Authors: Abby McDonald
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Los Angeles (Calif.), #Theatrical Agents, #Psychological Fiction, #Contemporary Women, #London (England), #Identity Theft, #Psychological, #Rome (Italy), #Identity (Psychology)
Copyright © 2011 by Abby McDonald
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The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious or are used fictitiously. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.
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Originally published in the UK by Arrow in 2010.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
The liberation of Alice Love / by Abby McDonald.
1. Theatrical agents--Fiction. 2. Identity theft--Fiction. 3. Identity (Psychology)--Fiction. 4. London (England)--Fiction. 5. Rome (Italy)--Fiction. 6. Los Angeles (Calif.)--Fiction 7. Psychological fiction. I. Title.
For my mother, Ann—for everything.
It began with a vibrator. A smooth, stainless steel, jewel-encrusted vibrator that—according to the ribbon-trimmed user manual—cost over seven hundred pounds. Even Alice, who valued her orgasms as much as the next woman, had to wonder what delirious pleasures it could possibly deliver to justify that kind of expense.
“Yes, is that customer service?” She blinked awake, almost surprised by the sound of a real, human voice. With the soothing hold music and afternoon sunlight spilling through the attic windows, Alice had been lulled into a daze, tracing the embossed script on the heavy cream box, back and forth, back and forth. She sat up. “There’s been some kind of mistake,” she explained. “One of your…products was delivered today, but I didn’t order—No, I don’t…
Je ne parle pas…anglais
?” The bored-sounding French voice on the other end of the line gave way to another surge of Schubert. Alice let out a long sigh of defeat.
It had arrived that morning: the inconspicuous brown box addressed to her in neat lettering from a company in Paris. Already late, Alice had stuffed it into her bag with a handful of other post; now the box’s luxurious contents sat in the middle of her antique desk, utterly out of place surrounded by ordered stacks of contracts and her mug of chamomile tea.
It was a mystery.
“What’s that?” A familiar head appeared around her open door, blond hair falling in a floppy fringe over warm blue eyes.
Alice jumped. Sweeping the box into a drawer, she quickly leaped up. “Rupert!” Her voice was strangled with embarrassment. “Oh, nothing, just…a mix-up. What are you doing here?”
“I’ve got some things to sign—thought I’d come down in person. Besides,” Rupert added, moving closer to kiss her on both cheeks, “I think I’m due another lunch.”
They shared a rueful smile. Vivienne’s lunches were notorious. Whenever one of her clients had been going through a dry spell—and might otherwise start questioning the wisdom of their illustrious agent—Alice’s boss would whisk them out for a three-hour session of compliments, champagne, and star-studded visions of international acting success. Alice had seen them wander back to the old, Soho office a hundred times, dazed and delirious with future promise, their faith completely restored.
“No, L’Escargot,” he replied, gloomy, naming an even more expensive restaurant. Alice tried not to wince. Things must really be slow.
“Well, good luck,” she offered. Few clients bothered to acknowledge her, let alone brave the perilous winding staircase to say hello, but Rupert had always been the nice one. Too nice. His promising string of period drama parts had slowed to a trickle, and personally, Alice thought his gallant enthusiasm was the problem. The ones who made it as leading men came equipped with brash arrogance, not boyish good looks and a sweet devotion to their wives.
“If you want, your tax declaration is around somewhere,” she suggested, not wanting him to have ventured up there for nothing. She began to click through her files on the screen. “Are you all right waiting?” She glanced up. “Do you want tea, or something?”
“Oh, I’m fine.” Rupert moved aside a stack of books and took a seat on the battered leather couch. “The girl at reception is getting me a coffee. She’s, uh, very eager to help.”
“I’m sure she is,” Alice murmured. Fresh from drama school, the new assistant, Saskia, was especially accommodating to clients. The attractive, male ones, that was. “Ah, got it! Let me just print you a—” The words died on her lips as the computer let out a strangled bleep. Suddenly, her screen began to blur into a sequence of binary code and hieroglyphics.
“No, no…!” Alice cried, but it was no use: her mouse was frozen, her keyboard, dead.
“What’s wrong?” Rupert hurried to look over her shoulder as Alice stared at the angry-looking symbols. “Oh. That doesn’t look good.”
