He was stuck in a work-shaped rut. All he had managed to write was one line at the top of his open Word document: "New proposal. (Innovative) dating sim." He had sat from morning until night groaning away in front of his desk, and this was all he could come up with. How pathetic.
He had researched just what these so-called dating games were like on the internet, and had pretty much got the gist of it. A female character would be displayed and a variety of choices given to the player, their selections altering internal parameters. By repeating this a prescribed number of times, they would receive an ending reflecting their final parameters. It was silly. The design and program themselves were fairly simple, so even Georg would surely have an easy time coding one.
The problem was what kind of approach he should take with it. Shaping the game's background, setting, and the all-important cast - all of these would need to be relatively appealing if they were going to attract the attention of fickle players and entice them to fork over their cash.
Many of the existing titles involved office or school romances, but he could already hear the rejections coming from the next planning meeting if he simply re-appropriated one of these. Talentless execs tended to unconditionally worship empty words like "innovation" and "originality".
"Jesus, this is dull."
He stuffed a supplement into his mouth. Yet another night of unpaid overtime. Daryl and Georg had left long ago at the usual time.
His phone beeped. It was a message from Stella, asking if he would see her tonight. He thought for a moment before typing out a reply. Sorry. I have overtime tonight. Some other time. Then he added another line. Anyway, you should be working, yourself. Isn't your deadline approaching? That would do. He pressed 'send' and shoved the phone into his pocket.
"Well, I guess I should at least think of what characters to have in it."
What was the standard kind of situation in which you would meet a woman? An office romance would be an impossibility at his workplace, at least. Almost all of the employees were men, and the only biological woman to speak of was the old cleaning lady.
In the end, all he could think of was a bar. That was actually where he had met Stella. Seeing her drinking alone one rainy night, he had seduced her in a semi-overbearing manner. That day the woman he had previously been dating had only just up and left, and he was beginning to pine for the warmth of another. What he hadn't planned on was his intended one night stand turning into such a long-lasting relationship.
"A woman at a bar, huh..."
He recalled the Stray Sheep he had dropped in on the previous day. There had been a red-headed waitress there. He considered basing the character off of her, but the image just wouldn't take shape.
"Not her, then, I guess."
He took out his sketchbook, letting his fingers take the pencil wherever they wanted. As an amateur painter, Freddie had a relative level of confidence in his drawing skills.
As he recalled his conversation with Vincent and the others, a portrait steadily took form in his head. Despite its roughness, it was clearly the image of a woman.
"Maybe this will do," he murmured to himself as he surveyed the finished drawing.
"Oh, are you by yourself?"
A woman's voice. For a moment, he wondered if the sketch was talking to him. Don't be so stupid. That's impossible. He shook his head and looked up to see an unfamiliar woman standing before him. She stared at Freddie with dubious blue eyes.
Her blonde hair was styled into curls on both sides, her plump, peachy lips alluring. Her white, underwear-like dress traced the lines of her curves closely, accentuating the cleavage that sat above a red ribbon fastened around her waist.
He was speechless. Freddie's pupils contracted as if he had seen something unbelievable.
"I was told that I was gonna start work today, so I came here, but... where is everybody?"
"'Where is everybody'...? Who are you?" he asked, tearing his tongue from his dry lower jaw.
"I'm Catherine, a planner who's going to be working here now."
The woman who called herself Catherine sat down in Georg's seat without invitation. As she crossed her long legs, he was afforded a momentary glimpse of her snow white thighs. Looking her over as if being sucked in, he finally came to his senses and hurriedly averted his gaze.
"Oh, uh. I hadn't heard. Like, for real?"
His heart began thumping at an impossible speed. It wasn't that he was excited by her sultriness. He glanced back at the sketchbook in his hand. However many times he looked, the outcome was the same. Catherine was a dead ringer for the rough sketch Freddie had drawn only moments earlier. What did it mean? He felt as if his fantasies had come to life.
Catherine brought her face closer to the perplexed Freddie. He felt her breath, feather-like, on the tip of his nose and swiftly lurched back in his seat, but Catherine was faster. She snatched the sketchbook from him.
"What're you looking at?"
"Give it back."
"What's this? Yikes, it looks just like me."
Catherine cackled as she looked at the sketch, which had to be a self-portrait. Rather than being creeped out, she seemed to find it amusing. After laughing for a while, she shot a flirtatious glance at Freddie.
"Could it be that you've taken a liking to me?"
"That's not it at all."
Then what was it? His head swam, blanking in his confusion.
"What's your name?"
"Freddie. Freddie McGoohan." His mouth moved of its own accord before he had time to think about it.
"Hmm. So you're called Freddie."
