Wooing Ann Tailor
"We are a society obsessed with clay feet," said Stephen Bishop. "Nothing pleases us more than to see weakness in our heroes and gods. We don't let our heroes die by the sword, or by hemlock, or even a self-respecting hail of bullets. We make them slink away in shame, like an adulterer caught in the act. We have become a hero-killing generation. Nothing is safe from our high-tech prying eyes. No myth will survive our constant electronic scrutiny. Even urban legends are met with scepticism these days. I loved urban legends in the old days. They were good for tons of conversation. Bermuda Triangle? The Loch Ness monster? Hours and hours of arguments."
He reached across the table and took a handful of macadamia nuts from the saucer.
"What on earth are you talking about, Mr. Bishop?" said the woman in front of him.
"I'm sorry Mrs. Gillespie." Bishop crunched the nuts in his mouth while talking, not caring about the woman's raised eyebrow. "I tend to get preachy when I'm about to negotiate price."
"Save it for the customers that care."
"It's not for the customers," said Bishop, dusting the salt from his hands. "It's for me. It calms me."
"Are you calm now?"
Bishop sighed, and settled back into the lounge chair. "Let's summarize this so that I can have it clear in my head. You want me to touch one Felix Craig, a businessman of some repute, during a cocktail party. The information you are looking for relates to the merger of his company with that of your client. Am I right so far?"
She nodded, blond tresses barely shifting out of place. Bishop caught something, and considered touching her, but thought better of it.
"You understand that what the subject is thinking, and what he may actually do are two totally different things, and that I can't accept liability if he doesn't follow through on his thoughts."
"Is that a statement, or a question? It sounded like a question."
"How about verification?"
"Verification? How do you propose to do that?" Bishop frowned. "Are you going to walk up to Craig and ask him what he was thinking?"
"No," said Mrs. Gillespie, standing up. "But I'm sure what I'm about to do will suffice." She walked to the door, and opened it. He stared at her legs. She wore a beige skirt, and he thought she had exquisite calves. The skirt was not quite tight enough for him to assess her buttocks, but he knew they would not disappoint should he ever find himself in that position.
She called out to someone, and came back to sit down, prim and proper, brown eyes fixed on Bishop. Her face seemed devoid of expression, and he would have thought of Botox if not for the eyebrow she raised earlier. Footfalls came from the corridor, getting louder until a uniformed man stepped into the room. Dressed in a suit that reminded Bishop of a penguin, the man had a military bearing, thinning all-white hair, and wrinkles everywhere. Bishop did not need to touch him to know this was a butler. He came to a stop just behind Mrs. Gillespie, nodded in Bishops direction, and just looked off into a spot somewhere above Bishop's head.
"I would like you to tell me three things about this man that only he knows," said Mrs. Gillespie. "You have five minutes."
"I don't need five minutes," said Bishop. He closed his eyes, and immediately felt the itch on the side of his neck. He ignored it, concentrating. After a few seconds he opened his eyes, looking up at the man. "I'm sorry, sir. You might find this embarrassing.
"One, his references are all fake. He got his cousin, who is currently a guest at Leavenworth by the way, to forge all the papers presented to you. Two, despite his apparent classical leanings he prefers the Wu Tang Clan to Bach. He has a copy of--"
"You're a liar!" said the butler, face so red that Bishop feared an impending heart attack.
"Hush," said Mrs. Gillespie. "And the third thing, Mr. Bishop?"
"Well, this involves a very macabre sexual event involving him, his sister and a marsupial--"
"Sir, I must ask you to desist!" The man was shaking now, although Bishop felt it was out of rage, rather than a coronary.
"Thank you, Benjamin. That will be all."
They were silent until he left, then Bishop said, "He doesn't like you much, you know."
"I don't pay him to like me." She handed a file to him. "I already knew about the references and his cousin. He didn't know that I knew, however. I'm convinced about you, Mr. Bishop."
Bishop opened the file, and saw a photograph of a man, possibly in his fifties, with a full beard, square face, dark eyes, and a piercing gaze.