“No, it doesn’t.” She swallowed, not wanting to think about all the client data in peril. “I wonder if it’s just me, or”—an angry cry echoed up from downstairs—“not.”
She found everyone crammed into the reception area, arguing loudly. Vivienne refused to let The Grayson Wells Agency inhabit anything as ordinary as an office block; instead, Alice worked in a narrow, three-story townhouse on a cobbled Soho backstreet. The agents operated out of low-ceilinged nooks, visitors were greeted by a checker-floored cloakroom, and Vivienne herself held court from the second-floor drawing room, complete with damask wallpaper and a Georgian-style chaise lounge. After years spent wilting under fluorescent lights in a gray cubicle at a corporate firm in the city, Alice adored her attic hideaway. She could play Radio 3 in uninterrupted calm, grow pansies in the window box, and never be bothered by the daily dramas of everyone else.
Ducking to avoid the low-slung ceiling, Alice edged into the room. Vivienne was fluttering her hands as if she were having a fainting fit, the agents were milling about in panic, and Saskia was proclaiming her innocence in between dramatic gasps of dismay. Yes, it was business as usual at Grayson Wells.
“What’s happening?” Alice asked. “Are everyone’s computers—?”
“Fucked.” Tyrell answered shortly, folding his arms across a spotless white shirt. A new agent from the States, he sauntered around in designer tailoring and box-fresh Converse sneakers, wooing prospective clients with talk about taking their careers to the next level, touching bases, and leveraging their brand potential. “I’m waiting on an email—”
“My client needs his contracts and—”
“My BlackBerry’s down and I can’t function—”
Alice maneuvered to the front of the room. “I know this is a stupid question,” she said. “But has anyone called the technician yet?”
There was silence.
“And I’m guessing everyone’s turned their computers off at the mains?” she added. “So this thing can’t do any more damage.”
There was a lurch of motion as Anthony, their aging literary agent, dove toward the power socket, knocking his glasses askew in his rush to yank the plug out. “There!” He held it triumphantly aloft, the flickering lamp reflecting on his bald spot.
“Well done.” Alice patted his dandruff-speckled shoulder. “Now, what actually happened?”
All eyes seemed to slide toward Saskia, standing beside the reception computer in a ruffle-necked blouse and pencil skirt. “I didn’t know it would do that!” she protested immediately, blue eyes wide with innocence under flame-red ringlets. “I was just downloading a file. For research!”
“Downloading?” Vivienne finally spoke up. Her face was pale as always beneath a severe dyed-black bob; petite figure swathed in a voluminous black pashmina and trailing ropes of pearls.
“A film.” Saskia’s voice faltered, as if she realized the gravity of the situation for the first time. “
No Hope…And Then Death.
Of course it was.
Alice was about to escape them all and wait for the cavalry of the IT call-out man when she was gripped by a terrible fear. “You did back up the database though, didn’t you, Saskia? Every night, like we talked about?”
Alice closed her eyes for a second. “When was the last time?” she looked at the girl, pleading. “Last week? Tell me you backed up before the weekend, at least.”
Saskia bit her lip. “There were just so many new things to learn! I was meaning to ask someone…”
Alice gulped, as the full extent of the damage finally became clear. Months of records, lost!
“Well, what’s done is done.” Vivienne clapped her hands together, suddenly roused from her fluster. As Alice watched, Vivienne’s gaze slid over the incompetent intern, ruined system, and room full of disgruntled staff as if they didn’t exist. “Ah, Rupert,” she brightened. “Wonderful timing. How about that lunch?”
“Now?” Alice couldn’t help but question.
“Of course, dear. Nothing I can do! You can deal with it, I’m sure. You always do.” Pulling a black cape off the coat stand and tossing it over her shoulders, Vivienne sailed past. Rupert sent Alice an apologetic look, but—like everyone—was powerless in Vivienne’s clutches. “I’ll be back later…” Vivienne looked around. “Perhaps.” Then she was gone, in a cloud of avoidance and heavy Chanel perfume.
