The lilac light of dawn was just starting to creep round the blinds in Luke’s bedroom when a loud banging on his front door woke him up. Blearily he lay still for a moment, unsure if the knocking had been a dream, but then it came again and Luke jumped out of bed. As he approached the door he heard someone on the other side say “Alright lads, break it in.” Luke rushed to open the door and stood back quickly as two burly policemen, who were about to put their shoulders to the door, rushed past him and tripped over each other.
“Oh, we have a wise guy,” a nasty looking man said. He was obviously in charge and appeared to be one of those men who let his little bit of power go to his head. “Get up,” he snarled to his fallen officers. “You Luke?” he asked, Luke nodded. “Your presence has been requested at the Palace.”
“Requested?” Luke couldn’t help but query, with a faint smile.
“Yeah, that’s what I said. You could say no, but we’d drag you there anyway.”
“Right, I’ll come quietly. Can I just get dressed first?”
“Do you think I was born yesterday? First chance you get you’ll be out the bedroom window.”
“But we’re on the fifteenth floor. I’m not a criminal.”
“Not yet maybe, but one word from my boss changes all that, so why don’t you just come quietly.”
Luckily Luke was in the habit of sleeping in pyjama bottoms and a t-shirt so he wouldn’t make a fool of himself, although the thought of going commando at the Palace wasn’t a pleasant one. Luke could see his neighbours peering sleepily round their doors; he’d never get over the stigma if the police had to drag him away. “Fine. I’m coming.”
Alex felt sick, his mouth full of excess saliva, and a painful throbbing behind his eyes. The night had brought no rest for him. His conversation with Ted whirled constantly through his mind. One minute he was convinced that Ted was wrong and then the next he was wondering why he’d never noticed it before; he just couldn’t believe that his parents would never have said anything to him. Alex’s tangled thoughts were barely interrupted when his cell door was opened and Eve was pushed inside.
Eve winced as Alex turned his blank stare on her. He was lying on the mattress. She sat beside him as the door was slammed shut. Eve didn’t know whether to break the silence or not, but as Alex seemed to have forgotten about her again she decided to leave him with his thoughts. She couldn’t imagine how it felt to have everything you believe in shaken. If she’d found out that her father wasn’t really her father, well ... she didn’t know how’d she cope. She sighed; Alex didn’t deserve to find out like that.
“You OK?” Alex asked, after hearing Eve’s unhappy sigh.
“I honestly don’t know, Eve. Am I supposed to be?”
Eve was silent for a moment. “I wouldn’t be,” she eventually replied, unable to lie to him.
“I don’t want to be President. I just want to go home and have everything go back to normal.” Alex closed his eyes and pictured his home in his mind. All was peaceful and quiet. He had really taken it all for granted.
Eve didn’t know how to respond to Alex’s declaration. She couldn’t bring herself to say that it didn’t really matter what Alex wanted, that he was part of something bigger now and he had to sacrifice his old life for the good of the country.
“I know what you’re thinking.” Alex‘s conscience interpreted Eve’s silence. “You think I’m being selfish.”
“No I don’t. I can understand how you want things to go back to how they were. Lord knows I do too.”
“Life’s not like that, it’s not fair, but you’ve been given a real opportunity to make a difference to the whole country Alex.”
There was another silence. Alex knew that Eve was right. Kicking and screaming wasn’t going to do him any good, but maybe …“Couldn’t I choose someone to rule in my place?”
“It’s never been done before, but who would you pick, a Founding Family member? A minister? A business leader? How would you keep everyone happy?”
“What about Sid? This whole rebellion thing is really his show.”
“He’s not a leader, Alex. He’s a great second in command, but you make the world a better place during your speeches, just for a little while.”
“Do I? I’m just guessing when I talk to the press, I don’t know what I’m saying till the words come out of my mouth.”
“It only means that the words come from your heart and not your head. We can all see it.”
“But I’m just a country boy. I know nothing about the City or the way it works.”
“It’s in your blood, you can’t help it.”
“In my blood?” Alex mused aloud. That would certainly explain the vision he got when he gave his last speech, and the feeling of someone or something taking him over when he was in front of the cameras.
“All of it is a moot point anyway,” Eve added bitterly. “If we don’t get out of here soon then Ted Bundy is going to have us killed.”
“Personal gain, I assume. He’s got some plan for taking over but he can’t put it into action if you are still alive.”
“You really think he’ll try something whilst we’re here in the Palace?”
“For a man like Ted, setting up a ‘tragic accident’ is pretty easy.”
“Have you told Diaz? He seemed like an okay guy.”
“No. Ted’s made sure I can’t speak to anyone.”
“Maybe I could. There is this guard Thistle who is on our side.”
Privately Eve had her doubts about Thistle’s level of access, but even a doomed plan was better than nothing. “It’s worth a try. Let’s ask him.”
Alex jumped up and banged on the door. The hatch shot back and an unfamiliar pair of green eyes stared in. “Thistle?” Alex asked.
“Is he around?”
“When will he be back?”
“Later.” The guard, obviously overtaxed by such a long conversation, slammed the hatch shut.
Alex turned to Eve. “We’ll just have to wait.”
Luke’s ride to the Palace had been mercifully uneventful. He was hustled in through a side entrance and dragged along until he reached the formal dining room. The nasty officer in charge opened the door and Luke was thrown into the room. He was relieved to hear a stern voice dismiss his escorts. Sitting up he saw Bret, Vinnie, Nick, Simon and Jerry in similar states of undress sitting uncomfortably at the large table. A large man loomed over him and gestured to the nearest empty chair; silently Luke got up and sat as asked. He looked to his fellow Painted Ladies, his lips quirked questioningly; all he received were nervous looks and shrugs in return.
