Preview book 1, beginning
or drafting a town experiment
It all began with a letter …
Berlin, 2 March 2016
Dear Mr Tom Holbon,
Sometimes I wonder what I would do with a fortune like yours. And the answer is actually simple: I would set up a team of experts for an experiment which might or might not answer all the questions foremost on my mind.
Do you think your kind of fortune would be sufficient to build an experiment? Building, being one of the clues. Exploring, another.
Well, you seem to have the sort of influence to bring together all the experts required. And from what I hear, you are a programming businessman with an altruistic streak. All of which would come in handy.
So how about we set up an experiment which might turn the world upside down? In which case, we could give it a good shake.
If you are intrigued, I would be happy to present my ideas to you in person.
More than two weeks later
When Tom Holbon looked up from his paperwork, he was surprised to see his PR manager enter the study.
And actually for two reasons.
It was late in the afternoon, on a Friday, and usually Richard made prior appointments. At least here on Tom’s estate. Back at the offices in New York, Richard came and went.
As always, Richard looked perfect. Perfect suit, perfect haircut, perfect everything. Some called him Barbie Ken. He even stood perfectly. At ease and yet with poise. Right now, three paces into the room, waiting for Tom to speak first.
Tom always wondered about the three paces. Why not two, which would bring him level with the terrace door, or five, which would get him to the centre of the room? There was no logic in three paces.
But then, Richard was a smooth talker, not someone for pace logic. And he was ambitious. Over a decade ago, he talked himself into Tom’s inner circle. Tom still wasn’t sure how that had happened.
Well, Richard delivered. Usually. There had been a few complaints by female employees down the years, but nothing that couldn’t be handled.
Now in his forties, Richard was still unmarried. And that meant, he was available for overtime, and apparently on a Friday afternoon too.
‘Richard, what is it?’ Tom asked, clearing away the documents on his desk.
‘I called the woman from Germany.’
‘Remind me. What was that about?’
‘The woman who sent you a letter about building an experiment with your fortune.’
‘Oh, right. What’s the idea about?’
‘She wouldn’t say.’
‘Really?’ Tom raised his eyebrows. ‘She wasn’t serious, right?’
‘She will only talk to you in person. “I wrote in person, and I meant in person,” is what she said.’
‘Oh, well. She will change her mind. Give it a few days.’
‘I doubt that. “I won’t change my mind,” is what she said.’
‘Hm.’ Tom was a little puzzled. ‘Do you think there is an actual idea? Or is this just a prank?’
Richard hesitated. ‘She is stubborn, maybe arrogant but not crazy or a prankster, is what I’d say.’
‘Hm. Anything else?’
‘Nothing that can’t wait until Monday.’
That was Richard too. He never made a fuss. Especially not on a Friday. Which was a nice touch.
‘All right. Thanks, Richard.’
When the door closed behind Richard, Tom leant back in his chair, massaging his fingers. They didn’t hurt, not today.
The letter still seemed like a joke.
What would I do with a fortune like yours?
What a question?
And yet, he was curious. And he still smiled whenever he thought of the line: turn the world upside down to give it a good shake.
According to Richard, Alice Adler was a small-time
freelancer, web design and photography. She studied business in Berlin and Bristol, and some search results indicated work for a theatre company and on a movie. But Richard wasn’t sure that these entries related to the same Alice Adler.
Forty-three, born in Berlin, according to her passport details. The passport photo showed an intelligent looking person, someone with a mind of her own.
Tom didn’t trust photos.
No sign of a husband, children or any social media activity.
For a moment, Tom looked out of the French windows, down to the lake. The sun was already low.
He opened his desk drawer, searched it and found her letter under some documents.
He read the letter again. He smiled again.
Then he crumbled the letter and threw it into his wastepaper basket.
Ten days later
Monday, 28 March 2016
A party loft in New York
Jack Harris was still fuming when he ordered a gin and tonic at one of the long bars. He would have a few drinks on the house. That was the least Tom Holbon owed him.
Who the fuck does Tom Holbon think he is? A fucking billionaire who could buy just about anything he wanted? Oh, hang on. Yeah, he is the fucking richest man on this screwed up planet, and he just tried to buy me. ME! A bleeding white middle-aged man, a millionaire, a fucking famous actor with a BAFTA win under his still acceptable belt, from bloody charming England. And I still get screwed over! What else does it take?
