Collateral Damage

When Harper Byrne, the revered head of one of London's top publishing houses (Phantom Rouse) learns of her impending enforced redundancy, she is stunned and dismayed. Unable to understand how she could be so easily dismissed after her loyalty to the company and a twenty year career with the illustrious publishing house, she seeks revenge. Her ultimate goal is to make the company lose money. She trawls the slush pile for the worst submission she can find and grabs a title called 'Hundred Hints of Hotness'. Commissioning the hastily picked manuscript sans editing, she fast-tracks it to print for one million copies, convinced the book will be a massive loss-maker. She awaits news of the potential turkey of a book with gleeful anticipation, yet nothing can prepare her for the news that the book, (erotic fiction at its worst) is an instant best seller. Follow Harper's journey as she learns about life, love and the downright unexpected in this satirical swipe on the publishing industry.


2. The Beginning of the End

Harper stared at the ceiling. The early morning light filtered through the curtains, casting pale shadows on her eiderdown. She instinctively threw out her arm from under the warm confines of quilt and grabbed the tumbler of water on her bedside cabinet. Now propping herself up on her elbow, she took a few sips. Exactly five seconds later, she reached for her BlackBerry on the adjacent pillow and punched the alarm down before it had a chance to shrilly welcome the start of another day. Harper wondered why she even bothered with the alarm. It’s not as if she needed it. She had never been late for the past twenty years, always beating the alarm in an unspoken battle of wills.

She automatically jumped out of bed and padded into the bathroom. It was all autopilot from here. Brush teeth. Forty five minute workout downstairs. Shower. Then slip into clothes laid out the night before, down daily double espresso then jump into car for commute to work.

It was a day like any other. And that’s just the way Harper liked it. She didn’t like change. Everything was predictable, right down to the traffic snaking through the Blackwall Tunnel that usually took 57 minutes to disperse before she reached her Hammersmith office. She had sometimes felt as if she was a live participant of The Truman Show. Part of her wanted that fictionalised lifestyle. It was the control that she craved where everything was it should be.

Smiling away her eccentric train of thought, she walked into the office, ready to start the day on a positive note. She was usually the first one in the office, yet today someone had beaten her to it. Glancing at her watch she realised Belinda, the junior editor slash office manager wasn’t due for another half hour. Dropping her briefcase on her desk and wondering about the intruder in the office, Harper heard a voice behind her.

“Harper Byrne? It is Harper, right?”

Harper swivelled round and nearly bumped into him. She hadn’t realised he had been standing so close. Automatically taking a step back to reclaim her personal space, she studied the owner of the voice.

He had to be a student. No one dressed like that these days… did they? A quick cursory glance took in his high street suit with Stone Roses tee peeking out. Add to that his practically vintage Converse trainers and you had a graduate in transition moonlighting as professional. One of those creative types. Harper knew the sort. She had been one of them many moons ago.

A few seconds passed before Harper answered coolly, “Yes. That’s me. And you are?”

“Daniel. Daniel Glass.”

She felt his eyes skim over her form and waited patiently for him to return her steady gaze. She was bored of the usual lingering glances and would have felt sorry for this newbie, except his recent infraction of her personal space had irked her. “So Daniel. What are you doing here?”

He stuck out a hand. It felt warm in her cool palm as she moved away dismissively, edging nearer her desk. She had checked her emails first thing in the morning and she had three manuscripts to edit. She just wanted to start work. He was obviously just another temp in the office. Someone not worth getting to know, because he wouldn’t be here for long. Daniel, it seemed had other plans as he said excitedly, “This is such an amazing opportunity for me. It’s my first job-”

“Of course it is.” Harper threw him a casual glance which indicated she already knew.

Daniel continued talking as she scooted around her desk and clicked her briefcase open. “It’s a pleasure to be working with you Harper. I’ve heard so much about you. I’ll be starting off as assistant but that’s just so I learn the ropes-”

“Ambitious, aren’t we?” she said with a slim grin. Harper’s attention was split between her laptop which she had just fired up, and her buzzing Blackberry. Daniel’s voice was like background noise to her, a mere distraction that she could do without.

