SOMETIMES, IN THAT SPLIT SECOND when Ray Levine snapped a picture and lost the world in the strobe from his flashbulb, he saw the blood. He knew, of course, that it was only in his mind’s eye, but at times, like right now, the vision was so real he had to lower his camera and take a good hard look at the ground in front of him. That horrible moment—the moment Ray’s life changed completely, transforming him from a man with a future and aspirations into this Grade-A loser you see in front of you—never visited him in his dreams or when he sat alone in the dark. The devastating visions waited until he was wide-awake, surrounded by people, busy at what some might sarcastically dub work.
The visions mercifully faded as Ray continuously snapped pictures of the bar mitzvah boy.
“Look this way, Ira,” Ray shouted from behind his lens. “Who are you wearing? Is it true Jen and Angelina are still fighting over you?”
Someone kicked Ray’s shin. Someone else pushed him. Ray kept snapping pictures of Ira.
“Where is the after-party, Ira? What lucky girl is getting the first dance?”
Ira Edelstein frowned and shielded his face from the camera lens. Ray surged forward undaunted, snapping pictures from every angle. “Get out of the way!” someone shouted. Someone else pushed him. Ray tried to steady himself.
Snap, snap, snap.
“Damn paparazzi!” Ira shouted. “Can’t I have a moment of peace?”
Ray rolled his eyes. He did not back off. From behind his camera lens, the vision with the blood returned. He tried to shake it off, but it would not go. Ray kept his finger pressed down on the shutter. Ira the Bar Mitzvah Boy moved in a slow-motion strobe now.
“Parasites!” Ira screamed.
Ray wondered if it was possible to sink any lower.
Another kick to the shins gave Ray his answer: Nope.
Ira’s “bodyguard”—an enormous guy with a shaved head named Fester—swept Ray aside with a forearm the size of an oak. The sweep was with a bit too much gusto, nearly knocking him off his feet. Ray gave Fester a “what gives” look. Fester mouthed an apology.
Fester was Ray’s boss and friend and the owner of Celeb Experience: Paparazzi for Hire—which was just what it sounded like. Ray didn’t stalk celebrities hoping to get compromising shots to sell to tabloids like a real paparazzo. No, Ray was actually beneath that—Beatlemania to the Beatles—offering the “celebrity experience” to wannabes who were willing to pay. In short, clients, most with extreme self-esteem and probably erectile dysfunction issues, hired paparazzi to follow them around, snapping pictures to give them, per the brochure, the “ultimate celebrity experience with your very own exclusive paparazzi.”
Ray could sink lower, he supposed, but not without an extreme act of God.
The Edelsteins had purchased the A-List MegaPackage—two hours with three paparazzi, one bodyguard, one publicist, one boom-mike handler, all following around the “celebrity” and snapping pictures of him as though he were Charlie Sheen sneaking into a monastery. The A-List MegaPackage also came with a souvenir DVD for no extra charge, plus your face on one of those cheesy-fake gossip magazine covers with a custom-made headline.
The cost for the A-List MegaPackage?
To answer the obvious question: Yes, Ray hated himself.
Ira pushed past and disappeared into the ballroom. Ray lowered his camera and looked at his two fellow paparazzi. Neither one of them had the loser L tattooed on their forehead because, really, it would have been redundant.
Ray checked his watch. “Damn,” he said.
“We still have fifteen minutes on the clock.”
His colleagues—both barely bright enough to write their names in the dirt with a finger—groaned. Fifteen more minutes. That meant going inside and working the introduction. Ray hated that.
The bar mitzvah was being held at the Wingfield Manor, a ridiculously gauche banquet hall that, if scaled back a tad, could have doubled as one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces. There were chandeliers and mirrors and faux ivory and ornate woodwork and lots and lots of shimmering gold paint.
The image of the blood came back to him. He blinked it away.
The event was black-tie. The men looked worn and rich. The women looked well kept and surgically enhanced. Ray pushed through the crowds, wearing jeans, a wrinkled gray blazer, and black Chuck Taylor Hi-Tops. Several guests stared at him as though he’d just defecated on their salad fork.
There was an eighteen-piece band plus a “facilitator” who was supposed to encourage guest frolicking of all sorts. Think bad TV-game-show host. Think Muppets’ Guy Smiley. The facilitator grabbed the microphone and said, “Ladies and gentlemen,” in a voice reminiscent of a boxing ring announcer, “please welcome, for the first time since receiving the Torah and becoming a man, give it up for the one, the only… Ira Edelstein!”
Ira appeared with two… Ray wasn’t sure what the right terminology was but perhaps the best phrase would be “upscale strippers.” The two hot chicks escorted little Ira into the room by the cleavage. Ray got the camera ready and pushed forward, shaking his head. The kid was thirteen. If women who looked like that were ever that close to him when he was thirteen, he’d have an erection for a week.
The applause was rapturous. Ira gave the crowd a royal wave.
“Ira!” Ray called out. “Are these your new goddesses? Is it true you may be adding a third to your harem?”
“Please,” Ira said with a practiced whine, “I’m entitled to my privacy!”
Ray managed not to vomit. “But your public wants to know.”
Fester the Sunglassed Bodyguard put a large mitt on Ray, allowing Ira to brush past him. Ray snapped, making sure the flash worked its magic. The band exploded—when did weddings and bar mitzvahs start playing music at a rock-stadium decibel?—into the new celebration anthem “Club Can’t Handle Me.” Ira dirty-danced with the two hired helpers. Then his thirteen-year-old friends joined in, crowding the dance floor, jumping straight up and down like pogo sticks. Ray “fought” through Fester, snapped some more pictures, checked his watch.
One more minute on the clock.
Another kick to the shins from some little cretin.
“Ow, damn it, that hurt!”
The cretin scurried away. Note to self, Ray thought: Start wearing shin guards. He looked over at Fester as though begging for mercy. Fester let him off the hook with a head gesture to follow him toward the corner. The corner was too loud so they slipped through the doors.