by Stella Hayes
They walked into the room on a wave of rowdy catcalling applause. Shauna tensed, grasped his arm, and whispered to him through her hundred-watt grin–as if they were a couple of cons in a prison yard instead of coveted, cosseted stars from Eternal Requiem, the most successful TV show since Friends:
“Jesus, Beck, I wish I hadn’t worn my diamonds.”
“Relax,” Beck whispered back, kissing her hair. “They’re just kids.”
The kids whistled at the kiss, and the volume of catcalls increased.
A stout, beaming woman bustled over to them and motioned for the kids to quiet down. The applause tapered off, and a hundred or so faces looked up at them expectantly.
“I know you’ve all been looking forward to this, and I’m sure you’ll make Ms. Williamson and Mr. Beckett more than welcome. Now, let’s have a moment of quiet for the grand opening! ” She handed Beck a comically large pair of scissors and led he and Shauna over to a closed wooden door with a red ribbon thumb tacked across it.
“We’re overjoyed to declare the Arden Grange Drop-Internet Café… open for business!” Beck said, beaming at the crowd. He snipped the red ribbon, and the kids roared with approval as he opened the door and bowed with a flourish.
“Enjoy the surfing, but be careful with those machines. Don’t forget what happened to Troy Moran.”
There were more laughs and whoops. A few of the girls wrinkled their noses in mock distaste.
Troy Moran had been one of the well-loved heroes on Eternal Requiem, and at the end of season five he accidentally discovered some damning evidence against Beck’s character, Vaughn Isengaard–serial killer–during a recreational computer hacking session. Vaughn had strangled him (almost decapitated him, in fact) with a length of mouse cord, in order to shut him up.
Shauna smiled at him as the kids filed into their new café. Beck was such a strange one. He was the most selfless, saint-like soul she had ever known. Yet he played the vilest, most reprehensible character in the history of stage and screen. Hannibal Lecter,
Norman Bates – they had nothing on Vaughn Isengaard.
Since the first season of Eternal Requiem exploded onto the network, Beck had received thousands of death threats; more than fifty were considered serious enough to merit him personal security on the show’s payroll whilst each season was on air. He attracted antagonism and aggression almost everywhere he went.
Unlike Beck, Shauna was one of the heroes from Eternal Requiem, but even the constant worship from the obsessive fan base scared her more than a little, especially some of the reactions to the onscreen chemistry between her character and Beck’s. If she had to live with Beck’s lot–the pure hatred the Vaughn Isengaard character incited–she would have quit long ago.
But Beck never grumbled. (Hell, he had even gone against the cast plot for a group-strike when they were demanding more pay during season three. “It sticks in my throat, guys,” he had said. The average fan probably spends more than half of his or her weekly wage buying a single DVD box set, and we already get more per episode than they do in a year. He made them remember that they were lucky, privileged. Made them feel grasping, and shamed them into submission; Shauna included. As things turned out, the strike wasn’t necessary anyway–the cast all got a bonus and a hefty hike after season three wrapped, and at the end of each season thereafter.)
Not only did Beck uncomplainingly put up with his lot, he also did good things for people, and tried to use his status to make a difference. He always made a selfless gesture, with strictly no publicity, as soon as the latest season was in the bag.
Last year it had been the sound and light hall for disabled kids, and those with learning difficulties. This year–just two weeks after wrapping season nine–it was the Internet café at the drop in centre for underprivileged kids: twenty five of the latest PCs, monitors and printers, five new consoles and wide screen TVs (plus a hundred or so games) the gleaming, canteen-standard cappuccino machine, not to mention a set of funky crockery–God only knew how much it had set Beck back.
Shauna fingered her diamond earrings guiltily as she looked at the kids– their enraptured faces. Beck the benefactor, Beck the good guy; he had really come through for them.
“I love you, Beck,” she said softly. Beck smiled into her eyes and kissed her nose.
“I love you too, honey. What say we go and grab a couple of steaks and a good bottle of red? Maybe later we can do a little, ah, surfing, of our own.”
Shauna laughed and took hold of Beck’s arm. The kids didn’t notice as they slipped away.
Their car was idling outside–the driver smoking a cigarette, his cap on the dash–and Beck strode forward to get the door for Shauna. As he gently shut it after her, he felt a tap on his shoulder and turned. It was a middle-aged lady, clasping her handbag before her like a shield.
“I knew it was you,” she said. Beck started to smile, and she spat full in his face. He instinctively closed his eyes, felt the warm drool slide down the planes of his cheeks. When she spoke again, her voice was loaded with so much venom that Beck was glad he wasn’t looking at her.
“I hope you rot in Hell, you murdering scum.”
Beck wiped his eyes and watched her walk away, shooting mistrustful glances back over her shoulder, as if she fully expected him to lunge after her and rip out her throat.
Shauna wound the window down and grasped his forearm.
“Oh, love,” she said. He smiled at her, and his smile was full of warmth and sunshine.
“It’s fine. God knows, I’m used to it by now.” He got in the car, and they drove away.
Over dinner, they got the other end of the scale, which was as good as it ever got for Beck.
Their waitress approached the table to take their wine order with shaking hands and blank fear in her eyes. She wouldn’t look at Beck at all and deflected his natural charm almost reflexively… however, as the courses progressed, his charisma began to filter through, and by the time they were ordering their after-dessert coffees, she was truly bowled over.
“I can’t believe you’re so nice,” she said (for about the gazillionth time, Shauna thought, a touch pettishly). She was completely confounded by the unquestionable truth of Beck’s niceness; she was like a dieter who has been told by a Weight Watchers official that cream cakes and chocolate don’t actually contain any calories at all. Beck just smiled at her, and when they left he gave her a warm hug, and a tip that was probably more than she earned in a month.
