Monday morning, and the scratchy texture of Lucinda’s pubic hair still affronted Amanda’s tongue when she took yet another excursion south – this time along the A24. Through the increasingly leafy reaches of Mordern, Epsom and Ashtead she drove, clearing the M25 and away into the Surrey countryside. Off-shift, she was dressed down in jeans and sweater, yet she had important work to do.
The sunlit fields mirrored Amanda’s aspirations: space to breathe, fresh opportunity, the big wide world beyond the asylum. Recent months had indeed pushed her to the edge of madness. She’d run too many errands, served too many sherries, munched too many short-and-curlies. And what for? One more favour – always just one more favour – and Lucinda Crow would deign to make her a TV star.
It pained Amanda to face the truth – for it meant that her servility and submission had all been for nothing – but she knew in her heart that Lucinda would forever string her along. There was no plum presenting role in the offing. Not this side of doomsday.
Well, what Lucinda refused to give, Amanda vowed to take.
“By the time I’m done, you’ll have more than my middle finger up that smug little arsehole of yours,” she muttered, abandoning the certainties of the dual carriageway for a B-road. Several miles of winding lanes and she arrived at the thatched three-storey that served as Rachel Silverstein’s out-of-town residence.
Helvetica jabbed the intercom with her left hand while scribbling on triplicate forms with her right. “Sorry to disturb you, Ms Silverstein. Miss Tang from the TV studio is here to see you.”
“The TV studio? What do they want?” Rachel’s voice rasped tinnily through the speaker. “Whatever it is, they should’ve brought it up at the meeting. I’m a busy woman! Tell ’em to sod off!”
The intercom broke off with a spit of static. Helvetica smiled apologetically at Amanda between frenetic pen-strokes. “Uh, Ms Silverstein requests to know your business.”
“It’s about Lucinda Crow,” Amanda replied. “An opportunity to have her… dismissed.”
“Opportunity? You should get on and fire her!” Rachel rasped back. There were a few seconds of crackle and hiss, then, “Alright, you’ve got five minutes.”
Rachel’s office boasted twice the ceiling height and many times the floorspace of the antechamber in which Helvetica toiled, though only a fraction of the paperwork. A lesser woman would have looked lost at the sweeping, stately desk, but Rachel more than matched its grandeur. Sunlight streamed through a bay window behind the businesswoman, making a halo of her golden hair and at the same time shrouding her hard-nosed countanance. Amanda padded forth onto carpet as lush and springy as the lawn outside. “Good morning, Ms Siverstein. I’m Amanda Tang… we met at the board meeting, remember?”
“Did we?” Rachel squinted at the young Chinese woman, pale and stark in the sunlight. “Your blood doesn’t strike me as blue enough.”
“I greeted you in the lobby. I served you a decaffeinated coffee.” Amanda puffed out her chest, trying to bring gravity to these menial acts.
It clicked. “The serving girl!?”
Amanda bristled inwardly, but said politely, “Ms Silverstein, I heard what you said about Lucin—”
“What business is that of yours?” snapped Rachel. “That was a confidential meeting; you are to disregard anything you overheard. And how did you obtain my address?”
Amanda unfolded a piece of paper from her pocket. “From the top of this letter,” she revealed.
Rachel snatched the missive and pored over it. “This is from Lord Wetherby,” she observed. “Does the old fart have all correspondence hand-delivered by trolley dolly? No wonder the company is bleeding money like a haemophiliac on acupuncture. Tell him to send a fucking email next time!”
Amanda seethed at the “trolley dolly” epithet, but her exterior held stoic. She’d come to forge an alliance, not strike up a friendship, and a real nose-pincher of an alliance it promised to be.
“I was meant to post it to you,” she said. “But it isn’t really from Wetherby.”
Rachel frowned. “Then from whom?”
“Lucinda. Well, she wrote it and I signed it; I have a knack for forging signatures, you see.”
