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At just before eight o’clock, on a chill November morning, Henry Shepard sat in his cubicle at OFS Software and opened his laptop. The large open plan office was empty, with the rest of the thirty-strong workforce not due to start trickling in for another hour. The only other employee in the building at that time was the doorman, George Hobbs, friend and confidant, who had just presented Henry with a cup of decaf roast and an apple bran muffin which he’d acquired from Starbucks downstairs. George knew the reason why Henry was in early this morning - he needed time to mentally prepare himself for a meeting with the company vice-president, Kristin Hartman.
As Henry peeled the plastic lid from his coffee, he noticed that his hands were shaking. Once again, he tried to convince himself that there was no need to worry. He was still a valued member of the sales team and he had been at the company far longer than the relatively inexperienced vice president. Indeed, Henry had taught her most of what she knew about the company. Even so, no matter how hard he tried to rationalize it, the simple fact remained that he was apprehensive about this meeting - because he had a gut feeling that today he was going to be fired.
How different things had been a year ago. Henry had been the top sales executive in the small, but upwardly-mobile company, and the CEO, Brian Waterman, was paving the way for Henry to step up as his number two.
But all that began to change the day Kristin Hartman arrived. Henry should have smelled trouble the day they were introduced in Brian’s office. He had already been informed that he would be working closely with this new hot-shot sales kid who had recently come over from one of their competitors. What he hadn’t been prepared for was the fact that his new colleague was not only female, but also an absolute knockout. He vividly recalled the moment when they first shook hands and he was instantly struck by her poise and bearing. Even though she was dressed in a conservative business suit, it was clear that the young lady had a body to die for. Her skin was pale and flawless, and her hazel, almond-shaped eyes were the most captivating Henry had ever seen. His first reaction had been that things were looking up. How wrong could he have been?
Over the following months, Henry had guided Kristin through the inner-workings of the company. He’d reveled in the envious looks he was receiving from the other male employees as he went about his day accompanied by this voluptuous and well-heeled brunette. Certainly, Henry had initially entertained ideas of developing their relationship further. Who wouldn’t have under those circumstances?
But Kristin had established the ground rules quickly. Through her polished manner, she had quickly made it clear that their association would remain strictly professional. Admittedly disappointed, Henry was both old enough and realistic enough to understand that the girl was way out of his league.
Apart from that side of things, Kristin proved to be bright and inquisitive. So much so, that after a few weeks, a little alarm bell had started ringing in Henry’s head. Since joining OFS some four years earlier, he had been unrivalled in the sales and marketing department. Now he realized that he might have some serious competition here.
With the recession in full swing and clients everywhere tightening their belts, Henry’s own figures had taken a bit of a downturn. He was not unduly concerned because situations like this, he knew, were cyclical by nature. But just over a year ago, three things had occurred which Henry had had no control over, and from which he had never recovered.
The first, which he observed to his dismay but not complete surprise, was the way Kristin used her considerable charms to influence the decisions of Brian Waterman. He was not the only one to notice, and in fact everybody could see what was going on. After her initial induction period, Kristin swiftly began to disassociate herself from the rest of the sales team. She spent more and more time in Brian’s office and soon barely even acknowledged Henry - which he found both insulting and embarrassing.
Tongues started to wag, although nobody suggested that anything untoward was going on. Brian Waterman was after all, nearly forty years Kristin’s senior, a happily married man, and a professional. But - as was often discussed during staff coffee breaks - any red-blooded male, when subjected to the proximity of such a well-proportioned woman, would be happy to receive her attentions, if only on a platonic basis.
Then, as a portent of things to come, Kristin asked for, and received, her own office next door to Brian’s. Henry was devastated and the rest of the employees were shocked. Could it be that after all his years of good service, Brian was going to pass him over?
