Despite being covered in dog fur, slobber and probably other canine related bodily fluids, Andy Sachs inhaled deeply the chilly early spring air and felt the possibilities fill her soul. Straining her biceps trying to hold on to the five scampering pups, she was certain they were enjoying their walk much more than their tired walker was. And yet something about this morning's chill and slight breeze filled her with a rare sense of optimism.
The wind ruffled her shoulder length brunette hair, further messing up its now customary state of disarray. She’d have to hack some of the length off, she mused, it was getting in the way again. In her current state of financial misery, her thick locks of rich mahogany were rather more a curse than a blessing, since they required a lot more maintenance than the pair of scissors Andy took to them in front of the bathroom mirror every so often.
Yet despite the musing of her hair, kicking up the dust and getting under her old and worn leather jacket, thus chilling her to the bone, Andy welcomed the spring breeze. It played with her hair and covered her in flowers from the occasional fruit tree she passed in the park. Everything was in bloom and the white and pink flowers were raining petal showers over the harried passers-by who, in typical New York fashion, had no time to stop and inhale the spring wind of change.
As a true New Yorker, and yes, living in New York for four years and not planning to ever move away from this crazy concrete jungle, made her a New Yorker in her own mind, Andy Sachs had no time for flowers, or trees or the breeze. She was lucky if she didn’t step in the garbage of the back alleys, as she ran from one place of employment to another. No, Andy normally had no time for the beauty of blooming apple trees or the playfulness of the spring wind. Especially these past six months.
It had been a long and miserable winter. In the early fall she broke up with her college boyfriend. Though if she was honest, she had done no breaking up, because she simply came home one night and found her meager belongings packed and ready to be thrown out of the apartment by the man she thought was her one and only person. Nate Osteen was not just her boyfriend, he was also the person who accompanied her from Chicago to New York, where both of them dreamed of starting their careers and one day reaching the promise land. Nate certainly succeeded, with a steady advancement through some of the best kitchens in Manhattan, he was now the sous chef at Marea and garnering all sorts of raves from the industry insiders. His future was assured and his fame was already making itself known.
Andy Sachs was so far from words like fame, rave reviews or promise lands, she didn’t even know what any of those would look like if they came in and introduced themselves to her. Plus, it’s not like she had any place for them to come in anyway. After couch surfing for several months with her friends, Doug and then Lily, she had finally exceeded even their generous welcome and was currently sleeping in the attic of the gallery where Lily worked.
Hiding among the empty crates and wooden frames, on an air mattress and sleeping bag, Andy mostly spent her nights there, since the owner of the gallery, one Gunilla Garson Goldberg, a wealthy New York socialite in her sixties and a four time divorcee from various rich and famous husbands would probably not approve a stowaway at her Manhattan gallery just as it began gaining popularity and respectability. Since her things fit into one suitcase and one cardboard box, Lily didn’t believe her friend was too much of an inconvenience, but just in case, on major opening nights, Andy made herself scarce. Since she worked pretty much three full shifts between all her places of employment, being scarce was just reality for the overworked Sachs.
Professionally, it all started rather well for Andy four years ago when Nate and she arrived in New York as fresh 23 year-olds. Andy had managed to get on the radar of several publications due to her work at Northwestern and winning some nationwide writing competitions. Runway and The New Yorker published several of her pieces on the plight of a young professional in New York and her blog was gaining a steady stream of subscribers. She was on her way. The novel she had been writing since her high school days was almost finished. Life was good.
And then it wasn’t. The jobs started to dry up. Her pitches weren’t accepted anymore and her blog slowly lost its popularity. Sure, nothing in her work was very original or very special even, and new and younger writers were bringing in more edgy and trendy ideas. Influencers on Instagram and Twitterverse celebrities all overtook her Midwestern wholesomeness.
She started taking odd jobs, first dog walking for the otherwise occupied wealthy New Yorkers, then bartending at various pubs several nights a week and then the mid-morning shift at the trendy but exorbitantly expensive hipster coffee shop off 5th Avenue. The time to write and get creative and finish her novel and new articles dried up entirely due to trying to survive in the concrete jungle of Manhattan.
