L.A., man. What a waste of space. The part that really eats me up is when I’m looking out over the city, and I imagine it without the people. Because it really could be a great place if it weren’t for all of the pollution—of both the airborne and human varieties. I try not to think about it too much, and I usually do a pretty good job of it. But sometimes, like after an especially trying job, I’ll get back to my place at four in the morning or something stupid like that, and I’ll look out the gigantic windows that make up an entire side of my house. I feel almost like God when I look out those windows, I can see so much of the world.
And I don’t blame him a bit for flooding the world. I don’t believe in any of that, of course. If there was an all-knowing God up there, judging us, he would have saved his smiting for this city. But that’s just me being cynical.
People call me Rush. Who I am isn’t really important. What I am is—to this story, anyway. Guys like me go by a lot of names, most of which you can’t say in polite company. Of course, you aren’t generally talking about guys like me in polite company. The people who know about us generally call us celebrity dicks, or—far more often—the Grease Police.
When I say the word “celebrity,” what’s the first thing you think of? Is it the dignified Broadway actor who practices constantly and works hard to be a success? Or is it the latest out of control pop princess, spiraling into the void? Be honest, now.
Used to be, you had to look around a bit to find Hollywood dirt. The scandals were just as popular, but people were careful to tease. They offered up just enough to keep the public intrigued. Mystery, with a hint of disgrace, and the public ate it up.
This day and age, we got no use for subtlety, I guess. Why hint about an actress’s sexuality when you can splash pictures across the internet showing her going down on some chick in a bathroom stall? Why play sly about an addiction when you have pictures of the handsome action-hero star snorting coke from a stripper’s asshole?
I’ve been in this business for a while, now, and although it’s never been pretty, I’ve noticed that it’s been getting worse in a hurry, as of late. It didn’t used to be this way, but that’s the way it is now, and to bitch and moan about it is as pointless as complaining about the weather.
Here’s the thing: everything you see, you’re supposed to see. Those secret shots of a starlet leaving a married actor’s house at three in the morning with her panties around her ankle? Hours of work go into that—everything from what time she should leave for maximum believability to which escape route she should take for the lighting conditions her handlers are going for. They usually want it light enough to make out facial features, but dark enough so that they can change the story when the public begins to lose interest.
At some point, the movers and shakers in Tinsel Town realized that if they all worked together, they could make more money than if they worked independently. Like this: you don’t have to advertise nearly as much if the main actress of your movie has been on every internet gossip site, every tabloid, every news station, going into rehab, coming out of rehab, adopting children, losing her children, whatever.
But it’s even better than advertising, “Because this is real life,” the public says. This isn’t some studio telling us that this movie is going to be the movie to see this summer. This us going to watch a movie so that we can make snide remarks about the stars. “He was just caught cheating on his wife,” or “I’ve seen her tits when she was getting out of a limo at the awards show.” This is us seeing the stars of the silver screen and knowing them for the saps they are.
For years, Hollywood tried to make the public love the stars they created. Now, it helps you hate them.
It’s all very carefully orchestrated—everything from whether the quick flash of vagina will be shaved or not to what kind of dress this month’s pop disaster-princess will wear when her nipple slips out.
The stars aren’t always in on this, of course. For the most part, they actually believe that they are important enough to warrant the attention they’re given. They never realize that ninety percent of the adoring mob around them is comprised of handlers, making sure that they act exactly as they’re supposed to. The smart ones figure it out pretty quick—I’d be lying if I said everyone in Hollywood is stupid—and then they can choose to play along or crash and burn.
See, when you have this vast organization running things behind the scenes, they can make or break a star in a moment. Only in Hollywood could being shallow go so deep. I don’t want to say conspiracy, because that makes it seem much more sinister than it really is. This is all about the dollar signs. It’s not conspiracy, it’s big business.
Usually, it’s not a big deal—they let you live your life, do your thing. Pop up and have a kid now and then, or get married, or get divorced. Keep your name out there, especially if you’re going to be in this summer’s blockbuster. Usually, if they want you to be big and out there and scandalous, you’re the type of person who would have lived like that, anyway.
We call ‘em tabloid-whores. Not a gender thing. They’re the ones who throw fits. They’re the ones who destroy things: hotel rooms, marriages, themselves. They’re the main exhibitions in the celebrity zoo, the ones the public lines up to see, the ones who sell tickets and sell magazines. They’re usually so ate up with being in the public eye that they never realize that instead of sitting on a throne, they’re in a carefully constructed cage.
But sometimes, there’s an anomaly. Sometimes, one of the animals escapes. And that’s where I come in.
I’m not sure who coined the term Grease Police, or even how long the name’s been around. The name serves two purposes. One: because we’re the guys who keep the wheels greased. Two: because we’re generally held in pretty low regard by the people who know what we do.
Honestly, I don’t really blame the people who call us soulless pieces of shit.
I have an enormous house that sits on the top of a hill and overlooks what seems like the entire West Coast. I have a garage full of vintage cars. I have more money than I know what to do with. I fuck supermodels and starlets and—just to see if I could do it—the most influential talk show host in history. It was pretty gross, but I figured anyone worth that much, with a magazine and all those TV stations and all that, I should tap it just to see what it was like. She was a dead lay, and I ended up stopping halfway through and going out for tacos.
My point is that if I sold my soul, I got a damn good deal on it.
I admit that what I do is not pleasant. Sometimes, you get a smooth job, track down some goofball actor who has been out drinking and driving and making racial slurs that go on public record. You grab him, pay some people off, show some discriminating photos to a judge, and you’re done. The damage is done, but my end is finished—problem contained.
But say that instead of getting busted and locked up, this guy jumps in a car and drives across the country, spouting his weird racist bullshit from one coast to the other. You get him out of California, drunk and behind the wheel, and he’s a sitting duck for any justice system with anything close to integrity. You go from a few weeks of jokes on late night talk shows and internet clips to years in jail and complete career suicide.
It’s my job to track him down, to catch him and bring him back, and to cover up as much of his bullshit as possible.
