The King's Arms

Clare guided the Panther through Wellerbridge, following detailed directions from a very basic local traffic net. The town dated back before Norman times, a small hamlet with a single public house which, according to local history, had always been called the King's Arms. Wars, ancient and modern, had passed it by, as had most of modern technology...

Then Coriolis Net Products arrived – Clare knew that because the traffic net told her so, a public service proudly supplied by... yada, yada, yada. The directions were fine, but the software inserted perfectly tailored advertising sound-bites between turn left and straight on at the junction. As she turned in to the King’s Arms, the navigation recited the special rates currently available.

Almost nothing remained of the original building – the King’s Arms was incorporated in a new wrapper, contemporary fake medieval smothering the Elizabethan rebuild. Modern preforms imitated traditional stone, reinforcement spars were arranged and painted like oak beams.

To the careful eye, the original structure can still be found, revealed by the individuality of hand-made, hand-laid bricks...

“Shut up.” The navigation information went silent and Clare followed a broad driveway winding through a formal garden filled with moulded concrete statues. “Yay... gravel!

The Panther ploughed two perfect furrows through the raked shingle, directly aimed at the hotel duty manager who was there, alerted by the traffic nets to welcome his important guests.

Clare got out and saw his face... Some people were so easy to read – wrong guests, my god, is she wearing Stellex, oh my god, look at that knitted sweater, damn it, we have a reputation to uphold... And that final telling glance, the minimal wince – look what she did to my gravel.

"Hi," she called, preventing him from even thinking of ignoring her. "Clare Farral. My boss is still asleep. You have rooms for us. And some clothes for me?"

"Of course.” The manager perked up. “Follow me.” So, the offensively dressed Miss Farral was accustomed to more refined clothes.“Someone will bring your bags."

Clare opened the rear door and nudged Bob awake. "They’ve only got one room," she whispered maliciously. "You’re the boss. You have the bed. I’ll sleep on the floor."

"One room? I’ll soon sort that out," he snarled, already half out of the car.

"Only joking."

"Bring the bags." He stormed off after the manager.

“Yes, Boss...” Now was that really worth it?

A boy trotted out, cursed with acne, beaming with a pleasant smile. He was dressed in green and gold with a short black jacket, a gold badge on his lapel proclaiming him as ‘Jeremiah’.

"Get your bags?" His eyes went round at the sight of the car. "Is that yours? A Panther?"

Clare flipped the boot open. "Company car. Just got it for a few days. Drives well."

He glanced around furtively, the act of a lad accustomed to being in trouble. "Can I talk to you later? About the car, I mean."

"So, you won’t try to chat me up? Seduce me? Try to tempt me into your bed?"

She could have sworn his eyes were already as big and round as was physically possible, but he cranked up the diameter even further. "No. Nothing like that. Honest. Just the car."

"Sure. Where do I park it?"

Jeremiah gave her directions.

She found a space round the back, an area larger than the original hamlet of Wellerbridge. Jeremiah stacked the luggage on to a powered trolley and led the way up to her room. As promised, a whole stack of bags and boxes were already laid out there, including two new suitcases to carry it all.

Jeremiah hovered by the luggage from the car. "Which is yours, Miss?"

"None. This…" She gestured vaguely. "Mine is here." She grinned at the confusion on his face. "Those all belong to my boss."

"I’d best take them to his room," he muttered dubiously, obviously waiting for a tip.

"Good idea, Jeremiah." Tips were the game of people with money.

Once she was alone, Clare started opening parcels. Emily had catered for every eventuality and had chosen in her own unique style. There were two staid, lightly pinstriped business suits, each with both skirt and trousers – so very, very traditional. Two evening dresses for the modest woman, high necklines and low hems, and a further item for the utterly shameless. There were also a handful of casual skirts, blouses, miscellaneous tops and a pair of skin-hugging jeans that she would have killed for. The underwear was uniformly Emily, little more than a handful of string and a few scraps of lace.

Clare selected one of the business suits and opted for the skirt. If she was supposed to attract Phil’s attention then a bit of leg on show would be best. Properly dressed, she went to find Bob.

