Authors: Anthony Price
AFTER ONLY A WEEK
of exposure to her, Gary the Messenger Boy was ready to die for Marilyn the Temporary Secretary, Frances judged. So it was his good fortune that the scenario did not envisage his role as being self-sacrificial.
‘Any urgent letters. Miss?’ he inquired, leaning hopefully over her desk as far as he dared. He had invented several extra collections a day since her arrival, and this was the first of them. The secretaries had never had better service.
‘Thank you, Gary.’ Frances smiled at him and threw out Marilyn’s chest for his entertainment as she sealed the first of Mr Cavendish’s morning letters into their envelopes. The gratification of Gary’s adolescent daydreams was not the worst thing she had ever done, if hardly the most admirable: it was simply the best and quickest way of doing what had to be done.
‘Thank you, Gary.’ She offered him another smile with the sealed letters, leaning forward slightly as she did so. Although she lacked the measurements for a really spectacular view, the top three buttons had been carefully left undone to offer what there was.
‘Thank you. Miss.’ Gary wiped his sweaty paw on the seat of his jeans before accepting the gift. But then, instead of turning to Mrs Simmonds at the next desk, he lingered in front of her, rocking on his three-inch heels until she began to wonder if the lungful of over-applied April Violets which he had inhaled was about to knock him out.
He summoned up his courage. ‘Got another story for you, Miss—true story.’
Mrs Simmonds sniffed disapprovingly, though whether it was at Gary or the April Violets, Frances wasn’t sure.
‘Yes, Gary? A true story?’
‘The letters, Gary!’ snapped Mrs Simmonds.
Frances ran the tip of her tongue deliberately over Marilyn’s Glory Rose lipstick and gazed expectantly at Gary. Mrs Simmonds rated nowhere, compared with Gary; she was just a secretary, and (which was more to the point) she didn’t gossip round the office like Gary.
‘I read it in this book,’ began Gary breathlessly. ‘There was this Indian uprising, see—‘
It had been an Indian uprising last time. Gary’s reading was either limited or highly specialised.
‘Comanches, they were. In Texas—‘
Perhaps Gary’s mother had fancied the hero of
so much that she had imprinted him with an obsession to go with his name.
‘And there was this girl they took prisoner—a blonde like you. Miss—‘ His eyes feasted on the dyed curls ‘—and they started to take … to take her clothes off. Miss—‘
‘Gary!’ Mrs Simmonds fired his name like a warning shot.
‘But she was wearing this—this thing—‘ he floundered ‘—it’s all laced up, with bones in it—?’ He blinked desperately at Marilyn.
‘Whalebone,’ said Frances. ‘A corset?’
‘That’s it. Miss—a corset!’
‘Charming!’ murmured Mrs Simmonds, her back now as rigid as if it was also whaleboned and laced-up, but interested in the Texan maiden’s fate against her better judgement.
‘And they couldn’t get it off, see—the Comanches couldn’t. So when they got her down they couldn’t—‘
‘That’s enough!’ snapped Mrs Simmonds. ‘Quite enough.’
Gary shook his head at her. ‘But it’s true, Mrs Simmonds—honestly it is. I can show it to you in this book.’
‘I believe you,’ said Marilyn encouragingly.
‘But that isn’t the end of it, Miss—‘ the words rushed out ‘—they shot arrows at her, only the arrows stuck in the—the—in the bones—an’ she was saved by the Texas Rangers.’
Before Mrs Simmonds could draw a bead on him he snatched the letters from her hand and scuttled out of the door.
Mrs Simmonds traversed her sights on to Marilyn.
Francis … I know you’re only a temp …
you won’t be here with us very long …
you really should know better—‘
The door swung half open and Gary’s grinning face appeared in the gap. ‘If they’d caught you, Miss—the Comanches—you wouldn’t ‘uv stood a chance!’ he delivered his punch-line.
‘Don’t be cheeky!’ Mrs Simmonds’ anger bounced off the closing door. She turned back to Marilyn. ‘There! That’s exactly what I mean. If you give the dirty little beast a chance—but you positively encourage him!’
Marilyn examined her Glory Rose nail polish critically. That was also exactly true, thought Frances, making a mental note to uproot any roses in her garden at home which might even remind her of this particular shade of red. And (looking down past her nails to what Gary had tried to see) Marilyn certainly wouldn’t have stood a chance with the Comanches either, that was also true.
Marilyn shrugged. ‘He’s harmless.’
‘Nothing in trousers is harmless.’ Mrs Simmonds caught her tongue as she stared at Marilyn, and Frances knew what she was thinking: that anything in trousers was as much Target for Tonight to Marilyn Francis as Marilyn Francis was for anything in trousers.
Well, that was the trick—since there was no time for a more unobtrusive approach, in order not to be seen she had to be obvious. And there was nothing more unimaginably obvious that the pink, red, blonde, brazen and bra-less Marilyn, with her eyes on all men from sixteen to sixty.
‘It’s all very well for you—‘ Mrs Simmonds began bitterly, and then brightened ‘—you won’t be here very long…’
‘Oh, I don’t know about that…’ Frances toyed with the idea of touching up Marilyn’s lipstick. The trouble was, it would mean looking at her face, and that was not something she particularly enjoyed. ‘… I quite like it here.’
Mrs Simmonds bristled. ‘Mr Cavendish’s
secretary—‘ there was a heavy emphasis on the adjective ‘—will be back from hospital in a fortnight.’
‘There are other jobs that come up. Girls are always leaving, as I should know … I’m a bit cheesed off with this temping—I think it’s time to dig in somewhere comfy, like here.’