The company I work for, we don’t get paid to keep secrets—no one can keep a secret. We get paid to change the truth, which is why we cost so much. Reality’s an expensive racket.
I was sitting at my desk when the call came in. I don’t have any set hours of operation—I’m on call 24/7, 365—so I don’t actually have to go into the office. I go in because my office is incredibly nice, and it gives me something to do. Plus, they have these bagels that are made in-house, so it’s the only place you can get them. They’re very delicious.
At the time, I was training a newbie, so when something light-weight came up, we’d take it and I’d show her the ropes. The job’s a little harder for a chick. I’d agreed to train her because she seemed tough enough to get shit done, and I wanted to make sure that she got the proper instruction. You don’t really get to fuck up in this business.
You might think I’m being dramatic when I say that it’s a matter of life and death, but think about this scenario: you’re an investor, right? You may or may not be involved with organized crime, I don’t know. You’ve just dropped five million dollars on a production. The star starts getting out of line, causing a ruckus. And the guy you hire to reign him in fails. You can’t take out the star—that’d be bad business, and way too public. But what you can do is make an example of the guy who was supposed to fix things.
It doesn’t happen often, but it happens.
So this new girl, I wanted to make sure she had what she needed. Either I’d fine-tune her to do the job or I’d cut her loose. She wouldn’t have made it that far if she wasn’t trustworthy and reliable, but none of the safe-guards and tests mean anything when you’re out in the field, dealing with the shit.
I was sitting at my desk, running possible scenarios by her and drinking a Slice. The light on my phone lit up, and I hit a button.
“You alone?” It was a gruff voice, one that I had heard often in my many years in the business. I had never met the owner.
“Got my trainee here.”
She stood quickly and left the room. As soon as the door closed the voice spoke again. “Alone?”
“Yes.” All phone conversations were held over speaker, although I was never sure why. I assumed it had something to do with recording conversations—perhaps a tradition stretching back before the technological advances in wire-tapping—but I never asked. One of the most important lessons I ever learned is when to ask questions and when to shut up.
“Tracy Newton,” the voice said.
“You have to be kidding me.”
“I don’t kid.”
“Didn’t we just rope her in a couple months ago?”
“The Panda Incident.”
The Panda Incident. She had gone to a party dressed as a panda bear. At some point during the festivities, she had found a strap-on dildo, had lost the majority of her costume, and had began wandering around the neighborhood, blitzed out of her mind, wearing only a panda head, a strap-on dildo, and a pair of combat boots. Of course, there was paparazzi involved. Believe it or not, this was all considered fine in the realm of Hollywood, until she made her way to a gas station where a nice little family from Ohio had stopped for fuel. It was around one in the morning, and along with the fuel, they were asking directions to their hotel. She pulled open the mini-van door and began slapping an eleven-year-old boy in the face with the dildo. That wasn’t part of the plan.
The kid’s teen-age sister had been playing around with the web-cam on her laptop computer, leaving a video message for one of her friends, and before anyone could get there to sweet-talk, bribe, or threaten, the footage was online. Fucking wi-fi, man, it’s the bane of the Grease Police.
“Suck my dick for freedom!” Newton had screamed at the kid as his mother shrieked from the front seat and his sister recorded from beside him. “Pandas can’t save themselves, you’ll have to do it with your mouth! Suck it, you beautiful angel!”
Newton’s mood had switched gears by the time the father had made his way across the parking lot, and he found her in a crumbled heap by the back tire, weeping and hugging the dildo like a newborn baby.
“What’s she involved with this time?” I asked.
“Approximately twelve hours.”
I sat up straight in my chair. “Twelve hours? How the hell did that happen?” You don’t lose a celebrity for twelve hours. Think of them as infants—they might be okay by themselves for five to twenty minutes, depending on whether or not they’re sleeping. But to let one go for over an hour without any sort of supervision is nuts. To let one out of sight for twelve hours is unheard of.
“Drugged the household. Sedatives in their breakfast.”
“She got up before noon and managed to find the kitchen?”
The gruff voice laughed, caught itself, and then resumed in seriousness. “Actually, that’s how she got away with it—she was out all last night partying, so no one even suspected that she would be awake so early. She drugged everyone, dressed up as a maid, took one of the service cars, and was gone without anyone realizing it. It was mid-afternoon before her keepers began waking up, and even then they didn’t suspect anything. When she wasn’t awake by seven tonight, they went in to check on her and found her missing.”
“None. We have a crew there now, no police involvement for another ten hours.”
The Company had a detective squad about a thousand times better than the real cops—mostly because they paid that much more—but we didn’t run the same way as your average cop-shop. Because of an almost infinite budget, and because of the absolute necessity of secrecy, The Company hired some guys to do the clue-searching stuff and other guys to do the private investigator stuff. You had the guys who dressed up in white paper suits and sprayed things and carried special lights that looked for semen or blood and all that. You had behavioral theorists. You had the guys who performed interviews and made time tables.
And then you have guys like me, who have been lurking through the filth so long that you don’t really need any of that. I talked to people some: I questioned, strong-armed, or cajoled. I looked for clues some: I poured through phone records or bank statements or computer data.
Mostly, though, I tracked. I don’t like to say that I can think like them, because that implies that I can sink to that level, which is basically like turning off my brain at will. Also, that implies that these numb fuckers actually think. It isn’t empathy, exactly, but maybe it’s something like that.
I just go find them. I don’t like my job, but I’m good at it.
“They find the car yet?”
“Tell them to check do-it-yourself carwashes in the area. Not the drive-through kind.” I thought for a moment. “Also, the closest fast-food joint.”
He didn’t ask me why, and I’m not sure I could have explained it if he had. Service = maids = clean = “that carwash I pass by sometimes on my way home from the club.” That was one avenue of thought. If she was a little smarter than that, maybe she’d try to ditch the car in a busy parking lot. Rich people don’t know where poor people congregate, but they equate fast food with poor, so I figured that was as good of a place as any to look.
None of this was concrete detection, understand. It was just something that popped into my head. Usually, though, the things that popped into my head paid off.
