Home » Novels » XO (2012) » Excerpt


Subject: Re: You’re the Best!!!
From: noreply@kayleightownemusic.com
To: EdwinSharp18474@anon.com
2 January 10:32 a.m.

Hey there,


Thanks for your email! I’m so glad you liked my latest album! Your support means the world to me. Be sure you go to my website and sign up to get my newsletter and learn about new releases and upcoming concerts, and don’t forget to follow me on Facebook and Twitter.
And keep an eye out for the mail. I sent you that autographed photo you requested!


* * *

Subject: Unbelievable!!!!!
From: EdwinSharp26535@anon.com
To: ktowne7788@compserve.com
3 September 5:10 a.m.

Hi, Kayleigh:

I am totally blown away. I’m rendered speechless. And, you know me pretty good by now—for me to be speechless, that’s something!! Anyway, here’s the story: I downloaded your new album last night and listened to “Your Shadow.” Whoahhh! It’s without doubt the best song I have ever heard. I mean of anything ever written. I even like it better than “It’s Going to Be Different This Time.” I’ve told you nobody’s ever expressed how I feel about loneliness and life and well everything better than you. And that song does that totally. But more important I can see what you’re saying, your plea for help. It’s all clear now. Don’t worry. You’re not alone, Kayleigh!!

I’ll be your shadow. Forever.
XO, Edwin

* * *

Subject: Fwd: Unbelievable!!!!!
From: Samuel.King@CrowellSmithWendall.com
To: EdwinSharp26535@anon.com
3 September 10:34 a.m.

Mr. Sharp:

Ms. Alicia Sessions, personal assistant to our clients Kayleigh Towne and her father, Bishop Towne, forwarded us your email of this morning. You have sent more than 50 emails and letters since we contacted you two months ago, urging you not to have any contact with Ms. Towne or any of her friends and family. We are extremely troubled that you have found her private email address (which has been changed, I should tell you), and are looking into possible violations of state and federal laws regarding how you obtained such address.

Once again, we must tell you that we feel your behavior is completely inappropriate and possibly actionable. We urge you in the strongest terms possible to heed this warning. As we’ve said repeatedly, Ms. Towne’s security staff and local law enforcement officials have been notified of your repeated, intrusive attempts to contact her and we are fully prepared to take whatever steps are necessary to put an end to this alarming behavior.

Samuel King, Esq.
Crowell, Smith & Wendall, Attorneys At Law

* * *

Subject: See you soon!!!
From: EdwinSharp26535@anon.com
To: KST33486@westerninternet.com
5 September 11:43 p.m.

Hi, Kayleigh—

Got your new email address. I know what they’re up to but DON’T worry, it’ll be all right.

I’m lying in bed, listening to you right now. I feel like I’m literally your shadow . . . And you’re mine. You are so wonderful!

I don’t know if you had a chance to think about it—you’re sooooo busy, I know!—but I’ll ask again—if you wanted to send me some of your hair that’d be so cool. I know you haven’t cut it for ten years and four months (it’s one of those things that makes you so beautiful!!!) but maybe there’s one from your brush. Or better yet your pillow. I’ll treasure it forever.

Can’t WAIT for the concert next Friday. C U soon.

