I got past the reporters and paparazzi out front and drove back to my apartment. Jamie’s email was waiting on my laptop, containing an attachment with roughly 122 kabillion gigazots of data from Intertext/PR about BrandonX.
So I called Rachel. She’s my upstairs neighbor, a graphic designer who knows more about computers and the Internet than most MIT scientists. Plus, she’s kind of psychic. She also admits to being my girlfriend, at least some of the time.
“Allison Gentry? AG?” I could almost hear Rachel’s shriek from upstairs without the phone. “I hate her! I hate her music! I hate everything about her! Did you really meet her? What’s she like? Wait a minute, I’ll be right down.”
Two minutes later she was standing in my apartment. “What’s she like? What was she wearing? Did she have any of her hot male dancers around? All the details, Jurgen, now!”
“She’s got a shape-shifting stalker. And he killed someone today.” I told her the story. Leaving out the face-tingling kiss. Rachel sometimes gets territorial.
“Oh god.” She reached for my hand. “Are you okay?”
“Fine. I guess.” I squeezed. “Anyway, he may be related to an emailer named BrandonX. Her IT firm tracked him down, but it turns out he’s dead. Can you take a look at these files and tell me what they mean?” I forwarded them to her computer.
She opened her laptop on the other side of the table. “Get me a beer.”
I got two bottles of Heineken from the fridge and sat down. Rachel was hunched over, her hazelnut eyes glazed as she tapped at her computer as if we were playing Battleship against each other. I sipped my beer and got to work.
Mark Kirkenstock was easy to find, and I figured he’d be easier to get hold of than AG’s ex-husband Freddie. He was a carpenter in Naperville, married with three kids according to his website—which included his phone number. So I called him and left a message.
I looked over the top of my screen at Rachel. “Anything?”
“Well, it’s pretty solid that the mails came from an account owned by a guy named Brandon Toth. And I looked at them. They’re pretty disgusting.” She swallowed some beer. “It starts out relatively tame, just ‘I love you and I want your body’ sort of stuff. Then he starts sending pictures—some of her nudes that were leaked on the internet, and some dick pics Photoshopped on them. They stop around the time he died, and then they start up again, only now he starts demanding that she dedicate a song to him at one of her concerts, but he never says which one.” She shrugged. “This Intertext place did a good job, I have to say.”
I nodded. “Miley recommended them.”
Rachel rolled her eyes. “Yeah. She’d know.”
My phone buzzed. “Hang on—Hello, Tom Jurgen speaking.”
“Hi, this is Mark Kirkenstock, returning your call?” He sounded nervous. Lots of people do when a private investigator rings them up. “Am I being sued or something?”
“Not at all.” I tried to sound calm and reassuring. “I’m working for . . . let’s just say a celebrity right now. You can check out my website if you want to confirm that I’m legitimate.” Yes, I have a website. Rachel set it up for me. “Or we can meet in person.”
He hesitated. “I guess you can’t reveal your client’s name?”
“If it becomes necessary, I’ll check. I really just need to confirm a few facts. It would be a big help.”
“Well . . . okay, I guess. What do you want?”
“Can you tell me where you were last Wednesday?”
“Wednesday? I was . . . oh, yeah, I was working at a customer’s house all day, putting in new floors. Keisha Vaughn. I guess you can call her if you want. Hang on, here’s her number . . .”
“Thanks. All day?”
“Until six. Then I had to go to a school council meeting. I got home around 9:00. Lots of people were there. I think the minutes are posted on the school’s website. I’ve got three kids there, second grade, fourth grade, and kindergarten.” He sounded proud.
“Thank you.” I’d have to check out the details, but he didn’t sound as if he was hiding anything. “Now in high school, did you know a student named Brandon Toth?”
“Brandon . . .” He groaned. “Oh. I know what this is about. Allison Gentry, right?””
“I’m afraid I can’t confirm—”
“Brandon had a huge crush on Ally. Hell, a lot of us did. She was a cheerleader in those days, and she was pretty hot even then. I managed to get a date with her, but it didn’t go anywhere.” He chuckled. “But Brandon was a little . . . over the top.”
“In what way?”