“The family has reported unusual mood swings lately. They’re concerned it might be suicide.”
“Could we get that kind of a break?” I asked. The ones who offed themselves saved us all kinds of problems—no racist rambling, no whoring around, no assaulting children or driving drunk or doing anything else to make the public hate them. Plus they drove up tabloid sales for months. If we were lucky, it would be drugs—with drugs, it could be suicide, homicide, or accidental. The public loves a mystery; loves to speculate.
“Not likely. The Be-the’s think she might have experienced realization.”
Be-the’s: behavioral theorists. They look around the subject’s life, examine tapes, journals, interaction reports, and then make guesses as to what’s going on with the subject. Realization: when the subject realizes and comes to understand that there is an actual world around them, filled with pain and suffering and love and happiness…and none of it revolves around them.
When you get right down to it, most celebrities suffer from antisocial personality disorders. It was once explained to me as “a condition characterized by persistent disregard for, and violation of, the rights of others that begins in childhood or early adolescence and continues into adulthood.” Some of the symptoms include: persistent lying and/or stealing, substance abuse, lack of remorse, superficial charm, disregard for the safety of self or of others, impulsiveness, recklessness, and a sense of extreme entitlement.
Sounds just about like every celebrity you’ve ever seen on the front of a magazine or newspaper, yeah?
Some of them are all right, I suppose. I don’t generally interact with those ones. I run into the freaks like Newton, who couldn’t hold their shit together with a mile of duct tape and a gallon of glue.
I don’t know anything about disorders, antisocial or otherwise—I leave that kind of the thinking for the guys who get paid for it—but I know that it has always seemed like a cop out to me. Name it anything you want, but really what it amounts to is that they’re fucking assholes.
And I was about to be assigned to go find another one.
If it was a realization like the Be-the’s thought, it would throw off my whole game. It’s one thing to track these wastoids when they’re acting like the same ridiculous, self-absorbed idiots that they’ve always been. It’s an entirely different matter when they suddenly start acting like someone else.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say that they begin thinking like a normal person, but it’s as close as they ever get. They still don’t understand about poverty or truly working for a living, or any sort of real hardship. But that first step towards the light, just knowing that they aren’t as important as they’ve always thought, that’s enough to throw some of them.
Usually they’re able to do some blow or drink a bottle of booze or swallow a bottle of pills, and they work through this understanding until it’s nothing more than a bad dream that will soon be forgotten.
Other times, they end up running around the world, talking about hungry children or pollution, or the harsh living conditions of third world countries, still thinking they’re important, but just in a different way. And the world goes along with this foolishness because it is what we have trained it to believe.
“I’m on this?” I asked the voice.
“You’re on this.”
“You want me to take the trainee?”
I waited to see if there was anything more, but there was only silence. I hung up, stood from my desk, and looked around my office. You know that feeling when you’re rushing, like you’re forgetting something? Maybe it’s important, maybe it’s not, but it’s definitely something. I get that feeling a lot. I guess it’s the nature of the business—always being on such short call. All these years, I’ve never gotten used to that feeling.
In fact, I stopped bringing things with me to the office altogether, just so I’d know that I wasn’t forgetting anything. Still feels like it, though. I patted my pockets, making sure I had my phone, my wallet, my keys. I had my sunglasses.
I left my office. The newbie was waiting for me in the hall. “Go home,” I told her.
“You gotta be shitting me.”
I stopped walking and looked at her. “We never shit anyone in-house. Keep that in mind. When you speak and when you hear, keep that in mind. You’ll be amazed at how far that’ll get you.”
“Thanks for the tip.”
“See you when I get back.”
“Go home.” I stepped onto the elevator, took it down to the garage, and climbed into my car. It’s a very nice car. I’d tell you what kind, but one of two things would happen: if you know about cars, you wouldn’t believe me; if you don’t know about cars, it wouldn’t mean anything to you.
I sat there for a second, thinking. I climbed out of my car, dialed a number, and waited. When the person on the other end of the phone picked up, I told him what I needed—a plane ticket and a car to the airport. Nobody has a secretary in The Company. There’s a pool, where everyone works in their own office, none on the same floor. None of the people who handle things for us know any of the others. They come to work, they get paid good money, and they leave. They get paid to take care of details, not to socialize.
This is, of course, to keep information-swapping to a minimum. Each time I dial the number, I’m switched to a different operator. I give them an identification number, they type it in, and it gives them the necessary information about me—enough to buy plane tickets, make reservations, and anything like that.
By the time I reached the lobby, there was a car waiting. Within an hour, I was on a plane to Kansas.
I landed in Wichita. It isn’t where I needed to be, but it was the closest place with an airport that I could think of on short notice. I know a little about a lot of places, but Kansas is mostly nothing, so I’ve never dedicated much time to learning its geography. Fuckpile of cornfields? Check. Congratulations, you know 90% of everything about Kansas. I’m not one of those uppity Coast people who claim there’s no reason to touch foot anywhere between California and New York—I’ve discovered a lot to love about America throughout my travels—but you have to draw a line somewhere. Kansas is that line for me.
There was a rental car waiting for me, as well as the packet of information I had requested and a roadmap. We have high-tech phones with all kinds of digital maps on them; we have GPS systems and all kinds of fancy gadgets to tell us where we’re going and where we need to go. I still like to have a roadmap with me, though, and my manila envelope full of hardcopy.
Something about it makes me feel better; I don’t like the idea of having all of my information stored on a device that might conk out at any second. I enjoy technology as much as the next guy, but that seems like daring fate a little too much.
I read the information I had requested, looked at the road map, and then drove from the airport.
Newton had been on a reality TV show awhile back. It was one of those shows where the two flaky celebrities go out into the real world and pretend to experience the life of the average American. Her and her ditzy cohort had traveled across the country making asses of themselves, and the show had finally ended up getting cancelled due to a problem they had in Garden City, Kansas.
The other girl had gotten caught with the three sons of the host family. All four of them were naked, and the boys had various appendages inserted into various orifices of the girl. It wouldn’t have been nearly as bad if they boys hadn’t taped the incident and showed it to all of their friends at school the next day. It wouldn’t have been nearly as bad if the boys hadn’t all been underage—14, 15, and 16.