Nate, with his new found success, did not wish to continue being associated with a person who walked the dogs of his affluent patrons. When he asked her to vacate the premises of their Village apartment, for which she had actually been contributing rent every month despite barely scraping by, her shock was so massive and her heart so broken, that she picked up the one suitcase in silence and left to stay first with Doug and then Lily, when Doug’s new boyfriend found her presence on their couch somewhat inconvenient for their budding sex life.
Six months later, Andy still didn’t know what she was more hurt by, Nate’s betrayal or the reason for it. She was trash in his eyes because she wasn’t successful like he was and so he threw her over. The fact that he immediately moved on to a very popular Instagram influencer and sometime model with big breasts, a bigger ego and self importance was less of a shock.
Andy was acutely aware of her own failures, of her inadequacies, as a writer, as a journalist, and apparently as a girlfriend. According to Nate, she was so busy surviving, her blow job skills suffered from her lack of focus and so off she was tossed into the good New York night. Something about this mad bad town made people ruthless and mean. Andy still remembered how Nate would put flowers in her hair and cuddle her to sleep. So when did Instagram followers and retweets become more important to him? When did the boy who held her hand through her father’s funeral, turn so vicious and callous that he equated her bedroom skills to her only usefulness to him, since she couldn’t boost his professional success with a mention to her social media followers because her posts would never go viral?
Perhaps the only thing that saved Andy from a deep depression was that same need to survive. Her father left behind considerable debts and her mother was not in any position to face them alone. So when you’re trying to scrape the absolute bottom of the barrel and make enough money just to have food to eat and to pay off her father’s debts, student loans and credit card debt, you really don’t have much time to wallow. In those first years in Manhattan she desperately tried to fit in, through fashion and purchases that would help her act the part of the trendy local professional and so her credit card had suffered plenty. Now she was paying for the mistakes of those heady times when success felt just barely out of reach.
So Andy didn’t wallow in her misery. Well, she mostly didn’t. Unless she did so at night, looking through the skylights of the attic at the never-quite-dark Manhattan sky. Her romantic nature didn’t let her despair completely, but it was a close call on some nights, when her dreams were all unspooling in front of her and the certainty of that “something” being just a touch away, of surely coming into her life and magically transforming it from a constant rat race into a simple human life, redeeming her entirely and maybe even making her just a bit happy.
Yet, in the midst of some of her darkest nights, this early March morning, the chilly fresh morning breeze filled her lungs and with the dogs tugging at her arms and barking up a storm, that little seed of something wonderful took root in her heart.
So when she saw a text from Nigel Kippling, the Editor-in-Chief of Runway, who still occasionally threw her odd errands and small snippets of work, it was as if the morning breeze foretold the occurrence. Something wonderful was about to happen to her.
She didn’t dare hope for too much though, so despite showing up at the restaurant he indicated, she didn’t order anything aside from asking for a glass of water, knowing that she clearly couldn’t afford much on the menu without starving for the next week or so. She sat there among the rich and famous, sticking out like a sore thumb, despite being clad in her best attire of a second-hand Marc Jacobs blouse and a size too big Jimmy Choos that Lily threw her way because they were too small for her. Trying to calm her raging nerves, Andy attempted to chew quietly on ice, which made her only more self-conscious and gauche, being certain that half the restaurant was pointing at her and laughing. Yes, the impostor syndrome was strong today, despite having lived in Manhattan for over four years and knowing it like the back of her hand, perhaps much better than these spoiled trust fund brats, since she actually walked the back alleys every day.
Just as she was about to drive herself insane with her anxiety about fitting in and standing out, Nigel showed up in clouds of perfume and sparkles. Everything about him just shined. The frame of his glasses, the diamond pin in his tie, his teeth and even his big bald head.