Rachel sighed. “One of Crow’s japes, is it?” She read aloud with the air of a teacher who had confiscated a naughty note: “Dear Ms Silverstein, I am writing to apologise for the heavy-handed and hostile atmosphere that transpired at the board meeting…” She scanned on. “…I was too dismissive of your arguments, and am willing to reconsider Miss Crow’s future at the company. To this end, I would be most honoured by your attendance at a private dinner, to be held at 9 p.m., Saturday. My assistant Amanda Tang shall take care of the practicalities.”
“There’s no dinner scheduled, at least not to eat,” Amanda revealed. “Instead, I am to greet you in the lobby and escort you directly to the Crow’s Nest studio, where… well, an unpleasant reception awaits you,” She wrung her hands. “Lucinda plans to gunge you – humiliate you on live TV. So badly that you lose all credibility in the media industry.”
Rachel responded with a small “hmmfff”. “So why are you telling me this?”
“Because you’re right; Lucinda has to go. The way she behaves is out of order. And it isn’t just a persona she applies with her stage make-up; it’s twenty-four-seven. She’s genuinely unhinged, mad with sadistic lust – a bully, a beast, an ogre!”
“On that point, I agree with you,” said Rachel, pursing her lips.
“That’s why I want to help you – not only to avoid humiliation at her hands, but to turn the tables, give her a dose of her own medicine. A big dose – enough for her to swim in! Imagine it – brought down on her own TV show! How could she strut around after that? She’d be finished – never to poison the airwaves again! You get what you you want, Ms Silverstein, and that vicious, deceitful bitch gets what she deserves! Together we can make it happen. I have access behind the scenes, you have money to bribe the crew, we can sabotage the show. We can smother that black hair of hers, smash pies in her smarmy mug! A gunging to end all gungings!!”
Amanda punched the air, blurting breathlessly. She’d bottled up her frustration for months, every encounter with Lucinda shaking up more fizz. But now, in the aftermath of the uncorking, the brew seemed a little flat. Rachel appeared wholly unmoved – not grateful for Amanda’s tip-off, nor impressed by her initiative, nor even keen at the opportunities. She simply sat with a finger resting in the groove of her chin, parallel to an aloof smirk.
“Why should I trust you?” she eventually asked. “If you and Crow wanted to lure me in, this is exactly what you would say. I can smell a double-bluff at a hundred paces, and this one stinks.” She shook her head derisively. “If this is Crow’s masterplan, I expect better.”
Amanda slid a hand into her pocket, fingers finding a slender USB stick. She swallowed, loath to disgrace herself before this suave businesswoman, to reveal the depths she had let herself sink to. But her embarrassment now would serve the greater humiliation of Lucinda later. It warranted a little shame in the privacy of this sunlit office, in order to wreak total and utter revenge before millions.
With an unsteady hand, she tendered the USB. “You want proof I’m for real? Here it is.”
Lucinda had to make her own green tea that morning, but she was glad of the solitude. She loafed at her dressing table, Bach’s Double Violin Concerto in D Minor piping through expensive speakers, her boarding pass for Bratislava (this week’s ATCF destination) freshly printed.
A panoramic photo frame leant against the mirror. The label proclaimed “ST. EDMONDS’ HALL, OXFORD — MATRICULATION 1999″, together with a list of names. The corresponding freshers were lined up in archaic university garb, proud and earnest on a dewy lawn, and in the rearmost row towered an eighteen-year-old Lucinda. The cheeks were fuller than now with teen fat, her hair more subdued in a “Winona”, but the iron glinted there in her eyes, yet to be sharpened but already cold. The lips traced a prototype of the contemptuous smirk she would perfect and make her trademark.
Yet the photograph provided a bittersweet record. Lucinda avoided sweeping her eyes along the row, knowing that asymmetry would sting her like a slap across her sleek navel. For the young Miss Crow stood one place askew from the dead centre of the back row. It was the traditional position of dominion, coveted by every despot to be. Lucinda didn’t occupy it.
And who had shunted her from her rightful spot? Lucinda’s attention turned with fury to the girl next to her younger self, who sported the smuggest of closed-mouth smiles. Her hair was its natural dark brown, and glasses predated the present-day contacts, but the tenacious carriage was unmistakable – Rachel Silverstein.
“I should’ve pushed you off the staging,” Lucinda hissed.