The parents screamed and shouted and threatened. They said they would press charges. It didn’t really matter, as statutory rape is an offense the state prosecutes no matter what. By “no matter what,” I mean whether or not the parents press charges. What I don’t mean is “no matter what.” Because of guys like me, you’d be amazed at how quickly the trail to prosecution ends.
We filled wallets with money, we filled heads with glory, we filled hearts with fear. Bribe ‘em, trick ‘em, and scare ‘em. The family had some distant relatives who got busted with weed, did they want the nation to know about that? Here, take this monetary gift as an apology, and we’ll call it good. That got the family. The prosecutor dropped the case for a blowjob.
The starlet had barely rinsed out her mouth when she began talking about where they were going next. I got the pleasure of informing her that the show had been cancelled. She pitched a fit that would impress a two-year-old: throwing things, cursing, screaming, crying. Luckily, I had had the forethought to drug her drink, and within five minutes, we were dumping her unconscious body into a car.
None of that was important, though, as I once again drove across the hellishly flat countryside. What was important was the memory of loading Newton into the car. She hadn’t thrown a fit—not really. She had called her co-star a whore and a slut and a bitch, and they had slapped each other a bit until we separated them. That’s relatively tame stuff, though—nothing you don’t see at pretty much any Hollywood party.
What surprised me were her tears. She had made friends with the daughter of the host family. I had assumed it was just another tabloid-whore tactic—maybe she’d end up stripping down with the girl and grinding in a small Kansas bar or something—but that didn’t really seem to be the case.
She kissed the girl on the cheek and hugged her, and told her she’d call her. I couldn’t help rolling my eyes at that last promise. I loaded her into the limo and drove away, and within minutes, she was on her cell phone, talking about getting back to civilization.
The thing that got me was that by this time, there weren’t any cameras. The show was dead, there were no paparazzi, and she knew that I wouldn’t give a shit either way. But still there were the tears.
I wasn’t sure if they were real tears or not, but it was enough to get me on a plane to Kansas. About two hundred miles to Garden City, with shit for scenery. It was dark, with only the moon to see by, and I tried to decide whether the state was more desolate during the day or the night. I let my mind wander. Sometimes that helps me think up alternative plans of action, but this time, it just cemented my hunch. I wasn’t sure how she would have made it this far—there’s no way she had the intelligence to schedule her own flight or figure out how to read a map. The investigative team would find something, though—a phone call, a credit card charge, something—and it would point to the Midwest. I was sure of it.
My cell phone chirped and I hit the speaker button.
“We’ve made some progress. Seems that somebody bought her a plane ticket. We need you in Kansas.” I heard the sounds of a computer keyboard. “And…it seems you’re already there. You know where you’re going?”
“Garden City—Swanson was the name of the family.”
“I wouldn’t think she’d be too welcome there after the…incident.”
“I think the daughter would help. Might be a hit-case, but I’m not sure yet.”
“Keep me informed.” Which meant “Call if you find her.”
There was a sharp click, and I was alone once again.
I tried to remember about the daughter. I wasn’t heavily involved in the fiasco, so I hadn’t made it my business to know the details. Still, though, in this business, you always keep an eye half-open to potential disasters, and I had forced myself to watch the show a few times. There were rumors about the tabloid-whores getting increasingly rowdy as they journeyed across the country, so I had borrowed a few tapes to figure out the best way to handle things if the shit hit the fan.
When I say that I watched the show, I don’t mean that I watched it like the rest of the shlubs who tuned in. I went to the source and screened the uncut footage. It meant that I had to spend a lot more time watching the bullshit, but it also meant that I saw a lot more of the behind-the-scenes stuff. Which meant that we were able to swoop in that much quicker when she finally crossed the line.
Like I said—I don’t like my job, but I’m good at it.
Back on topic: the daughter. She hadn’t seemed all that impressed with the tabloid-whores when they first arrived. In fact, she had seemed pretty put-out by the whole ordeal. The didn’t mean much, though—I’ve seen even the most practical people become star-struck given enough time. We call them hit-cases in this business. It isn’t quite worship, but it’s eerily close. In extreme cases, they become convinced that the celebrity can do no wrong. They believe this for no other reason than that the celebrity is famous.
I try not to think about stuff like that because it physically sickens me. Gets in the way of the job, when you’re staring at an interviewee with an open look of disgust on your face and vomit on your shirt.
The daughter—Erica Swanson was her name—didn’t seem like a hit-case, though. She never tried to justify Newton’s outrageous behavior, and she didn’t seem to aspire to act the same way. She just looked a little embarrassed by it. Maybe a little sad—but I wasn’t sure enough about that to make any sort of judgment.
I got into Garden City around one in the morning, and decided against getting a motel. Instead, I pulled into the Wal-Mart parking lot, leaned my seat back, and went to sleep.
I had her schedule, and the schedule of her parents. Not exact, of course, but as accurate as The Company could get on short notice. The parents worked on a farm, which is why they were picked for the reality show. The daughter was now a senior in high school—at the time of taping, she had been a junior.
I approached her in the school parking lot. Not the smartest thing to do, but I was already further behind than I wanted, and I needed to cut through the bullshit in order to get caught back up.
“Hey Erica!” I shouted as I approached. I used my friendliest voice, and she smiled as she turned to look at me. The smile faded as she realized she didn’t recognize me.
I stopped a good ten feet from her, not wanting to cause any alarm. “I need to talk to you about Tracy Newton.”
Her face showed panic. She tried not to show it, but did a piss-poor job. “I haven’t seen her since the show was cancelled. We don’t give interviews about it.”
“I’m not here for an interview, Erica—I think you know that. I also think you’ve seen her recently.”
“I haven’t.” She started walking away, towards the school.
“You’re lying, Erica. I’ve been in this business a long time, and even if I hadn’t, you’re a bad liar.”
She turned and faced me. “I’m not lying.”
