It’s not like I have to explain who Eden is. After four gold records, one double-platinum, a Grammy, and that movie with Tom Cruise, she’s so well known she stopped using her last name five years back. Every blink of her baby blues is tracked by tabloids, biz mags, E-channels, and hundreds of web sites. Any American not living under a rock can recognize her face on sightÃ¢Â?Â¦try saying that about the Vice-President or the Secretary of State.
She’s loaded, too. Private chauffeur, mansion in Beverly Hills, the works. Money attracts people the way a stink does flies, although most of them just buzz around begging for autographs or gushing about how her music changed their lives. Every so often, there’s a wasp among those dungflies, though, and I step in like a two-legged can of Raid.
I’m Eden’s bodyguard.
So why I am parked in a broken-down beater across the street from her mansion at five-thirty in the morning? Shouldn’t I stand outside her bedroom door with sunglasses and a Glock, maybe wearing one of those earpieces that spiral into my gray tailored suit? Grow up, for Chrissake. This isn’t a James Bond movie. I’m a professional. I stay close but apart, like her guardian angel. When I’m out here, those paparazzi pukes don’t notice me and splash my picture across the supermarket rags. When I’m out here, the wackos think Eden’s unguarded and they get careless, which makes them easy to spot. And to deal with.
Case in point: that bum over there.
He dumpster-dives down the alley behind her compound, pushing a shopping cart loaded four feet high with bulging garbage sacks and topped with an American flag tacked on a yardstick. Her trash bin should be locked, but he’s lifting the lid. Her dumbass Cuban maid must’ve left the chain off again. As he peeks inside, the bum goes up on tiptoe to get a better look, and I notice his shoes: black leather Versace.
I start the car and throw it in gear; he pulls a garbage bag from the dumpster and looks back for more, holding up the heavy steel lid with one hand. As my Taurus cuts across the boulevard and launches into the alley, he looks up with owlish eyes and a slack jaw. I smash his cart and send it skittering and pinwheeling along the asphalt, spraying old clothes, empty cans, and lumpy plastic bags as it goes. The bum is so surprised he lets the lid drop and the heavy steel plate whangs across the fingers of his other hand, which still clutch the dumpster’s rim. He howls and hops around in a weird sort of dance, cradling his injured fingers.
Sometimes a little drama is good, so I bust out of the car like LA Vice and he lurches into a ridiculous, shuffling jog. I could catch him easy, but the point has been made.
“Homeless don’t wear Versace, moron,” I call after him.
I secure the dumpster with the chain, making a mental note to tell Eden to get a new maid. The garbage bag I toss in the back seat: I’ll go through it later to see what he was after.
The next few hours are uneventful, the way I like them. I eat my two-granola-bar breakfast and listen to Eden’s first album, White Roses. Before I started working for her I never listened to her music. Now it never leaves my tape deck. Her voice is a handful of gravel tossed in a pint of cream, and it makes me feel like she’s right there in the seat beside me. I find myself toying with the silver hoop earring that dangles from the cigarette lighter.
I’ve only met Eden face to face once, the first and only time I’ve been backstage at a concert. A local radio station had a call-in contest to promote the White Roses tour, and I was lucky number thirty-seven. Caller Sixteen from the day before was also there, a ditsy teenage redhead with googly eyes and an “I Heart Eden” shirt. She kept eyeing the muscle-bound security guys in the waiting area like they were going to jump her. She should be so lucky.
After a second encore, Eden ran offstage, wearing a sheen of perspiration and a silver-spangled halter-top. She dazzled the room with her smile. She shook Sixteen’s hand, saw her nervous glances at the “bodyguards,” and told her not to worry.
“They’re just for show,” she said. She was looking right at me.
She asked my name, and for a heart-stopping moment, I couldn’t remember. She looked up at me through long lashes, waiting, her breathing still a little heavy from her performance. Her delicate pink tongue touched her upper lip. Her hand brushed a damp lock of hair from her face.
“It’s Raymond. Ray,” I said, as if dredging up an ancient memory.
“Thanks for coming to the show, Ray,” she said, “It’s great to have you here.” But there was something elseÃ¢Â?Â¦
It suddenly clicked. She was asking for my help, asking for my protection. She had bodyguards, but they’re just for show. It’s great to have YOU here. Eden was privately offering me a job in the middle of a public conversation! I was amazed a rock star could be so subtle, so savvy. I made my decision on the spot.
