Saturday, February 4, 2017
I usually meet clients in coffee shops and diners, sometimes their houses. But this was the first time I’d met an international pop star in her dressing room.
Allison Gentry—known her 21 million Twitter followers as AG—was one of the biggest singing sensations in the world. Failed marriages? Check. Drug rehab? Check. Internet feuds with Kanye, Nikki, and Britney? Check. Nude photos on the internet? Yeah, I checked those out too.
But lots of money to write a lowly private detective a check for whatever she wanted to hire me for? Yeah. I’ve got an internet bill to pay.
AG was in rehearsals for a concert in her “Coming Home” tour at the United Center in Chicago tomorrow night. Today she and her crew were working at a gym up in Northbrook. I’d had to fight with the security guards at the front door, after battling my way through a horde of paparazzi hoping for a shot of AG walking in or out. Fortunately they didn’t find a 40ish guy in a blue windbreaker worthy of their attention.
So I was waiting in a dressing room that looked like a hotel suite—long couches, a mini-fridge, a big-screen TV in one corner. The music boomed under my feet.
I checked my phone for messages. Deleted the spam. Texted Rachel: “Hi, I’m waiting for my client, how’s your day going?”
She texted me back a minute later. “Boring. Any hot half-naked male dancers hanging around?”
The music had stopped. I was in the middle of a response when the door opened and—
Allison Gentry marched into the dressing room like she was in a hurry to a more important meeting. She wore skintight yoga pants and a loose red tank top, her long blond hair tied back. “Goddamn it, why can’t they find me some dancers who know what they’re doing? It’s tomorrow night, and we’re still working out the moves? I don’t believe—”
Then she stopped, staring at me. “Kaz? Who the hell is this?”
I stood up. The guy who followed her into the room wore a dark jacket and a thin red necktie hanging loose around a black T-shirt. “AG, this is Tom Jurgen. The private detective?” He turned to me, looking nervous. Hi. Kaz Peters. We talked yesterday? I’m on AG’s PR team.”
“Sorry.” AG collapsed in a chair, catching her breath. “Kaz, can you get me some water? And where’s my phone? I need a salad. Dressing on the side.” Her voice was high-pitched and squeaky, but her throat sounded hoarse.
“Got it.” Kaz grabbed a water bottle from the mini-fridge, dropped a cell phone on the table in front of her, and went for the door. “Anything for you, Jurgen?”
“I’m, uh, fine, thanks.” I sat back down. I’ve met some minor celebrities—football heroes and local actors—but never anyone who’d been named Maxim magazine’s No. 2 hottest female celebrity (Katy Perry was No. 1). “Nice to meet you, Ms. Gentry.”
“It’s Allison.” She gulped down half the water. “Thanks for coming.”
I perched on the edge of the couch. “So what can I do for you?”
She groaned. “I’ve got this stalker.”
Hundreds of them, probably. “Don’t take this wrong, but don’t you have security for that kind of problem?”
“Yeah.” She ran her hands over her face. “But Kaz said you handle—weird shit. Like people who can change their faces?”
Of course. “Well, I’ve dealt with shape shifters, vampires, ghosts, zombies, and even the occasional workers comp case where the employee in question wasn’t actually faking an injury.”
AG giggled. Then she gulped some more water. “About a year ago I started getting these emails from a guy named BrandonX. At first it was just the standard pervert stuff, so I sent them to Intertext/PR—they handle my IT stuff. Miley suggested them.”
Miley? I didn’t ask. “What did they find out?”
“They were coming from an email account owned by a guy named Brandon Toth. He actually went to my high school—I mean, I went to high school in Orland Park, and we graduated the same year, but I don’t remember him. Anyway, they stopped for a while, and then about four months ago they started up again. The thing is—” She took another long drink. “He’s dead. A car accident. A month before the emails started coming.”
“Someone could have just taken over his account.”
“Yeah, but . . .” She rubbed her forehead. “Okay, this is where it gets weird?”
I shrugged. “Well, like you said, I handle weird shit.”
She giggled. “Anyway—”
The door opened. Kaz walked in. “Hey, AG, you need anything?”
She blinked. “Yeah, I said I wanted a salad. Dressing on the side, like always.”
I’m not exactly Sherlock Holmes, but I try to notice details. Like the fact that Kaz was wearing the same dark jacket as before, but now his necktie was knotted tight around the collar of a white shirt.
People who can change their faces . . .
I stood up again. “Hi. I’m . . . Pete Cogburn.”
He held out his hand. “Hi, Pete. Nice to meet you.”
“Oh shit.” AG lunged for her phone.
“Kaz” suddenly darted forward. I didn’t quite block him, but I managed to give him a shove that sent him stumbling against a chair. “You son of a—”
AG pounded her phone. “Update! Update! Come on, hurry!”