“Please allow me to introduce myself.” The man stood at the head of the table. “My name is Cyril Hedge, Minister of technology control. Firstly please accept my apologies for the manner in which you were brought here; my police division can be a little enthusiastic.” Luke and the others nodded meekly, and Cyril continued, “I gathered you all here to ask for your help.”
“Our help?” Bret questioned. The way he’d been treated did not imply that he had any choice in the matter.
“Londinium is in a great state of unrest, as I’m sure you know. I simply want you to put on a performance here tonight to help boost morale.”
There was a long moment of silence whilst they all looked to Luke. “I’m afraid we already have a booking for tonight,” he muttered.
“Not to worry. I will personally call your clients and explain to them the situation.”
“How many people would it be for?” Nick asked, wondering if they’d get paid.
“I intend to broadcast the performance on television, as well as inviting a crowd in to view it live.”
“Oh,” Nick said, “we don’t do television appearances.”
“Really?” Cyril was stunned; he’d thought they would be eager for the publicity.
“Part of our appeal is that we’re not mass market like that.” Nick explained.
“It keeps us mysterious. We rely solely on word of mouth,” Bret added.
Cyril thought for a moment. The Intel he’d received from various sources said that men in drag were seen leaving the Palace the night of Alex’s arrest. Cyril wondered if the Painted Ladies were in deeper than he’d realised. “Alex performed with you a few nights ago, didn’t he?”
“Yeah, so?” Jerry said defensively.
“I was wondering what coloured dress he wore?”
“Purple I think, why?” Luke was getting nervous; did Cyril know of their involvement with the break-in?
“No, I wear blue,” Simon corrected.
“Strange, I could have sworn that Alex was wearing a blue dress...” Cyril stared knowingly at Luke.
Luke sighed in defeat. “Okay, okay, we’ll do a performance for you tonight.”
“Excellent.” Cyril clapped his hands together. “I knew Londinium could count on you.”
Johnstone had got wind of Alex and Eve’s imprisonment through an unofficial source. He had strong suspicions that Ted was trying to cheat him out of his contract, and he was fuming. The Company was not to be messed with like that. Johnstone was determined to get into to cells and kill his targets himself. No one tried to renege on him. He had decided to do some reconnaissance from the @ Greenes coffee shop across from the Palace. He carefully took note of shift change for the guards and who came and went and when. He had no reason to focus his attention on his surroundings, which is how Lady Garland had managed to sneak up on him. She was watching him from just a few tables away.
“Just look at him, Annie,” she whispered with a sigh, “so dedicated, you can tell he has strong fingers, just look at the way he holds his pen.”
“Milady?” Annie queried. “What are we going to do about him?”
“The things I could do ...” Julie was lost in her own private world for a moment, before she focused back on Annie and the job in hand. “We have to tell him we are not allowed to take contracts out on any members of the Presidential family. Johnstone would go to jail for life if he killed Alex.”
“Will he listen to you?”
“I am going to have to be very convincing.” She pushed a plate containing a chocolate brownie towards Annie. “Now take this over to him. Be gentle, mind, we don’t want him to run away.”
“Yes Milady,” Annie took the plate and cautiously approached the assassin.
Johnstone noticed a young woman moving towards him in his peripheral vision. Assuming she worked for the coffee shop, he ignored her, but was surprised when she stopped at his table and placed a plate at his elbow. Looking at her properly he felt he recognised her from somewhere. “I didn’t order this.” He gruffly tried to get rid of her.
“It is from Milady,” Annie said, pointing to where Julie sat.
Johnstone looked across at the table and gasped. She was there again, his beautiful angel from the roof top. The young woman had said Milady. The name confirmed Johnstone’s guess that she was also from the agency. He smiled at her. When she smiled back it was like a sunbeam was warming him, there was just something about her, something which made him break the company rules and approach her.
Lady Garland watched as Johnstone stood, his muscles moving powerfully beneath the skin on his arms. Her heart beat faster as he got nearer, her mouth went dry and she felt a faint shiver run up her spine as he sat across from her. Johnstone wasn’t faring much better, his palms were sweaty and any semblance of a rational thought flew from his mind as he was pinned to the chair by her azure gaze. They stared at each other until Julie was aware of Annie hovering beside her. She flushed and lowered her gaze, freeing him as well.
Johnstone chuckled slightly and placed the brownie down between them. “I wanted to thank you, and ask you to share with me.”
His deep rich voice flowed like melted chocolate over her. Looking up at him through her lashes she simply said, “I would like that.”
Her voice had a similar affect on Johnstone’s ears; it was sweet and slightly husky. He picked up a knife that had been lying on the side of the plate and swiftly cut the brownie in half. Julie reached over to break a piece from her half and their fingers brushed, sending electric sparks up their arms. Johnstone flushed this time and slowly pulled his hand away. Concentrating on taking a bite of his brownie, he was able to focus his mind long enough to start asking her questions.
“I saw you on the roof the other night, didn’t I?”
“Yes,” Julie breathed. The thought of denying it never crossed her mind.
“Are we ...” Johnstone paused to consider how to word his question; they could be easily overheard in such a public place. “Are we both after the same thing?”
“I am afraid that I am after the opposite thing,” Julie replied just as cryptically.
In any normal situation, finding out that your target had another company operative trying to protect them would mean immediate action. The protector would need to be taken out of the equation, non – lethally of course, and Johnstone would have to get the job done much more quickly. He should have been thinking of ways to lure her to a safe house, or maybe dose her coffee with something, but he just couldn’t do it to her. He rubbed his temples distractedly as a wave of exhaustion washed over him. What was happening?
Julie had felt bad about drugging the brownie, especially once she had seen Johnstone face to face. She watched as his eyes clouded. As the sedative took effect, he slumped slightly in his chair and Julie jumped up and helped him to stand. Annie helped her half drag Johnstone away from the coffee shop. For Julie, to feel him in her arms was a thrill. He was well muscled as she’d expected. She breathed in a whiff of his cologne; he smelt heavenly. She hoped that once all this was over that he wouldn’t hold it against her. It was just business, after all.