The time was just about right to plant the shape of things to come, anyway. ‘I hear there’s a secretary leaving in Research and Development—‘ she winked at Mrs Simmonds ‘—where all those groovy scientists are.’
Mrs Simmonds regarded her incredulously. ‘You’re joking—?’
Marilyn gazed into space. ‘Some of them are quite young. There’s one that’s got a smashing sports car—I’ve seen him in the canteen. And he’s seen
That was true. She’d made sure of that. And groovy Dr Garfield also worked right alongside ungroovy Dr Harrison, who just might be selling out British-American’s research and development to the Other Side, what was more.
‘Hmm…’ Mrs Simmonds’ lips were compressed so tightly that she found it hard to speak. ‘Well … you may not find that so easy. They don’t take just anyone in R and D, you know. You have to have a security clearance, for a start.’
Marilyn giggled. ‘No problem, dearie. I’m absolutely secure.’
And that was also true. With the Security Officer already primed by the Special Branch, Marilyn’s translation to the rich pastures of R and D was a
whatever the opposition.
problem.’ But that wasn’t the reason which Gary would put into circulation.
‘With my qualifications I can push ‘em over any time—
problem.’ Marilyn fluttered her false eyelashes and decided to examine her lipstick.
‘Hmm…’ What drove Mrs Simmonds beyond words was the knowledge that Marilyn’s shorthand and typing speeds, not to mention her actual secretarial qualifications and efficiency, were as far above reproach as her morals were beneath it.
And it was nettling her more than somewhat, thought Frances, that she also suspected the unspeakable Marilyn was relying on her almost-see-through blouse and three undone buttons as much as 140 words a minute.
‘Hmm…’ Mrs Simmonds drew a shuddering breath. ‘Well, if that’s what you want, you won’t help yourself by making up to young Gary, I can tell you. He’s a proper little chatterbox, that one—and what he says doesn’t lose in the telling, either. You know he’s already going round, telling everyone that you are—‘ Mrs Simmonds clenched her jaws ‘—“hot stuff—do you know that?’
When it was all over, decided Frances, she would pad her expenses and buy Gary a copy of Jack Schaefer’s
and maybe Howard Fast’s
The Last Frontier
too. Not even the KGB’s disinformation experts could have done better.
‘He can say what he likes, I don’t care.’ She rummaged in her bag for the tawdry compact and the Glory Rose lipstick.
‘Well, you ought to.’ The phone buzzed at Mrs Simmonds’ elbow. ‘He fancies you.
And you can’t possibly fancy him.’
‘That’ll be the day! He should be so lucky…’ Marilyn opened the compact, and Frances examined the ghastly little painted doll’s face. There was no accounting for male taste, as she knew by bitter experience. She could only hope that the thing wouldn’t drag on so long that Marilyn took over completely, because then she would only let her down in bed, as always.
The phone was still buzzing, unanswered. Which only went to prove that the prospect of a temporary Marilyn converted into a permanent one was as unnerving for Mrs Simmonds as it was for her.
Because it wasn’t like Mrs Simmonds to ignore the phone.
‘Hadn’t you better see who it is?’ said Frances without turning from Marilyn’s reflection. The eerie fact about that little face was that it no longer belonged to a stranger, it was her face now. A week ago it had been an awful might-have-been; now it was a real face, on the way to becoming a should-have-been.
‘The way he looks at you—and not just him, either. I think you’re asking for trouble, young lady.’
‘I can look after myself.’ It’s looking
myself that frightens me, thought Frances.
‘I’ve heard that before.’ Mrs Simmonds reached for the phone. ‘All right,
She lifted the receiver. ‘British-American Computers—‘ she began with uncharacteristic abruptness, then caught her breath and shifted into her secretarial purr ‘—Mr Henderson’s personal assistant, can-I-help-you?’
Frances put the compact back into her bag and picked up her desk diary.
‘No—‘ said Mrs Simmonds in her severest voice, dropping the “sir”, ‘—no, it
I’m afraid you’ve been put through to the wrong extension.’
Miss Francis relaxed. It was her contact, deliberately asking for Mrs Simmonds’ number in order to establish himself as one of the string of Marilyn Francis’s boyfriends.
‘Is this a business call?’ Mrs Simmonds’ voice was like a carving knife.
Frances concentrated on the schedule. Cavendish was actually interviewing two R & D men at 10.30, presumably to brief himself on the sales pitch for the Saudi Arabians at 11.15 tomorrow. It would be advisable to double-check the booking at the Royal County Hotel, and the menu there too—
Pink, red, blonde, brazen, bra
less, but also efficient.
The opportunity for demonstrating the last in front of the R & D men was not to be missed. Perhaps she might even purchase some real coffee out of the petty cash for that 11.15 meeting: the Saudis would not know much about advanced guidance systems, but they would certainly know their coffee . .. And after that it would be an easy day, with consequent opportunities for further voyages of discovery and Marilyn-flaunting within the British-American labyrinth.
Contact was taking rather a long time, but judging from the grave and serious expression on Mrs Simmonds’ face he wasn’t actually being offensive.
‘Oh…’ Mrs Simmonds gave her a strange look. ‘Yes, of course I will … It’s for you, dear—that switchboard is hopeless… Yes, of course I will, don’t worry. I’m putting you through now.’
She punched the extension numbers and then turned again to Marilyn, still wearing the serious expression.
‘It’s your father, dear.’
Miss Francis did not have to simulate surprise. It was contact’s job to handle all routine communications up to and including Alerts. ‘Father’ himself would never intervene except in cases of emergency.