He gripped her hand a bit too tight and pumped it for a bit longer than necessary, all the while his shrewd eyes assessed her from head to toe. Just as Andy was starting to feel uncomfortable under the scrutiny he let go and waived for the waiter. After ordering both of them the chef’s special and several appetizers and cocktails, he finally looked her straight in the eye.
“I’m afraid you’re not only no longer a six but not even a four. Six, what the hell happened to you? Your chef boyfriend not feeding you? Or has he gone on some crazy raw vegan bend and you are refusing his food? Because in that case I wouldn’t blame you. Horrible trend that one. And where the hell did you scrounge that godawful blouse from? It’s so four years ago! Burn it!”
Andy just smiled and was saved from spilling her guts to one of the most influential men in publishing by the waiter returning with their drinks. Nigel was content not to pry and to simply prattle on about other horrid new trends and even more horrid weather and why was it so drafty in Manhattan, surely with the way everyone was packed on this godforsaken island there should be no room for any kind of air movement. Andy was content to sip her Cosmo and nibble on a crostini and hope that perhaps this meeting would lead to something more than a full stomach, though that wasn’t too shabby these days either.
“Anyway, Six…and God, you need to put some weight on since I can’t call you Two! Moving on from whatever ghastly diet regime you’ve embarked upon, I need your nose, Andy!”
“My nose?” Andy sat back and felt the frisson of anticipation run up her spine. Nigel Kipling needed her for something.
“Once upon a time you were a brilliant investigative journalist, my starving friend. You had a nose for a story, for following clues and digging up the truth. So I need you to sniff out a story for the magazine. Irv Ravitz has commissioned a feature, and depending on the length it can be broken up in several installments and we can do a whole thing around it, spare no expense, ensure travel and per diem, the works!”
Nigel Kipling thought she was once brilliant! Nigel Kipling, the Editor-in-Chief of Runway wanted her to write a story! A story commissioned by none other than Irv Ravitz! That seemed just a touch too good to be true. The CEO of Elias-Clark, the singularly most powerful man in the publishing industry, no offense to Nigel, but Irv was his boss, wanted the humble unknown journalist, Andy Sachs to do an investigation for one of his biggest magazines. He would publish it in several featured stories and pay her travel and per diem expenses on top of the fee. It was a dream come true indeed. She could drop the dog walking and the bartending and depending on the fee, perhaps keep her shifts at the coffee shop, just to make sure she still had something to fall back on once the investigation was over. Andy was so carried away by her thoughts that she barely heard Nigel go on with the details of the assignment until he actually snapped his fingers in front of her face.
“Andy! Pay attention now, darling! This is important. Here’s the information you may require.” He offered her a very thin file with maybe two or three sheets of paper in it and Andy’s heart suddenly started to have a slightly apprehensive feeling about this.
“Yes, I know, there isn’t much there for you to begin with, but, Andy, Elias-Clark will pay a considerable fee for you to get this story and you will have any and all support. I’ll tell you what I know. Judging by your choice of clothing and shoes, you my lovely, though tasteless friend, know nothing about fashion or art, so the name Priestly surely means nothing to you. And yet, Priestly is singlehandedly one of the most enigmatic, sought after and expensive-as-all-get-out artists currently working in the world.”
Andy may have been a farmer’s daughter from Ohio and a total rube, but even she, ensconced in her feminist research, gender studies and investigations of corrupt politicians, had heard of Priestly. She wasn’t sure in this day and age anyone really could feign ignorance about Priestly. It was always said with a touch of reverence, like uttering God’s name in church. Even now, as Nigel talked about the enigmatic artist, he slightly bowed his head as if in prayer.
As Andy polished off her entree, Nigel snapped out of whatever religious experience he was having over the name and continued gesticulating wildly with his perfectly manicured hands.
“Every year a piece by Priestly brings in millions of dollars at auction. Paintings and sculpture. The pieces are magnificent. They drive the art and fashion world alike for years. They are shown, analyzed, drooled over and resold for even more millions, if ever, since there aren’t that many pieces in existence. Priestly is unique. Yet despite everyone knowing about Priestly, nobody knows who Priestly is. The art has been around for about 15 years, give or take, it’s in the file, all the pieces known to be created by Priestly. Nobody has seen their face, nor knows who this person is. A sort of art and fashion world's answer to Banksy.”