Daniel started, “Well actually I-”

Harper sighed. “Look, I get you’re new. You want to make an impression. Thing is, I’m totally slammed today. Three manuscripts, plus a whole tonne of emails is just the beginning. Are you all set, you know what you’re doing, right? I’m assuming Belinda hired you so she’s probably filled you in?”

Daniel was suddenly silent. Before he could open his mouth, Harper said, “Welcome to the company. I’m sure you’ll like it here. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be getting on with my mountain of work that is growing larger than Mount Everest by the second.” He watched her with interest, a ghost of a smile on his lips before he turned away.

Pulling out her water bottle and placing it strategically ten inches away from her computer, Harper settled at her desk. Belinda would be in soon and she could deal with the newbie. She wondered if she had been a little abrupt and stole a quick glance in his direction. He was sitting at Belinda’s desk fiddling with his iPhone. Great, an iPhone clone who thinks Apple is the best thing since sliced bread. Harper involuntarily shuddered and toyed with an unexpected urge to voice her irritation at his blatant audacity to sit in the place of his co-worker. This was a newbie with some nerve.

Silencing her Blackberry which buzzed through another six emails, Harper decided she would wait for Belinda to arrive. Belinda could deal with him, because she had obviously forgotten to mention the new temp starting. Harper understood how an oversight might have occurred. There had been a lot of activity in the office over the past few months and summer was always a busy time. Being one of the Big Six publishing houses, Phantom Rouse received thousands of work experience applications from student interns desperate for that all important stint on their CV. Wannabe editors and book PRs would practically prostitute themselves during their vacation, undertaking tasks that no self-respecting editor would even contemplate. Photocopying, building bookshelves, organising hundreds of books into alphabetical order, making unlimited beverages, meeting and greeting VIPs and other general menial work was what keen interns had to look forward to. Their enthusiasm would of course ebb away at the end of their three month stint and it was only the hard-core interns that survived and asked for an extension. Harper recalled her rites of passage as an intern with a sardonic smile, remembering the thousands of placards she had assembled for Simon Cowell’s autobiography. Having glued his close-up photograph to exactly three thousand boards for bookshops in the UK and beyond, Simon’s smirk was forever imprinted in her memory.

She snuck another glance at Daniel and found herself wondering how much Daniel could take. He was still fiddling with his iPhone. Hah, he wouldn’t last long. Harper tutted and shook her head in mock disappointment. Interns these days couldn’t keep off Facebook. Daniel had deliberately ignored the notice near the entrance that said phone activity should be restricted. The number of times Belinda had chastised interns was too many to count. Ah well, it was Belinda’s mess to sort out. She had hired him; she would obviously have to fire him too. That was the job of the junior editor who had inherited the office managerial duties over the years.

Harper turned her attention back to her computer and didn’t look up until she heard the office door open. She would just finish off the paragraph she was working on before she would greet Belinda. Concentrating on the sentence structure, Harper tapped her manicured fingers on the table in thought, slightly giddy with excitement at the thought she was working on a contemporary masterpiece. It was a literary piece of fiction, right up there with the likes of Hemingway. She was distracted mid-sentence and was immediately disorientated by someone calling her name.

“Harper. Hi. Can I have a word?”

Harper looked up, half expecting to see Belinda and was disappointed at the orange face that stared back at her. Jayne Trather. Only the CEO of the company.  Harper stilled, dragging her mind out of the manuscript and into present day. She immediately stood up with a flustered smile and shook Jayne’s proffered hand. “What brings you here? Did you email? Sorry, I haven’t checked my inbox for the past half hour.”

Jayne’s smile widened. “No. I didn’t have the time to email.”

As if. Harper winced internally, automatically knowing something was wrong. Everyone had the time to email. It would take a few seconds tops. Trying to get a foothold in the impending conversation that Harper had a horrid feeling about, she walked around her desk to face Jayne. “How can I help? Belinda’s not in yet, although I wonder where she’s got to. She’s usually in by now-”

“Belinda won’t be coming in.”

