"The Kill Fee": a new short story by Ian Rankin

A dark look at reality TV from the award-winning Rebus author.

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Seven words.

That was all it took to change her world. She stood on the stage, mouth dry, sweat tingling the roots of her hair, her dress tight yet flimsy, legs all but shaking as her heart pounded. It was between her and Alexov. One was going home, and one back into the house. Three had already been chosen. They were backstage, doing their interviews and hugging their loved ones. The judges were in a row, facing the stage. Behind them sat the baying audience. She heard her rival’s name coming from his fans in the auditorium. Whoops and whistles and jeers. The host, lovely Diarmud, who everyone just wanted to take home, had the rectangular card in one hand, golden mike in the other. But he was drawing the moment out. Cameras were being positioned. The lights were blinding her. She felt she might faint as she expelled air and sucked it in again. The five judges already knew, but their faces were unreadable. Right in the middle sat Oliver Delphy – the Delphy Oracle. He owned the show’s franchise, and a string of nightclubs and hotels. He had his own private jet, yacht and helicopter. She had done her research back at the start. A friend had remarked that she even looked a bit like him – not that she was to take that the wrong way. She didn’t. She played on it instead, as did the tabloids. He wasn’t making eye contact now though. All flirting and teasing had been postponed. This was important. This was life and death.

“You know the media are saying we look similar?” Oliver had asked during one of the live shows. She had nodded. The same hazel eyes and black hair, the same facial shape, similar height and slim build.

“Just to reassure the general public,” he had gone on, “we’re not related, are we?”

She had shaken her head.

Then another of the judges had leaned forward. “Maybe if you lopped off that lovely long hair of yours, Kathryn – not that I’m suggesting you do . . .”

She’d actually wondered. Actually considered . . .

Diarmud cleared his throat. She could sense all the workers on the show gathering in the wings, just out of view of the cameras. Oliver Delphy had his hands pressed together, his eyes fixed on the floor in front of him.

And then Diarmud finally spoke.

“You’re a Celeb In Waiting . . . Kathryn Appleby!”

She felt her balance begin to go, but Alexov was holding her up, arms around her as he pecked the side of her face and whispered a blasphemy into her ear. And now her mother and sister were tottering on to the stage in their heels, and the audience was cheering a bit louder than it was booing.

Seven words. Seven words, and she was through to the final four. She really was a celebrity in waiting.

****

Celeb In Waiting was on its fifth series. ­Ratings had fallen a bit but it was still the biggest draw on Saturday-evening TV, and the tabloids, gossip mags, blogs and websites couldn’t get enough of it. Kathryn had entered once before, failing at the audition stage. She’d been advised to gain a bit more experience and confidence, and “bring the charisma”. This year, after passing the audition, they had played the recording of her first attempt, asking her for her feelings about it.

“I learned from the experience,” she said dutifully. “I went away and knew Oliver was right. I thought of his words every day, so whether he knew it or not, he really was mentoring me from all that distance.”

After passing this year’s audition, she was taken on by a talent manager called Thelma Brennan who only charged a twenty-two per cent cut. There were lots of contracts to sign, once they’d been scrutinised by Kathryn’s mother.

“Your daughter has the makings of a true star,” Thelma Brennan had assured Mrs Appleby. “We’re talking millions. But more than that, we’re talking longevity – longevity is key.”

Her backstory helped, of course, her father having drowned while saving her after she’d been swept out to sea on a lilo. She’d been eleven, and her sister Myrna had alerted her dozing parents. Their father wasn’t a great swimmer, but the lunchtime wine had emboldened him. Photographs of him had been handed over and were used on the show whenever the opportunity arose.

“He’d be proud of you,” Diarmud had said during one interview, eyes sparkling. “If he’s looking down right now, is there anything you’d like to say to him?”