I shifted around, trying to stay between them even though every instinct in my body told me to hide behind a couch and call my mother. “Slow down, Brandon.” I tried to keep my voice low and calm. “Are you Brandon? You’re not Kaz. How do you do that?”
“Bitch!” He jabbed a finger at AG. “Slut! Sing it for me! You know you want to sing it!”
Then a security guard ran through the door, brandishing a heavy black baton. The stalker swung around, laughing, and somehow ducked down and then rammed a fist into his stomach, strong enough to force a grunt from him. And fast enough to run through the door.
The guard cursed, straightened up, and ran after him.
I looked at AG. My chest was pounding. “Was that . . .?”
She dropped her phone on the floor and leaned down, her head between her knees. “Oh god, oh god, oh god . . .”
Chasing the fake Kaz would only add to the confusion. So I crouched next to her and picked up her water bottle. “Here.”
“Th-thanks.” She sat up and grasped the bottle, her shoulders twitching. “Okay, you saw that? This is where it gets—oh, no . . .”
Kaz was dead. They found him in a stairwell with a broken skull.
The cops found his jacket and necktie in the parking lot. The stalker, whoever he was, had gotten away. The ability to change his face probably had something to do with it.
AG’s afternoon rehearsal was cancelled.
We met again in an office overlooking the gym floor. Allison Gentry was dressed—slacks and a blue T-shirt—and she was drinking more water. “Oh my god.”
“C-can I get you anything, AG?” Jamie Yamada was in her 20s, an Asian woman who had apparently been Kaz’s assistant. Her eyes were bleary and bloodshot.
AG threw her bottle on the floor. “Just some more water.”
I leaned against the window and folded my arms, mostly to keep them from shaking. I’d seen Kaz’s body.
After a moment I said, “Maybe you should tell me the rest of it. Unless you’ve changed your mind about hiring me, I mean.”
“Oh no.” She took the bottle from Jamie and twisted it open. “Okay, this was about a month ago, in Miami? I’m doing a residency at a club there, and one night after the show I’m back in my dressing room with a couple of friends, and there’s a knock on my door. The guard says it’s my ex-husband. Freddie?” She made a face. “I thought it was strange, but anyway, I said let him in. So he comes in, and it’s Freddie, but he doesn’t really say much, just says he liked the show and wished I’d sing a song for him, and then he tries to kiss me.”
Another grimace. “But there are people there, so after a few minutes he leaves. And I still think it’s strange, so I send a text. It turns out he’s in Las Vegas! He sends me a picture in front of a casino with his latest bimbo—I mean, girlfriend?” She tittered. Then her head dropped down. “Sorry. But it was so weird, I didn’t even think about it.”
Lots of people ignore strange happenings—until they can’t anymore. “So what else?”
“Then last Wednesday I was in New York. Staying with my mother.” She ran her hands over her hair, still pulled back in a tight ponytail. “She has an apartment in Brooklyn. I like to visit her when I have a few days between shows. Anyway, we ordered Thai food, and then the doorman buzzed. A minute later there’s a knock, and when I open the door, it’s . . . this guy from high school. Mark Kirkenstock.”
AG laughed. “We went on a few dates. Movies, nothing serious.” Then her face got serious again. “But he’s standing there, saying ‘Hi, do you remember me?’ And I don’t know what to do. I don’t have any bodyguards around. So I keep my hand on the door. I’m like, ‘Hi, Mark, what are you doing here?’ And he’s like, ‘I just wanted to see you.’“ She shuddered.
“Okay.” I didn’t know what else to say.
“He tried to push through the door.” AG clenched her hands. “But I pushed back, and it hit his face. Then he’s screaming. Calling me a fucking whore, and a dirty little piece of . . .’” She closed her eyes. “But then he said, ‘Sing it for me! Sing it right now, like you want to!’” She glared at me, like it was somehow my fault.
I gave her some slack. It had been a tough day for her.
She took a breath. “My mom screamed, and he ran away. The Thai food guy came two minutes later. We called the cops, but they couldn’t find the guy. My mom yelled at the doorman and I think she got him fired, but it probably wasn’t his fault.”
AG stood up and started to pace. “That was last week. And now today? Kaz is dead, but all I can think about is I’ve lost half a day of rehearsal. And I know I’m supposed to say I don’t care what happens to me. But I’m scared.”
Jamie brought her another bottle of water. “Your safety is what’s important. Don’t worry about other people. We’ve got lots of help for that.”
“Yeah.” AG took the water and looked at me. “So, can you help?”
I straightened up from my perch at the window. “Can you send me everything you’ve got on BrandonX from this InterTech place?”
“Sure.” Jamie picked up an iPad and started pressing the screen. “What’s your email address?”
I handed her my card. “Right there. Call or email me with anything.”
AG put a hand on my arm, and then stood on her toes to kiss my cheek. “Thank you.”
I managed to keep my feet on the floor. “No problem. I’ll be in touch.”