And then this Alice Adler … Jack couldn’t make up his mind about her. Nor could Tom Holbon, funny enough. Holbon sounded sort of puzzled when he pointed her out in the glamorous buzz of the party. Some two hundred guests. About two-thirds in suits, the other third: actors, musicians, models.
‘She doesn’t act like someone who has never been in circles like this,’ Holbon remarked. ‘But neither does she act like someone who is used to these circles. There is some sort of curious amusement about her, don’t you think?’
DON’T I THINK? Jack nearly shouted. But he didn’t want to make a scene. Everyone knew him. Though luckily, no one here would just talk to him, as long as he avoided eye contact.
Finally his G & T arrived, and he gulped down half of it.
He hated parties like this: rich businessmen courting celebrities, and in some cases vice versa. It was sad, at best.
For fuck’s sake, why did he keep walking into traps? Why couldn’t people just leave him alone? Why couldn’t they just let him be? Just be.
Jack emptied his glass and ordered another gin and tonic. ‘A triple this time,’ he snapped at the waiter.
Fuck, he was far too sober for this. ‘Oh, Jack, but you have to go,’ they chirped. ‘The Tom Holbon wants to meet you.’ And not just his agent. No, five other people kept bugging him. Three of which, he hadn’t spoken to in years. And for what? This bullshit?
Jack frowned, suddenly distracted.
He was keeping an eye on Alice Adler. Inconspicuously, of course. More like a corner of an eye, really. And just now a barkeeper, further down the long bar, sneered at her. What did she order? Water?
Oh, orange juice.
Well. At least she seemed to take the sneer with humour.
Now she stepped away from the bar, orange juice in hand, and looked around. Again. She was watching people a lot. Sometimes other guests talked to her. And she smiled easily when they did.
She was dressed casually: jeans, t-shirt, long jacket, no jewellery, no noticeable make-up, her short dark hair sort of ruffled. He opted for casual too. And no tie. Never a tie. Not even for the Tom Holbon.
What the heck? What does Barbie Ken want with her?
Jack turned to see better, leaning his back against the bar. Earlier, the Barbie Ken guy introduced him to Tom Holbon. Now, Barbie Ken was talking to Alice Adler. And she was frowning. And now, Barbie Ken walked away. She was looking after him, kind of puzzled. What the hell?
Jack turned around again, just as the barkeeper served the triple G & T. He picked it up and took a few thoughtful sips.
He hadn’t given Alice Adler’s situation a single thought. He was just angry. He even remembered what a famous actor once told his young self: ‘As an actor you are a prostitute, stripping for your audience, body and soul. When you’re famous, you strip for the world. And as a reward, the world will own you. Every single one of them will own you!’
A fucking prostitute!
And tonight Tom Holbon tried to buy his services, saying: ‘Whatever it takes. I will, of course, reimburse all expenses, and pay you well.’
Did Holbon really mean …?
No wonder, he got angry. Walked out on Holbon. But Barbie Ken caught up with him and explained, with smugness dripping from every word: ‘Mr Harris, Tom isn’t all himself. He’s experiencing a brief stretch of senility. It will pass. He just turned sixty-three. These things happen when people get to that age. I mean, he invited Alice Adler out of the blue. No one was more surprised than me. And now, we have to keep Tom from making a fool of himself. He can’t be seen to fall for a prank. Right? Besides, if there is anything to her idea, then it’s better we know about it and not our competitors, right? So, we need you to get her talking …’
What a total dick!
Jack wondered how Holbon would react if he knew that his PR manager portrayed him as a dotard. Aren’t PR managers supposed to present you through some rose-coloured glasses? Do you still get screwed over even if you are the richest man on the planet?
But what about Alice Adler?
What has she walked into?
Jack frowned, remembering something else Barbie Ken said. ‘We have several people at the party who will gather information about her and her idea. But you with your famous charm … You might have the best chances.’
Jack nearly punched Barbie Ken.
But that was the curse of being famous. You couldn’t just punch anyone. Least of all in public. If you did, there would be hell to pay.