Harper frowned, her thought stymied by her mystification. Surely if Belinda was ill, she would have texted Harper and not the ice queen CEO of the company? Voicing her confusion Harper answered, “Oh? Did she text you that she was ill? Sorry Jayne, I should have followed up, but I was so stuck in this new manuscript. I’m so excited about it, it reads like Hemingway and feels like-”

“Belinda’s not coming back.”

Harper was quiet for a moment. The feeling of utter dread had taken root in the pit of her stomach. Belinda was frequently late, but she had never missed a day off work. She loved her job too much. Steeling herself, Harper remained quiet as her slowly anxious mind went into overdrive. Belinda had to be in an accident of some kind, it had to be something serious... Grounding herself in the office, she waited for Jayne to confirm her worst fear.

“Belinda is no longer with the company. As of this morning actually.” Jayne waited a beat, looking at Daniel who had joined them at Harper’s desk. Harper blinked and immediately thought of the time when Pluto, her beloved dog was put to sleep. The vet had assumed a pseudo caring impression and a seven year old Harper had immediately known that Pluto’s next bed would be in the ground outside her house.

Jayne Trather had the same demeanour, speaking like that vet who was on the verge of delivering a wretched prognosis. “The company is going through some changes at the moment. It was decided… that Belinda was unfortunately superfluous.”

Harper blinked. She was conscious of both Daniel and Jayne staring at her. She could feel her surprise turning to molten anger at the way Belinda had been dismissed. Harper exhaled, steadying herself with a palm on her desk. “She was fired. Why?” She was surprised by her sudden audacity in addressing the CEO in such a forthright manner but a part of her didn’t care. She just wanted answers.

Jayne tilted her head to one side, assuming the air of an immoral politician who was being grilled by an unhappy constituent. She said flatly, “The Company is going through some pretty drastic changes at the moment. We’ve been reviewing the situation for some time. Cutbacks were unfortunately necessary.”

Harper said through gritted teeth, “The workload is already insane. It’ll be impossible without Belinda. There’s just the two of us, for god’s sake!” Casting Daniel a vicious glance she continued, “What’s the plan? Have interns take over?”

Jayne was momentarily distracted by her buzzing iPhone. Silencing it with a deft nip she said with an air of condescension “Nothing is impossible Harper. It was an imperative move. We’re just trying to make the business model more sustainable, that’s all.”

Harper reached for her Volvic bottle, taking a few gulps to quench her suddenly parched throat. Her gaze fell on the slush pile adjacent to her desk and she suddenly remembered Belinda, pushing her reading glasses back up her nose as she hunched over the unsolicited manuscripts in the darkening office. Belinda loved her job. They had started with the company within a week of each other and had immediately bonded over a mutual love for Simon Sebag Montefiore and vanilla lattés. Emboldened by the poignant memory, Harper said tightly, “How can it be more sustainable running a million pound business on skeleton staff?” Gesturing towards Daniel she said, “I don’t have the time to train interns! That was Belinda’s job! How on Earth-”

“Daniel’s not an intern.”

Harper took another glug of water and paused mid-sip. Narrowing her eyes she waited in sickening suspense as Jayne eventually said, “Daniel is the new Digital Editor. He’ll be heading up the newly created E-book section.”

Harper blinked, wondering if she had heard correctly. This was turning out to be the day from hell and it couldn’t possibly get any worse… could it? She cast Daniel a quick glance who greeted her with a cursory nod.

Jayne was now going into PR overdrive as she said, “E-books are taking up a huge chunk of market-share and Daniel has been brought in to maximise the potential.” Taking in Harper’s stunned face, she said a little softly, “There will be no more cutbacks Harper, your job is safe. That’s the reason I came in, to assure you of your position. Now, I appreciate Belinda was your friend and colleague, but this was something that had to be done. I hope you will make your new colleague feel welcome. Daniel has some very exciting plans for the business.”

It was a while before Harper nodded. She felt deflated, as if she had run a hundred kilometres without a single sip of water, her insides hurting and making her want to collapse in a chair. The only way was to play nice. She would text Belinda at the first opportunity as soon as the meeting from hell was over. She turned stiffly towards Daniel and said tightly, “Welcome aboard.”

