Friday Night Book Club: Read an excerpt from An Anonymous Girl – an electrifying psychological thriller
More about the book!
The Friday Night Book Club: Exclusive excerpts from Pan Macmillan every weekend!
Staying in this evening? Settle in with this extended excerpt from An Anonymous Girl, a must-read from the writing duo behind the bestseller The Wife Between Us, Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen.
About the book
‘A clever thriller with masterful twists.’
– Karin Slaughter on The Wife Between Us
Seeking women ages 18–32 to participate in a study on ethics and morality. Generous compensation. Anonymity guaranteed.
When Jessica Farris signs up for a psychology study conducted by the mysterious Dr Shields, she thinks all she’ll have to do is answer a few questions, collect her money and leave.
But as the questions grow more and more intense and invasive, and the sessions become outings where Jess is told what to wear and how to act, she begins to feel as though Dr Shields may know what she’s thinking … and what she’s hiding.
As Jess’s paranoia grows, it becomes clear that she can no longer trust what is real in her life, and what is one of Dr Shields’s manipulative experiments. Caught in a web of deceit and jealousy, Jess quickly learns that some obsessions can be deadly.
Read the excerpt:
Friday, November 16
A lot of women want the world to see them a certain way. It’s my job to create those transformations, one forty-five minute session at a time. My clients seem different when I’ve finished helping them. They grow more confident, radiant. Happier, even. But I can only offer a temporary fix. People invariably revert to their former selves. True change requires more than the tools I wield.
It’s twenty to six on a Friday evening. Rush hour. It’s also when someone often wants to look like the best version of themselves, so I consistently block this time out of my personal schedule.
When the subway doors open at Astor Place, I’m the first one out, my right arm aching from the weight of my black makeup case as it always does by the end of a long day.
I swing my case directly behind me so it’ll fit through the narrow passageway – it’s my fifth trip through the turnstiles today alone, and my routine is automatic – then I hurry up the stairs.
When I reach the street, I dig into the pocket of my leather jacket and pull out my phone. I tap it to open my schedule, which is updated at least once a day by BeautyBuzz. I provide the hours I can work, and my appointments are texted to me.
My final booking today is near Eighth Street and University Place. It’s for ninety minutes, which means it’s a double – two clients. I have the address, names, and a contact phone number. But I have no idea who will be waiting for me when I knock on a door.
I don’t fear strangers, though. I’ve learned more harm can come from familiar faces.
I memorise the exact location, then stride down the street, skirting the garbage that has spilled from a toppled bin. A shopkeeper pulls a security grate over his storefront, the loud metal rattling into place. A trio of students, backpacks slung over their shoulders, jostle each other playfully as I pass them.
I’m two blocks from my destination when my phone rings. Caller ID shows it’s my mom.
I let it ring once as I stare at the little circular photo of my smiling mother.
I’ll see her in five days, when I go home for Thanksgiving, I tell myself.
But I can’t let it go.
Guilt is always the heaviest thing I carry. ‘Hey, Mom. Everything okay?’ I ask. ‘Everything’s fine, honey. Just checking in.’ I can picture her in the kitchen in the suburban Philadelphia home where I grew up. She’s stirring gravy on the stove – they eat early, and Friday’s menu is always pot roast and mashed potatoes – then unscrewing the top on a bottle of Zinfandel in preparation for the single glass she indulges in on weekend nights.
There are yellow curtains dressing the small window above the sink, and a dish towel looped through the stove handle with the words Just roll with it superimposed over an image of a rolling pin. The flowered wallpaper is peeling at the seams and a dent marks the bottom of the fridge from where my father kicked it after the Eagles lost in the playoffs.
Dinner will be ready when my dad walks through the door from his job as an insurance salesman. My mother will greet him with a quick kiss. They will call my sister, Becky, to the table, and help her cut her meat.
‘Becky zipped up her jacket this morning,’ my mother says. ‘Without any help.’
Becky is twenty-two, six years younger than me. ‘That’s fantastic,’ I say.
Sometimes I wish I lived closer so I could help my parents. Other times, I’m ashamed at how grateful I am that I don’t.
‘Hey, can I call you back?’ I continue. ‘I’m just running in to work.’ ‘Oh, did you get hired for another show?’
I hesitate. Mom’s voice is more animated now.
I can’t tell her the truth, so I blurt out the words: ‘Yeah, it’s just a little production. There probably won’t even be much press about it. But the makeup is super elaborate, really unconventional.’
‘I’m really proud of you,’ my mom says. ‘I can’t wait to hear all about it next week.’
I feel like she wants to add something more, but even though I haven’t quite reached my destination – a student housing complex at NYU – I end the call.
‘Give Becky a kiss. I love you.’
My rules for any job kick in even before I arrive.
I evaluate my clients the moment I see them – I notice eyebrows that would look better darkened, or a nose that needs shading to appear slimmer – but I know my customers are sizing me up, too.
The first rule: my unofficial uniform. I wear all black, which eliminates the need to coordinate a new outfit every morning. It also sends a message of subtle authority. I choose comfortable, machine-washable layers that will look as fresh at seven p.m. as they do at seven a.m.