Around Lucinda, the two violins climbed through inversion upon inversion, each vying for a higher foothold in the stave. Rachel’s head-on gaze met Lucinda, as if anticipating this encounter all those years ago. “You so wanted this spot,” Rachel spoke across the gulf of time. “You schemed and strove for it, but I got it. I was the more cunning and ruthless; I timed it to perfection; I trod on the necessary toes. Try harder next time, Crow.”
The violins soared to the apogee of their outpouring. Rachel stared out unflinching. With a tortured snarl, Lucinda dashed the photograph face-down on the table, precipitating a dull crunch. She had got through a few replacement panes over the years.
Rachel’s intercom possessed a design flaw – at least from the perspective of those who didn’t know about it – that allowed one party to eavesdrop on the other by half-pressing the button. Helvetica’s left hand presently rested on the device in such a fashion, and what she heard left her so incredulous that her pen-wielding right hand hovered dormant over her pressing paperwork. She knew that business sometimes called for cloaks and daggers, but the skulduggery unfolding over the crackly connection was new to her. Fake letters? An ambush plot? Total humiliation on live TV?! And all before eleven o’clock on a Monday!
But scandalised though she was thus far, what issued next from the intercom speaker made Helvetica’s frizzled follicles stand straight.
“Let’s have those hands on my arse to keep them out of mischief. In fact, I want a middle finger up my arsehole.”
Amanda winced beside Rachel’s desk as the scene played out on the computer monitor – Lucinda, legs open and tits out; and herself, black hair bobbing at the former’s crotch. Rachel took it all calmly, sometimes bearing a raised eyebrow, other times a faint chuckle, occasionally a pitiful grimace. All the while, Lucinda got louder and louder.
“Is she trying to smuggle a Persian rug through customs or are those her pubes?” Rachel sneered. “Rather you down there than me.”
Amanda stood sullen, her mouth still haunted by Lucinda’s muff.
“Still, you must charge a pretty penny for a session like this,” Rachel added casually.
Amanda flushed. “I’m not…” The words “professional whore” tarried at her tongue, but the truth dawned more shameful still. She was an amateur whore, in both senses of the word, prepared to abase herself pro-gratis, ready to kneel down and nom on that hairy twat with only hollow pledges of TV stardom for enticement.
“…not cheap,” she lied, wanting to sink and shrivel in the sunlight.
“SQUEEZE MY ARSE! WIGGLE THAT FINGER!!” thundered through the computer speakers. The TV star contorted, grinding and bouncing, while Amanda’s head-bobbing attained whiplash speed. With a strangled gasp and a concerted clench at her tits, Lucinda threw back her head, and then it was over. Amanda withdrew, Crow-juice dripping from her Chinese chops.
For thirty seconds neither Rachel nor Amanda spoke. A pin could have been heard to drop, even on that plush carpet. The intercom hissed on in the next room, Helvetica wide-eyed and slack-jawed at her pokey desk.
The blonde broke the silence. “Okay, I believe you. Crow would never allow me to see such a recording, even as part of a ruse.”
Amanda nodded weakly at her vindication.
“Take a seat,” Rachel gestured. “I think you and I can do business.”
And so, over a duration far surpassing the alloted five minutes, the two women honed their scheme.
“Yes, I can see it now.” Rachel leant back, surveying the black beams that spanned the ceiling. “The last ever episode of the Crow’s Nest, to air this Saturday, with a special extended Crow’s Court. In the dock, Crow herself, accused of grave depravity. This video shown in evidence.”
“With my face pixelated!” Amanda hurriedly insisted.
“And after the verdict comes the sentence,” Rachel rubbed her hands together. “Tar and feathers – isn’t that the textbook method to run a rotter out of town? Very fitting for a Crow, too.”
“Glue and black feathers would suit even better,” Amanda suggested, starting to like the businesswoman. Rachel’s icy manner had melted; her eyes were glazed and enraptured as she gently swung in her ergonomic chair. Amanda recalled Lucinda’s utterance: “not changed a bit since Oxford.” Did Rachel grind a personal axe as well as an entrepreneurial one?
