The uneven tapping of stilettos pierced the silent passageway. A lone woman walked an awkward kind of catwalk between the overrunning bins. Annie rose up out of the six inch high heels like the stem of an ungainly plant. She wore a short red skirt, and a trimly fitted leather jacket, one that in fact belonged to a friend. Her hair was its usual unruly mass of twists and turns. She wore a thick face of makeup that looked as though it had been applied by an unpracticed hand. She drew a deep breath before stepping out of the shadow of the shop-row crevice.
“I’m bloody freezing,” she said in a shuddering voice. “This jacket of yours – a little on the skimpy side no?”
“Hence my advising you against wearing it.” The scalding came crackling to life in the right side of Annie’s head, emanating from a small black earpiece.
“Authenticity, Veronica!” Spluttered Annie through the cold. “That’s the key.” She folded her arms and gyrated on the spot, mustering up the courage to exit the wind-sheltered alley. “Right then. On with the show.”
She was now on Wardour Street, the neon-lit road that cleaves bustling Soho town in two. Taxis zipped this way and that. Groups of giggling girls and pucker-faced boys flocked in and out of a nearby gay bar, in the window of which bounced a bare male bottom. Great round men in long overcoats roared with laughter in the smoking areas of old English pubs, which looked as though they had been plucked from a fairytale. Every other pub seemed to have incorporated the word “King” or “Queen” into its title. A few quieter restaurants were slotted away here and there, from within which diners observed the outside world with a faint disdain, in much the way that people amuse themselves by watching simpler beasts at the zoo. The smoky air that filled the narrow street carried a kind of barely detectable pulse. Humans hooted. The street was a canopy, rich with birds. Sugar clung to cocktail glass rims like stubble to a chin. The traffic flowed in only one direction, up towards Oxford Street.
Plenty of people were loitering, but Annie soon realised – as she expected to realise – that some loitered more purposefully than others. These were the people that she was interested in. They gave themselves away through their garb, primarily. Everything was just a little too short, too overspilled by flesh. Their makeup too, was overdone – as was her own. Indeed they looked on the whole as peculiar as Annie did in the chilly winter’s night. She was pleased.
There were other clues too. A blonde woman, reclined against a lamppost up ahead, was overdoing her nonchalance. She came across as one preoccupied with appearing leisurely. Further along the road, beneath the chain-hung potted plants of a French inn, a thick-bodied woman, apparently lost in thought, cast furtive glances in the direction of the oncoming traffic.
Of course, the greatest giveaway was the fact that each of Annie’s suspects faced inwards, never for a moment turning their backs to the busy road. Annie was in high spirits as she climbed towards the top of Wardour Street. A tingle of excitement shot between her shoulder and neck, causing her to shiver, a feat that the cold had yet to accomplish. She felt as one who stands upon the brink of rebellion.
Further back into Wardour Street, deep within the throng of bodies, a few of Annie’s suspects had already clambered into vehicles. As they did, the snaking line of women adjusted, each one sliding casually down a little further from the summit of the street. The stage was perfectly set.
“Green light.” Said Annie. “I repeat, green light.” Veronica’s eyes would doubtless be rolling, but a reply came soon enough.
Annie positioned herself between what appeared to be a Soho walk-up and a dirty old dry cleaners, hugging herself in an effort to keep out the cold. Trumpets were sounding in some far off pocket of thought. A great shift was afoot, she could feel it. Like an urban chameleon, she assumed the posture of her peers, none of whom seemed to be paying her the slightest bit of attention. They were, unsurprisingly, far too focused on the evening’s work. No sign of any skulking enforcers either, much to Annie’s relief.
Soon enough she saw what she had been waiting to see. A low black vehicle was picking its way slowly up the road, its progress halted on multiple occasions. A series of scantily dressed women sidled over to the car window, one after the other. But each time, after what looked to be a brief exchange between the driver and the would-be passenger, the car nudged onwards, only to stop again as it drew level with the succeeding bachelorette. Unlikely to be an uncommonly discerning customer, thought Annie – more likely that this was her man.
The exact words that passed between the mystery driver and the succession of disregarded women could not yet be made out. But the car was now bordering on earshot. Only two women now stood between Annie and her own bite at the proverbial apple. The nearest was some thirty yards away, and soon enough the vehicle had crept level with her – a trail of puzzlement and irritation in its wake.
A short, mixed race woman, with a loftily set ponytail, strutted boldly up to the car door. No doubt she was aware of the apparent pickiness of its director, and had decided to meet that choosiness with bravado. The window lowered. The words that Annie had hoped to hear sounded softly through the wind. The proud vixen recoiled in apparent confusion. The window rolled up, and the car rolled on.
Annie detached herself from the shop wall and, as a stork might tread between reeds, she ventured forth towards the gutter. She had nothing of the swagger of her predecessor, who appeared to be observing the jittery advance. Annie returned her attention only peripherally, but condescension was clearly smeared across the woman’s face. Perfect, thought Annie, stilling herself upon the pavement edge. The unwieldy bird was poised to strike.
