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Authors: Suzanne Miao

Second Chances

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Second Chances

 

Suzanne Miao

© Suzanne Miao 2013

 

Suzanne Miao has asserted her rights under the Copyright, Design and Patents Act, 1988, to be identified as the author of this work.

First published 2013 by Endeavour Press Ltd.

 

Prologue

 

SHADING HER EYES from the glare of the sun, Allegra observed the approach of the armoured truck as it raised a cloud of dust along the road. It reminded her of that scene at the end of the movie Seven, when the courier van draws up to deliver Gwyneth Paltrow’s decapitated head to Brad Pitt. This time, there was no head in a box, thank God, just millions of dollars’ worth of high-end diamond jewellery.

Two
further vehicles completed the convoy; one leading, the other following the truck. Both cars were completely black, with windows so dark it was impossible to see inside, and were undoubtedly bulletproof. Clutching her Nikon F6 protectively to her chest, Allegra felt a shiver of fear run down her spine; she was pretty much outside her comfort zone. She wasn’t used to working around SAS-trained guards wearing Kevlar, but then again, she thought, who was? Except for the guards themselves, presumably. Her gut churned.

If
she were just 20 years younger, five kilos lighter and a thousand times less stressed, Allegra would probably have felt like she’d died and gone to heaven. She was, after all, standing in the middle of Lido Lakes, about half an hour outside Jakarta, surrounded by 10 well-built, gleaming, unfairly handsome young men who were getting strapped into parachutes, wearing nothing but combat boots and white boxer briefs. As incongruous as it seemed, the shoot was for a fashion spread featuring an A-list jeweller’s diamond designs.

Moving
in between the models and their dressers, the make-up artists and hair-stylists feverishly brushing and tweaking them into readiness, Allegra shot off several rolls of film, always ready with a friendly smile and a funny line for the boys. She’d been asked to assist the magazine’s creative director, a vibrant, stunning Mauritian woman who called herself, quite simply, “K”. Whenever she was asked what the rest of her name was, the lady always smiled charmingly and replied, ‘Darling, why do you ask? Madonna is Madonna. Jesus is Jesus. I am K.’

Today,
however, K’s nerves were as taut as the strings on a violin. She strode around the cavernous hangar, jabbing various make-up and hair stylists with a sharp finger and pointing out their mistakes, hissing loudly at them, making the models more jumpy than they were already. Security at the location was visible and tight; after all, there was literally a fortune in diamonds at stake here. Burly men in uniform, wearing in-ear communicators and carrying what looked to Allegra’s untrained eye to be sawn-off, double-barrelled shotguns, patrolled the perimeter of the hangar and the airfield itself, adding to the air of unreality of the shoot.

‘Mind
the body oil! Don’t get body oil on the diamonds!’ K was shrieking. ‘You get body oil on the diamonds, you will be buried here in the middle of the airfield, I swear it to you all on my great-grandmother’s grave, may God rest her soul!’

Allegra
had worked with K for about nine months as her “personal assistant”, which was a polite way of saying “dogsbody”. She essentially ran ragged around K, handling every little errand and task that the highly regarded fashion director commanded her to. K was a slave-driver, but she was also fair, and one of the few genuine people Allegra had ever met in the business. Generally, in the world of fashion and beauty, people were as real as their Botoxed grins, as shallow as the panstick base that gave them the illusion of perfect skin.

When
the diamond assignment had come up, K had insisted that she had to have Allegra with her. She wanted a complete photo-record of the entire shoot, not just the airbrushed-to-perfection final shots which would be published in the magazine. Although the shoot had very nearly not come off at all. When the publisher heard about K’s idea to shove 10 extremely expensive models out of an airplane wearing nothing but their underpants and a fortune in diamond jewellery, he’d nearly gone berserk.

‘So you’re saying we’ve got to pay 10 models, fly them out to Indonesia, put them up in a hotel, pay a photographer, make-up artists, hair-stylists, all the other hangers-on… and then you’re going to make them jump out of a moving aircraft at 10,000 feet?’ he’d sputtered in disbelief. ‘Do we even have enough money to pay for all the insurance that will require? And I haven’t got to the subject of the diamonds…’

‘Babydoll! I’m so glad you think it’s a fabulous idea, too,’ K had cooed at him. ‘This is going to make your magazine even more famous, darling; it will make you famous. Think of all the press that will be generated here in Hong Kong alone… And remember, we’ve got that film crew from Vinyl TV making a documentary too, sweetie, or did silly me forget to tell you about it as well?’

The
publisher had eventually crumbled in the face of K’s charm offensive. He never quite “got” K, or what her ideas were about, but since her work created so much buzz regionally for his publication, he happily basked in her reflected glory. So he pretty much just let her get on with it. Allegra had always marvelled at her balls; this was one woman who always got her own way.

‘Darling, you have to come with me to Indonesia, oh why does it have to be Indonesia? Why couldn’t it be California? The Mojave desert? So much more glamorous. But if I have to go to Indonesia, you are coming, too. I need someone sane there to make sure I don’t get thrown out of the plane myself — without a parachute,’ K had said to Allegra.

‘I
am already losing my mind trying to find these boys. The ones who I want, they don’t want to jump out of a plane. Sissy boys! And the ones who do want to jump out of a plane… well, let’s just say they’re welcome to. But not on my time or my money, hmmn?’

