The Beautiful – Chapter One
Posted in: Words
I thought I’d share the first chapter of my new novel, The Beautiful. Please share and comment. Your most brutal and honest criticisms are welcomed.
If I get enough shares/comments, I’ll be sure to share the second chapter.
The small white dash on my laptop screen had been flickering on and off, standing idly at the same position for the last fifteen minutes. But the small dialog box below showed that Professor Harrison was typing, offering me a slither of hope that he would soon end his two hours of indecisiveness.
Finally, the tiny dash moved across the line, revealing the words I had been dying to hear. I think I like this one better, he finally said on the website’s message board, followed by a link to a photo of the professor’s latest crush, the object of his most recent infatuation, a twenty-year-old student from his history class named Kate Lawson.
Ms. Lawson’s photo was not to my liking. Her entire face was backlit and underexposed against the harsh, high-noon sun as she stood in front the Louvre during one of her many vacations to the City of Love, right hand holding her button-down white shirt by the collar, while the other hovered over her tight-fitting jeans. I asked Professor Harrison if he was sure that this particular photo was the one he wished to steal. There was another moment of silence. The small white dash stood idle once more. A minute later he replied at last: Yes.
With any other client on any other day I would have suggested another photo. Perhaps one where she was standing in the French Quarter, with one hand over her waist and the other blowing a kiss to the person behind the lens. But I didn’t feel like spending another minute waiting for him to make up his mind. Not when I had a ton of work to do. Not when there were a dozen other clients to please.
Can you make it work? Professor Harrison asked.
I gave the photo a closer inspection, glanced at the picture of the naked body Ms. Lawson’s head would be superimposed on, and tried to imagine the final image. Matching the exposure and the skin tones alone would require a lot of work. Not to mention isolating the many strands of her curly golden hair waving against the wind, from the rest of the background. With minimal conviction, I told him, Sure.
I sometimes wondered what would have happened had I never taken Professor Harrison’s order. How different my life would have been had I never stolen Ms. Lawson’s photo…had I not superimposed her face onto someone else’s naked body. Perhaps I would never have had to spend the rest of my life looking over my shoulder, walking in the shadows in a constant state of unrest, hoping to live just long enough to complete my mission, tormented by my longing for redemption, in an unending quest to find a cure for my curse.
Minutes after I handed Professor Harrison the final result, something strange happened to my website. It disappeared, replaced by a message saying that the site called The Diva’s Lounge couldn’t be reached. I tried refreshing multiple times, typing in the address, using different browsers, checking my internet connection. All to no avail.
Finally, I decided to call Jimmy, my business partner.
“Hey, Jimmy… I can’t access the website for some reason,” I told him.
“I can’t open the website.”
“Is it your connection?”
“No…no…my connection’s fine.”
“Have you tried a different browser?”
“I tried everything, Jimmy. I still can’t find the website.”
“Whaddaya mean, you can’t find the website?”
“I’m telling you I can’t open our website.”
“You sure you got the right address? Don’t use last week’s address.”
“See for yourself, Jimmy.”
From the other end of the line, I heard a rapid series of clacking as Jimmy pounded the keyboard, becoming increasingly louder as he became more and more frustrated. Fat Jimmy must have tried at least twenty times to access our website before I heard nothing but the sound of him gasping for air, panting as if he had carried his two-hundred-and-fifty-pound heft up a flight of stairs.
“I’ll call you back, okay?” He hung up before I could answer.
I pressed my hands against the sides of my head with all my might, as though to keep it from exploding. I took a long, deep breath and shook my head. The Diva’s Lounge locked and inaccessible somewhere in cyberspace was the last thing I needed.
Ever since our biggest-paying client vanished, we had tried to get our old customers back. We were strapped for cash; I was behind on my rent. Just to compensate from losing that one client I had to slave for hours on end, glued to my chair, stealing pictures of unsuspecting women from their social media pages. Producing doctored images for our discerning clients who were getting harder and harder to please. I was tempted to just shut down my laptop and rest my weary eyes, but I had to keep working. Yet, apparently, that was not meant to be.
“Jimmy” Giacomo Grasso called back to deliver the shocking news.
“Dillen… So what did you do just before the website went down?”