With a slight nod and concerned smile, Daniel proffered his hand. Harper glanced at it for a few seconds. She had to play nice for now. Raising her eyes in a defiant glare she accepted his hand which immediately clasped hers. He had a thoughtful expression as he said, “I look forward to working with you Harper. It’s definitely an interesting time to join the publishing industry.”

Daniel reluctantly released her hand as Harper quickly tugged it away. Jayne said breezily, “Daniel will sit at Belinda’s desk. Now that’s logistics out of the way, I just need a quick word with Daniel before I head back. I won’t keep you any longer Harper. Goodbye.”

Harper watched Daniel follow Jayne into the far room at the other side of the office. Oh God it was starting already. First the secret meetings, then whatever new fangled marketing plan that the two of them would cook up. Harper didn’t trust Jayne. She felt as if she was on borrowed time. As the door of the far room closed, Harper finally slumped in her seat.

She missed Belinda already and the office seemed off, an awful shade of empty without her. Pulling out her mobile phone, she quickly scrolled to Belinda’s number and hit dial. It went straight to voice-mail. She was on the verge of leaving a message when she realised she didn’t know what to say. She still had her job and Belinda didn’t. She faltered a few seconds after the pressurising beep, eventually saying, “Hey Bell, it’s me. Listen… I just found out. I’m… so sorry. And horrified… Are you OK? Call me… when you can? I can’t believe you’re not here…”

Harper hated leaving voice-mails and today was no exception. She stared at the manuscript on her desk and had a sudden urge to throw the papers out of the window. She imagined them floating down into the street, where they would be trampled on, like the disposable employees of Phantom Rouse.

She took another gulp of water, breathing herself calm as she told herself there was nothing she could do. Apart from her job. Guilty of imagining throwing the precious manuscript out of the window, she placed a protective hand over it and was filled with a sudden rush of repentant relief and sadness. She was happy for still having her job that she loved, yet the odd exhilaration was tainted with maudlin misery at Belinda’s impromptu departure.

She straightened up and took up her red pen. I am one of the best editors in the business. I can handle anything. Trying to be positive before her annoying subconscious had a chance to rear its ugly negative head, Harper focused on the manuscript in front of her. It was a masterpiece, she knew it. She hadn’t seen such quality writing since last year when she had devoured J.K. Rowling three years ago. She would plough all her efforts into this manuscript and give the author her undivided attention that he so richly deserved.

She didn’t even notice Jayne had left until she reached for her Volvic an hour later and spied Daniel at Belinda’s desk engrossed in his computer. She watched him surreptitiously over her water bottle. She could just about glimpse his crown of mussed sandy brown hair. His left forearm was emblazoned with a tattoo and she suddenly found herself trying to decipher the unfamiliar symbol. She was abruptly startled when he ran his hand through his hair and suddenly felt as if she was somehow intruding. Which was ridiculous, because if anyone was intruding, it was him. Taking over Belinda’s job.

She was suddenly hungry and realised she hadn’t had her mid-morning fruit salad. She checked her phone again. No news from Belinda. Plucking her purse and shoving her mobile in her bag so she could speak to Belinda openly, Harper made to get up. Daniel ducked his head around his computer and said, “Oh good, are you popping out for lunch? I’m starving, mind if I come with?”

Harper quieted her initial reaction of telling him to get lost. She was still annoyed that he hadn’t told her he wasn’t an intern, allowing her to make a fool of herself in front of Jayne. She couldn’t be too mad at him as she recalled that he did try to tell her, she just didn’t listen to him. Still, that was no reason to go fraternising with the enemy. Because that’s what he was. He had taken Belinda’s job, made her look like an idiot and was now trying to ingratiate himself with her. With all this in mind, Harper answered sharply, “Yes. I DO mind.”

Daniel had already stood up and stilled at her sharp response. Clutching his wallet he said with a half laugh, “OK. Listen Harper, we’re going to be working together and-”

“We WON’T be working together. Not if I can help it. You may have worked your charm on Jayne, but not on me. Now excuse me, but it’ll be a working lunch for me as I try to tackle my massive workload, thanks to recent changes in personnel.” With that, she swished out of the office leaving Daniel gobsmacked.