Jack shock his head.
‘I’m curious, Mr Harris. That’s all,’ Holbon’s voice repeated in Jack’s mind.
‘We have other people at the party,’ Barbie Ken’s voice added.
Yes, yes … I should at least warn her. Make clear I don’t want to know a thing. Just warn her.
Though, she seems like the kind of a person who can look after herself.
Yeah. I know.
He had seen it many times. People thought they could get through trouble on their own. And failed. In the past, he needed help, but people thought he didn’t. And he failed.
Jack finished his G & T and turned around.
He looked at the spot where he had seen Alice Adler last.
She was gone.
He scanned the loft.
Was she really gone?
Since she was gone, there was nothing he could do.
He was simply too late.
Jack sighed and went looking for her.
He had been in this loft before. It was popular with the rich and famous, who rented it for their parties. This party was Tom Holbon’s. Hence all the suits, and the celebrities for the suits’ amusement.
Jack shook his head.
Apart from the main room, with two long bars on either side, there were several smaller rooms: for gamblers, dancers, smokers, chillers and one for minimalists.
That’s where he found Alice Adler.
He couldn’t help a little smile, but then he stopped just past the door, hesitating.
The room was nearly empty, just a few stools and fewer guests. The walls were grey, and the bar was the only source of light. Alice Adler was sitting at the counter, lost in thoughts, a cocktail in front of her. No one else was nearby, except a young barkeeper at the back of the bar. He was working his phone.
Jack still hesitated.
What if she got star-struck and started to giggle? What if she didn’t deserve a warning? Maybe she wanted to trick Tom Holbon. Oh, fuck. What if she was an undercover journalist, out for a story to ridicule Holbon?
Just talk to her.
Are you sure about this?
And then a third thought added: But maybe you should have some fun with this.
Jack grimaced with the touch of a half-smile. Maybe some fun would be good.
He slowly walked towards the bar. As he got closer, a bit of excitement bubbled up. He pulled at his shirt, took a deep breath, put a whimsical smile on his face and sat down on the barstool next to her.
She looked up.
And she stared.
She just stared at him.
That never happened.
People made a fuss, gasped, begged him for a selfie or an autograph, or they giggled. No one just stared at him with angry — no, not angry — frustrated eyes.
Oh, come on. She probably has a miserable night too.
‘What is it?’ she snapped.
‘Well, um … I heard a few things about you …’ Dude, really? That’s the best you can come up with?
She frowned. ‘What did you hear?’
‘Um… Your name is Alice Adler, and you are from Berlin. You were invited to this party by Tom Holbon after you sent him a letter, proposing some kind of experiment. How am I doing so far?’ he added sort of jovially, trying to regain some ease or confidence or anything that didn’t make him feel like a fool.
Her frown deepened. ‘A bit too well. Who told you? And why are you talking to me?’
Her bluntness struck him both as unpleasant and pleasant. He looked away. Usually people didn’t wonder why he talked to them. And often he wished they would. But her bluntness was a bit off-putting. Still pondering, he met her eyes again. And again he nearly flinched.
‘Tell me,’ she demanded. ‘Who and why?’
Better get this over with quickly. But explain it properly. ‘I should start from the beginning,’ he said, trying to ignore her unnerving gaze. ‘I rarely go to parties like this. Too many business people, feeling too good about themselves and too excited about meeting celebrities. Also, I rarely go to parties on Mondays since that makes the rest of the week harder to get through.’ This remark earned him a little twitch on the corner of her mouth. He went on: ‘But for the party tonight, I got several calls, people telling me that Tom Holbon wants to meet and that I had to go or come.’
Her expression darkened.
‘Nobody gave me any details,’ he quickly added to point out that he was the good guy in this story. ‘Look, I’m in New York for Easter, and so I agreed. Shortly after I arrived, I was introduced to Mr Holbon, and he told me about you—’ Jack stopped, suddenly realising what was coming next.
Did he have to tell her everything?
Just say it already.
Embarrassed, he continued: ‘Mr Holbon said he needed to know all about you and your idea and—’
Did he really have to spell it out?
Just say it!
‘And he implied you might open up to someone like me.’
Alice Adler gaped. Maybe she even blushed a little, but he wasn’t sure. He was sure that he was blushing.