“Here’s my card,” I said, and put my card on the asphalt parking lot. “You don’t have to call me—I’ll find her either way. If not me, it’ll be someone like me. You would rather it be me, I promise.”
She stared at me. I started to walk away and then stopped. This was done for dramatic effect. I turned and faced her again. “She isn’t equipped to deal with real life, Erica. You’re smart enough to know that. Maybe you just want to help her, but this isn’t the way to do it. This is like dropping her into a lake of freezing water to teach her how to swim.”
With that, I turned and walked away. I didn’t look back.
“Why can’t you just leave her alone?” That’s what she said when I answered the phone. No hello, no introduction, just the question.
“It isn’t about me. She isn’t able to manage on her own. Maybe at one point she was, and maybe at some point she’ll be there again. But not now, not like this.”
“You don’t know that.”
“Yes, I do. And you do, too. You bought her plane ticket, right? You probably had to tell her how to board the plane like a regular person, too, didn’t you? Otherwise, we would have caught her in L.A., when she made a ruckus at a security checkpoint or during boarding. You walked her through it, right?”
There was a long silence. I scanned the newspaper while I waited, looking for a sign of a celebrity gone wild. I was marginally impressed with Newton for being able to keep a low profile for over twenty-four hours.
“I’d like to talk to you in person.”
I hadn’t seen that one coming. I had been pretty sure she was going to pick up my card from the school parking lot and give me a call—the concern on her face had almost guaranteed that. Usually, if they were willing to call, they were willing to meet. Her refusal surprised me. I don’t like surprises when I’m on the job, but I tried to act like it was exactly the answer I had expected.
“Okay,” I said, without missing a beat. “That’s understandable. I appreciate your calling.”
“I’m not calling to help you—I’m calling to tell you to leave her alone. She doesn’t want to be a part of that life anymore. She’s fine. If she needs help, I can help her.”
“I know you think that, Erica, but it’s not true.”
“She said you’d come looking for her. She begged me not to help you. I shouldn’t have even called you—I just wanted to tell you that she’s fine, so you can call off your dogs.”
“I don’t know who you think I am, but you’re probably wrong.”
“I recognized you in the parking lot today, you know. You’re the guy who took her away. You watched us like we were bugs. Like you were interested but disgusted. I saw you roll your eyes when she said she’d keep in touch.”
“You’re very astute,” I said, honestly impressed. I don’t show my emotions. I can say that because if I did, I wouldn’t have lasted a day at this job. Grease Police aren’t ass-kissers, but they do have to feign a certain amount of respect when dealing with the exhibits. Maybe she had seen a quick facial tick, or a slight cut of the eyes. Whatever it was, it wasn’t something most people would have seen. The eye-roll, that was my mistake.
“So, what? You’re like her bodyguard or something?”
“Or something. I just need to find her before she gets hurt, either by herself or by someone else.”
“You act like she’s a toddler.”
“You know why I wanted to meet in person?”
“So you could kidnap me and tortue me for information?”
I laughed at her joke, and then stopped, hoping that it had been a joke.
“You have a sense of humor,” she said. “I wasn’t expecting that.”
“Like I said, I’m not sure who you think I am, but you’re probably wrong. The reason I wanted to meet in person was so I could persuade you to help me. For Tracy’s sake. I’d like to tell you a story, if you have minute. It’s a true story.”
“I have a couple minutes, I guess.”
“There was this guy, this movie star. I’m not going to tell you his name, because an important part of what I do is keep names from being mentioned. He got sick of it all, all the Hollywood bullshit. He took off, just like Tracy did. He had some friends in Chicago, and he was sure that if he could get to them, he could start a new life.
“Maybe he could’ve, too. I personally don’t think so, but that’s neither here nor there. He took a bus. He made it all the way to Chicago, and called his friends from the bus station. He was excited, living life like a normal person, riding the bus, about to hail a taxi like a regular guy, right?
“What he didn’t count on was someone recognizing his expensive luggage. What he didn’t count on was someone seeing his wallet full of big bills when he dug out the phone number of his friend—this was back before everyone had cell phones with stored numbers and all of that. He stepped out of the station, where someone asked him if he needed a taxi. He followed the guy around the corner, and that’s the last time anyone saw him alive.”
“Bullshit—you’re just trying to scare me. Nobody would fall for that.”
“That’s my point, Erica. Nobody should fall for that. But this guy, he was so used to people helping him, he didn’t even suspect anything. He walked around the corner and got his skull crushed in. Whoever did it got away with his luggage and his money. Never got caught.”
“You were supposed to find him?”
“I was still in training. I thought they were just trying to scare me. They showed me the pictures, and if they were trying to scare me, it worked like a charm. I don’t want anything like that, Erica, not on my watch. Do you understand?”
“Nothing like that’s going to happen to Tracy—she didn’t go to some big city.”
“You know that isn’t the point. Maybe she won’t get robbed and killed, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t in as much jeopardy. Remember when they tried to make pancakes at your house?”
“That was just for show!” I had touched a nerve there. During shooting, the two tabloid-whores had gotten up early, determined to make breakfast for the family. They had almost burned the house down. The mother had freaked out, of course, fearing that these two idiots could have burned up her entire family as they slept. The crew stepped in, with a stash of dough and the promises that it was all a big joke, that it was all set up for the show.
Hearing the edge in her voice, I guessed that Erica had known the truth—that her mother was perfectly justified in her fears.
“Just think about it, Erica. Think about Tracy trying to cook herself some breakfast on her own, when there isn’t someone to step in with a fire extinguisher and a wad of cash. It’s only a matter of time before she does something that attracts the public eye—the question is, will anyone get hurt or killed when that happens. It’ll be on you now, too, Erica. It’ll be on you just like it’ll be on me. Help me help her.”
I stopped talking and waited, wondering if the team back home had made any leeway. I sensed that I was on the edge of convincing Erica to help me, and I didn’t want to push her anymore, for fear that she’d begin to resist instead of cooperate.
I waited over three minutes, the only noise in my ear the quiet hiss of the lousy phone service.
