This is an excerpt from the upcoming book ‘Mirror Secret Mirror’ – we’re posting the first 2 chapters online, over the next few weeks, in the run-up to publishing the book at the end of May. This is Chapter 2 – Click here to start on Chapter 1.
Writing that story had to be the single most stupid and embarrassing thing Jess had ever done. She tutted out loud in self-reproach. Lucky there were no other pedestrians around to think she was mad. She was mad though! What on earth had she been thinking? Actually submitting the story? By all means, write it. But obviously never show it to anyone… ever. Oh shit! Why, oh why, oh why? Must’ve been insanity, brought on by lack of sleep, that made her do it. It’d been 5am when she finished writing, typing for twenty hours straight on the last leg. She was obviously in no fit state to judge whether it should actually be submitted.
Why even send it then – right after finishing? Could’ve waited until morning, had a good night’s sleep, woken up, re-read it, and decided definitely not to send it… to anyone, ever. Oh shit, shit, shit! Such a stupid thing to do. And yet somehow, at the time, it’d seemed like the most brilliant thing she’d ever done: a great victory – a bold statement. Demonstrating to him that she could write something dark and twisted – that she wasn’t just a soppy little innocent. And through impressing him, also proving something to that evil bitch, Katya.
Oh fuck! Jess flinched at the mind-boggling reality that she’d actually sent it to Katya. Had really sent her an email with the ‘Red Rose’ story attached. A fiction in which the Russian herself played a leading role. The writer had changed the name to ‘Natalya’ in the version submitted. But it was obviously about Katya; she’d been described exactly as she was in real life (seriously!) and it was clearly the same office. Oh shit! What would that horrible woman think if she read it? And Charlotte, as well (the ‘Penelope’ pseudonym was equally transparent) – what if she read it? What would she think to see herself portrayed like that? As a pathetic submissive, who got a rose shoved up her ass… and loved it. You couldn’t get much more offensive than that. However tightly Jess screwed up her eyes, it still remained a fact that she’d done it. She’d never normally do anything like that. A strange context, of course, but even still. What was she thinking?
The writer jolted to a stop, catching herself nearly walking out in front of a car. She paused to let the long, grey vehicle slide past. Maybe she should’ve kept walking? Then she wouldn’t have to go to the meeting. Just send an email instead: ‘Hi Katya, sorry to cancel at the last minute, but I got run over on the way to the office.’ That would be good – just a broken leg or something. She looked around vaguely, but there were no other moving objects in sight. The east London neighbourhood was quiet and still, an unseasonably-sunny winter afternoon. She really needed to calm herself down.
They probably hadn’t read the story. It wasn’t for them, anyway; it was for him. Likely, they were just go-betweens and never even opened the document – just forwarded it on. Jess tried to compose herself, yet couldn’t help shuddering at the realisation she’d nearly arrived. Just a hundred or so paces down the street and she’d come out facing the office, at the junction of another unassuming, residential road. Oh shit! But it was too late to change anything now. She just had to live with it. She’d done it… and couldn’t undo it. Time to face the music – like a grown woman.
As the unusual building came into view, Jess marvelled again at its weirdness. It would be her third visit to this strangely-shaped, converted warehouse… or whatever it was. The structure was single-storey, but tall because of the high ceilings. One wouldn’t have thought there’d be any kind of business inside. If that’s what it was – some kind of business? Fifteen minutes early: 13:45. Why was she always so early? Even to get somewhere she really didn’t want to be. She’d paced fast the whole way, lost in a daze of relentless self-scolding. She would have to walk around the block before going in. Couldn’t be fifteen minutes early. Five was good, but fifteen was annoying. Didn’t want to annoy Katya… who might already be angry because of the story. Oh shit! Why did she do it? Her own behaviour seemed unfathomable. How did this happen? Jess went over the events of the last few weeks in her mind as she began a slow circuit of the block. Trying to understand why she’d done what she had (so irreversibly) done.
Understandable to enter that writing competition. A £500 prize for the best erotic short story, along with the possibility of further work in the future. Why not enter? The peculiar online advertisement was intriguing and the prospect naturally of interest to an aspiring writer. An ambitious young woman who’d moved to London recently, but who was already fed-up with working fifty-hour weeks, waitressing in a busy central café. Why not do something exciting, like try her hand composing erotica? And £500 could go a long way right now, given that a depressingly large portion of her wages went on renting a small room in an overpopulated house-share.
The initial story submitted had been considerably less sordid than ‘Red Rose’ – sexy, of course, but without any hint of domination games. Jess had been ecstatic when she found out her piece had won. The email was bland and unemotional, but clearly stated she’d secured the prize. It made her so happy… she spent the rest of the day fantasising about her future life as a writer: Jessica Seaques the famous author! She had virtually skipped all the way to the office, where she’d been told to collect her reward.