“I’ll be around for all your shows,” I said, holding out my hand.
“Fantastic,” she said. When she shook my hand, she pressed it with her left hand too, sealing the deal.
She smiled and started to leave, then stopped. She pushed back her hair and took off the silver hoop earrings she was wearing. With one in each palm, she offered them to the girl and I.
“You guys want a souvenir?”
Sixteen nearly wet herself, but I managed to display a calm reserve I didn’t feel. She pressed the earring into my hand, gave me a knowing smile, and was gone. A year and thirty-seven concerts later, I’ve kept my promise. I haven’t missed a single concert (though I buy a general-seating ticket to keep a low profile) and no loony has ever gotten through to Eden on my watch.
It’s nine-thirty when the action starts at her compound. The wrought-iron gate swings silently inward and her car pulls out. It’s not a limousine–she’s not that pretentious, no matter what Variety says. She rides in a black Cadillac Escalade with tinted windows and a driver named Johan. I happen to know the middle seats have been turned to face the third row so it feels like a limo inside.
I follow them down to Rodeo Drive, and they stop at a boutique called Chez Marcel. Johan starts to walk around, but she is out before he can open her door. Like I said, she’s not pretentious. In public, she wears a baseball cap, sunglasses, and jeans and looks like any other girl trolling the Drive.
The Escalade leaves and I get out my digital camera and take a shot of the store. At some point I’ll give the place a shakedown to check its security. Fans will go to any lengths to get a star’s measurements, clothes they’ve tried on, anything. People are crazy, and I can’t be too careful.
Forty minutes later, Eden emerges with several bags and makes a call on her cell, probably to Johan. A man in a gray blazer (he’s got to be sweating in that, given the heat of the morning) approaches her and starts talking, and she chats back. It makes me crazy when she does this, but she likes “connecting with her fans.” The guy seems sane enough: he’s not mobbing her or anything, but I snap a few pictures of him anyway, zooming in on his face. After a moment, she shakes his hand and he walks away.
As her car glides up, Eden pulls off her sunglasses, biting the end of an earpiece. From across the street, our eyes meet, lock. Her lips purse around the earpiece as if she is about to blow me a kiss. Careful, I silently mouth to her. She quickly looks away and climbs into the car.
I follow her home and continue on two blocks to my temporary apartment. Eden won’t go out again today, so I can relax a little. My place is on the fourth floor, above a liquor store and two levels of empty offices. It’s not much more than an attic: tiny, dusty, and sans central air, but it’s home for now. I rented it because it’s two stories higher than the building next to it and has a window with the view I need. Its only decoration is a poster on the wall, an enlargement from the cover of the White Lies album.
I haul up the garbage bag stolen by the vagrant-cum-loony and drop it on the unfinished wood floor, then do a quick check out the window. The Escalade is in the driveway and there’s no activity by the pool, so I crack a bottle of Cuervo and pour myself a double. This isn’t the regular stuff, it’s the Family Reserve, seventy-nine bucks a bottle, and the first sip reminds me why I buy the best.
Using orange latex kitchen gloves, I open the trash bag. These checks I do monitor how conscientious her staff is about security; loonies can learn too much by going through unguarded trash. Nearby is a pad of paper and a pen for notes.
Among the food scraps and old newspapers are crumpled bags from Coco Chanel and Boulmiche. She should cut off the store names and burn them so fans won’t know where she shops, but she tends to forget this. I make a note of it on the pad. There is an empty bottle of Cuervo Reserva di Familia. It’s an odd but endearing coincidence that we drink the same tequila, although she mixes it in margaritas and I take it straight. The rest of the trash seems to be the straightforward detritus of American life. Then I notice a few crumpled papers.
They are pre-printed with music tablature, but they’ve been marked up with several handwritten bars of notesÃ¢Â?Â¦clearly an original song in progress. This is what that morning snoop was after. Spies like him plague the music business: why do you think so many radio songs sound the same? Of course, those young, no-talent “musicians” couldn’t match Eden’s voice even with her music, but some wooden-eared fans might not care. This is a serious breach of security, and I write ALWAYS BURN OLD MUSIC in block letters on the notepad.
Stripping off the gloves, I stroll with my glass to the window. Eden is lounging by the pool now, wearing a light blue bikini. Near the window stands a spotting scope on a tripod, and I peer through it to check on my charge. She seems to be in a relaxed frame of mind, so the fan at the boutique didn’t bother her. Good.