"How about the price?"
"I'm prepared to meet it," said Mrs. Gillespie. "Just get the information."
"Oh, I'll get it alright," said Bishop standing up. He took another handful of nuts on his way out. "And tell Benjamin that I'm sorry."
"I'm back," he yelled.
A young girl came out of the sitting room, holding a remote control device, chewing something. The brown skin on her long face was spotted with comedoes, but it did not diminish her beauty. Long braids hung down from her crown like a waterfall, and though she was thin her lips were full. And red, Bishop noticed.
"Are you wearing make-up?" he asked.
"Did your mother say you could wear make-up yet?"
"You want some coleslaw?" she turned into the kitchen. Bishop followed her, loosening his tie.
"Angela, I'm talking to you. Does she let you wear lipstick yet?" Bishop pulled up a stool, and sat while his daughter pulled out a salad bowl from the freezing section.
"Your lawyers called, they want to amend your standard contract. You're meant to call them," said Angela.
"I still talk to your mother, you know. I can just pick up the phone."
She set a place on the dining table, and placed some serviette beside him. "Mr. Chandra called. He wants to know if you're absolutely sure that his wife is being faithful. He says she's acting suspicious," she said.
"She's planning their anniversary party," said Bishop. "It's supposed to be a surprise. He, on the other hand, is having strong thoughts about Natalie from accounts. Are you going to answer me?"
"Mr. Jackson sent a check, a few bills arrived, and Mum says she's off to Trinidad for three weeks."
"With that weirdo who reads the horoscopes every morning and believes them?"
"This from a professional psychic," said Angela in a flat voice. "Pots? Kettles? Blackness?"
"Okay, okay. You made your point."
"Did you get the job?" she asked, placing the bowl of coleslaw in front of him.
"Angela, you're twelve. You're not my business partner," said Bishop, wolfing down the vegetables. "You're my rouge-wearing daughter, whose ass I'm going to kick"
"Kidding." She laughed, and the sound filled Bishops world. "But doesn't that show you how unimportant a little lipstick is?"
He stopped eating and covered his eyes for a few seconds. "I need a good suit, preferably black, and a tie. I'm going to a party on Thursday."
"You better get a haircut too, Afro-man."
"Nothing wrong with my hair..."
"Of course not," said Angela, digging her hands into the tight black curls of his hair. "If you're into the 'homeless' look."
She picked up the bowl, and took it to the sink. He watched her pad around. She was barefoot in the kitchen, something her mother had done all the time. He got up.
"I'm going to have a nap."
"Dad," she said, not looking around. "You should go out more. All you do is work."
"I'm going out on Thursday night," Bishop winked, and left.
No one came to talk to him.
At one point he walked over to some people who were in the midst of conversation. He grinned like a rookie car sales man, trying to insinuate himself into the circle, but they mostly ignored him. Nobody asked his name, and when he laughed at their jokes, he only got polite stares in return. He drifted away soon after that.
While he was trying to figure out how many separate parts the chandelier had his employer arrived, all diamonds and Hugo Boss. "There you are," she said. "Having fun?"
"I'm on the job," said Bishop. He continued looking up, trying to count the crystals.
"Indeed. What do you want me to do?"
"Walk over to Craig and engage him in conversation. Nothing heavy at first, just regular rich-folk bullshit."
"Do you need to meet him, get close to him?"
"No, nothing like that," he pointed behind her. "I'll be up there, on the balcony. After you've warmed him up, ask questions about the merger. Non-threatening questions, mind. Nothing confrontational, nothing that will make him defensive."
"Fend off any tangential topics. Don't let anyone hijack the situation." He moved towards the stairs at the end of the room. Bishop watched Mrs. Gillespie navigate the crowd, making her way to the rich industrialist with the beard. He found an overlooking spot with nobody close enough to try and engage him in conversation. He leaned against the railing, breathing deeply, waiting. He kept his eyes on Craig until Gillespie touched the man's arm.
