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Well, here we go again,” I said with a sigh as my brother and I stood in the empty hotel suite. Empty, because the actress we’d spent the last week or so trying to protect, Anya Archer, was missing from her hotel room. On its own, this wouldn’t be cause for alarm, but my bro and I had discovered that people would stop at nothing to get to Anya. They had set her trailer on fire, tried to electrocute her, and even stuffed a poisonous scorpion in her bag—and that’s just for starters. Anya spent so much time in fear that she wasn’t likely to go out on her own.
“We don’t know for sure that anything’s wrong yet,” replied my brother, Frank, ever the logical one. “All we know is she’s not here. Maybe she ran out for a coffee.”
“Or maybe whoever’s really been trying to scare the bejesus out of her hasn’t been caught yet and took her,” interrupted Zolo from behind us. Zolo, Anya’s costar in the movie Deathstalker and a generally solid guy, had been the first to notice that Anya was missing when he’d stopped by her room for some pre-bedtime yoga. He’d alerted their movie director, Jaan, and . . . well, here we were.
See, a couple of weeks ago Frank and I got an assignment: protect Anya Archer from someone who was threatening her on the set of the movie Deathstalker. Deathstalker, for all of you uninitiated, is a pretty kick-butt comic series about a girl who gets special powers after an alien ship crashes into her house—including the power to sting like a scorpion. And yeah, I may have read an issue or two even before we got this assignment. The Deathstalker movie was one of the most hotly anticipated films in years—and actresses all over Hollywood had been dying for the part! But in a risky move, the director, Jaan St. John, had held a nationwide talent search and in the end decided to cast a total unknown—Anya Archer. Anya is seventeen and a total acting newbie. Her ace in the hole, though? She looks exactly like the Death-stalker from the comics.
But not everyone is psyched about Anya in the role. The Deathstalker blogs (yeah, there are blogs) are full of angry rants about how Anya’s totally wrong for the part and is going to ruin the movie. Soon after shooting began, some seriously weird stuff went down. First someone set her trailer on fire. Then Anya got some scary texts, and flowers with threatening notes attached. When a creepy cut-up photo of her was left in her trailer, it became pretty clear the perpetrator had easy access to the set. Since Frank and I had arrived on the scene, things had gotten even more deadly. Someone electrified a microphone Anya was supposed to use at a fan convention. The shock was enough to fry her to death. Then someone messed with the safety net around a wind tunnel Anya was meant to use as part of a stunt, causing her stunt double to fall to a terrible death.
It wasn’t like Frank and I had been sitting on our hands here. We’d identified not one, not two, but three culprits—one wacko fan, Myles Eccleston; one bodyguard who wanted to scare Anya into loving him, Big Bobby; and one production assistant—Anson—who had been blackmailed by Big Bobby into helping. Strangely enough, none of them had admitted to pulling the scariest acts, like the fire or the wind tunnel. Which meant we still had some unsolved crimes. And now Anya was missing.
Had she really just wandered off for a coffee, or was she in serious danger?
Just then, Jaan spoke into his phone. “I see. Thank you for your assistance, kind sir.” He’d been on hold with the front desk, checking whether anyone had seen Anya leave. He looked up at Frank and me, his normally cheerful blue eyes looking serious. “It seems that no one downstairs saw our embattled leading lady leave.”
Zolo sighed. “Look, as I said, she left her cell phone and wallet,” he said, pointing at the coffee table. “Even if she was just headed for the Coffee-bucks downstairs, I don’t think she’d leave those behind.”
“Maybe,” Frank agreed in an even voice. “Or maybe she just grabbed some cash and ran. Maybe she didn’t mean to be gone long.”
Zolo’s eyes flashed as he turned to face my brother. “You know, for her boyfriend, you don’t seem very concerned.”
I saw Frank’s eyes pop. Gulp. Frank was posing as Anya’s boyfriend on this mission; nobody besides Jaan knew that we were ATAC agents. Unfortunately, Frank kept forgetting to act like he loooooved Anya. My brother isn’t all that comfortable around the ladies, which made the whole charade even harder to keep up.