“I can arrange all the necessary props,” Amanda continued. “But there’s one more thing we need.” She pulled a ticket from her pocket. “Someone to distract Lucinda so we can make our move. Someone Lucinda doesn’t know. Who’ll take all the risk for us. A stooge. A patsy.”
“Leave it with me,” Rachel smiled, placing the ticket on her desk. “I know just the person.”
In the next room, Helvetica gulped.
“There’s something I don’t understand.” Rachel drummed her fingertips together. “What do you get out of this? With this video you could blackmail Crow for a small fortune.”
“I want a presenting job.” said Amanda immediately.
Rachel snorted. “A serving girl on TV? Don’t be silly.”
“Didn’t Rick Astley start as a tea-boy?” argued Amanda, her ire prickled again. “Listen, I know you want a shift into documentaries and current affairs. I’d be ideal to front such a programme; I have a very authoritative tone.”
She did indeed; in a previous life Amanda had been a financial fraudster, persuading banks and businesses to hand over vast sums without ever pointing a pistol. She’d been spared prison when eventually caught, being only seventeen, but the conviction had damned her career ever since.
“I’ll think about it,” said Rachel dismissively.
Amanda shrugged. “I guess it’ll be difficult to get the other board members’ agreement.”
“Those toffs are no hindrance to me!” Rachel snapped. “I’ll have the paperwork ready by the end of the week.”
Amanda beamed inwardly; her ploy had worked. “I’m most grateful, Ms Silverstein.” She paused before asking carefully, “And what about you? Is seeing off Lucinda purely a business move, or do you have a deeper motive?”
“One should never mix business with pleasure,” Rachel replied circumspectly. “But when the two are offered pre-blended, it would be a pity to decline.”
Oxford had opened doors for Lucinda, not least in the wet and messy department. Previously, her indulgences had comprised what she and her trusty VHS recorder could garner from terrestrial broadcasting. And while the 1990s canon of gungy TV had ignited Lucinda’s passion (seeing Nicola Stapleton clutch her face in a Munchian scream before being swamped in yellow and black had been a life-changing moment), she’d tired of the sterile 2D projection, the frustrating inconstancy of delivery and victim (gunged males did nothing for her), and the lack of interaction. Lucinda wanted to be amongst it all, to bask in 3D panorama, to steep herself in the smells and the atmosphere. Most of all, she wanted a hand in it.
Her wish came with her election as college RAG representative. Traditionally a minor affair in the Dreaming Spires, she brought the event to the fore, with beans and custard all round for the student exec, and she even roped a few dons into the fray. Lucinda reminisced with particular fondness on an exquisite young history lecturer she had cajouled into the pillory. The look on the woman’s trapped face when Lucinda unveiled a table chock with colourful pies! She must have expected sponges!
Then there had been the rowing – watching of course; Lucinda would never endanger herself to that nasty river-water. She soon bored of the customary cox-chucking, so in her second year she arranged for the St Edmonds’ women’s team to sink at Summer Eights. She almost got caught in her act of sabotage, slithering inside the fated vessel when the night-porter’s torch swept the boathouse. This only added to the thrill when the murky water welled up around the lycra-clad waists of those strapping six-footers, oars awry, the strident sprite of a cox tumbling from her perch with a splosh. Gasps arose from the crowd as the catastrophe unfolded, but Lucinda alone knew its cause. Ravishing in a short summer dress, she discreetly raised her non-alcoholic Pimms, while the sporting suckers thrashed in brown water and green weed at her feet.
But the pinnacle of Lucinda’s messy education had been the infamous tradition of trashing – exam-finishers emerging onto the cobbles of Merton Street, red carnations in their lapels and sleep-starved eyes to match, to be doused with champagne, sprayed with silly string, and pelted with whatever groceries were on special offer at the Sainsbury’s Local. It was an orgiastic rite – a celebration not of clinching a good grade or even passing (that was yet to be decided by the examiners) but simply of crawling over the finish line, of escaping the regime of libraries, lecture notes and late-night coffee, like a butterfly from one’s cocoon. It was amazing what people let you do to them, Lucinda mused, when they were relieved.
