Read an Excerpt
AMY WAS ABOUT to slide her front-door key into the lock when her date, the knee-tremblingly sexy, not to mention witty and amusing, Duncan, whom she’d been seeing for three weeks and who had just treated her to seared marinated loin of Scottish venison, celeriac remoulade, toasted hazelnuts, and Parmesan tuile at Le Caprice, drew her toward him, gently cupped her face in his hands, and began kissing her.
It occurred to her that somebody might see, but it was past eleven, and except for Perry Mason summing up at some volume inside old Mr. Fletcher’s apartment down the hall, there was nobody about. Amy made no attempt to pull away. As things got steamier in the kissing department, she was in no doubt that her first night with Duncan was going to be perfect. She’d certainly planned it carefully enough. Charlie, her six-year-old, was safely tucked up at his grandmother’s. There was Moët in the fridge, fresh linen on the bed, and Space NK jasmine candles on the nightstand.
By now they were giving off enough energy to heat a small town. “Let’s move this party inside,” he whispered. Just then, Amy’s mobile started ringing in her bag.
“Ignore it.” Duncan pulled her jacket off her shoulder and began planting kisses across her collarbone. “This time of night is way past the cutoff for calls.”
“I’m sorry,” she said between soft cries of delight, “but I really have to take it. It could be Mum. There might be something wrong with Charlie.”
He gave a shrug and leaned against the wall, arms folded.
Had she glanced at the number on the screen, she would have seen that it wasn’t her mother calling but her best friend, Bel.
“Hi, hon, it’s me. Sorry to phone so late, but …”
“Look,” Amy whispered, sliding her key into the lock, “this really isn’t a good time.”
“Oh, God, it was your big date tonight. I totally forgot. So are you and Dan in the middle of things?”
“Duncan. His name’s Duncan.”
“Sorry. ’Course it is. So are you?”
“Are we what?”
“In the middle of things?”
“Sort of.” Amy turned the key, but it refused to budge. Duncan saw that she was struggling and took the key from her. He started jiggling it in the lock but couldn’t make it turn either. “I think you need a new lock.”
“There’s a knack,” Amy said.
“Look, I wouldn’t have bothered you,” Bel continued, “but I’m frantic because I’ve got the attention-this-vehicle-is-reversing audition tomorrow.” Bel was an actress slash automated announcement artist, although she would be the first to admit that she hadn’t had any proper acting work in over a year. Bel’s most notable work—automated announcement–wise—was her “Mind the gap” heard at all London Tube stations where there was a space between the train and the platform edge. Then there was her highly acclaimed “Power on, select valid mode,” which had been taken up by vacuum cleaner manufacturers in nearly every English-speaking country in the world.
“It’s only one line,” Bel said, “but I can’t get the emphasis right. I need your help.” As a strict method actress trained in the Stanislavski school, Bel was always looking for her motivation or analyzing the emotional authenticity of a part. In Amy’s opinion, this would have been fine if she had been playing Phèdre or Ophelia, but surely such detailed introspection wasn’t necessary to deliver lines like “At the rotary, take the third exit.” There were people who thought Bel was a pretentious ham. Amy, who had known her since first grade, knew her needless overanalysis was due to a deep-seated fear of failure that had begun at school.
“Okay,” Bel continued. “Should it be: Attention, this vehicle is reversing … Attention, this vehicle is reversing … or … Attention, this vehicle is reversing?”
“I dunno,” Amy said. “What about putting the emphasis on all the words? I mean, it’s meant to be a warning.”
“You think? What, like a shouted exclamation: Attention! This vehicle is reversing!”
The volume of Bel’s voice, not to say its pitch, caused Amy to wince. “Yeah, something like that.”
“Hmm, that could work,” Bel said. “So you think that’s better than Attention, this vehicle is reversing, which I have to admit was my personal favorite.”
“I’m not sure. Look, Bel, you’ll have to work it out. I really have to go … That’s it, Duncan. Harder, harder, jiggle it a bit more. Yep, we’re almost there.”
“Omigod,” Bel said. “I’m thinking that you and I have seriously crossed a boundary here.”
“Behave.” Amy giggled. “Duncan is trying to open the door to my flat, that’s all. The lock’s jammed again. Listen, I really do have to go …”
“Okay, speak soon. Love you.”
“Love you, too. And good luck with the audition.”
Smiling and shaking her head, Amy put her phone back in her bag. She apologized to Duncan for the interruption and explained about Bel being a struggling actress with a heart of pure gold but one who was prone to frequent outbreaks of anxiety-driven neediness.
“It’s fine. Forget it,” he said, his attention still focused on the lock, which was refusing to budge.
“Here, let me,” she said. “I’m used to it.”
He stepped aside.
“The trick,” she explained, “is to pull the key out ever … so … slightly and then turn … There! Dunnit!” The door swung open.
“You know, I happen to find technically competent women incredibly sexy.”
“That’s nothing,” she said coyly, starting to stroke his cheek. “Charlie will tell you that I’m a whiz with Legos, and I do say so myself that I make the best Play-Doh green eggs and ham in the business.”
That made him laugh, and they started kissing again. Barely losing mouth contact, they managed to get into the flat, close the door, and take off their jackets. Finally, Amy kicked off her slingbacks and took his hand. “The bedroom’s this way,” she whispered.
They had taken no more than a couple of paces when the weird vocals started up in the living room. The door was closed, but they could clearly make out two voices, one male and one female, engaged in soft, perfectly synchronized atonal chanting: “J-lo’s bay-gel. Jay-lo’s bay-gel. Jay-lo’s bay-gel.” At least that was what it sounded like to Amy.
Since she recognized the voices, there was no gasp of fear. Instead, her eyebrows knitted in confusion. “What is going on?” Then came the flush of embarrassment.
Duncan seemed mildly amused. “This must be a first: burglars with a sideline in Transcendental Meditation.”
“J-lo’s bay-gel. Jay-lo’s bay-gel. Jay-lo’s bay-gel.”
Amy managed a thin smile. “I’m really sorry about this. It’s my mum and her new boyfriend, Trevor. He’s a shaman. They’re supposed to be looking after Charlie at her place and taking him to school tomorrow. I can’t imagine what they’re doing back here.”
“What’s a shaman?”
“A sort of spiritual healer. I don’t know much about it, but they’re very in touch with nature, apparently. And they chant a lot.”
“Fascinating.” Duncan couldn’t have sounded less fascinated.
Suddenly, the voices stopped. They were replaced by light rhythmic drumming. After a few seconds Trevor started chanting again. “I’malobster. I’malobster. I’malobster.”
Now Amy’s mum, Val, joined in: “I’malobster. I’malobster. I’malobster.”