“Jamie?” AG slumped down on the couch again, exhausted. “Make sure to get a retainer check to Tom?” She closed her eyes. “And maybe a salad for me.”
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.
“You think he’s involved?” Rachel sipped her coffee as I veered around a huge truck on the highway.
Like I said, Rachel’s kind of psychic. She can’t predict the lottery, but she can sense when something’s not exactly right. I needed her to read Durr.
“He knew Brandon, and Brandon’s at the middle of this.” I hit my horn. “Of course, he’s dead, so I could be wasting gas. But I think AG can pay for it.”
Rachel leaned back. “Do I get to meet her at some point?”
“You want an autograph? I thought you hated her.”
“I don’t get to meet that many celebrities.” She closed her eyes. “Wake me when we’re there. I didn’t get much sleep last night.”
Ryan Durr lived in a split-level in a cul-de-sac in Orland Park, AG’s home town. The house was surrounded by a big yard, half covered in damp snow. A blue Miata sat in the driveway. Rachel and I climbed the front steps to a narrow wooden deck, and I rang the doorbell.
After thirty seconds, the door pulled back and Durr peered through the screen. “Hello. Who are you?”
“Mr. Durr?” I held out my business card. “I’m Tom Jurgen. We talked on the phone? This is my associate Rachel. May we come in?”
Rachel waved her fingers at him and smiled. She was wearing her leather jacket and boots. That usually turned most men to mush. Including me.
He just glanced between the two of us. A big man with white hair, taller than me. Durr was soft in the belly, but his arms were probably still strong enough to throw me over the rail.
He shook his head. “No, you can’t come in.” He stepped through the door and let it slam behind him as stepped out onto the deck. “What’s this all about?”
Okay. “Like I said on the phone, I’m working on a case involving some students at the high school where you used to teach. Could we talk for a few minutes?”
He yanked my card and stared at it. “Which students?”
“Could I show you some pictures?” I pulled my phone from my windbreaker.
A picture of Brandon Toth might have spooked him. So I showed him an image of Mark Kirkenstock.
Durr leaned forward. “Maybe. He looks familiar.”
Then I showed him a picture of Kaz Peters.
His eyes flickered registered a mixture of surprise and recognition. “Who’s this?”
“Someone else involved in the case. How about . . .” I tapped for a photo of Brandon Toth.
Durr looked past the phone at me. “I know what this is about. Allison Gentry.”
“She is sort of famous.” I didn’t want to confirm or deny that AG was involved, but we’d all agreed on a quick call this morning that we probably couldn’t keep her name completely out of it. “She was in some of your classes, right?”
“Of course I remember her.” He laughed bitterly. “All the boys had a crush on her. Hell, some of the teachers, too. She did just enough to get by in class, but was always out in front at the basketball and football games, shaking her butt at everyone. Now she’s the biggest singer in the world.” He glared at me. “What is this about?”
“Do you know if Brandon was stalking her on the internet? Do you know whether—”
“Listen, Brandon was a good kid.” Durr leaned forward, looming over me. “I liked all my kids. Not just the straight A students. But Ally just ignored him, like she ignored everyone except the jocks and the wrestlers and . . . everyone else. And now he’s dead!” His voice shook. “It shouldn’t have happened to him.”
I nodded. “I get that.”
“Good. Now get out.” He turned and yanked the screen door. I heard the lock click inside.
Walking down the steps, I glanced at Rachel. “So?”
“Oh yeah. It’s him.” She shivered in her jacket. “That first look at Kaz did it. The rest was all ‘I hate Allison Gentry.’ I was ready to get out my pepper spray.” She nudged my arm. “Nobody hits you but me.”
That was the second nicest thing she’d ever said to me. “So what about Brandon?”
“That’s . . . I don’t know.” She opened the door on my Honda. “Strong feelings, but you don’t actually have to be psychic to get that. But I don’t think there was anything pervy about it. More like fatherly—times ten.”
“Teachers have their favorites, I guess.” I clicked my seatbelt and shifted to reverse, looking up at the house.
Durr was watching us from his kitchen window.
Rachel got to meet Allison Gentry at dinner at 9:30 that night in a corner of the Signature Room, high in the John Hancock Center. The window looked out over Lake Michigan, and I could see lights from a few boats bouncing on the water. Jamie sat with us, and a big African-American bodyguard named Raymond sat a few tables away.
AG poked at her salad. “So it’s Mr. Durr? He always was a little creepy. Rubbing your shoulders and stuff. Some of the girls complained, but nothing ever happened.” She gulped some sparkling water. “Jerk.”
“This just sounds like science fiction.” Jamie stabbed a knife into her filet mignon. “Face changers and body shifters? How can he do that?”
“Different ways.” I was eating tilapia with just enough cilantro. “Rachel and I have some experience with this sort of thing. She’s sort of psychic.”
