SHOT FOR DEATH
Short Story by N. D. Farmer
Zoe was late.
Not just kind of late.
She ran several traffic lights, and narrowly missed t-boning a Subaru as she turned into the parking garage of the shopping mall. She ran through the mall entrance and towards Parisians hoping to reach the time clock in time before it marked her officially late. Dismissing the back stairwell, Zoe headed for the elevator. Although the elevators constantly needed service, they were closer to the time clock. Today, she hoped the elevator wouldn’t stall between floors as it almost always did.
Zoe pressed the call button rapidly.
“It won’t come like that,” said a husky male voice.
Zoe whirled around, startled by the sudden intrusion. Her dark brown eyes met stony gray ones, framed by sandy brown hair and masculine features. A groomed beard outlined a squared jaw, connecting the trimmed sides of a tapered haircut.
“The lift,” he repeated. “It’s been programmed to respond to a single call. It now thinks there are a million people down here waiting to get on.”
Zoe frowned. “I’m just trying to get it to come down.”
“Yes, I know,” he said. “It will come. You just have to wait for it.”
He pressed the button once to call the elevator. The smooth circle lit up a bright, affirming green in response before the doors opened. The man formally gestured for her to enter. Zoe silently walked into the elevator, averting her eyes from his amused grin.
“Thank you,” Zoe whispered. She pressed the button to close the doors.
A hand reached in and pressed the doors back.
“You never answered my question.”
“The same question I always ask you. When will you come to my studio?”
“Why would I want to do that?”
“Maybe because I asked nicely.”
“Why do you want a picture of me so much? What do you plan on doing with it once I take it?”
“I want you in my collection,” he said, still holding his same boyish grin.
Zoe smirked. “Couldn’t you get one of your girlfriends to sit in? I’m sure you have plenty to choose from.”
Once more, Zoe moved to close the doors. Obediently, the doors slid inward. Again, he pushed them back, this time looking slightly annoyed.
“I do, but none of them look quite like you.”
Zoe’s eyes narrowed. “You think I’m ugly?”
“To the contrary. I think you’re lovely. I’d like to capture that in a photograph… If you’ll let me.”
“I have to go.”
She reached to press the button again but found her hand suddenly caught by stronger hands gripping her fingers. Zoe glared at the young man before ripping her hand away from him.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to…” The man breathed out, then shook his head. “I’m sorry. This isn’t…” He breathed out again, this time daring to look into Zoe’s scrutinizing gaze. “I’m Merrick. All my friends call me Rick.”
“Well, Merrick, I’d like to say it’s a pleasure to meet you, but I’m very late for work right now, so…”
“Just… Please. Come to the studio. I’ll take a good picture.”
“Why?” Zoe could not get past the question.
Rick rubbed the back of his head, trying to find the words to explain himself. Zoe kept her stern expression, even though a part of her took some pity on the photographer. There was probably a good reason why he wanted her photograph above anyone else’s. She hoped he might learn the words to explain quickly as she was running very short on patience and time.
“Please. It’s my last day working here. I’d really like it if you’d pose for me. I’ll even do it for free. Think of it as a favor.”
Zoe rolled her eyes. After a short and tense moment, she relented.
“Fine. As a favor. After this, you’ll leave me alone?”
“Cross my heart,” Rick promised, and made the gesture across his chest.
Zoe reached for the elevator button again, but found the doors disobedient this time. She frowned, curious why the elevator responded before, but now would not. She looked down and saw Rick’s sneaker blocking the sensor.
“What time?” He asked.
“How about four. I’ll be on my lunch break so it’ll have to be quick."
“Of course. Haven’t you heard our logo?” Rick stood up very straight. “At FotoHut, all of our portraits are done in a snap.”
The doors closed on Rick’s very obvious, very commercial and cheesy grin.
The rumor circulating in the break room inside the store was that Rick from the FotoHut was an ex-Calvin Klein model recently retired from the New York runways. Another rumor said he wasn’t a Calvin Klein model, but someone from one of those sexy cologne commercials that showed men with their shirts off running through ocean water for no discernible reason. Or riding horseback with no saddle. The general consensus of everyone gathered during the weekly debate was that the guy working in the FotoHut was drop-dead gorgeous. Enough to grace the covers of their Danielle Steele novels and star in their raunchiest fantasies. It seemed everyone with a heartbeat was instantly smitten by him.
Everyone, but Zoe.