Since personal space vanishes when you’re doing someone’s makeup, my nails are short and buffed, my breath is minty, and my curls are swept up in a low twist. I never deviate from this standard.
I rub Germ-X on my hands and pop an Altoid in my mouth before I ring the buzzer for Apartment 6D. I’m five minutes early. Another rule.
I take the elevator to the sixth floor, then follow the sound of loud music – Katy Perry’s ‘Roar’ – down the hallway and meet my clients. One is in a bathrobe, and the other wears a T-shirt and boxers. I can smell the evidence of their last beauty treatment – the chemicals used to highlight blond streaks into the hair of the girl named Mandy, and the nail varnish drying on the hands Taylor is waving through the air. ‘Where are you going tonight?’ I ask. A party will likely have stronger lighting than a club; a dinner date will require a subtle touch. ‘Lit,’ Taylor says. At my blank look, she adds: ‘It’s in the Meatpacking District. Drake was just there last night.’
‘Cool,’ I say.
I wind through the items scattered across the floor – an umbrella, a crumpled gray sweater, a backpack – then move aside the Skinny Pop popcorn and half-empty cans of Red Bull on the low coffee table so I can set down my case. I unlatch it and the sides fold out like an accordion to reveal tray upon tray of makeup and brushes.
‘What kind of look are we going for?’
Some makeup artists dive in, trying to cram as many clients as possible into a day. I take the extra time I’ve built into my schedule to ask a few questions. Just because one woman wants a smokey eye and a naked mouth doesn’t mean another isn’t envisioning a bold red lip and only a swipe of mascara. Investing in those early minutes saves me time on the backend.
But I also trust my instincts and observations. When these girls say they want a sexy, beachy look, I know they really want to resemble Gigi Hadid, who is on the cover of the magazine splayed across the love seat.
‘So what are you majoring in?’ I ask.
‘Communications. We both want to go into PR.’ Mandy sounds bored, like I’m an annoying adult asking her what she wants to be when she grows up.
‘Sounds interesting,’ I say as I pull a straight-back chair into the strongest light, directly under the ceiling fixture.
I start with Taylor. I have forty-five minutes to create the vision she wants to see in the mirror.
‘You have amazing skin,’ I say. Another rule: Find a feature to compliment on every client. In Taylor’s case, this isn’t difficult.
‘Thanks,’ she says, not lifting her gaze from her phone. She begins a running commentary on her Instagram feed: ‘Does anyone really want to see another picture of cupcakes?’ ‘Jules and Brian are so in love, it’s gross.’ ‘Inspirational sunset, got it … glad you’re having a rocking Friday night on your balcony.’
As I work, the girls’ chatter fades into background noise, like the drone of a hair dryer or city traffic. I lose myself in the strokes of different foundations I’ve applied to Taylor’s jawline so I can match her skin tone flawlessly, and in the swirl of copper and sandy hues I blend on my hand to bring out the gold flecks in her eyes.
I’m brushing bronzer onto her cheeks when her cell phone rings. Taylor stops tapping hearts and holds up her phone: ‘Private number. Should I get it?’
‘Yes!’ Mandy says. ‘It could be Justin.’
Taylor wrinkles her nose. ‘Who answers their phone on a Friday night, though? He can leave a message.’
A few moments later, she touches the speakerphone button and a man’s voice fills the room:
‘This is Ben Quick, Dr Shields’s assistant. I’m confirming your appointments this weekend, for tomorrow and Sunday from eight to ten a.m. The location again is Hunter Hall, Room 214. I’ll meet you in the lobby and take you up.’
Taylor rolls her eyes and I pull back my mascara wand. ‘Can you keep your face still, please?’ I ask.
‘Sorry. Was I out of my mind, Mandy? I’m going to be way too hungover to get up early tomorrow.’
‘Just blow it off.’
‘Yeah. But it’s five hundred bucks. That’s, like, a couple sweaters from rag & bone.’
These words break my concentration; five hundred is what I make for ten jobs.
‘Gah. Forget it. I’m not going to set an alarm to go to some dumb questionnaire,’ Taylor says.
Must be nice, I think, looking at the sweater crumpled in the corner. Then I can’t help myself: ‘A questionnaire?’
Taylor shrugs. ‘Some psych professor needs students for a survey.’ I wonder what sort of questions are on the survey. Maybe it’s like a Myers-Briggs personality test.
I step back and study Taylor’s face. She’s classically pretty, with an enviable bone structure. She didn’t need the full forty-five-minute treatment.
‘Since you’re going to be out late, I’ll line your lips before I apply gloss,’ I say. ‘That way the colour will last.’
I pull out my favourite lip gloss with the BeautyBuzz logo on the tube and smooth it along Taylor’s full lips. After I finish, Taylor gets up to go look in the bathroom mirror, trailed by Mandy. ‘Wow,’ I hear Taylor say. ‘She’s really good. Let’s take a selfie.’
‘I need my makeup first!’