Bishop closed his eyes.
He let his mind empty of all his personal worries. He started to feel around him, negotiating around the random thoughts emanating from the party people. Most of these were just surface thoughts from weak minds, lustful, frivolous, irrelevant. He tasted each one, looking for Gillespie. He tagged her and used her mind as an anchor, not probing. He fanned his consciousness out, searching the flotsam of thoughts in her immediate vicinity. As his efforts increased, so did the itch in the side of his neck.
Bishop found Felix Craig. The thoughts were strong, unafraid, totally relaxed. He released the tag on Gillespie's mind and focused on Craig, skimming the surface of the businessman's essence. Recognition of Gillespie, brief focus on her breasts, no anxiety on seeing her. Someone bumped into Bishop, and he almost lost his target amidst the mumbled apologies. He held on, and the merger bubbled up to the surface. He imagined the woman had brought it up gently, but Craig was a little suspicious. Some of the details of the deal rose up, and Bishop snatched them. So far he had only passively touched Craig. He took another breath and prepared for a deep touch.
Then he felt it. As if from nowhere, a powerful rumination swept across his awareness. It was bright, and cut through all his concentration.
And pure. He had never touched a mind with a pure ideation, but this was untainted, guileless, good. Bishop tried to fix on Craig, but he could not let this thought go. He tracked, feeling it stronger as he passed fickle and insipid minds. He felt a tightness at the base of his skull, and knew that he would have a headache in the morning.
He tagged it, a mind radiating beauty and gentleness. Bishop felt sure the person was talking to a group, as frequent thoughts spilled out of the mind at a regular rate. His heart started beating faster, and he felt himself hyperventilating. He touched the mind, and it was like a mine of warmth and comfort, full of light and wonderful things.
A name, give me a name.
Bishop was feeling faint, and he knew he had to stop soon. A thin thread still connected him to Craig, but he paid no attention. He pierced the surface of the mind and dug. Whoever the person was would feel some discomfort, perhaps even pain, but Bishop could not waste time on subtlety.
"Are you alright, sir?"
He jerked, and flicked his eyes open. If he had not been holding on to the railing he would be on the floor. An elderly waiter was looking at him, immaculate in his white shirt and bowtie.
"I'm fine," said Bishop. He was sweating, and he felt like loosening his own tie. He thought better of it remembering how long it had taken Angela to get it right. "I'm fine."
He smiled, and took a drink of the old waiter's tray just to put the man at ease. He turned, and looked down to the ground level. Gillespie looked up at him and he raised his glass to her, smiling. She returned the gesture and continued talking to Craig. Bishop could not care less. There was a single name replaying in his mind.
"Will you stop grinning and tell me exactly what happened already," said Angela.
Bishop flopped down on Angela's bed, lying as one crucified, staring up at the ceiling. Angela giggled from her seat at the desk, unfinished homework on her computer screen.
"I had her paged so I could get a look at her,' said Bishop. "Well worth it. Well worth it. She looks exactly the way her thoughts look. Beautiful."
"You're not making any sense dad."
"Her eyes are blue or green, depending on the angle. She has this small, delicate looking nose--"
"She's white then "
"Her upper lip was slightly larger than the lower one. Hmm."
"Tell me you at least spoke to her."
"Hah! And then some," said Bishop. He sat up and faced his daughter. "She stood by the phone for a while, waiting for the caller in that uncomfortable way people have when things don't go as expected. She fiddled with her hair during the wait. I spent that time watching her from the staircase. It's true what they say about a black dress, you know. Her strapless one hugged her small frame, and matched her hair. Green eyes and jet-black hair."
"What about her hair?"
"I can tell you a lot about a woman from the way she wears her hair."
"I don't remember noticing," said Bishop, "it was short, but that's all I can tell you."
"Typical," said Angela, rolling her eyes. "So what did you say to her? 'Hi, I just read your mind, and I think we should get to know one another. I like scuba-diving and quiet nights in, and I'm a Libra'?"
