My name is Vic. Am I a man or a woman? It does not matter. I am a poor example of both. At least, it had not mattered until Devlin Knightsbridge happened. Devlin, the paragon. Devlin, the lion of masculinity. How I hated that man.
Like some dark thread on my pathetic soul, I felt him enter our bland, whitewashed office. The whole air charged and heated, and the office darkened into some kind of salacious jungle. Ugh. Two hundred years ago women would have swooned in his mere presence. Then again, two hundred years ago his presence would have been announced before he entered any room.
'Ah Sally, you look especially radiant today,' he said smoothly to our ancient receptionist in his deep, manly voice. It rumbled through the office like a faint suggestion from a dark hypnotist. 'Must you keep breaking my heart each day by refusing to marry me.'
I forbade myself to look up from the newspaper I was reading. It was hard. My fingers crumpled its pages. There was something important in those pages... something about the Australian drought, which would impact the wheat price if it continued for another two weeks. But all I saw in my mind's eye was Devlin's dazzling, white-toothed smile, melting the poor woman's shrivelled and bitter insides.
Our indomitable, never-smiling receptionist giggled. 'Oh, Devlin, be off with you and your nonsense. Mr Ruttman wants to see you as soon as you arrive.'
He sighed. 'I live in hope you will take pity on my heart one day, my fair Sally.'
He sauntered through our cosy office of grey cubicles. I could feel his masculinity precede him, sucking the air out of the room. Oh hell. Once again, he took the path that would lead him past my desk.
Don't look up, don't look up. My treacherous eyes lifted up from the newspaper I was blindly staring at to watch him approach Paul Ellis' desk.
Devlin Knightsbridge was fairytale handsome; strong jaw, black hair, icy- blue eyes, and hot gaze. He oozed masculinity into our small office space, and took up more room than any human should be allowed to take, not only with his size, but with that prowl of his. How does a city man develop a walk like that? I imagined him practising in front of a mirror, and almost laughed. Almost. I did not like to laugh. Not unless I had imbibed enough alcohol to not care if my laugh came out like a confused bark. I had an ugly laugh.
'Hey Devlin, great game last night, hey? Seems you were right to bet against the reds.' That was little Paul Ellis trying to be chummy with the lion himself. Poor, misguided sod. If he was a dog, his tongue would be lolling, his tail wagging. He'll chew you up and spit you out, you poor fool.
Devlin had that effect. Either men made fools of themselves seeking his approval, or hid in their cubicles from his notice.
Devlin smiled at him, dashing and charming, with damned dimples in his cheeks. 'It sure was, Paul. Next time perhaps we could watch it together at the River and Dead Trout.'
'Well, if you want to watch it with us, I might be able to get some extra tickets from my brother,' Paul panted, and I thought he would swoon. 'That is, if you want to come with us to the next game.' Was he pleading now?
'I'd love that, Paul. I'd love that.' Devlin winked at him, then patted him on the back and strolled onwards... towards our cubicle.
Don't look at him, don't look at him, I shouted inside my mind. But his ridiculous feline prowl hypnotised my gaze. It was magnetic, enhanced by his perfectly tailored suit, with its crisp lines and a metallic sheen in the grey fabric. His shining black boots were tipped with gold. What else, of course? It was probably real gold too. Ugh. For pity's sake.
Look away now! A small voice inside me screamed and waved its hands to catch my attention. Too late. He caught me staring and winked.
I dropped my eyes, back to the article I was reading. Oh, yes, there it was... drought in Australia, rivers running dry, crops failing, a plague of locusts... and fires... hot burning fires... three shark attacks, five lethal snake bites... oh, and flooding, washing away homes in the tropical north of the country, where wheat did not grow. I mentally crossed off Australia as a refuge to run to if I was ever pursued by the law.
A shadow fell on me, blocking out the fluorescent light that brightened my office days, come winter or summer, night or day. Devlin was tall. Taller than any man I had ever met. He was of that ridiculously awkward height where if he sat in a normal human chair, his knees would be higher than his stomach.
He leant his hip on my desk.
I refused to look up.
'Victor-Victoria,' he said suavely.
I recalled the first time I had met him, a week ago, when Mr Ruttman had introduced us. 'Here is our new promising wheat trader Vic Rash.'
Devlin had looked me up and down, and his smile spread slowly on his face. 'Vic? And would that be Victor or Victoria?'