He forced himself to continue: ‘Look, I’m not the only one. There are others who will try to trick you into talking. So I thought I should warn you. Not that you seem like someone who needs a warning. But then we all—‘ For fuck’s sake, stop babbling! And he did, but he continued to talk. ‘I mean, you don’t have to take my word for it, but I don’t want to know a thing. Not a syllable. I won’t ask you a single question.’ You are babbling again! Fucking hell. This is too embarrassing.
Jack inhaled and added: ‘I should have punched Tom Holbon for his impertinence, but I just walked out on him, drank too much, and suddenly I realised that you don’t know about the others. So—’ Jack stopped and wished again he hadn’t come here tonight.
And she— She just looked at him with unseeing eyes. She was so strange. No one just looked at him, especially not with unseeing eyes.
Then she sighed. It was a little sigh, like it had travelled a great distance and a mere echo made it all the way to this grey room in a loft in New York.
And she saw him again. Of course, the frown was back, but her voice had lost the snappiness. ‘That explains why other people tried to get me talking. And it explains why you are talking to me.’
This assessment seemed to conclude their conversation, and she turned to the bar again, lost in thoughts — again.
Earlier he thought that talking would make him feel better. It didn’t. Or that she would thank him. She didn’t.
Alice Adler puzzled him. Not in a good way.
He decided to leave and stood up.
‘You know what’s funny?’ she said, looking at him again.
‘Funny?’ he retorted irritated.
‘Yes, funny,’ she replied. And for the first time, there was a smile in her eyes. Just in her eyes. But it was there, and she added: ‘I think, someone like you might be good for the project.’
‘What?’ he burst out.
Alice Adler smiled. This time a full smile. Amused, she said: ‘You think I’d ask you to be the poster boy for my project.’ She raised one arm and proclaimed jestingly: ‘See here: Jack Harris, the Hollywood star, and just as hot as our project.’
He didn’t have a good feeling about this. Any of it.
‘And you wouldn’t?’ he asked, undecided whether to leave or stay, stand or sit.
‘No, I wouldn’t,’ she answered, still amused. ‘Neither your looks, nor your fame, fortune or profession would play much of a role in this.’
He nearly burst out laughing. What would he be without his looks, fame, fortune or profession? Another part of him, the curious part, asked: ‘OK?’ That part also made him sit down again. And she said: ‘You are one of the few actors I can actually put a name to. But I haven’t seen all your movies.’
Bloody hell, I wish I knew where this is going. ‘Should I be hurt or relieved?’
‘Maybe both,’ she replied with a lopsided smile. ‘And I know little about your life. But the little I do know suggests a person who cares about the well-being of others, and who has an active mind as well as a playful instinct.’
Now it was for Jack to frown. And since his active mind refused to send any input, or output for that matter, he said: ‘I’m sorry, but I don’t follow.’
‘If this project goes ahead, experts of many professions will be needed. But the project also needs people who aren’t academics. Playfulness and ease are as important as expert knowledge to make this project work.’
‘And you think I could help?’
‘I’ve seen your playfulness on screen. And I’m sort of hoping it wasn’t all acting.’
Jack only just kept himself from gaping.
On the face of it, it was a compliment. Sort of. Wasn’t it? But … ‘I’m just an actor,’ he said more testily than intended. ‘And I don’t fancy being the clown for a bunch of academics.’
‘Sorry, that’s not what I mean. The playfulness, I’m talking about, should be part of the very fabric of the project — not an entertaining sideshow. It’s about loving and enjoying life, venturing, twirling through the air, provoking, crossing lines, laughing, opposing, daring … It’s the talent to play around with ideas, questions, impossibilities; always open, never narrow-minded or fixated on existing knowledge; free to explore. Mind you, I’d hope to get other artists on board too.’
Listening, Jack felt anger rising. Anger that ran much deeper and was much older than his earlier anger about Holbon’s request.
And he snapped. ‘You’re decades too late. That playful, optimistic, life loving guy, you might have seen on screen— He doesn’t exist any more. If he ever existed, he’s dead!’
‘That’s a shame,’ she returned calmly. ‘And I don’t believe it.’