Nigel took a breath and looked down at his now cold fillet mignon, making a face. Andy gave him and his plate a baleful stare despite already having consumed her steak. He sighed, rolled his eyes, pushed the plate her way and continued.
“Now, I can already see the wheels in your pretty little head turning and your mouth would be slightly open, if it wasn’t busy chewing, to ask me what the hell does an artist and a sculptor have to do with the fashion world. To be honest, nobody is entirely certain, but whole collections have been dedicated to Priestly, the fashion houses are mad for their art and not many people can say why and how one relates to the other. And here’s where you come in, darling.” Andy waited, but he just waved his manicured hand in her direction and took a sip of his very dry martini as if it was self explanatory.
Andy patted her mouth with the napkin, remembering some manners and opened the folder, noticing that she was indeed right - there wasn’t much there, other than several photos of pieces of art and a long list of pieces and the places and prices they were sold for, going back 15 years. Even the absolutely ignorant in arts and fashion Andy Sachs recognized some of the titles on the list. Still one question bothered her and she wondered how desperate she really was and if she would even take this job if Nigel didn’t satisfactorily answer her.
“Why me, Nigel? Not only am I a nobody, I haven’t written or published anything in ages. I have very little contacts left and this world of arts and fashion is very far from my usual stomping ground.”
Nigel just smiled at her serenely, as if she was a less then bright child.
“Precisely, darling. You are a nobody in this scene, no offense obviously. Nobody knows you and nobody will pay attention to you, a complete and total nobody, sniffing around for Priestly. And if I’m to judge, and I am to do so, this work will involve a lot of digging and a lot of snooping and a lot of questions to be asked. So putting a famous journalist on this case is not an option. Irv doesn’t want an established name on this. If an established name fails, it will quickly become known that Elias-Clark, nay Irv Ravitz, failed at getting a story. If you fail, nobody will ever know EC even commissioned this story. It’s very simple, darling, if not entirely pleasant.”
Andy looked up sharply from the remnants on her plate and Nigel gave her a sympathetic smile.
“I want to caution you, Andy, because I like you, despite your penchant for second hand hand-me-downs. Maybe it’s your naivete that’s reminding me of myself twenty years ago. Or the fact that you are obviously going hungry if a cold fillet mignon appeals to you. If you accept the assignment, Irv will want you to deliver. The contract will be ironclad. Behind the many thousands of dollars you will receive for this story, you will be bound by a lot of responsibility. And having worked for Irv for years, let me give you a fair warning - if you screw this up, you will never work in New York again.”
Andy gulped around the suddenly forming lump in her throat.
“Take the folder home, darling. Do some research, though I have to tell you, from what I’ve gleaned into this, there isn’t much to go on. And then call me Monday and tell me if you accept. If you do, my office will send you the contract. Then you have as well as signed your soul to the devil.”
It sounded very ominous, but all Andy could hear was “many thousands of dollars”. She could pay off her student loans and credit card debt. She could finally help her mother more than she had been these years to get out of the horrid situation she ended up in with having to pay off her father’s gambling debts. Andy would be free from all the crushing debt and obligations that held her down and able to focus on pursuing her dreams and with this story under her belt, she would be a household name at EC and perhaps in the publishing world, since Priestly was so famous. Surely she could track down a reclusive artist. Nigel said many things today, and in some things he was facetious, but he was dead on the money regarding Andy’s once famed capacity to pursue a story and dig into seemingly innocuous details to drag facts to the light. Besides, how hard could it be when the morning breeze was clearly on her side, whispering of hopes and dreams in her ears as she walked briskly through the crowded Manhattan streets? This island has taken much from her, but she felt like it was finally giving something back. She felt like something wonderful was just within reach. The March wind would not disappoint her.