Here’s a small SF story I wrote in 1995. I sold it to an online magazine. The technical ploy is still not a reality.
Lexy and the Critic
by Joseph L. Elkhorne
The hotel was so old it only had an archaic Sony hi-res 2D screen on a shelf behind the public bar. A handful of customers graced the unfashionable bistro. A barman who looked like an aging surfie idly polished glasses. His gaze turned from the TV when he heard the street door creak. Automatically, he began to hum “five foot two, eyes of blue” as his favourite customer entered.
She possessed the long legs and proportions of a cabaret showgirl, but in a diminutive package. A cloud of midnight tresses surrounded her face and draped over her bare shoulders.
“Hiya, Lexy. Glass of white wine?”
The young woman nodded and said, “Business is good as ever, I see, Ronnie.” She glanced around the quiet room. Through the doorway, two or three couples sat toying with their food.
The barman served her drink and shrugged.
“Flip the channel for me, mate,” she said, pointing at the old TV receiver.
Ronnie tapped the remote control. “Caught your show last night. Great stuff.”
“Let’s see if Mr. Wonderful thinks so.”
Alexandra Fox Allen, better known to her fans as Lexy, had been acting for several years. her talents had quickly made her a favourite with viewers both young and old. The previous night’s rendition of a Williamson script, she felt, was a high point of her career. Now, if Colin Playfair the influential reviewer agreed, star status and the best roles would be hers.
Ronnie glanced at the screen and the noble image of Colin Playfair. “That can’t be his real name, surely,” the barman said.
Lexy shrugged. “He seems to be a mystery man. No personal interviews, no speeches or appearances. He might as well be a ghost.”
Ronnie nudged the remote to bring up the sound.
‘Last night’s adaptation of the Williamson play, “Power Under The Sun”, provided a grave disappointment to the author. Not to mention the countless viewers who made the mistake of watching this rubbish.’
Playfair had the resonant voice of a fallen angel; it sent shivers up every woman’s spine even when the listener was being torn into little, tiny shreds. As now …
“I shoulda stayed in engineering,” Lexy muttered.
Ronnie looked surprised. “I figured you were made for acting, Lexy.”
The girl smiled ruefully. “I made the mistake of getting involved in a Uni revue a few years back. Now hush!”
‘Nudity on screen was passe when Fonda bared her all, way back when,’ pontificated the critic. ‘It’ll take more than taking off her clothes for Foxy Allen to gain credibility with the viewing public.’
Lexy shook her head in dismay.
“He makes Chesty Bond look like a wimp. I wonder if he doesn’t like all women, or is it just me?”
The critic concluded his scathing remarks with a boyish grin and a wave. The network logo took the place of the villain’s charming face. The screen went black as Ronnie punched the control module.
Lexy pushed the glass of wine away.
“I think I need something stronger, Ronnie.”
The barman reached under the counter for his personal, private stock, saying, “I’ll have one with you.”
“Everything that bastard said was beside the point, Ron. I mean,” Lexy nodded toward the doorway to the bistro,”look there.”
The barman had noticed the middle aged lady when she entered, wearing a Cretan Revival frock.
“I don’t much care for the blue nipples,” he said.
Lexy shook her head. “Nor I — but green is worse. Anyway, revealing fashions and general public nudity on the beaches is commonplace these days. A nude scene in a performance is not unusual, unless it distracts from the script. Given the character I was playing, it followed.”
Taking a sip of her brandy, she continued, “Look, Fritz Lang had a nude scene in his 1926 film, ‘Metropolis’. It was surprising then, maybe even shocking. But it was justified by the character and the story development.”
Ronnie said, “Why don’t you challenge him on it? Write a letter to the station. Call him up. Raise hell.”
Lexy’s eyes fairly blazed. “Yes. I will. I’ll do it!”
The following day, a telephone call verified her suspicions — arranging an audience with the Pope would be easier than confronting Colin Playfair. ‘They’re not going to stop me,’ Lexy muttered. ‘It’s easy to put a person off on the telephone — but the bastards will think twice when we’re face to face!’