“I…ummm…worked on an order.”
“Professor Harrison. Why?”
“Did you finish it?”
“The order? Yes. I uploaded the work, and then the site went funny.”
“You uploaded the work onto the site?”
“Yeah… Like I always do.”
“What do you know about Professor Harrison?”
“You take orders from someone you don’t know?”
“Hey…hey…” I protested. “You’re the one who’s supposed to do all the background checks.”
“Okay… Okay… But why did you communicate with him directly? You should’ve let me do that.”
“I did…but then you said you couldn’t stand the guy, and you told him to talk to me directly.”
“I know… I know… I’m sorry,” Jimmy said. “What do you know about the girl?”
“The target? Not much. She’s one of his students, I guess.”
“You’re the one checking people’s backgrounds. That’s the deal, Jimmy. I do Photoshop. You handle clients.”
“I know… I know…”
“What is this, Jimmy? What’s going on?”
“I’ll tell you all about it later. Meet me at Tony’s in twenty minutes, all right?”
“Bring your laptop.”
“Just trust me, Dillen… Just do as I say.”
It seemed that fake nude picture of Ms. Lawson would be the last photo I would produce that night. Little did I know it would be the very last fake nude picture I would ever create.
For six years, Jimmy and I had been running an online business together called The Diva’s Lounge, a name so vague it could be anything. The website was available on the dark web, the part of the internet off-limits to search engines. We kept changing the address—a series of random letters, numbers, and symbols, dozens of characters long—every week because what we were doing was not exactly legal. Plus, this way, only users who made a purchase were given the updated addresses, which helped to keep the cops and freeloaders away. The business model was simple. Got someone you want to see nude? Then all you had to do was give us the links to the woman’s social media pages. You could also send in pictures of this unsuspecting woman. You could even tell us her name, and we would search through the internet to look for pictures of her, trolling her Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. It didn’t matter if they kept their privacy settings high. If it was online, we would find it.
It wasn’t as if other people hadn’t done the same thing. But the Photoshop works of these amateurs were crude and unconvincing. Someone needed to teach these kids about proportion of the human anatomy and the physics of light. These kids never bothered to check that the shadows on the face and on the body matched before they superimposed one onto the other, and they probably either didn’t know or didn’t care about things like color-balance and pixel rate. You could tell whoever had cobbled together these amateurish works couldn’t wait to jack off on their creations. That was my secret off course. I’d always masturbate before starting a new project. That way, I refrained myself from rushing and delivered nothing less than perfection.
Besides, these kids only produced fake nude pictures of celebrities to satisfy their far-fetched fantasies. That was easy. Celebrity pictures were abundant and came in different poses and expressions. Best of all, they were usually professionally shot, well lit, and came in high resolutions. It didn’t take a genius to manipulate them in tantalizing detail if they put in the time and effort. But not the girl next door. Not the gritty, high-noise, low-resolution selfies taken in dimly lit rooms with smartphones. That’s what people wanted, and that’s what we specialized in.
People might be surprised to know how much these deep-pocketed perverts were willing to shell out. In the States, my clients were usually bosses who had filthy dreams about their employees or colleagues but wouldn’t risk dealing with harassment lawsuits. My service was also a hit among college professors obsessing over their undergrad students. But I would say sixty percent of my clients secretly wished they could have sex with their neighbors or their teenage kids.
There was a limit to how far I was willing to go. I pride myself on not doing children. Teenagers, sure. But children? I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror, had I superimposed those sweet, little faces onto naked pictures of other children, girls who hadn’t even had their periods yet.
I didn’t do older women either. It sickened me, seeing wrinkly faces of old people who were just waiting to die and should be left alone. And where was I supposed to get nude pictures to match their aging bodies? I didn’t do weird animal sex either. During our years in business, we only got two or three requests for those, but we did receive tons of requests for fake, gay porn. I always turned them down. I just couldn’t do it. Not that I have something against gay people. But seeing pictures of a dude humping another dude was just too much for me.