The happy winner had tried to strike up jovial small talk when first encountering Charlotte behind the funny little reception desk of the anonymous office. She’d not let the receptionist’s stiff and awkward reaction dampen her mood and instead cheerfully waited for Ms Stilenskova, idly admiring how good her own shiny, brown hair looked in the bizarre mirror-wall. Actually meeting Ms Katya Stilenskova for the first time had totally taken the wind out of Jess’ sails. The Russian swept into the building, twenty minutes late, greeted the writer with an irritated scowl, and then proceeded to ignore her whilst barking orders at the receptionist for a few minutes. Katya spoke to her subordinate with all the manners of a prison guard in a Stalinist gulag and Charlotte responded with fearful obedience: ‘Yes, Ms Stilenskova’. The formal surname address seemed completely out-of-place in a trendy, East London work-hub, especially as both women were in their early thirties.
When Katya finally ordered Jess into her office, the prize-winner went with an air of trepidation. She found the severe Russian highly intimidating. On first glare, Katya made a show of moving her eyes up and down the writer’s body with an exaggerated expression of contempt. A crudely simple (and yet irritatingly successful) strategy, designed to underline her own superiority. Sitting in the office, and glancing a reflection of the scene in the mirror-wall, Jess felt totally inferior. She’d later transposed the experience onto Charlotte’s character in ‘Red Rose’. Jess and Charlotte looked quite similar in some ways: both shortish brunettes with slightly plump, pear-shaped figures. Although Jess wore glasses, had straight hair, and brown eyes.
There was only one chair in Katya’s room, so Charlotte had scurried off to fetch another, Jess being reinstalled on the embarrassingly small folding-chair from the waiting area – not really appropriate for a fully-grown adult. As the two women sat facing each other, the difference in their heights seemed to reflect the balance of power.
Katya kicked off with, ‘So you the little, student girl who want to be an erotic writer.’ Jess floundered right from the start of what turned out to be a strange interrogation. The waitress did try to explain that she’d finished university a couple of years ago, but apparently she’d already been marked as a ‘little, student girl’. For some reason, the interrogator needed to fill in a form about the prize-winner that involved recording a detailed physical description. Jess had squirmed when her tormentor openly doubted whether she was really size 14. ‘I’ll put 16,’ she said with a sneer. Katya had quickly picked up on the writer’s habit of quivering her nostrils ‘like a bunny-rabbit’ and strongly implied that the behaviour was irritating. Jess had never perceived this mannerism in herself and no one else had ever pointed it out (although maybe everyone noticed, and found it annoying, but most were too polite to say?).
However, the most humiliating thing was when Katya brazenly asked, ‘You not a virgin, are you?’ What a question to ask someone who’d just ‘won’ an erotic writing competition! She wasn’t a virgin, but the query did tickle Jess’ insecurity that, in truth, she wasn’t sexually experienced enough to be an erotic writer. She’d blushed uncontrollably after that particular exchange. Her horrible habit of blooming bright pink when embarrassed: an exaggerated physical reaction, that was, of course, painfully embarrassing in itself. And Katya hadn’t flinched – not even a shadow of empathetic awkwardness – her eyes cold with the sadism of a toying cat as she continued the relentless bullying.
It became clear that the £500 wasn’t really a prize. The prize was, in fact, a £500 contract to write an erotic short story – i.e. Jess wouldn’t see any money until she wrote another piece, which apparently had to be quite different from her initial effort.
‘He wants you to write it differently.’ Katya had stated as she handed Jess a brown package: a sealed, A4, unmarked envelope, weighty with papers. ‘He make notes. Read them and do as he says.’
‘Who’s he?’ the writer had asked, wide-eyed.
‘The Patron. The man who will pay you.’
Jess couldn’t recall what it was that first gave her the idea – perhaps Katya had glanced into the mirror in a peculiar way as she referred to ‘the Patron’. Whatever the reason, the writer began thinking that the strange mirror-wall might not be what it seemed. She imagined a tall man, standing in the darkness of a secret room on the other side of the glass. Could feel his predator’s eyes watching her as a wolf stares from the shadows of the forest… on naïve prey grazing in the open. Jess had always had an overly vivid imagination and, for the rest of the meeting, hadn’t been able to shake the feeling of being watched from behind the glass.