“He wouldn’t talk to her or anything. He just sort of followed her around. Not like stalking, really. I don’t think she ever noticed. He’d rearrange his schedule so they had lunch at the same time, but he’d sit three tables away. That sort of thing.”
“Okay, before we go on, can I just tell you some things?” He didn’t sound angry. Just firm. “Brandon was a good guy. He took advanced algebra just so he could be in her class. He almost flunked, but Mr. Durr gave him some breaks. He wasn’t dumb, you know? He just didn’t know how to get a girl to go out with him.”
I was careful to keep my words neutral. “Have you been in contact with him since high school?”
“A few times. I think he was working at a bar the last time I saw him. That was about six months ago.” He paused. “You know he’s dead, right?”
“Yes. Can you tell me anything about his death?”
“Just what I read in the papers. A car accident? Four or five months ago. He was speeding, maybe drunk. That’s all I know, really. It’s not like we were close pals. We were just in a few classes together.”
“I don’t . . . No, wait, there was one weird thing.” He hesitated. “I thought I saw him on the street, but he didn’t recognize me, so I figured it was just a coincidence. That was before I heard about the accident.”
“All right.” So someone had taken over Brandon’s email account—and his face? “Thanks for your time, Mr. Kirkenstock.”
“Sure thing. And say hi to Ally for me, okay? I still remember her kiss goodnight, and that was nine years ago.”
My face still tingled from her kiss on my own cheek. “Without confirming or denying anything, I will attempt to pass that along.”
He laughed as he hung up.
Okay. I rubbed my eyes. “That was Kirkenstock. He was friends, sort of, with Brandon Toth.”
“But he’s dead. Is he a zombie or something?” Rachel shuddered. “I hate zombies.”
“Forget that for now. I need anything you can find on face-changing. The stalker, whoever he is, just changed his face and put on the guy’s jacket and necktie. That’s got to be a different kind of magic, right?”
“Get me another beer.” She drained her bottle. “Are you making dinner or ordering out?”
I brought two more beers, and then I called Keisha Vaughn, Kirkenstock’s customer last week, to confirm that he’d been in her house all day. I found the elementary school his kids went to, and checked that he was listed in attendance in the minutes of the school council meeting.
So he was out of it as a suspect. I hadn’t really suspected him of flying to New York just to get into AG’s mother’s apartment, but as the old reporter’s saying goes, if your mother says she loves you, check it out.
Rachel sifted through the files while I ran some searches on Brandon Toth. His car accident seemed legitimate. Like Kirkenstock had said, he’d been speeding when he hit a parked pickup truck at 2:30 in the morning, and police had found five empty beer cans in his car. He’d worked as a bartender, and before that at a grocery store. Unmarried, survived by his parents and a sister.
I didn’t want to call them. Not yet, and not unless I had to. I’d interviewed enough grieving family members as a reporter.
So I went to the website of AG’s Orland Park high school. The home page featured a wide image of the school, with students pouring in and out of the front doors. I scanned the links: faculty, programs, enrollment, volunteer . . . and a page featuring OUR MOST FAMOUS GRADUATE—ALLISON GENTRY! The headline sat above a photo of AG, about 17, in her cheerleading uniform, holding her pom-poms high with the same smile she flashed these days in all her videos and concerts.
A link called “History” took me to a website for high school yearbooks. I had to register as a student, but Rachel showed me a hack around that. Then I was scrolling down the pages, looking for Brandon, and Kirkenstock. And of course, Allison Gentry.
She showed up dozens of times, in classes and team photos—cheerleading squad, of course, but also the gymnastics team, choir, and a production of Brigadoon, in the chorus.
Rachel peered behind my shoulder. “Cute. Can you email me that cheerleading picture for my dartboard? I hate cheerleaders.”
“You don’t have a dartboard.”
She poked my back. “I’m thinking of getting one.”
I hit “save picture.” Then I found Mark in three photos: soccer team, science class, and in a cafeteria shot, next to a student identified in the caption as Brandon Toth.
Brandon showed up only in a single senior picture. He had bushy eyebrows and a long chin. The three-line profile next to his photo listed his interests: Partying, football, and music.
“So that’s BrandonX?” Rachel leaned down.