Jimmy mostly agreed about child pornography and weird animal sex. But he disagreed about the gay stuff. He felt there was a big enough market for us to expand and branch out in that direction. I told him I didn’t care if those men were willing to shell out more money. I told Jimmy he could find another Photoshop genius to do that. He wouldn’t. Our business relied on quality, and he wouldn’t think of hiring someone who was not up to the standards I set. Besides, I was already making huge sums of money, producing up to twenty doctored pictures a day, and the backlog was through the roof with commissions coming in by the hundreds each day. At least, it used to be.
My work gave me the chance to glance at the deepest, darkest, and filthiest part of the human mind, a side we all possess but wish to keep hidden. But the street-smart bigmouth who was Giacomo “Fat Jimmy” Grasso always had an answer for everything. Jimmy said we were doing these women a service, keeping them away from actually getting raped and molested by these twisted men. I doubted that we were. If anything, we were adding fuel to the fire. But Jimmy was right about one thing. These clients and their odd requests were indeed twisted.
But if they were wretched, then what am I? The man responsible for the fulfillment of such unholy desires.
The moment I stepped inside Tony’s Pasta House and Bar, the pretty girl cleaning and waiting the tables looked at me in surprise and horror. She gave me the establishment’s usual greeting straight from the restaurant’s employee manual. ‘Benvenuto,’ she said with little enthusiasm, slung the cleaning towel over her shoulder and handed me the menu. Her smile, delivered out of mere courtesy, was brief and insincere. She took a few steps back, avoiding any eye contact. Her eyes wandered as though she was searching for help, gazing at the rows of empty chairs in front of her, at the brick walls, painted black and grey, before fixing on the bartender who was too busy to notice.
She had every reason to be suspicious of me. I always tried to snap a picture of her with my cellphone every time I came, without her knowledge or permission. And one day my luck ran out and she caught me doing it. I pretended I was taking a selfie. She could have confronted me but she wasn’t sure. She’d never let her guard down since. But it was too late for her. I had all the photos I needed to produce fake nude pictures of her in every sex pose imaginable.
I was close to losing my patience, close to leaving the restaurant when Fat Jimmy finally came. The genuine look of fear in his eyes extinguished my anger at him for being almost two hours late.
‘Where have you been?’
‘Sorry, Dillen… I had to make sure we’re not being followed.’
‘Followed? Followed by whom?’
Fat Jimmy raised his index finger, signaling to me to wait. He was breathing heavily and seemed close to fainting from the hours spent circling round the block several times in distress and paranoia. He ordered some cold water, and after he finally drank it down he gave me the damning news. Our website was under attack, he said. At first, he suspected it was from a rival trying to take control of our business, but he soon discovered it was much worse.
Professor Harrison, Jimmy told me, was not really a professor, and Ms. Kate Lawson not a student. In fact, there was no such place as the University of Northern New Jersey. In fact, the turtleneck sweater-wearing, bespectacled, balding professor and his vivacious, globe-trotting student were not real people – mere characters created by people bent on exposing our wrongdoings: the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
I’d always felt there was something off about the two. The signs were obvious, yet I decided to ignore them. Professor Harrison’s social media profiles contained photos that appeared to be from another era, while Ms. Lawson, despite her youth, only started using Facebook two years ago.
Posing as both the client and the target, a team of agents were trying to collect evidence against us, Fat Jimmy said, and the doctored image of the woman I once believed to be Ms. Lawson was the last piece of the jigsaw puzzle they needed to start busting our operation and lock us away.
‘How long have they been onto us?’ I asked.
‘I’m not sure,’ Jimmy took a long, audible breath. ‘But we can’t take any chances. We need to disappear, Dillen. You have your ATM card witcha?’
‘Drain it. Take out every last penny and buy the first bus ticket outta here. Forget about your stuff back at the apartment. Just go as far as you can, as quick as you can. And make sure you keep your laptop safe.
‘Now remember. Don’t try to access the website. Don’t try to call me. Don’t use your credit card. Leave no fucking digital footprints around. Ditch your phone and get a new one at the next town. The dumbest phone you can find. And when you do, I want you to text this number and write ‘new phone’ and nothing else. Don’t give up your name or anything. OK?’ Jimmy handed over a written note. ‘I’ll call you once we’re clear, OK?’ Jimmy said. I nodded once more.
‘Stay safe, stay out of sight. Don’t let them catch you.’
‘You got it, Jimmy.’
End of Chapter One