"There's a call for you on line four."
A.J. Alexander, momentarily distracted from sorting through potential candidates for a receptionist position, tore her attention from the MySpace page on the laptop screen before her. It was not easy to do given the pounding beat of "Get Freaky" by Play-N-Skillz, and the video clip of eighteen-year-old Tabitha Lowe's tattooed and undulating body. Very lithe, Miss Lowe, but did she really think a prospective employer was going to be impressed by comments like "Partying with my posse" under the Interests section? Granted the list of Things to Do in an Elevator was pretty amusing. A.J. particularly liked number five: Crack open your purse, and while peering inside ask, "Got enough air in there?" Even so, it seemed clear Ms. Lowe was not going to fit the corporate profile--even a corporate profile as flexible as Sacred Balance Studio's.
"Who is it, Suze?" she asked the plastic face of the intercom, clicking out of MySpace. She had a stack of resumes to get through before this afternoon, and so far the hunt was not going well. Sacred Balance Studio was currently short one receptionist now that Suze MacDougal had been promoted to teaching beginning yoga courses.
"Nicole Manning," Suze's voice crackled back.
A.J. ran a hand through her chin-length chestnut bob. Conversations with Nicole didn't tend to be quick or easy. But Nicole was one of their two local celebrity clients, and she expected to be catered to. A.J. sighed. "Okay. Put her through--and, hey, why are you answering the phones?"
"Charlayne called in sick again, so Lily told me to cover and said she'd have someone take my classes."
A.J. squashed the flare of irritation at Lily's highhandedness. Lily Martin was A.J.'s co-manager, and she was always butting heads with A.J. It made sense for Suze to man the phones. She was the only instructor with receptionist experience, and these days the Sacred Balance phones were pretty busy. But A.J. knew Lily would have tagged Suze for that duty anyway because she disagreed with A.J.'s decision to promote Suze. That was just one of many of A.J.'s decisions that Lily disagreed with.
Suze knew it, too, and there had been a trace of resentment in her tone.
A.J. said, "Thanks so much for jumping in, Suze. It's such a relief to know I can always rely on you."
And she meant every word. Sounding mollified, Suze said, "No prob. Here's Nicole..."
"Oh my God," Nicole breathed before A.J. could do more than open her mouth. "A.J., I don't know what I would have done if you weren't there!"
"Hey, Nicole!" A.J. said brightly, hoping to stave off with small talk whatever crisis this was, because obviously Nicole was, as Tabitha and her posse would say, "crisied out."
"This is like such an emergency," Nicole said. "And, I mean, I so hate to even ask, but you are my last hope, A.J."
A.J. tried to imagine what this emergency service could possibly be. Donate a kidney? Carry letters of transit across enemy lines? Give Nicole three free months' membership at Sacred Balance?
She said cautiously, "Well, I mean, if there's something I can do..."
Nicole hadn't stopped long enough to hear that. "If you say no, I don't know what I'm going to do. Seriously."
A.J. could picture the text message now: Srsly?
"What is it you need?" she inquired.
"I left my cell phone at the studio."
"Oh." That was easy enough. A.J. relaxed and moved Tabitha Lowe's resume to the don't-call-us-we'll-call-you pile. "I can bring it to the party this afternoon."
Nicole gave a nervous laugh. "Well, no! I mean, I sort of need it now. That's why this is an emergency. I'm expecting a really important call. From my producer." The fact that she hastened to add that bit of unnecessary detail struck A.J.
"Won't your producer just call you at home if he can't reach you on your cell?" A.J. wasn't sure why she was bothering to argue, because she already knew she was going to have to run Nicole's cell phone out to her.
"They--I--I just can't take that chance," Nicole faltered. "Anyway, no one calls me at home. Everyone uses my cell. And that phone is expensive, A.J. It's a Nokia Gold Edition. It's worth, like, three-thousand bucks."
"Are you kidding me?"
"No, I'm not kidding you! Will you do it? Will you bring me my phone right now?" Nicole couldn't quite curb the impatience in her tone.
