Tilly Chalmers loves her new job, but what is she to make of her dangerously attractive, but secretive, new boss Heller? Or the strange group of people that live with him? And could he really be a cold-blooded killer? After two hazardous first assignments and with a ruthless competitor on the scene, Tilly must decide if she has what it takes to survive the rough world of security work.
"I'm sorry, Tilly, but I'm going to have to let you go," Barnaby said, not sounding nor looking particularly sorry at all.
He'd asked me to stay behind after the show had finished and I'd agreed unwillingly, watching as my fellow cast members dispersed, laughing with each other and trading friendly jibes. He stood in front of me with his arms crossed, his doughy butt resting against the back of a chair. His bulbous swamp-brown eyes were flat and cold and his fleshy lips glistened as he ran his tongue around them.
"No. But why?" I asked, bewildered and dismayed. There was still another two weeks left on my contract and I needed the job badly. It had been months since I'd had a paying gig.
"You're just not convincing in the role," he shrugged with feigned disinterest, casually scratching his scalp, releasing a blizzard of dandruff. "The audience doesn't believe in you. I can see it in their faces."
They were the worst words an aspiring actor ever wanted to hear. But considering the role I was currently playing and the audience, they were also unbelievably ridiculous.
"Barnaby. I'm a piece of fruit," I reminded him in a reasonable voice, eyeing him steadily. In fact I was a slice of watermelon, bedecked in an unwieldy, triangular-shaped foam costume. My green and white rind swung out wide in a semicircle past my hips and my legs were encased in green tights sticking through the bottom of the rind. The red foam wedge of the costume climbed to a point above my head and my arms poked awkwardly through its sides while my face showed through a hole at the front.
It was an easy month-long gig - a series of short concerts across the city's primary schools to promote nutritious eating for the under-twelves. Funded by the Department of
Health, it paid well enough to keep my lecherous landlord off my back for a few months. And it didn't involve me taking my clothes off, as did so many of the other 'acting' jobs that I applied for and consequently refused. So of course I'd been thrilled when Barnaby had rung to tell me that I'd auditioned successfully.
I'd been cast in two roles in the show. Wearing a school uniform with my hair tied into two plaits, I had a starring role in the first half as a small girl who refused to eat her vegetables. One night in her sleep she was dragged away to VegieLand by a bossy, know-it- all carrot to personally meet and learn about the different vegetables. In the second half, I climbed into costume as the watermelon for an all-singing, all-dancing fruit salad extravaganza. Luckily for me it was an ensemble cast, because I don't have a good singing voice and was happy to let the melodious, but overloud, pineapple next to me sing for both of us.
Barnaby shrugged again. "Your little girl isn't so great either. Let's be honest - it's a hard role for you to pull off," he countered, deliberately lowering his gaze to sweep across my generous chest, mercifully hidden behind the bulky foam costume. I met his eyes at that comment, saw the spiteful gleam in them and suddenly understood what was happening. He had asked me out to dinner the previous day and I'd turned him down, finding him unattractive and dull. I was being punished.
He was a community liaison officer with the Department (whatever that meant) and was the concert organiser. He had the ponderous manner of a born bureaucrat and the smug certainty in life of someone who could count on receiving a regular pay cheque. Pompous and humourless, he was full of an undeserved self-belief in his great artistic managerial skills. In short, he was a complete tosser and I had taken an instant dislike to him that I had tried to hide. I was struggling to hide it right then.
I blinked my light brown eyes down at him, far taller than him even in my flat shoes, and relaxed my facial features into my sweetest expression. "Oh, but I really need the money.
Isn't there anything I can do to change your mind about letting me go?" I pouted at him, wondering momentarily how far I would go to keep a job.
"Well, now that you mention it," he smirked, placing his hand with caressing familiarity on my upper arm, running his fingers lightly up and down. "Perhaps I might be persuaded to reconsider. Why don't you slip out of that costume and we can . . . discuss . . . it further in the dressing room."
I knew then that I wouldn't go very far at all, because I couldn't repress the shudder of repulsion that rippled through my body at his touch. He obviously wouldn't change his mind about firing me if I didn't give him some sugar, but my sugar-bowl was empty. I prised his fingers free from my arm.
"If you touch me again the only fruit you'll be fondling today is your own bruised plums after I kick them," I said pleasantly, flashing him a brilliant smile and burning my bridges with him forever. I turned and walked backstage, my mind consumed with the sheer joyful thought of taking off the watermelon costume. I doubted it had ever been cleaned in its long life, redolent with the body odour of its many previous wearers. The incredible heat of the day had only added my own to the noxious casserole.
I reached around to unzip myself. No matter how hard I tried though, I only ended up struggling uselessly, twisting myself around back and forth trying to reach the zip. But it stubbornly remained in the centre of my back, totally unreachable from either side. Someone had always been around to unzip me after the other concerts, but because Barnaby had kept me late, the place was now deserted.
I heard footsteps behind me and spun to find that Barnaby had followed me backstage,
bad-tempered rejection oozing from his pores, mouth sulky with petulance.
"Can you unzip me, please?" I asked politely, showing the nice manners that my mother had taught me. Just because I thought he was a creepy pervert who'd been sickeningly turned on by my little schoolgirl role, didn't mean I shouldn't mind my Ps and Qs.
He grunted and stalked over to me, yanking ungently on the zip. He was responsible for the costumes, so his irritation with me wouldn't stop him from performing his duty as the brave protector of such important government-owned property. As if I wanted to steal an ancient, faded and stinky foam watermelon outfit anyway! I was equally amused and insulted at the thought. What on earth did he think I would do with it - wear it around town? I mean, how embarrassing would that be?
The yanking continued for what I judged to be an excessive amount of time with no resultant zipping noise signifying any success at bringing me closer to freedom from the costume.
"What's the matter? Why are you taking so long?" I snapped at him, suspicious that he was using the exercise as an excuse to get his hands on me again. I hoped he realised that I had meant it about kicking him in his plums. My foot was primed and raring to go.
"Your little thingy's broken," he said, frustration clear in his voice.
"I'll break your little thingy in a minute if you don't hurry up," I threatened, throwing away any pretence of being civilised with him. "It's frigging hot in this costume. And it reeks. I have to get out of it urgently."