In a state of gloom, Henry had briefly pondered tendering his resignation, but there were two things that stopped him. First, he was making a decent salary at OFS and he was pretty much allowed to dictate his own working conditions. The second reason was much more basic - fear. In this game, being head-hunted by a competitor was one thing, but if he actually started offering his services elsewhere, how would he be received? This was a highly competitive and secretive business sector and it was also a very small world. Word got around quickly and reputation was everything. How would he explain his reasons for leaving? That he was jealous of a fellow employee’s success?
So, still smarting from how unfairly he felt he had been treated, Henry decided to sit tight. There was still after all, the issue of the upcoming vice-presidential position to consider.
That’s when the third thing happened.
Motoko Heavy Industries, a giant Japanese conglomerate, was in the market for a new financial software package. The potential earnings from this contract were enormous and all the big Silicon Valley players were competing. Although OFS had a program that was suitable, Brian was of the opinion that the company was not big enough to take on such an undertaking, and Henry was inclined to agree.
Kristin however, had other ideas. Without authorization, she approached Motoko with a sales package promising a far more advanced system than OFS could offer. When she’d first told Brian what she had done, he’d been shocked and surprised at her recklessness. Henry, on the other hand, was secretly delighted. It looked like the arrogant bitch had finally overstepped the mark. There was no way she could deliver.
But what unfolded next was cloaked in mystery. The research and development department suddenly became mysteriously off-limits to all but a select few. When he attempted to see his programmer friend, Miles Bishop, Henry discovered that his pass card no longer gave him access.
When he queried Brian about it, he was fobbed off with some vague explanation about ‘sensitive work on a new application’ and promised that he would be fully briefed ‘when the time was right.’
Henry even tried to pick Miles’ brain over an after-work beer, but the shy and retiring young programmer was even more reticent than usual. Henry sensed that something was not quite right.
Eventually, a few days before Christmas, the news broke. Brian decided to use the occasion of the Christmas party to announce the good news - OFS had won the Motoko package! They were moving into the big-time. There would be a healthy bonus for everyone and they all had Kristin Hartman to thank for it. While everybody was celebrating and congratulating Kristin, Brian had buttonholed Henry in his office.
“I wanted you to know before I made the announcement, Henry. I’m making Kristin vice-president.”
Deep down, he knew he should have guessed it was coming but Henry was shell-shocked nonetheless.
“What she’s pulled off,” Brian had continued, “is beyond anything this company has ever achieved. If I don’t reward her for this, I’d be a fool.”
Henry could only nod dumbly.
“Of course,” Brian had added, “you’ll be getting a handsome salary increase. I do hope you’ll support my decision.”
By the New Year, Henry had grudgingly accepted the situation. OFS, now cash-rich, were taking on extra staff while other companies were laying theirs off. With Kristin now working closely with Brian full-time, Henry tried to suppress his resentment.
The girl had class, he had to admit that. She was always dressed in smart suits, but she was never dull. In fact, she had an innate knack of being able to project her sexuality without overdoing it. She wore heels, though not too high, and her skirts were always just above the knee, enough to provide a glimpse of her shapely legs. Likewise, her blouses were always buttoned respectably but were well-fitting enough to accentuate her narrow waist and ample chest.
As Roger Levine, the project manager, once observed, “She knows what she’s doing. You can look, but you can’t touch.”
The year wore on, and the recession bit deeper. After the initial mood of optimism, sales started to dry up. A couple of competitors closed down, but OFS were in a position to ride it out thanks to Kristin’s sales coup. However, with no new business on the horizon, the pressure was starting to build. Both the research and development and programming teams were still being kept busy maintaining the Motoko software, but the sales department had virtually ground to a halt.
It was about then, in the early summer, that people started to notice a shift in Kristin’s demeanor. She had always been somewhat aloof, but now that she was settled into her vice-president’s role, she had started to become downright bossy. Her attitude to the rank and file employees quickly deteriorated from one of disinterest to zero tolerance. Nothing it seemed was good enough for her any more.
She became snappy and started chewing out staff members in public. In particular, she seemed to take great pleasure in belittling George the doorman, who was an amiable old guy, simply counting down towards his retirement.