“Really?” AG leaned forward. “Hey, I had an aunt like that. She always knew who was on the phone before she answered it, and she never got caller ID.”
“It’s something like that.” Rachel kicked me under the table. “But Tom’s right. About the face-changing, anyway.”
I was going to get punished later. For now, I stopped talking because Raymond was coming up behind Jamie. Except it wasn’t Raymond. Because Raymond was still at his table, sipping water.
“Uh, AG?” He leaned down. “You got a minute?”
I waved a hand. “Hang on—”
AG scooted her chair back. “What’s the upgrade, Ray?”
“What?” The other Raymond—the real Raymond, sitting at his table—shot to his feet. “Hey! You!”
AG jumped up. “Get away from me. Right now.”
“Not a chance.” Raymond—not Raymond—pulled his lips back in a demonic smile. “Time for you to sing, bitch.”
AG jumped back, pressing her body against the window. “No . . . no . . .”
I looked at Rachel. She had her hands over her ears as if trying to hear something far, far away.
“Raymond” grabbed Jamie’s steak knife and waved it at AG’s face. “You will do it, you little whore! You will!”
Then the real Raymond came charging across the floor. Durr—it had to be him—ducked down and twisted around. His arm swept up, jabbing the knife into Raymond’s stomach.
Raymond dropped back, clutching his gut. Durr lurched up and pointed the knife at AG. “You will sing for me, bitch! You’ll do it!”
AG lurched forward off the thick glass, her legs trembling. “Any time, asshole. Just stop doing this!”
I heard Jamie under the table, squawking into her phone: “Yeah, there’s a stalker, and he’s trying to kill Allison Gentry. Send a SWAT team! Come fast!”
“Ryan!” I stood up, standing back, trying to stay between him and Rachel. “Stop this! You don’t have to do this!”
Durr glared at me. “You don’t know anything, Jurgen. You and your stupid whore girlfriend should just stay out of this.”
What? I stood up, kicking my chair back. “Yeah, I know a lot about you, Ryan.” I was scared to death, but just angry enough to get into trouble. “Like who you are, where you live, and by the way, calling Rachel names is just about the worst thing you could have done—”
Rachel clutched my arm. “Don’t . . . Jesus Christ, don’t do anything dumb, okay?” She squeezed my hand. “Please?”
“Just stay away!” Durr waved the blood-streaked knife as Raymond rolled on the floor, clutching his bleeding stomach. “This is the lesson for today! Allison Gentry! She will screw you over and over again—”
“Shut up!” Jamie lunged to her feet. “You can’t say that! You’re just a coward! You can’t do this!””
Durr whirled around. “Oh, you slut. Yes, I can. Watch me.”
Jamie slid back and raised an arm. “Oh, no. No—”
Allison screamed as Durr drove the knife into Jamie’s chest.
Allison screamed as Durr drove the knife into Jamie’s chest.
Allison Gentry slouched at my kitchen table next to Rachel. Her face was red and blotchy, and her shoulders were still shaking as she tried to lift her coffee. “I don’t believe this. I just can’t . . .”
Raymond was alive, after surgery. But Jamie was dead.
Hours with the cops. Phone calls to Jamie’s family, and Raymond’s boyfriend. And none of us were ready to sleep yet. Maybe never.
Allison didn’t want to go back to her hotel. She didn’t trust anyone, she said, except me. I didn’t point out that I might not be as safe as she wanted to think, since I’d been there during both of the stalker’s attacks—which the cops noticed and quizzed me about aggressively before apparently deciding I was too helpless to be any kind of threat.
I kind of agreed with them.
“I just can’t do it.” Allison gulped at her coffee. “I can’t do a concert after this. How could I do that now?” She grabbed at the tissue box in the middle of the table.
Rachel looked across the table at me as AG sobbed. “Why did you do that?”
I shrugged. My heart was still on overdrive, but at least Rachel didn’t seem too mad at me. “No one gets to say things like that to you. No one.”
Rachel kissed my cheek. “Okay. You’re an idiot, but . . .” She shrugged, “Can you not do anything like that ever again?”
“Well . . .” We’d been through this before. I’m basically a coward, but I have my limits. Rachel’s safety was at the top of the list, even though we’d argued about it way too much for my comfort. “Maybe.”
After a moment, Rachel scowled and gulped some coffee. ”What did the cops say about the lookalike?”
I’d told them everything. Naturally they looked at me as if I’d been quoting Shakespeare in the original Klingon. “I think they’ll talk to Durr. If they can find him.” I desperately wanted a beer, but AG had been in and out of rehab at least twice, so I didn’t plan on putting one in front of her right now.
But I needed to ask her some questions. “Ms. Gentry? I’m sorry, but—”
“Oh, for god’s sake, I’m just Ally.” She rubbed her eyes. “At least right now. What is it?”
“So what song do you think he was talking about?”
