Today's Reading

CHAPTER TWO
JAMES

The scrum of press photographers was already ten deep outside the Palais des Festivals on La Croisette by the time I arrived. I was late, as usual. Lucky for me, so was Grace Kelly. I'd already missed one chance to photograph her and I really couldn't afford to bugger things up again—if, indeed, it 'was' Grace Kelly I'd chased into the perfume shop yesterday. Thanks to Mademoiselle Duval I would never know for certain. I had to admire her, I suppose. If she'd really hidden a Hollywood star in the back of her poky little boutique she would have had quite the story to tell her friends over dinner. I wondered if she'd mentioned me at all.

I pulled one of her business cards from my jacket pocket. Sophie Duval, Parfumeur. Cannes. Grasse. Snooty, beautiful Sophie Duval. Infuriatingly French. And impossible to stop thinking about while the scent of her perfume lingered on the card. I returned it to my pocket and pushed my way through the mob, grateful for the gentle warmth of the afternoon sunshine after a morning of rain.

As I elbowed my way through the pack, I looked for Teddy Walsh. He'd promised to save me a space at the front as he always did. He was good to me that way. I might be late but I wasn't giving up a front-row view just because I'd overslept. A photo op like this—Cannes Film Festival, glamorous Hollywood stars—promised the opportunity to find something extra special through the lens and favors were being pulled in faster than the day's catch. We'd do pretty much anything for the best shot. Bribes. False promises. Tip-offs and spare film begged from here and borrowed from there. That's how it was in our line of work, and when a leading Hollywood actress was in town, the stakes rose even higher and our morals sank even lower.

I lifted my camera above my head and fired off a couple of speculative test shots of the crowd as I made my way forward. My eye was drawn to the contrast of the press pack's dark suits against the vivid blue sky. Colors and landscape were what really interested me. Celebrities, not so much. The fact was, I'd be much happier photographing the Riviera's cliffs and coves and terrifying switchback roads than I was photographing platinum blondes. But landscapes were for artists, and I was nothing but a hack, just a regular nine-to-five press photographer with bills to pay and an editor breathing down my neck. That was what kept me elbowing my way to the front, treading on toes. "Oi! Watch it, Henderson." "Get out of the way, Lanky." "Give a fella a chance, would you." I ignored their griping and insults. All I cared about, all any of us cared about, was the shot that would keep the boss happy and the paychecks rolling in. I'd had my last warning and Sanders was not the type to go back on his word. Cannes, or bust. That was the deal.

Pushing on into the crowd, I was surrounded by a wall of noise as flashbulbs were tested and film was loaded. Old friends greeted each other with a hearty slap on the back. The smell of tobacco clung to suit jackets and smoke wound from Gauloises cigarettes dangling from lips while busy hands fiddled with equipment. The familiar smell and the huddle of men sent me straight back to billets in Southampton as we waited to cross the Channel to the beaches of Normandy, but I pushed the memory away, like I always did, and moved on toward the front of the pack, the sickly sweet scent of cheap aftershave and brilliantine making my head throb.

Finally, I found Walsh. "Afternoon," I said, shoving in beside him, a barrage of complaints following from those behind. My height had never won me any friends.

"Jesus, Jim. You look bloody awful. What happened to you?"

I shrugged and grabbed Walsh's camera, peering into the back of the flash lamp. My face was peppered with day-old stubble and dark shadows lurked beneath my eyes. My shirt collar was creased. My leather jacket had seen better days. Teddy was right. I looked terrible. "Life happened to me, Teddy," I joked, handing his camera back to him. "You don't look too good yourself, I might add."

"It's this damned cough. It's keeping me awake at night."

"You should see someone about that. Or quit the smokes."

"Where've you been anyway?" Walsh mumbled, ignoring me, a cigarette dangling from his bottom lip as he adjusted the shutter speed on his camera. "She'll be here any minute."

"Phone call to Emily. It's her birthday. She wanted to tell me about her new chemistry set. I couldn't exactly hang up on her."

Teddy offered a sympathetic slap on the shoulder and that was all there was to say about it.

We swapped lenses and checked settings for range and lighting, aperture and framing, the usual routines done almost without thinking. Just as well since I was a little groggy after too much cheap 'vin rouge' last night. I didn't even like red wine but everything had felt better by the time I'd reached the end of the bottle. I could have done without the headache, but I didn't have time to think about it as a sleek, gunmetal-gray American sedan pulled up outside the venue.

Behind me, someone said, "This is it, boys! She's here." The car doors opened. The hunt was on. Flashbulbs went off like a ricochet of bullets. Pop! Pop! Pop! The cry went up all around me. "Miss Kelly! Miss Kelly! Grace! This way! Over here! Give us a wave! How are you finding 'France?"

Like trained animals, we all responded to the clicking, clattering, clamoring madness of the moment, all for the tantalizing possibility that she might—just might—turn in our direction and give us the shot.

Apart from Marilyn, Grace Kelly was the Hollywood star everyone wanted to capture. We'd all imagined what it would be like to see our picture on the front page of the Times, or the Washington Post. We'd all written our Pulitzer acceptance speeches in our heads. One perfect shot from the hundreds we took. One image captured on film, and our reputations—our careers and futures—could change instantly. It was the ridiculous simplicity of it that kept us showing up time and time again, even when our puce-cheeked editors tossed our latest efforts into the bin in a rage, and threatened us with one more chance, or we were toast. While I didn't enjoy the thrill of the chase like I once had, I couldn't easily give it up, either. Like a stalker hunting its prey, I was on high alert: eyes wide, ears pricked, hands as steady as iron rods as I held my camera, took aim, and pressed the shutter.


This excerpt is from the paperback edition.
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