Yours forever,
XO, Edwin



Chapter 1

The heart of a concert hall is people.
     And when the vast space is dim and empty, as this one was at the moment, a venue can bristle with impatience, indifference.
     Even hostility.
     Okay, rein in that imagination, Kayleigh Towne told herself. Stop acting like a kid. Standing on the wide, scuffed stage of the Fresno Conference Center’s main hall, she surveyed the place once more, bringing her typically hypercritical eye to the task of preparing for Friday’s concert, considering and reconsidering lighting and stage movements and where the members of the band should stand and sit. Where best to walk out near, though not into, the crowd and touch hands and blow kisses. Where best acoustically to place the foldback speakers—the monitors that were pointed toward the band so they could hear themselves without echoes or distortion. Many performers now used earbuds for this; Kayleigh liked the immediacy of traditional foldbacks.
     There were a hundred other details to think about. She believed that every performance should be perfect and that every audience deserved the best. More than perfect. One hundred ten percent.
     She had, after all, grown up in Bishop Towne’s shadow.
     An unfortunate choice of word, Kayleigh now reflected.
     I’ll be your shadow. Forever. . . . 
     With that thought, her heart and gut clenched as if she’d stepped into Hensley Lake in January.
     Thinking about him, of course.
     Then she froze, gasping. Yes, someone was watching her from the far end of the hall! Where none of the crew would be.
     Shadows were moving.
     Or was it her imagination? Or maybe her eyesight? Kayleigh had been given perfect pitch and an angelic voice but God had decided enough was enough and skimped big-time on the vision. She squinted, adjusted her glasses. She was sure that someone was hiding, rocking back and forth in the doorway that led to the storage area for the concession stands.
     Then the movement stopped.
     She decided it wasn’t movement at all and had never been. Just a hint of light, a suggestion of shading.
     Though still, she heard a series of troubling clicks and snaps and groans—from where, she couldn’t tell—and felt a chill of panic bubble up her spine.
     Him . . .
     The man who had written her hundreds of emails and letters, intimate, delusional, speaking of the life they could share together, asking for a strand of hair, a fingernail clipping. The man who had somehow gotten near enough at a dozen shows to take close-up pictures of Kayleigh, without anyone ever seeing him. The man who had possibly—though it had never been proven—slipped into the band buses or motor homes on the road and stolen articles of her clothing, underwear included.
     The man who had sent her dozen of pictures of himself: shaggy hair, fat, in clothing that looked unwashed. Never obscene but, curiously, the images were all the more disturbing for their familiarity. They were the casual shots a boyfriend would text from a trip.
     Him . . .
     Her father had recently hired a personal bodyguard, a huge man with a round, bullet-shaped head and an occasional curly wire sprouting from his ear to make clear what his job was. But Darthur Morgan was outside at the moment, making the rounds and checking cars. His security plan also included a nice touch: simply being visible so that potential stalkers would turn around and leave rather than risk a confrontation with a 250-pound man who looked like a rapper with an attitude (which, sure enough, he’d been in his teen years).
     She scanned the recesses of the hall again—the best place he might stand and watch her. Then gritting her teeth in anger at her fear and mostly at her failure to tame the uneasiness and distraction, she thought, Get. Back. To. Work.
     Dammit, quit making him more than he is! Him, him, him, like you’re even afraid to say his name. As if to utter it would conjure up his presence.
     She’d had other obsessed fans, plenty of them—what gorgeous singer-songwriter with a voice from heaven wouldn’t collect a few inappropriate admirers? She’d had twelve marriage proposals from men she’d never met, three from women. A dozen couples wanted to adopt her, thirty or so teen girls wanted to be her best friend, a thousand men wanted to buy her a drink or dinner at Bob Evans or the Mandarin Oriental . . . and there’d been plenty of invitations to enjoy a wedding night without the inconvenience of a wedding. Hey Kayleigh think on it cause Ill show you a good time better than you ever had and by the by heres a picture of what you can expect yah its really me not bad huh???
     (Very stupid idea to send a picture like that to a seventeen-year-old, Kayleigh’s age when she’d received it.)
     Usually she was cautiously amused by the attention. But not always and definitely not now. Kayleigh found herself snagging her denim jacket from a nearby chair and pulling it on to cover her T-shirt, providing another barrier to any prying eyes. This, despite the characteristic September heat in Fresno, which filled the murky venue like thin stew.
     And more of those clicks and taps from nowhere.
     She turned quickly, trying to hide her slight jump, even though she recognized the voice.