“Huh?” She shoved her chair back, angry. “How would I know? I do 18 songs in my act, I’ve recorded probably a hundred, maybe more. It could be ‘Happy Birthday’ for all I know. God, this is a nightmare.”
She stood up and began to pace the floor, every step careful and measured, as if she were practicing her moves on stage. One-two-three, one-two-three . . .
I took out my phone and looked at the calendar. “You said the emails from BrandonX started three months ago? He was already dead by then—”
“So what?” She spun around on one heel.
“So I’m just wondering if anything happened around then that might have triggered Durr?”
“I don’t . . .” She shook her head started pacing faster. “That was November, right? I did a couple of talk shows. I could maybe look up my tweets. I think that’s when I dropped a new song . . .”
“Oh, wait!” Rachel jumped up and grabbed her phone. “I remember that! It was . . . wait a minute . . .” She punched up iTunes. “Siri, search ‘AG, teacher, song.’”
Huh? When did Rachel get Siri on her phone? More important, when did she start following AG? “Wait, I thought you hated—” I shut up.
“Here it is.” She hit the speaker function on her phone:
It’s been a long long road
From the first year to the last
And I’ve been waiting
To make it to the end of the path
It’s all I wanted, you know it’s just what I want
Because you know, you have to know,
It’s just what I want
It’s all over soon
Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah . . .
And I just I know, I bet
I get to be the teacher’s pet
Teacher’s pet, teacher’s pet
I want to be the teacher’s pet, teacher’s pet . . .
“Turn it off!” For a moment I thought Allison was going to leap over my couch and grab the phone and hurl it throw the window. “It’s just a song! It’s not about—anything! Someone else wrote it, and I just sang it—”
“But I heard it in his head.” Rachel muted her phone. “It was like someone was playing on repeat, over and over again. I couldn’t do anything, I just . . .” She shuddered.
Allison sank down at the table, her head in her hands. “But I never did any of that! They all thought I was screwing all the teachers and the whole football team, but all I ever wanted to do was sing! I had a few boyfriends, but . . . but . . . why does everyone hate me?”
She sobbed. Rachel grabbed my hand and placed it on Allison’s arm. Then she held Allison’s hand as she cried.
We waited. Finally Allison sat up, wiping her eyes and grabbing for the last of the tissues. “I wanted to be a folk singer. Like Joan Baez, you know? Then I was on that stupid TV show, and then everything got out of control.” She slammed her hand on the table. “And I can’t even have a glass of wine anymore. Is that fair?”
“Of course not.” I’m not a psychologist, but sometimes in this job I have to act like one. “I’m sorry.”
She sighed. “Right.”
“So . . .” I stood up and started pacing myself. Maybe it was contagious. “Whether it was sexual or not, Ryan Durr had strong feelings for Brandon Toth. So maybe when Brandon died and the song came out, he snapped. Maybe he had a crush on you, and that was—confusing.”
“And he figured out how to change his face?” Allison frowned, puzzled. “I mean, I’m sorry, but how could he do that?”
I remembered my conversation with Brandon’s sister Bridget earlier today. Dungeons and Dragons books, which didn’t necessarily mean anything—I mean, I played some D&D in college. But also . . . “Brandon’s sister said Durr had books on magic at his house.”
“And some spells work like mathematical formulas.” Rachel reached again for her phone. “I’ll make some calls.” She looked at the time. 2:34 a.m. “Oops. Tomorrow, I guess.”
“And I should do the concert.” Allison looked across the table at the two of us. “Maybe we can draw him out. If I sing the song?”
My stomach flipped over a few times. “That could be dangerous for you.” And for other people. Like me. But I didn’t want to sound like a coward in front of her. And Rachel.
“And the rest of us. I know.” She stood up, crossed her arms, and started pacing some more. Suddenly she was AG again, tall and confident and, yeah, pretty hot. “But I can’t let him get away with this. And I can’t live like this! It’s on.” She pulled her phone out of her back pocket. Not that I was paying any attention to her butt. “Got to send some messages.”
Rachel and I looked at each other. She rolled her eyes. “At least I finally get to see an AG concert.”
Rachel and I looked at each other. She rolled her eyes. “At least I finally get to see an AG concert.”
The “Coming Home” concert was scheduled to start at 8:30. Rachel and I got to the United Center at 4:00.
We had to run a gauntlet of security checkpoints, one outside at the back doors with CPD cops, and then another just inside. We showed our IDs and let UC security through Rachel’s briefcase, and walked through a metal detector. Past that AG’s private security gave us the latest passwords—“Data” for ID purposes, and “Hacker” for emergencies—and took our cell phone numbers so they could text us new passwords when they changed.