"Something like that," said Bishop. He picked up one of Angela's many teddy bears and threw it at her. "No, I didn't talk to her just then. I didn't want her to know I was behind the bogus phone call."
"When she finally gave up waiting, she started walking back towards the people I assumed were her friends. I just hurried down the stairs and intercepted her. I just said 'Hello. I've been trying to find a way to talk to you all evening, but nobody I know here seems to know you or your friends. Can we just introduce each other, pretend we have mutual friends?'
"She smiled, and said something about me getting that line from a movie. I got her a drink, and we talked. For the rest of the evening."
"Cool. Are you going to see her again?" asked Angela.
"Yup. Tomorrow. A more casual affair this time," said Bishop.
"And Mrs. Gillespie? Don't you have to give her a report or something?"
"I didn't get much from Craig." Bishop sat up, rubbed his chin and frowned, eyes narrow as he looked into space. "Of course I only did a cursory examination"
"Big surprise " said Angela.
Bishop got up, and walked towards the door. The intense eyes of DMX stared back at him from a glossy poster. Six months earlier it had been Craig David.
"Finish your homework," he said.
A six-foot Lady Liberty to the left of the entrance bore the menu, and just ahead was the bar area. Soft swing music floated on the air, and, even though there was a smoking and non-smoking section to the restaurant, he could smell a mixture of cigar and cigarette smoke. The dim lighting made it impossible to identify any of the patrons, and Bishop found the light hum of conversation, and the occasional ring of cutlery on ceramic soothing.
"Welcome, Mr. Bishop," said the waiter who had just appeared like magic.
"Gladstone," said Bishop. "Busy night?"
"Not at all. Everyone is watching the football match no doubt. There is a lady waiting for you at the bar."
"Thank you, Gladstone," said Bishop. He made his way through a filmy red curtain.
Ann Tailor was the only one at the bar, which had an irregular edge, all the way around. She looked up when he walked in, and Bishop thought he caught the crease of a smile. She wore a simple trouser suit, low-heeled shoes, and diamond stud earrings.
"You're early," said Bishop. He pulled a stool next to her and sat down.
"I like to be," said Ann. She smiled, and he ordered a drink.
"You look nice."
"Thanks. So do you, actually." She impaled him with her green eyes.
"You know, I almost don't know what to say around you," said Bishop.
"Tell me what you do for a living," she said. "You avoided it yesterday."
"Ahh, well, that's because it embarrasses me."
Bishop smiled back at her, and closed his eyes. "I'm a psychic."
"So you have a website, and give the first reading free or something? The psychic network kind of thing?"
"No, no," said Bishop. "Nothing like that at all. I'm more like a glorified Private Investigator. I find lost children, investigate infidelity, that sort of thing."
"Can you tell the future? Or bend spoons?" She seemed to be studying his face intently. "I'm sorry if I'm nosy, but I've never met a psychic before."
"No, I don't do any of those things. I don't even like to use the word 'psychic' because people associate it with charlatans and the like," Bishop said.
"Do you like the job?"
"It pays the bills."
"That's not what I asked."
"How's your job going? You said you are a Corporate Facilitation Consultant. What does that involve?"
"Numbers, mostly," said Ann. She rubbed the side of her neck, and tilted her head to that side. Bishop loved the creamy skin he saw there. "I spend my days looking over figures. I'm freelance, so you can't call it a job per se."
"You like it?"
"Would you like to dance?"
"Yes," said Ann, "but I don't like this music."
Bishop finished his drink and took her hand.
"Then, sweet Ann," he said, "we'll go find a place with music that you do like."
"It's not enough," she said.
"That's all he was thinking of at the time," said Bishop.
"Mr. Bishop, I don't think you appreciate the problem here," said Mrs. Gillespie. "This merger is happening tomorrow. I need to know his intentions before the end of the working day, otherwise I'll have to sign the dotted line."
"I don't want to bias you by telling you what I'm looking for, but this," she picked up the plastic folder containing the report, "this is bunny fluff. I don't want air-brushed pubic hair, Mr. Bishop, I want genitalia."
