27 Jul 09

Star and Scribe, Chapter Four

“How did this happen?” Jane shrieked hysterically as Barb held the elevator door open. Ozzy stepped out and scanned the the private garage below the complex that housed the beauty salon. It was silent. So far no camera-toting stalkers had appeared at the gated entrance. Ozzy nodded the all-clear.

“Access card,” Barb demanded. Stefan handed Fang to Barb. The little dog licked her fingers as Stefan rummaged in his wallet and produced a plastic rectangle with a glittering rainbow sticker on it. Barb pushed the dog back at him and wiped her fingers on his shirt.

“Hey!” Stefan protested.

Barb snatched the key card and sneered at the sticker. She hit a button on her mobile and the driver answered. “ETA?” she asked in a low voice.

“Ninety seconds,” the driver responded. Barb stepped out of the elevator and began to move toward the gated entrance.

“Should I bring my car too?” Stefan inquired, flustered by the urgency of the situation. He began petting Fang’s head nervously. The dog struggled in his arms, trying to get back to Jane.

Barb halted. “Which one is yours?” Stefan pointed at a bright red Mini Cooper with white racing stripes and a license plate reading FABULUS. “No,” she said flatly, and sprinted toward the gate.

Ozzy lurked in the elevator doorway, blocking Jane from view. Had she not been sobbing so loudly, her presence would have been undetectable. But the ragged sounds of incoherent rambling, snot, and angry tears echoed against the concrete in the underground garage. Long, terrible seconds ticked by as they waited.

“Wait, why am I coming anyway?” Stefan puzzled as it suddenly dawned on him that he had no reason to flee his own studio.

“Who else is going to do my hair?” Jane sniffled as Barb spoke over her, “Do you really want to talk to those reporters?”

Barb looked over her shoulder at Ozzy and held a finger to her lips. She was getting annoyed with the whining. Ozzy leaned back and said gently over his shoulder, “Ms. Mills, I know it’s hard, but we need total silence until we get you into the car.” He nodded to Stefan. “Give her the dog.”

“There, there, sweetie,” Stefan said, presenting her with Fang and putting an arm around her shoulder. “It’s okay.”

Jane clamped her hand over her mouth and cuddled Fang, who began lapping her cheek excitedly. Stefan produced some tissues from the enormous bag he was clutching and dabbed at her face. This crying was going to make her completely blotchy and the dog drool would give her zits. If only he’d had room in his bag for the facial steamer. But it was locked upstairs in the studio. Barb reached the garage entrance, but stood to the side to avoid being seen from the driveway.

“Thirty seconds,” Barb hissed across to Ozzy, her ear still pressed to her phone as the driver provided updates. Ozzy nodded.

The sound of loud beats music drifted down the driveway. Nearly there. A BMW X3 pulled down toward the gate. All the windows were open, with ear-shattering gangsta rap blasting with enough bass to shake the pavement. The driver, wearing large black sunglasses, a black hoodie, and a baseball cap turned sideways, was shouting along with the music. For this particular exit, the driver had decided to try being too obvious to notice. Barb moved in to open the gate.

Jane waved the key card in front of the sensor, and the gate began to rise. But one photographer hadn’t bought the ruse. A pot-bellied, balding man with a heavy camera bag and telephoto lens was running down the driveway. His gut jiggled below the bottom of his plaid shirt, and he was covered in sweat. But he removed remarkably quickly for someone so unathletic. The photographer reached the bottom of the driveway just as the car pulled in. He tried to go around one side, but Barb blocked him. He tried to push past her, but she held out a hand and repelled him. He fell backwards and looked up at her, astonished at the strength of such a slim woman. She turned and ran after the X3 toward the elevator.

The driver pulled up quickly, tires squealing, as he raised the dark tinted windows and killed the music. Ozzy tossed Jane and Stefan inside. Fang yelped, leaped from Jane’s arms, and dove under the driver’s seat. Ozzy looked up to see that the chubby photographer had gotten back up and was trotting toward them. “Barb, behind you,” he yelled as he leaped into the car. Barb looked over her shoulder and slowed her pace. She signaled to the driver to move. The X3 roared to life and charged toward her, tires squealing and all eight engine valves growling.

The photographer began fumbling with his camera as he ran, attempting to prepare to shoot as he ran. Barb allowed him to overtake her. Then with a sudden burst of speed, she surged past him. Her left foot swept neatly in front of the photographer’s faded sneakers, moving so quick and subtle that she didn’t even seem to touch him. The little man tumbled forward head over heels. The telephoto lens shattered on the concrete. Glass shards scattered like spilled rice, and the photographer howled as the sudden sting of skinned knees and palms bit into him.

The passenger door of the vehicle swung open and Ozzy reached out from the inside. With a graceful leap she gripped his arm and swung herself into the moving car. “You know, it’s dangerous to run while carrying heavy things,” Barb said coolly as she buckled her seat belt. “You could trip.” The tiniest curl of a smile flickered at the edge of Ozzy’s mouth. They roared toward the exit, and the photographer rolled around like a fat, bloody sausage on the pavement.