     A solidly built woman of around thirty paused halfway across the stage. She had cropped red hair and some subdued inking on arms, shoulders and spine, partly visible thanks to her trim tank top and tight, hip-hugging black jeans. Fancy cowboy boots. “Didn’t mean to scare you. You okay?”
     “You didn’t. What’s up?” she asked Alicia Sessions.
     A nod toward the iPad she carried. “These just came in. Proofs for the new posters? If we get them to the printer today we’ll definitely have them by the show. They look okay to you?”
     Kayleigh bent over the screen and examined them. Music nowadays is only partly about music, of course. Probably always has been, she supposed, but it seemed that as her popularity had grown, the business side of her career took up a lot more time than it used to. She didn’t have much interest in these matters but she generally didn’t need to. Her father was her manager, Alicia handled the day-to-day paperwork and scheduling, the lawyers read the contracts, the record company made arrangements with the recording studios and the CD production companies and the retail and download outlets; her longtime producer and friend at BHRC Records, Barry Zeigler, handled the technical side of arranging and production, and Bobby and the crew set up and ran the shows.
     All so that Kayleigh Towne could do what she did best: write songs and sing them.
     Still, one business matter of interest to her was making sure fans—many of them young or without much money—could buy cheap but decent memorabilia to make the night of the concert that much more special. Posters like this one, T-shirts, key chains, bracelets, charms, guitar chord books, headbands, backpacks . . . and mugs—for the moms and dads driving the youngsters to and from the shows and paying for the tickets, as well.
     She studied the proofs. The image was of Kayleigh and her favorite Martin guitar—not a big dreadnought-size but a smaller 000-18, ancient, with a crisp yellowing spruce top and a voice of its own. The photo was the inside picture from her latest album Your Shadow.
     Him . . .
     No, don’t.
     Eyes scanning the doors again.
     “You sure you’re okay?” Alicia asked, voice buzzing with a faint Texas twang.
     “Yeah.” Kayleigh returned to the posters proofs, which all featured the same photo though with different type, messages and background. Her picture was a straight-on shot, depicting her much as she saw herself: at five-two shorter than she would have liked, her face a bit long, but with stunning blue eyes, lashes that wouldn’t quit and lips that had some reporters talking collagen. As if. . . . Her trademark golden hair, four feet long—and no, not cut, only trimmed, in ten years and four months—flowed in the fake gentle breeze from the photographer’s electric fan. Designer jeans and high-collared dark-red blouse. A small diamond crucifix.
     “Go with them.”
     “Great.” Alicia shut off the device. A slight pause. “I haven’t gotten your father’s okay yet.”
     “They’re good,” the singer reassured, nodding at the iPad.
     “Sure. I’ll just run it by him. You know.”
     Now Kayleigh paused. Then: “Okay.”
     “Isn’t it just us and Bobby?” Alicia asked.
     “What do you mean?”
     “I thought I saw somebody.” She lifted a finger tipped in a black-painted nail. “That doorway. There.”
     Just where Kayleigh herself had thought she’d seen the shadow ten minutes before.
     Palms sweating, absently touching her phone, Kayleigh stared at the changing shapes in the back of the hall.
     Yes . . . no. She just couldn’t tell.
     Then shrugging her broad shoulders, one of them sporting a tattoo of a snake in red and green, Alicia said, “Hm. Guess not. Whatever it was it’s gone now. . . . Okay, see you later. The restaurant at one?”
     “Yeah, sure.”
     Kayleigh listened absently to the thumping of boots as she left and continued to stare at the black doorways.
     Angrily, she suddenly whispered, “Edwin Sharp.”
     There. I’ve said his name.
     “Edwin, Edwin, Edwin.”
     Now that I’ve conjured you up, listen here: Get the hell out of my concert hall! I’ve got work to do.
     And she turned away from the inky gaping doorway from which, of course, no one was leering at her at all. She stepped to center stage, looking over the masking tape on the dusty wood, blocking out where she would stand at different points during the concert.
     It was then that she heard a man’s voice crying from the back of the hall, “Kayleigh!” It was Bobby, now rising from behind the mixing console, knocking his chair over and ripping his hardshell earphones off. He waved to her with one hand and pointed to a spot over her head with another. “Look out! . . . No, Kayleigh!”
     She glanced up fast and saw one of the strip lights—a seven-foot Colortran unit—falling free of its mounting and swinging toward the stage by its thick electric cable.
     Stepping back instinctively, she tripped over a guitar stand she hadn’t remembered was behind her.
     Tumbling, arms flailing, gasping . . .
     The young woman hit the stage hard, on her tailbone. The massive light plummeted toward her, a deadly pendulum, growing bigger and bigger. She tried desperately to rise but fell back, blinded as the searing beams from the thousand-watt bulbs turned her way.
     Then everything went black.