"I can touch him again if you're not satisfied. No additional charge," said Bishop.
"Let me make a few calls and set up an appointment. We'll have to go to his offices together," said Mrs. Gillespie.
"I'm free, so it shouldn't be a problem," said Bishop.
"Just do it right this time."
"I'm going into the office now," said Gillespie. "I only have about five minutes, so don't make a mess."
"I won't," said Bishop.
He put the phone down, leaned back in his chair, and closed his eyes. He immediately focussed on the mental marker he had placed on his employer. Finding it, he fanned out, surfing the minds nearby. Waves of thought and emotion washed over him, and he had a sensation of floating, scanning the feelings of others until he came upon Craig. Bishop recognised the mind, and let go of Gillespie.
Outwardly he sighed, and sank deeper into the chair. He grew mental tentacles, extensions of his will with which he probed at Craig, anchoring himself. Each tentacle bifurcated and each bifurcation duplicated itself until he penetrated his target like the roots of a malignant weed.
He started to drink, and a mixture of Craig's memories and mentation suffused him. The waters of Felix Craig's consciousness were calm compared to other minds Bishop had examined. The businessman's emotions were controlled, tight, and bound. Bishop started to look for information about the merger--
Ann's lips tasted like some long-forgotten fruit, her tongue brushed lightly across his teeth, and he felt her breathing change when he placed his hand at the small of her back
--jerked back to the surface of Craig's mind like a cork out of champagne. He was breathing fast, and he sat up, eyes flicking open. The old woman in the cafeteria had lowered her reading, and was staring at him. The lines running from her nostrils to the corners of her mouth deepened, and he sensed disapproval. He took a few sips of his coffee and closed his eyes. He still had Craig, but the grip was tenuous. Why was he thinking about Ann? He enjoyed last night, but this was work, and she was not that hot. Craig had a lascivious thought about Gillespie; a lewd bubble bursting up from the depths that made Bishop focus on the task at hand.
He could not stop thinking about Ann.
"When I was eight I used to lick soap bars," said Ann. Bishop laughed, and almost choked on his garlic bread.
"Why would you lick soap? Scratch that, why would you tell me that?" he asked.
"It looked tasty-like a milk chocolate bar," she said. She stroked his ear, the same ear she had stuck her tongue in earlier. "And as for why, well I wanted to tell you something I had never told anyone else."
"To be close to you," she said. "Or to feel close to you."
He shook his head, and he felt something fall on his lap, the weird plastic spoon supplied with the coffee probably. He could sense Craig becoming uncomfortable, doors closing in the strong mind. Bishop forced the tendrils through, driving all thoughts of the night before out, not caring if Craig knew or not.
And then there was pain.
White-hot pain, brief, and almost beautiful in its purity and intensity. Bishop vomited, a gout of brownish-green fluid spraying out of his mouth. The rest of the coffee spilled over the table and on to his laps--
He had been right about the plastic spoon
--and he spat to clear his mouth of the bile.
"Are you all right?" asked the woman behind the counter.
"Look at what you've done," said the old woman. A few flecks of brown had stained her dress. Bishop looked up at her and reached out.
"How rude," she started.
Bishop staggered up, vision swimming. "If you don't shut up, I'll tell everyone here what you did to Barry Norrington in 1986. You do know Barry Norrington, right? He is your grandson, and he was only four at the time."
"Yes, I'm a monster," said Bishop. He wobbled, but kept control of himself and moved towards the door.
He needed loud music, music to course through his soul, music to make him forget. He did not want to think of the events of the day. Gillespie had called several times, and left several threatening messages before finally becoming hysterical at the close of business. Bishop had ignored her.
