By Kathy Charles
Allison White exited the Columbus Circle subway at a brisk pace, heels clacking noisily on the pavement. She was confident in the direction she was going, her stride full of purpose. She had to be. Her very livelihood depended on it.
Allison was a woman who knew things. She knew how to screen a phone call in a professional and courteous manner. She knew how to groom a Bernese Mountain dog and feed it a veterinarian-prescribed diet. She even knew how to change a light bulb in a chandelier. That task had been particularly challenging, not so much for its complexity, but for the sheer height of the damn thing, hanging at least twenty feet above a living area bigger than her whole apartment.
Now she needed to know new things. Like how to hail a cab in peak hour traffic, a skill rarely called upon in L.A. where drivers ferried studio executives — men who had little reason to travel their own course — from one meeting to the next. She would need to know which deli could deliver at a moment’s notice, how to get the best seats at Broadway’s hottest shows, and whether the Midtown Tunnel or the Brooklyn Bridge would offer the fastest way to JFK Airport. Allison was confident she would find her feet in no time, if only someone would give her the opportunity. What she needed more than anything was a break.
“Can you spare some change?”
The beggar leaned forward and shook his paper cup hopefully. Allison didn’t make eye contact, didn’t even slow her pace. I handled that well, she thought proudly as she continued down the street without breaking her stride. I know how to handle things.
Allison had been on the East Coast for three months, so far with little luck. The recruitment agencies didn’t want to take her on, even with her A-list experience and impeccable references.
“This is New York, darling,” one uptight manager with an even tighter ponytail had helpfully informed her. “We do things differently here. The needs of our clients are, well, a tad more sophisticated than your West Coast counterparts. The needs of our clients are significant.”
“Of course,” Allison had found herself eagerly agreeing, buying into the bi-coastal snobbery. “I’m originally from New England. I liked living in California, but I agree — the lifestyle is very superficial.”
“New England is not Manhattan,” the woman sneered before abruptly closing her file. “Come back and see us in five years, once you have some real experience.”
Experience was hard to come by if no one would give you a job. At her darkest moments Alison regretted leaving California, thought she had made a terrible mistake that her career would never recover from. Employers don’t like gaps in a resume, she thought painfully. The longer she stayed unemployed the harder it would be for her to find a job. Then there was her age to contend with. At thirty-five she felt positively ancient, no match for the fresh-faced kids straight out of college who were hungry for experience and willing to work for nothing.
Allison needed a way to pay the rent, and she needed it fast, or she’d be back in Maine living with her parents, working at her Dad’s hardware store and dating the local fishermen on Saturday nights. Grist for the writing mill, sure, but far from the creative, literary life Allison had in mind for herself.
California had been bearable until he broke up with her. She should have known better than to date a screenwriter; they were as self-absorbed as actors, with a much greater chip on their shoulders. She had attempted to make herself indispensable to him: reading his scripts and offering much-needed encouragement, refilling the stationery cabinet with online orders from Staples, and making sure the fridge was full of microwave meals so he wouldn’t need to leave the house. She thought she was ingratiating herself to the point where he couldn’t live without her, but the truth was she had over-shot the mark. She was crowding him, he had said. He needed space to breath. But if she wanted something casual, a no-strings-attached partner that could be called upon at a moment’s notice, he would be open to that, provided his schedule was clear.
It was probably for the best, she thought as she made her way toward Central Park. If she were honest with herself she would have admitted that not only his talent but also his prolific nature caused her enormous unease. He found writing so easy, practically pounded the keys with abandon while she sulked in the bedroom, unable to put even one word to page. She didn’t have the hubris for success in Hollywood, but she could arrange a dinner party for twelve guests with only twenty-four hours notice, a skill that could be utilized in any city brimming with affluent dwellers. Within twenty-four hours of being unceremoniously dumped she had booked a ticket to New York City, figuring a move to the home of Vanity Fair and The New Yorker might reignite her literary ambitions, or at the very least give her a new pool of men to cull from. They say you should never move to a new city with a broken heart, and definitely not without a job. Allison had done both these things.