Although she obviously knew it couldn’t be true. Well, it wouldn’t be true. It (almost) certainly wasn’t true. The rest of the meeting didn’t last long, however. A couple of Jess’ hesitant questions, about the Patron, were swatted off. Before Katya outlined the specifics of the deal – the writer had two weeks to write a short story, to be submitted to the mysterious Patron via his ‘agent’ (Katya). A couple of days after that, Jess would return to the office to obtain feedback and payment. Having received her orders, the writer was dismissed with an irritated shoo of the hand.
Jess dwelled on that bizarre first encounter all the way home. The strange, dominating relationship between Ms Stilenskova and her receptionist appeared extreme: more than just your average bossy manager / weak employee type situation. The writer found her own reaction to Katya even more bewildering. Jess had never been an especially assertive person, although she wasn’t usually a total wimp (she’d been proud of her own fierceness when she told that creepy guy in India to ‘Fuck off ’). But she’d totally gone to jelly in the face of the overbearing Ms Stilenskova. Had spent most of the time with eyes lowered, looking at the model motorbike. Imagining Katya, dressed in leathers, just walking right over her prone body… trampling with hard heels. The striking image evoked a peculiar spark of excitement. Which was strange. Jess didn’t usually feel so sexually attracted to women… and she didn’t normally like it when people were nasty to her.
And obviously, Katya was exactly the type of person Jess hated: arrogant, bitchy, bossy, actively unpleasant… the type of person everyone should hate. But there was something infuriatingly desirable about the harsh Russian’s powerful beauty and aggressive confidence. Jess had found herself not even wanting to fight back, adopting submissive body language from the outset, meekly weathering insults and agreeing to give personal information about her appearance, which was clearly inappropriate to demand. Actually, probably illegal to demand. Couldn’t quite catch-in-theact the part of herself that enjoyed the masochism… but could feel it was there. Her response was intriguing.
Even more intriguing was the mystery of the Patron: the man observing from behind the mirror-wall. Jess had to keep reminding herself that the secret room was (surely) just a figment of her imagination. Yet she’d sensed his eyes watching her intently and persistently… and this continued even whilst walking home. Almost as if she were being hunted, repeatedly looking over her shoulder. Although obviously there was no one there. A strange excitement pervading the atmosphere.
The envelope had been torn open as soon as she got home. Inside was a printed copy of her manuscript: the initial story about an executive having sex with his PA in an office. It had markings on it! He’d written over the document in a red pen – crossing things out, ticking things, and writing occasional comments. On closer inspection, it seemed he’d cut most of it out, slicing away whole paragraphs with a brutal cross of pen strokes. The parts that hadn’t been removed didn’t really hang together as a story and it wasn’t easy to see why he’d cut some paragraphs out whilst leaving others in. The most passionate deletion was a couple of sentences describing the gifting of a red rose – the whole section of text angrily scribbled out in an emphatic manner.
Later on in the story, the word ‘romantic’ was also deleted with a vengeance. One paragraph had been almost-entirely crossed out, line by line, with the exception of two words: the last word of the sentence, ‘she’d kept it a secret’; and the second word of the sentence, ‘The lust was all-consuming’. He’d ticked in two places: the first seemed to indicate approval that the liaison was adulterous; the other rewarded a respectful compliment made by the PA to her boss. Elsewhere, the word ‘torment’ had been double-underlined. There were two hand-written comments scrawled on the manuscript. The word ‘Personal’ floated without context at the top of a page, midway through the text, and the confusing instruction ‘DEEPER’ was written boldly at the end.
Jess had been thoroughly perplexed, searching text and envelope for the feedback she must surely have missed. But it seemed that really was all she had to go on. She pondered a long time, deciding that all the clues together suggested he wanted an erotic story without romance: a meaningless adulterous affair perhaps? Something purely physical? A domination-themed fantasy? The sinister atmosphere in the office had already put that sort of idea to the forefront of Jess’ mind. She interpreted the ‘DEEPER’ instruction as meaning ‘DARKER’. What to make of the word ‘Personal’? Could mean a few different things.
She got totally carried away trying to imagine the man she was writing for. There wasn’t much to go on, but the task of attempting to work out what he wanted was fascinating. What was his plan anyway? Why would he want to hire an erotic writer in this way? If he’d just wanted to read a sexy story, then surely there were plenty of already-written texts to be getting along with. So he must want something specific and personal. Was that what that comment referred to? But if so, why hadn’t he given more information? How could she make it personal to him when she had no idea who he was? So what was it then? Was it more about the writer? More about her? Was he getting some kind of kick out of establishing this weird, anonymous Patron-artist relationship? What sort of kick? And how was he planning to go forward? What were his plans for Jess? The mystery tingled.