Alice spent the rest of the morning patiently hoisting boxes out of storage. As the company lawyer, she knew it wasn’t exactly in her job description to do anything other than construct dense, watertight contracts for Vivienne (and find imaginative ways to pick apart the dense, watertight contracts of everyone else), but Alice had realized soon after joining the agency that details were not Vivienne’s strong point. No, too often, it was left to Alice to wrangle things into some semblance of order, but she didn’t mind. She’d always been the one to corral things into their place, be it her hopelessly impractical father, wayward friends, or a room full of old client records. There was a certain satisfaction to it, she found: a quiet moment of calm carved out of the ongoing chaos.
With the sleeves of her pale silk blouse rolled up, and a particularly rousing Prokofiev sonata playing, Alice had almost finished restoring order when her mobile began to ring. She scooped it from the depths of her handbag, smiling as she saw the caller ID.
“Let me guess, the dragon lady has gone?” Alice shoved a box out of the way and sank down on her threadbare rug.
“Just left for a meeting. Can’t you hear the ‘Hallelujah’ chorus?” Ella laughed. “Or should it be that song from
The Wizard of Oz
Ding, dong, the witch is dead!
’” she hummed happily. “So, sneak out and meet me for a late lunch? I’ve got a couple of hours, at least.”
Alice sighed. “I don’t think so. I have to wait for the IT guy.”
“But you have darling Saskia for that stuff! Come on,” Ella wheedled. “Help me enjoy my precious freedom. We could go to that Italian place, the one with the cream cakes…”
“Well…” Alice wavered.
“And didn’t you say you need an outfit for Flora’s anniversary?” Ella reminded her. “We could do both. There—efficient enough for you?”
Alice grinned. “OK, OK. Meet you in twenty minutes?”
They ate virtuous salads to balance out the indulgencies of dessert, squeezed into a corner of the tiny restaurant with the waiters yelling orders over their heads—and flirting shamelessly at every opportunity.
“That kid was in love with you,” Alice teased, as they emerged into the sunshine. “How many water refills did you need?”
“He was just trying to stare down my top, little pervert.” Ella grinned. “But I scored with the guy at the register, see?” She tried to pass a handful of complimentary chocolates, but Alice waved them away, groaning.
“How can you manage anymore? That cake was enough to feed four, at least!”
“Lightweight.” Ella popped one in her mouth. “It’s in my genes, I think. My mum’s family were Italian, way back,” she mused. “So I inherited the ability to eat my body weight in pasta. I would have preferred to look like Sophia Loren, though.”
Alice laughed. “I know, the exotic genes passed me by, too. My dad practically came out of the womb in tweed and Wellington boots. And my mother…” She paused, suddenly remembering the flash of red lipstick, the hair set in perfect curls, even to go to the village post office. “She was American. Is, I guess.” A group of teenage shoppers pushed between them, so Alice waited before continuing. “But Dad and Jasmine, they’re practically poster children for the joys of rural life right now. He spent twenty minutes on the phone the other day, telling me about his plans for the greenhouse.”
“Are they coming up for Flora’s party?”
“I’m not sure.” Alice sighed at the mention of her wisp of a stepsister.
Ella looked over. “Aw, I’m sorry I can’t be there for backup. Save you from the sight of them swooning all over each other.”
“It’s fine. Or, at least, it will be, when I figure out what on earth to wear,” Alice added, linking her arm through Ella’s. “You know how much I hate shopping.”
“Then you’re lucky it’s my specialist subject.” Ella steered her into the shop.
Ella wasn’t exaggerating. Somehow, she’d been blessed with the skills Alice sorely lacked, and under her watchful eye, outfits were assembled as if they’d been pulled from the pages of a glossy magazine. She never wore anything daring herself, Alice noticed, but there was always a statement necklace or pair of swooping earrings that lifted Ella’s conservative wardrobe and mid-length brown hair to something fashion-worthy. Alice flicked through the style pages, yet somehow never quite managed to translate those spurious commandments that tribal (or futuristic, or biker chic) were “in” to her own reassuringly neutral wardrobe.
“So how is Flora?” Ella asked, as Alice tugged at the hem of a sundress in yet another dressing room. “Still deep in wedded bliss?”
“I think so. We haven’t talked in a while.”
Ella shook her head. “I can’t believe she’s married. God, I can’t believe
married. Or buying property.” She gave Alice a good-natured nudge.
“I’m only thinking about it!” Alice protested. “And just because some of us feel it’s time to start acting grown-up…”