Ted had been enjoying his first lie-in for years. He had thrown his alarm clock across the room when it woke him at six in the morning and turned back over, his large double bed welcoming him like an old lover. Almost the entire morning was passed this way. Vivid dreams of Presidential life wound their way past his eyes. He was sitting on the official seat of office with Emily, his blushing bride to be, supplicant at his feet; he was hailed as the most loved President of all time. It was his bladder, in the end that forced him to get up. After relieving himself, he put on a monogrammed dressing gown and slippers and made his way to the kitchen in search of coffee. He did a double take as he looked at the clock; he had slept in much later than he had thought. It was nearly midday. His mobile started ringing, and thoughts of coffee were driven from his mind as he checked the caller ID. It was Mr Mitall-Patterson.
“Good morning, Sir,” Ted answered brightly.
“Is it? Where have you been? I’ve been trying to get hold of you for hours?”
Ted swallowed. He daren’t tell the truth; a forced leave of absence would not enamour his future father in law to him. “Diaz kept us in a meeting all morning,” he lied smoothly.
“Well, I’ve had Diaz’s lapdog on the phone.”
Ted thought quickly. “Cyril?”
“Yes, he has cancelled the Painted Ladies performance I had planned for tonight.”
“The Ladies are performing for the Palace and the public instead. What do you intend to do about it, Ted?”
“I will certainly look into it for you straight away, but Cyril had Diaz’s ear so...”
“I told you to get in with Diaz, didn’t I?”
“What am I going to tell my wife now?”
“Maybe I could get you invited to the Palace performance instead.”
“That’s the least you could do, Ted, if you want to be part of this family one day...” Mitall-Patterson trailed off, the threat clear in his tone.
“Of course, Sir. I will have some tickets sent to you straight away.”
There was a huff from Mitall-Patterson before he hung up. Ted’s feeling of peace was shattered. Forgoing coffee, he rushed back to his bedroom to get dressed.
Ditching Helena and her father the Professor had turned out to be easier said than done. They had taken rather a shine to his cousin’s pastries and saw no reason why they should move. Bob had spent the whole of yesterday trying, subtly at first, to get them moving, but they had refused even Bob’s blatant attempts. Helena had been very attentive to Bob, which had almost made him forget his problems on several occasions, and was definitely not helping. Late last night he had been able to get away from the Thackerays on the pretext of finding out if the police were still searching for them. Bob had rushed back to his pokey flat and flung himself on his bed exhausted, but too frustrated to sleep. A night of tossing and turning had, however, finally brought forth an answer to his problems. He would call the police anonymously, then warn his cousin and get rid of them that way. His plan had swung into action a few hours ago and he was now watching in a crowd of onlookers as the police raided the Trade Centre.
The police came out empty handed a few minutes later and the police tape went up; there would be a forensic sweep but as the DNA lab was out of service Bob wasn’t too worried about what they would find. There was a press presence building in the middle of the plaza. Bob had expected some low-level minster or police chief to brief the press and was astounded when Cyril Hedge, Diaz’s number two, appeared from within the Trade Centre and approached the press. Bob moved closer to try and hear what was being said, although it would be all over the news for the rest of the day. The crowd surged with him until they were all pushed up to the police cordon several feet away from the press conference. It seemed that Cyril’s appearance had excited everybody.
“If I can have some quiet, please, I have a statement to read to you. Please note that I won’t be taking questions at this time.” Cyril commanded instant silence as reporters and crowd members alike waited to hear what was going on. “Thank you. At midday police raided several premises at the Trade Centre.”
“Is this connected to the LCDD bombing?” a reporter asked. Cyril glared at him and he was nudged painfully by fellow journalists. “Sorry,” he said quietly.
“It is believed at this time,” Cyril said, looking at the statement Sarah Lovely had given him before he’d left the Palace, “that there may be a connection between the explosion and a father and daughter team believed to be hiding out here. The investigation is ongoing and all persons of interest are going to be questioned in order to discover what happened on that dreadful night.” Cyril stepped back and the reporters began shouting questions, but it was clear that the press conference was over.
Bob moved back through the crowd until he was at the edge of the Plaza, a smile on his face. This was too perfect. He had no idea who had blown up the lab, but if the police thought that Thackeray and the book was connected to that then Bob was in the clear. With a bounce in his step Bob returned home and was finally able to get some sleep.
Diaz had watched Cyril’s speech live on television with the rest of the crisis team in the formal dining room. He muted the set once it was over. “Nice speech, Sarah.”
“Thanks. Hopefully it will make us look proactive.”
“Hopefully,” Diaz agreed and started shifting through the morning papers.
There was quiet for a moment until Sarah asked, “Where’s Ted?”
Diaz paused, staring at a headline proclaiming that Alex should be the new President. “He has a special assignment and can’t be with us for a while,” Diaz said diplomatically. He couldn’t risk his outburst becoming public knowledge; it would just start the rumour mill going again.
“Oh.” Sarah couldn’t push for a better answer, but as long as Ted was out of her way for a while she didn’t mind. She had been preparing for an almighty storm to break out over Alex’s arrest as she was sure that the members of the rebellion would tell everyone last night. Whilst she had been relieved that it hadn’t happened it had made her wonder how many strings were being pulled behind her back. “There is nothing I should know, then, nothing that the press could use against us?” she enquired tentatively.
Diaz’s gaze shot up and he stared at her. “Not that I know of,” he said, his mind racing. Was there anything that she could have heard? “Have you prepared a statement regarding Alex?” he asked, changing the topic.
“Yes, it all played out very well for us, we come out of it looking very good. When did you want me to arrange the conference for?”
“Later this afternoon. I need you to add something to the statement. I want you to arrange a Painted Ladies concert for tonight, and invite the protestors and the press. ”
“What?” she asked, shocked; there were murmurs from the rest of the group.