My face had heated. I don't know why. It was an old joke I had suffered since school. It had never bothered me before.
'Just Vic,' I had mumbled in reply, trying not to trip over my own tongue.
I wondered whether he knew which one it was. I flattered myself by thinking he knew and was tormenting me, rather than being baffled like the rest of them. Men like him knew. They knew women from men. He could probably sniff us out with that perfect nose of his. It had just enough freckles to suggest he spent many days outdoors, no doubt in some manly pursuits.
'It's just Vic,' I mumbled now. I wanted to shrink away, but he would probably just laugh, and revel in that sense of power that men like him get when others cower before them.
'Sure you are,' he said smoothly. His smile was knowing. 'Did you watch the game last night?'
'No. Didn't watch it. Go away. Ahem. I mean, I have work to do.'
He did not go away. He nodded at my screen with its pitiful chart of flatline trading conditions. The wheat price was like that. It just stayed there for days and days. 'So, how's the wheat portfolio growing, Victoria?'
Very funny, arse.
'Heard there is drought in the new country,' he continued. 'Price is likely to go up in a few weeks if the Russian winter is as cold as they are predicting. And watch out for the Chinese Agriculture Minister's announcement tomorrow morning at half nine. Likely you will get a nice juicy price spike with it.'
'Thanks for the tip,' I said, feeling anything but grateful. He thought he knew everything there was about trading. He was probably right to think so, too.
'Sure. You settling in alright, Victor? Our office is not too snug for you?'
'It's been a week since I started. I'm settled. Thanks for asking. Now I'd best get back to work.'
'You do that, hey Victoria. Heard you got another client yesterday. Keep up the good work.' He winked again, and moved onwards through the jungle of grey cubicles, deliberately crossing paths with Lucy Valentine.
She was the lioness to his lion. She was everything female. Her dress was flowery, her figure curving, her breasts a generous handful, her hair long, and golden, her nails perfectly manicured and painted pale pink. Hell, she was even startlingly beautiful. She was everything Mr John Ruttman, my rather outdated boss, expected a woman to be. I avoided her as much as I could. Her talk was about fashion and gossip. I wondered how she had managed to land a lucrative copper trading job, especially since she had started at the firm as a secretary.
She was looking down at the stack of papers she was carrying from the printer room.
Devlin moved to block her path. 'So sorry, Lucy, m'dear.' He grabbed her elbow with one hand and steadied the papers she nearly dropped with his other. 'Did not watch where I was going.'
'It's alright, neither was I,' she said lightly, and laughed in that pretty, feminine way that set my teeth on edge but made Devlin grin like a fool. 'I am a bit distracted after the game last night,' she continued, beaming at him. 'I bet against the reds, and made a small fortune.'
'Ah yes, you saw it too?'
'I would never miss a game,' she said with slight affront.
His gaze flicked back to me, as if to say, 'See, even she watches it'. I turned pink. Everyone in the office watched 'the game'. I was not into sports. They bored me into stupidity.
'Smooth as a snake,' Fred whispered behind me. 'I reckon they watched it together last night... in his bed, if you know what I mean.'
'Who?' I asked, pretending I was not watching the handsome Devlin and beautiful Lucy in their daily flirtations.
Fred occupied the other desk of our tiny cubicle, and as he leaned back to whisper, our chairs collided. 'The lion of masculinity, of course.' He jerked his head towards Lucy and Devlin. 'Reckon there's something between them.'
Fred Mason was one of those shy, slight men whom most people overlooked. There were days when I did not even notice him come in and take the seat behind me, until he spoke, startling me. The man should wear a bell. He was probably better suited to espionage than market trading.
Then again, I might have been overlooked as well, but for the conundrum that my appearance presented. Many could not decide whether I was a man or a woman. Some thought I was transgender, but going from what to what? Like some optical illusions, I could be either, depending on the light, their mood, whether they preferred slightly butch women or effeminate men. Some even squinted when they looked at me, as if trying to blur my edges. Fred was one of those who did not. I suspected he was one of the few who knew for certain, or at least guessed correctly. It was fifty-fifty after all.
'Most likely,' I said with a pang of irritation. 'He is handsome. She is beautiful. Man. Woman. So yes, they probably shag in the bathroom every lunch.'
He chuckled. 'You reckon? You know, you have a way with words... when you choose to, that is.'