‘What?’ Jack exclaimed and nearly got up again.
‘No need to get angry with me. You can’t lose playfulness. You can bury it though. But, be that as it may, if you’re not interested in a challenge, then you’re not.’
Jack was struggling with his anger and broke eye contact, turning towards the bar. Man, what the fuck’s happening here? What is she even saying? Playful? He used to love that guy. But— But life pushed that guy away. That guy became a prostitute and now the world owned him. How could you remain optimistic when, no matter what you achieved, you still got screwed over. And no matter what you did, the world was still a screwed up planet?
Earlier he asked Holbon: ‘What’s the idea about?’
Not out of interest. Just to find a counterargument for his involvement. And Holbon replied: ‘It’s about turning the world upside down to give it a good shake. I have no idea what she means. But I keep thinking about it.’
He sounded a little senile then. But just a little.
Give the world a good shake. That wasn’t possible, was it? But what if it was? And what if—? What if he could find that playful guy again while doing some shaking? What if he was just buried?
When Jack turned back to Alice Adler, she looked surprised. And that surprised him. Until he remembered that he must have looked pretty angry when he turned away.
He gave her something of a quarter-smile, and then curiosity took over. ‘And this project is …? What is it?’
She hesitated, probably wondering whether she could trust him and at the same time thinking: how could you tell with an actor?
Well, how could you? So Jack added: ‘I know you have no reason to trust me, but Tom Holbon won’t learn a syllable from me. I swear.’
She still hesitated.
Jack took a beer mat and asked the barkeeper for a pen. He wrote a few lines around the border of the beer mat, and then pushed it towards her. ‘It’s a non-disclosure agreement. If you’d prefer something more official, I can call my lawyer now.’
She still hesitated, but then a little rebellious glint appeared in her eyes. She picked up the beer mat, read the text, smiled and pushed the mat into her jeans pocket.
And then she told him about her ideas.
‘But that’s crazy,’ he said after about an hour.
And she laughed. ‘I’m glad we agree on that.’
There was a pause, and Jack let the buzz of ideas wash through him while she took a sip from her second cocktail, pensively watching the barkeeper, who was drawing beer for two suits.
They had only scratched the surface, she explained earlier. And for now that was all she would tell him. But even so, her ideas struck several chords with him, and he felt— reckless, kind of ready for anything.
‘And if the project goes ahead,’ she said, resurfacing from her thoughts, ‘I might need an assistant.’
‘Are you offering me a job?’ he asked, sounding far too hopeful. What the hell did he know about being an assistant?
But she said: ‘No. I mean, I’d like to have you on the team. But not as my assistant. I was just wondering whether you could recommend anyone?’
He was disappointed and relieved.
A bit doubtful, he asked: ‘What kind of assistant are you looking for?’
‘Someone who has organised big projects or worked in the movies as an assistant director. Someone who can lead their own team. But not someone stiff or meticulous or a bureaucrat. What I need is reliability, dedication, and someone who can admit to having made mistakes.’
‘You are not asking for much.’
‘I know,’ she said with a cheeky smile.
There was a sudden gap in their conversation. And while the earlier pause had been fine, both following their own thoughts, this gap needed filling. So Jack grabbed at the first question that crossed his mind. ‘What do you make of the party?’
‘The party?’ she returned amused. ‘Well, I realised that I know fewer famous people than is generally expected of an educated person.’
She seemed encouraged by this and added: ‘Some other solo-guests were happy to talk to me. Always until they realised I have no valuable connection to offer.’
‘You could have played the Tom Holbon card.’
‘I was tempted a few times.’
Jack chuckled. ‘Barbie Ken mentioned you didn’t want to send any information upfront. Did you guess they would contact you again?’
Alice shook her head. ‘No, I was convinced I had blown it. And after the call with Barbie Ken, I poured myself a glass of wine and continued to add images to the website I was working on, all the while chanting to myself: So what? It’s my idea! I’ll find another way.’
Jack chuckled. ‘What happened then?’
‘Good Friday. Another evening, another call. Again Barbie Ken Richard. He sounded unhappy when he told me he had booked a flight to New York for me. For Monday morning. As in today. I didn’t have plans for Easter, but a single weekend wasn’t much time to get ready. Anyway, after my arrival, Richard warned me that Tom Holbon might only have a minute for me at the party.’