AG had spent the day pulling off one final rehearsal while dealing with media interviews, the police, and the Twitterstorm that erupted after she announced that the concert was on. Most of her fans applauded (virtually), especially the ones who’d bought tickets; a sizable number of Twitter trolls lashed out at her for making money on the backs of two murdered employees. Whoever was left on her PR staff handled that mess.
The cops had tried to contact Ryan Durr. He didn’t answer any of his phones, he wasn’t at his house, and neither was his car. They were still skeptical, of course. I didn’t exactly blame them, but I was worried.
I’d spent the day looking for Durr as well, probably harder than the cops, but I’d come up empty. I actually toyed with the idea of breaking into his house, just like a real—I mean fictional—private eye, looking for any kind of evidence that he was involved in this: a shrine to Allison Gentry, or a shelf of books with titles like How to Transform Yourself Into Anybody—For Dummies. Then I remembered problems like alarm systems and nosy neighbors calling the police, which forced me to rethink that particular tactic before getting thrown in jail. I’m kind of picky about who I take my showers with.
So there we were, backstage at the UC with 4-plus hours to kill before the concert began—and even longer to wait to see if our plan worked.
Rachel had talked to some of her friends about shifting faces. “Ingrid says you can’t do it without something personal and fairly disgusting, like their hair or spit. But Carrie is pretty sure you can do it from a photograph—”
“Carrie? Wait a minute, doesn’t she hate me?”
Rachel slugged my arm. “She’s getting used to you. Anyway, I have an idea.”
We walked down a narrow hallway of white brick walls with security cameras mounted every 10 feet in the ceiling until we found the dressing room. Two large security guards in Kevlar vests checked out our IDs—and checked out Rachel’s leather jacket and boots—as we gave them the password. Then one of them called AG’s phone before unlocking the door.
AG was in red shorts and a black sportsbra. I tried not to stare too much at her body, but I still got a punch from Rachel. AG was getting her hair done as she talked to a short Hispanic woman in glasses and jeans while drinking a Red Bull. “—and make sure the kids know we have to be quick, and try not to scare them with the security. Hi!” She waved. “This is Samantha, my latest PR person. I told her she didn’t have to do it, but—”
“I insisted.” Samantha shook our hands. “I just wish they’d let me keep my pepper spray.”
“Just be careful.” I tried to stay light-hearted. “And like they say on the X-Files, trust no one.”
She laughed and left.
AG sighed. “Did you find anything?”
I shook my head. “Durr is gone. Rachel’s got some stuff on transformations, but—”
“That’s what I was about to tell you.” Rachel opened her briefcase. “Here’s what we can do.”
At 8:52 the lights went down and darkness spread throughout the auditorium. Then 20,000 cell phones started glowed in the murk.
Out of habit, I expected the loudspeaker to announce the starting lineup for the Chicago Bulls. Instead an announcer called out: “And now, Chicago, the United Center is proud to present . . . Ms. . . . Allison . . . GENTRY!”
Fortunately AG’s staff had handed out earplugs. Rachel and I looked at each other and shrugged as the crowd screamed, shouted, and cheered loud enough to shake the floor under the stage, and the music suddenly rose to a hurricane roar as if to push back the tsunami of applause.
We watched from behind the stage as white smoke rose up from the fog machines, finally fading to reveal ten male dancers in tight speedos and black capes, poised like statues on the stage. Then AG marched out, arms high, legs pumping, in fishnet stockings and a tight white corset.
“Are you staring at her ass?” Rachel had to shout into my face.
“Are you staring at their washboard abs?” The dancers started pulsing their muscular hips in time with the music.
She raised an elbow to jab my ribs. Then she stopped. “Okay, amnesty for now.”
AG launched into her latest hit single. I couldn’t hear the words, but I don’t think lyrics were the point. She swung around on her long legs, then got lifted up and carried by her dancers, her high-pitched voice reverberating off the dome overhead as lights flashed in a laser light show designed to trigger seizures in anyone who wasn’t on medication for epilepsy.
Finally AG rose up to stand on the strong shoulders of two muscular dancers as she belted out the last chorus of her opening song. Then she jumped high, got caught in their sweaty arms, and stood up, spinning around and around on her toes. I caught a glimpse of her smile, wide and ecstatic. I knew her image was plastered on the big Jumbotrons over the stage and around the arena, but she seemed genuinely happy. As if the only time she could let herself go was in front of a wild crowd who loved her. For a moment I felt sorry for her.
She bowed deep, crossing her legs as the shouts and screams rolled across the arena. Then the next song started.
Two costumes changed in the first act. She ducked behind a screen while three assistants stripped her down and re-assembled her in moments. Rachel dug her fingers into my arm like claws. “Don’t even think about it.”
“I’ve got to keep an eye on my client, don’t I?”
She was watching two young dancers tie short kilts around their hips. “I’m going to want to check their IDs later.”
Intermission came. AG plunged off down the hallway to her dressing room, her two guards on either side. The dancers huddled around the water jugs. Rachel and I got coffee.
