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The not-too-distant future…
“Don’t rise to it,” thought Vanessa Holbrook.
Lyle Hughes, editor of the New York Express, sat across from her at his desk, coated in the laissez faire attitude that most men doused themselves in when they met her for the first time and weren’t prepared for her to be beautiful as well as good at her job. She guessed him to be 25 years older than herself, which would make him 55. He tensed his pecs with the effort of a man trying to pass kidney stones in addition to the deliberately unimpressed disposition designed to make her feel lucky to be in his presence.
There was just one problem with that approach in this scenario: he asked to meet her.
‘A colleague of mine suggested we should meet. Your last story got a pervert–Jake Valentine, wasn’t it?–locked up for a couple’a years, am I right?’ he said.
‘Eighteen. But it wasn’t my last story–‘
‘So, you’re a journalist and a bounty hunter all in one? Impressive.’
‘It was a one-off. I prefer to write about political–‘
‘I assume you’re looking for a home?’ In a journalistic sense, I mean.’
‘Why assume that?’ she asked, concluding short sentences were the way to go.
‘Security, for one — it’s good to know where the next paycheque is coming from.’
‘It’s never concerned me.’
‘It should. Successful rock bands never know which album will be their first to fail.’
One measure Vanessa used for judging where managers of all varieties sat on the dickhead scale was how soon into a conversation they began to speak in metaphors.
‘I don’t follow rock music,’ she said and, seeing the sarcasm fly over his head as he prepared to mansplain his point, she continued, ‘I might consider a permanent position if it was possible to find a place with a balanced viewpoint.’
‘We have balance,’ said Hughes.
She looked doubtful.
‘It’s no good sitting on the fence, Ms Holbrook. You have to pick a side.’
‘It means there’s always something to report.’
‘Or sensationalise. And now we know what happens when news outlets stoke up trouble.’
Hughes flushed with irritation. ‘It wasn’t the fault of news outlets. We don’t advocate assassinating presidential candidates.’
Vanessa let the silence hang.
‘…no matter how much of a communist he was.’
And there it was: the bitter taste of biting his tongue since the backlash happened. For a brief moment in time extremists were embarrassed into keeping their skewed views to themselves. But, as always, a short time passes and ignorance is immortal.
‘I have no political affiliation,’ said Vanessa. ‘I’m on the side of truth, just as any journalist should be. I know facts became a thing of the past when your man was in the White House, and sadly the other side drove us all further into the crapper when it started playing the same game–‘
‘Miss–‘ he interrupted.
‘Mrs,’ she corrected.
‘–but I still have hope that this country will regain its sanity. I write for those who are the real silent majority–the people who don’t spend their time raving like attention-seeking infants–the people in the middle.’
Hughes smiled in a way that indicated he may have shared her outlook in a past life. ‘And that’s why you’ll fade away if you continue on that path. Nobody gets rewarded for being a saint any more. How many successful journalists can you name with those priorities?’
’Certainly nobody here,’ she said.
‘Journalists here are known for serious stories and are not the laughing stock of the profession because they side-step into baiting kink freaks!’
Vanessa sensed her cheeks reddening with anger but did all she could to hide it. ‘I don’t call the disingenuous boot-licking of extremists who want to destroy the country while pretending to save it “serious journalism”, Mr Hughes.’
‘Good day, Mrs Holbrook.’
As Vanessa waited at the elevator she detected a diminutive figure hovering in the Express’s reception area, who soon became too obvious to be ignored.
A young woman with pixie-punk hairstyle and black-painted fingernails held a stack of laptops and watched her with big brown eyes. Vanessa couldn’t help but admire her rower’s shoulders and gym bunny curvaceousness. The back-and-forth motion of her steps gave the impression that she was either struggling to balance or needed the restroom.
‘Can I help you?’ said Vanessa.
‘No thanks! They’re not that heavy!’ said the young woman.
‘I meant: you’re staring at me.’
‘Am I? Sorry. I was passing and… aren’t you Vanessa Holbrook?’
Vanessa was flattered — she wasn’t used to being recognised.
‘I am. And you are…?’
‘Wow, you’re taller than I pictured. Do you know this really old sitcom called Friends?’
‘Yesss…?’ said Vanessa, drawing out the word with curiosity, but feeling irked at Friends being referred to as “really old”.
‘You look a lot like the one who plays Monica.’
‘Yeah, that’s her! Before all the plastic surgery, bursa escort y’know.’
‘Yeah, I know.’
‘Jaz,’ said the young woman, plonking the laptops onto the carpet where she stood and approaching with her hand extended. ‘Jaz Seymour. I’m a big fan of yours!’
