"Well, the first thing is that I’m not from here, not from Mars.”
“That much I’d already guessed, but never mind, here goes.”
Phil slipped off a sandal. They were sitting in her living room (Lucy was staying with her father this weekend, so the coast was, for once, clear). The doors were double-locked.
“Where are you from?” she continued.
Off came the other sandal.
“The next thing is that I’m a Private Investigator, not a writer.”
Phil couldn’t help herself. She started to snigger. “A private dick, eh? Here to terrorise the local population into giving you information …”
Off came a hairclip. She shook her long hair down.
“I’m looking for a writer, though.”
“You just don’t seem to be getting the rules of this game …”
“Oh, all right, but this is going to take forever at this rate!”
She reluctantly slipped out of the tight tunic top, baring a neat white sports-bra.
“Nice,” he observed appreciatively.
“Don’t get too fond of the real estate, Mister. That’s as close as you’re likely to get.”
“The writer I’m looking for doesn’t have a name. Or if he does, I don’t know what it is.”
“Does he live around here? Is that why you’re looking for him here? What does all this have to do with me?”
She slipped off her wrist-communicator.
“I’ll take your questions in order. We don’t know if he lives around here, but this is where he was last heard from.”
“My wife back home. Who do you think? Nah, only joking. I’m not married. That’s two bits of information you owe me for, though.”
“Oh, for Goodness sake!”
Phil was running short on garments. She’d felt it would be ridiculous to wrap her body in every piece of clothing she had in the world, simply in order to pump her new next-door neighbour for information, but now she was beginning to regret her impulsiveness. A few more accessories and pieces of jewellery would have helped considerably. It didn’t matter that she didn’t usually wear such things except on special occasions.
“I don’t suppose you’d let me go into the next room and put on a few more clothes?” she ventured, hopefully. “I didn’t know you were going to be so literal-minded about this thing.”
“What do you think?” he replied with a leer, as she removed the two earrings she had had the foresight to put on.
“Anyway, to continue your previous line of questioning. I’m not married and I don’t have a steady girlfriend, so there’s an opening there for an enterprising young woman if she cares to take it up.”
“I’m not taking off any more clothes for that! You have to tell me something I want to know!”
“Okay, fair enough. We is the people I work for – an agency on Earth which works to locate people who my employers consider potentially disruptive. I could tell you more about them – their name, the address, but then I’d have to kill you.”
“Ha hardy ha. Very funny,” she said, slipping off the tight little bra. She was topless already, and what had she learned that could be of any use?
“Now, getting back to the writer. This is where you come in – why I’ve decided you might be of use to me as a potential source of information.”
“You mean as a spy?”
“Yes, if you like. I told you the plot of that story, “Burmese Days,” at dinner the other night.”
“You mean that was a real story? Not some bullshit you made up to get into my pants?”
“Nope, real as rain … and now, if you don’t mind.”
She slipped off her skirt. Just leggings and knickers left now. She’d have to use each of them to their full advantage.
“But what’s so subversive about a woman obsessed with her own ... behind? It sounds pretty silly to me.”
“It is pretty silly. But stories are not always what they seem. They can have hidden meanings encoded in them – they can stir people up to think about things we’d rather they weren’t thinking about.”
She took off one of the two scarlet leggings.
“You called this writer “he” earlier on. Are you certain it’s a man? I mean, how can you be certain if you don’t know his name or anything else about him.”
“Quite right. We don’t know it’s a he, though there are various indications in the stories to imply that it probably is. It’s someone who posts things in odd places, and tends not to leave tracks … even the slyest foxes slip up sometimes, though.”
Sighing, she took off the second legging. There was now nothing between her and this leering man except a fairly exiguous pair of panties. At least they were white and only partially see-through! She was glad now that she’d taken her daughter’s advice and had a bikini wax the last time they were in Central City together.
“What I’d like to ask from you, then, is to keep your ear to the ground – listen for indications that your friends have been reading any of the postings this guy puts up. Reports of odd comments and conversations, that sort of thing.”
“Is that all?”
“Well, not quite all,” he answered, gesturing towards her last piece of underwear.
“Oh no you don’t! You tell me that last thing and I’ll decide if it merits taking them off.”
“Very well, then, it looks like I’ll have to trust to your sense of fair play, my sweet. We’re not sure if this writer is human, and we have reason to think that, if he is, he’s blind.”
“But how do you know that?”
“Phil, you know the rules …”
“You really are a pig, you know. There! Satisfied?”
Standing up, she removed her knickers with a quick sliding motion, and gave him a brief twirl of her naked self.
“Now what, anyway? You’ve stripped me naked – you haven’t really given me all the answers I need, though.”
“No, that’s very true. To be honest, I’d anticipated quite a few more stages to this process, which is why I may have been a bit niggardly to start with.”
“Are you saying I’m easy?”
“No, no: not at all – just refreshingly fresh and open in your approach to what is frankly a fairly dog-eat-dog world. For a start, I haven’t even told you your daughter’s connection with all this”
“Lucy! What about Lucy? What are you saying?”
“Ah well, there you have me at a disadvantage, my proud beauty. I’d like to tell you, but you don’t really have any bargaining chips left.”
“Tell me about Lucy, you fucking bastard. What have you done with her?”
“Nothing at all. I haven’t done anything with - or to – her. Would that the same was true of everyone in your circle of acquaintance!”
“Do you want me to fuck you, is that it? Is that all you’re doing with all this rigmarole? Because if that’s all it is, go ahead, fuck me – but tell me about Lucy first.”
“That’s better. Now you’re beginning to get into the spirit of the game. And it is a game, you know. Fucking comes much further along, though. I call the game “Indignities” (though no doubt other people have other names for it). For every question of yours I answer, you have to submit to an indignity at my hands.”
“You fucking slimeball.”
“Possibly, possibly, but that doesn’t change the basic rules. It might harden my attitude towards you a little, though (so to speak) – you do have to bear that in mind when strategising your game-play.”
“Okay, I’ll play your fucking game, you scumbag. What’s first?”
“Well, first come the handcuffs, I’m afraid. It’s one of those games of rapid escalations and long periods of lull designed to put you off your guard.”