Sometimes I’m my own worst enemy, she thought ruefully as she made her way to her appointment, the incessant honking of the New York City cabs putting her even more on edge. After her disastrous experience with the recruitment agencies Allison had been forced to trawl Craigslist for positions. Most of the ads for personal assistants were thinly veiled requests for sexual partners. Allison had found this out the hard way. An “upwardly-mobile businessman seeking executive support” had turned out to be grocery store owner in the Meatpacking District with a foot fetish. Another asking for a “driven, ambitious, career-minded woman” was actually a recruiter for a high-class call-girl ring. She had actually seriously considered that proposition for a brief moment. College students did it, so why not her? She might even get a red-hot memoir out of the experience. The idea had played fitfully on her mind as she continued to send out her resume into the black hole of job-hunting, until finally one day she received an email that buoyed her out of her prostitution-considering reverie.
Thank you for your interest in this position. Impressed with your resume. Can you come for an interview? Address below.
All the best,
BENNETT M. AMBERSON
She had applied for so many jobs she couldn’t even remember which one this was. She backtracked her steps and found the advertisement.
“Philanthropist seeks indispensable assistant. Support required for completion of important project. Absolute professionalism and discretion required.” The address was the Upper West Side.
Allison strolled past the park, enjoying the warm air, the sun and the way the light played on the leaves. The light in New York was different from Los Angeles; it was softer, easier on the eyes. The L.A. sun would burn you up in a New York minute.
She consulted the map on her phone then looked up, seeing her destination for the first time: an old, opulent four-storey brownstone with large glazed windows that overlooked the park.
Stockbroker, she thought as she approached. Or maybe a hedge fund manager. A nice change at least from the spoiled, bratty A-list of Beverly Hills. The doorman smiled amiably as she approached.
“Miss White?” he enquired cheerfully.
“Yes, hello,” Allison replied, smiling broadly. First impressions were always important, especially with the rest of the help, with whom Allison made it her duty to strike up an alliance. Although such a gesture in this case would probably be short lived, Allison thought grimly. The doorman looked a hundred years old, though a spritely one hundred, she had to admit. She’d heard her father pronounce many times that working kept a man young. The day he retired was the day he’d drop dead, he was often fond of saying.
The doorman ushered her in with a slight quiver in his step. “Mr. Amberson is expecting you.”
Allison stepped through the doorway into the foyer, spied the gleaming steel elevators at the end of the hall.
“Top floor,” the doorman croaked, as if he could read her mind.
“Thank you, Mr…?”
“Just call me Harold,” he said with a smile, graciously putting her at ease.
“Harold. I hope to be seeing much more of you,” she said with a laugh.
“I’m sure you will,” he said kindly. “You look like a good one.”
“Why thank you,” she said, her spirits suddenly lifted by this show of support. “Let’s hope so.”
Allison made her way to the elevators and pressed the button.
A brownstone with an elevator. Nice.
The doors opened and she stepped inside, pushing the button marked clearly with a ‘P.’ Suddenly she felt even more tense for a reason she couldn’t clearly discern. Maybe it was the way the elevator doors closed, snapping shut with a speed she didn’t think she had seen before. Maybe it was the color of the elevator, a dark smudgy brown resembling dirt that made her think of being buried alive. She put her growing unease down to pre-interview jitters. She couldn’t afford to be this anxious; it would completely jeopardize her changes of being hired. She needed to be the very epitome of grace and ease. She resolved when she got home to up her dosage of St. John’s Wort to nine a day. Six obviously wasn’t cutting it anymore.
The elevator pinged and the doors opened. Immediately Allison’s tension began to subside. The penthouse apartment was markedly different to the rest of the building; a sleek, modern fit out of brushed chrome and marble floors and minimalist furnishings.