Once outside, she took a few gulps of air, the refreshing breeze cooling her hot cheeks. She knew she was being petty but she didn’t care. It was no excuse for a thirty year old to act like a ten year old, but she hadn’t been this frustrated in a long time. She almost laughed as she remembered Daniel’s jaw open in surprise at her sudden vehemence. Scooting into Café Prinzi for her usual sandwich, she pulled out her mobile phone and tried Belinda again. Shouting her order of ham on rye, with just a hint of pepper, Harper waited in the queue, phone plastered to her ear. When Belinda answered after two rings, Harper practically yelled, ‘Bell!’

Harper could barely hear a softly spoken Belinda in the noisy café. Edging towards the back and taking a seat in a marginally quieter corner, Harper said, “Sorry babe, I can hear you a bit better now. Oh Bell, how are you doing?’

“I’m… One word – gutted.”

“I called as soon as I could. I can’t believe it, it’s totally sucky. Missing you already babe.”

“Knocked me for six too. I think I’m still in shock. I got the call first thing this morning whilst I was still in bed.”

“WHAT?! They gave you no notice? That’s illegal!” Sensing hesitation in Belinda’s voice, Harper faltered to say, “It has to be illegal, right..?”

“Actually, it’s not. It’s part of the small print of the contract. I’ve been poring over it whilst necking my triple shot espresso. I’m on my third one today.”

“Uh oh, triple shot, huh? You’re justified on this occasion babe. So go on, this contract..?”

“The print is so small that it’s been easy to miss. If the company is financially unstable or on the verge of ruin, then employees can be dispensed with zero notice.”

“That’s bull. I can’t believe Phantom’s on the verge of financial collapse. I hate they’ve let you go. What am I going to do without you? Jayne was in this morning with the new Digital Editor. He’ll never be you. You’re irreplaceable-”

Harper was conscious of her order being called out. Gliding off the stool she made her way to the counter and paid for her sandwich, her phone still stuck to her ear. She could hear Belinda sigh and Harper suddenly realised how tired her friend sounded. “Wow Harper… that was quick. I really was indispensable…” Belinda continued in a half mumble, “I can’t process all this. Will definitely catch up later? I just need to wrap my head around it.”

“I know babe. Bell me when you’re good to chat. Miss you.”

Harper felt as if she was standing under a dense grey cloud which was threatening to rain any second. Just speaking to Belinda made her feel oddly guilty and tense, as if she too should be without a job. Harper clutched her sandwich tightly, leaving tense imprints on the pillowy bread as if it was a spongy stress reliever.

Belinda didn’t deserve this agro and neither did she. Harper didn’t want to return to the office so soon, not with Daniel sitting there on his blasted iPhone. It seemed Belinda’s weariness was contagious, because she quickly sank onto the bar stool at the window. With a defeated sigh, she slowly unwrapped her sandwich.

She was ravenous, the emotional morning taking its toll on Harper as she devoured her lunch. She continued staring out of the floor to ceiling windows whilst perched on her high stool, the crowds a bland distraction from the myriad conversations replaying in her mind. She couldn’t forget Belinda’s dejected voice. Or Jayne’s smug and matronly pout. Or Daniel. How dare he sit in Belinda’s chair so quickly after her departure, as if he was dancing on her grave in an insensitive fit of apathy.

She glanced at her BlackBerry next to her coffee. She was in no mood to return to the office with Daniel in it and would take the full hour for lunch today. She had a feeling she would be spending an increasing amount of her lunch hours out of the office. Taking another sip of coffee, she paused mid-sip when she spied a familiar face across the pavement.

Daniel didn’t see her as he was preoccupied on his mobile, seemingly in the midst of a conversation. Harper was stock still, as if she had seen a deer that she didn’t want to frighten. Paranoid that a sudden movement would draw his attention to her, she breathed slowly, the coffee cup remaining aloft and covering half of her face. Feeling comforted by the outside crowds rushing around during lunchtime and the packed café indoors, Harper continued to study Daniel from her newly discovered safe haven.