It would be too easy to be distracted by her perfect body, so I return my gaze to the apartment. Eden smiles at me from the White Lies poster. It shows her from behind, looking sexily over her shoulder at the camera. Her right hand rests in the small of her back, and her index and middle fingers are crossed.
I didn’t realize the significance of that hand until halfway through the White Lies tour. At a bus stop, a deaf man was bumming change in exchange for little cards printed with the sign language alphabet. I always help the less fortunate, so I gave him some change and looked over the card as I waited for the 93 Express. Then I saw it. That hand gesture, the crossed fingers? It’s the American Sign Language symbol for “R.”
That was when I realized that Eden is in love with me. Millions of men would kill to say that, but believe me, it’s pure torture. Imagine waking up to a face like hers, with a voice like that in your ear! Such an exquisite temptation, dangling at my fingertips, yet I can’t pluck the fruit. Like I said, I’m a professional. Whitney Houston may do the horizontal tango with her bodyguard, but I won’t fall into that trap with Eden. I won’t put my feelings ahead of her safety.
It hurts her, though, I can tell. She still sends me messages, sneaks hints now and then (Unrequited Love on the White Knights album was basically written for me), but despite our mutual torment, I make her keep her distance. It’s better that way, for now.
I drain my glass and gather the scattered trash off my floor when I notice a wadded ball of paper I hadn’t seen. It turns out to be a letter from Sidney, her manager.
“Eden,” it says, “I think I’ve found a way to handle that guy that’s been bothering you. I’ll take care of it, don’t worry.”
Anger simmers in my gut. If there’s some loony on the make for Eden, he should have come to me. Sydney’s a dickweed. Why do these amateurs always think they can handle things themselves?
I dash back to the window and scope the compound. Eden is still sunbathing, drinking a Margarita and reading Variety. The boulevard is sleepy in the noon heat, the only traffic a lone rollerblader cruising by. Perimeter clear.
A car, a convertible, idles down the alley behind the compound’s wall, then turns left onto the boulevard. Just when I think it’s nothing, it stops directly across from the front gate and the driver kills the engine. He is alone in the car; beside him on the front seat is a folded suit jacket. After a bit, he reaches for it and digs through the pockets for something. Sunlight glints off metal.
I zoom in. As he fishes out a pack of Camels, I can see a pistol on the seat under the jacket. A semi-automatic, stuck in a leather shoulder holster. The man lights up, and I recognize his face at the same instant I recognize his jacket: a gray blazer.
I recoil, horrified that I haven’t noticed him around before. Just to be sure, I grab my camera and review today’s shots on its built-in screen. Sure enough, it’s Gray Blazer man from Chez Marcel. I take several more pictures of him and his car, cursing that I haven’t bought that super-telephoto lens I’ve been wanting.
Movement attracts my eye. The front gate opens and Eden’s manager emerges. Gray Blazer gets out of the car and meets him near the tall brick gateposts. They talk a moment, Sydney hands him a manila envelope, and the two shake hands and separate. I’m crazy to know what they said.
Gray Blazer returns to his car, still watching the front gate. He opens the envelope, pulls out a stack of cash and fans it. I can’t quite see the denominations, but there are at least twenty bills in his fist.
“Dammit, Sydney!” I shout to the air, “You can’t pay off these loonies, don’t you know that?”
For the rest of the day, my face is glued to the scope, even though I develop a splitting headache behind my right eye. Not much happens: Eden returns inside, Sidney’s Mercedes drives away, and Gray Blazer sits in the convertible. He doesn’t even have the good grace to try to hide his presence.
As the sun sets behind the western palms and streetlights flicker on, the loony reaches for the jacket. He pulls the gun from its hiding place and slips the shoulder rig across his back, then dons the blazer. He starts the car and pulls a small device from a pocket, keying it toward the compound. The gate opens and he pulls in. Where on earth did he get a remote?
My heart leaps as I realize: Sydney wasn’t paying off a loony. He was hiring him. Her own manager has contracted a crazy to kidnap her, kill her, rape her or worse, and I’m her last line of defense. Her White Knight.
I bolt away from the window and don’t even shut my door as I dash out. By the time I pound down four flights of stairs to the street, I’m panting like a dog, but I press on and sprint the intervening blocks.
