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I WAS LYING IN THE BATH, daydreaming about having my back soaped by the cute guy from the construction site on the corner of Barrow and Hudson, when the phone rang. I called for Matt to answer it, but the ringing continued. Reluctantly, I wrapped a towel around myself and padded into the hall, leaving a trail of damp footprints on the linoleum. I had no idea who might be calling – all the editors who needed to get hold of me urgently tended to do so with an e-mail these days – but if I let the phone go unanswered, it would be just my luck if I missed out on a desperately needed commission.
I picked up the receiver in a wet hand. ‘Hello?’
‘Hi, Annie, it’s Nick here.’ Nick Walker was the features editor of NY Week, a listings and lifestyle magazine for which I often wrote. I’d gained a reputation with the magazine for providing off-beat stories: if they needed a piece on a shop which specialised in rubber dresses and bondage equipment, or a day-in-the-life feature on one of the human statues in Central Park, I was the writer they would turn to first. ‘Sorry to call you, but our e-mail’s gone down and we’ve all suddenly had to remember what phones are for.’
‘That’s no problem, Nick,’ I replied. ‘I just hope you’re going to make my day and give me some work.’
‘That bad, is it?’ Nick asked.
‘Yeah, it’s that time of the month. I got my credit card bill this morning.’ I sighed. ‘I can never work out how I can spend so much money and have so little to show for it.’
‘Well, how do you fancy going to a press launch for me?’
‘Sure. When is it?’
‘Tonight. I’m sorry it’s such short notice, but I originally asked Jane to do it, and she’s come down with mono, would you believe? Can I give you the details?’
‘Just let me get my pen.’ I cradled the receiver under my chin and hunted for a pen and paper among the clutter on the hall table, keeping my towel clutched tightly in place with my other hand. ‘OK, where is it?’
‘The Joseph, Seventh Avenue. It’s seven for seven-thirty. Let me give you their details.’
I took down the address and press contact and repeated them back to Nick. ‘Just one thing,’ I said before I put the phone down. ‘You haven’t told me what’s actually being launched.’
‘Have you heard of Graham Ellison?’
‘He’s the English hypnotist, right?’ It seemed every time I opened a newspaper the advert for Ellison’s off-Broadway stage show, with its close-up photo of his staring eyes, leaped out at me. I’d seen him on Letterman one night a couple of weeks ago, apparently putting the guitarist in the house band into a trance and persuading him he was biting into a juicy apple when he was actually eating a raw onion. The audience had gone wild for him, but I couldn’t help feeling it was all some kind of illusion.
‘Yeah, and he’s hot property at the moment. So hot, he’s launching a range of hypnosis DVDs. You know the sort of thing. Learn how to relax, be more self-confident, treble your orgasm quotient, give up smoking.’
‘Well, I can see my boyfriend being desperate for me to get a review copy of that last one.’
‘Why’s that?’ Nick asked.
‘Oh, he absolutely hates the fact I smoke, and he complains about it all the time. When he first moved in, he never said a word, but now he just won’t let it go. I keep telling him it’s my apartment and he knew I was a smoker when he met me, but he says all the smoke plays havoc with his throat. You know how precious singers get about their vocal cords.’ A sudden draft chilled the skin on the back of my neck. ‘I’m sorry, I’d better go. You got me out of the bath.’
‘OK. So I can expect five hundred healthily sceptical words in my in-box by Friday.’
‘Of course. You don’t think I’m going to fall for all this hypnotism nonsense, do you?’
As I put the phone down, Matt wandered out of the living room. ‘Thanks for answering it,’ I said, trying to keep the annoyance out of my voice. If the bathwater had gone cold, it would take the elderly boiler a good half an hour to produce enough hot water for another decent tubful. When I’d first moved into this place, I’d accepted it as the price of living in a rent-controlled apartment, along with the pipes that clanked and gurgled in the middle of the night and the spots of mildew on the kitchen ceiling. Now I was beginning to tire of the fact that hardly anything here worked properly.
‘Sorry, I didn’t hear it. I had the headphones on,’ Matt replied. ‘Who was it, anyway?’
‘Nick at NY Week. He wants me to go to a press launch tonight.’
‘I hope you told him you couldn’t make it,’ Matt replied. When I looked at him blankly he said, ‘It’s the showcase tonight. We’re performing for the A and R guy from Chance Records, remember?’
‘Honey, I’m so sorry.’ I had completely forgotten about the gig, even though I had circled it on the calendar in the kitchen when Matt had first told me about it. He had been so excited when the date had been confirmed. His band, Six Impossible Things, had been together for a couple of years, playing the smaller clubs on the circuit. They had been getting good reviews in the local underground press for a while, and now it seemed they could be on the verge of securing a recording deal. I knew I should be there, offering him my support, but as things stood I wasn’t in any position to turn down the offer of work.