She had answered well, having been prepped by her manager. A voice coach had also been hired, just to make sure she was primed for entering the house. The house was in a leafy suburb of west London, cameras and microphones catching every interaction, only the bathroom left as refuge, and even there microphones lurked. There had been twelve of them to start with. Not all were singers like Kathryn. Alexov was an actor and model. Cheyanne (nicknamed Not-So-Shy Anne by the papers, after an ex-boyfriend sold them some private photos) was a DJ. Scotty was a dancer and ­model, but did some rapping, too. “The multi-culture needs multi-talent,” he had told one interviewer, a phrase he now repeated like a mantra.

Cheyanne and Scotty were through to the final, as was Denton. Denton was a film-maker and had been given special dispensation to take his phone into the house with him – not for calls (these had been disabled) but so he could keep filming. Along with Kathryn, these comprised the final four. It was weird how quiet the house felt when they returned to it that evening of the eviction. Twelve reduced to four. In the short run-up to Christmas, one would be hacked away by public vote, leaving three on Christmas Eve for the live final, played out once more in a packed theatre with the judges having final say.

“Whatever happens, you’re a winner,” Thelma Brennan had said, taking Kathryn by both hands and squeezing them. “And you’re Oliver’s favourite – everyone can see that. Oliver’s got you in mind . . .”

****

Which maybe explained why the viewers voted her out at the first opportunity.

“Oliver Delphy,” her mother explained, “is widely respected but not at all loved.”

These words and many others washed over Kathryn as she sobbed. She wasn’t sure she would ever stop crying. Her sister Myrna was crying, too, as the three of them sat in the anonymous black people-carrier. She had left the house completely alone, after the usual hugs from those relieved to see her go. No crowds outside, just a walk down the steps and along the path to the gate, the one kept locked and under camera surveillance. It buzzed to tell her she must go. And for a moment she thought of refusing, but her mother and sister were waiting at the car, having been alerted of the tele­phone vote. All three were to head to a studio where Diarmud would interview them. Oliver Delphy would not be there.

“Mr Sutcliffe texted to say your job’s still waiting,” Kathryn’s mother was saying.

Great. Her office job. Where she would be paraded by the bosses for a few weeks until fame faded.

“Where’s Thelma?” she asked.

“At some do she couldn’t get out of,” Myrna stated, checking her make-up.

“But she knows?”

“She knows.”

Kathryn’s mother produced her phone from her handbag and handed it over.

“Dozens and dozens of messages,” she said. “I’m glad to be rid of it.”

Kathryn gripped it and felt it vibrate. THELMA on the screen. She pressed it to her ear.

“I’m sorry,” she said.

“Not your fault, darling. Of course, I’m gutted for you – best of the bloody bunch by a country mile. But it does mean we have to act fast to maximise your newsiness, if you see what I mean. Club nights, boutique openings, some reveal-all interviews . . .”

“What about the autobiography?” Kathryn asked, remembering one of the contracts.

There was the sound of air being sucked through teeth. “Obviously that was conditional on you winning the show,” Thelma Brennan explained. “But we still have the kill fee.”

“The what?”

“The kill fee, darling. It’s a clause that means you still get some loot from the publisher.”

Kathryn dabbed a finger against the screen, ending the call. She couldn’t see much of the city. Just a road choked with traffic, lined by 1930s houses. She was going to have to put on her brave face for Diar­mud. It was either that or let the audience win. She knew she wouldn’t be able to walk down a street or into a club or bar without wondering how many had voted her off. Myrna, still studying her face in the screen of her phone . . . Myrna had always been jealous of her voice and looks, had told her not to enter a second time – “Just more humiliation, sis.” Had Myrna voted her out? And the people in her office, the older women and the leering men. The waiter she’d bad-mouthed in the wine bar that time . . . the kids from school who hadn’t been allowed into her particular group . . . her Uncle Tommy, who had always silently blamed her (rather than the all-inclusive lunch wine) for the drowning . . .

All of them getting their revenge. How many phone calls and internet clicks? How much was she now a figure of fun, a figure of hate?

“I miss the house,” she muttered, slumping into her seat.

“Wankers, the lot of them,” her mother advised. “Plotting against you behind your  back . . .”

“What?”

“Whenever you weren’t in the same room as them. I wanted to throw something at the TV.”

Myrna nodded her slow agreement, saying nothing.

