The radio news announcer babbled while A.J. poured pancake batter—she wasn’t really listening until Andy sat up straight and said, “Oh,
“Didn’t you hear that? That thing about Nicole falling out with her fan club?”
“I know. It’s hard to picture Nicole getting on the bad side of a lot of teenage boys.”
Andy’s wide blue eyes grew even wider. “What are you talking about?”
“Well, who else would be in Nicole’s fan club? She wasn’t exactly Meryl Streep.”
started that fan club. Don’t you remember?”
He said, “Back when Nicole was our client. We set up an Internet fan club for her. She’d just done that horror flick . . . I forget what it was called. The thing about the demon bride. Anyway, she had all these creepy kids join up.”
“ They weren’t just kids,” A.J. said, her memory belatedly kicking in. “What was her name? The one who took over as fan club president?”
“Lydia Thorne. What a freak. I almost felt sorry for Nicole—with friends like that . . .”
Studying his dismayed expression, A.J. said bracingly, “It’s nothing to do with us. I mean, even if Lydia did something—and that’s pretty farfetched, right?—how many presidents of fan clubs actually—”
“You saw the movie
,” Andy interrupted, and A.J. fell silent.
After a moment she recovered. “First off, we don’t know that Lydia or the fan club is implicated. The fact that Nicole had a falling out with her fan club could be just a rumor. Secondly, even if Nicole did have some kind of break with the fan club, that doesn’t have anything to do with us—you. Nicole dispensed with our services years ago—not long after she got the role in
When Nicole had been hired to play Bambi Marciano, she had decided that she needed a more high-profile company to handle her promotion. It had stung a little, but mostly it had been a relief; Nicole was high maintenance.
set up the fan club.
put Lydia Thorne in place as president of that fan club. If Lydia did have something to do with Nicole’s death, and word gets out . . .”
Meeting Andy’s stricken gaze, A.J. said, “I guess I could ask Jake if there’s any truth to the rumor. I don’t know that he’ll tell me. He’s not exactly chatty about his work.”
“Ask him,” Andy said. “If the fan club is implicated, I’ve got some damage control to do.”
A.J. thought Andy was taking their—his—responsibility in this too seriously, but she had seen the media in action often enough to know that sometimes the most innocent things could be exaggerated into full-blown scandal. Their connection to Nicole’s fan club was well in the past, but they had, in theory at least, vetted and approved Lydia to take over the fan club—which did give Lydia limited access to Nicole. A case could be made that they had not done everything in their power to protect a client.
They continued to listen to the radio during breakfast, but there seemed no additional news. After breakfast Andy got out his laptop and A.J. phoned Jake. He didn’t answer, but he did call back within a few hours.
“Hey. Sorry, I was in the middle of something. I was thinking of dropping by a little later.”
“Well, no.” Jake sounded awkward. “I can’t stay. We’re working round the clock on this one. But I wanted to get your phone back to you.”
“Oh. Right.” A.J. tried not to let her disappointment show in her voice. It irritated her that she even felt disappointment. She enjoyed time spent with Jake, but she did
want to get serious about anyone for a long time to come.
She said, “I heard on the news that there might be a connection to Nicole’s fan club?”
“A.J., you know I can’t discuss a homicide investigation with you.” That weary note brought color to A.J.’s face.
She said shortly, “I only mention it because Andy and I set up Nicole’s fan club.”
“What are you talking about?”
A.J. explained exactly what she was talking about. When she finished, Jake said, “Let me get this straight. A couple of freelance marketing consultants set up a bogus fan club for the Manning woman?”
“It wasn’t a
fan club,” A.J. said, getting exasperated despite her good intentions. “We set up an Internet fan club, but the people who joined were genuine fans. Mostly boys between the ages of fourteen to sixteen. There was nothing fake about it. We just organized it. Once it was up and running we handed it—with Nicole’s blessing—over to a woman named Lydia Thorne.”
“What kind of a background check did you do on the Thorne woman?”