Frank cleared his throat. “No, I am very, very concerned. We’d better find Anya right away. Listen—” He looked at me. “Joe, why don’t you stay here and search the room for more clues? Zolo and Jaan, you split up the remaining cast and crew and go from room to room, asking if anyone’s seen Anya. I’ll go downstairs and check the side and back exits. We’ll find out if anyone saw Anya leave this hotel.”
I nodded, giving my bro a little wink to let him know I was impressed. “Sounds like a plan.” Zolo and Jaan eventually nodded too, and the three of them headed out into the hall.
With everyone gone, Anya’s suite seemed kind of quiet—and kind of eerie. I shivered, hoping that nothing dangerous had happened. I decided to start with Anya’s cell phone. Picking it up, I scrolled through all the recent calls and texts. There was a HEY, SIS, HOW’S THE MOVIE BIZ? text from her twelve-year-old little brother, Dan, to which she’d replied, MORE EXCITING THAN I IMAGINED . . . NOW DO YOUR MATH HOMEWORK! There was also one voice mail, but when I listened to it, it was just her absentee Hollywood agent calling to “check in” an hour earlier. That didn’t really tell me anything— even if Anya was still in her room at the time, she disliked her agent enough that she might have not answered his call.
I sighed and decided to move into the bedroom. Anya’s huge king-size bed sat in the middle, pristinely made and totally untouched. On the right side was the closet and full-length mirror. I moved closer, noting that a few pairs of pants and tops were scattered on the rug. I frowned; had Anya’s room been ransacked? Or was she just messy and indecisive about what to wear?
I walked around the bed and took note of something on the nightstand: a bouquet of creamy pink roses I hadn’t noticed before. My heart sped up. Were they new? People had passed Anya flowers before—with threatening notes attached. Moving closer, I searched through the blooms for a card. But all I found was an empty envelope marked “Anya Archer” with her room number and today’s date. So the flowers were new—but what had the card said? What had Anya done with it? I looked in the trash, and, finding nothing, got down on my hands and knees to look under the bed.
Just then I heard someone opening the door from the hall and sat up. “Hello?” I was hoping it would be Anya and we could all go to bed, secure in the knowledge that she was safe.
“I have returned,” called Jaan from the sitting room. “Unfortunately, I haven’t located our leading lady. Nobody I spoke with knew where she might be, not even Harmony, her most trusted confidante.” He was referring to Harmony Caldwell, a pretty teen starlet who was playing Susie Q, Deathstalker’s sidekick. She and Anya had gotten as close off-camera as their characters were on-camera. “She and her agent, Vivian, were watching a DVD. They said they’d actually invited Anya to join them, but she told them she’d be doing yoga with Zolo.”
Jaan sighed as he entered the bedroom. “I’m becoming fearful,” he said, and sank onto the bed. “This seems unlike Anya. She’s usually so cautious. . . .” He sighed again, and he didn’t have to finish for me to know where his thoughts were taking him. Anya wasn’t the bravest of souls, and she’d made no secret of being freaked out by the threats. More than once, she’d threatened to leave the production if the culprit wasn’t caught.
Would someone that afraid of being hurt just up and leave her hotel at night by herself?
I got up from the floor, nodding, and moved into the bathroom, but nothing really looked out of place. Makeup was scattered all over the vanity, but from what I knew, that was pretty normal for girls. There was no threatening note scrawled on the mirror with lipstick. No “HELP ME, JOE!” notes scrawled on toilet paper with eyeliner pencil.
Suddenly I heard a pounding on the door, and then Jaan getting up to open it.
“Is it true?” I heard Stan Redmond, the no-nonsense producer of Deathstalker, bellow. “Zolo just came by my room babbling some nonsense about Anya being missing. Is it true?”
Jaan sighed. “It . . . well . . . her status is ambiguous right now.”
“What does that mean?” Stan demanded. “Is she here or isn’t she?”