One time, George had remarked, “If it wasn’t for my pension, I’d give her ass a good spanking.”
“And that is one sweet ass to spank,” Henry had replied.
The upbeat atmosphere in which the year had begun, had all but evaporated. To make things worse, Brian was spending more and more time ensconced in his office and appeared to be leaving the day-to-day running of the company to Kristin. As she became increasingly demanding and inflexible, the working environment grew tense and uneasy. People talked about leaving, but in the current economic climate, there was really nowhere else to go.
In September, Kristin finally went a step too far when she fired a junior clerk for returning five minutes late from her lunch break. As the company’s longest-serving employee, Henry was asked to approach Brian.
“It’s starting to seriously affect moral,” Henry had explained. “If there were other jobs available, I think we would have already lost quite a few key members of staff.”
Brian had nodded thoughtfully.
“I realize that Kristin can be somewhat domineering,” he’d replied. “But you have to understand that she is under a lot of pressure right now. We can’t continue living off the Motoko contract forever. In fact, I’ve been talking with our accountants and we’re going to have to start cutting costs if we don’t land some new deals pretty soon.”
“I understand that,” Henry had replied. “But everybody is feeling the strain and this cloud of gloom that Kristin has created is just not helping. Can’t you ask her to let up a little?”
“Very well, I’ll speak to her. I know that Kristin’s not your favorite person, Henry. But please remember that if it weren’t for her, we’d probably be out of business right now.”
Henry had come away from that meeting wondering just how much influence Brian retained over his dictatorial young sidekick. However, Brian did have a chat with Kristin, and to the relief of the rest of the OFS workforce, she did indeed wind her neck in. Other staff members expressed their gratitude to Henry, which helped raised his self-esteem to its highest level for a very long time.
Although it wasn’t exactly sweetness and light, at least a certain stability had descended upon the office. Kristin’s general behavior had switched from vocal and aggressive, back to cool and distant - except where Henry was concerned. Now she blanked him completely. Even necessary communications were effected by e-mail or through a third party. Henry found this both childish and a little disconcerting. Brian surely wouldn’t have mentioned Henry’s name but somehow Kristin must have figured out that he was the one who had complained about her. Ordinarily he would have found her reaction slightly amusing but he was still very much aware that as the vice-president, she was technically his boss.
Fall gave way to winter and still the market remained stagnant. Finally, Brian’s warning about cost-cuts came to fruition. At a staff meeting, he announced that the accountants had informed him that to ensure the company’s survival, the payroll needed to be trimmed by a third. Then came the bombshell. Brian went on to inform them that redundancies would be implemented on a case-by-case basis and that Kristin would be overseeing the staff reductions. While they were receiving this worrying news, Henry had caught Kristin’s eye but instead of ignoring him as usual, she had held his gaze and, Henry was almost certain, smiled at him.
That had been two weeks ago. Since then, one by one, various employees had received ominous-looking e-mails from Kristin summoning them to her office for ‘meetings’. And one-by-one, they had packed up their belongings and vacated the premises. As the days ticked by, Henry had held his breath. He wondered if he had misjudged her and maybe she wasn’t the sort to hold a grudge.
But then yesterday, the dreaded e-mail had arrived, requesting his presence in Kristin’s office the following morning at nine-thirty.
Kristin Hartman was in high spirits as she turned her brand new red Mitsubishi Outlander into the underground car park. She hadn’t felt this good since her promotion and the reason was that today she was finally going to remove an annoying thorn from her side.
When Brian had given her the task of pruning the staff roster, her first instinct had been to put Henry Shepard on top of the list, just to make a point. Although Brian hadn’t told her as much, using a few subtle threats, she had learned that Henry was the one who had complained about her. She’d figured it was him anyway. The awful little man had been harboring a grudge ever since she’d been made vice-president.
She thought back to those tedious first weeks at OFS, when she’d had to endure sitting next to him in the conference room, hour after hour, as he explained his boring and unnecessarily complicated sales systems. The only thing she had been interested in of course, was ABACUS, the company’s newest proprietary financial software, but she couldn’t have told anyone that back then.