She became convinced that it was he who decided that Jess should be made to sit on the little chair. He’d deliberately arranged that she should be put in that position. Did that mean he knew what it meant to her? How could he know? Jess had never told anyone about her weird fetish for uncomfortable seating. In fact, despite masturbating about it for years, she’d never properly admitted it to herself… until he forced her to.
This was a strange game he was playing. What a delightful proposal he’d made to her. Jess realised the picture of him building up in her mind was based on a strikingly attractive man glimpsed over her shoulder, just before entering the office for the first time. There’d been a brief moment of eye contact as she looked into the eyes of a predator, before losing her nerve and glancing away. He’d walked on, long coat swooshing as he turned the corner and disappeared down the street running along the side of the building.
She’d later fantasized that he must have been going inside from another entrance to watch her humiliating interrogation from a secret position of power. She’d surely exaggerated those intense, hunting eyes, imagining them burning out of the shadows. Every time she pictured the image, it made her feel like a carefree bunny rabbit dreamily looking up, to suddenly see the wolf right there! Her heart fluttered. She had to keep reminding herself that, in reality, she’d no idea who the Patron was… or what he looked like.
Jess had felt highly motivated, but writing the second version of the story proved tough-going. She never really managed to get into the flow properly: typing haltingly for hours whilst pondering the mysterious desires of the Patron. She had plenty of ideas but it was impossible to know what he really wanted, considering the sparsity of the instructions. A messy process as she repeatedly went back, chopping and changing the narrative, trying to work in various ideas that might pique his interest. The first story had flowed much better. She barely slept that fortnight amid waitressing and writing. Really had to force the narrative out… grind out the words. The plot involved the same characters as the first story, the boss and his PA, but there was an added domination element – things like spanking. She wasn’t particularly pleased with the text finally submitted, but it was hard to judge. It was amazing that she managed to get it done at all really, given the harsh deadline and her long hours working in the café.
It was with a sense of apprehension that she’d made her way to the second meeting with Katya. The encounter was, in some ways, similar to the first: Charlotte had been shy and socially awkward on reception; Ms Stilenskova had been late and brought her aggressive demeanour along when she finally arrived. But the second meeting was short. Katya only had one thing to state: ‘He says this is not what he is looking for. You are not up to it.’ A harsh bombshell! Jess was taken aback. She tried to ask why exactly… attempted a few times. But the agent wasn’t inclined to elaborate and acted as if the meeting was over.
Apparently it should’ve been obvious that Jess wasn’t going to be paid, given that she hadn’t delivered the desired product. The agent’s expression didn’t communicate anything further than the general contempt she’d always displayed. The reject had tried to compose herself and do something to save the situation, but the Russian’s phone rang. Taking the call, Katya dismissed Jess with a waft of the hand. It was crushing! The failed writer had trailed out of the building with her tail between her legs.
It’d made her angry… with herself. She’d disappointed him. And as she re-read the second story, she understood why. It was soft – too soft – not nearly dark enough. She’d pulled her punches, been cowardly. The domination described was superficial, mechanical and emotionless. It was a bad story… and not in a good way. She wasn’t ‘up to it’. What on earth had made her think she would be? Didn’t have enough experience: only seven sexual partners… never even played a domination game in real life. How could she write about it? She’d been stupid and he’d been right to discard her.
Jess hadn’t been able to sleep that night, dwelling on the rejection. How she’d managed to fall at the first hurdle, despite being so enthusiastic and excited by the adventure. It kept tossing and turning over in her mind… writhing in torment. She ignored the obvious fact: that her perspective on this whole situation was completely perverted. Actually she did know how she should feel. It’s just that she didn’t feel that way… at all. Instead turning all the anger inwards.
Although as the sleepless night stilled on, the shapeshifting emotions drew different forms. From her dejection, shame and sense of failure rose determination, motivation and the resolve to put things right. She was no coward. She wasn’t afraid of the dark… and could prove it. He hadn’t offered another attempt at the assignment, but she’d show initiative and take one anyway. Jess reinterpreted the instructions and decided to take a bold approach this time. Would go deeper and make it more personal. Show a bit of cheek as well. Typing began at 3am and ‘Red Rose’ flowed so easily. She wrote for a week, pretty much solid, calling in sick to cancel her shifts at the café.
Actually the excuse hadn’t been her own sickness. For some reason, she told Pablo she needed the week off to look after her mother in Guildford, who’d developed a mysterious paralysis down the right-hand side of her body. Where the fuck did that come from? Jess wasn’t very good at lying; she tended to go over the top and say something ridiculous like that. So now she’d have to worry about future elaborations to cover the lie. And what if her mother really did develop paralysis as some sort of karma for Jess’ deceit? No, the universe didn’t work like that… don’t be ridiculous.