“I can’t take all the credit. Cyril got the group to do it, but as you can see he now has his hands full. So, Sarah, I need you to take over the arrangements. We need a stage assembled in the ballroom. One of Cyril’s people will get you up to date.”
“Of course. I will re-write the statement and get it to you as soon as I can. We need to get this onto the news. We could do with the good press.”
After finally getting dressed, Luke had met up with Bret, Vinnie, Jerry, Nick and Simon in the @ Greenes coffee shop which operated in the lobby of Luke’s building. They all had extra large mugs, with the accustomed large green @ sign emblazoned on them. The mugs looked like they held at least a pint of coffee, which in normal circumstances would go cold before you reached the bottom. However, these weren’t normal circumstances and large quantities of caffeine were needed to recover from the shock of the morning.
“You didn’t have to give in so easily,” Jerry moaned.
“It’s not like I had a choice. He knew about the costumes.” Luke defended himself.
“That was your idea as well,” Nick couldn’t help but remind him. “That Mitall-Patterson gig would have set us up for another year.”
Luke raised his voice, “I know that!”
“Luke’s right,” Bret said, “we didn’t have a choice.”
“But we’re going to be on TV now,” Jerry said into his coffee cup. “We promised each other that we wouldn’t go on telly.”
“We will be recognised,” Simon added. “I won’t be able to face my family.”
“I will have a talk with the TV guys, make sure there are no close-ups,” Bret said, as Luke’s shoulders sagged.
“Let’s try to be positive,” Vinnie spoke up suddenly. They turned to him. “This could be the making of us. We’re pretty famous at the moment in some circles. But after tonight we’ll have all the work we’ll ever need.”
“That’s true,” Nick conceded. “And it will be like doing a charity gig. Loads of good PR.”
“Yeah,” Jerry agreed, seeing pound signs in front of his eyes.
“You guys are mad, you know that, don’t you.” Simon said with a smile. “I suppose with extra make-up we could disguise ourselves better.” The thought of the challenge excited him. It was why he’d joined in the first place, going in front of an audience and being Suzy instead of boring old Simon. “This is like the ultimate gig.”
“You guys mean that?” Luke asked, feeling hopeful for the first time that day.
There was a chorus of yes’s, “We’re not blaming you Luke, in fact looking at it right the guys are right, this could be the best thing for us.” Bret smiled and Luke smiled back.
“Damn straight,” Nick declared, and blew out a breath. “Maybe we should buy some new dresses?”
“Trust you to think of shopping, Nick,” Jerry said, and they all laughed. “But you have a point. Come on, let’s make this a night to remember.”
They clinked their coffee mugs together, “Let’s do this!”
Eve groaned loudly, stretching out her cramped legs. “They can’t keep us in here like this,” she declared.
“We’ll add that to our list of things to tell Diaz then,” Alex said sarcastically.
Eve chuckled. “Your company has its benefits though,” she conceded.
“Yeah, I hated being alone.”
They were quiet for a short while, when Eve asked suddenly, “Tell me about your girlfriend.”
“Doris? You want to know about Doris?”
“Yeah. I would tell you about my love life except we’d die of starvation before I was halfway through.”
“Okay.” Alex smiled and closed his eyes, conjuring up an image of Doris. “She’s beautiful, not skinny like everyone in the city seems to be. Not fat either, but she has some nice curves.”
“Typical man, talk about her boobs first.” Eve laughed.
Alex blushed. “She does have very nice ones.”
“I’m really pleased to hear that. I was, however, more interested in her personality.”
“I was getting to that,” Alex replied hotly but still smiling. He could joke around with Eve just like he could with his sisters. “She is funny, kind, fiercely protective of those she loves. Not to mention she hasn’t ditched me for someone else even though she didn’t want me to come to the city. When I get home I am going to ask her to marry me.”
“Wow, that is the most romantic thing I have ever heard. She is a very lucky lady.”
“No, I’m the one who’s lucky, and I didn’t even realise it until now.”
“Prison has a way of making you reflect, doesn’t it?” Eve said quietly.
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah. Just wish I had someone on the outside who was waiting for me, that’s all.” She laughed. “Listen to me. I sound like I’ve been locked up for years.”
“You’ll find someone, I know you will.” Alex sought for a way to change the subject. “Why don’t you tell me about the LCDD?”
“It’s kinda boring, unless you’re a science nerd like me,” Eve warned.
“I’m not going anywhere.”
“Very true.” Eve took a moment to collect her thoughts. “I have been working there in one capacity or another for nearly ten years. I was lucky and got picked up straight out of school. My classmates are all waitresses or working in shops and here I am running the world’s largest DNA database every night.”
“That’s very impressive.”
“I thank my lucky stars every night. Not everyone does something they like for a living. I wonder if I still have a job there after this.”
“Well, if I really am the next President...”
“Which you are,” she butted in.
“Then I will make sure that you keep your job. Why were you arrested anyway?”
“Because I didn’t die when I should have done.”
Alex was shocked, “What do you mean?”
“Once I had seen your DNA result I telephoned Ted as per procedure. He then somehow blew up the entire building to cover it up.”
“Politics. Maybe he wants a Founding Family to take over. I don’t know. The one thing that’s clear is that he wanted me dead. When I fainted in your arms on TV,” here Eve blushed, “he saw that I was alive, and had me arrested on some bogus charge so he could see what I knew, and more importantly who I’d told.”
“I’m sorry, Eve.”
“It’s not your fault. The whole system is rotten.”
“But those people died, your colleagues died because I came to the city.”
“You came here with the noble intention of saving your sister, Alex, this is not your fault.” She stared at him, “Say it with me...”
“It’s not my fault,” Alex parroted back to Eve, warmed by her insistence. If she didn’t blame him then maybe no one else would either.