Was there some reason Nicole couldn't get her cute little gluteus maximus down to the studio and pick up her overpriced cell phone herself? Why didn't she send Bryn Tierney, her long-suffering personal assistant? A.J. opened her mouth, but her gaze fell on the photo of Aunt Di on her desk. Just a little over eight months ago, Diantha Mason, a legendary yoga instructor and lifestyle guru, had bequeathed her beloved Sacred Balance Studio to A.J., and she took that trust seriously. As she studied Aunt Di's enigmatic photograph-smile, she quashed her irritation at Nicole's arrogance. Nicole didn't mean any harm, really; she was just oblivious and totally self-centered. A few years in Hollywood could do that to a person.
"Do you know where you left your phone?" she asked.
"At the studio!"
"Where at the studio?" A.J. hung onto her temper with an effort.
"Oh. I'm not sure. Maybe the shower."
"The shower!" She closed her eyes. Granted, for three thousand dollars, Nicole's cell phone ought to, at the very least, be waterproof.
"Not in the shower, but that's the last place I remember seeing it. It rang when I was blow-drying my hair. I picked it up and I must have set it down on the counter."
Maybe it was time for some kind of crack down on cell phone use during classes? The use of phones and pagers was gently discouraged during sessions, but maybe A.J. needed to take this one to the mat. And take it to the mat she would have to, because anything that offended big-name clients like Nicole or Barbie Siragusa was going to send her co-manager Lily skidding right off the eightfold path and on a collision course with A.J.
"Okay, I'll have a look for it. If it's not there--"
"If it's not there?" shrieked Nicole, and A.J. held the phone away from her ear. "Why wouldn't it be there?"
"It probably is. I just meant--"
"No, you're right!" Nicole exclaimed. "That bitch Barbie probably took it!"
"Whoa!" A.J. said. "I never said anything like that. I'm sure your phone is right where you left it. I'll just run upstairs and find it and bring it out to you."
"Oh, A.J., if Barbie took my phone, I'll kill her. I'm not kidding. That would just be so typical of her. And don't let her tell you that it's an accident or a mistake, because she is out to ruin me."
"No, no. Really," A.J. soothed. "I'm sure your phone is right where you left it. Let me go check."
"Call me back immediately!"
"I will." A.J. made more reassuring noises, cutting off Nicole's threats and promises and entreaties, and hung up.
A three-thousand-dollar cell phone was floating--maybe literally--somewhere on the premises. Terrific. Leaving her office, she started down the hall to the front lobby.
As she passed Lily Martin's office, Lily called peremptorily through the half-open door, "A.J., I want to talk to you!"
A.J. bit back her instant aggressive response. Although she owned Sacred Balance, per the terms of her Aunt Diantha's will, Lily was A.J.'s co-manager--for as long as they both could bear it. Lately A.J. had come to think that her pain threshold had been breached.
"What did you need?" She forced a smile and pushed wide the door to Lily's office.
Lily sat at her desk, clicking away at her laptop. She looked up, unsmiling, a petite, forty-something woman with a razor-sharp black bob and severe eyebrows. Her nod at the chair in front of her desk was not so much in invitation as command.
And though A.J. told herself again and again that she needed to make a greater effort to understand Lily, her reflex was one of resistance.
"I'm on my way over to Nicole's," she said. "Can it wait?"
"I suppose it'll have to if you're taking off early."
A.J. managed to hold on to that pleasant smile--mostly because she knew that would irritate Lily more than giving into her own ire. "Actually, I'm just playing errand girl. Nicole left her cell phone here. I'll talk to you when I get back."
The severe brows raised. Maybe that had sounded more like a threat than a promise, but oh well. A.J. summoned another one of those artificial smiles and continued to the front lobby. Suze, looking actively unhappy, was busy on the phone. Her blonde hair stuck up in agitated tufts reminiscent of Crackle, one of the elves on the Rice Krispies box.
A.J. passed the cubbies, the gift shop, and went briskly up the two flights of stairs to the locker room and showers. The smell of steam and shampoo reached her as she walked through the doorway on the women's side. Several stalls were occupied, and she could hear a couple of clients chatting--loudly--over the rush of water.
"It's just that yoga isn't very sexy."
"Are you kidding me? Have you ever seen a Rodney Yee DVD?"