She’d had to cancel another shift to attend the meeting today. Pablo had been understanding about it and asked after her mother’s health – the guilt-tripping bastard! So now she was properly bunking off, walking around London whilst supposedly in Guildford. She didn’t normally bunk off anything, was usually a good girl. But obviously, she had to attend the meeting. After all, she’d asked for it, by sending off the story last week… in that fit of delusional triumph. The replying email had been typically curt, literally just: ‘Come to office – Monday 2pm’.
Jess had nearly completed her meandering circuit of the block, the office now coming up on the left. She struggled to match the exterior of the building to what she knew about the interior… and to what she’d imagined about it. There were funny angles and a jostle of other structures, so it was hard to tell whether there was space for the large, hidden chamber she’d visualised. Perhaps the secret room was smaller? She also looked for the side entrance the attractive stranger must’ve used if he really was the Patron, watching through the glass. There was a bin area leading into an alleyway, possibly to another entrance? Difficult to tell. Jess had to shake her head and remind herself that the secret room, and the involvement of the man with the predatory eyes, were just figments of her imagination… almost certainly.
It was 13.57. Shit! She was now standing in front of the building. It was time – time to face it. Fuck! The summoning message had been ominously devoid of information. What if she was in trouble? What if Katya was angry? The thought tickled with seductive dread. Jess had really landed herself in it this time. Maybe she should go back and tend to her mother’s imaginary illness? No! No, she’d come this far and was going to see it through. She was a daring person and this was a brave thing to do – an adventure! Katya hadn’t read the story. The agent was just a go-between. She’d implied she didn’t read the stories… sort of. Had certainly communicated a high level of disinterest in Jess, generally. And Charlotte definitely hadn’t read it – she was just a receptionist. Only he’d read it… and the only question that mattered was: did he like it? And probably, he did. Why else would he have summoned her back? Other than to see his agent give his naughty little writer the reward she so deserved.
Deep breaths… should she press the entry buzzer? 13.58. Shit! Exhale long and slow – you’re a calm and confident person. It’s easy to stay relaxed… deep breaths. Jess watched her finger tentatively reaching out to touch the button. The hesitant, nasal beep seemed an appropriate signal of her arrival. A pause… a long pause… Perhaps they weren’t there? Maybe she should go? Just turn around, go home and forget all about this? No! She was brave and bold. This was an adventure and she was the heroine! Her forefinger pointed to press the buzzer again – assertively this time.
She was strong. Just stay strong. A few seconds ebbed away before a mechanical click indicated that the heavy, metallic door had been unlocked. Jess drove in to push it open, stepping into the building: head high, shoulders square, stiff upper lip. A few concrete paces to herself behind the partition wall, before coming out on the reception desk. She used the time to consolidate the façade: a confident stride… a good imitation of a confident stride.
‘Hiya…’ her greeting tone bubbled over with implausible assuredness. The receptionist looked up furtively, her welcome smile half-hearted and embarrassed. She must’ve read the story! He must’ve shown it to them both. Oh shit! No. No, that wasn’t what’d happened. Charlotte was always like this: a shy person. She hadn’t read the story. Why would she have done?
‘I’ve got an appointment to see Ms Stilenskova… at two.’ (And did I mention, I really am super-confident right now.)
‘Oh, yes… ummm…’ Charlotte flustered. The deliberateness with which Jess ignored the building awkwardness proved counterproductive. ‘Ms Stilenskova is just on a call right now, but she’ll be with you when she’s done.’ A coy touch of eye contact.
Had she read the story? Why was it so hard not to think about that question? And why was it so obvious, to the whole world, that she was specifically trying not to think about it? She was standing at the desk. Was she supposed to be at the desk still? Or was she dithering here? Floundering?! Had her mask slipped? Catching her own glance into the mirror-wall, over Charlotte’s shoulder, Jess immediately realised she’d blown it. Had allowed him to see all her anxiety stripped bare: spread-eagled in the stocks. His eyes saw through her like the glass, and now she was wavering. Anything she did to take control would come across as trying too hard.
Surprisingly, Charlotte actually saved the situation. ‘If you just…’ she said, gesturing towards the waiting chair on the other side of the reception area. Jess swung around enthusiastically. Able to point her face away from the mirror for a few steps as she approached the ridiculous, almost-child-size seat that was always hers. Impossible to maintain one’s dignity on such a small chair – so low to the ground. Still… at least it was better than the bitchchair on the other side of the mirror! She caught herself nodding through the thought as if it were a sensible, real-world comparison. Her own silliness made her want to laugh; it was all so delightfully preposterous. What a wonderfully strange world.