Harper didn’t know Daniel very well, but he looked annoyed. He appeared to be shaking his head and gesturing with his other hand, as if trying to make a point that was falling on deaf ears. Harper couldn’t help it, but seeing him annoyed made her smile. No doubt the workload was getting on top of him. He deserved to drown in a quagmire of work after usurping Belinda’s job. As she continued to watch him in gleeful satisfaction, she had a funny feeling that he wouldn’t last long. He seemed to be a different person than the one who had happily spoken to her earlier that morning. Now, he looked irritated, a slight scowl on his face as he crossed the pavement and headed for Café Prinzi.

Harper froze, shrinking down into her stool. The last thing she wanted was a confrontation with Daniel, especially when she could still imagine Belinda pounding her potent coffee after being unceremoniously fired.

Daniel hung back near the entrance, holding the door open and waiting for a woman to pass before joining the queue that snaked metres away from Harper. She kept his eyes on him the whole time, swivelling on her stool ever so slightly so that he remained in her field of sight. He had his back to her to begin with and when he placed his order, he still had his phone jammed to his left ear.

Did he never put his damn phone down? He still looked aggravated as he shouted his order above the hubbub. “Ham on rye mate!” before returning to his phone for a few more seconds. Catching the attention of the sandwich maker he shouted, “With just a bit of pepper please.”

Harper scowled, unwittingly annoyed that she had something in common with the person who she was determined not to like. Daniel had edged down the queue nearer to her seat as the queue moved further down. He remained oblivious of Harper’s presence as he took the proffered sandwich from the barista, clutching the phone to one ear and holding his sandwich in the other. He said somewhat vehemently into the phone, “I did NOT sign up for this!” before pushing out of the door and into the teeming street.

Harper raised an eyebrow in wary contemplation. Aha, he was already regretting it. There was hope that he wouldn’t last long. Maybe then Belinda would be offered her job back. And normality would be restored. Polishing off her food in a better mood than before, she headed back to work with a spring in her step. The office was quiet as she entered, Daniel hunched over his computer as she strode to her desk.

He kept his eyes fixed on his computer, plugged into his iPod and not acknowledging her. Which was just how Harper liked it. The afternoon passed in a whizz of editing and emails and before Harper knew it, her BlackBerry flashed 6:00pm. She had managed to plough her way through a third of the manuscript, significantly less than what she had wanted to do. Snapping her laptop shut, she closed her eyes, rolling her shoulders to ease the tension forming at the base of her neck. The last thing she needed was a migraine; she had too much to do. Especially since Belinda’s departure would undoubtedly throw extra duties her way, courtesy of the inept newbie in the office.

“Goodbye Harper.”                                                                          

Harper opened her eyes to see the back of Daniel as he disappeared through the door. He hadn’t even waited for her response. Good, she thought. She didn’t want him around and he knew that. He was a quick learner – if he stayed out of her way, then maybe things wouldn’t be so unbearable in the office.

Locking up the office, her gaze fell on Belinda’s empty desk. Harper always liked the office after hours, yet today, the office felt empty, as if a piece was missing from an otherwise perfect jigsaw. She loitered a moment at Belinda’s desk, her gaze falling on a framed photograph taken last Christmas. The expensive bash was paid for by the owner of Phantom Rouse, a fabulously wealthy Sheikh with financial interests in everything from football to perfume. The photograph showed a very merry Harper and clearly sozzled Belinda, group-hugging the interns and a bunch of other editors from the regional offices.

Harper was a big fan of homeostatis. She hated change. Especially if she hadn’t initiated it. A pang of nostalgia muddled with annoyance shot through her as she realised things were never going to be the same again. Belinda was more than just a friend, she was practically family. Harper had never been close to her own family, having lived away from home and relocated to London from an early age. Belinda had been her first friend in the City and the two had bonded and each considered the other as a surrogate family member.

Harper grabbed the photograph and placed it on her desk instead. Locking up, she finally made it out of the office, breathing a sigh of relief as she cast a backward glance at the building. The beige stone building looked different on this summer’s evening. It felt different, as if preparing itself for something big. There was something in the air, a delicately prescient yet disconcertingly pressing feeling that set Harper’s already fraught nerves on edge. Harper could feel the slight shift in the atmosphere. Change was coming, whether she liked it or not. 

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