The look of surprise on Hilary’s face rivaled any I’ve yet seen. It’s normal for my clients to raise an eyebrow or make a joke upon entering my office, but this woman looked like she’d been shot. Maybe she had, I couldn’t know for sure, but certainly not as she walked through the door.
‘Um, hello,’ she said after a moment. She put a hand to her hair, which was somewhat disarranged. It was windy out today. I gave her my most reassuring smile, but it only seemed to confuse her further.
‘Do sit down,’ I indicated the dark blue armchair on the other side of my desk, and regretted for a moment choosing the more professional but less comfortable chair I sat in. Sometimes, when I wasn’t expecting anybody, I switched the chairs around and worked in luxury.
She took two steps to stand beside the chair, but didn’t sit. ‘I didn’t expect -’ she began, then broke off.
I’m the first to admit that my career choice was inspired by the likes of Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot, but this is twenty-first century Australia. My offices are modern and airy; I don’t work from a dingy flat above a shop. My newest client, I realised, thought she was in a paperback.
‘That’s quite all right,’ I told her. ‘Just sit down and tell me all about it.’
‘About whatever it is you’ve come to talk about.’
‘Right.’ She visibly collected herself, took a deep breath, and sat. ‘I’m not sure.’ I nodded. People who were sure went to the police. ‘Maybe I’m imagining things,’ she began babbling. ‘Maybe it’s nothing, and maybe she really is in Uganda only she didn’t tell me anything about it, but she does go to some strange places sometimes. Maybe she’s just on holiday and this is all my imagination.’
This didn’t sound like the usual accusations of adultery or petty theft. This might be interesting. I took up a pen. ‘Why don’t we start with your name?’
I think it started with the taxi driver. Oh, of course there had been things before that; it built up slowly, but the taxi driver was the final straw. The one that broke me.
If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you’re lucky. You might not want to keep reading. It’s a nasty story.
A taxi driver in my beloved home city of Melbourne was violently attacked by his three young male passengers, apparently for doing nothing more than refusing to drive through a red light. They broke his nose. They damaged the taxi. And they took money from him.
How many times have you seen similar stories? How many times has somebody needlessly attacked another? How many times has violence scarred an innocent life? Every day, am I right? Every stinking pathetic day on this pitiful planet, somewhere, someone is hurt or killed. Innocents, criminals, soldiers, civilians: it’s all the same. Victims and perpetrators differ; the result is the same.
And so here I am now, crouched upon the scaffolding in the middle of the tenebrous night, watching this unshaven scum bag finish his business, waiting for my moment to strike. The PVC chaffs; I need a new suit. Leather, perhaps. I shift uncomfortably, sweating in this stifling summer night air. The street light dimly illuminating my target flickers slightly, and I wonder briefly if it will go out entirely. It doesn’t matter. I am never seen, in light or dark. Except by my victims: the last thing they see.
At last the customer takes his purchase and move on. The dealer is left alone on the street. He glances around warily – has he heard me, seen me? No, the wariness is part of the job for him. Always cautious, always a little afraid. Of the law, which it seems cannot touch him in any meaningful way. But I can.
From my position almost immediately above him, I drop down suddenly, landing with the slightest of sounds on my feet behind him. He turns, and I grasp his throat. He stares at me in surprise, but with no real fear yet. Until he sees my small pistol, pointed directly at his face.
‘Did you sell to Sandy Jennings?’ I ask in my best ominous whisper.
‘Who’s askin’?’ he says, but his voice trembles and his attempt at bravado is weak.
‘Did you?’ I ask again.
‘Yeah,’ he says. ‘But I won’t do it again.’ Now he has started to realise what this is about. ‘I won’t, I swear.’
‘Of course you won’t,’ I reply slowly. ‘Because she’s dead. Your gear was bad. She OD’d. And you’re not far behind.’
‘I just sell the stuff,’ he says desperately. His breath stinks. Why do all these people smell so bad?
‘Not any more, sunshine’ I say quietly, and pull the trigger. I might have seen too many British cop shows. As he slumps down, dead, in front of me, I repeat the final thing he heard: ‘Not any more.’
It was a nice job: unnoticed, effective, quick. I’ve been watching him since last week when he had gotten off a charge of possession on a minor technicality. But I’ve seen him before. I know he’s no good, and I know the police know it. They won’t make more effort than they have to to find his murderer. Me. They won’t find me.