After the debacle at Craig's office he had wandered the streets in London, soiled clothes and all. People had stared at him, but he had barely noticed. He touched all of them in a rage, crude mind-fucks, inducing instant pain. He needed to know if he still had it. They backed away from him without knowing why, and he had ended up stumbling down the tube station at Tottenham Court road. He got into the first train on the first platform and stood there, holding the handrails. Advertisements lined the sidewalls of the train, and he stared at a picture of a woman's bottom with a measuring tape around the middle. Standing astride the cleft, feet in the twin dimples was a man in Lycra pointing at the reader. You can have a butt like this, he claimed. Bishop turned away. The train was not crowded since it was the middle of the working day, but still, all the seats were taken.
He wanted to be alone.
He closed his eyes and let out a mental scream, escalating the intensity at a geometric rate, and he felt the minds around him recoil in pain. He heard people shuffle away, and when he opened his eyes again the car was empty. He slumped into the nearest seat and slept.
When he woke up the car was still deserted, and he had a splitting headache. Holding his head in the manner of one with a hangover he staggered out, realising the train had stopped. He was at Cockfosters, the final destination of the train. It was dark, and he hailed a taxi. He had first wanted to go home, but then he changed his mind and gave the driver a different address.
It was a bit early for their date, but Bishop did not think Ann would mind if he arrived a little early.
He knocked, and leaned against the door. He heard voices within, and felt a thrill go through him, combined with a sense of déjà vu. He frowned just as the door opened.
"Ann, I need--" he started.
"What the hell are you doing here?" asked Ann.
He looked past her, into the sitting room, and his mouth went dry.
On her couch, reclining and looking back at him was Felix Craig. Ann stepped aside and let him enter the apartment, and she was looking at him as if he were a stranger. She closed the door, and wrinkled her nose, knotting her eyebrows.
"What's what's he doing here?" he said, inclining his head in Craig's direction.
"He's my contractor," said Ann, walking ahead of him.
In the sitting room there were two travelling bags on the floor, and a coat lying on one of the lounge chairs. Craig stood up when Bishop entered.
"Ann, I'll be off then," said Craig. "Thank you."
"My regards to Ella," she said. She kissed the air next to his cheeks, and turned to Bishop as the businessman walked out.
"What did you do for him?" Bishop asked. "Where are you going? I thought we were what's going on exactly?"
"You stink, Steve," said Ann. She looked at the clock on the wall, and Bishop noticed a plane ticket on the crystal centre table.
"What's going on, Ann?"
"You really don't have a clue, hmm?" she said. "I suppose you deserve some sort of explanation. She closed her eyes, and he had a sensation like a vise gripping his consciousness.
DO YOU UNDERSTAND WHAT'S GOING ON NOW, STEVEN BISHOP?
"Stop it's too much..." Bishop fell to his knees, head pounding.
Is this better? said the voice of Ann Tailor, but coming from his mind, and not her mouth.
You you're like me.
Not like you. You're a mere twenty-watt light bulb. I am the sun.
You stopped me from getting to Craig, didn't you?
At last you realise.
Stop the caterwauling. You and I are both mercenaries with our talents.
But I caught a thought from you. It was
It was a projection. It was what I needed to distract you.
And the time we spent together? What about us Ann?
There is no us. There is a cheque. There is a flight to Majorca. There is a lucky hard-bodied sun-worshipper in a small bikini. Get over it, Steven.
She broke the link, and Bishop fell to the ground, the room spinning around him. He caught glimpses of her legs, and heard the horn of a taxi. He reached out to hold the bags, but they were yanked out of his reach. He had stayed on the floor of her apartment for a while before making his way home to reggae music and a very large glass of Jack Daniels.
He tipped the glass as a Rastafarian spoke of the evils of fast food and heroin. The phone rang, jarring him out of his thoughts.
"I'm out of a job," said Gillespie.
"You and me both, Mrs. Gillespie," said Bishop. "You and me both."
Tade Thompson lives in London. He has had some of his short fiction published in both small press and webzines including "The McMahon Institute For Unquiet Minds" in Ideomancer. He is currently working on a novel and is a collaborator on an on-again off-again one-shot fantasy graphic novel. He needs more exercise.
Published by permission of the author.