As she turned and sat all the way down, he’d note that the amused smile in her eyes was sincere. Although the innocence now affected, looking into the mirror, would obviously be spotted as fraudulent. After all, he’d definitely read the story. So he knew that she knew about the magic mirror-wall and the secret, watching room. She sparkled in reflection. Hair pulled back in a casual ponytail. Light-blue jeans, subtle-green top and chestnut overcoat. A good choice of clothes. Her red, fifties spectacles looked cool, as always. This was fine. She removed her jacket and folded it neatly across her lap, resting her handbag on top. Everything would be fine. She indulged a little wriggle of erotic excitement, pressing her soft ass against the hard plastic of the chair. He’d specifically instructed that Jess be made to sit on this uncomfortable embarrassment of a seat. She loved that.
The reception was bare, white and windowless. Despite the lingering odour of paint, all the walls were dirty: ancient paintwork crusted with thin cracks. On one side of the room, Charlotte sat on a swivel chair behind the desk, staring at an open laptop. Jess could see the reflection of the screen glowing in the mirror behind. A couple of metres beyond, the wall cornered into a room that ran at a right angle along the other side of the secret chamber. Jess tried to visualise the inside of the playroom, to recall whether the mirror continued along the other internal wall. Did it corner into two mirror-walls, L-shaped around the secret room? She couldn’t remember – perhaps it’d been concealed by drapes on that side?
Catching her imagination running away for the umpteenth time, she again reminded herself that ‘Red Rose’ was just a fiction. An entirely made-up back-story created as an eccentric explanation of the weird atmosphere in the office. In the real-world reception, the only other piece of furniture was the coat-stand a few metres to Jess’ left. Alongside Charlotte’s thick green duffle jacket, Katya’s long black trench coat hung ominously. She was just on the other side of the wall… doing something. When she’d finished, she’d deal with Jessica. Shit! The anxiety prodded and pinched. No, don’t dwell. No point in dwelling now. Whatever will be, will be.
This chair was preposterous – totally inappropriate for a professional environment. But was this really a professional environment? If so, what was the profession? Katya was acting as an ‘agent’. A literary agent? It was a writing job, of course, but certainly a bit of an odd one. There were no signs or logos anywhere. The buzzer on the front door was unmarked. What kind of place was this? Whatever kind of place it was, there must surely be another chair somewhere. The seating was definitely a calculated humiliation. Buzz tickling again as she micro-wiggled surreptitiously.
Obviously, Ms Stilenskova kept her waiting… five minutes… ten minutes… fifteen minutes. The wait threatened to sap Jess’ spirits, but she mustn’t fall back into worrying mode. She had to stay strong; she couldn’t just let herself go to pieces as soon as Katya summoned her in. Deep breaths. Think about something else. Charlotte was focused intently on her computer screen. She looked quite good today: sensible brown skirt, smart white top, dark heeled boots, baby-blue eyes, hazel curls all lush and springy. And yet she came across as an unconfident woman with low self-esteem. Jess congratulated herself on definitely being more confident than Charlotte, in general. She had to remember that when coming up against Katya’s frightening self-certainty. Don’t crumble this time. Best not to think about it.
The receptionist was reading something on the computer. Not typing, just scanning down with the mousepad. Jess could see, in the reflection, a body of text without images. A Word document perhaps? Not ‘Red Rose’… surely?! Imagine if she was reading that now, with the writer sitting just across the room. Visualising herself cuffed into the bitch-chair and knowing Jess had crafted that image. Holy shit! It didn’t bear thinking about. Anyone watching through the mirror would have seen the writer micro-cringing… and then her feet squirming as she concentrated on stilling her tell-tale face.
Holy fuck – what if Katya was reading it now?! How would she interpret it? Some kind of grovelling tribute to her own beauty, no doubt. It was painfully obvious the fictional Charlotte had been used as a vehicle for Jess’ own feelings towards Katya… and not in a subtle way. The writer was as pathetic as Charlotte had been when she sat in the bitch-chair. More pathetic: Jess had invented an imaginary bitch-chair, put it at Ms Stilenskova’s feet, and climbed into it… wearing only the skimpiest pretence of a disguise. A strange thing to do. Was it perhaps the most embarrassing thing that anyone had ever done in the whole history of humanity? She imagined herself in the position she’d put the fictional Charlotte in: cuffed and ball-gagged with Katya standing, hand on hip, looking down with disdain. She loved the feeling of the mistress standing behind her, directly overhead. It was terrifying! Jess tingled where she felt she shouldn’t, imagination leading her astray again.