This time it was Eve who changed the conversation. “Maybe Thistle is in now?”
“I’ll ask.” Alex stood and knocked on the door. The hatch shot back and green eyes stared at him. “Is Thistle around?”
“I don’t know why you want that idiot, but he’ll be taking over from me in a few hours, so you can bother him then.” The guard sneered and closed the hatch.
“I guess we’ll just have to wait,” Eve said as Alex sat beside her again.
Lady Garland paced nervously in front of Johnstone. He was still sleeping and securely tied to a chair. Annie had been sent back to Julie’s office. Only Johnstone and herself would be privy to what was said. Julie had never been so unfocused in all her life; normally the job was all she cared about and she would do anything to ensure her client’s wishes were fulfilled. Johnstone, however, was upsetting all that. She had to stop herself from staring at him, staring at the way the sunlight caught his strong jaw, or the way his eyelids would flutter as he slept. She’d never found herself so distracted by a man before. She had asked the Duchess for some information on him, and learned that his record was equal to hers in almost every way. He was efficient, committed and deadly; also he was highly thought of amongst his peers and his bosses. He was tipped, as she was, to one day run his side of the Company. Maybe that was where the attraction lay. She had finally found an equal, compared to the inferior men she normally dated. Mentally she shook herself. She wasn’t going to date Johnstone; she had to stop thinking like a love-struck teenager.
The first thing Johnstone was aware of as he woke was the sweet smell of perfume; he recognised it instantly as belonging to the Lady he was working against. The memory of the coffee shop flooded back and he cringed inwardly. How could he have let his guard down like such a novice? She must think he was completely stupid. How could he have made such a fool out of himself in front of her? When he tried to move his arms he realised the extent of his situation. She had well and truly tied him to a chair without an inch of wiggle room, just like a pro. He opened his eyes and felt his heart almost stop beating as his gaze locked with hers.
Lady Garland turned away from Johnstone’s stare and composed herself. “We find ourselves in a knotty situation, Johnstone.”
“Do we?” Internally he berated himself: think of your training. “Can I have the pleasure of your name, Milady? You have me at quite a disadvantage.”
“I am Lady Garland. As you probably know, I have been hired to protect Alex Winthrop.”
“I was warned that there was another contract out on him.”
“Some information has been given to me from a most reputable source which affects your agreement.” Julie was proud that she was keeping so calm. Her heart was beating wildly and her face felt red hot. “I will tell you plainly that Alex is the illegitimate son of Dirk Smudge and as a result the only heir to the Presidency.” The words escaped in a rush. Julie studied Johnstone carefully to see if he believed her.
Johnstone was shocked. He had not expected her to try these tactics; she was a formidable opponent indeed. “You cannot expect me to believe you,” he answered, wishing he was as confident as he sounded.
“I know you will find it hard to accept, but you have been deliberately set up to kill the heir. You know the punishment that would carry.”
Johnstone knew full well what would happen if she was right. It had been drilled into him from day one – don’t touch the President or his family. “This is a trick.” His voice shook this time.
Julie knelt down in front of her prisoner. “I want us to work together to save him, and see him rightly take control of Londinium.”
He looked into her eyes. Everything about her seemed to be radiating truth and honesty. That and the thought of working close with her was very appealing as well. “If this is a trick...”
“I invoke my honour as a Lady and swear to you that I am telling the truth.”
He gasped. A Lady’s honour was an unbreakable vow that was not lightly used. If she was lying and he exposed her, her reputation would be in tatters. “You put a lot of faith in your source.”
“His information is unimpeachable.”
Johnstone felt a pang of jealousy at the thought of her trusting another man so much, a very alien feeling to him. “In that case I accept. I will inform my boss of our arrangement.”
“Thank you.” She smiled brightly. “I will inform the Duchess as well.”
“Can you untie me now?” Johnstone asked, smiling as Julie blushed bright red.
“Maybe I like you like that,” she said flirtatiously, hardly believing her own daring.
“Well,” he chuckled, “I will have to remember that for later, but for now I think I’d be of more use on my feet.”
“We’ll see about that.” She winked at him and released him from the chair.
Cyril made his way slowly back to the Palace. Rather than returning straight to the formal dining room and briefing Diaz, Cyril stopped in at the ballroom, where the sounds of frantic hammering and sawing could be heard as the stage for tonight’s performance was taking shape. The shouts of a fierce argument suddenly stopped as Cyril stepped into the room.
Sarah Lovely was arguing with an older man who was clutching a clip board, “Cyril, thank goodness,” Sarah said and beckoned him over. They were standing amidst the half completed stage. “Can you please explain to this,” Sarah took a calming breath, “this gentleman these plans you’ve had made.”
Cyril turned to the man, and cast about in his memory for a name. “Mr Phelps, is there a problem with the plans?”
Mr Phelps had a contract with the Palace to perform any building work that was needed; some of his team had already repaired the elevator which had led to the death of Bart Smudge. A working lifetime of dealing with ministers had given him an almost sixth sense and the bright and slightly brittle way Cyril had spoken had set alarm bells ringing. “Not as such, Sir,” he began placating Cyril. “It’s just the deadline. My guys...”
“The deadline in non-negotiable, I appreciate that it is a lot of work and I’m sure you will find us extremely generous.”
Phelps swallowed nervously “Of course Sir, I ...” He looked at Cyril’s hard gaze, “I’ll just be getting back to work.”
“Excellent, and don’t go giving Minister Lovely a hard time.” Cyril shouted after Mr Phelps. He turned to Sarah, “I find the promise of extra money works wonders with workmen.”
“You certainly have a knack, that’s for sure. Are you seeing Diaz?”
“Just on my way now.”
“Could you do me a favour and take him this statement I’ve prepared for the press conference later?”
“Of course.” Cyril took a folder from Sarah and resumed his journey to the formal dining room.
