Mina had tried everything: WeightWatchers, Conley, grapefruit, Atkins, hypnotherapy and pumping iron. When she decided, after three gruelling months, that the Stone Age diet was doing her more harm than good, she felt that she had hit rock bottom in the abyss of despair. She weighed sixteen stone five pounds, just six pounds less than the day she had embarked on the Stone Age with such steely determination. She had been desperate to give up for three weeks, but she had forced herself to hang on until the day of her annual appraisal. She had wanted to look her best - but she didn't have to look in the mirror to know that it had been a hopeless ambition.
"I couldn't even get down to sixteen stone," she complained - aloud, because one of the few advantages of living alone was that she could talk to herself without being thought mad. She had been taught at school to calculate in kilograms but she preferred stones because the numbers were smaller. She had no difficulty dealing with big numbers - working for the National Audit Commission kept her busy with lots of those - but they seemed far less intimidating in the multitudinous bank accounts of the public purse than they did on her hips and thighs. Counting in kilograms also made her think longingly of continental Europe, which she missed sorely now she couldn't bear to travel any more. She couldn't cope with aeroplane seats, let alone Mediterranean heat.
She felt that she couldn't cope with her appraisal either, but there was no way of avoiding that. What made matters worse was that she really ought to have had her line-manager's job herself, and probably would have if Lucy Stanwere hadn't had a figure like Paula Radcliffe as well as an obvious hunger for further success. The fact that Lucy was able to wear four-inch heels, allowing her to tower over those condemned by gravity to flat soles, might conceivably have been irrelevant to her rapid ascent of the status ladder, but Mina didn't think so.
"Well," Mina said to herself, "at least I can have a hearty breakfast, now that I've fallen off the Stone Age wagon." She gorged herself on Welsh rarebit and chocolate milk, reflecting painfully on the roles that anxiety and depression had played in her history of comfort eating.
Lucy Stanwere's office was incredibly neat. The cleaners made more effort there than they did in the open-plan, and Lucy's personal neatness radiated out from her size ten suit to bathe her entire environment with a kind of bloodless perfection. Simply being there made Mina feel even more like a rubbish-heap than usual; from the moment she stepped through the door her one aim was to escape as soon as possible, no matter how much criticism she had to absorb and acknowledge in order to do it.
She didn't dare to entertain the ambition that she might accomplish her escape without some slighting reference being made to her appearance, nor did she. The first thing Lucy said, after "Please sit down, Miss Mint," was "Are you unwell?" That, in health-fascist-ese, meant: "How can you even breathe when you're carrying so much excess baggage, you disgusting calorie-addict?"
"I've had a little tummy-trouble recently," Mina admitted, "but it's clearing up now."
"Coming off the Stone Age?" Lucy asked, in a tone that sounded almost sympathetic.
"Yes, actually," Mina admitted.
"I thought so," Lucy said. "The trouble with theories about the way evolution designed our digestive systems is that humans are so exceedingly adaptable. We grow up on grains and dairy products, and our bodies learn to love them. What separates humans from all the other animals is the ability to learn to love. Don't you agree?"
The chance would be a fine thing, Mina thought. Aloud, she said: "Yes, Miss Stanwere."
"It's Lucy. Look, Mina, I'll understand if you want to confine our discussion to the nerves and sinews of auditing practice and Gordon Brown's latest wrinkles, but there's a better way to lose weight, if you really want to. Perhaps it's time that you were let in on the secret."
Mina had long suspected that there must be a vast conspiracy of the fit and thin whose precious secrets were sternly withheld from people like her, but she had never expected to be admitted to its ranks. She said nothing.
"I know what you're thinking," Lucy Stanwere said, when the pause had passed from pregnant to eggbound. "How would I know? Well, I do." She took up her handbag.
Any normal person would have had to root about for at least thirty seconds to find what she wanted, but Lucy only required a moment to pluck the desired item from its innermost depths. She handed Mina a photograph.
Mina stared at the snapshot in frank disbelief. It wasn't so much the sixteen stone version of Lucy Stanwere that startled and appalled her so much as the expression the teenager was wearing: an expression of profound shame and terror of exposure that Mina had only ever seen at WeightWatchers or in a mirror.
When she looked up again, Mina saw her superior with entirely new eyes. "How?" she said, hoarsely.
Lucy's perfectly-manicured fingers dipped into the mysterious bag for a second time, and produced another slim item.
It was the size of a business-card but it was glossy and black. It bore an image of two magnificently athletic individuals dancing what appeared to be the tango, above the red-lettered inscription: THE AFTER DARK CLUB. The postcode attached to the address was suggestive of Mayfair.
"Meet me there at ten-thirty," Lucy said. "I'll tell the desk to expect you, and I'll take you in."
"A night club?" Mina said, aghast. "I can't go to a night club."
"Ten-thirty," Lucy Stanwere repeated, insistently. "Be on time."
Brian Stableford is a part-time Lecturer in Creative Writing at King Alfred's College Winchester. He lives in Reading with his wife Jane, a holistic therapist.
He has been a professional writer since 1965, publishing more than 50 novels and 200 short stories as well as various non-fiction books, thousands of articles for periodicals and reference-books, several volumes of translations from the French and a number of anthologies.
Brian's novels include three that feature vampires: The Empire of Fear (1988), Young Blood (1992) and The Hunger and Ecstasy of Vampires (1996). He recently completed a six-volume future history series comprising Inherit the Earth , Architects of Emortality , The Fountains of Youth , The Cassandra Complex , Dark Ararat and The Omega Expedition (1998-2002).
His translations from the French for the Black Coat Press include three classic 19th-century vampire novels by Paul Fe[a]val - The Vampire Countess, Knightshade and Vampire City.
Works by Brian currently scheduled for publication in 2004 include Kiss the Goat: A Twenty-first Century Ghost Story, Designer Genes: Tales of the Biotech Revolution, the sf novel Asgard's Secret, a Historical Dictionary of Science Fiction Literature and a volume of translations of stories by the Comte de Villiers de l'Isle Adam, Claire Lenoir and Other Stories. He is currently compiling a Historical Dictionary of Fantasy Literature for Scarecrow Press.
Brian's notes on the writing of the story follow on the next page.