Tom made his way through the fog. It wasn't real fog – at least, it hadn't been in recent years – but the cloying atmosphere in Stephan's office had never truly cleared after the ban. Prior to smoking being prohibited, you literally had to part the colloidal-imbued air to see your way to a chair. Now there was greater transparency, but no matter how often or how well the office was cleaned or decorated, it still felt the same. The smell of stale nicotine and whisky was immoveable and whether real or imagined, the smoke was still there.
A career journalist, Stephan Presley fulfilled every cliché associated with the industry. Now aged fifty, he frequently drank to excess and he'd been smoking sixty a day for over thirty-five years. More than three quarters of a million cigarettes in aggregate and his complexion and aroma bore testimony to it. Some years back, Stephan had tried to cost how much he'd spent on tobacco and alcohol in an effort to justify cutting his consumption down or out. His shock at the number of figures in front of the decimal point made him reach for a glass, and he didn't feel comfortable drinking without a fag in his hand. So the effect was minimal; a temporary, slight decrease in cigarette intake before resuming his normal levels.
When company regulations prohibited him from smoking in his office, he took to using the roof garden for breaks, but it was suspected he more often simply closed his door and opened the window to reduce the evidence of succumbing to his addiction. The smell wasn't too much of a giveaway, as the air was already contaminated by the noxious fumes diffusing from his skin and clothes.
It was rare for anyone to volunteer to visit Stephan's office, any guests he did have usually arrived as a result of a summons. But there was no doubting he was good at his job – very good, one of the most respected editors in the business. He had first class instincts and an excellent knack of sniffing out a good story, even if his nose was too damaged to detect his own odour.
Stephan's yellow-stained forefinger pointed to a chair and Tom reluctantly descended to perch on its edge, praying the fabric's smell wouldn't permeate his favourite Hilfiger chinos. Tom's attention had been focused on Stephan and he only spotted the attractive young lady on the adjacent chair at the last moment. His attention was immediately distracted by her curvaceous shape and his eyes were drawn to her shapely legs. She was wearing open-toed sandals. He saw with clarity that her toenails were brightly and perfectly varnished, confirming his suspicion that her legs were bare and the deeply tanned colour was her natural skin, not an illusion created by tights or stockings.
Tom's eyes lingered a moment too long, before letting his appraisal move northwards to take in her tight waist, shapely bosom and the flowing curls which framed a disarmingly pretty face.
“ 'Yes' is the answer to your question,” she said, staring pointedly at him.
Tom lifted an eyebrow. “Yes? What do you mean? I didn't ask anything.”
“Yes, it is an all-over tan and I'm only telling you because there's no other way you'd find out. And trust me; you didn't need to open your mouth to ask the question.” The girl's eyes were slate grey in colour, but alive with mirth which spread to the rest of her face. The sparkling whiteness of her perfect teeth lit up the otherwise dingy office.
“Www— No, it was only—” Tom stammered. The room's temperature seemed to be rising, heat radiating from his embarrassment.
“Don't bother trying to deny it, Tom. You've been caught red-handed; well, red-cheeked to be precise. Just accept it and move on. You're starting this game one-nil down.” The craggy, nicotine-stained teeth in Stephan's mouth formed a hideous smile, and although it was nowhere near as appealing as Sally's, it betrayed no less amusement.
Tom sank resignedly back into the chair, his eyes focused on the carpet. “Okay, what's this about?” he asked. He wanted to change the subject and try to regain some of his self-esteem.
“I suppose I'd better introduce you two first,” Stephan suggested. “Tom Bishop, this is Sally Ferguson and vice versa. You've probably already heard of each other. I'd be surprised if either of you weren't aware of the other's by-line.”
This time, Tom was careful to keep has gaze above shoulder height and he wasn't disappointed. Sally's face was still aflame with cheerful amusement. Her smooth, even complexion was tanned to the same shade as her legs and complemented by the lightest application of cosmetics, which showed her almond-shaped eyes and full mouth to their best effect.
By contrast, Sally seized the opportunity to take a long, appraising look at Tom, studying his clean-cut image and powerful form, and the cropped, sandy hair topping his slim, angular face. “You don't scrub up too badly, a lot better than the photo on your column. You appear younger, too. What are you, thirty? Thirty-two perhaps?”
Tom was taken aback by her bluntness, but quickly reassessed his reaction. After all, what could he expect from a fellow journalist? He couldn't remember ever being attracted to someone in his profession before. “You don't look so bad yourself and I'm thirty-four actually, so thanks for the compliment. Maybe I'm not wearing as badly as I'd thought – but more likely, you're in need of seeing an optician.”
“Isn't that a contradiction of terms? If I couldn't see clearly, I wouldn't be able to see an optician.”
Stephan cut in. “Okay, children, enough of the word games. Let's get down to business.” He sank into his chair and picked up a pencil, holding it between his fingers and sucking on it as if it was a surrogate cigarette. “I can see I'm going to have my work cut out, trying to control you two. As if Tom hasn't been a big enough pain in the ass for the past five years, now I've got both of you to deal with.” He eyed them for a moment. “Sally, I'm sure you already know Tom's been our lead features writer at the London office for some time now. Tom, I know you'll have heard of Sally, but you might not know she took over the lead in Sydney a few months back.”
Tom stared at Sally. “So the tan's real then, and I know you're not meant to ask a lady's age – but as you don't qualify, I'll ask anyway.”
Sally shrugged. “Cheap shot. I'd expected better than that, but I've got nothing to hide. I'll turn thirty-one next-week and to save you asking the other questions; I'm single, heterosexual and no, I don't want to go out with you for a drink, dinner and certainly not breakfast.”
“That's two-nil, I reckon,” Stephan broke in.
“Oh, and my IQ's one hundred and seventy, so don't be misled by the blonde curls.”
“Bloody hell! One-seventy – that's more than Carol Vordeman or Rachel Riley,” Tom announced.
“That's more than Einstein, but thanks for confirming you keep the few brains you do have in your pants.”