The petite actress dressed in a fashionable but unrevealing outfit and took a taxi to the station.
Lexy marched into the lavish foyer. “I want to see the program manager,” she told the receptionist. “I’ve no appointment, so I’ll wait until he’s free — all day, if necessary.”
The startled girl motioned her to a chair and murmurred into the intercom. In a few minutes, a young man came out, walked over to Lexy and said, “Ms Rooke will see you now. Only a few minutes, mind, we’re delaying a staff meeting because of you.”
As they walked down a dimly lit corridor, they heard an indignant voice coming from one of the offices: “I don’t do fellatio scenes.”
Lexy glanced over at the gopher and rolled her eyes.
Karen Rooke, the program manager, greeted the actress at the office doorway. Lexy wasted no time in getting to the point. “I wouldn’t have minded a fair go even if it was negative,” she said. “But Playfair was just using me as an excuse to exercise his so-called wit. I want to debate the critic about his criticism.”
Ms Rooke said, “Damn, that would be good television. But quite impossible, my dear.”
“Why? Protecting your own?”
The program manager shook her head. “I’d like nothing more than to see that pompous ass get his comeuppanace. But we haven’t a clue who he is.”
“Look,” Rooke said, “when we were one of the supplemental licensees, we had to do an Avis — try harder — to gain a foothold. A lot of unusual things went on then. Now, though we would prefer a more conventional arrangement, we’re stuck with Mr. X and his terms.”
“I don’t understand.”
Rooke explained. “Colin Playfair, whoever he is, never appears at the studio. His program goes live to air, relayed via leased data line. We send his salary and royalty payments from subsequent syndication to a post office box.
“His facilities are first-rate but he insists on being a recluse. We don’t have a telephone number and he refuses to answer mail.”
Lexy said, “I’d still like to give him a piece of my mind!”
“Anyhow, a lot of people enjoy his slinging off. The ratings are great. If you’re one of his victims, well, that’s part of the game, isn’t it?”
Admitting defeat, Lexy said “I’ll find my own way out.”
Instead of heading for the lobby, Lexy continued into the bowels of the building to the engineering department. She knew that Joseph King, an old friend from university days, worked there.
King came out from a cubbyhole office, smiling.
“Good to see yer, Lexy.”
The actress smiled. “I need a favour,” she said, explaining that
she knew about the mysterious arrangements concerning Colin Playfair.
“Even though management can’t figure it out,” she continued, “my engineering training tells me there have to be records regarding the leased line.”
“So you’re going to expose the invisible man?”
“I’ll tear his head off and make him eat it,” she vowed. “All I want him to do is play fair, to judge me on my performance, not on side issues.”
King mused. “If someone finds out I gave you the information, it’d be my job.” His radar locked on somewhere in the vicinity of her hips, as he stroked his pencil-line mustache. “What’s it worth to you?”
“In the old days,” Lexy laughed, “they only wanted a pound of flesh, not the whole package.”
King blushed and went away to his cluttered desk. He returned with a scrap of paper bearing an address. “Actually, Lexy, a date would be payment enough. We could talk about the old days.”
“You’re on, mate. Give me a call on the weekend. Right now, I’m going critic bashing.”
The hovercab driver looked at Lexy anxiously through the plasteel safety barrier.
“Are you sure you want to get out here?”
Lexy glanced uncertainly at the piece of paper in her hand. “This must be the place.”
The woman muttered, “Just that you don’t look like that kind of girl.”
“I’m not!” Lexy snarled, jamming her flexicard into the taxi’s pay slot. The computer link beeped twice and the lock of the back door released.
Lexy stepped out, hesitating slightly. She glanced at the working girls at the corner. Nudity on the set was one thing, she thought, but so casually in a public place. No wonder the male tourists came to this part of the city.
The building she gazed at dated to well before the turn of the century. Laser graffiti scored its walls, the footpath, and hovering ad billboards. One floated towards her and she said, “Buzz off!”
“Sorry,” came a tinny voice from a concealed speaker.”Have a nice day! This message brought to you by …”
A plaintive beep came from the interactive ad as the unit drifted off in search of another consumer.