Catherine pressed her index finger to her lips, then tilted her head slightly as if lost in thought. The blue light radiating from her half-closed eyes was coquettish enough to make him shudder. The moment her gaze fell on him, Freddie felt electricity shoot down his spine, his groin responding simultaneously. Panicking, he turned his chair around to conceal the bulge in his trousers, prostrating himself on the desk.
"So, is there something you need?" He intended the words to sound brusque, but his traitorous voice wavered slightly.
"I told you, didn't I? I came to work here, duh."
Catherine pouted, sticking out her bottom lip. Every little thing she did was alluring. He couldn't tell whether she was doing it unconsciously, or if it was all deliberate.
"Work? You must be on the team next door, then."
Today, too, a tense air drifted through the wall that served as a partition between them. It seemed as though a fatal bug had been discovered right before going gold, and the team were hard at work debugging. If someone had been dispatched in a situation like this, they must surely be assistance for the other team.
"Nope. I was told that you're starting work on a new game, so I should help out with the planning."
"What? That old guy with the greasy hair."
"That's the one. He said you were struggling by yourself, so I should lend a hand."
Freddie looked back at Catherine. Traces of youth lingered in her features. She must have graduated from college only recently. What would a little girl like her know about planning?
"Don't sweat it. I have quite a knack when it comes to games."
She puffed out her chest with pride. Seeing the recoil cause her soft-looking bust to wobble slowly up and down unsettled him anew. God damn that Daryl. What a useless asshole. He mentally tutted. Even though the neighbouring team was in dire straits, he surely took one look at her body and decided to put her on his team in his lust. Filthy old bastard.
"Watch out for him, okay?"
"Daryl. He doesn't discriminate when it comes to young girls."
There were persistent rumours that a female university graduate who temped there had accused him of sexual harassment, but he let his money speak for him and they reached an out-of-court settlement.
"Hmph. You're worried about me, huh?" Catherine chuckled, Freddie finding it harder and harder to breathe. He doubled over, clutching at the left side of his chest. "Hey, Freddie, are you okay?"
"It's nothing... I'm just kind of tired."
"You should go home for the day, then."
"But I haven't finished working yet."
"You can start fresh tomorrow. Come on, I'll help you out. That's why I'm here, after all."
Catherine placed her hand gently on Freddie's back. Its chill, cool enough to make him shudder, gradually transformed into warmth. He could smell her honey-like scent through her clothing.
"I'll call you a cab. Where do you live?"
He felt as if he gave her an answer, but his mind was so hazy that he didn't know for sure. He stood, her kindly helping him to his feet, but couldn't remember what came after. The obvious question as to why a temp was suddenly showing up in the middle of the night never flitted through Freddie's mind again.
Catherine's insides tasted like moist leaf mould. Inserting his tongue, she entwined hers stickily with his as if she wanted him, too. The air filled with heated sighs and the smell of sweat, Freddie mechanically acted on instinct alone.
Prickles of pleasure washed over him like waves and then retreated. It wasn't as though he went on because the feeling was pleasant; by now, he was no longer capable of stopping it.
"Freddie..." Catherine gasped.
His finger crept to her lips and a long tongue extended from within, pulling it in.
Catherine repeatedly jerked her head back and forth. Sweet, viscous saliva clung to his finger as it went in and out. He couldn't see her expression in the darkness of the room, but vivid images of Catherine's face, frowning as she eagerly did her duty, flitted through his mind's eye.
Unable to restrain himself, he ran his tongue across her cheek. It felt like finest quality silk.
"Haha. You're so cute, Freddie."
To Freddie, she seemed like a little devil. The blanket wrapped around their naked bodies fluttered with each convulsion, looking almost like the wings of a bat.
He'd never been with a woman like her before. She wasn't an odorous, hideous leather bag like all of the others. She was far more terrifying, more alluring than any of them. He knew that she was the kind of woman he could lose himself in.
Catherine's voice. The moment he cast aside reason and gave in to his urgent desires, his mind blacked out without warning.
He awoke to the sound of his alarm clock.
He rolled over and opened his eyes halfway. Freddie realised that he was lying on the carpet beside the bed.
"Was it a dream?"
He turned off the clock that sat on the sideboard and got up. The room was chilly. Catherine was gone. The bed sheets were dishevelled, but there were no traces of anyone other than Freddie having inhabited it. His house key was in the ashtray as usual, the door locked from the inside.
Enduring a dull headache, he drew the curtains and opened the window. The sky promised rain. Dark, ash-coloured clouds drifted swiftly past overhead. The sounds of construction from a nearby building site rattled his head, and he shut the window with a tut. Glancing at the clock, he saw that it was after 8AM. It was almost time to leave for another day of work.
"My head's killing me."
He thrust his hand into his pyjama pants and scratched his crotch. Suddenly feeling the need to relieve himself, he rushed into the bathroom. It flowed out endlessly, like water from a broken tap. Disgusted by the yellow liquid-filled toilet, he flushed it and returned to the room, when his phone rang.
