First Chapter XO by Jeffery Deaver
  • XO by Jeffery Deaver

    Chapter One

    Subject: Re: You’re the Best!!!
    2 January 10:32 a.m.

    Hey there, Edwin—

    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!!!!!
    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!!!!!
    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!!!
    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 . . .

    Back to the planning. This show had to be different from the previous one here, about eight months ago. A retooled program was especially important since many of the fans would have regularly attended her hometown concerts and she wanted to make sure they got something unexpected. That was one thing about Kayleigh Towne’s music; her audiences weren’t as big as some but were loyal as golden retrievers. They knew her lyrics cold, knew her guitar licks, knew her moves onstage and laughed at her shtick before she finished the lines. They lived and breathed her performances, hung on her words, knew her bio and likes and dislikes.

    And some wanted to know much more . . .

    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 dozens 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 dozens 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.

    And what’re you worried about? You’re not alone. The band wasn’t in town yet – they were finishing some studio work in Nashville – but Bobby was at the huge Midas XL8 mixing console dominating the control deck in the back of the hall, two hundred feet away. Alicia was getting the rehearsal rooms in order. A couple of the beefy guys in Bobby’s road crew were unpacking the truck in the back, assembling and organizing the hundreds of cases and tools and props and plywood sheets and stands and wires and amps and instruments and computers and tuners – the tons of gear that even modest touring bands like Kayleigh’s needed.

    She supposed one of them could get to her in a hurry if the source of the shadow, had been him.

    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.

    ‘You gotta give the fans the package,’ Bishop Towne always said. ‘That’s visual too, I’m talking. And the standards’re different ’tween men and women. You get into trouble, you deny it.’ He meant that in the Country music world a man could get away with a look like Bishop’s own: jutting belly, cigarette, a lined, craggy face riddled with stubble, wrinkled shirt, scuffed boots and faded jeans. A woman singer, he lectured – though he really intended to say ‘girl’ – had to be put together for date night. And in Kayleigh’s case that meant a church social, of course: the good girl next door was the image on which she’d built her career. Sure, the jeans could be a little tight, the blouses and sweaters could closely hug her round chest but the necklines were high. The make-up was subtle and leaned toward pinks.

    ‘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.’

    ‘Acoustics good here?’ asked Alicia, who had been a performer herself; she had quite a voice and a love of music, which was undoubtedly why she’d taken a job for someone like Kayleigh Towne, when the efficient, no-nonsense woman could have earned twice as much as a personal assistant for a corporate executive. She’d signed on last spring and had never heard the band perform here.

    ‘Oh, the sound is great,’ Kayleigh said enthusiastically, glancing at the ugly concrete walls. ‘You wouldn’t think it.’ She explained how the designers of the venue, back in the 1960s, had done their homework; too many concert halls – even sophisticated ones intended for classical music – had been built by people without the confidence in the natural ability of musical instruments and voices to reach the farthest seats with ‘direct volume,’ that is, the sound emanating from the stage. Architects would add angular surfaces and free-standing shapes to boost the volume of the music, which did that but also sent the vibrations in a hundred different directions. This resulted in every performer’s acoustic nightmare, reverberation: in effect, echoes upon echoes that yielded muddy, sometimes even off-key, sounds.

    Here, in modest Fresno, Kayleigh explained to Alicia, as her father had to her, the designers had trusted in the power and purity of the voice and drum skin and sounding board and reed and string. She was about to ask the assistant to join her in a chorus of one of her songs to prove her point – Alicia did great harmonies – when she noticed her looking toward the back of the hall. She assumed the woman was bored with the scientific discussion. But the frowning gaze suggested something else was on her mind.

    ‘What?’ Kayleigh asked.

    ‘Isn’t it just us and Bobby?’

    ‘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.