It was not a choice. I would get locked up, and words would either be a jumbled mess or locked away completely. It was a wonder I had survived my job interview with Mr Ruttman two weeks ago. I was awkward, stuttering in my replies, my hand was clammy when he shook it. In spite of all that, he gave me a job, telling me I reminded him of his son when he was a young lad. All shy and awkward.
Alcohol untied my tongue. Once, after four failed job interviews, I downed a shot of whisky before yet another one with a major trading firm. I simply wanted to be able to speak fluently, confidently. I wanted to come across as eloquent, which I knew I could be, once my irrational fear of strangers passed. Their first question had been, 'Do you always drink before nine in the morning?' It had been the briefest interview of my life.
Fred leant back to watch the lion and the lioness sniff and circle each other. 'It's a modern world. 'Man, woman', means little these days where sneak shags are concerned, hey Vic?'
Oh hell, there he went again, probing. It was the next question people always wondered about me, once they had decided on my gender. Which way did I swing in bed? Lacking both sufficient traditional masculinity and femininity, did I prefer one or the other, or did I seek a gender neutral like myself? I had pondered those questions myself as an adolescent. I had talked them to death with my best friend Li. Then decided it did not matter. I liked what I liked when I saw it.
'If you say so,' I said, not meeting his eyes as they regarded me with speculation. I was used to being thought a freak. It rarely stung anymore. Fred was alright, otherwise. If I had to name a friend in the office, Fred would be the one I'd name.
'Devlin, my boy!' Mr Ruttman stuck his head through his door. 'Did Sally not pass on my message? I want a word, if you don't mind.'
'I was just on my way to see you, Mr Ruttman,' Devlin replied.
Liar. You were just looking down Lucy's cleavage. Well, he might have been, if Lucy had actually had some showing. At the moment, it was hidden behind her pink cardigan.
'I want your take on the unexpected gold spike we had this morning,' Mr Ruttman said. 'And Sarah Bern from Spot Market Analyst wants another interview.'
Devlin was Mr Ruttman's golden boy in every way. He traded gold, whilst I traded grass. His markets encompassed political and economic spheres, wars and conflict. He had to sieve through countless pieces of information and news each day to combine them into a likely price trend in gold futures, whilst I merely had to keep an eye on global weather. And he was excellent at what he did. Before him, Ruttman and Son had been on the verge of ruin, making losses after losses. Devlin had single-handedly changed all that with his unnatural Midas touch. All his predictions came uncannily true. He handled the largest account in the firm, with over a thousand clients. Each of whom he knew by name. He even appeared as the expert on gold trends on national TV in the popular Spot Market Analyst show.
Devlin put his arm around the portly man's shoulders. 'I am at your disposal, Sir.' And together they disappeared into Mr Ruttman's office, which overlooked the city park across the main road, and the sky-risers beyond the sprawling green.
Fred shook his head. 'It'll be a good day when someone teaches Dev humility. Nothing gets that guy down. Someone should take him down a peg or two. The way he gets chummy with everyone is sickening.'
Suddenly, my world found a way to right itself. Of course, why had I not thought of it before? Since our first meeting, Devlin had been the bane of my existence, with his teasing and winking, and those bloody smiles that set my nerves on edge. His very nearness made me feel slightly nauseous. Even at night, he invaded my thoughts. Ugh. I needed to purge Devlin out of my pores, and one way to do that was to get rid of those smiles of his; then I would not lie in bed awake, restless and annoyed, thinking of them.
I glanced at Lucy, who was back in her own corner. There was one way to bring down any man. Love. Love taught humility. I should know. The lack of it in my life had taught me plenty of humility and self-doubts.
Devlin flirted shamelessly with Lucy. Then again, he flirted with everything he came across: man, woman, or coffee machine. Lucy, however, received more of his attention than anyone else. The man fancied her, that much was clear. What did she think of him? Did they really shag in the bathroom at lunchtime? I'd never heard of it, nor witnessed it, but in my head, I saw it clearly. Her skirts hiked up, his trousers undone, him pummelling her on the sink, his hands and mouth fixed on her spectacular, naked breasts. Him moaning her name into her ear. 'Oh, Lucy, Oh, Lucy. You are perfect, just like me.' Well, something like that. The image irked me far more than it should have. But then, only Devlin Knightsbridge was ever able to raise my ire to bloodlust... or at least to the modern, less deadly version of it.
Fred was right. Someone should teach the lion humility. Had any woman ever said no to him? Well, one was about to, and I would make sure of it. Lucy was going to forget Devlin's name.