Chapter 2

Kathryn Dance had several lives.
     Widowed mother of two children approaching their teen years.
     Agent with the California Bureau of Investigation, her specialty interrogation and kinesics—body language analysis.
     Dutiful, if sometimes irreverent and exasperated, daughter to parents who lived nearby. That was the order in which she placed these aspects of her life.
     Then there was number four, which was nearly as vital to her psychic wellbeing as the first three: music. Like Alan Lomax in the middle of the last century, Dance was a folklorist, a songcatcher. Occasionally she’d take time off, climb into her SUV, sometimes with kids and dogs, sometimes, like now, solo, and go in search of music, the way hunters take to the fields for deer or turkey.
     Dance was now piloting her Pathfinder along Highway 152 from the Monterey Peninsula through a largely barren stretch of California to Fresno in the San Joaquin Valley, three hours away. This was the agricultural heart of the country and open double-trailer trucks, piled high with garlic, tomatoes and other fruits and vegetables, rolled endlessly toward the massive food-processing plants in the hazy distance. The working fields were verdant or, if harvested already, rich black, but everything else was dry and dun as forgotten toast.
     Dust swirled in the Nissan’s wake and insects died splatty deaths on the windshield.
     Dance’s mission over the next few days was to record the homemade tunes of a local group of Mexican musicians, all of whom lived in or near Fresno. Most of them picked in the fields so they’d adopted the name Los Trabajadores, the Workers. Dance would record them on her digital TASCAM HD-P2, a bit more expensive than she could afford but superb, then edit and post the songs on her website, “American Tunes.”
     People could download them for a small fee, of which she would send most to the musicians, and would keep enough to cover the cost of the site and to take herself and the kids out to dinner occasionally. No one got rich from the downloads but some of the groups that she and her business partner in the venture, Martine Christensen, had discovered had come to regional or even national attention.
     She’d just come off a tough case in Monterey, the CBI office she was assigned to, and decided to take some time off. The children were at their music and sports camps and spending the nights, along with the dogs, with their grandparents. And Dance would be free to roam Fresno, Yosemite and the environs, record Los Trabajadores and look for other talent in this musically rich area. Not only Latino but a unique strain of Country could be found here (there’s a reason, of course, the genre is often called Country-Western). In fact the Bakersfield sound, originating in that city a few hours south of Fresno, had been a major Country music movement; it had arisen in reaction to what some people thought was the overly slick productions of Nashville in the fifties. Performers like Buck Owens and Merle Haggard began the movement and it had enjoyed a recent resurgence, in the music of such artists as Dwight Yoakam and Gary Allan.
     Dance sipped a Sprite and juggled radio stations. She’d considered making this trip a romantic getaway and inviting Jon Boling to come with her. But he’d just gotten a consulting assignment for a computer start-up and would be tied up for several days. And for some reason Dance had decided she preferred to make the trip solo. The kidnapping case she’d just closed had been tough; two days ago she’d attended the funeral of the one victim they couldn’t save, in the company of the two they had.
     She turned up the AC. This time of year the Monterey Peninsula was comfortable, even chilly at night, and she’d dressed according to her port of embarkation. In a long-sleeved gray cotton shirt and blue jeans, she was hot. She slipped off her pink-rimmed glasses and wiped them on a napkin, steering with her knees. Somehow sweat had managed to crawl down one lens. The Pathfinder’s thermometer reported 96 degrees outside.
     September. Right.
     Dance was looking forward to the trip for another reason—to see her only celebrity friend, Kayleigh Towne, the now-famous singer-songwriter. Kayleigh had been a longtime supporter of Dance’s website and the indigenous musicians she and Martine championed. The singer had invited Dance to her big concert Friday night in Fresno. Though roughly a dozen years younger than Dance, Kayleigh had been a performer since she was nine or ten years old and a pro since her late teens. Funny, sophisticated and one hell of a writer and entertainer, with no ego whatsoever, the woman was mature beyond her years. Dance enjoyed her company very much.
     She was also the daughter of Country music legend Bishop Towne.
     Dance now entered Fresno proper. Salinas Valley, a hundred miles to the west, was known as the nation’s Lettuce Bowl. But the San Joaquin was bigger and produced more and Fresno was its heart. The city was a nondescript working town of about a half million. It had some gang activity and the same domestic, robbery, homicide and even terrorist threats that you saw in every small urban center nowadays, with the rate a bit higher than the national average for all crimes. That inflation, she surmised, was a reflection of unemployment—hovering here around 18 percent. She noticed a number of young men, living evidence of this statistic, hanging out on hazy street corners. Dressed in sleeveless T-shirts and baggy shorts or jeans, they watched her and other cars pass by or talked and laughed and drank from bottles swathed in paper bags.
     Dust and heat waves rose from baking surfaces. Dogs sat on porches and gazed through her car at distant nothingness and she caught glimpses of children in backyards jumping happily over trickling sprinklers, a questionable if not illegal activity in perpetually drought-plagued California.
     The satellite got her easily to the Mountain View Motel off Highway 41. It had no such vista though that might be due to the haze. At best, she deduced, squinting east and north, were some timid foothills that would eventually lead to majestic Yosemite.
     Stepping into the brittle heat, Dance actually felt light headed. Breakfast with the kids and dogs had been a long time ago.
     The hotel room wasn’t ready yet but that didn’t matter, since she was meeting Kayleigh and some friends in a half hour—at one. She checked her bags with the front desk and jumped back into the Pathfinder, which was already the temperature of a hotplate.
     She punched another address into the GPS and dutifully headed where directed, wondering why most of the programmed voices in sat-nav were women’s.
     At a stoplight she picked up her phone and glanced at the incoming call and text list.
     Good that no one at the office or the children’s camps had contacted her.
     But odd that there was nothing from Kayleigh, who was going to call that morning to confirm their get-together. And one thing about the performer that had always impressed Dance: Despite her fame, she never neglected the little things. In fact, in life, and performances, she seemed to be utterly responsible.
     Another call to Kayleigh.
     Straight to voicemail.
     Something was wrong.