“Maybe. You know better than I do how easy it is to take over someone’s email account.” I didn’t want to jump to conclusions.
“Yeah, The stalking emails didn’t start coming until after his accident. I just wondered what he looked like.” She tilted her head. “Poor kid.”
“Yeah.” Whatever else was going on, he’d died too young. “Did you get anything on face changers?”
“Well, you know most of it by now.” Rachel leaned back, and I tried to keep my mind on business as she stretched her arms over her head. “Some shape shifters are just born that way, but they usually keep a low profile. There are potions that turn people into monsters, like that thing at the Tiger Club. By the way, do you ever hear from any of them?” Her hazelnut eyes narrowed waiting for my response.
Careful, Tom . . .“Uh, Alexa called me a few months ago to do a background check on a guy who wanted to invest in her new venue.” Alexa and her girlfriend—now her wife—were partners in various clubs around Chicago. “That’s it.”
Rachel smirked. “Anyway, doing a simple face change is easier. In some ways. You don’t need any hair or bodily fluids, just a good picture. But the illusion doesn’t last very long, and there are ways to break it up. Like a mirror. You can find the spells on the internet, but they’re complicated, like high-level algebra.”
Algebra. I’d almost flunked that subject in high school, but Kirkenstock had mentioned that Brandon took the class to be close to Allison Gentry. Did that connect?
Rachel closed her laptop. “I’m hungry. Are we going to eat?”
It was almost 7:30, and I was starving too. “I’ll make ravioli. Let me call my client.”
Jamie was calm. “So it’s not Mark? And Brandon is definitely out of it?”
“That’s how it seems.” I stirred oregano into the tomato sauce, the earplug from my phone dangling in my eyes. “I should say that Mark asked me to tell Allison that he still remembers her kiss.” A little basil . . .
Jamie giggled. “I’ll tell her. I think she’s sleeping now. I mean, in the suite. I’m downstairs.” As if she was afraid of starting a lesbian sex scandal for AG. Another one, anyway.
“So here’s the thing.” I grabbed the garlic. “I think I need to contact Brandon’s family to ask some questions. And keeping AG’s name out of it could be . . . complicated. I’ll do my best, but—”
“Yeah.” Jamie sighed. “I don’t know. I’ll have to ask her. And check with the rest of the PR staff. I mean, I’m sort of in charge right now, but I haven’t ever really handled something like this. Kaz was so confident, and I’m just . . . scared.”
“Look, I used to be a reporter.” I’d dealt with PR people all the time. “Just stick to the facts. If you don’t know what to say, just tell them—”
“Hey, don’t start mansplaining on me, okay?” Her voice shocked my eardrum. “God, I hate that. I know what I’m doing!”
“Sorry.” I backed away from the stove as the sauce bubbled. “I didn’t mean anything. Just tell me how I should proceed. That’s all.”
“Yeah.” She sighed again. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to bite your head off.”
“No problem.” Rachel’s fist had caused permanent bruises on my chest. Getting yelled at by a client? No comparison. “I’ll call you tomorrow.”
“Sounds good.” She hung up.
The newspapers and websites were on fire with Kaz’s murder the next morning. “Pop star’s assistant found dead in rehearsal facility,” was the headline on page three of the Chicago Tribune. “AG’s PR guy killed!” was on the front page of the Sun-Times. And “AG IN SHOCK AS TOP PR FLACK IS STABBED TO DEATH!” from the Daily Mail, right above a story about Lindsay Lohan cavorting on a yacht somewhere.
In other news, the new president was still talking about building his wall. I chugged some coffee and started hitting numbers on my phone.
I started with Brandon’s parents. His father answered. He listened to me for a moment, and then handed the phone over. His mother wept in my ear. “My son is dead! Don’t do this! I can’t . . .” She hung up.
I felt like garbage. I‘d had to do it when I was a reporter, but I’ve never liked it. I gulped more coffee, then gritted my teeth and called the other number I had. Brandon’s sister, Bridget.
She lived in Cincinnati. I left a message. Then I moved on to another case, an executive who was possibly embezzling money from his employer. I checked credit records, loans, real estate purchases, and everything else. Then my phone buzzed.