Cyril quietly entered the room to find Diaz was sitting alone amongst a sea of papers, newsprint staining the sleeves of his shirt. Cyril coughed gently to get his attention. “I’ve got the statement for the conference later.” He sat beside his old friend, and placed the folder in front of him. “How are things?” he asked after a moment of quiet.
“I am doing the right thing, aren’t I?” Diaz asked with a sigh.
“You’re doing all that you can.”
“But is that enough?”
“You know that you have only the city’s best interests at heart. What’s brought all this on?”
Diaz slid a copy of the Londinium Dispatch, one of the city’s most popular papers, across to Cyril. The headline proudly claimed that ‘Alex should be President’ and went on to list over a dozen reasons why. Cyril was indignant. “You can’t believe this rubbish. There is no way they really want a farm boy for President.”
“You think so?”
“I know so. Can you imagine the headlines? They’d call you all sorts of things. He’s just a face for people to get behind.”
“He said he just wants to go home.”
“There you go.” Cyril filled away the information about Alex’s interrogation for later. “He knows it’s nonsense.”
“Thanks, Cyril,” Diaz said, facing his friend for the first time, “I needed to hear that.”
“That’s what I’m here for. Now, do you want to know about the raid?”
“Yes, what did you find?”
“Someone must have tipped the professor off because there was no sign of him, but I had the crowd canvassed and several people thought they saw him and his daughter the day before.”
“Just our luck. Any news on the tipster?”
“No, the call was made from a public phone, so no luck there either.”
“All in all, another thoroughly typical day.”
“So far, but I have a feeling that tonight will change things.”
Diaz took Cyril’s cryptic comment in his stride. “As long as things change for the better, that’s all I ask.”
Ted was surprised at the ease with which he was able to get back into the Palace. Clearly Diaz hadn’t made their argument public knowledge or Cyril would have certainly sealed it up tight. Even so Ted avoided the most public of areas and confined his activities to the maze of hallways and cells in the basement. He thought of visiting Alex to press him for more information, but decided against it. The young man had seemed clearly shocked by what Ted had told him, and as such could not have been behind the recent activities of the rebellion. As Ted made his way to a secure terminal near the cells, he wondered who had pulled the strings to make the Painted Ladies concert happen. Did they know about Alex’s true identity? It seemed most likely that some attempt to rescue Alex was being planned for tonight, whilst everyone was distracted. Well, he for one wasn’t going to fall for it; sometimes he really believed that he was the only person with any common sense in the whole Palace.
Sarah had taken a break from overseeing the preparations for that evening, much to the relief of the workmen, and had called a press conference. The room was buzzing with the confused chatter of journalists; it was extremely unusual for Diaz to call a press conference at this time of day. Once the chatting had died down and all the cameras and microphones were set up Sarah slipped into a side room where Diaz was running through the statement one last time. He looked up as Sarah entered. “We ready to go?” he asked.
“Yes, there is quite a lot of interest amongst the journalists.”
“I bet,” Diaz said and took a deep breath. The room fell instantly silent as he appeared and stood before the podium. The room seemed full to bursting. Sarah hadn’t been joking about the interest. Diaz cleared his throat slightly and began. “Thank you all for attending at short notice. I know that last night the protestors told you that Alex was meeting with me to discuss Londinium.” There was a murmur of agreement. “We are still involved in detailed talks with Alex and as such can’t comment on any details at the moment.” The murmurs got louder. “However,” Diaz said stridently, calling the reporters to attention again, “I would like to announce that we at the Palace have arranged a very special treat for the protestors and everyone following the story at home. Tonight the Painted Ladies are performing a one off show for you all.” There was a barrage of camera flashes, and questions being shouted out. “All the details will be given to you in a press pack as you leave, and the performance is expected to start at eight thirty. Thank you.” Diaz was able to escape as the journalists were still digesting the information.
Sarah smiled widely as Diaz came into the room and quickly shut the door behind him. “Well done, Sir.” At the other end of the room were several TVs showing all the prominent news channels.
Diaz watched as his face was shown back to him from all angles whilst captions detailed the key points. “This doesn’t feel like politics,” he said quietly.
“What was that, Sir?” Sarah asked, concerned.
“Nothing. Carry on.”
“Very good Sir.” Sarah left Diaz alone with the images of himself.
Ted had watched the broadcast live from a computer connected to the Palace intranet. ‘And so the plot thickens’ he thought to himself. From what he could gather Alex was still in his cell with Eve as Ted had left them yesterday, so he knew that most of what Diaz said was a lie, information he filed away for later. He searched the intranet until he found the guest list for the performance later and made sure that Mr Mitall-Patterson and his wife were included, just as he had promised. He then checked the duty roster for that evening to see who was supposed to be on guard duty during the concert. He frowned when he saw it was Sergeant Thistle. The man was an incompetent who couldn’t be trusted with his own sandwiches. Ted decided that he would have to be guarding the guard if he wanted to make sure that Alex was still in his cell the next morning.
Sid had been with Rodney, Thomas and several other protestors when the press conference had been shown. They had all been thrilled that they were getting a special performance from the Painted Ladies that evening. Sid had watched them with a parental eye and couldn’t help but be swept up by the excitement. Rodney had looked hard at Sid for a moment, suspecting his involvement, but Sid had simply shrugged as innocently as he could which seemed to satisfy Rodney. Sid just hoped that Lady Garland had a good plan. Another attempt to rescue Alex wouldn’t be possible.
“Well done, Rodney,” Thomas and the others congratulated him. “We must be making a difference if they are putting on a show just for us.”
Rodney smiled. “I knew that we couldn’t be ignored forever.”
“Alex must be giving them hell.”
Rodney’s face fell just for a moment. “I bet he is. I have told him everything about the rebellion.”
“He must have learnt a lot from you,” Sid said, smoothing Rodney’s hurt feelings.