So she’d gone through the motions, feigning enthusiasm and trying not to gag at the smell of his cheap aftershave and pretending not to notice whenever his thigh ‘accidentally’ rubbed up against hers. If she hadn’t been so repelled by the man, she would have found it funny that he’d actually believed he stood a chance with her. Once, he’d even suggested that they continue their work over lunch - at O’Rourke’s Pub of all places!
At least he’d backed off after she’d put him in his place and then, once her plan had come to fruition, she’d had no need for him anyway. But even after she had moved into her office, she had never quite been able to put him out of her mind. He was like an itch she couldn’t scratch and she couldn’t figure out why. With the exception of Brian, whom for now, she needed to work on continuously, she had absolutely no interest in any of the company employees. She knew all the men wanted to have sex with her. There was nothing unusual about that because most men did, and she could handle their attention easily. But there was something vexing about the way his eyes bored into her whenever she walked past.
Kristin was well skilled in the art of handling men of all ages. She knew how to get them to do exactly what she wanted. It was simple really. Men were basically animals, always thinking with their dicks, and she’d learned at a young age that she had what they wanted.
So, after beating Shepard to the vice-president’s job, she would ordinarily have dismissed him from her mind. But for some reason, he still niggled her. She had hoped he might have quit after he was passed over, but no, there he was in his little cubicle, refusing to go away. Despite the completeness of her victory, Kristin had to admit that she still regarded him as a competitor. Not that he was ever likely to threaten her position again as she had poor old Brian wrapped tightly around her finger.
Nonetheless, she wanted Shepard out of the frame. It’s just business, she told herself as she studied her face in the rearview mirror and applied a little more lipstick. Actually, that’s not entirely true. I just plain don’t like the man.
She got out of the car and took the stairs up to the lobby. It was ten after nine. In twenty minutes Shepard would be sitting in her office, sweating nervously as she discussed his future, and not even realizing that she had already decided his fate.
Kristin was pleased with the way she had engineered this. She’d needed to be clever about it because Brian still regarded Shepard very highly, and if she was honest, that was another reason why she resented him. So instead of simply letting Shepard go, she had consulted Brian about it first, and it had proved to be a wise thing to do.
Brian was, as she had anticipated, strongly against it at first, explaining that Shepard had been at OFS almost from the start. It had taken several private meetings, in which Kristin had been forced to use all her persuasive powers before she’d been able to wear Brian down. The numbers were conclusive, she’d argued. Shepard’s sales figures for the past year had been appalling. Brian had been forced to agree with that, but he’d also suggested that Shepard’s disappointment at not being promoted might have been a contributing factor, and of course the economic downturn had affected everyone’s results.
Finally however, when Kristin had even hinted that it might come down to making a choice between her and Shepard, Brian had reluctantly capitulated. He had wanted to break the news to Shepard himself, but Kristin had even managed to convince him that it would look better to the others if she did it herself. Poor Brian, she thought. He was so easy.
Kristin stepped into the lobby and caught sight of herself in the mirrored wall. As a final act of mischief - in order to make Shepard’s departure that much more painful - she had dressed for the part. Today she had chosen a sea-blue cotton blouse, under which her black lace push-up bra was clearly visible. She had left the top three buttons undone and had tucked it tightly into the waistband of her dark gray pencil skirt. Ordinarily on such a cold day, she would have worn thick tights, but today her shapely legs were encased in black nylon stockings and accentuated by the four inch red stiletto pumps on her feet. She’d gone a little heavier on the make-up than usual, and instead of her usual pony-tail, her hair hung loose over her shoulders.
She turned and appraised her profile. Yes, she thought, that will get some heads turning. Here you are Henry Shepard. Take a good hard look at what you’re never going to have.
Kristin was so absorbed with her image in the mirror that it was a few seconds before she noticed George the doorman, gawping at her from behind his desk. She couldn’t resist a smirk as she approached him. His face was an absolute picture.