‘Seems like I’m popular in these parts.’
‘You’re coming to work here?’
‘Oh…’ Jaz’s deflation immediately bounced into a new burst of energy, ‘Listen, do you ever work with other people?’
‘I’m afraid not,’ said Vanessa, feeling some guilt at shattering this young woman’s dreams twice in the space of two questions. Strictly speaking, the answer was, “I haven’t yet,” but Vanessa wanted to avoid the awkward conversation of saying she didn’t work with other inexperienced people.
‘Can I buy you a coffee at least?’ asked Jaz.
Vanessa was about to deliver the declination hat trick when there was a loud clatter. Lyle Hughes had been walking and talking with a colleague and kicked over the stack of laptops.
‘Who left these here?’ he shouted at the receptionist, who looked to Jaz in response. Hughes followed her line of sight and was further infuriated to know that Vanessa had witnessed the event.
‘Is this the place for company computers, Jaz?’
Jaz shrunk. ‘No, Sir.’
‘Get them moved!’ he said, straightening his tie. He gave one last begrudging glance at Vanessa and walked on.
Vanessa looked down at the subdued Jaz and decided she had nowhere else to be that morning. ‘We can grab a coffee, sure.’
Thirty minutes later Jaz joined Vanessa in a café across the road. Despite the heatwave currently engulfing the Northeast, at Jaz’s insistence they got their drinks to go and strolled into pre-lunch hour Central Park. Vanessa smirked when she considered that it took Jaz’s face to be stuffed with consumables for her nervous babbling to stop.
Jaz swallowed her latest mouthful and said, ‘You’ve got really big feet.’
Vanessa’s smirk evaporated. ‘Well, you just say whatever comes into your head, don’tcha?’
‘Sorry. Yeah, I kinda do.’
‘Maybe they only look big to you because you’re about a foot shorter than me.’
Jaz looked again at Vanessa’s shoes. ‘No, objectively, they’re large–‘
‘What are we doing here, Jaz?’ Vanessa snapped.
‘Okay, yeah — I’ve got a lead on a story, but no one at the Express takes me seriously.’
‘Hm,’ said Vanessa, unsurprised. ‘What is it?’
‘You promise you won’t take it and run?’
Jaz looked around to ensure there was nobody within earshot and spoke in a low tone: ‘There’s a plot to steal the next general election.’
‘Tell me something new,’ said Vanessa and sipped her coffee.
‘I know, but this time it’s serious.’
‘They’re all serious. Unfortunately, they’re no longer a novelty.’
Jaz struggled for words.
‘Tell me what you’ve got,’ said Vanessa.
‘Okay, you know Gabby Calhoun?’
Of course she knew Gabby Calhoun a.k.a. Calhoun the Loon — Florida representative and the unquashable face of right-wing conspiracy theorist nut-jobs, who didn’t halt her unsubstantiated and delusional tirades even after the assassination of the Democratic presidential candidate. Undoubtedly, the ceaseless mouthing-off of her and those like her at one of the most heated times in US history contributed to a big swing to the left and an unprecedented run of wins for the Democratic party.
But, in the inevitable pendulum of politics–and with her refusal to be subdued by those in her party with any modicums of integrity–a paradoxical happenstance made her the face of what right-wing news outlets were calling a new hope for the Republican Party, much to the chagrin of Star Wars fans.
Jaz answered her own question: ‘You do know her. Right. Of course. Well, a college friend of mine works in her department. Apparently she likes having lots of younger dudes around–‘
‘A bottle-blonde, collagen-lipped, glorified soccer mom. What a surprise.’
‘Is it?’ asked Jaz.
‘You haven’t been in journalism long, have you, Jaz?’
Jaz blushed. ‘Anyway, he overheard a conversation he shouldn’t have–‘
They parted ways to let two mounted cops trot past. Both cops smiled at Vanessa while Jaz almost toppled into a path-side bush. Vanessa watched them go and Jaz composed herself.
‘Go on,’ said Vanessa.
‘She had a meeting with a bunch of people and they were discussing how to rig the swing states.’
‘Who else was in the meeting?’
‘He couldn’t see them all, but he recognised Republicans from other swing states and Lady Di-amond — Erina Tysinger from Jackal News. They were talking about physically threatening and blackmailing election officials.’
Vanessa lightly chewed her inner cheek. Jaz appreciated her subtle pout and the way her blue eyes sparkled with inspiration.
‘Can your friend get us recordings?’ asked Vanessa.
‘Probably not. It was lucky that he was there in the first place and they didn’t see him. And, ultimately, he’s still on the Republican bursa escort bayan side.’
‘So why did he tell you in the first place?’