Rodney beamed again. “We are all a team, aren’t we,” he said graciously.
Sid looked at his watch. “We had better get a move on. The protestors will be arriving soon.”
“I wonder how many there will be tonight?” Thomas asked.
“A lot, I should think. Our cause is really being taken up.”
“You might want to think about who your most hardcore and long standing supporters have been. There won’t be room for everyone in the ballroom,” Sid advised.
“I was just thinking that, Sid,” Thomas agreed, anxious to make absolutely sure he was not only on the list but in the front row if possible.
“Good point guys,” Rodney agreed, glad to once again be at the centre of things.
Sergeant Thistle was a happy-go-lucky sort of man. He took pleasure from the little things in life, as well as aspiring to the big things in life which were fame and fortune, of course. Today his aspirations were looking more feasible than ever as he heard that Alex had been asking for him all morning. With his chest puffed out, he swaggered down to Alex’s cell to relieve Sergeant Brookes who had been on all morning.
“Oh look who finally decides to join us,” Brookes sniped. As usual Thistle was late.
“You will not bring me down today, Brookes,” Thistle replied, placing a mug of hot sweet tea on the desk not far from Alex’s cell.
“Well, at least I will get to see the Painted Ladies tonight. It’s you who’ll be stuck down here.”
Thistle ignored him. “I hear Alex has been asking for me.”
“Yes. I told him not to bother but he seems to think you are important or something.”
“You have no idea what hides behind this uniform, Brookes. I might be a rebel spy for all you know.”
“The only thing your uniform is hiding is you beer belly, and it’s not doing a very good job either.” Brookes smiled as Thistle’s hands wrapped around his stomach. “Try not to overthrow anything until the morning. I’d hate to be called in on my night off,” Brookes said as he left Thistle at the desk and wandered towards the break room.
Thistle watched him go and sighed when he was finally alone. He patted his belly lightly. ‘Pure muscle,’ he thought. ‘Brookes is jealous, that’s all’. He paced behind his desk for a few moments, desperately wanting to see Alex but not wanting to look needy. However, a knock from Alex’s door had Thistle rushing to open it. He was greeted by a warm smile from Alex.
“Sergeant, thank goodness you’re finally here.” Alex said, and Thistle blushed.
“We need your help. You’re the only one we can trust,” Eve simpered.
Thistle was surprised to see Eve with Alex as the cells were only meant to hold one person, but then he remembered that they were brother and sister. Obviously it was a special case. “I will do what I can for you, Miss.”
“We need you to get a message to Diaz for us,” Alex explained.
Eve laid the flattery on thickly. “We are sure that someone in your position would have his confidence.”
Even with his inflated ego Thistle couldn’t let that pass. “I wouldn’t say that. I rarely leave the cells.”
Eve was going to say something when Alex put his hand on her shoulder and squeezed gently. “You said yesterday that you secretly supported the rebellion, is that true?”
“Yes. It’s like I said, the Ministers and the Founding Families are just out for themselves.” Thistle checked over his shoulder to make sure there wasn’t anyone standing behind him this time.
“You also said that you wanted me to be President.” Alex didn’t like saying it, but maybe it would be a way of convincing Thistle to help.
“I stand by that.”
“Well, one day that might be the case, but only if you can help me now.”
Eve was impressed at the way Alex was handling Thistle. She’d thought she might even have to kiss the guy to get him to do what they needed. Not a thrilling prospect.
Thistle was beside himself. The possible future President was standing before him asking him for help. Wait until he told everyone. People like Brookes wouldn’t make fun of him then. “What can I do for you, Sir?” Thistle snapped a smart salute and stood to attention.
“You need to warn Diaz that Ted Bundy ...” Alex trailed off still not daring to believe that Eve could be right and that someone could want him dead.
Eve picked up the sentence. “He wants Alex dead, Thistle. Ted Bundy wants to kill the heir to the Presidency.”
Thistle gasped. He knew there was something about the Minister that he didn’t like, but he never thought anyone would be capable of murder. “I ... it’s just so...”
“I wouldn’t ask if I didn’t really fear for my life, Sergeant,” Alex said imploringly.
“Of course. I will get Diaz to come and see you and you can explain to him what’s going on.”
Eve rushed forward and hugged Thistle without thinking. “Thank you,” she said, composing herself.
Thistle drew himself up. “It is a dark day for us all when someone isn’t safe in my cells.”
After hearing the announcement of the Painted Ladies performance Bob had wondered how to make the most of the situation. He had loitered near the Palace gates watching people come and go, trying to decide the best way to sneak in to do some reconnaissance for his own plans. Once again it appeared that fate had helped him move closer to his goal. What he learned now might well be the difference between failure and success when the time came to put his plan into action. The easiest way in was to buy a pair of overalls from the Trade Centre and tag along with a group of workmen who had just finished their obligatory tea break. No one even looked at him twice as he made his way past the gates and into the main hall of the Palace. Slipping off to the side behind one of the many pillars lining the hallway, Bob took off his overall and stashed it in a plant pot. Now he wore a nice, but not too expensive, suit that seemed to be favoured by the clerks who worked there. The last piece of his disguise was a manila folder which he clutched under his arm. Several weeks earlier he had memorised a blueprint of the Palace, and now walked assuredly and purposefully across to the ballroom.
What he found was chaos. There were several arguments struggling to make themselves heard above the noise of construction. Decorators were frantically painting wood as it was applied to the stage area, causing complaint from the carpenters who were getting their fingers covered in a deep burgundy paint. Electricians had created a scaffold tower in the centre of the room and were moving amongst the lighting equipment on the ceiling like monkeys. The flickering lights were doing their best to set off any latent epileptics amongst the workmen. In all of this activity Bob was completely invisible, walking round the edges of the room, so as to avoid getting splattered with paint or being hit by a falling projectile from the lighting rig, and he made his way to what would be backstage if the workmen could finish in time. There was a small door which Bob passed through, and the sounds of the ballroom faded as he descended a staircase.