“Turpin,” she finally said. I could hear the tears in her voice.
“Turpin. Oklahoma.” And then she hung up.
I hit the disconnect button on my phone, relieved. I hadn’t been sure the story about the guy in Chicago would work or not, and I had feared that I was pouring it on too thick.
I dialed a number and waited for the gruff voice to pick up. “I’m on to something. I need information about Turpin, Oklahoma, especially any that would pertain to Newton or the Swanson family. I just spoke to Erica Swanson, and she told me that’s where Newton’s hiding.”
“Could be a trick.”
“Could be—doesn’t feel like it, though.”
“I’ll call you,” he said, and disconnected. Sometimes, you can just call the secretary pool and have them look up information, but if there’s something that requires a name—such as finding what connection Newton or the Swanson family had to do with Turpin—it’s better to make a call to the higher-ups and have them dole out the research.
It took me a second to find the place, and when I located it on the map, I was surprised to see the names of the towns on either side. My phone rang and I hit the speaker button.
“The Swansons have family in that area. It’s a little hole-in-the-wall town, so she’ll probably get herself discovered sooner rather than later. I’ll email you the exact address.”
“Did you see the towns on either side?” I asked. It was juvenile, but I couldn’t help it.
“Beaver and Hooker?”
“And smack dab in the middle is our tabloid-whore. Is that funny, or is it just me?”
“Just go get her,” the gruff voice said, but it sounded like there was a smile in there somewhere. That’s me—always brightening the day.
An hour and a half later, I was in Turpin. I would have been there sooner, but I accidentally drove right by it the first time, and went an extra fifteen miles before I realized my mistake.
The town was just off the highway, so if you weren’t paying attention, it was easy to mistake it as only a gas station and a few houses. Once I turned off the highway, I saw the rest of the town. I ended up having to head back North some, to a little trailer park just outside of town.
Once I got to the trailer park, however, I was completely lost—none of them were marked with numbers, and none of the criss-crossing dirt roads had names. I saw a little boy on the side of the road and decided to ask him for directions.
I pulled to a stop a safe distance away and rolled down my window. The boy was sitting on a stack of tires on the side of the road, rocking gently back and forth as two dogs humped his legs—one on each side.
The boy just stared at me as I rolled my window down. The dogs didn’t seem to notice me at all. “Hi!” I called.
He continued to stare.
“Do you know where the Swansons live?”
“Do you think you could give me directions?”
He nodded again.
He stared at me as the dogs humped his leg.
“Um. Could you give me directions right now?”
He stood up, and the dogs stopped humping him and walked alongside him as he approached my vehicle. They looked disappointed and bored. He raised his hand and pointed down the road. I looked where he was pointing, but saw only fields. When I looked back at him, he was pointing at me.
“Is it…can you just tell me what color their trailer is?”
He began laughing, still pointing at me, and the dogs took this as a cue to jump up and begin humping his legs again.
I sat there for a full two minutes, the boy pointing at me and laughing while the dogs went to town on him. Finally, I drove away. I glanced back at him in my rear-view mirror and saw that he was once again sitting on the stack of tires, the dogs still getting busy.
“What the hell kind of a place is this?” I asked no one in particular. The only answer I got was a pickup ramming into the side of my rental.
My car was knocked off the road into a ditch, and the pickup continued to push against the passenger side door. The tires on the driver side had caught in some soil, and were plowing it up as I was pushed. It was only a matter of time before they caught and my car was rolled.
I unstrapped my seatbelt and dove into the back seat. I kicked open the door and jumped out, rolling away from both vehicles. I hunched into a fighter’s crouch, expecting to be attacked. Instead, I saw the pickup continue to maul my car. Behind the wheel was a screaming blond, her hands pressed firmly to the side of her face in panic.
Tracy Newton. I stepped up to the truck, reached into the open window, and killed the ignition. The truck immediately lurched backwards, and would have taken my arm off if I hadn’t been quick enough to jerk it back.
“What the hell is the matter with you?” I yelled at the girl.
“I’m so sorry! I thought I knew how to do it, I’ve driven lots of times, I just didn’t know it would bounce like that, and I stepped on the gas, and then it went and went and went and-” she finally looked my way, and stopped mid-rant. “You.”
“I’m not going back.”
“Your family’s incredibly worried about you, Ms. Newton.”
“Fuck you. I’m not going back.”
“I have to take you back—you know this. I’d prefer we do it the easy way, but it’s going to happen no matter what.” Generally, I would have tried to reason with her a bit more, but I was a bit shook up after being rammed, and I didn’t feel like pussyfooting around.
“Look—let me just grab my purse and we can discuss this.”
“Bribes aren’t going to work,” I said. She turned back around, purse in one hand and pepper spray in the other. I ducked back, but I wasn’t quick enough, and got hit pretty good in the side of the face.
We were in open fields, though, and the wind was blowing pretty hard, so I was spared the brunt of the spray. Unfortunately for Newton, the wind was blowing in her direction.
She began screaming, and fell out of the truck. It took me a minute to make out her words as she flailed around on the ground, and when I finally understood what she was saying, I couldn’t keep from laughing.
“Stop drop and roll stop drop and roll!” Over and over, like it would magically clean her eyes.
I lifted her from the ground and tossed her into the back seat of my rental. The thing was mangled, but it was still drivable, for the most part, and I didn’t need to go far—Liberal was close, and had an airfield where I could get a private plane to pick us up.
“I need to wash this off! Please! Please!”
“I don’t know my way around here—there’s a gas station in town we can stop at.”
“I can’t make it that far. Just take me back to Dave and Becka’s.”
“Don’t know ‘em.”
“The family I was staying with. They live in this trailer park—it was their truck I was trying to drive.” She glared at me in the rear-view mirror. Her eyes were bloodshot and swollen and leaking, and filled with rage. “Don’t you have to pay people off anyway? Make sure they won’t talk?”
“Don’t assume you know how this works.”
“I know more than you give me credit for.”
“Like how to drive?”
“Fuck you. It was a stick.”
“How do I get to their house?”
“Take a left at the little retarded boy on the tires.”
