Saturday, February 4, 2017

Face to Face, Part Five

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.
            AG sang:

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, 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 . . .

Teacher’s pet!
Teacher’s pet!
I will be
Teacher’s pet!

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. Are 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 wanted 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.”

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  1. Obsession, revenge, speedos with abs, fishnet stockings and pop music, and Tom's bravery thwarted. Ripping good yarn, lots of great detail, and reminder that high school can suck for everybody, not just the students. {Really enjoyed the speedo men}. Kudos.