“I don’t remember. Andy could tell you. I don’t think it was anything too extreme. It’s not like we were giving her access to Nicole’s bank account or home address. The company that took over Nicole’s promotion might have done their own checking—it was Nicole’s official fan club, after all.”
“It was up until six months ago,” Jake said grimly. “But apparently Nicole’s organization revoked ‘official’ status after the Thorne woman began writing hostile reviews of Nicole’s work and posting them all over the Internet.”
“ That’s one word for it,” Jake said. “And after Nicole’s people put Lydia out to pasture, things really got nasty. She began sending Nicole hate mail—sometimes using her own name, sometimes posting anonymously. Only it wasn’t really anonymous because she was using the same IP address with the different hotmail accounts.”
A.J. felt a little sick.
“I’ll need to talk to Belleson,” Jake said into her silence.
“You can talk to him when you drop my phone off. An dy’s staying here for a couple of days.”
“Belleson is staying with you?” Even though A.J. wasn’t crazy about Andy staying with her, the displeasure in Jake’s voice put her back up. And it didn’t help when he added, “I didn’t realize you two were on slumber-party terms again.”
“I guess it depends on how you define ‘slumber party,’ ” she said shortly. “He’s a friend and he’s visiting for a few days.”
“ Then I guess I’ll have a word with him later today.”
“I’ll tell him,” A.J. said, and that was pretty much that.
Jake rang off and A.J. went to find Andy. He was still glued to his laptop. “Look at this. I ran a search on Lydia Thorne. She’s posted review after review of Nicole’s work on the net.”
“Jake said she posted a lot of hostile reviews of Nicole’s movies. Nicole’s people took away the fan club’s ‘official’ status.”
“ ‘ Hostile’ doesn’t begin to cover it,” Andy said. “Listen to this. ‘Manning sleepwalks her way through the role of Karen. Someone should have given her a NoDoz—not to mention the audience.’ And that’s one of the positive reviews. Not only that, this is for one of Nicole’s earliest films.”
“Well, Lydia had already reviewed this—glowingly. She’d reviewed all Nicole’s movies, remember? That was partly how she came to our attention. She adored Nicole and she adored her work. But from what I can see, it looks like she went back and revised her initial reviews.”
“Something happened between Lydia and Nicole.”
“Safe to say.” Andy studied A.J. speculatively.
“I was just thinking . . . You could phone her. I might still have her number somewhere, unless she changed it.”
A.J. recoiled. “Why would I want to call her?”
“It would be good to know if she’s involved. If she is, I need to start doing damage control. Pronto.”
“Lydia Thorne isn’t going to tell me if she’s involved in Nicole’s death.”
Andy gnawed his lip. “But you might get a feel for whether she’s telling the truth,” he said. “You always had good instincts about people.”
“Yes.” Meeting the irony in her gaze, he said stubbornly, “Yes, you did.”
A.J. shook her head. “I’m not calling Lydia. Sorry. If you want to call her, be my guest.”
“I’m not the sleuth of the family,” Andy protested.
Was that a lame attempt at buttering her up? He’d apparently switched to margarine since their divorce. “Note to Andy: I’m not getting involved in another murder investigation.”
“ Then go stay with my mother,” A.J. returned pleasantly.
“She’s in Egypt.”
All the same, A.J. enjoyed her Sunday. Most of the day was spent reading and chatting; Andy had taken care not to impose. He had gone for two long walks accompanied by Monster—who, according to Andy, did not exactly “accompany” him so much as
The only real disturbance came in the form of two telephone calls from local TV stations wanting to interview A.J. She had declined politely but firmly. She was less polite with a national newspaper offering to pay her for an exclusive recounting of discovering Nicole’s body—and the photos off her cell phone.
“How would they even know about those?” she demanded of Andy.
“ There are no secrets in this life,” Andy said. “ There are only delayed revelations.”
“Speaking as a former messenger.”
Reluctantly, she’d laughed.