Allison turned in the direction of the voice. Mr. Amberson was strode confidently toward her, hand outstretched.
“Hello!” she said, putting on her best stock cheery voice. “It’s very nice to meet you.”
She shook his hand, noting with a sense of growing excitement that Mr. Amberson was, by any standard, a very handsome man. With his slim face, chiseled features and strong chin, he bore a passing resemblance to a German actor she had seen in a movie recently whose name she couldn’t remember. His hair was a light sandy brown swept casually to the side, his eyes blue and playful. His tailored black suit sat perfectly on his slim, almost athletic frame, and when he smiled he showed all his teeth, in a way that was cheerful and welcoming. Allison was immediately relieved. Even if he was a weirdo, he was a rich weirdo, and any sexual advances, she would be ashamed to admit, wouldn’t entirely be unwelcome.
“Please. Take a seat.”
Allison followed Amberson to the leather sofas, sat down next to a plush black velvet cushion. She placed her bag on the floor and looked around.
“You have such a beautiful apartment.”
“How long have you lived in this building?”
“Since it was built.”
It must be one of those newer brownstones made to look old, Allison thought. The exterior and the lobby were definitely turn-of-the-century style architecture.
“Well, it’s gorgeous,” Allison gushed. “You must have a lot of famous neighbors in the building”
“Actually, I don’t have any neighbors.”
Allison looked at him quizzically. He folded his hands, looking uncomfortable.
“I, uh, own the whole building,” he said modestly.
“I plan to get other tenants soon, but for the moment I like the privacy.”
Allison detected a hint of a British accent.
“Are you from England?”
“I’ve always wanted to go to England. My favorite writer is Shakespeare.”
Allison blushed. What a stupid, common thing to say. Shakespeare, indeed. Mr. Amberson rescued her from her embarrassment.
“Do you have a copy of your resume with you?”
“Yes, of course.”
Allison bent over and removed a blue folder from her bag. She handed it to Amberson, who flicked through it casually then deposited it on the coffee table between them without a second glance.
“Harold has already told me much about your background.”
“Harold?” Allison asked, confused. “You mean the doorman?”
Amberson laughed. “Harold is more than a doorman. He’s been with me for a very long time. He helps me attend to matters such as this.”
“Oh.” Allison understood completely. Bennett Amberson was obviously from a wealthy family, one that Harold had worked with all his life. It wasn’t uncommon among the rich to have servants who had been with them their entire lives. He might have to look for a new servant soon though, Allison thought. Harold was getting on in years.
“I was very impressed with your credentials,” he continued. “Los Angeles is a perilous place. I do not like to travel there too often if I can help it, but unfortunately my business requires that I be there from time to time.”
“It certainly is weird,” Allison said with a laugh. “I much prefer the East Coast. The people here are much more hospitable.”
Amberson grinned. “Yes. Quite. So, tell me about you, Allison White. Apart from the credentials, which are quite in order. What are your interests? Your hobbies?”
“Well, I’m a writer,” she offered sheepishly. He raised an eyebrow.
“A writer? Well, that is interesting. Would I know any of your work?”
“Probably not. I write short stories, mainly.”
“Ah. Are you well known?” he asked, a hint of concern creeping into his voice. Allison shook her head vehemently.
“Oh no. I did have a story published in Cosmopolitan magazine last year, but nothing recently. I’m actually taking a break from writing to focus on my career. So don’t worry – you won’t find any thinly veiled tales about a highly accomplished man living on the Upper West Side with a charming manner.”
She blushed, embarrassed by her overt display of flattery. She wondered if it was too much, but Amberson smiled.
“Well, that is a disappointment,” he said flirtatiously. “So what do you write about, Allison? The futility of existence? Man’s inhumanity towards man?”
Allison cleared her throat clumsily. “Um, no, I write about … well, love, I guess.”
Immediately Allison felt foolish. “Well, love in contemporary society,” she added, attempting to add heft to the topic.