I begin to put away the cosmetics I used for Taylor and consider what I will need for Mandy when I notice Taylor has left her phone on the chair. My rocking Friday night will consist of walking my little mixed terrier, Leo, and washing the makeup out of my brushes – after I take the bus home to my tiny studio on the Lower East Side. I’m so wiped out that I’ll probably be in bed before Taylor and Mandy order their first cocktails at the club.
I look down at the phone again.
Then I glance at the bathroom door. It’s partly closed.
I bet Taylor won’t even bother to return the call to cancel her appointment.
‘I need to buy the highlighter she used,’ Taylor is saying.
Five hundred dollars would help a lot with my rent this month.
I already know my schedule for tomorrow. My first job doesn’t begin until noon.
‘I’m going to have her do my eyes kind of dramatic,’ Mandy says. ‘I wonder if she has false lashes with her.’
Hunter Hall from eight to ten a.m. – I remember that part. But what was the name of the doctor and his assistant?
It’s not even like I make a decision to do it; one second I’m staring at the phone and the next, it’s in my hand. Less than a minute has passed; it hasn’t locked out yet. Still, I need to look down to navigate to the voice mail screen, but that means taking my eyes of the bathroom door. I jab at the screen to play the most recent message, then press the phone tightly to my ear.
The bathroom door moves and Mandy starts to walk out. I spin around, feeling my heartbeat erupt. I won’t be able to replace the phone without her seeing me.
I can pretend it fell of the chair, I think wildly. I’ll tell Taylor I just picked it up. ‘Wait, Mand!’
Dr Shields’s assistant … eight to ten a.m. …
‘Should I make her try a darker lip colour?’
Come on, I think, willing the message to play faster.
Hunter Hall, Room 214. ‘Maybe,’ Mandy says. I’ll meet you in the lob – I hang up and drop the phone back onto the chair just as Taylor takes her first step into the room.
Did she leave it faceup or facedown? But before there’s time to try and remember, Taylor is beside me.
She stares down at her phone and my stomach clenches. I’ve messed up. Now I recall that she left it with the screen facing down on the chair. I put it back the wrong way.
I swallow hard, trying to think of an excuse. ‘Hey,’ she says.
I drag my eyes up to meet hers.
‘Love it. But can you try a darker lip gloss?’
She flops back onto the chair and I slowly exhale.
I re-do her lips twice – first making them berry, then reverting to the original shade, all the while steadying my right elbow with my left palm so my shaking fingers don’t ruin the lines – and by the time I’m finished, my pulse has returned to normal.
When I leave the apartment with a distracted ‘Thank you’ from the girls instead of a tip, my decision is confirmed. I set the alarm on my phone for 7.15 a.m.
Saturday, November 17
The next morning, I review my plan carefully.
Sometimes an impulsive decision can change the course of your life. I don’t want that to happen again. I wait outside Hunter Hall, peering in the direction of Taylor’s apartment. It’s cloudy and the air is thick and grey, so for a moment I mistake another young woman rushing in my direction for her. But it’s just someone out for a jog. When it’s five minutes past eight and it appears that Taylor is still asleep, I enter the lobby, where a guy in khakis and a blue button-down shirt is checking his watch.
‘Sorry I’m late!’ I call.
‘Taylor?’ he says. ‘I’m Ben Quick.’
I’d correctly gambled on the assumption that Taylor wouldn’t phone to cancel.
‘Taylor is sick, so she asked me to come and do the questionnaire instead. I’m Jessica. Jessica Farris.’
‘Oh.’ Ben blinks. He looks me up and down, examining me more carefully.
I’ve traded my ankle boots for Converse high tops and slung a black nylon backpack over one shoulder. I figure it won’t hurt if I look like a student.
‘Can you hang on a second?’ he finally says. ‘I need to check with Dr Shields.’
‘Sure.’ I aim for the slightly bored tone Taylor used last night.
The worst thing that’ll happen is he’ll tell me I can’t participate, I remind myself. No big deal; I’ll just grab a bagel and take Leo for a long walk.
Ben steps aside and pulls out his cell phone. I want to listen to his side of the conversation, but his voice is muted.
Then he walks over to me. ‘How old are you?’ ‘Twenty-eight,’ I respond truthfully.
I sneak a glance at the entrance to make sure Taylor isn’t going to saunter in at the last minute.
‘You currently reside in New York?’ Ben asks. I nod.
Ben has two more questions for me: ‘Where else have you lived? Anywhere outside the United States?’
I shake my head. ‘Just Pennsylvania. That’s where I grew up.’ ‘Okay,’ Ben says, putting his phone away. ‘Dr Shields says you can participate in the study. First, I need to get your full name, address, and social security number. Can I see some ID?’
I shift my backpack into my hand and dig through it until I find my wallet, then I hand him my driver’s license. He snaps a picture, then takes down the rest of my information. ‘I can Venmo you the payment tomorrow at the conclusion of your session if you have an account.’
‘I do,’ I say. ‘Taylor told me it’s five hundred dollars, right?’
He nods. ‘I’m going to text all this to Dr Shields, then I’ll take you upstairs to the room.’
Could it possibly be this simple?