‘If I can sneak away from the event early, I might be able to catch the end of your set,’ I told him. ‘But don’t worry, you’ll blow them away, with or without me there.’
I dropped a soft kiss on the end of his nose, and he caught me in an embrace. As he pulled me tight to him, I could feel the bulge in his camo pattern cargo pants pressing hard against me through the thin towel.
There was only one way to make up for letting him down. ‘Why don’t you come and scrub my back?’ I suggested. I took his hand and led him into the tiny bathroom. Letting my towel drop, I gave Matt the chance to admire my damp, naked body. He didn’t waste any time, grabbing me and kissing me with a passion that hadn’t diminished since the first night we met.
His mouth nibbled its way down my neck and collarbone, then he took my nipple between his lips and began to suck. Sweet sparks of sensation shot down to my pussy, as though every nerve in my body was linking up with the express purpose of giving me pleasure.
I rubbed his erection through his pants; it was thick and tempting in my grasp, and I knew just how good it was going to feel inside me. Somehow in all the excitement, we managed to overbalance, the two of us falling into the tub with a mighty splash. Sudsy water sloshed out onto the bathroom floor. It didn’t slow Matt down for a moment. Swiftly, he rolled us over so I was on top of him, and I reached for his zip. My wet fingers tugged his cock out into the open, stroking him ’til he was completely hard. I loved the way he felt in my hand, hot and pulsing.
Matt’s fingers were buried in my pussy, teasing my clit and pushing up into my creamy hole. I shivered, delirious with wanting him. Nothing was more exciting than sudden, spontaneous sex, and my body was more than ready to take him. I straddled his thighs, conscious of his wet clothing against my bare skin. Clutching his cock just below its head, I slowly eased myself down onto it. I gave myself the barest moment to adjust to the feel of him, then began to rock back and forth. Matt grabbed my arse cheeks, the callused tips of his fingers digging into my flesh as he urged me to fuck him harder and faster.
Within moments, I felt him buck more vigorously beneath me, then he yelled out that he was coming. Pressing a couple of fingers to my clit, I rode out my own climax, and then we held each other tight, laughing and exhilarated by what had just happened.
Finally, I eased myself off him. ‘So much for my nice, relaxing bath,’ I said. ‘And look at the floor. If any of that’s trickled through the floorboards, Mrs Moskowitz will go crazy!’
‘Don’t worry, Annie, you know I can always get round her.’ That was true. Matt had a way of charming old ladies, and our elderly neighbour was no exception. She had long ago stopped complaining about the noise of his guitar, given that he was more than happy to fix things in her apartment when she asked, or run to the store for her. ‘And besides, you looked so hot I just couldn’t resist you.’
As I dressed and got ready to leave, I mulled over the assignment Nick had given me. I would go along tonight, watch the demonstration and listen to the sales patter, but I doubted whether I would be convinced that what Graham Ellison did was anything more than a glorified party trick.
The rush-hour traffic was clogging up Seventh Avenue when I left the apartment, so I decided to take the subway, rather than risk catching a cab. A couple of guys unloading crates from the back of a truck whistled as I went past, but I didn’t acknowledge them. I often got wolf whistles and comments about my appearance; it was part of being blonde, I supposed, together with my eye-catching outfit of biker’s jacket, white tank top, black miniskirt and ankle boots. If they whistled at me when I was in my torn old jeans and my hair needed washing, then I might think they were being a little more sincere.
The train, when it arrived, was half-empty for once. I sat back, switched on my iPod, closed my eyes and thought about Matt. I could still picture him as he’d looked the night we first met, almost a year ago, in a bar in the East Village where I occasionally went for a drink with a couple of female friends. He had been leaning against the bar, guitar case at his feet – he told me later he had spent the previous couple of hours busking in Canal Street station. I had never been one to make the first move, but something had compelled me to go up and offer to buy him a drink. He was just my type: a little over average in height, with red-gold hair that fell untidily into his blue eyes and a cute dimple at the point of his chin. We spent the evening discovering just how much we had in common, from the same taste in subtitled art-house movies to a love of eating cookie dough straight from the tube. At the end of the evening he came back to my apartment. He didn’t leave for three days, and when he did it was only to pick up his things from the friend’s place where he had been crashing on the couch. We had been together ever since.
Not that it was easy living with a struggling musician. He might have been an incredibly talented singer, his voice honeyed and distinctive, and together with the band’s lead guitarist, Kevin, he had written a number of songs that wouldn’t sound out of place on the radio alongside the likes of Coldplay and John Mayer. But there was any number of bands playing the same venues, putting their songs on MySpace, all searching for that elusive break. Six Impossible Things were getting regular gigs, but it was rare if they came away at the end of the evening with more than fifty dollars each in their hands. Matt was still having to busk to help make ends meet. Hopefully tonight they would impress the guy from Chance Records enough to land themselves a deal. Otherwise, I didn’t know how much longer he could carry on before the time came when he would have to give up on his dreams and find himself a proper job.