Back home, morning. I resume my normal life. Yes, of course I have a normal life. Nobody pays me for cleaning up the streets at night. A girl’s gotta make a living.
I’m pretty tired, that goes without saying. But the guys at work just figure I was out partying – I’ve invented all sorts of wild stories in the past to explain night time absences and day time tiredness.
I work as an office administrator. Nothing flashy. I don’t have any other skills or qualifications. I have no criminal record, not even a parking fine. I am unexceptional in every respect. Unnoticed. I like that. It means I am unsuspected.
I try not to jump on bandwagons. I like to do my own research and form my own opinions wherever possible. So when everyone I know started saying how bad 50 Shades of Grey was, I knew I would have to try reading it for myself.
So a few months ago, I downloaded the free sample of the ebook. It’s about twenty pages, and I read those, and really I thought it was pretty boring. I might have been a little more interested if Kate was the main character, but I just couldn’t get into Ana. So I put it down, and thought no more of it.
But yesterday, prompted by a mention of your trilogy on a forum, I thought I should give it another shot. After all, the point of an erotic novel is the sex, and I hadn’t read any of that yet. So I purchased the entire ebook and flicked forward until I found something clearly intended to be erotic.
This time I wasn’t bored. No, bored doesn’t describe it. I swung between confusion, amusement, and frustration. I think within about three minutes of reading time, Ana said ‘Holy hell’ or ‘Holy shit’ about twenty times, which got old fast. And both characters seemed to suffer mood swings which were bamboozling: in one instance, Ana ‘snaps’ at Christian and then, literally on the next line, she is speaking ‘sweetly’ to him. There’s no indication that the sweetness was an attempt to make up for the snap, or that it was false; it’s just a straight-up mood change within a second.
As for the physical activities and reactions described, when I try to imagine what they might look or feel like, I’m left bemused. Many of them seem like something a suppressed and inexperienced person might imagine, because they don’t reflect how a real body works.
The long and short of it is, I read for about an hour last night and failed to find anything interesting, engaging, or believable. Both main characters, along with the activities they undertake, are incomprehensible and unrealistic.
Can I have my $9 back please?
I started wondering how a world would look if a government decided that people were too stupid to make their own choices. This is the start of the story I came up with.
Some of the older folk say they can remember another time. They speak with reverence about fast food, supermarkets, and Facebook. One of the oldest says she remembers something called pop music. I think she’s making it up, but sometimes she sings snippets of things she says were hits.
Even now, as they eat their identical meals, they parody how they think mealtimes used to be: ‘That looks great, can I have some of yours?’ one man laughs. But the target of his joke is just a little too young, and too new here; he only glares at the prankster and pulls his plate closer.
Technically we’re only supposed to find humour in state sanctioned jokes, but many of the rules are relaxed in this place. It is officially presumed that illegal laughter is simply a result of senility and dementia, and the perpetrators can’t be blamed. There is no such leniency for the staff.
In response to popular demand – that is, a couple of people wanted to know what came next… I wrote some more of this story. There’s more to come, too…
Elimere hesitated a moment, then sighed and followed him. She didn’t try to catch up to him; she walked slowly, keeping his shaggy black head just within sight. Although he never looked back, he seemed somehow to know when she was on the verge of losing him; he would slow down or pause as though window shopping, until she drew closer.
In a bizarre game of cat and mouse, she trailed the boy past shops and houses, along main streets and alleyways, through twists and turns. Despite knowing the area well, Elimere was soon quite lost. She knew time was getting on, although she wouldn’t be missed at home just yet; her dad would still be at work. She was just beginning to contemplate turning back when the boy abruptly stopped. She stopped too, still fifty metres away from him. They were in a narrow, grubby street, and he stood in front of a nondescript door no different from a dozen others Elimere could see.
‘What now?’ she called to him.
He beckoned again, and vanished through the door.
‘I’m not going in there,’ Elimere yelled. ‘You could be anybody. This could be some sort of trap.’ Curiosity was all very well, but this was bordering on madness.
There was no response.
She waited a moment more, then turned on her heel and strode back the way they had come. She fancied she felt waves of disappointment emanating from the street behind her. How ridiculous, she scolded herself, quickening her pace.