“As admirable a theme as any other,” Amberson said. “Perhaps the most admirable. For what are we without love?”
What indeed, Allison thought with a small quiver of excitement.
“Well, down to business,” Amberson said, slapping his knees for emphasis. “What I am looking for is someone who can be part of a very important project. Someone who could be part of the very lifeblood that sustains me. It is not your usual assignment, but it is also not without its rewards, in my opinion anyway. I hope that you would have an open mind in these matters.”
“Absolutely,” Allison said without hesitation. She was used to accommodating strange requests. There was the actor who asked her to procure an escort for the evening and an Eight-ball of coke. She had reminded him gently that she was a personal assistant, not a pimp, and had been unceremoniously dismissed while the actor was in a drunken stupor. Then there was the studio executive who sent her to the Hustler store on Sunset Boulevard to purchase a month’s supply of his favorite lubricant, which happened to be cherry flavored. But she wasn’t about to tell Mr. Amberson that story. Discretion was part of her duty to her employer. Their secrets were hers until the grave.
“I’m so sorry,” Amberson said, suddenly standing. “I’ve been terribly rude. Can I get you something to drink? Some water? Wine perhaps?”
“Water would be fine.”
Amberson disappeared into the kitchen. Allison picked up a copy of The New York Times Review of Books from the coffee table, attempted to flick through it nonchalantly; her mind was racing. She wasn’t normally one to entertain flights of fancy, but her head filled with fantasies of spending an eternity with Mr. Amberson, living a luxurious lifestyle as his friend, confidant, perhaps even as his wife, just like in a movie. For the first time in her life she would be truly indispensible. She would make sure of it this time.
“There we are.”
Amberson placed a tall glass of water on the coaster in front of her. Allison picked up the glass, took a small sip, then placed it back down.
“So, Allison, let me ask you a question. What was it that attracted you to this position?”
Allison had been asked this question many times. It was a standard query in the employer arsenal. She began to recite her well-rehearsed answer.
“Well, I think of myself as a career assistant. I enjoy being an integral component of a person’s life, helping them to achieve their goals.”
“Uh huh, and what about your own goals? Your own dreams?”
Allison paused. She had never been asked this before.
She shifted uncomfortably in her seat.
“Um, well, I guess I would like to keep writing, maybe work on some more short stories.”
Allison shrank back. Something in Mr. Amberson’s tone had inexplicably changed. There was a hardness there now, an edge she hadn’t previously detected. She knew that tone well. It was judgment.
Oh God, he thinks I’m pathetic. I am. I AM pathetic.
Allison pulled nervously at her cuticles, a habit she had long tried to kick and was now showing itself at the worst possible time. Amberson’s gaze didn’t waver. He leaned forward, clutching his hands in front of him, dark eyes fixed on Allison’s.
“You see, Allison, it strikes me that the reason you are here today is not because you want to help other’s fulfill their goals and achieve their dreams and blah blah blah and all that other stuff you spout. The truth is that you are here to hide.”
Mr. Amberson nodded.
“You see, in my experience, of which there is plenty, people like you function under the misguided notion that you are fulfilling a noble, honorable role, helping others in their quest to achieve a successful, abundant life experience. But really all you are doing is robbing yourselves. You deny yourself the right to this life of achievement because, quite simply, you are scared. Scared that if you were to attempt to create this life for yourself you would fail miserably. You are also, might I add, lecherous.”
“Excuse me?” Allison rankled, her voice filling with anger. Mr. Amberson persisted, undeterred.
“You, Allison White, are, for want of a better word, a leech. You grab on to the achievements of others and think that if you assisted in any way, albeit even a small one, you can call those achievements your own. You hide in the shadows of great people and believe this imbues your own life with a sense of purpose. But it does not. Your life has no purpose, there is no meaning to it, and quite simply, any dreams of literary greatness are all for naught because you do not have the strength or willpower to go after what your heart truly desires. I, however, suffer from none of these afflictions. I am very astute at getting what I want.”