“Do you want to go for a dance, honey? We haven’t had a chance to hit that new Salsa club yet,” Beck said to Shauna as they went to the car.
“Christ, no. I just want to go home,” Shauna said. “If we see one more fan today, I’ll be forced to test out those moves I had learn for the big showdown.”
Beck laughed and assumed a Muay Thai stance. “That’s my kick-ass girl. Gracious to the end.”
“Hard to be gracious when some old bitch is spitting in my boyfriend’s face. Or fawning over him because it’s finally hit home that he isn’t a serial killer”
“Ah, Shaunie… you know it was really Vaughn’s face she was spitting in.”
“Yeah, Beck, but that’s cold comfort when it’s you who has to wipe it off.”
Beck shrugged noncommittally and pulled Shauna to him, awkward–as always–with the concept of badmouthing a fan – even a crazy fan.
“Speaking of spit, let’s go home and swap some.”
“Beck!” Shauna laughed, and kissed him full on the lips. Let him be evasive, she thought. In three days, they were vacationing in New Zealand for three months. Just enough time to recharge their batteries before shooting started on season ten–the last ever season of Eternal Requiem.
Vaughn Isengaard would be laid to rest forever (the writers had penned a graphic and deliciously controversial death-row scene for his kill-off), and good riddance to him. Maybe this time next year, Beck would be reading a script for the role of a hotshot cop, or a lawyer-with-morals, and he would finally get the adulation he so richly deserved.
She snuggled into Beck on the plush backseat of their car, closed her eyes as he chatted animatedly with their driver. She would sleep until they got home, and Beck could wake her as he always did, with a kiss.
In the few moments leading up to Beck’s death, he was struck by how prosaic the circumstances were. The whole event seemed like a well orchestrated but predictable scene from an action film, or a particularly dramatic TV ad: The skateboarding kid sweeping thoughtlessly across the intersection. Their driver shouting shit and slamming on the brakes. Shauna’s half-dozing eyes flying open as if her eyelids were cartoon roller blinds… then widening in horror as she looked past Beck to their right. The guttural honnnnnk of the looming eighteen-wheeler as it tried to brake, and the hopeless screech of all those tires as it careened toward them. The empty click, click of the solenoid as their driver frantically tried to restart the car.
Beck saw all this clearly, as if these final moments from his life were projected on a fifty-foot screen, and he was sat in an audience, fists clenched with anticipation, munching on popcorn and certain that the good guys would get out of danger in the nick of time.
He had time to think: it’s like déjà vu. It’s like a bad case of déjà vu.
Then the big rig blasted into them, and he thought no more.
Beck awoke to a feeling of incredible heat, and a stranger’s face swimming above him like a carnival balloon, and he thought for a moment he’d made it through the crash–somehow, he’d made it through–and this was a fireman trying to cut him from the burning wreckage. Then he saw that the stranger’s face was livid red, and there were lethal horns jutting from the brooding forehead.
“Vaughn Isengaard! I’m pleased to meet such a creative master of cruelty,” the stranger said. He stuck out a hand that looked like a trick-or-treat glove and pumped Beck’s heartily.
Beck’s mouth gaped open. When would the obsessives learn where to draw the line at failing to distinguish between he and his character on Eternal Requiem? Vaughn-goddamned-Isengaard, ruthless serial killer, hated by millions. Beck had been wiping spit off the face he shared with Vaughn Isengaard for almost ten years without complaint, but the fawning admiration of this–(freak? weirdo?)–hit a deeper nerve. Vaughn Isengaard was a monster and he deserved to be despised by obsessive fans, but to be praised by one?
“I’ve been in a serious accident, pal. This is the last thing I need.” He wrenched his hand away and glared into the stranger’s yellow eyes. “Where am I, and where’s Shauna?”
“Don’t be coy, Vaughn. You’re where you should be and Shauna’s where she should be.”
“My name is Beck. Steven Beckett.” Beck spat. “Vaughn Isengaard is a fictional character. He does not exist. Now where the fuck am I and what the fuck have you done with my girl?”
“You don’t need to pretend any more, Vaughn. People like you thrive here. You don’t need the Beck persona to avoid apprehension any longer. Or the acts of charity–a nice touch, I’ve always thought. But you’ll never need to waste your time pretending to care–currying favour with the scum of the earth–ever again. Not here.” The stranger dropped Beck a leering wink. Beck’s head swam, and faintness rose before his eyes like digital smoke.
He stood up and looked around him. He was in a circular room with one window. Out of the window, an inferno raged. He peered over the sill and took in the infinity of fire; it broiled to the horizon like a stormy, molten sea.
The stranger laid a proprietary hand on his shoulder.
“I know you’ll enjoy your work here, Vaughn. You and I can work closely together. You’re probably already bursting with ideas for the torture sector.”
Beck spun and looked at the stranger. Looked up at him–he was at least seven feet tall.
“Where is this?” he whispered–so quietly it was as if his throat wanted to hold the question to ransom.
“Why Vaughn!” the stranger cried. “This is Hell, of course! And welcome. Welcome to you, Vaughn Isengaard. My newest soldier, my most valuable soldier.”
And he clutched Beck to him in a corporate-buddy hug. The stranger, who wasn’t a stranger at all.
Beck–who had been fielding Vaughn Isengaard’s death threats for almost ten years–tried to swallow the enormity of what faced him; he had heard the old curse so many times it had almost lost its meaning, but now it struck his heart with the finality of a coffin lid thumping shut. Go to Hell, you murdering filth. Burn in Hell. Rot in Hell. He was finally where they wanted him.
And the Devil was a fan.