One of the dancers sauntered over in tight leather pants and no shirt. “Hi. I’m Javier. Enjoying the show?”
Rachel tried and failed to keep her eyes on his face and not gaze his muscular sweaty chest. “You’re all very, uh . . . athletic.” At least she didn’t lick her lips.
“We keep in shape.” He leaned in. “Hey, there’s a party after the show, you know?” He smirked. “You could come and—”
I smiled. “Hi, Tom Jurgen. I work for AG. Password?”
He glared. “Data.”
“Just checking.” The lights flickered, indicating that intermission was almost over.
Rachel pouted as Javier walked away. “Aww, are you jealous?”
“Of a young guy like him with a six-pack that could stop bullets? Hell, yeah.” I gulped my coffee. Lukewarm. “Although from this angle I can sort of see—”
“Jerk.” She jabbed my arm. “Would I be here if—”
The lights dropped again, and act two’s opening song throbbed in our ears.
More flashing lights and gray fog. Fireworks overhead. Three costume changes, and one time the screen fell over and I sort of saw—well, I have maintain client confidentiality, don’t I?
Then the encores. Another costume change. The screens stayed up this time, and AG pranced out in her second-skimpiest outfit of the night, a red bikini, more fishnet stockings, boots up to her thighs, and long black gloves. She didn’t seem tired at all after close to 90 minutes of dancing, singing, jumping, and twirling around. Her voice was a little raspy, but her legs looked as strong and poised as ever.
Yeah, I checked out her legs. I’m a guy.
She did two encore songs, than paused, legs crossed, arms down, head bowed. Her dancers stepped away.
AG lifted her head. “I want to sing this song for one person. You know who—who you are.”
Then she leaned back and went into “Teacher’s Pet.”
All at once every cell phone backstage buzzed or vibrated with the new password. Entry: Banana. Emergency: Pineapple. Confirmation: Red beets.
Rachel and I looked around. Everyone we saw was checking their phones and confirming receipt of the message. If Durr had somehow gotten in—well, maybe he could have knocked someone out and stolen a phone. It was a night of risks. For all of us.
I know I’m not ready
No, I’m not ready yet
But I know you’ve been watching me
Waiting for end of it
Oh yeah . . .
It’s been a long long road
From the first year to the last
And I’ve been waiting
To make it to the end of the path
It’s all I wanted, you know it’s just what I want
Because you know, you have to know, it’s just what I want
It’s all over soon
Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah . . .
And I just I know, I bet
I get to be the teacher’s pet
Teacher’s pet, teacher’s pet
I want to be the teacher’s pet, teacher’s pet
I’m ready now, now that it’s all over
I waited too long for this party to be over
You know you wanted me, wanted me
Now we’re ready to be free, to be free
Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah . . .
I will be
Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah . . .
The arena erupted in riotous applause. Phones flashed, flowers and banners soared up on the edge of the stage, and AG managed one last spin on her heels before kneeling down on the stage, her toned arms spread like wings. “Thank you.” Her voice thundered through the air. “Thank you so much, Chicago! I’ll see you again soon!”
Then the lights came up as AG stalked down the steps to the backstage area, stripping off her gloves. “I am never singing that goddamn song again. Never.”
Her two bodyguards escorted her out and down the hall. Rachel and I followed at a safe distance.
Dancers charged through the hallway, hollering and, well, dancing, on the way to their locker room. AG’s security was quick to usher them in the right direction before things could get too confusing. The locker room got closed off—not locked—and three guards stood at the door.
Down the hallway, one door was left unguarded. Inside and out.
So this was the gamble. Would Durr show up? Was he even in the arena? Would he take a chance on getting through? Or were we just setting a trap that wouldn’t snare anything at all?
AG slammed her door. The two guards turned and looked at us, big black batons swinging on their hips. The bigger one asked: “Password?”
“Banana,” Rachel repeated. “Of course, he just said it.”
“It’s okay.” He crossed his thick arms. “I had my eye on you all through the concert. I’m Blair.” He winked.
First the dancers, now the security guards. Did everyone have to hit on my girlfriend right in front of me? “Hi. Tom Jurgen.”
“Yeah, I remember you.” The other guard was shorter, but he looked like Bruce Lee on steroids. “I’m Roger. Did you guys like the concert?”
Rachel shrugged. “I don’t know. U2 was better.”
“Oh, yeah.” Roger grinned. “U2 is lots better.”
Blair shook his head. “Dude, no one’s as good as Taylor Swift.”
Then the door down the hall opened.
The two guards swung around. My spine went stiff. Rachel reached into her back pocket as . . .
As Allison Gentry walked down the hall in loose jeans and a gray jacket.
“Hi, guys! I got a little lost! I’m so stupid!” A titter. “Which way to my dressing room?”
“Pineapple,” I whispered. My throat was dry.