Allison made a move to stand but found that she could not. Her arms flopped ineffectively to her sides, her legs splayed. She gazed blurrily at the glass filled with water on the table.
She tried to speak. Her mouth felt slack and numb.
Amberson leaned forward, cocking an ear compassionately towards her.
“Yes, my dear? You wanted to say something?”
Allison’s head fell down. She struggled to keep it upright, like a baby trying to lift its head for the first time.
“Yes, Allison. Tell me. Tell me what you truly want.”
Allison mustered as much energy as she could, as if she were taking her last dying breath.
The word tumbled from her lips. “Love.”
Amberson smiled. He reached out and stroked her face gently.
“And I shall give it to you, Allison. In spades.”
Suddenly he was over her, arms reaching down. Gently he plucked Allison from the sofa as if she weighed little more than a bag of feathers, and carried her across the room.
“You’re tired, Allison. You work too hard.”
“I do,” Allison murmured. It was true. Even though she was only thirty-five she felt a hundred years old.
“You need to rest. Believe me, I have much experience in this. I have had many assistants.”
Allison gazed helplessly at the ceiling as she felt herself being carried to some other place. She attempted to speak, her eye still firmly fixed on the prize, the thing she needed most in the world.
“Do I … have the job?” she enquired sleepily.
“Oh, yes. Absolutely.”
Allison smiled. “When do I start?”
Allison buried her face into Amberson’s chest, could hear his heart beating against her ear. Suddenly everything became dark. They were in another room now, one without windows. It was cold in here, too cold, like a freezer. Allison shivered.
She looked up. It was a freezer. Large slabs of meat hung on hooks all around her. She squinted, her eyes adjusting to the lack of light, and in the darkness she started to see faces, but they weren’t animals. They were people.
Everything she had known had been trivial, compared to this. She knew this innately. She knew this when she felt the sharp, tingling sensation on her arm, like a bee sting. This would be her most important job yet. If anyone needed her, it was Mr. Amberson. His very life depended on it.
“There, there, Allison White. The struggle is over for you now.”
“Thank you,” she murmured, and Amberson heaved her up high, hoisting her against the wall as if she were no heavier than a rag doll. She looked into the eyes of the boy on the wall next to her, a young man in his twenties, his face pale white, his eyes blackened sockets, and when he looked at her he smiled.
Allison smiled too. In the darkness of the room she felt a beautiful softness envelop her, every ambition she had ever held seeping from her body like blood from an open wound, and when the hook slid into Allison’s back, splitting her flesh as easily as tearing a piece of paper, she barely even noticed.
The boy beside her twitched, an involuntary spasm. College graduate, she thought. This is his first job. From his bare arms ran two long tubes, red with his blood. She felt a pang of jealousy. He had found his true purpose so early in life. He would be spared the indignities of the working world.
He was standing in front of her, needle in hand. Mr. Amberson had gone, retreated to some private part of the apartment, the seduction complete. Now it was down to business. Harold swiftly approached her, no longer the doddering old man she had encountered downstairs. With one quick movement he inserted the needle, as he had at least a hundred times before, perhaps a thousand. She watched with curiosity as the blood spilled out, running down the length of the tube to fill an IV bag that had been wheeled into place beside her.
“Thank you Harold,” she said.
“My pleasure, miss. Oh, and congratulations. Welcome to the company.”
Harold busied himself with checking the IV, securing the needle in place with a bandage. It seemed like a good job, Allison thought. Sure, she was part of the rank and file now, but Amberson had taken a special liking to her, she was sure of that. Maybe one day, if she was good and diligent and always did as she was told, maybe one day Harold’s job would be hers.
Ambition is a hard thing to kill.
Kathy Charles is the author of ‘John Belushi is Dead’ (Simon & Schuster). You can find her at Goodreads.