The
temperature at Lido Lakes was mild, thanks to its elevation of about 1,500 feet. The volcanoes nearby also made for spectacular backdrops, and K had arranged for their celebrity photographer to shoot stills on the ground in addition to the photographs he would take when the models finally leapt out of the plane. The magazine’s publisher, spotting a golden public relations opportunity, had liaised with the jewellery designer to organise a press junket for reporters from a number of the region’s key publications. A company called Apex PR from Hong Kong had been given the task of managing the event, and Allegra’s other role was to act as informal contact between K and Apex.

‘Good God, someone make these boys put on some clothes!’

Allegra
grinned as she heard the familiar voice of Liz, Apex’s somewhat intimidating CEO. Liz had built Apex from scratch the hard way: no money, no contacts, nothing but sheer determination and a burning desire to prove to the world that she was the best when it came to doing what she did. She took crap from no one, played hardball, and worked her arse off. Her natural aggression put a lot of women off; they’d snidely comment how she was probably a bloke underneath the tousled auburn locks tumbling past her shoulders, that tiny waist and those incredible breasts.

For
whatever mysterious reason, however, Allegra and Liz had clicked immediately.

‘So you’re the brainless bimbo I’m meant to be liaising with, are you?’ she had said to Allegra the first time they met, over the expansive teak table in the Apex conference room.

‘And you must be the stroppy cow I’ve heard so much about,’ Allegra had shot back, holding out her hand in greeting.

Liz
had grinned, shaken her hand and sat down. This was her way. She pushed people’s buttons straight off, wanted to see how they responded. Few passed her test. She was glad Allegra had. She’d had enough of dealing with spineless women in her field of work; women who relied on smiling sweetly and telling clients exactly what they wanted to hear, even if it was total BS in terms of what they really needed to push their business to the next level.

Allegra
put her camera down and stood up, smiling at Liz. ‘So they let you in the country, did they? You must have had to use your fake passport, the one which says you’re actually a nice person and not here to make people cry.’

Liz
grinned back, kissed Allegra on both cheeks and replied, ‘And I’m surprised to see that you haven’t gone blind. I thought nice Catholic girls weren’t allowed to look at strange men in their underpants. Penance is going to be heavy, you know.’

The
shoot finally got underway, the boys all getting into the spirit of things with the help of the music Liz had arranged to have pumping into the packing hangar which served as both dressing room (or more accurately, as Allegra observed to herself, undressing room) and hair/make-up area.

For
someone of her modest years, Liz had the most bizarre taste in music: nothing after the early ’70s, and all hard-rocking stuff from The Who, the Stones, Bowie, T-Rex… For the male models, who were barely out of their teens and more used to being force-fed acid lounge trance music by spaced-out stylists, it was bliss.

When
the aerial shoot took place, Allegra’s suggested song, It’s Raining Men by The Weathergirls, blared through the speakers in Lido Lakes. The assembled press laughed, appreciating the joke, as the models came soaring through the air to the drop-zone. It was coming up to dusk, the sun was setting, and each model had also been fitted with those silly glow-in-the-dark bracelets and anklets. It made for a spectacular sight; K, as usual, had been spot-on in her vision.

On
the ground, their photographer had set up an artillery of cameras circling the drop zone, all remotely-controlled to fire off on his command, watching the various feeds through his PowerBook. At final count, he’d shot over 1,200 stills from the jump alone. Thank God for digital photography.

All
in all, the event was a huge success, as was the after-party at the modest Lido Lakes Hotel, where everyone let their hair down as they relaxed at last. The entire event had been nearly 10 months in the planning and Allegra, for one, was elated yet relieved that it was over at last.

‘So… how are things with you, my darling?’ K asked Allegra, as they dangled their feet in the pool.

‘Oh, so-so, I guess,’ Allegra said, reluctant to get into another painful discussion of what was happening in her life.

‘Not getting any better with the husband, then?’ Liz interjected. As if she needed to ask, Allegra thought. Her marriage had pretty much been on the rocks for the last six years, despite the two babies she’d had in that time. Things would get better for a little while, then they would get much worse than they had ever been. A couple of weeks earlier, Allegra had endured another screaming argument with her husband, which culminated in him throwing heavy objects in her general direction.

She’d
barely flinched at the time, almost willing something to hit her so that she would no longer have any excuse not to pack her things, grab the kids and walk out for good. But he’d managed to miss with every item he’d flung in her direction, and Allegra knew she’d end up just carrying on as she had for a long time, always thinking about the children and not being able to bear the thought of dragging them through a nasty, painful separation and divorce. So she hung on, keeping her head down, living as quietly as she could, to try to make it easier to play “happy families” with her husband for the sake of the kids.

‘Well,’ Allegra said, with a bitter laugh. ‘If you must know, just before I got on the plane to come here, his lawyer served me with divorce papers. My husband has, it appears, accused me of adultery. Almost makes me wish I had been unfaithful; at least I’d have had something to justify the accusation.’

Liz
and K fell silent. Allegra’s husband was a piece of work. He treated her with sneering condescension most of the time, and outright contempt for the rest of it. It wasn’t as if their marriage had always been bad, though. Liz had seen pictures of the two of them in the early days of their relationship, smiling, holding each other, gazing into each other’s eyes with obvious love and adoration. But since they moved to Hong Kong when the bank he worked for transferred him over, he’d changed. And there was no explanation for it.

Sometimes,
Allegra couldn’t understand where the man she had fallen in love with and married had disappeared to. In his place was a virtual stranger who relegated her needs and considerations to second place, who buried himself in his work and ignored her at home. And now he wanted a divorce. Allegra had felt dead inside; she couldn’t cry, didn’t know if she was distraught or relieved. Her only fear was for her babies, Bella and Daisy. She knew her husband would do everything in his considerable power to prove she was an unfit mother.

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