOB, with parts two and three due for release in the coming months.