She wasn’t fooled by his sultry, mist gaze or mesmerized by the hypnotic timbre of his voice. She knew the truth. Beyond the glamour of his silver screen attractiveness was nothing more than a vapid, arrogant sycophant. She didn’t doubt he knew about the rumors and played into the role. He used his disarming smile and nickle-slick words to entice young women to his studio. He didn’t have to do much. Women flocked to wherever he desired to lead them. He could have his pick of any, yet, it was Zoe that he said he wanted.
She was sure he didn’t mean, want in the terms of dating. She hadn’t dated anyone in months. The few dates she did go out on were complete disasters with the guy appearing more interested in the football game playing behind her, than carrying on an actual conversation. They could have been models, too… Well, one of them could have. The others were interesting characters rather than handsome. However, they were all disappointments. All clueless to the reason she did not agree to a second date and got rid of them.!
Rick seemed different, though.
He was being very pursuant of her attention and dogged in his quest. It was clear he wouldn’t take no for an answer. It was even more clear that he desired her and no one else.
But why? Why her? Why her photo?
She didn’t look exotic or remotely interesting. Her hair was long, but not too long. Red and curly reminiscent of Julia Roberts but with far less allure. She was thin, rail thin with barely a figure to distinguish her from a prepubescent boy. Her mother told her she could be a model and at one time she believed her. Unfortunately, she learned quickly modeling was not for her. She was destined to be a sales clerk in Parisians’ Home and Bedding department, tucked back in the farthest corner of the store. No one saw her. No one cared to know her name apart from wanting to know who worked the previous night’s stock. She was no one. Invisible. Yet, by some miscalculation of the universe, she grabbed the attention of the only person in the entire mall everyone appeared to desire.
Zoe allowed herself to smile as she leaned on the counter, daydreaming about what could happen in the hour designated for her lunch. Instead of eating at her usual place in the Food Court, she would be sitting in front of Rick’s camera allowing him to bask in her quirky beauty. Maybe after he would suggest they go someplace to eat. A picnic perhaps. Or a small diner hidden away between the shoppes. They could share ice cream and giggle about the world outside themselves.
They could fall in love over malt shakes.
Plan their wedding at the beach.
Announce their first child.
Welcome their fifth.
Congratulate their retirement.
“Are you going to lunch?”
Zoe snapped her head up from her dream and stared a moment at the girl standing at the checkout counter. Then at the clock on the register.
Frames lined the walls, exhibiting the different pictures taken at the portrait studio. Many of the portraits shown were couples in various poses, suggesting their intimacy. Others were of children smiling brightly, caught in mid-laugh. On the far wall were a row of black and whites showcasing a pregnant woman, a newborn baby, graduation, a wedding, and an elderly couple holding hands. Above the pictures, a sign read:
The Cycle of Life…
“How do you like my collection?”
Zoe turned to see Rick leaning against the door frame of a narrow hallway. As usual, he was smiling, studying her without hiding that he was.
“It’s very nice. Why do you call it the Cycle of Life?”
Rick moved from the doorway and stood next to Zoe.
“It tells the story of Life’s different stages. You are born, become independent , have achievement, commitment, and then resolve.”
“You’re missing one last stage,” Zoe pointed out, still looking at the row of portraits.
“What stage is that?”
Zoe felt Rick’s eyes on her suddenly, studying her or maybe considering her insight. Either way, the hairs on the back of her neck stood on end.
“How very perceptive. You’re right. I am missing the last stage. It’s why I asked you to come and help me with it.”
Zoe looked at Rick, finding him turned away from her and looking at his collection. The glowing lights of the studio caught the perfect outline of his profile and etched the regal look of his nose and forehead into her brain.
“How can I help you with depicting death?”
Rick turned a charming grin on her. “Come to the back with me. I’ll show you what I mean.”
Zoe squeaked as Rick grabbed her hand and led her to the rear of the portrait studio. They walked past several rooms set up in various generic scenes. There was a room dedicated to children for portraits of babies to big kids. A studio room for young adults and kids graduating grade levels. A space for holiday and seasonal photographs. A room with an intimate and romantic setting.
