I wasn’t always like this. Since before I could remember, I dreamed of working as a talent agent, but like most dreams—this one looked very different in reality. Hollywood taught me how to look through, how to sniff out desperates and wannabes.
Laya was an easy target: open and guileless. She was playing a vintage guitar on the corner of Sunset Boulevard when I saw her through a coffee shop window for the first time. Even with a broken A string and a lot of fret buzz, her eerily beautiful voice drew a crowd. I paused, the corners of my lips tugging upwards, my foam latte forgotten on the bar as I stepped outside. I immediately knew she would do well in the industry, and when she was powerful, she was going to pay me well. I handed her a business card. She trusted me immediately.
Laya was a quick learner. Too quick. It wasn’t long before she was everyone’s favorite rags-to-riches, overnight success story: Hollywood’s Sweetheart. The fame bred conceit, and she became as puffy as she was popular, the diva. I should have seen it coming. I resented her. In some small way, I even hated myself, for not predicting the transformation. A fire built inside me, a small, hungry one. It got hotter, kept burning all the time, and there was nothing I could do about it. After one too many hissy fits, I went to my agency director for advice.
“She’s burning up,” I explained. “She’ll disintegrate soon, blow away in a wisp of smoke.” I want to scorch her, I didn’t explain.
The head of my division in the agency didn’t even look up from their desk. “It’s only on fire a bit. You can still use it,” they shrugged caustically.
They were referring to my find—to Laya—as a thing. It. Laya was nothing more than fodder, and if she was burning, well, we’d use her till she burnt.
I envied Laya’s innocence, how oblivious she was to being used. That was one of the reasons I begrudged her so fiercely. This industry was toxic, but somehow I had expected the sweetheart to withstand the flame. Instead, she was disintegrating like us all. I knew there was no way for anyone living to maintain a perfect image; there was always a crack in the mask.
In Laya’s case? Diva dissolution on live television. She melted.
People ate it up. Laya’s teary face was plastered all over BuzzFeed, Cosmo, and MTV: America’s Sweetheart has Major Meltdown! Laya Fitzgerald, Nobody’s Nice Girl.
I steamed and boiled over. The slow-witted girl wasn’t thinking straight when she lashed out! I didn’t give a damn about her issues with another performer, Laya almost never liked her coworkers.
I was back in my boss’s office, waving a tabloid print out furiously.
“It’s time,” they responded. “She’s ready.”
I sighed heavily and stomped back into the hallway. Bad publicity isn’t exactly what I would deem readiness-indicator, but I didn’t argue. Whatever they say, goes, and everyone else is ignored like yesterday’s news.
I ushered Laya into a dingy room tucked away behind the main recording studio, on the fifth floor. I watched her darting gaze and could tell the teenager’s curiosity was piqued. Everything was painted black, except the floor-to-ceiling blood red velvet drapes. In the center of the room was a long table surrounded by leather chairs on wheels. At the far end, near the head of the table stood a man in a trench coat. His fedora was tugged low and he stood in the shadows, identity concealed.
“Welcome, Laya,” he drawled, “to The Final Curtain.”
“W-who are you?” her voice and hands trembled. “What is this?”
“Our secret society,” I answered, not taking my eyes off the man.
The 18-year-old’s gaze darted between me and the man, pure terror and confusion in her eyes.
“You have to pass a test to gain admittance.”
“And what if I don’t want to?” she straightened, her tone surprisingly sassy.
I glared. “Then you die,” I spoke plainly, indifferent.
Laya trembled, and turned back to the man.
“Good,” he spoke, “You’re co-operating so far. Step forward, girl.” Laya did as she was told, but her movements were stiff and unwilling, as if she was being pulled by some invisible rope.
I hung back in the doorway, watching the scene unfold. The things I had done to gain admittance to the society were unforgivable, but time dulled my revulsion. I was still following orders to stay alive, so it’s not as if I exactly had a choice.
“I need you to kill someone,” the man spoke, his eyes boring holes into Laya. “Four someone’s, to be exact.”
Laya stared back blankly, stunned.
“These people have wronged me, and I must be sure you’re the girl for the job. If you don’t comply, I will ensure you meet a friend of mine, much less forgiving than I.”