‘Yep. And I said: “Are you telling me, I came all the way from Berlin to New York for a three-minute interview?” And he answered: “If you’re lucky.”’
‘Prick,’ Jack repeated, happy to share her obvious dislike of Richard. ‘So what did Barbie Ken want from you earlier?’
‘He told me Tom Holbon is indisposed tonight, and I’m to meet him at his estate. In two days, on Wednesday morning. And Barbie Ken added: “You must have impressed Tom, or you would be flying back home tomorrow.”’
‘Prick. And wow!’
‘Yah. And now I’m wondering whether I want to work with someone this impressionable.’
Jack chuckled and Alice added: ‘All I could think afterwards was: Hurray— I mean the most sarcastic hurray you can imagine. Hurray, I’ll have a meeting with the great Tom Holbon. And for that I had to strut around a party for nearly two hours, being bored out of my mind. Though, it was a bit amusing at times too.’
‘I didn’t see you strut.’
‘You didn’t? Well, then I have to change my story to: thinking about strutting but deciding against it since too many people were in the way for a proper strut.’
Alice frowned. ‘You watched me?’
‘Just a little. Keeping an eye. I couldn’t make up my mind about you— But how did you get from a one minute interview at a party to an invitation to Holbon’s estate?’
‘Ah, that’s a good question. And I don’t know. Earlier, I told Richard that it would take hours to present the ideas. And he went all super-snob, saying: “Hours? And you expect Mr Holbon to spend hours with someone he hardly knows anything about?” And I answered: “I hope he is curious enough to take a walk with me through the ideas. And I hope he is sensible enough to take his time before taking any decisions.” Maybe that got me the invitation.’
‘But aren’t you worried that Holbon will just use your ideas?’
‘I wasn’t. Not really. Not before tonight. Actually, not even before you told me why you are here.’
‘I won’t tell him a thing.’
‘I think I know.’
Jack grimaced. ‘You’ll see.’
It was a little strange, but he actually wanted her to trust him.
She nodded sort of yeah-we’ll-see like.
‘Just be careful when you meet Holbon.’
‘If it helps, I can text you after—’ She stopped, looking embarrassed. ‘Um …’ she muttered and after a few seconds, she took a card from her jacket and pushed it towards him. ‘Sorry, you can contact me if you want to know more. I’d better call it a night,’ she added and got up.
Jack was taken aback by this abrupt end to their chat, and he was surprised that asking for his number was such a big deal for her. He got his phone out and called the number on her card.
She watched him, obviously undecided how to react. But then she grimaced a little and took an old smartphone from her jeans pocket.
It was the first time tonight that he thought: maybe she isn’t as invincible as she appears.
Of course, she isn’t.
But now he knew.
And maybe he did have something to offer. ‘How will you get to the hotel?’ he asked in his new role as the concerned, well, someone.
‘I’ll slip out of the loft and walk back. I don’t fancy another encounter with Barbie Ken Richard.’
‘I can call you a taxi.’
‘It’s not that far to the hotel. And I don’t mind walking in a city at night. I actually like it.’
Jack twitched his mouth, weighing his options. But the paparazzi were bound to be waiting downstairs. ‘I can’t walk you to the hotel.’
Alice chuckled. ‘No need to. And, of course, you can’t. That would be too close to posterboying.’
Jack smiled a little. If he was to become part of this project, he needed to get used to her bluntness.
‘Well,’ she said, ‘thanks for talking to me. Our chat cheered me up — eventually.’
‘Likewise,’ Jack said and decided against offering his hand.
It was just a hunch, but something told him that she would prefer not to shake hands.
With a smile, she turned and left the bar.
Two days later
When Richard Barbie Ken stopped the car at the main entrance, Alice was glad that the two hours of snobbish silence were finally over.
‘Just open the front door and walk across the hall,’ Richard told her frostily. ‘Tom’s study is in the right corner, next to the living room.’
And then Richard started to drum his fingers on the wheel.
Alice rolled her eyes and got out of the car.
Why do some people have to be arseholes? What’s in it for them?
Still annoyed, Alice hardly registered the few steps she walked up to the double door or how easily the door opened.