In the evening Andy fried crispy vegetable wontons and grilled skewers of chicken
, which they dipped in a light cilantro pesto as they finally settled down to watch the DVD of
Sex and the City
that A.J. had rented the day before. They drank ruby slipper cocktails and critiqued the movie with merciless pleasure, keeping each other laughing—just like old times. Maybe too much so.
Around eight o’clock Jake finally showed up to return A.J.’s cell phone, the Stillbrook Police Department having safely downloaded the pictures she had taken of the murder scene.
A.J. showed him into the den where Andy had put the movie on hold. Jake sat down, eyeing the cocktails glasses on the coffee table with a raised eyebrow.
“Don’t worry, neither of us is driving anywhere tonight,” A.J. said—and both Andy and Jake stared at her.
She wasn’t exactly baiting Jake—well, maybe come to think of it, she was. Where did Jake get off judging her and her friendship with Andy? It wasn’t as though they were a couple. Not exactly. They went out once a week or so, but Jake had not pushed for anything more—which A.J. told herself she was glad about because she wasn’t ready for anything heavier than the most relaxed and casual of relationships.
From the local gossip A.J. had picked up, Jake had enjoyed a fairly active social life—given the limitations of his work schedule—and she wasn’t sure he didn’t still date other women. They certainly had never discussed keeping things exclusive.
So it was a little annoying when Andy scowled at her and turned to Jake, asking graciously, “What’ll you have to drink, Jake?”
That was just Andy’s good manners, but A.J. could see it had the wrong effect on Jake—Andy probably appearing to be a little too much at home.
“I’m still on the clock,” he said.
“Oh, right,” Andy said. “Have you had a break in the case yet?”
It was almost entertaining to watch Jake struggle with the desire to squelch Andy. Andy wasn’t easy to squelch, which was one reason he was so good at his job. People had trouble saying no to him.
“ Too soon to say,” Jake clipped. “However, I do want to ask you a few questions.” He proceeded to quiz them—Andy mostly—about the fan club. Taking them back to the beginning of their brief working relationship with Nicole, he focused mostly on how they had selected Lydia to be the fan club president.
“It wasn’t rocket science. She worshipped Nicole,” Andy said. “And we were looking for someone willing to take the thing over as soon as possible. Nicole really got into the concept of having a fan club, and she had all kinds of plans—none of which we had time to carry out. We were the idea people. But someone like Lydia who was willing to moderate a discussion list and handle contests and just generally act as head cheerleader was perfect.”
A.J. selected a fried wonton. It crunched noisily as she bit into it. Jake’s gaze moved to hers. Neither looked away. “How did you pick her?” he asked Andy.
“Sorry? Oh, Lydia. She was the first person to join the fan club. She mentioned right off the bat that she’d written reviews of all Nicole’s work, and sure enough, there they were. Rave reviews. Any place you could post as a fan, Lydia had posted.”
“And this fan club was an Internet group?”
“Mostly,” A.J. put in. “I think some of the members got together for premieres and the occasional meal. I think it had social club aspects for a lot of them.”
“It was national or local?”
“National, but the largest concentration of fans was here in Jersey. A few people knew each other offline and socialized in real life.”
“Socialized . . . based on being big fans of Nicole Manning?”
A.J. said, “You have to understand about fandom. It’s its own world. People come together based on passion for stamp collecting or bird watching or the Jonas Brothers or the Harry Potter books or Japanese manga—you name it, but they often form genuine friendships beyond the object of their interest.”
“I’ll take your word for it.”
“My mother has a small but fanatical cult following,” A.J. informed him. “As one example.”
“You don’t have to convince me that your mother would attract a bunch of nuts.” Jake was grinning, but almost instantly he was back to business. “Did either of you ever meet Lydia?”
Both A.J. and Andy shook their heads.
“And what kind of background check did you do?”
A.J. looked at Andy. Andy shook his head. “I think we ran a credit check.” He added earnestly, “ The thing you have to understand is that Nicole corresponded with Lydia directly. In the early days of her career, she used to post to her message boards and discussion list. She was active online, and she communicated with her fans. She and Lydia connected. I mean, their relationship continued offline.”