The trashings had fascinated Lucinda, her feet inexorably taking her to witness them, even when she should have been cramming for her own exams. And naturally, she never missed an opportunity to take part.
As baroque music continued to swirl around the dressing room, Lucinda laid a pile of prints on the table, blown up until the grains were macroscopic. From the uppermost, Rachel smiled wearily into the camera, grey bags under her eyes, her necktie partially loosened. She would not smile for long; through the crowds behind her, her arch-rival approached.
Chuckling, Lucinda turned the print aside to reveal the next. A young Lucinda now stood beside Rachel, an arm outstretched, an egg being brought to bear on the crown of the finisher’s head. Rachel’s eyes turned up and her mouth turned down as the ovum cracked, a glimpse of yellow trickling out onto her dark hair.
Onto the next still. The first egg snaked a glossy train through Rachel’s hair, while Lucinda slammed a second onto her forehead. The shutter had snapped with inspired timing, capturing the trails of viscid yellow that radiated from the impact. Rachel’s eyes bulged behind her glasses, her mouth taut in a small black hole. As for the assailant, Lucinda’s eyes twinkled along with her grinning teeth.
By the following photo, two more eggs had been delivered, with a fifth on the way. Their contents glistened in Rachel’s hair and stained her shirt. Half a shell dangled from her fringe and yellow coated one lens of her specs. Around them, Rachel’s friends clapped and cheered in good-natured fun, blocking any route of escape, but the diverging expressions between trasher and trashee conveyed a mutual understanding: a jocular celebration this was not. Lucinda loved that Rachel hated it, and Rachel hated that Lucinda loved it.
Lucinda let out a little moan of arousal when she clapped eyes on the next image. The photographic paper all but screamed at her, such was the contortion of the victim’s figure, the gaping of her mouth, and the sheer shock in her eyes. The cause lay out of sight, but Lucinda knew – a two-pint bottle of milk, fresh from the chiller aisle, stuffed inverted down the back of that over-starched shirt.
Cheeks aflush, Lucinda slid a hand down her panties. “Still glad you took my spot in the photo? Not so smug now, are you?” Her X-ray vision could picture every square inch of flesh, every muscle and sinew, rigid and spasmodic. The scream still reverberated in her sweetest dreams. A moment like this was rarer than an affordable dwelling in London – smooth operator Silverstein shaken to her snooty core.
Lucinda rifled through the photos, no longer sparing the time to savour, but hungry for the next phase of Rachel’s humiliation. There came a shot of Rachel wearing a blanket of mushy peas, then one of her spluttering in a cloud of flour, and then.. ohh!! The alphabet spaghetti! A catering-size tin of it!
Down came Lucinda’s bottom-halves. She flicked a switch and a drawer glided out, bearing an armoury of vibrators and dildos. Straight and curvy, smooth and knobbly, lifelike and space-age – Lucinda had a little friend for every occasion. She selected a green, rubbery gadget, complete with clitoral stimulator, and set it going on the gentlest throb. Horned as she was, Lucinda didn’t want to orgasm over her rival just yet. This masterful trashing, she reminded herself, was merely the hors d’oeuvre. Rachel’s main course was soon to be served.
In her stupefied state, Helvetica neglected to remove her hand from the intercom before Amanda left Rachel’s office. She jolted, accidentally knocking the button full-way and setting off the buzzer.
“What?” growled Rachel over the speaker.
“Oh…er, I just wanted to let you know, I’ve completed the paperwork for the Korean deal.” It was an impromptu lie; she was scarcely a quarter through.
“Good,” came Rachel’s response. “You can come and see me, while I think of it.”
“I’ll let myself out,” mouthed Amanda.
With a bashful goodbye, Helvetica hurried into Rachel’s office. “Yes, Ms Silverstein?”
“Do you have any plans for Saturday Night?” Rachel enquired, returned to her upright posture.
Helvetica did – her boyfriend’s birthday (soon to be ex-boyfriend, she saw so little of him) – but wistfully she shook her head.
“Well now you’re all fixed up,” announced Rachel, holding out the ticket. “You’re going to be in the audience of the Crow’s Nest.”