“Good morning, Miss Hartman,” George said, standing up.
Kristin didn’t return the greeting. She noticed that George’s eyes kept involuntarily flickering down towards her chest.
“George,” she said. “Would you order two espressos and have them sent up to my office?”
She saw a brief look of indignation cross his face. He was a proud man, and old enough to be her grandfather. “Of course, Miss Hartman.”
Without responding, Kristin turned, pushed through the glass doors of the OFS offices and crossed the thickly carpeted reception area. In the mirrors she could see George was still ogling her ass. Already, she could tell that this was going to be an enjoyable day.
Barely acknowledging the greeting from Angela the receptionist, she strode through the research and development department, relishing the interested looks she was receiving from the staff.
She went into her office, sat behind her desk and took her laptop out of her briefcase. She had just started checking her e-mails when her cell phone rang.
It was Charles Hayden-Reed, an attorney whom she had just started seeing.
“I miss you,” he said, by way of a greeting.
“Already?” Kristin smiled. “We only saw each other last night.”
“I couldn’t sleep, thinking about you.”
“Dinner was lovely. Thank you.”
“We should do it again.”
“That would be nice.”
“How about lunch?”
“Of course, today.”
“My, aren’t we keen?”
“I feel like a silly teenager. I can’t concentrate on anything.”
“I have a busy schedule today. How about dinner on Friday?”
“You’re killing me.”
“We could try Danielle’s? I can meet you there. Say, seven?”
“I have to meet a client, but I can drop the case.”
“Stop being an idiot.”
“Danielle’s then, on Friday. I’ll book the table.”
“I’ll see you there.”
“I think I’m in love,” Charles said, and rang off before Kristin could think of an answer. She looked at her phone for a few seconds, shook her head with amusement, and then returned her attention to her e-mails.
She ran down the list, opening the important ones, leaving the others for later. Then, with a jolt, she stopped as one of the messages almost jumped off the screen at her. It was from somebody she hadn’t heard from in a long while.
Excitedly, she clicked on the message and read, ‘Am back in circulation and ready to do business again. I have acquired some more potentially lucrative information. If you are interested, contact me via the usual procedure. Clouseau.’
Kristin closed the e-mail and immediately deleted it. Clouseau was back! And what perfect timing! If this new information was anywhere near as a big as VIRGO had been, the company would once again be back on track, and Kristin would again be the savior. There was a knock on the door and Angela came in with the coffee. In a patronizing kind of way, Kristin had a little soft spot for the prim, smart redhead who was the epitome of efficiency.
“Put it over there, Angela,” Kristin said.
Angela placed the tray on a low coffee table in the corner of the office and Kristin went over and arranged herself in one of the armchairs.
The receptionist regarded her a moment, and then said, “If I may say so, you’re looking quite ‘different’ today, Miss Hartman.”
“Really?” said Kristin. “How so?”
“What’s the word? Glamorous, I should think.”
“And does it suit me?”
“Very much so,” Angela replied. “I’ve always believed that a woman with your looks should use them to her best advantage.”
Kristin couldn’t help but laugh.
“You surprise me,” she said. “I’d always regarded you as something of a feminist.”
“Oh, I am in many respects. But it doesn’t do any harm to utilize your assets in this business.”
Angela was one of the few people in the company who would have dared to speak to Kristin so candidly, but her manner suggested that she was being sincere.
“Well, I’ll take that as a compliment,” Kristin chuckled.
There was another knock on the door and Angela let Henry Shepard into the room. Kristin spotted a brief expression of sympathy pass across Angela’s face as she greeted Shepard before leaving them alone.
Kristin gestured to the vacant armchair and said, “Please take a seat, Henry.”
She crossed her legs allowing her skirt to ride slightly up her thighs.
Shepard hesitated before seating himself opposite her. He didn’t look too well. There were bags under his bloodshot eyes and he seemed tired. She thought back to a year ago when they had last been in such close proximity. Back then he had been full of enthusiasm and vigor, probably because he had harbored grand ideas of fucking the new girl. Well, things have most definitely changed, she thought. And you’re the one, Mister Shepard, who is going to be well and truly fucked.