As I turn up the boulevard, I see the front gate is closed again, but I’m headed for the back anyway. A few weeks back, that dumbass maid (bless her little Cuban heart) broke the key off in the rear gate and then threw away the pieces. I had a new key made to replace it, but I keep forgetting to give it to Eden. It’s still in my pocket, praise every god and his mother.
The key twists. The gate opens. I run by the pool, swatting aside low-hanging palm fronds and dodging the dim shapes of lounge chairs that crouch in the gathering gloom. There is a glass patio door leading to a darkened room, and I tug on the handle, expecting it to be locked. It slides open effortlessly, soundlessly. I enter.
Thick carpet absorbs my footfalls and I ease the door closed. The room is split-level, with a massive pool table in the lower section and a bar with several padded chairs on the upper. The air is still, chilled, and smells faintly of coconut oil; the only illumination is a soft ambient glow through a doorway on the far wall.
I hear a noise. Footsteps, close by, dress shoes on tile. It could be him, he with the Gray Blazer and the loaded pistol. I have charged into the dragon’s cave without armor or a sword. I suddenly feel very defenseless, and I cast about for some kind of weapon. A pool cue lies on the table, a three-piece job, designed to come apart for traveling. I unscrew the smallest section, leaving a wooden truncheon about three feet long. It’ll have to do.
The doorway leads to an entry floored in green marble, lit by a brass wall sconce. A curved stone staircase sweeps up, railed with an iron banister.
He is already halfway up the stairs.
I wait until he reaches the upper landing and disappears from sight, then I kick off my sandals and whisper across the stone, climbing the stairs and brandishing the pool cue like a sword. My heart thuds in my ears and my breath comes quick and shallow, though from fear or exertion I cannot tell. A furtive peek around the wall reveals a short hallway with three doors on the right side, and a nearby table topped with some kind of African statue. The last door is just closing.
I move into the hallway, fixated on the third door, gripping the wooden cue until my knuckles blanch. Suddenly, the second door snaps opens, trapping and blinding me in light. The doorway frames Eden, beautiful even when startled. She lets out a small shriek as she sees me–who can blame her?
“Stay calm,” I tell her, “There’s a man inside the house. He–“
–is barreling out the third door at me, the gun lifting to find its aim. My mind registers a thousand details. The spicy smell of Eden’s perfume. The man, gray blazer gone, face twisted in anger. The sweat stains under the arms of his shirt.
I leap past Eden, throwing myself between the assassin and my charge, and I bring down the pool cue with both hands. It cracks across his right forearm and snaps. He grunts and drops the gun, which discharges as it hits the floor. The bullet whaps past my left ear and sprays plaster from the wall. Eden screams.
He charges through the powder smoke and I grab him, wrestling to keep him away from her. My ears are ringing, my breath is short, and the man’s strength is prodigious, but I bulldog him down the hall toward the stairs. We smash through the table with the African idol and he slams me into a wall. I dimly register my head shattering the glass of some painting.
I gather my strength, shoving forward and leveraging off the wall. He overbalances and topples back, dragging me with him at the last moment. Together we bounce and crunch down the marble stairs, careening into the iron baluster, slamming into stone risers, and ending in a heap at the bottom. A tangled pile of pain.
One of my eyes is swelling up and there is a slick wet feeling down the back of my neck. I try to rise, but pain stabs through my left leg and I collapse again. Gray Blazer tries to grab me, but one of his hands flops sickeningly and a splinter of red-smeared bone pierces the skin of his wrist. He screams in anguish, but still manages to latch onto my throat with his good hand.
“Who are you?” he shouts with a hoarse voice.
I slash a hand at his arm, striking the compound fracture with my fist. He screams again and falls back, and I heave myself on top of him, jamming my forearm into his trachea. I can taste blood in my mouth, the bitter taste of rust.
Eden is halfway down the stairs, screaming through tears. Both hands clutch the pistol, aiming for Gray Blazer although her hands wobble and if she fires I can’t be certain who she’ll hit. I turn back to the loony, managing a gory smile.
“The name’s Ray. I’m her bodyguard. Her White Knight.”
Eden’s face has gone strangely cold. I have never seen this side of her. She stands, swaying, and it’s probably just the parallax from the stairs, but the gun seems to be pointing at me. She speaks in a voice as cold as space.
“He’s my bodyguard, you stalker son of a bitch.”
A thousand details. Hard-set baby blues. A muzzle flash. A spent casing spinning in the air, and the beginning of a deafening report cut short by a mulekick to the head.
Then only the whiteness.