But then it was actually mortifying in real life. The fantasised visual image did kind of reflect the position the writer had put herself in. Oh shit! Katya had read the story. What the fuck had Jess done?! She wanted to be sick, physically sick. Struggling to keep her composure. Imagining him sitting back and watching from his secret lair, enjoying her squirm, reading every thought betrayed by her treacherously expressive non-verbal communication. Relish tickling in the darks of his eyes: a fire in the cold. A predator waiting. Oh shit! At least she hadn’t blushed yet. She mustn’t allow Katya to make her bloom this time.
There was a jolting alarm as the mobile on Charlotte’s desk rang: an intrusive siren of a ringtone.
‘Hello… Yes, it’s done, Ms St… Yes, Ms Stilenskova… Yes, she’s right here, M… Yes, Ms Stilenskova… Yes, Ms Stilenskova.’ (Three bags full, Ms Stilenskova.)
The receptionist put the phone down and gestured towards Katya’s office door. ‘Ms Stilenskova will see you now. If you’d like to… Oh, maybe you should…’ She mimed carrying the chair. Jess picked up and folded the flimsy little thing. Her reflection looked nervous as she walked across the room. Oh shit! Should she knock or go straight in? She’d been told to go in – it would be silly to knock. Confidence! She pushed open and bustled in, trying not to bang the chair as the door swung back. Cringing as the slam echoed under the high ceilings.
Ms Stilenskova barely looked up from the document, gesturing for Jess to sit opposite. Oh shit, she was reading it: reading the story right now! No. No she wasn’t. The sheaf of paper she held was too thin to be a print-out of ‘Red Rose’. The agent wore closefitting black trousers and a tight white top. Dark hair pulled back in a sharp ponytail. Lips and claws blood-red as always. Legs crossed tidily, curling posture relaxed but alert. An open laptop, a mobile, and the model motorbike on the desk… no glass for a flower. Jess clumsily unfolded the chair and sat. The seat was only a few centimetres too short, yet the childish perspective made the writer feel silly. She realised she was still holding her folded coat. Why hadn’t she hung it on the stand?
A few seconds of silence before Katya spoke. ‘So… you write another story. Who tell you to do this?’
The agent’s dark eyes pounced. The writer was able to hold her gaze for a second and search for a clue – a knowing look! She had read the story! She’d read Jess’ uninvited tribute and thought it was pathetic. Of course she did: it was pitiful! And now the writer was going to be totally humiliated. Just don’t blush. Please don’t blush. Oh no! She could feel herself beginning to bloom, face reddening uncontrollably. Mask stripped off, like a little pair of panties… red-rose cheeks expressing all her nakedness. She didn’t dare look towards the mirror. That fucking motorbike!
‘Well, I… it’s just that…’ Deep breaths, calm down. She hadn’t necessarily read the story. ‘I just wasn’t happy with my last submission… so I… wrote him another one.’ She touched Katya’s glare to offer an apologetic half-smile.
‘This was not instructed.’ The agent’s eyelids fluttered with peculiar rapidity as she inhaled. A few menacing moments stretched themselves out. ‘But, I send to him…’ Katya had an unpleasant taste in her mouth. ‘And he says you will be paid.’ The agent picked up her mobile.
Jess tried to digest. She was going to be paid? Paid! That meant she’d done well, right?
‘Bring now.’ Ms Stilenskova snapped the order into her phone whilst hanging up. A second later, Charlotte hurried into the office clutching a couple of brown envelopes: A4 and A5. The respectful nod towards Katya almost bobbed into a curtsy before the receptionist turned and offered the packages to Jess. The larger one was sealed and unmarked – it must contain an annotated print-out of the story, as before. The smaller envelope was full, unsealed and labelled ‘£500’. She’d been paid. She was a writer: a paid writer! This could cover the rent for a month (nearly). Real money for real writing work… well, sort of. Jess looked directly into his eyes (through the looking glass) to express gratitude, revelling in the glory of her first moments as a professional writer.
A flash of Katya’s eyebrows dismissed Charlotte from the room. ‘So, you will have twelve days. The deadline is Friday next week, 5pm. Come for meeting here 2pm following Monday. Same deal as before.’ Katya hired Jess bearing the exact same facial expression and tone of voice she’d used to fire her the previous week. But who cared? This was amazing, brilliant! Jessica Seaques was a professional writer! And also an agreeable maniac, judging from the way she was nodding.
‘Thank you. Yes, thank you. I’ll get it done by Friday next week.’ Her eyes beamed although she managed to straighten her mouth, to be less incongruent with Katya’s cold indifference. It was clear the Russian now wanted her to leave. That was fine, although maybe… ‘Did he say…?’
