Eight thirty-seven in the morning, en route from Putney Heath to Piccadilly, first crisis of the day. People push the crisis button in my business like a lab rat pushes a lever to get pellets of food, but this is a big one. Lowell Bardwright was just found hanged by his Hermès tie, his fingers clenched in a death grip around his dick.
Lowell is my boss. Well, not anymore.
“Was it erotic asphyxia?” I asked my assistant.
“Was this some kind of sex game?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Emma replied. “I assumed it was suicide.”
Not bloody likely.
“No, I’m sure it was an accident,” I said.
When you are the managing partner of a successful entertainment agency, you don’t kill yourself. Lowell made millions of pounds on the ability of people like me to attract scribblers, footballers, Soho chefs, and other celebs who can be hocked to the public on grocery store book stands or on the eight million channels of satellite TV. He had a flat by the Thames and a weekend home outside Cambridge. God was going to have to come down to wrestle Lowell personally into the afterlife.
“Was he alone?” I asked.
“I guess he was.”
“Don’t be so sure. If I know Lowell, he found himself a Julia Roberts look-alike who freaked when he stopped breathing.”
“What’s erotic asphyxia?” Emma asked with an unhealthy curiosity.
Emma is twenty-five, and what she lacks in her face she makes up for in the size of her breasts and the tightness of her drainpipe jeans. I remember what it was like at that age, when your sex drive revs like a Ferrari. Hell, I’m still like that, although I’ve downshifted a little in my midthirties. Emma is into girls, however, and I play for the traditional team.
“Some people say that the sensation of orgasm is heightened by lack of oxygen,” I told her. “So they try cutting off their air as they get close to coming. Unfortunately, a lot of them wind up like Lowell, so don’t try this at home, Emmy. I know you.”
“Hmm,” she said.
You want to watch every head snap around on the 14 bus? Say the word “orgasm” on the phone.
“What does this mean for the agency?” Emma asked.
Good question. Every entertainment agency boasts of having the most influence and the best connections, and they’re all quick as hyenas to pounce on any sign of weakness in a competitor. Right now, the phone lines of London are buzzing. Did you hear about Lowell? My God, what a shock. Of course, without him, they don’t have anyone who can reach the senior producers at the Beeb. Oh, it’s true, and he was their top man for Fleet Street, too. This may be the time to think about switching your representation, my dear.
Meanwhile, inside the Bardwright Agency, where I work, they’re busy soft-selling Lowell’s importance. He was beloved, darling, but he was a figurehead. Hadn’t closed a big deal in years. Never missed an industry party. A “mentor” to every twenty-four-year-old girl in the agency, that scoundrel, ha-ha. No, we’ll miss him, but don’t worry, nothing will really change without him around.
But that’s not exactly true.
There will be one big change, and it affects me more than anyone.
“Cosima will be in charge now,” I told Emma.
In my head, I heard a blast of organ music. You know, like in silent films, when the mustachioed villain in a black cape abducts the blond virgin. Not that you’ll find many virgins in this business.
“I hope the police checked for coral Dior lipstick around Lowell’s mushroom,” I said. “Cosima has been looking to send Lowell to an early grave for years. Maybe she was there to help him along.”
“You are so bad.”
I did feel a little bad, only because I wasn’t crying over Lowell’s death. I’d worked down the hall from him for ten years, after he’d hired me out of the book biz. Me, I thought the agents made the money, which was what I needed back then. No one told me that the partners who own the agency make the money, and the rest of us divide up the crumbs that fall from their smacking lips onto the floor. Lowell and I had had our run-ins over the years, but he was a decent guy. Big, loud, with tobacco breath and roving hands. Fifty-five years old, a lifer in the biz, who remembered a time when bookstores sold more than the fucking Da Vinci Code and films didn’t rise or fall on the box office receipts from the opening weekend. He never pushed me to drop clients who had potential, even if their sales were underperforming. He indulged my fading ideals that it really meant something to find the next Ian McEwan or Salman Rushdie. On the other hand, I saw the numbers on the royalty statements from my clients, and then the numbers on my agency paycheck, and never the twain did meet.
However, Cosima Tate makes Lowell look like Sir Gawain gallantly taking on the Green Knight. I admit I have my own reasons for loathing Cosima, but I’m not alone in feeling that way at the agency. She is our wicked witch—the kind of witch who would have bitch-slapped Dorothy and served up Toto sausages to the flying monkeys.
“What does this mean for us?” Emma asked, which was the obvious question. I like that Emma says “us” when she talks about herself and me. She is as loyal an assistant as you can find. Organizing my life is not my skill set, and without Emma I would probably starve because I would never know when, where, or with whom I was having a single meal.
“We’ll be fine—don’t worry.”
“Yes, but Cosima hates you,” Emma whispered.
True enough, but I am bulletproof.
“We have Dorothy, darling, remember?”
“Oh, well, that’s true.”
Dorothy Starkwell, an American eccentric who lives in the Tribeca area of Manhattan, writes tomes about talking pandas that have become the biggest thing in children’s fiction since Pooh set foot in the Hundred Acre Wood. She is my client. She is my gravy train. As long as I write eight-figure deals for her—and the latest deal is in the offing—no one will touch me.
And at that moment, I had my big idea.
If I knew the pain that idea would cause me in the next few days, I wonder whether I would have handled things differently. Perhaps I should have been more paranoid and realized that people really were after me. Or I should have known how resourceful and vengeful Cosima could be. However, when you are thirty-six, you never think about being forced to start your life over; and the truth is, it is every bit as hard as anyone will tell you. Still, sometimes you have to wipe the slate clean and find out if you are truly the person you always imagined yourself to be.
“Do I still have lunch with Guy on Friday?” I asked Emma.
Guy Droste-Chambers is Dorothy’s editor, the man who makes the deals. He is a sleazy bastard, but Dorothy is infatuated with his wordsmithing. Or perhaps he reminds her of her panda hero, Butterball, with his porky belly and soup dripping down his chin. Regardless, Dorothy will not hear of switching editors or publishers, despite my advice that she could do better elsewhere.
“Take the lunch out of my calendar, will you?” I said.
“You mean cancel it?”
“God, no, keep the appointment but delete it from the agency calendar right away, okay? Don’t mention this to anyone. Just remember to remind me about lunch on Friday.”
Emma knew better than to ask me why. The truth is, I wasn’t entirely sure myself. All I knew was that I didn’t want Cosima to find out that Guy and I were close to inking a new contract for Dorothy that would gross around ten million pounds in advance money. In agency terms, that’s one and a half million to us. Not that I would see any of that myself.
Which brings me back to that big idea of mine.
I’m thinking of going out on my own. Launching my own agency.