‘He was drunk and he fancies me. Every now and then he gives me a call to try it on.’
‘So you can seduce him into giving us more?’
‘He’d suspect something was up. He knows he’s not my type.’
‘Oh, come on — you can put on an act for a great story, can’t you? What is your type?’
‘Women,’ said Jaz.
‘But you’re beautiful woman, Vanessa. You’d definitely be able to seduce him!’
‘Perhaps. But my husband wouldn’t like it.’
‘Even for a great story?’
Vanessa caught Jaz’s cheeky smirk and knew she’d been nailed with her own strategy.
‘There’s one more thing,’ said Jaz, but she hesitated before proceeding. Vanessa impatiently indicated for her to continue. ‘Have you heard of gargalaphobia?’
Vanessa stopped walking. Jaz gave a look of exaggerated innocence.
‘Are you pushing my button?’ asked Vanessa.
‘Not at all! I just didn’t know if you knew the word.’
‘I’ve spent over ten years in political journalism and get pigeon-holed for the one time I work with the police to catch a predatory guy with a tickling fetish, Jaz. Of course I know the term. Why are you asking?’
‘Gabby Calhoun has it.’
‘Gabby Calhoun is phobic of being tickled?’
‘Yeah. They had an office party and one of the staff pinched her waist. She went ballistic and nearly fired him. It caused a real awkward scene. I only mentioned it because it’s something you know about.’
‘I don’t work for trash mags and, even if I did, I’m not doing another story on tickling!’
‘I just thought it was a coincidence…’
Vanessa threw the rest of her coffee in a nearby trash can and pulled a pack of cigarettes from her purse.
Jaz approached gingerly. ‘Can I ask one question about it?’
‘One,’ said Vanessa as she sparked up.
‘If you thought it was a flippant story, why did you work on it?’
‘Because some random bully assaulted my sister. I don’t like seedy men to get away with acting like that.’
‘You think tickling is an assault?’
A suppressed smirk from Jaz enraged Vanessa.
‘Yes, Jaz. It may be a joke to you and everyone else who read the story, but touching without consent is still against the law. Or has MeToo just evaporated into the ether too?’
‘Don’t get angry,’ said Jaz. ‘It’s just hard to–‘
‘Maybe you’ll change your mind if it happens to you one day,’ said Vanessa and she strode ahead.
Jaz skipped a little to keep up with Vanessa’s long legs. She waited for the cigarette puffs to change from short, forced exhales to long, calm plumes before speaking again: ‘So… will you work on this with me?’
‘Give me your number. I’ll get back to you.’
Vanessa unlocked her phone and handed it to Jaz. Jaz entered her details under the name “Jaz smiley face emoji, pleading hands emoji”.
‘Thanks for talking to me,’ said Jaz.
‘Yeah,’ said Vanessa as she left.
Vanessa walked back to her Tribeca apartment block to give herself time to ponder her position. The story was potentially explosive, but working with Jaz the eager puppy could be hazardous for her patience.
Along 6th Avenue the conversation with Lyle Hughes invaded her thoughts as she mulled over how many armed cops there were on the street compared to just five years ago. Most people now concluded that their presence was intentionally threatening rather than reassuring and as she considered this, as if by some divine joke, four officers crossed her path and surrounded a couple of young guys for the heinous crime of jaywalking.
She hummed to herself:
There’s a man with a gun over there,
tellin’ me I’ve got to beware…
Although she was a political centrist, she grew up considering herself to be left-leaning, but at this point there was little in her mind to separate the Democrats of the day from the Republicans. She reflected on a crack in her conviction that she would never admit to someone like Hughes — maybe she was a hopeless idealist.
Arriving at her apartment block, she took the elevator to the 45th floor. The doors parted to reveal her sister, Faith.
‘Hey!’ said Vanessa, delighted.
‘Hey, sis!’ said Faith. Vanessa hugged her and, as always, Faith tensed into the consistency of concrete as both ended up with a mouthful of the other’s hair.
Unlike Vanessa’s wavy black mane, Faith’s hair was straight and brown, which she always had cut with a straight, eyebrow-length fringe, giving her a more innocent look. It was common for those who knew both sisters to say: “Vanessa’s the beautiful one and Faith is the cute one.”
Faith extricated herself from the hug.
‘What are you doing here?’ asked Vanessa.
‘Just passing on the way to the hospital. Thought I’d see how you were both doing.’
‘You’re not having an affair with my husband?’
‘Nah,’ said Faith. ‘Broke that off months ago.’
‘Thought so. Do you have to go?’
‘Yeah. escort bursa My shift starts soon.’
‘We haven’t seen you for a while. Are you sucked up into a whirlwind romance or something?’
