Saturday, February 4, 2017

Face to Face, Part One

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.”


  1. Murderous stalkers not good . . . and why is no one getting this woman a salad? She's pretty consistent: water and a salad. Bummer about Kaz.

  2. Katz the one I wrote that Facebook post apologizing about killing. I wasn't going to at first, but the stakes had to be higher.