The car slowed to a stop in front of Annie, which was in itself sufficient to hoist the eyebrows of the watching woman. The window wound down, and there loomed the familiar and flustered face of Peter Froome. His sunken eyes were more panda-like than ever. His forehead gleamed with sweat, and his lightly seated hair was unusually disheveled. He looked as pale as a sheet, positively ill, in fact. Annie, who had bent at the knees in order to peer into the window, widened her eyes, drawing forth a question.
“Are you on Pimple?” He asked, sheepishly.
“Louder!” She hissed between her teeth.
“Are you on Pimple?” Repeated Peter, unnaturally loudly. “The app?” The sentence came off at odds with his elegant, Etonian accent. Annie rolled her eyes, but nodded vigorously. Mechanically, Peter stretched out a hand and caressed her cheek with the backs of his fingers, which were shaking. He then beckoned her in with a flick of the wrist, in keeping with his instructions. She plodded around the vehicle, making sure to throw a glance in the direction of the baffled vixen as she did. As Annie’s suitability became clear, the short woman promptly span upon her heels and clopped off in the direction of her closest colleague – her large, hooped earrings flapping as she went. No doubt she went to report her findings: that a stumbling, tangle-haired lady had been found worthy where none other had, and that her comprehension of this “Pimple” – an app, by the sounds of things – seemed to be the deciding factor. Annie grinned as she glimpsed the feisty woman’s spin.
“How was that?” Asked Peter, as she clambered into the car.
“Drive man!” She instructed. He mumbled an apology and pressed his foot to the accelerator, bringing them shortly out onto the more spacious hubbub of Oxford Street. Annie settled, exhaling lengthily. “That, my dear, was perfect.”
“I don’t believe they’re especially used to rejection.” Murmured Peter. “Quite the deluge of indignation!”
“I should hope so too.” Replied Annie, beaming. Her heart was thundering. “A credit to your execution, Mr. Froome. I assume you’re getting this Ron? Mission accomplished, dear girl!”
“Bravo. Onto Shorts Gardens then.” Came the crackling voice of Veronica.
“She says bravo.” Said Annie, leaning over to her chauffeur. “And that we must press on.”
“Yes, yes, I suppose we must. Let’s see, Shorts Gardens is it?”
“Right you are sir!” Exclaimed Annie, enlivened by her debut performance on the kerb. “So sorry again that I couldn’t persuade Ron to play the pick-up girl, dear,” she said, rubbing Peter’s crooked shoulder in mock sympathy.
“Now, see here…” He blurted, as Veronica chided her through the earpiece. She flopped back into her seat and clapped her hands together, laughing heartily.
“Oh come now you two. I’m only having a bit of fun!”
“Yes, well.” Said Peter, awkwardly. “Shorts Gardens. Onwards.”
“Onwards!” Cried Annie. They soon arrived at the Drury Lane end of Shorts Gardens, another one-way road, and once again one teeming with temptresses. Annie bundled herself out of the vehicle. Peter wheeled away to await his orders. Once more Annie paced an awkward path along the narrow road, catching the eyes of the odd curious loiterer. She waited at the roundabout by Cambridge Court and gave the all clear. Again the creeping car and its seemingly insatiable conductor began to trundle up the road – dismissing women to the left and the right as it went. Again, Annie, a peculiar-looking, last-chance saloon, ticked the fussy driver’s boxes. Again this “Pimple” – whatever it was – appeared to make the difference.
The pair repeated this same process on many different one-way streets in central London that night. The only hiccups came when women – made desperate to defend a hard-earned pedestal – reacted aggressively to Annie's incursion, and chased or barked her away in territorial fashion. But Annie made no attempt to resist such efforts; if her presence proved the cause of outright animosity, then the exercise was null. Instead she aimed to be regarded with something closer to casual interest, and some way towards suspicion. Women who merely flirted with pugnacity were fine, for it was in fact these women whose interest morphed most readily into a wildfire of incredulity, swiftly spreading from one to the next. But flagrant hostility was deleterious to the show, and it was better to flee than to risk a goring. Besides, more than enough women had ambled into the torero's trap on that fateful night.
By the following evening, a Saturday, each of the visited streets were plastered with Pimple paraphernalia. Every telephone box pane was stickered. Every lamppost had been postered. Leaflets were strewn in their dozens along the pavements.
Each bit of blurb read the same: “Take control. Try Pimple.” The words were emblazoned in a chic, white font onto a bright red background. Beyond these words there was but one small, square barcode – the scanning of which led to a webpage from which the Pimple app could be downloaded. It was compatible with all manner of mobile device. There had been a great deal of toing and froing over whether or not to provide more in the way of explanatory text on the leaflets. Ultimately, Annie and Veronica had decided that a minimalist approach was best. A degree of mystery, coupled with the intrigue of the previous night’s chicanery, comingled as a tasty bait. The download page itself provided more in the way of detail.
It was an unconventional approach to marketing, admitted Annie. Then again, this was to be a most unconventional of businesses.