Through the tease, Faith easily detected a look of hope in Vanessa’s eyes.
‘Nope, but I’m happy. Just working a lot of extra shifts so I can afford to take myself to the movies,’ said Faith. ‘You should come sometime.’
‘Yeah. I’d like that.’
Faith called the elevator and faked a cough to avoid another hug. As soon as it arrived she darted in and squished her face with her hands in time with the closing of the doors, causing Vanessa to chuckle. Faced with her reflection in the shiny metal, Vanessa quickly averted her eyes and went to the apartment.
Her husband, Ryan, was on a work video call.
She always went for older men and, when she was 28, she knew that finding an older man without a beer gut was increasingly difficult, which is why when she met Ryan–40, tall, handsome, good hair, fun, career-focussed and a racquetball nut–she immediately snapped him up. Two years on and she loved their life except that last autumn Ryan contracted Long Covid after catching coronavirus for the third time and for increasingly selfish reasons she hated to see her man so fragile for so long. She wanted the sexy take-charge guy he had been when they first met, and felt both impatient and guilty for wanting him to get over Long Covid yesterday.
He liked to conduct his work calls while sitting at the open-plan kitchen island because it allowed his background to be the impressive Lower Manhattan skyline, visible via their floor-to-ceiling living room windows. What the other meeting attendees couldn’t see was that he wore a jacket, shirt, tie and boxer shorts. Also out of sight was the rest of the flat, filled with projects he insisted he would complete but never did because he didn’t have the energy. From books on hang-gliding to lights for photography projects and even stuff as simple as packing up the Velma and Daphne costumes they bought for a Hallowe’en party the previous year, which was the first event they didn’t because he was tired.
‘…thanks, John. I’ll catch you later,’ he said and closed the call at which point his assertive demeanour changed. He trudged over to the sofa and collapsed.
‘How ya doin’, hun?’ asked Vanessa.
‘I hope you weren’t dressed like that when Faith was here.’
‘If she refuses to dress up in her nurse’s uniform when she visits I can refuse to wear pants.’
She sat next to him, stroked his hair and he leant into her chest.
‘How did your meeting go?’ he asked.
‘As I expected — I won’t be working there.’
Ryan responded with a grunt.
‘What’s up?’ Vanessa asked.
‘Nothing. Just…’ he pushed himself into a sitting position, ‘I get the feeling the board might ask me to leave. If we wanna keep living here we’re really gonna need your income.’
Vanessa looked out at the view she once could only dream of seeing every day.
She hoped Jaz wouldn’t burst her eardrum with glee when she heard that they would be working together.
‘Here he is,’ said Jaz.
As requested, they had taken outdoor seats at Tides Beach Bar & Grille, just off Jacksonville Beach. Despite an ocean view that had slowed Jaz’s words per hour, Vanessa felt an impatience that wasn’t helped by the hunger-inducing smell of shrimp tacos, but she didn’t intend to be chowing down on finger food when Jaz’s contact arrived. As he approached from the beach, his jacket over his shoulder, his shirt unbuttoned to show off his abs and his shoes in-hand, she assumed the reason he was forty minutes late was due to a leisurely and exhibitionistic walk on the beach.
‘What else can I do to get him onside?’ Vanessa asked when they were on the Delta flight out of JFK.
‘Honestly, he’s a really horny guy,’ said Jaz. ‘One look at you–‘
‘Always have a backup plan, Jaz. Any other way I can bribe him? Does he like sports? Celebrity functions…?’
‘I’m pretty sure he has a foot fetish. Whenever we’re alone he always offers me foot massages.’
This stumped Vanessa. She was far from being a prude, but she’d never seduced anyone with her feet before.
Jaz waved him over to their table. He threw a cocky salute, gave a waitress his drink order and sauntered across the decking. He invited Jaz to a hug with exaggeratedly wide arms.
‘Brayden Sneed, this is Vanessa Holbrook,’ said Jaz.
‘Great to see you, Jaz. And is this the lady I’ve been hearing so much about?’ he said, turning to Vanessa.
‘Oh? What have you heard?’ asked Vanessa. She knew she should appease him, but there was something about over-confidence in people under 24 that she couldn’t resist cutting off at the knees especially when they made themselves such easy targets by hurling up clichés from The Little Red Book of Insincerity for Political Wannabes.
‘That you’re a fantastic writer,’ he said and took a seat.
There was an awkward pause while Vanessa waited for more.
‘…and that you’d like to have a one-on-one with the boss.’
Vanessa was tempted to say, “That is an extensive character assessment!” but instead said, ‘Yes, and based on what you told Jaz, there is something big going on here.’
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