"Oh. It's me, Catherine." He fell silent at the sound of the familiar, husky voice. "What's wrong?"
"Uh... Nothing. I just had a weird dream..."
"Dream? Were you dreaming about me, by any chance?" A suppressed laugh, as if she was teasing Freddie, slipped out.
"The dream... Oh, right. You were in the dream."
"What, really?" The voice on the other end was excited. "Hmm. It's kind of embarrassing, but whatever."
"I guess it makes me pretty happy that you would dream about me. Besides, I'm interested in hearing what you did with dream me."
"Noo, stop. I bet it was a weird dream, anyway." He could hear bashfulness in Catherine's voice. She shifted to a more serious tone. "Oh, so, about work - this afternoon isn't really great for me. I talked it over with Daryl, and he said I should come in at night."
"Shift work, huh?" Such irregular shifts were common in this industry, but not on only one's second day on the job. "Is something going on?"
"You could say that. So sorry, but could you wait for me again until I get there? I guess we have to have a meeting about the proposal, after all."
"Yeah, I don't mind."
It wasn't like he had anything to do at home. His proposal for the deadline was approaching, and Freddie had no reason to refuse.
"Great. See you tonight, then?"
Catherine said goodbye and hung up.
He stared absentmindedly at the 'disconnected' indicator. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn't recall ever having given Catherine his phone number.
As he made his way to work, he received a message from Stella. It said, Can I see you today?, just like yesterday's. What a self-centred woman, he thought.
Taking a shortcut to the office and cutting through the public park, he saw pigeons approaching him on the stone-paved path in search of food. He waved them away, but they made no move to flee. All they would do was eat and then die, the idea of flying away never so much as crossing their minds.
"I'm not going to fall."
He was taken aback by the meaningless words that suddenly emerged from his mouth. What was it supposed to mean? Was he intending on flying through the air?
He looked up at the sky, filled with the same clouds the colour of lead. They blocked out the sun, making it as gloomy as if it were dusk.
"Hah, how idiotic."
He must be getting burned out. Perhaps he should start taking more supplements.
He sent a simple message in reply to Stella: I have to work today. I'll let you know when I have the time. Sorry. Not an ounce of guilt weighed upon his conscience. It was true that he had to work, and also that he had no time to spare.
Upon his arrival at the office he saw that for once, Georg had beaten him there.
"Look who's early."
After greeting him, he realised that the man was wearing the same clothes he had been wearing yesterday. Georg wasn't the type to pay particular attention to his attire, always wearing the same jacket and pair of jeans, but at least he usually changed his shirt and socks - and yet today, he hadn't.
"Did you stay the night at your girlfriend's place?" he said, intending it to come off as a casual joke, but was shocked when no protest was raised in response.
"Hmm, perhaps you might say that." He grinned, exposing his chipped front tooth. The wrinkles at the corners of his eyes despite his youth made him look all the more witch-like. Uncomfortable, even though he had been the one to bring it up, Freddie hastily tried to change the topic.
"What's Daryl up to?"
His boss should have been here by now, yet his seat remained vacant.
"He called earlier to say that he's taking paid leave. I hear it's the anniversary of his mother's passing."
"He's just using it as an excuse to skip work, obviously."
"I suppose you're right," Georg said with a shrug.
On any other day he would feel relieved to be able to get on with his work uninterrupted, but things were a little different today.
"I wanted to ask him where Catherine's supposed to sit."
There was just barely enough space in the narrow area divided by a partition to squeeze in the development team's desks. If he was going to set up a desk for her, they would likely have to move the partition. The look on Georg's face, however, was one of puzzlement.
"Catherine? Who on earth is that?"
"You haven't heard? She's a temp who was assigned to our team yesterday."
"I've never heard of her."
"She's a cute girl. Blonde, blue eyes."
Not only that, but she's passionate, too, he nearly said, but held his tongue before it could slip out. It should have been a dream - so why was the feeling of her engraved into his very core?
"Well, as long as the specification document gets written up, I don't mind whether it's you or Catherine who does it. How is work going, by the way?"
"I told you, I'll manage something. Just give me a little more time."
A sour look on his face, he took his seat. Only eight more hours until Catherine arrived. He booted up his machine in order to make some progress on the proposal, even if only a little. In the end, however, he didn't even manage to write a single sentence.
Catherine made her appearance at exactly the same time as she had the day before. Just the sound of her shoes clicking on the floor as she approached drowned out the noise all around.
Just their casual exchange of greetings made Freddie's heart beat faster. What was happening to him? It wasn't like he was a middle school kid who'd never seen a woman before. He was flustered on the inside, but there was nothing he could do to calm its pounding.
"How far have you got, then?"
Catherine took the seat of Georg, who had already gone home, and peered over Freddie's shoulder at the screen of his computer.