Ms Stilenskova cut her off with a pointed nod towards the large envelope. Jess flashed a closing smile and gave a little bob of thanks as she stood. She struggled to bundle the packages along with her coat and handbag… and realised she should probably take the chair as well. She apologised for the kerfuffle as she blundered out of the room. The agent was sending a text and ignoring the irritation. Charlotte also ignored the writer’s halting exit, keeping her timid eyes fixed on the computer screen. After setting down the chair, Jess laid her stuff on the seat to organise it.
He was paying her attention: she could feel him watching! He was pleased… and wanted to see her enjoying the reward he’d bestowed. The writer turned away from the mirror, bending right over as she squeezed the small envelope inside her handbag. Plumping buttocks towards him, waggling them slightly as she moved. If this was the forest, then this was the bunny rabbit inviting the wolf to pounce, to sink his sharp teeth into her soft flank and take her down. It took a while to reorganise things in her bag, conscious that she had left herself vulnerable to attack from the rear. A warm buzz tingled below her ears and prickled down her spine. But there was no attack. She put on her coat and left.
The street was quiet, except the big-city hum of distant traffic all around. The glare of the winter sun was striking; the air crisp and cold, breeze stiff enough to chill as Jess buttoned her coat. She had to get out of sight and open the envelope at the first opportunity. How was it she’d managed to wait until getting home last time? She crossed the street, remembering a low wall under a tree close by – that would make a good spot. No point wondering what the feedback was when she was about to find out. It must be positive; she’d been paid £500! Okay, not a lot if you remembered the whole month of intensive writing. But not bad if it was considered payment for just one week’s work. More than her weekly wage at the café.
She sat on the wall and ripped open the A4 envelope. A printout of ‘Red Rose’: papers stapled together at the top corner and the document rumpled with perusal. A red tick on the first line! She bubbled with pride. Skimming through, more ticks leapt out. Counting them greedily: a couple of dozen. Usually symbolising approval for the nastiest parts of the story, with clusters celebrating especially dark moments. Flicking red dashes also rewarded instances of curiosity, courage, subservience and high emotion.
Throughout the document, various words and phrases had been underlined. Never full sentences – only specific parts of sentences. The phrases: ‘she didn’t know’, ‘knew it was true’, ‘you want to know’ and ‘all true’ were each highlighted in this way. The words ‘very bad man’ and ‘instead it swallowed her’ had been emphasised, but so had more reassuring sentiments like ‘strong arms clasped her’ and ‘holding her fully in his arms’. The word ‘help’ was underscored wherever it was used, including the variations ‘helped’, ‘helpless’, ‘helplessly’ and ‘helplessness’. Was he chiding her for using it too often?
The terms ‘daydream’, ‘dreamily’, ‘dizzying droop’, ‘hypnotised’, ‘passed out’, ‘bleary eyes’ and ‘wilting and fainting’ had all drawn attention. She traced her finger around the looping line cradling the phrase ‘wilting and fainting’. Looking through, it seemed there were different styles of underscore: some curved around the bottom of the words, whilst others were drawn especially straight. She noted the expressions related to knowing had all been highlighted using clean, horizontal lines, with the phrase ‘all true’ apparently deserving a double-dash.
The writer was pleased to note that (unlike with the first story) there were very few deletions. The letters ‘e’ and ‘d’ had been removed from the word ‘waited’ with a tidy box of red scribble. At another point, the words ‘even be able to’ had been chopped right out from the middle of a sentence. The word ‘total’ had been cut from the phrase ‘total victory’ with a neat cross of pen strokes. A row of three small arrows led away from this particular deletion. Arrows also snaked off from the phrase ‘find out lots about her dark side’. There were two hand-written comments, both on the last page. Once again, the word ‘DEEPER’ was capitalised as an intriguing, final instruction, the bodies of the D, the P and the R looping up and around expansively. The three Es seeming to point onwards, stretching their upper limbs to gesture over one another’s shoulders. However, the big, red words at the top of the page were the ones that really grabbed attention: ‘Your talent is special’.
She swooned dizzy as her whole self swelled to absorb as much of the compliment as possible. This was genuine approval: hard won and deeply meaningful. Her talent was special! She was special. He’d recognised it! He knew it. The flushing warmth reaching up her neck to tickle. Rereading his words, the glow only sweetened to the savour. Emotions fizzing like pink champagne… strawberry bobbing happily. His handwriting was so fucking sexy! It sent shivers down her spine… and up again. His words: assertive, strong, sure, confident… certain, sincere, powerful, flamboyant. The red ink seared, the message burned…
The game was on!