“Wh-what do you need me to do?” Laya fought to keep her voice even. She mostly succeeded in leveling it, and I have to admit I was impressed.
“First, you must prove yourself worthy of the task,” the man laughed darkly. “I’ll start you off with something easy. How about poisoning Clara Martin? I assume you know her. You have co-starred with her before, yes? She’ll be our test subject.”
Once again with objectifying the celebrities. I rolled my eyes in annoyance, but he must have sensed my disgust.
The man’s head whipped around to face me. “Problem, agent?”
I shook my head, catching a glimpse of Laya in my periphery as I did so. Her eyes were widened in shock. Clara was, after all, her best friend. Truth be told, I wasn’t exactly happy with Clara as test subject either. She had proven useful in keeping Laya’s attitude in check until now.
Either way, one or both of them would die by the end of this. The man in the trench coat was obviously hoping for Clara. Unfortunately, I could understand why, she was a formidable figure in Hollywood, and part of a rival society. It was possible that in time her work might expose us all to the harsh glare of the spotlight. As much as I hated Laya, in order to live, I had to help her kill Clara.
Laya invited her friend over for dinner to discuss a new film they had both auditioned for. I took charge of the household, proposing a menu of fried shrimp as an appetizer, and chicken for a main. While there was an element of formality to the meal, a full three courses would seem suspicious to a friend. The cook headed to the kitchen, the maid set the table, and I went in search of Laya.
I found her upstairs, leaned over in front of a lit vanity, her mouth absentmindedly open as she applied mascara. She caught sight of me and turned slightly, as if to say something, then shook her head and returned her gaze to the mirror. I stood watching silently, leaning against the door frame with my arms crossed until the doorbell rang.
Clara stepped into the foyer, handing her coat to the butler at the door. The light in the entryway shimmered off long strawberry blonde hair and a gold blouse. A fine-featured face turned up, watching Laya hurry down the stairs to greet her. They embraced and disappeared into the dining hall, chattering lightly.
As they were seated with bowls of shrimp placed before them, Clara lifted her head to look at Laya. Laya caught her friend’s gaze and abruptly excused herself, heading to the bathroom.
I stayed behind, watching covertly from the next room. My eyes were fixed on Clara who darted a hand into her clutch and curled something in her fingers, the light sparking off it. A glass bottle, filled with pale green powder.
Clara received the same instructions as Laya. Our plan had been leaked, and now the rival clan was trying to beat us to the rival-killing task.
I slipped off to warn Laya. I found her in the hallway outside the bathroom, leaning over a hope chest.
“I can’t,” she whispered to herself, slipping her own tiny green an identical vial as the one Clara held into a drawer, and slamming it shut as I approached.
“Don’t drink or eat anything Clara gives you,” I warned.
“Why should you care? You hate me,” she sneered, spinning on one heel.
I curled my lip. “This is in the interest of the Final Curtain. They need you for reasons unknown to me. I’m trying to save my own life, not yours.”
“We should get back,” Laya huffed, pushing past me.
I returned a minute later to my post in the adjacent room. A servant poured a glass of water for Clara. She sipped hesitantly after examining it, then set down her glass and looked around nervously.
As the seconds ticked by, it became obvious that Laya hadn’t had the guts to poison her friend. I glared at her, knowing this choice would cause us both suffering.
A few days later, we were back in the room on the fifth floor. The curtains seemed much more ominous than before. I waited, hands clasped tightly behind my back, palms sweaty.
Laya tapped her foot on the floor beside me. The man, facing us silently, reached up and with deliberate slowness, pulled off his fedora for the first time, and stepped into the light. He was young, early twenties. His hair was sandy-blonde and cut short, which drew attention to his sculpted features. Piercing blue eyes fixed on us, filled with anger and disgust.
He sauntered deliberately towards Laya. She looked dazed, her lovesick eyes fixed on his face.
I rolled my eyes, shifting my weight away from her but trying not to move abruptly or draw attention to myself.
The man stopped directly in front of the girl, towering over her small frame. He reached a hand under her chin and lifted it, smirking down at her.
“It’s a shame, Laya. I was beginning to like you.”