“Seat belts, ladies and gentlemen,” the driver said, as casually as if it were a Sunday trip to Malibu. The passengers obediently clicked their belts on, with the exception of Jane. Stefan belted her in, and Ozzy assisted, rolling his eyes.

“Flawless pick-up, as always, Chris,” Barb complimented.

“If only I had the same luck at bars,” Chris lamented.

“Har, har,” Barb retorted, grinning.

Chris drove toward the entrance. With improbable motions he removed his hoodie while keeping one of his hands on the wheel at all times. Underneath he was wearing a suit that, while neatly pressed, did not look particularly expensive. He tossed the hoodie and ball cap to Barb, who stowed them neatly in the glove box. He reached for a sunglasses case beneath his seat and replaced his enormous, flashy shades with some conservative Ray-Bans. His appearance was instantly unremarkable. The locks clicked shut and Barb handed Chris the key card. He rolled the window down just enough to wave the card at the access point. It scrolled back upwards as the gate opened again.

“How’s our friend back there?” Chris asked, trying to see the photographer in his driver’s side mirror.

“Still rolling around wishing his mommy was there with some band-aids,” Ozzy chortled, looking through the back window. “And he’ll be stuck in here until someone else with an access card comes around,” he added as the gate began to close behind them.

“Heads down, folks,” Chris insisted. He rolled his window back up and pulled casually up the drive from the underground garage. He was nearly to the street when he saw a pack of rabid paparazzi drawing in as they rounded the corner from Rodeo Drive. But they were too late. He peeled out in front of a Rolls-Royce, gunning the motor hard, and they were gone. Fang emerged from his hiding place, scrambled up onto Jane’s lap, and put his little paws on the window. He grinned happily at the passing scenery. The herd of photographers halted as they saw their quarry had escaped, then scattered to continue the pursuit in their cars.

Now that the adventure was over, Jane resumed her wailing.

“Oh, honey, don’t cry,” Stefan murmured. “You’ll be so puffy tonight.”

“I’m n-n-not going!” Jane burbled. Stefan handed her several tissues and she blew a river of snot into them.

“Oh, yes you are!” the stylist insisted. “Head high. You’re better than all of them. Prove them wrong.”

“What’s the plan, kids?” Chris called out. “Straight home or Starbucks first?”

“Home,” Barb snapped. She was not in the mood for jokes. “And quickly. Everyone was at the salon. If we hurry the crowd at the gate won’t be too thick.”

“How did this happen?” Jane shrieked. “Was it one of the staff?”

What did you expect? Barb thought cynically. It happens to them all. The only thing the public loves more than watching someone rise is to watch them fall. But she kept that thought to herself. “I’m not sure,” she murmured. “But I doubt it was one of our people.”

They rode in silence for a few moments. As they turned onto Sunset Boulevard Barb spoke again. “This doesn’t feel like an inside job. None of the data from the breach adds up. Everyone is accounted for via security and mobile logs, and let’s not forget that compensation and non-disclosure are weighty factors.”

“English?” Jane whined in a childish voice.

“We pay our employees a lot and make them sign a big fat paper saying we can sue them like crazy if they share our secrets,” Barb explained, trying to sound patient. She ended up sounding patronizing. “This will be extra hard to figure out because I can’t think of a possible motive.”

“What do you mean?” Ozzy asked cynically. “Paparazzi. Photos. Audio. Money.”

Barb shook her head. “But they didn’t make any money off of it. Entertainment Preview said the photos and audio were sent in by an anonymous photographer who asked for no money or credit. Probably because the photos were illegally obtained and any party that offered monetary compensation could be liable.”

“English?” Jane asked flatly.

“The photos were taken illegally,” Barb restated. “Because someone had to trespass on your property to take them. Anybody who sells them can get sued, and depending on how it all happened you may be able to sue the buyer too. So the motive isn’t money.”

“I just can’t figure how they could have gotten into the house,” Ozzy mused, rubbing his goatee thoughtfully. The tattoos on his forearm rippled.

“They couldn’t have recorded it from the outside?” Stefan questioned.

Ozzy shook his head. “No, the kind of equipment that lets you listen and record through several walls is still pretty bulky. They’d need a van pretty close to the house, and they’d have to know exactly where to point the mic. Somebody would have spotted it.”

“How do you know that?”

“I, uh, used to work security for Nine Inch Nails. Their roadies never shut up about the latest audio tech,” Ozzy explained, then shifted back to the topic at hand. “That fight was loud, but-–”

“Hey!” Jane pouted.

“-–but not that loud,” Ozzy said apologetically. “Big house, big yard, gated community. Someone got a microphone in the house.”

“Why would someone go to all that trouble?” Jane murmured to no one.

“Why would somebody go to all that trouble . . . when they are not make a dime?” Stefan added.

They rode the rest of the way home in silence.

© 2009 Stella Quinn

Star and Scribe — a novel by Stella Quinn
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