By the time the train pulled into Seventh Avenue station, it was already ten past seven. Pushing my way through the crowd, I sprinted up the steps and down the street towards the hotel.
The Joseph was a modern, impersonal venue which seemed to have been built primarily to offer conference facilities, rather than cater to tourists. A sign in the foyer announced, in pegged-on plastic lettering, Ellison Hypnotic Show – Avalon Suite, Second Floor.
I climbed the thickly-carpeted steps to the conference room, following a couple of middle-aged men in shiny suits and loud ties who were discussing the Giants’ prospects for the season.
A young PR girl wearing too much make-up was sitting behind a table by the main double doors. The table had a display of name tags set out on it; I searched for my own name and failed to find it.
The girl looked up, an automatic smile spreading across her face. Her lapel badge proclaimed her to be ‘Suki Bosworth, Peak-time DVD’. ‘Hi, and you are …?’
‘Annie Harrison, NY Week.’
She scanned the list of names, as I had done, and shook her head.
‘You’ve probably still got Jane Thomas on the list,’ I said. ‘She couldn’t make it, so I’m here instead. Didn’t you get the message?’ Damn Nick; he’d promised me there would be no problems with this assignment.
‘OK, let me just write you out a badge.’ She scribbled rapidly on a blank badge and handed it to me, together with a glossy card wallet containing a press release, publicity shot of Graham Ellison and copies of the DVD sleeves. I pinned the badge to my top, and made my way through into the main room.
Another smiling Peak-time girl handed me a glass of orange juice and cheap sparkling wine masquerading as a Mimosa. Rows of chairs were set out in front of the raised stage, and some people had already claimed their places with jackets and bags slung over the backs of seats. I glanced round the room, but didn’t recognise anyone I knew. Most of the crowd here seemed to be like the two I’d followed up the stairs, representatives from the DVD trade who were only interested in knocking back the free booze and ogling the PR girls. A balding, middle-aged man going back for another drink leered at me and I moved away before he could engage me in conversation.
I found a seat a couple of rows from the front and sat down. Through a gap in the curtains that blocked off the stage, I could see a young man with slick-backed fair hair, wearing a white tuxedo. He was fiddling with his cuffs as he talked to another girl in the Peak-time uniform. Graham Ellison, looking younger and more nervous than I’d expected. I flipped through the press release; it gave his age as 29, only a couple of years older than I was. Even accounting for the usual PR hype, it was surprising how much he’d achieved in a remarkably short time.
The seats around me were beginning to fill; the show was about to begin. A short woman in a leopard print jacket pushed past me, knocking the wallet from my knees without apologising in her rush to sit down, and for a moment I wished I’d gone to Matt’s gig instead.
The lights dimmed and the curtains parted with a flourish. ‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ a voice began, ‘please welcome the man you’re all here to see, Mr Hypnosis himself, Graham Ellison.’
He smiled out at the audience, more assured than he’d looked when I had glimpsed him a few moments ago. ‘Thank you all so much for coming tonight,’ he said. His voice was low and pleasantly soothing. ‘Before I talk about the real reason you’re here, my Help Yourself Through Hypnosis DVDs, let me explain what hypnosis is, and what it can do. Everyone here in this audience is capable of being hypnotised …’
Oh, yeah? I thought. I could sense that others were also looking back at Ellison, waiting for proof.
‘People get the wrong idea about hypnosis,’ he continued. ‘I’m going to get some of you up here tonight, and you’re going to do some pretty strange things, but nothing your conscious mind wouldn’t let you do. You see, you can’t do anything while you’re hypnotised that would go against your own moral code. For instance, ladies, I couldn’t make you take your clothes off, unless you wanted to. And if any of you do want to, I’ll be backstage after the show!’
There was a soft murmur of laughter; people were already being seduced by Ellison’s practised stage patter. Either that or they were suckers for an English accent.
‘OK, I want everyone to clasp their hands together and press, tightly,’ he instructed us. Feeling slightly foolish, I complied. ‘Now keep pressing, tighter and tighter. I’m going to count to twenty ... Keep pressing ... One ... two ...’
As if anything’s going to happen, I thought, but I kept my hands tightly together as Ellison’s voice droned on. For a second, I felt my head begin to nod, then I was aware of his voice once more.
‘Right, now I want you to try to pull your hands apart, and if anyone finds they can’t, I’d like them to come up and join me.’
Well, this is where I sit back and watch the fun, I thought. The smile drained from my face as I realised with horror that my fingers were locked tightly together, and I could not pull them apart.