Zoe craned her neck a little to view the props in a small cart next to the illusion bubble backdrop. She glimpsed a pink feather boa snaking out of the cart and lying in wait on the floor. Then, finally, they came to a room at the far end of the hall. A simple black velvet backdrop stood against the wall and cascaded on to the floor while a wooden stool centered the room. Two lamps stood diagonally with large white screens fitted like umbrellas around the lamps, expanding the light. A single-camera stand was positioned in front of the stool. A table was set up behind the stand, full of various camera lenses, filters, and other photography equipment needed to shoot. Zoe looked in awe at the room. She had never been in a portrait studio set up like this. The only studios she had ever been in to have her portrait taken were out in the open venues with plenty of noises and distractions.
“How long have you been a photographer?”
“Not long,” said Rick. He closed the door behind him and went to the table of camera equipment.
“Did you go to a school to study it?” Zoe sauntered around the small studio.
“No. I’m more self-taught. I wouldn’t waste money having someone teach me something that can’t really be taught. I mean, you can learn all the basics and functions of a camera, but only the really famous photographers are the ones born with the talent.”
Zoe smirked, catching a hint of arrogance in Rick’s tone. He fussed with a lens filter, trying to fit it onto the front of a Nikon camera lens. Zoe looked over the velvet backdrop, noticing tiny bits of dust on the cloth. They looked like stars against a midnight sky. Zoe wondered if the dust particles would show up on camera. From what she could tell, the dust might not show up on film once the photograph was taken, leaving her suspended within a black velvet void.
Rick looked up momentarily and smiled… Again.
“Is that what you are wearing?”
“I didn’t have time to change,” Zoe admitted.
“It’s fine.” Rick waved off the concern. “What you’re wearing is perfectly fine. It says, you.”
Zoe looked down at her outfit. She had not considered her attire all morning. She grabbed the first thing that was clean in her closet and threw it on hastily before shooting out the door. She wore a cream-colored sweater with a Disney logo embroidered just above her left breast and a pair of black wide-legged slacks. Her name badge was carefully pinned over the logo, hoping to hide it from her managers. Company dress code explicitly discouraged logos and decals worn on the clothing to deter biased buying. Zoe saw no reason to discard a complete outfit simply because it happened to have a designer logo printed on the front of it. However, standing in the studio about to take a picture to last forever, she regretted wearing the silly sweater. She didn’t want to take a picture with her name badge, which meant she would have to settle with the logo.
Zoe sat down on the stool and looked directly into the camera, returning his grin.
“I wish I could find something I loved to do and turn it into what I do. The only thing I seem to ever be good at is selling someone else’s stuff.”
“I’m sure you’re great at much more than that. You don’t give yourself enough credit,” said Rick, returning to the camera.
Zoe shrugged, looking down at her feet. “Maybe…”
Zoe looked up, surprised by the sound of the camera clicking a photograph of her. Rick continued to fiddle with the camera, adjusting knobs and straightening the focus to capture her at just the right angle.
“You took a picture of me,” Zoe said, calling Rick’s attention.
“Yeah, I know,” said Rick absently.
“I wasn’t ready.”
“Sure you are, Zoe,” Rick said, his voice coming over soothing, coaxing. “You’re always ready. Always prepared. You’re ready for anything… Until you’re not.”
Zoe planted both feet on the floor and pressed her lips tightly together.
“I’m ready to go now,” Zoe announced, standing up. “You got your picture.”
“That’s enough, Merrick.”
Snap, snap, snap…
Frustrated, Zoe stomped towards the door.
She turned back and scowled, nearly baring her teeth. “You’re a real piece of work! I thought you would be different, but you’re just like all the rest of the jerks.”
“You’re wrong about me, Zoe,” said Rick.
Zoe could feel his voice crawling up the back of her neck like a spider. She felt a sudden shudder tremble through her body.
“I’m not like the others… I’m worse.”
Zoe’s eyes widened. She bolted for the door just steps away. Her hands grabbed desperately for the knob and yanked hard.
Something flashed across. A silver line slicing the air in front of her. She inhaled and felt white hot air pour in her nose and neck. Her hands went to her throat suddenly feeling wet stickiness sliding down soaking the cream colored sweater. Sliding down the wrong way into her throat.
She could smell his cologne heavy in the too frigid air. Air that was no longer there. Instead there was only liquid pouring.
Her knees buckled and suddenly there was no floor. Only black velvet.
Her face rested against the starlit black night watching the twin suns converge and then separate to their respective hemispheres.
She turned slowly, weightlessly. The back of her eyes burned, searing the wicked grin that no longer looked gentle. Instead, it looked…