Kristin offered Shepard a coffee, and then got down to business.
“As you know, as part of the company’s new austerity measures, I’ve been assigned to appraise each staff member’s performance to determine if their continued employment will be of benefit to the company.”
Shepard nodded, keeping close eye contact with her. He seemed afraid to let his eyes wander over the rest of her body.
“When I reached your file, I was surprised,” Kristin lied. “A red flag came up and as I am sure you are aware, your sales figures are well below expectations.”
Shepard didn’t reply.
Kristin said, “In fact, you’ve been underperforming for most of the year. I can understand short-term dips, especially during a recession, but other members of the sales team are at least achieving modest results.”
Still Shepard remained silent. His face had reddened slightly, and Kristin couldn’t determine whether it was through embarrassment or anger.
“Well, the purpose of this appraisement,” Kristin continued, “is to give you an opportunity to give your side of the picture. Perhaps there are some mitigating circumstances that you would like me to consider.”
Shepard’s eyes finally dropped fleetingly to her breasts.
He drew a breath and said, “I’m not arguing that my figures have been below par this year. What I would ask of you, taking into consideration my prior record, is to allow me some time to turn this around. I think the company owes me that.”
This is beautiful! Kristin thought. He’s virtually crawling!
“Well, Henry,” she replied. “That wasn’t the kind of answer I was expecting. You’re supposed to be giving me a reason to keep you on. I need something concrete. Do you have any leads?”
Shepard paused. “Possibly.”
“What does that mean?”
“Well, nothing solid.”
“That’s it? You know, some of your colleagues have come up with a lot more than that. Why should I give you preferential treatment?”
Shepard suddenly appeared to be having trouble keeping his composure.
“Preferential treatment?” he blurted. “Come on Kristin, we both know you’ve had it in for me ever since you got promoted. You’re angry because I spoke to Brian about you.”
Now it was Kristin’s turn to flush.
“I hope you’re not suggesting that I have some kind of personal motivation in making these decisions?”
“I think,” said Shepard, “that you’ve already made your decision.”
“You’re certainly not helping your cause by taking that approach.”
Shepard leaned forward and for one alarming moment Kristin thought he was going to lunge at her.
“Tell me honestly, Kristin,” he said, “that getting rid of me hasn’t been on your agenda the whole time. Yes, I’ve had a bad year, but my track record is well established. Brian knows that.”
“Brian and I have already spoken about this and he has left the final decision with me.”
That stopped him and Kristin knew she had calculated correctly. Shepard had always believed that ultimately he could count on Brian’s support.
Shepard asked, “How did you do it? How did you get to him?”
Kristin smiled. There was no need for any pretense now. “The same way I got to you when I first came here. Men are so predictable.”
Shepard nodded slowly, now openly scrutinizing the shapely curves of her legs and causing her to involuntarily tug her skirt down.
“There’s something else I’m curious about,” he said. “How did you swing the Motoko deal? We all knew that ABACUS wasn’t advanced enough for a company of that size.”
His quick change of tack caught her off guard and if Kristin had ever held the slightest doubts before, she was now absolutely certain that Henry Shepard had to go. “That, as you know, is proprietary information,” she said stiffly.
Shepard pondered that for a minute, his eyes still roaming over her body. It looked to Kristin, as if he had already accepted his fate.
“I think you’re power-crazed,” he said finally. “You use your looks to get what you want and you’re obsessed with winning, no matter what. You’re a control freak who needs everybody to do exactly what you want them to.”
“I might remind you that you are talking to the vice-president of the company, Mister Shepard,” Kristin said.
Shepard stood up abruptly, causing Kristin to instinctively lean back into her chair.
“Let’s cut the bullshit,” he said, looming over her. “Are you letting me go?”
“I think,” Kristin replied curtly, “that you’ve just answered that yourself.”