"Oh, uh, this is..."
He tried to hide the screen, but it was too late. Catherine pointed at his still-blank Word document and let out an I-told-you-so sigh.
"You really are helpless without me, aren't you?"
"Don't be stupid. Anyway, I told you. That's Georg's seat."
"It's fine. I'll just be borrowing it at night."
"Hey, wait, who said you could do that?"
Georg hadn't breathed a word of this to him, and she surely couldn't go around using his computer. And yet Catherine tapped away at his keyboard with practised motions, correctly entering the password in no time at all.
"Aand there we go. I'll just put it all back the way it was when I leave." She stuck out her tongue and giggled.
"What the hell's up with you?"
"Hey, don't talk to me like that."
Catherine puffed out her cheeks, looking at him with upturned eyes. Just having those blue eyes staring at him was enough to spike his already unsettled pulse.
"Sorry, I just... that's not what I meant..."
"It's okay. Just for you, I'll let you talk to me however you like."
The corner of her mouth slightly tugged upwards as Catherine approached him, and he was drawn in by her cleavage. Her bosom bulged just the way they had in the dream.
"Heyy. Don't look at me like such a perv, Freddie." Catherine covered her breasts with her arms, her gaze full of curiosity. "So. What did I do in this dream of yours?"
Her breath was hot.
"Y-you didn't do anything..."
The more Freddie tried to argue, the more reluctant Catherine's face became.
Cheeks puffed out, she muttered, "I'd let you do whatever you wanted to me."
Seriously, what the hell was with her? He asked himself this over and over, but no answers came. All he knew was that he was powerless to resist her charms. Imagining himself as an insect caught in a spider's web made him feel a pleasantness towards his situation. He wanted that mouth to gobble him up.
Moron. What's wrong with you? Freddie shook his head firmly, and Catherine responded with sweet words.
"You really are tired, aren't you? It's okay. I'll do the rest for you." She spun her chair around to face the monitor, beginning to swiftly tap away at the keyboard. "Dating sims are so boring when they're generic, huh?"
She hummed as she put together the proposal. As he watched from the sidelines, harsh words such as photographed in secret, stalker, and another man's wife caught Fredie's eye.
"Hey, hold on a second. Exactly what kind of game are you making, here?"
"What do you mean, what kind? You said it's a dating sim, right?"
"What the hell does some Peeping Tom taking secret photos of people have to do with romance? We can't put crimes in it."
"Come on. That's not what I'm talking about at all."
Catherine frowned in displeasure. Slapping the keyboard violently, the screen was suddenly filled with a row of letters reading XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX.
"Stop that. You'll break it."
"It's part of the couple's game, duh."
"We'll put in an event where if you get close to the girl in the game, you record yourselves getting it on. It's consensual, of course. The player can decide where to set up the camera, and you get to see them making love from all kinds of fun angles."
"Wait, is that a thing?"
"It's a game. What does it matter? Weren't you looking for an innovative new idea?"
"Yeah, I did say that, but..."
"Besides, there are couples who film their own love scenes like it's nothing these days."
A shiver ran down Freddie's back. It wasn't that he was annoyed at the thoughtless actions of the stupid couples; he simply couldn't understand the motivation behind wanting to keep a visual record of such an act. How could they record such a terrible, ugly, shameful part of the human existence when there was a chance that somebody else might see it? Just the thought of it made him tremble.
In actual fact, Freddie had never once so much as considered watching adult videos or anything of the sort, and most likely never would.
My family. My room. A half-open door. And then...
"What's wrong? You look kinda pale."
He realised that his forehead was covered in a sheen of sweat.
"Sorry. I guess I don't feel too well."
"You should go and get some rest. I'll take care of everything else."
"By that you mean the game, right?"
"What're you talking about? Of course that's what I mean."
"A game, huh. Well, if it's a game then I guess it could work..."
He forcibly decided that this would explain it. Once that had been settled, he began to feel as though Catherine's idea might work out after all.
"A Peeping Tom Dating Sim, huh? The hardcore fans might take to it."
He would probably have to tone down the depictions a bit when he showed it at the planning meeting, but the fools would surely go along with it so long as he pushed its novelty to the forefront. All he had to do was get the green light and have them hand over the money, and then the developers could do whatever they wanted.
If some kind of problem did come up, he would just have Daryl take the fall for it. If it sold well he would be widely lauded, and if it didn't then his hateful boss' head would roll. It was a win-win situation either way.
Feeling a dark sense of pleasure, he began to wonder if Catherine was perhaps his own Lady Luck.
"Hey. Why don't we go get a drink when you're done with that bit?" he asked hesitantly, but Catherine didn't turn him down.
"Sure, but weren't you feeling unwell?"
"I'll feel better once I get a drink down me. I'll buy you one as thanks for the proposal."
He decided to let his instincts decide what came next.