“We know,” Roger growled.
Their batons bounced against their hips as the three of us walked forward—me a little further behind. I don’t know about Blair and Roger, but my heart was pounding like a stampeding elephant.
“You gotta get out of here.” Roger planted his feet on the floor like a Roman statue. “Whoever you are.”
“What? You’re silly. You know who I am.” The sight was eerie. Allison’s face and high-pitched voice, yeah, but the body was wrong on all the wrong places. And I’d watched them all. “Come on, you guys! I need to get back to my room and—”
Then the dressing room door opened, and Allison—the real AG—stepped out into the hallway in sweatpants and a loose black T-shirt. “Are you looking for me, bitch?”
“We’ve got this, ma’am.” Blair waved an arm. “You can stay back.”
But AG stomped down the hall like she was marching in a music video. “No. I want to see . . .”
She froze, confronted by her own face on a different body. Tilting her head, AG touched her fingers to her check, as if looking in a mirror for errors. Then she shook her head and reached into a pocket. “The hell with it. I’m done with you. You want to look like me? Work for it, bitch!”
She held up a mirror.
Rachel and I held out ours too, like we were thrusting crosses at a vampire.
Durr backed away, confused, until I got close enough to force him to see his face—or rather, AG’s face—in the reflection.
And that broke the spell.
The face morphed. It seemed to unfold and then refold itself back into its original shape. Then Ryan Durr stood in front of us, sweaty, unshaven, his face shaking with anger.
“You bitch!” He fumbled in the pocket of his jacket. “It’s your fault he’s dead! You whore, all you ever do is—”
A big heavy pistol rose in his hand.
“Whoa.” I stared at the wobbling barrel, my heart thudding like one of AG’s drum machines. “C-come on, Ryan, you don’t want to do this.”
“Fuck you!” His hand trembled. “All of you can go to hell!”
His finger jerked the trigger.
I tried to fling my body in front of Rachel as the boom of the gunshot pounded across the white brick walls. Part of me was amazed that I wasn’t peeing my pants in terror and trying to flatten my body on the floor. The other part was annoyed that Rachel was pulling me back while I was desperately pretending to be brave. “Don’t—you idiot . . .”
Roger doubled over, grunting and clutching his chest where the lead met the Kevlar. “Goddamn it!”
Blair swung his baton at Durr’s arm. The handgun fell to the floor, and Roger managed to kick it away as Durr yelped.
Durr tried to jump back, but Blair slammed the baton across his stomach. Durr howled and staggered sideways. “You slut! I hope you die! I hope you get raped in hell!”
Before Blair could swing again AG somehow got around him and slapped Durr hard enough to welt his face. “Asshole. That was for Jamie.” She slapped him again, leaving another red blotch on the opposite cheek. “And this is for—”
I lunged forward and grabbed her arm. Even unarmed and gasping for breath, he was still on his feet. That could still be dangerous. “Allison? I think they’ve got this.”
“Damn right we do.” Blair hit Durr across the neck, and he collapsed to the floor, squirming and weeping. “I hope you get raped in prison, asshole.” Blair looked over his shoulder. “Any of you guys want a shot?”
“Let’s just call the police.” I managed to pull AG back, with Rachel’s hand on her arm.
“You two, take her back to the room, okay?” Roger had his phone out. “Yeah, we’ve got that stalker here, and you’re not going to believe this . . .”
It was another long night.
Durr wasn’t smart enough to keep his mouth shut. And Blair and Roger had seen the whole thing, including the transformation. Oh, and a security camera in the ceiling caught Durr firing his pistol.
I didn’t envy his defense lawyer. But I didn’t care much, either.
Rachel and I got back to our building at dawn. We had a beer and some chips at my table.
My phone buzzed. “It’s AG. Do you want to talk?”
She rolled her eyes. “Sure.”
“Hi, it’s Allison.” She sounded out of breath. “I just wanted to say, you know, thanks? I didn’t have a chance—it got a little crazy with all the police. Is Rachel there?”
“Hi, Allison!” Rachel leaned forward. “It’s Rachel. re you all right?”
“Okay. Tired.” She yawned. “And I have to do another show tomorrow night. Or tonight, I guess. Hey, do you two want to come? You could see it for real this time. I can get you two seats in a skybox. Or right out on the floor?”
I looked at Rachel.
She leaned forward in her chair. “Are you kidding? Yes! And not just because your dancers are hot! Well, okay, I mean, maybe . . .” She winked at me. “Tom likes you too.”
For once in my life I want to—well, not exactly slug her, so I shot her a dirty look. Rachel blew me a kiss.
“Okay. Two tickets at the door. And you can come backstage after it’s over. I want to see you. Oops, I’ve got to go. Bye!”
The phone went dark.
“So now you’re an AG fan?” I finished my beer.
Rachel kissed me. “See you tomorrow. Don’t call too early.”
# # #