“You’re well shot of them,” Kathryn’s mother said. “Trust me.”

Seven words. Seven words that changed everything.

You’re well shot of them – trust me.

But we still have the kill fee . . .

****

Oliver Delphy sat alone in a booth at his ­favourite restaurant. He had a twelve per cent share in the place because he liked the chef. His booth was always made available. It sat by the rear wall, so he could dine without feeling eyes and phones on him. His own phones – three of them – sat on the white linen in front of him. He had eaten a main-course salad while listening to a couple of advisers, who had since been advised to head elsewhere, leaving Delphy with his thoughts. The texts and emails kept coming, as did the calls, only a select few of which he deigned to answer. Celeb In Waiting USA was not performing. Halfway through its third season, ratings were falling off a cliff. His producers were discussing “firm measures”. They wanted to inject the show with the equivalent of anabolic steroids – manufacture some scandal, find some dirt on the remaining contestants and leak it to friendly gossip-mongers.

“We’re supposed to be discovering superstars, not sabotaging them,” Delphy had complained. But he was tired. Life was taking its toll. So he had eventually agreed that they could “proceed with caution”. Using another phone, he had then called the studio where watch was kept on the London house day and night. It was 23 December, the eve of the grand final. The public seemed to want Scotty to win, but Delphy had made it clear to his fellow judges that his own strong preference would be for Cheyanne. DJs filled large venues; dancers were a tougher sell. Plus there was something about her – maybe a future in acting.

And Delphy knew from experience that he could work with her manager.

Tessa Moray had drawn the short straw and was working the late shift. She answered, and he asked her how things were shaping up in the house.

“They’re nervous, just as you’d expect,” she reported. “Nobody’s screaming or throwing punches yet.”

“How many are tuning in to the live feed?”

“Hang on, I’ll ask Andy . . .”

Andy was another of the team. There would be just the two of them in the portable studio. But it was heated and boasted its own kitchen and toilet/shower. Delphy prided himself on looking after the staff he really needed.

“Andy says six hundred and twelve thousand.”

“Worldwide?”

“Worldwide.”

“Not great.”

“It is the night before Christmas Eve – a lot of people will be partying.”

“It’s also the last night in the house. Traffic should be peaking.”

“We’ve got three nice, well-behaved young people. You want me to go in there with a cattle-prod?”

“Would you do it if I asked?”

“You know I would.”

Delphy smiled tiredly, rubbing his forehead. Yes, he knew. So he ended the call and sipped from his glass of mineral water. His health clubs were going to post a loss this year. He was being “invited” to plough more money in, to stop members drifting elsewhere. Better machines and facilities, none of it cheap. One of his business rivals had just launched a yacht twice the size of his, absolute state-of-the-art. It had featured in all the glossies and the Sundays. Whoever was doing the PR, Delphy could do with them on his team. He made a note to that effect on his phone, forwarding it to his PA. She would be at home, wrapping presents. He had given her the evening off for just that purpose, since Christmas Eve would be hectic. After the live result, there’d be a slew of interviews and negotiations, followed by a huge party on the
stage of the theatre, once the audience had been kicked out. Delphy thought of his hotels, one in particular. He imagined himself lying on the bed in its Mansion Suite. Soft music playing, the lights dimmed, champagne nearby.

One of these days, he promised himself . . .

He slid out from the booth, straightening his jacket. At the next table over, his two bodyguards were enjoying the cheese platter – another perk of being staff he really needed.

“Going for a slash,” he informed them.

“Want us to . . . ?”

He stared down at the shaved head. “You offering to hold my dick for me, Lawrence? I think I can manage.”

Plenty of uplighting in the marble-walled toilet, plus luxury hand-wash and a pile of folded cotton towelettes. Delphy stood facing the urinal, emptying his mind along with his bladder. He was zipping up when he heard the door behind him swoosh open. Turning, he thought he was looking into a distorting mirror, but then he recognised the figure.

“What have you done to your hair?”

“Cut it myself,” Kathryn Appleby said. “Couldn’t risk asking a hairdresser.”