“Are you serious? That’s what constitutes a landmark?”
“Look around—you think of a better way?”
She had a point. Still, something about using a mentally handicapped kid as a road sign disturbed me.
“His name’s Brad,” she said. “He likes sitting out there. I’ve been trying to teach him not to let dogs fuck his legs, but he’s a slow learner.”
“You’ve been here for like ten hours.”
I shook my head. “Where now?”
“Third trailer down.” My face was still stinging, and I assumed hers was, too, but the spray had been pretty weak sauce—I doubted her handlers trusted her with the high-power stuff. I debated the wisdom of taking her back to the trailer—just another chance for her to cause trouble—but she had a point about trying to pay off the Swanson family for their truck.
“They home?” I asked.
“She know you stole their truck?”
“I didn’t steal it—I was just learning how to drive, so I could help with the chores.”
“Did they know?”
I shook my head and dialed a number on my phone. “I got her,” I told the gruff voice. “She crashed a truck into me.”
“Is this you joking?”
“The truck and a rental. Shouldn’t be much.”
“Take care of it. How are you planning on bringing her back?”
“Liberal, Kansas is about fifteen miles away. They’ve got an airport, if you can get a plane there.”
I heard the sounds of computer keys clacking. “Half an hour.”
I hung up. “You have five minutes to get cleaned up and packed.”
“I told you—I’m not going.”
“I have shit that makes that pepper spray look like breath freshener. I don’t want to use it, but your family wants you back, and it’s my job to make that happen.”
“You fuck with me, I’ll have your balls on a stick! You think my daddy’s gonna be happy that some asshole bodyguard threatened me?”
“Your family knew what they were doing when they hired my firm. They might bitch and moan, but they knew the terms and conditions. I could drag your stupid ass back bloody and still shaking from Tazer current and it’d be acceptable. I don’t want to do that, because I’m a hell of a guy. But we will be at the Liberal airport in twenty-five minutes. Now move.”
She sulked for another couple of seconds, but when I opened my door, she jumped from the car like her ass was on fire. I followed her to the trailer—a singlewide with holes in the siding and several sun-bleached toys in the front yard—and up the rickety metal steps to the door.
She entered without knocking, and I followed. It smelled faintly of natural gas and baby powder, and there were toys scattered on the worn brown carpet.
“Who’s your friend, Tracy?”
I offered my friendliest smile as I turned towards the speaker. She was probably in her late thirties, but looked older—her hair was a bit unkempt, her skin a little too sun-tightened, and her life a little too difficult to retain the beauty of her younger days. Still, though, I found her beautiful.
Maybe it’s because she was so different from the people I usually encountered in my day-to-day life, or maybe it’s because she looked like she had strength of character and wisdom, or maybe it’s just because I dig tough chicks. Whatever it was, I liked her immediately.
“My name’s Rush,” I said. “I’m a friend of Tracy’s—I’ve come to pick her up.”
“Oh? From what I understood, she was going to be staying with us for a time.”
“Plans have changed—thank you for you help, though. It’s greatly appreciated.”
“What’s wrong with your face? And hers?”
“She tried to pepper spray me against the wind,” I said. I could have tried to come up with a lie, and maybe I would have even managed something semi-believable. But like I said, this woman seemed to be above the bullshit. She’d see through my lies, and make me her opponent. I had neither the time, nor the desire for that.
“And why’d she try that? You a kidnapper?”
“I was hired by the family.”
“I have to go wash this off,” Tracy said, and wandered down the hall to the bathroom. There was the sound of the door closing, and then of running water.
“She don’t want to go. You obviously picked up on that fact when she tried to pepper spray you.”
“I know she doesn’t want to go. But it’s in her best interest.”
“How do you know what her best interests are?”
“Becka…do you want the bullshit, or you want the truth?”
“Is there a difference, to men like you?”
“There is. The bullshit is that she’s a danger to herself and to others. The truth is that she’s a danger to herself and to others, and she’ll end up costing her family a lot of money. I don’t care about her family’s money.”
“So you’re doing this to help her?”
“Nope. I couldn’t care less about her, either. But it’s people like you, the people who are kind enough to try to help her—that’s what I care about.”
“Quite the silver tongue you’ve got there.”
“I get opportunity to polish it more than I’d like.”
“It ever occur to you that maybe that girl’d be fine if you people would just let her be? Cut her loose, let her live her life?”
“I have a line I spew about how these people aren’t able to take care of themselves. I try to find an example to really hit my point home. A story. I don’t have to make one up this time. She crashed into me. Your truck, right into the side of my rental car. She was trying to learn how to drive a stick-shift, so she could help you with chores.”
There was a look of shock on her face, and I saw her doing the mental math to figure out if they had enough to repair the truck. She saw me watching her and put the math away.
“Trucks can be fixed. Her heart’s in the right place.”
“Yeah, a truck can be fixed, and yeah, her heart’s in the right place. But that doesn’t make it okay, Becka. A block over, she would have plowed into the little boy on the stack of tires. You go out and look at my car, and then you tell me if you think a little retarded boy with armor made of leg-humping dogs would hold up nearly as well.”
Her face went pale, the movie reel of her imagination playing in her mind.
There was silence. Precious minutes passed. I wanted to go check on Tracy, but I knew I had to wait.
“He don’t like to be called retarded.”
“Brad—the boy on the tires—my nephew. He don’t like to be called retarded. He just doesn’t think so well. When he thinks, he does it just fine. But sometimes…well, sometimes, it’s like the switch just turns off.”
“I apologize for my offensive choice of words. I wanted to be blunt and cruel to make a point.”
“You made it,” she said. A bitter laugh accompanied her words.
“I have to go check on her.”
I started away.
“That’s the front door—the door you just came in.”
“I know,” I said, and stepped outside.
She was about halfway down the trailer, her top half hanging out a window that was almost big enough to allow her exit.
I walked over and stared up at her.
“You know, everyone I talk to seems to think you’re almost smart enough to live on your own. Not quite, or I wouldn’t have been able to track you this far. But almost. Just for the record, I don’t see it. When you’re finished being a fucking idiot, let me know, and we can be on our way.”