She looked for familiar landmarks as she walked, wishing she’d paid more attention on the way to wherever she was instead of remaining intent on the boy. But it soon became apparent that she’d missed a turning somewhere. She was in a quiet residential street, but it was not a reassuring area: paint flaked from the houses and lawns were left unmown. There was an air of neglect and disregard that reminded Elimere starkly that she was from the proverbial, and literal, other side of the tracks.
Somewhere nearby, a dog began a spine-chilling howl that made Elimere jump. It set off a chorus of barks, whines, and growls all around. Elimere broke into a run, uncaring now in which direction, so long as she ran away from this dingy street and the menacing dogs.
‘Help!’ she cried as she ran. ‘Somebody, help me, I’m lost!’ The only reply was the echo of her own voice. Once she thought she saw somebody silhouetted in a doorway, but if there was somebody they ignored her plight and vanished inside.
All of a sudden she cannoned violently into a person. She hadn’t seen anybody in front of her, had heard nobody nearby. ‘I’m so sorry!’ she gasped, breathless, from where she’d fallen. ‘I didn’t see you.’ She glanced up then, and gaped. It was the boy, staring down at her coolly. ‘How did you…?’
‘Lost?’ he asked sardonically.
‘This is your fault,’ she accused him angrily as she caught her breath.
‘If you’d come inside…’ he replied, finishing his sentence with a tilt of his head and a shrug, which Elimere took to mean, you got yourself lost.
Today isn’t the first time I’ve wished for a brother. An older brother, big and strong, to look after us. Instead, it’s just me and my little sister Minnie. Yeah, as in Mouse. Our mum has kind of a thing for Disney. It gets worse though. You wanna know my name? Wait for it. You’ll laugh. It’s ok, I’m used to it. It’s Bambi. Yeah, you heard right, Bambi. Who names a kid Bambi? My crazy mother, that’s who. I just tell people to call me B, and they figure it’s for Belinda. Suits me fine.
So anyway. I was wishing for a brother. In a Disney movie, I bet we’d really have one already, but he’s off saving princesses or something. He’ll be back to announce his marriage to, I dunno, Pocahontas or Ariel or someone, any day now. We’d have to teach Ariel to write, though. Having no voice wouldn’t have been a problem if she’d been able to write.
Minnie’s crying again. She does that a lot, even when nothing’s happened. I don’t think she remembers what it was like before dad died, but she’s not stupid. She knows our lives aren’t what you’d call ideal. I try to tell her, the original Bambi lost a parent tragically and still managed a happy ending. But she just says she’d rather be Jasmine, because she’s a princess right from the start. That’s Minnie’s favourite movie, although I think she closes her eyes whenever Jafar is on.
It sounds like mum’s woken up. She doesn’t know we can hear the squeaky cupboard door from our room, but it’s pretty loud. It’s the first place she goes when she gets out of bed, even though she tells us she never touches it until midday. She’s talking to someone, too, so I guess that means Mike or Brad or Dave or whoever it was stayed over last night. They always have names like that, but since none of them ever last, I don’t bother remembering. You might think that’s rude, but they don’t care. They never remember our names either, if they even knew them to start with.
Minnie’s listening to them too, I can tell, even though she’s still sniffling. She’s staring at the door, and I know she’s hoping the same thing as me: that it stays closed. I offer to read to her to distract her, but she shakes her head sullenly. I forgot about the last time one of mum’s boyfriends – or whatever they are – found us reading. He called us fancy-pants intellectuals, and said we thought we were better than him. And then he hit us. Mum just watched and didn’t do anything. So I don’t blame Minnie for refusing now.
Footsteps start coming towards us, slow and heavy. That’ll be Dave or whoever. Minnie’s face goes kind of pale, and I can feel myself tense up too. But they keep going, past our door, into the kitchen. The shuffling sound coming along after is mum in her slippers, but she goes right by us too. We relax a bit, and now Minnie wants to read.
A few pages into Alice in Wonderland, the front door slams shut, and we know Mike or whoever is gone, so it’s just mum to deal with for the rest of the day. Brad or whoever didn’t hit her or yell at her, and they even had coffee together, so she’ll be okay today. I guess we don’t need a brother today.