Helvetica’s heart sank; she had guessed correctly who the patsy would be. “The Crow’s Nest?” she said, feigning off-hand surprise while hiding her very real dread.
“Helvetica, if I wanted a parrot in the office I’d buy one. I’ll instruct you further on the matter during the week, ok?”
“Yes, Ms Silverstein.” Helvetica took the tickets with trembling hand. “Is there anything else?”
“Actually yes. I have a visitor coming to sign a contract: Horst Klein. He’s German – shrewd, reliable, but rather dull.” Rachel rolled her eyes. “I can’t be bothered to see him, so I want you to pick him up at Heathrow. Take him for lunch – nowhere too expensive – titter at his pedantic Frankfurt humour, and make sure he signs the contract.”
“Ok, Ms Silverstein,” nodded Helvetica. “When’s he coming?”
“His plane gets in at 13:45.”
“Is there a problem with that?” Rachel frowned. “You’re done with the Korean contract; what else is there to do?”
“Your tax return, for a start,” said Helvetica.
Rachel waved a hand. “That can wait.”
“It can’t,” Helvetica protested. “The deadline is midnight!”
“So you can meet Klein this afternoon and do the tax return in the evening.” Rachel regarded her PA bemusedly. “What exactly is the problem?”
“Nothing, Ms Silverstein.” The words came out choked as Helvetica turned to leave.
“Oh, and wash the car before you go,” Rachel ordered. “Klein’s a stickler for these things. German, you know.”
Clouds had rolled in across the sunny morning, darkening the sky as if especially for Helvetica. Rain started to fall as soon as she stepped outside, drizzle at first soon growing torrential. Tears joined the raindrops on Helvetica’s cheeks as she took a bucket of soapy water to the Bentley.
She stared back at herself in the chrome wheel-arch, her curly hair sodden and her beige suit darkened. The curved surface amplified her frown, magnified her moist eyes. Up in the bay window she clocked Rachel’s blonde mane, smart and dry. Things couldn’t go on like this. She needed to be more assertive; that’s what her mother told her. To show some initiative, to have that ruthless edge when the situation called for it – just like that girl Amanda did. Yes, she ought be more like Amanda.
She stood up, and with a sniffle straightened her suit. Enough of being oblique – it was time for Helvetica to be bold!
She clambered into the car and switched on her phone – her personal phone, not her work one. Blood thumped in her ears above the drumming of the rain. She selected the number, then hesitated, weighing the enormity of what she dared to do.
Lucinda harrumphed as her phone tinkled – a brassy, old-fashioned ring. She detested disruptions during Crow Time. Switching off the vibrator, but leaving it inserted, she snatched the receiver. “Crow.”
“Oh uh, h-hello, it’s Vet Baines calling.”
“Who?” spat Lucinda.
“Uh, Helvetica Baines,” the caller elaborated.
“Is that a company? This is my private line; call the commercial operations office.”
“No no, I’m a person, not a company”, Helvetica explained. “I, er—”
“To join the fan club follow the link on my Facebook page,” Lucinda sighed mechanically.
“No, I’m not a fan… I mean, I am a fan, of course I am, but that’s not why I’m c—”
“GET TO THE POINT!!” roared Lucinda.
“R-right, okay. Well, y-you see, I need to tell you about a plot,” said Helvetica.
“Ah, you want to set someone up for a gunging on the Nest?” guessed Lucinda, resolving to make this set-up a double-cross; it would serve the bumbling imbecile right for disturbing her wank!
“Maybe.” A naughty shudder rippled through Helvetica as she pictured Rachel squawking under gallons of gunge. “But that’s n-not what I’m c-calling about; it’s a plot against you!”
Lucinda puffed. What was this woman on about? “I ain’t got time for jokers. Get lost!”
“Rachel Silverstein and Amanda Tang!” blurted Helvetica.
Lucinda had the receiver halfway to the cradle when the names rattled out of it. She halted, her whole body pricked up like an alerted dog. She pulled out the dildo, refastened her trousers, and returned the phone to her ear.
WAM imitates art?