“The paps will have a field day. Remember Britney?”

Kathryn was studying her handiwork in the mirror. “Don’t you think I look more like you than ever?”

“Bit late for a homage, darling – not that I’m not flattered.” Delphy had half-turned from her. Waving his hand under a faucet, the water gushed immediately, a pink glow against the sink telling him it was warm rather than freezing or scalding. “So what can I do for you, Kathryn? Thelma Brennan looking after your interests, is she? Plenty for you to do out there.”

“I know. I just wanted to thank you in person, seeing how I can’t get through on the phone.”

“Big day tomorrow – you know you’re on  the guest list?”

“Yes.”

Delphy shook his hands free of water and reached for a towel.

“Plus I wanted to give you something,” he heard Kathryn say . . .

****

“Is the temperature dropping again?” Tessa Moray asked.

“Bloody thermostat,” her colleague Andy complained. “Cuts out at 22 and doesn’t kick in again till it drops below 19. I thought you were going to have a word.”

“Has to be done in writing. I have written.”

“Whiff from the toilet, too – when was the last time it was emptied?”

“Show finishes tomorrow.” Tessa was watching two monitors at once, both feeding images from the kitchen where the three would-be “celebs” were seated around a table still strewn with dishes from dinner. They were drinking wine and speaking in the usual platitudes. Both Tessa and Andy wore headphones, but only over one ear, so they could keep up a conversation.

“I’m bored to tears this year,” Andy commented.

“You mean you weren’t last year?”

“At least we had the punch-up and the duvet snog. They all know the drill too well by now. They all behave.” He leaned forward a little in his chair. “Hang on . . . what’s this, though?”

Tessa already had it: camera 14. It was aimed at the front gate, and someone had arrived there.

“Bloody Santa Claus,” Andy snorted. “Bit early, isn’t he?”

Tessa was zooming in on the red costume and the empty-looking sack.

“It’s not Oliver, is it?” Andy queried.

“Sort of stunt he’d pull,” Tessa agreed. “But why not say anything when he phoned?”

“Well, Santa’s got a swipe-card, so we’ll soon know.”

Only senior members of the team had the card that would unlock the gate. Tessa watched as it swung open. The name DELPHY appeared on the monitor.

“There we have it,” Andy said. The phone on the desk started to ring as Santa approached the front door and pushed the bell. Andy reached for the phone distractedly.

“Tell them to sod off,” Tessa advised. Camera 12 was giving her another look, and she made sure she was getting everything on the hard drive. She turned up the volume on her headset and watched the three housemates jog towards the door.

“You what?” Andy was saying into the phone. “Bloody hell.”

“Talk to me,” Tessa told him, as Santa was admitted to the house with squeals and laughter. The hood was lifted, tossed to the floor. The beard pulled down. Just for a second, it looked like him, but it wasn’t.

“It’s bloody Kathryn,” Tessa muttered. “What the hell’s she done to her hair?”

Andy was holding the phone in front of him. “Oliver’s been mugged. He’s in A&E. His wallet’s missing.”

The housemates seemed bemused by Kathryn’s appearance in their midst. They were full of questions as well as drink. ­Scotty was running a hand through her hair, teasing her. Kathryn was asking Denton where his camera was.

“You’re going to want to capture this,” she was telling him.

So they all headed back towards the kitchen, the white, white kitchen. But Kathryn had paused. She was staring up at camera 10.

“I’ll call the cops,” Andy was saying.

“Of course,” Tessa drawled. “But let’s make sure we get this first.” The screen showing the internet feed was filling with comments from those watching. So many exclamations and emojis. So many tweets.

Tessa zoomed in on Kathryn’s face as she reached into Santa’s sack, the sack that wasn’t quite empty.

Then her voice, coming loud and clear through the headset, streamed on to computers and phones all around the globe.

“It’s not really my fault, you know. I got a kill fee, that’s all. And it’s time I started to earn it . . .” 

Ian Rankin’s 20th Inspector Rebus novel, “Even Dogs in the Wild”, is newly published by Orion

This article first appeared in the 17 December 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special