But inside, she stopped abruptly.
This entrance hall was huge, just like the estate: Tom Holbon’s estate.
Four pillars marked the square shape of the hall. On the right were five doors and a recess with a staircase. On the left were two corridors with a blank wall between them. Other than that, there was nothing. Not even a coat stand. Just a huge empty space.
The living room was straight across the hall. The double doors were open, revealing some modern artwork on the far wall.
Alice felt like sitting down. Right here, next to the front door, on the white tiles.
Not to sulk.
More as some sort of protest, stressing that she despised games like this. She didn’t even know what the game was. Though, it sounded like: if Alice Adler insists on coming in person, push her into the water and see whether she can swim. Well, I hope you won’t be disappointed. Because I can swim.
Tom Holbon looked at his monitor again. Three minutes. Usually people reached his study within a minute after Richard’s call. No one needed three— now, four minutes.
Could she have lost her way?
No. The living room doors were kept open on occasions like this. But what if someone had closed the doors?
Tom got up from his chair, just as the knock came. Quickly, he settled back, placed his fingers on the keyboard and started to type.
‘Come in,’ he called, watching the door from the corner of his eye.
Alice Adler entered without hesitation, but there was a hint of annoyance about her. Maybe because he didn’t look up.
Like at the party, she was dressed casually: jeans, t-shirt, a long blazer jacket; a thick folder under her arm.
She closed the door and stayed next to it.
Interesting. So she wasn’t a pushing kind of person. Or she demanded his attention if she was to take another step.
Tom continued to type.
The next question was whether she was a nosy person. Would she look at the books, pictures and trophies on his shelves along the walls, or would she look out of one of the French windows? And, would she choose the window behind him or the window to her right, thereby avoiding to look at him?
Interesting. She alternated between both windows. Not nervously. Just every now and again, like someone who got easily bored.
So far she hadn’t made a single mistake, neither at the party nor here. Time to find out more.
Tom looked up.
His sudden attention seemed to startle her, and her hands started to shake. She must have been miles away with her thoughts.
‘Sorry, to have kept you waiting,’ he said pleasantly, getting up.
As he walked around his desk, she seemed to force herself into motion, still as if her mind hadn’t quite made it back to this room.
They met halfway and shook hands. She had a firm handshake. That was unexpected. Tom frowned. ‘Nice to meet you, Ms Adler. I hope you like New York?’
Alice Adler cleared her throat. ‘Um, thank you, yes. New York is nice. Look, I’m not good at small talk. And I’d like to get started straight away.’
Tom was surprised by her directness. On the other hand, he disliked people who took hours to get to the point. So he said with a kind smile: ‘All right. Let’s sit down then and hear about your experiment.’
But she didn’t move.
Instead she opened her folder. ‘Before I tell you about my ideas, I’d like you to sign this agreement.’
‘A non-disclosure agreement?’
Looking at her curiously, he accepted the two sheets of paper and read the five paragraphs.
He frowned, meeting her eyes again and maybe seeing her for the first time. This was not what he had expected.
He remembered her shaking hands, but by now, Alice Adler was utterly calm and focused. There was nothing insecure about the person who was facing him, or the person who had written these five paragraphs.
‘And you want me to sign this?’
‘Why would I let you run the project?’
‘Because I have no agenda. I don’t seek a fortune, power or fame. Nor am I a nationalist who needs to forward any country’s interests. I’m not religious. I have no boss or shareholder to please or any ladder to climb. I’m not a politician who needs to win an election. I have no class or party affiliations. I don’t even have a family I owe anything to. I am independent. And I’m driven by one things only: curiosity.’
Tom looked at her with a hint of incomprehension, something that rarely happened to him.
A little amused, Alice Adler added: ‘You need an independent and curious mind to run an experiment like this.’
Tom turned and looked out of the window, down to the lake.
What impressed him maybe most in this moment, was the calm patience with which she waited for his next question or comment. He had to admit that he hadn’t expected to meet someone who wasn’t here to play any games. At all.
book 1, beginning
Alice Adler, a Berliner, sets out to convince Tom Holbon, the richest man on the planet, to build a town experiment. The aim of the experiment is to rethink — well, everything.
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