He opened his door and momentarily failed to recognise her. "Better," he conceded grudgingly. "You can drive me to Coriolis now."

"No way. Lunch first."

"The only person I take orders from is Calder Lilywhite…"

"Yeah… yeah…" She cut across the tirade. "You might be the boss, but I’m here to keep an eye on you. If things are that bad then you can’t afford to start skipping meals or sleep. Lunch first, then Coriolis."

He conceded with poor grace and followed her down to the restaurant, theatrical fake black beams and injection moulded horse brasses. An irritating auto-music tinkled in the background, almost drowned by the noise of a modest crowd.

They had barely crossed the threshold when a muscular waiter ushered them to a table. Moments later a blonde waitress fluttered around them, flaunting a body every bit as luscious as Emily Lilywhite’s. Clare judged that it was all natural and not held up with the miracle of subcutaneous underwiring.

"You’re staring," she told Bob as the serving staff withdrew. "If you want some, just ask."

He flushed red and started to bluster, but she cut him off again. "I think this is why I’m with you. Trust me on this. I worked at Hunter’s Casino. Behind the scenes, of course. Haven’t got the looks or the tits for anything else." She paused minutely, looking for any reaction that showed he knew what Hunter’s really meant. No – Bob was far too naive and insular. "You ask that waitress if she comes in brunette and I bet there’ll be one with brown hair in front of you fast enough for the last echoes to bounce out of her cleavage."

"I don’t believe it."

"Look at the staff – falling over each other… You read the sign on the way out. I’ll bet you half your salary you’ll find this place is licensed for drinking, singing, dancing and shagging."

"I have been a bit cut off from the world..."

She bit off a snappy reply. Her own contract had been for six months, so how long had he been banged up in the Lilywhite gilded cage? "When did you last go out?"

"Ten years. Maybe more."

Like a kid who’s been locked out of the sweet shop. "So, do you want the waitress? This is the number one growth industry. Let's face it, DigiTart is a tame bit of virtual sex for those who don't get out much…" Oops. Mentioning no names. "Seriously. I'll bet you the cost of pumping my tits up a couple of sizes, that in a few years Lilywhite will be offering dirt cheap cortical implants to kids when they hit puberty. Three-D sims, realistic interaction and piped straight into your head – they'll make a fortune."

"Oh…"

"That's the way it is… that's where the cash is. Make love, not war." Clare waved in the direction of the waiter. "I quite fancy the lad over there. I don’t really go for the muscled ones – but I don’t suppose there’ll be much choice. Beefsteak is in fashion at the moment. You want? I can book something for both of us."

Bob flushed again. "No. I’ll be fine."

"OK. Suit yourself." She started to raise her hand to order and their body-building waiter was there in an instant. The staff were obviously on commission, and on the look-out for other business. "Chicken salad for me. My boss will have the cold beef platter. Iced tea for both of us."

"Anything else, miss?"

She lowered her voice a fraction. "Do you come bigger than twenty centimetres?"

"Yes miss, did you want to order?"

"Perhaps later." She waited until he was out of earshot. "You did want the beef, didn’t you?"

"Yeah. Fine." Bob Critchley wasn’t really listening as his eyes tracked the blonde wonder of a waitress.

# # #

Clare hung back at the end of the meal. "What’s your name?" she asked the waitress and then found the name tag. "OK, Lesley, what’s your hourly rate?"

"For you, him or both?" The blond, self-propelled cleavage balanced directness and courtesy perfectly.

"Just him."

"Six hundred the hour. A grand for two consecutive."

"House rates?"

"Of course. No freelancing here. Out on your..."

"Arse," Clare suggested. "Fine. Put it on the bill. All night. Whatever he needs. Be there when he wakes up in the morning. And be gentle with him. Treat him like a virgin. Don't mention fee scales, extras or bonuses."

"Sure." Lesley chuckled. "How long’s it been?"

"How the hell should I know? I only started working for him this morning. However long it’s been is way too long."

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