Lexy walked slowly up the stairs. There was not even a security door. She pushed into the tacky chrome-and-glass lobby and entered the lift, thumbing the button for the second floor. Just as the door began to close, a voice cried, “Hold it!”
Too late. The lift began its creaky ascent and shuddered to a stop. As she stepped out, a short, swarthy man came puffing up the stairs. He scowled at her as he stalked down the corridor carrying a small parcel.
He stopped at a door and thumbed the ID plate.
The girl walked in his direction, noted the number on the door and said, “Do you live here, too?”
Swarthy turned and frowned at her. “Early, aren’t you? I told her two o’clock.” The door sprang open and Swarthy entered. “Well, come on. I must say you’re not what I expected.”
Lexy stood there, looking into the flat. It appeared rich and out-of-place, compared to the savaged walls of the corridor. A vast array of high-tech equipment sat in the loungeroom, even more peculiar. It contrasted even more with the man’s appearance. He seemed to match the corridor, shabby and somehow dirty looking.
Then he turned and said, “Don’t just stand there. I’ll have you anyway, even if you’re not what I ordered. Come on in, get your gear off!”
Lexy stared into pebble-like eyes on a level with hers, and blushed. “I think there’s been a mistake.”
She turned and fled. Back at her apartment, Lexy turned the incident over in her mind. She fixed a cup of tea as she sorted the meager facts. Suddenly, it all fell into place.
“The voice,” she whispered.
Over the next few days, Lexy made several trips to the nondescript building. Her vigil from a rented car paid off on the third afternoon. The swarthy man came bustling down the steps with a large padded mailing envelope under his arm.
Lexy watched him turn the corner, then fairly ran from the car, rushed up the steps and made her way to the apartment. In a short time, she had hacked the security lock — those years of engineering training had finally paid off. She entered the lavish quarters of Colin Playfair.
She turned her attention to the consoles and expensive equipment. Nodding thoughtfully, she traced cables in the complicated system and made two minor changes.
Making sure no trace of her illicit entry could be noticed, Lexy quickly departed. As she walked briskly away from the door, she heard the sound of the lift. She darted down the staircase, hoping she had not been seen, and not risking a look behind her. After a brief pause in the lobby, she returned to her rented car and drove away.
That evening, Lexy put on her favourite gown and went to the hotel. When she entered, Ronnie let out a long, low whistle. He goggled at the assortment of rainbow ribbons that made up the garment.
“It covers everything and conceals nothing,” he remarked. “You’d look more innocent if you were naked.”
Lexy grinned at his obvious appreciation and said, “Get us a bottle of champagne, Ronnie. I think we’ll have something to celebrate tonight.”
“Well, you’re on, girl. What is it? The critic going to re-cant?”
Lexy gave him a Cheshire cat smile. “Watch and see.”
Shortly, the Sony displayed the station logo and then faded to black. Ronnie let out an oath as the swarthy man’s image appeared on the screen.
“What the hell is that?”
“The real Colin Playfair. The bastard was using computer-processing to modify the camera image.”
They watched the real critic, who was unaware that anything unexpected was going to air. At the station, the presentation operator had been unwilling to pull the plug, as it were.
Lexy had traced the system flow, patched the real video to the line, but left the computer-enhanced image on Playfair’s colour monitor. The critic saw himself as he always did, in his mind’s eye.
Tonight, the boyish gestures were delivered by a pudgy man in a dirty singlet. The resonant tones of his voice, the only real thing about him, ripped into another unfortunate actress’s performance.
The station switchboard fairly lit up that night, the final appearance of Colin Playfair.
Lexy and Ronnie toasted one another when the program had ended.
“Now,” Lexy concluded, “the whole world has seen what he really looks like. You could almost feel sorry for the poor ugly sod.. No wonder he doesn’t like women!”
Now, check your assumptions at the door and have a short visit with Lexy. It costs nothing except 15 minutes to see the V and the other stuff that makes up the VN style of storytelling.
Have a nice day.