A third voice said, "Oh, I think it's improved my sex life. It's put me in touch with my body, with my feelings. And I feel sexy when I feel good about myself."
"Now Jazzercise was sexy."
Another woman was blow-drying her hair in front of the long mirror. On the granite counter next to her gym bag was a gold cell phone. Literally gold. Like 24K.
A.J. reached for the phone, and the woman blow-drying her hair said, "It's been ringing and ringing."
"Thanks," A.J. answered, starting back downstairs.
Who the heck spent three thousand dollars on a cell phone? Even a candy-bar form cell with e-mail, camera, Bluetooth, MP3, high-speed data GPRS, and video. Not that she didn't understand about status symbols. And not that she couldn't afford a gold-plated cell phone if she wanted one. Along with the yoga studio, A.J. had inherited close to eighteen million dollars in various properties and subsidiaries from her aunt. She had her own addiction to Veblen goods, but somehow a HermËs Birkin bag or a Patek Philippe watch didn't seem so wasteful. She would receive a lifetime of wear from those items. What would a three-thousand-dollar cell phone give Nicole other than an equally horrendous phone bill--and a radiated brain? Although in Nicole's case, who would know the difference?
As A.J. reached the second level, she found herself surrounded by a number of pregnant students filing cautiously down the stairs, indicating that Denise Farber's Prenatal Pilates session must have just ended. Nicole's phone began to ring.
It went through her mind to answer it--Nicole had said the call was urgent--but she heard her name. A.J. stopped on the stairs and the sea of swollen bellies parted around her.
Barbie Siragusa stood on the landing above, and A.J. started back toward her. Barbie was her other celebrity client, the wife of Jersey mob boss Sam "Big Bopper" Siragusa, now on year five of a fifteen-year prison stretch.
"What did you need, Barbie?" A.J. asked, reaching the other woman.
Barbie was fifty-one and strikingly beautiful in a sharp-featured, hard-as-polymer way. From the crown of her raven-haired extensions to the tips of her spray-tanned toes, Mrs. Big Bopper made the most of her assets.
Voice held steady with an effort, Barbie said, "Just so you know, I don't appreciate the disrespect, A.J."
"Uh..." began A.J.
Barbie's skinny frame was vibrating with tension as she glared down from the landing. "Refusing to let my film crew into the studio. You think I don't know who's behind that?"
"I'm behind that," A.J. replied quietly, only too aware of the curious looks they were getting from the women moving around and past them. "I offered to let you film after hours."
"After hours is not reality!"
"I'm sorry, I don't think it's appropriate or fair to the other students to allow a film crew to disrupt--"
"No one was disrupting anything!" yelled Barbie. "They were just going to film me in my class. It's a reality show. They have to film everything."
"It's just a couple of hours out of your day," A.J. pointed out, striving to sound reasonable.
"It's my reality!"
Now this was almost touching. Someone who actually believed in the legitimacy of reality TV. A.J. said, "But it's also the reality of everyone else in the class and the studio. The other students and the instructors."
Barbie stared at A.J. as though she were insane. "It's TV," she said. "Everyone wants to be on TV. Everyone wants to be on my show--except that bitch Nicole Manning."
Okay, now they were getting to the heart of the matter. A.J. glanced automatically at the cell phone she held as it began to ring again--another direct dial from Crazy Land, no doubt.
"Nicole had nothing to do with my decision not to allow a film crew inside Sacred Balance." She added hopefully, "Why don't we take this to my office and discuss it there?"
"Are you going to reconsider your decision?"
"Probably not, but we can--"
Barbie made an eloquent hand gesture--kind of a cross between Queen Victoria and a Palermo cab driver. "Don't waste my time. This is all about Nicole Manning. She openly mocks me in that crap show of hers. That whole Bambi Marciano shtick. Who do you think that's supposed to be? That's me! Now she's trying to ruin my own show because we get better ratings than hers ever did. She's a jealous, frustrated--"
"Wait." A.J. stopped her. "We can't discuss this here. Really. I know you're upset. Let's go down to my office and talk about it."
Barbie ignored her, sweeping past as she headed down the stairs. "There's nothing to say," she threw over her shoulder. "Nicole Manning is dead to me. Dead. That's my reality!"