“This is Bridget Lane.” She sounded annoyed. “What is this about?”
“Thanks for calling me back.” I switched screens on my laptop. “Like I said in my message, I’m—”
“Yeah, I know.” Her voice was raspy. “My parents just called me about you. What do you want?”
“It’s about your brother Brandon. First, I’m very sorry for your—”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah.” I heard a flicking sound, if she was lighting up a cigarette. “Get with the questions.”
I tried to phrase it carefully. “There have been a series of emails from Brandon’s email address. Someone else might have sent them after his accident, but—”
“Oh, god, this is about Allison Gentry, right?” A bitter laugh. “God, he never got over that bitch.”
Okay, so much for being cautious. “Did you know her?”
“Sure, I saw her. I’m—I was two years older than Brandon. And I was a cheerleader too.” She coughed. “I remember Ally. I tried to tell him to forget her, but he wouldn’t listen. I even tried to set him up with some of my friends, but . . .”
She slowed down. “That doesn’t matter. He was doing good, you know? Not great grades, except in math, but enough to get by. He went to community college for a semester—business classes?—but then my parents kicked him out.”
Bridget sighed. “Dad wanted him to take over the business—he ran a hardware store, but Brandon didn’t care about it. He worked there for six months, and then he dropped out of college. He packed his clothes in plastic bags and left, and then he got a job in a grocery store.”
I tried to think through the timeline. Eight or nine years since they’d graduated from high school. “What happened after he moved out?”
“He stayed with me for a couple of weeks until my boyfriend got tired of it, but then Mr. Durr took him in for a few months.”
Wait—what? Kirkenstock had mentioned that name: Mr. Durr gave him some breaks. “The math teacher?”
“It wasn’t like that, if that’s what you’re thinking.” Bridget groaned. “Brandon sucked at math. He only took the class to be close to her. But Mr. Durr always paid attention to the kids who weren’t doing so good. Like Brandon. And you, know, Ally Gentry. I don’t know how she got through any math at all. If you know what I mean.”
“So what are you saying? That Allison Gentry and Mr. Durr, and maybe some other teachers—”
“I said it wasn’t like that!” She sounded ready to hang up on me. “Ally was a slut. Everyone knew how she was getting it on with half the football team, and there were rumors about how she got an A in chemistry. Even though the chemistry teacher was Mrs. Andrews.” She laughed. “But it was more like a father-son thing. Mr. Durr just let him stay at his place. He helped him get back on his feet, find a job, set up an email account, and helped Brandon get his own apartment after a couple of months. I visited Brandon there a few times—actually, I helped him move in, and I would have noticed if Mr. Durr was acting strange.”
“How did he act?”
“Fine. It was a nice place. Clean, lots of books. Not just Stephen King and crap like that. Books about math, and magic, some D&D manuals, that sort of stuff. Believe me, Brandon would have told me if anything weird was happening.”
Books on magic? I took a breath, but I didn’t want to go there with her. “What about Allison Gentry? Did Brandon try to keep in touch with her?”
“He was hard to talk to sometimes. But I went over to his place every few months, and he did have her posters over her walls, and played her music kind of nonstop until I told him to turn it off. Her first album, the one she won all the awards for? And then after she was on the MTV Awards, dancing with a tiger?” She coughed again. “We didn’t talk about it much. I thought he was starting to get it together, especially after he got that job bartending. Then . . .” She halted. “I can’t talk about this anymore. I’ve got to get back to work.”
“I’m sorry to bother you.” I felt bad, but it was part of the job. “You’ve been a big help.”
“I don’t want to help.” I heard her cigarette lighter flick. “My brother is dead. You and Allison Gentry can go to hell.”
You try not to let it get to you, but it still hurts. Not as much as a dead brother, though. I made a note to call mine. Then I drank another cup of coffee and looked at cat pictures on the internet for a while.
Then I looked up Mr. Durr.
Ryan Durr was retired. He’d taught math in the high school for 25 years. Divorced, one son. The son lived in Texas. His ex-wife lived in Arizona. She’d put a restraining order out on him seven years ago.
No social media profile, but that made sense for any teacher who wanted to avoid the appearance of impropriety.
But I had to talk to him. So I called Rachel.