"I'm just a fat girl in disguise," said Hattie, her smile a little self-deprecating, her eyes wide and hinting that she'd like a little reassurance. She was wearing a Laura Ashley sundress, a broad-brimmed sun-hat, and six-inch heels. She wobbled just a little in them, and then caught her balance again, hiding the wince of pain from her toes.
"You're very well disguised then," said Millicent Pedeman, her voice indicating with its stiff inflexion and Home Counties vowels that she disapproved of almost everything she ever saw, including Hattie. "There are anorexics out here that would kill to be as... fat... as you."
Hattie smiled, unsure of whether that was a compliment or not. "Oh good," she said, clapping her hands together and wobbling again on her high-heels. "So, can I be part of the beauty pageant then?"
"Possibly," said Millicent. "Possibly. You'll have to enter the auditions like any other contestant, but I suppose that I can have a quiet word with the judging committee and ensure that you get through to the first round. Most of the time the girls who get through are the ones the judges either fancy, or think they stand a chance of sleeping with. You look kind of slutty, so I might not even have to say anything."
"Thank-you," said Hattie, who wasn't really listening to what Millicent was saying. In her ear, a microscopic earpiece was relaying a conversation from her handler, a woman called Sue who worked for MI7.
"Hattie, don't worry about getting through to the the necessary rounds," whispered Sue. "We can sort all of that out. Get her to talk about the security facilities instead. Her people have supplied us with plans that make no sense."
"How about the facilities?" Hattie looked at Millicent, who looked a little taken aback, as though she'd been expecting a different response.
"Well, there's women's toilets just down the corridor. Do you need to go now?"
"Oh, no! Sorry!" Hattie giggled, and was displeased with how it sounded. She'd spent hours practising giggling, and it still sounded far too girlish. "No, I meant the security facilities. How do I know I'll be safe?"
"From who? The judges?"
Hattie tottered across the thick carpet that pulled at the heels of her shoes and threatened to topple her if she didn't high-step like a performing horse to a writing desk. She pulled out the chair and sat down, picking up a fountain pen from atop a thin stack of cream-coloured paper.
"Haha, no silly, I'm sure the judges wouldn't be interested in a fatty like me! No, I mean what's the security for us contestants like. I'm always getting stopped on the street, and if I didn't have my bodyguard with me I don't know what would happen. Can I bring him?"
Millicent stalked over to the desk and snatched the fountain pen from Hattie's hands.
"That's a Caran D'ache," she snapped. "It's not for people like you." Hattie blinked, and her hands scrabbled on the desk for another pen. She found a cheap ballpoint.
"You may not bring your own security," continued Millicent, hiding her pen in a jacket pocket. "The pageant provides ample security for all the contestants, the judges, and general grounds and building security. It's actually one of the larger costs on the bill. You will have two security guards nearby at all times in the hotel where the pageant is being held, and there will be a cordon of security around the stage as soon as we reach the quarter finals. Satisfied? Why are you writing this down?"
"So I don't forget," said Hattie. "No security guards," she wrote as she spoke.
"No, I have just told you that there will be plenty of guards," said Millicent. She glared at Hattie, and her shoulders quivered very slightly with controlled anger.
"Why only at the quarter-finals?" whispered Sue in Hattie's ear.
"Why only the quarter-finals?"
"There's too many of you until then," said Millicent. "Trying to keep beauty contestants in line is like trying to herd cats.