“Fuck you,” she said.
I went back inside, down the hallway to the bathroom. I opened the door and saw the lower half of her body suspended above the toilet, her legs kicking weakly. I lifted her up and drug her back in, and she screeched the entire time.
“What are you doing to that poor girl?” Becka asked.
“She got stuck trying to climb out the window.”
Becka shook her head, a tiny smile on her face.
I handed her a roll of bills. “That’s enough for a new truck. I would appreciate it if you would keep quiet about all this.”
“And if I don’t?”
This is generally the time that I would threaten or promise or do anything else from my bag of tricks. But she was testing me, and I felt like passing.
“Then you don’t. There might be guys coming around to talk tough, but I’m not one of them. All I can do is drop some cash and hope it’s enough to keep you quiet.”
I turned and looked at Tracy. “Let’s go.”
“What about my stuff?”
“We’ll pay for the shipping. Move.”
I loaded her into the back of the car, and then stood at the front of the car, wasting valuable time, hoping to have a few more words with Becka.
“You really should give her a chance, you know,” Becka said.
“It doesn’t matter if I do or don’t—I’m just the delivery guy.”
“Delivery guys can be human, too. I know you want to hate her, but maybe you should get to know her a little first.”
“I know her kind.”
“Shouldn’t judge a book by it’s cover, Mr. Rush.”
“It’s just Rush.”
“Good day, Rush.”
She smiled and waved to Tracy, and then went back inside.
I got in the car and hauled ass to the airport.
“She’s divorced, you know.”
I glanced up at her without interest. We had barely made the plane, but we had made it. In a matter of hours, I’d be back in the city I loved, surrounded by people I despised.
“Abusive husband. She left him. That’s why she’s living in that shitty trailer park, working two jobs and all that.”
“Okay,” I said.
“You’re wrong, you know that?”
“About people. You think you know everyone, but you don’t.”
“Thanks for the insight.”
“Like that—you think I’m an idiot. I’m not. I was raised a certain way, yes. I was sheltered from a normal life. I might be ignorant, but I’m not stupid.”
I put my newspaper aside. Believe it or not, this is my favorite part. Despite my overwhelming cynicism, I’m actually quite the optimist. I’d like to believe that each and every one of the tabloid-whores I fight to track down has the potential to become a real person. I’m usually disappointed.
“Maybe you should give it a shot. I mean, I’m not saying it’d work out—she lives in a trailer house in the middle of nowhere and you live in Los Angeles, so there are bound to be complications. But maybe you could try. I could tell you liked her, and I could tell that she liked you.” She laughed. “I was stuck in that damn window for five minutes listening to the two of you flirt. So instead of playing the tough-guy loner, maybe you should give her a call, invite her out to the coast.”
“You know, you’re not so bad when you aren’t being a fucking idiot.”
“And you aren’t so bad when you aren’t being an asshole. That’s an assumption, of course, considering that I’ve never seen you when you weren’t being an asshole.”
I laughed at that, and she laughed along with me.
“So why’d you take off?” I asked when we were done laughing.
She looked out the window for a few moments and then said, “I hate my life. I’m really not stupid, but I’ve been trained to be that way. My family has all those clothing stores and all those restaurants, right? It’s my job to keep our name in the headlines. It doesn’t matter if there’s any real reason for me to be on the front page—hell, it’s usually better if it’s some superficial shit. As long as the name’s out there, reminding people. And I’m…tired.
“Tired of the lifestyle, tired of being a distraction and a living advertisement. I’m tired of being sheltered and ignorant and lame. We get stuck in our roles, right? And I shouldn’t complain. I’m not some kid in the hood, struggling to get an education instead of selling drugs. I don’t have to work at a fast food place or fold shirts at the mall. But I’m stuck, nonetheless. I’m forced to be something I’m not, something I don’t want to be.
“Sometimes, I dream of being something different. Something better. And that’s why I took off.”
“That’s a pretty good reason,” I said.
The plane touched down, and the crowd was waiting. I wasn’t sure if it was a planned thing or not—no cell phones on the plane, and the jet hadn’t had any of those phone that were airline approved, so I had been out of the loop for the duration of the flight. I shuffled her through the crowd, and she spouted her lines of tabloid-whore bullshit, something about how she went on a journey to discover America, and she was going to dedicate all of her time to saving her country.
“In a week, I’ll be at bars and clubs, and everyone will scoff at my promises and talk about what a selfish, spoiled brat I am,” she told me in the limo. “They’ll never know about anonymous contributions, or about how hard I really try to help.”
“You ever thought about doing it public?” I asked her. “Do something good with the headlines?”
She laughed a laugh that made me feel stupid.
“People like me, we’re like big, dumb dogs with big, dumb tails. You run around trying to do good, you’d just fuck shit up. Besides—none of that would be nearly as interesting to the press. Just like you, I have a job to do. I don’t like it, but I’m good at it.”
The car pulled to a stop in front of her mansion, and she looked across the limo at me.
“She’s single, you know,” she said.
“You mentioned that. Who’s Dave, then?”
“Her brother. Really nice guy.”
“Hm.” I thought about telling her that maybe she should start out slower next time. I thought about telling her to try to do something good with the family name—a soup kitchen, or some charity work or something. I thought about telling her good luck with her next attempt.
But I didn’t.
I don’t know why, really. Maybe just because we were back in L.A., and no matter how real the sentiment is, it always seems fake here.
“I guess that’s it, then,” she said.
She stepped out of the car, into the hands of her handlers.
“How was the trip?” The Newbie asked. We were at a bar, because I didn’t feel like being in the office. Sometimes you want a delicious bagel, and sometimes you want a boiler-maker.
“Same shit, different day.”
“You look different than when you left. A little better.”
“You hittin’ on me?”
“Not quite. You meet a girl?”
“Met a few.” I drained my glass and signaled for another.
“You fall in love with any of them?”
“One of the most important lessons you can learn around here is when to ask questions and when to shut up.”