“She is not,” Jaan admitted, “but that doesn’t mean she’s missing, necessarily. She might have stepped out for some night air. . . .”
Stan made a sound at that point that I couldn’t quite identify—the closest I could come would be “angry raspberries.” “Left on her own? What if something happens to her? That’s just what we need. This production is running off the rails, and the tabloids are going nuts with the accidents we’ve had. We need something good to happen, Jaan—and fast. We need some good press.”
Jaan sounded a little taken aback. “I’d be satisfied with our intrepid heroine coming back, safe and sound.”
Stan sighed loudly. “Anya! I told you not to hire her, Jaan. I told you she wasn’t up for the task. She’s an amateur, plain and simple.” I heard them walk back to the bedroom, and the mattress sighing as Stan plopped himself down. “I’d say we were lucky she didn’t get scared off by all this craziness, but maybe we weren’t so lucky. Maybe we would have been luckier if she had been scared off and we had ended up hiring a real actress, like that Amy Alvaro.”
I swallowed. Maybe Stan was just letting off a little steam, but—did he just say he wished things like the wind tunnel accident and the fire had scared off Anya? Frank and I had wondered for a while whether Stan would have preferred a “name” actress in the Deathstalker part. It would definitely help the movie’s chances at the box office—and producers are all about the bottom line.
On a whim, I typed out a quick text to headquarters to get an updated suspect profile on Stan. HQ texted back a few minutes later.
Name: Stan Redmond
Hometown: Pacific Palisades, California
Physical description: Age 61, 5’9”, 170 pounds. Thinning gray hair, brown eyes, droopy jowls.
Occupation: Successful film producer
Suspicious behavior: Wishing that Anya had been scared off by threatening texts, pranks, etc., allowing him to cast a “name” actress.
Suspected of: Trying to cast a big-name actress as Deathstalker after scaring Anya out of the role.
Possible motive: Guaranteeing the film’s box-office success.
Hmmm. Nothing we didn’t already know, unfortunately. Almost immediately, my phone beeped again—another text, this one from Zolo.
STILL ?ING AROUND, BUT VANCE IS MISSING 2 AND NO 1 KNOWS WHERE HE IS.
I blinked at the screen. Vance Bainbridge was the vain and kind of dimwitted actor who played Deathstalker’s love interest—a role created for this movie. And now he was missing too?
Vance going out alone would not be as weird as Anya leaving the hotel by herself. He had nothing to fear by leaving—but it did seem a little strange that no one knew where he’d gone. And just the day before, Frank and I had seen him and his girlfriend, Amy Alvaro, chatting gleefully about how the Deathstalker role would soon be Amy’s. They made no secret of the fact that they thought the movie would be better off with Amy in the lead role. So had Vance finally decided to take matters into his own hands?
I typed off another text to headquarters.
Name: Vance Bainbridge
Hometown: Los Angeles, California
Physical description: Age 19, 6’2”, 190 pounds. Blond hair, hazel eyes. Voted hottest teen actor three years in a row at the Big Apple Awards.
Occupation: Actor; has appeared in nine major motion pictures since making his Hollywood debut at the age of thirteen.
Suspicious behavior: Talking with his girlfriend Amy Alvaro about being sure she could take over Deathstalker part within days; disappearing the same night as Anya.
Suspected of: Kidnapping or harming Anya.
Possible motive: Getting his girlfriend the part of Deathstalker.
Staring at my smartphone moments later, I sighed, wishing that headquarters had given me some better information—or that I had found some better clues. Even if Vance was somehow involved, I still had no idea whether Anya had left on her own, or whether she’d been taken forcibly. I decided to check the sitting room again. Maybe there was something I’d missed.
With a quick nod at Stan and Jaan, who were still arguing about Anya, I walked through the bedroom and toward the sitting room. But at the threshold to the sitting room, I froze at the sound of a familiar voice coming from the couch just out of view.
Smarmy. Arrogant. Vance!
“I think this has gone a little too far. Now she’s going to get what she deserves!”
© 2012 Simon & Schuster, Inc.