Bob found himself in a little used storage area with, crucially, a door to the outside across from him. From the garden this door was inoperable but if Bob could rig it in such a way maybe he could change that. The manila folder contained hint sheets on how to modify locking mechanisms. Taking a set of small screwdrivers from his pocket Bob set to work.
Johnstone wasn’t a happy man, “I don’t think I can pull this off,” he said, staring critically at himself in the mirror.
Lady Garland laughed. “I think you look magnificent,” she declared.
Johnstone blushed at the compliment but remained unconvinced. “I look like an idiot.”
“No, you look like a Painted Lady, which is the entire point.”
Johnstone had agreed with most of Lady Garland’s ideas on how to rescue Alex and that they both needed to sneak into the Palace somehow and make their way separately down to the cells. What he didn’t understand was why he had to be dressed as a woman for the entire operation. “If word gets out...”
“I happen to think that lilac brings out the colour of your eyes.”
“Yes, you have lovely eyes.”
“How can you see them under all this makeup?” Johnstone asked with a chuckle.
“And that dress really shows off your abs as well.” Julie smiled and ran her hand over the silky fabric.
Johnstone took a steadying breath; he was doomed. “Well, I do work out every day.”
“I guessed as much, your shoulders look so toned.” Once again Julie couldn’t help but run her hands over his shoulders.
“Hmmm. I’ve always had good shoulders.”
“And don’t get me started on your bum, we’ll never get anything done otherwise.” Resisting temptation Julie stepped away from Johnstone, and picked up an embroidered shawl. “The finishing touch,” she said draping it across his shoulders.
“If you say so,” Johnstone said, focusing again on his reflection. “What are you going to wear?”
“Something devastatingly beautiful, of course. I’m going to charm my way past the guards.” She decided it sounded more mysterious than saying that Sid was going to let her in.
“Is Annie going with you?” Johnstone hoped she was. He didn’t like to think of Lady Garland doing the mission all alone.
“No. I don’t want her to get in trouble with the Palace should things go wrong.”
Julie had a sudden flash of understanding. “Are you worried about me?”
“I know you are damn good, but I can’t help but be a little worried.” Johnstone blushed again. He’d never blushed in his whole adult life and now he was lighting up like a Christmas tree every time Lady Garland spoke. He didn’t know what was wrong with him.
“That’s sweet of you, but I’ll be fine. I’m more worried that everyone will want to ravish you and you’ll get distracted.”
“So far you are the most distracting woman I’ve ever met, so don’t worry on that score.” Johnstone laughed and Julie couldn’t help but laugh with him.
“I’m pleased to hear that. Now you stay here. I am going to go and get changed.”
“I’m not going anywhere, don’t worry.” The thought of being seen by another employee of the Company was paralysing. Julie laughed again and quickly left, before she gave in to the temptation to kiss him.
Sid watched amazed as the crowd of protestors swelled to fill the plaza in front of the Palace. It seemed that after Diaz’s announcement the entire city wanted to be involved. The ballroom would only hold a fraction of the people assembled, so he was glad that Rodney had compiled a list. It seemed that someone at the Palace had expected the huge turnout as well. A huge screen had been set up in front of the wall with a projector behind it, so that everyone could see the performance even if they didn’t get inside. There was a carnival atmosphere; whole families had turned out to enjoy the free show. Hot food vendors were wandering the crowds selling burgers, questionable hotdogs and even candyfloss to the protestors. The camp songs were given a new hopeful edge, buoyed by the possibility of success. All in all, as Sid surveyed from the shadow cast by one of the walls, it felt like change was in the air, a change which Sid had very carefully nurtured. Rodney waved to Sid from where he stood in front of the gates. It was a few hours till the performance, and once the Palace had run checks on all the names on Rodney’s list people would start being shepherded in, in small groups.
Diaz was overseeing the background checks personally from the security room in the basement; from here he could see every aspect of the Palace on the CCTV monitors. The grainy images showed that the work in the ballroom was finally taking shape and a lavish stage was emerging from the chaos. Sarah had left the final details to Cyril and had gone home to change. The feeling throughout the Palace was that this was a very important night, perhaps the most important thing since Bart’s death, and no one wanted to be caught looking anything but their best. Diaz had already changed into a tux that he kept in his office for just such occasions.
The ID cards of the protestors flashed across monitors, as the computer checked for any crimes they may have committed; so far everyone was checking out. The whole process took over an hour to complete and when Diaz had the ‘accepted’ list he went down to the gate room, where he passed the list on, so that people could start being brought in.
The Painted Ladies had been given instructions to arrive round the back of the Palace an hour before the show was due to start. They had decided to get ready before making the journey; the Scarlet Siren had given them use of the dressing room. The shopping trip had been successful and they each pulled beautiful new gowns from their covers. The nervous frisson of excitement which had been with them all afternoon had worn off now and they got dressed in an unusual silence, each man caught up in his own thoughts.
Finally Simon broke the silence. “I haven’t been this nervous since our first time.” he said with a tense chuckle.
“I hope you don’t fall over like you did then.” Jerry reminded them all of that first night.
“I was puking my guts up,” Nick added with a faint smile.
“And Luke wouldn’t stop practicing the dance steps.” Bret nudged Luke.
Luke smiled. “Well at least I didn’t nearly wet myself after drinking a gallon of coffee before we went on.” They all laughed when they thought about what amateurs they were then.
“I still find it hard to believe we ever made it.” Vinnie shook his head. “We were so naive.”
“We can do this, can’t we?” Luke asked.
“If we managed it then, we can certainly do it tonight,” Bret said, the confidence beginning to return to his voice.
“Yeah, we are going to be amazing!” Jerry jumped up, excited again. He pulled the others to their feet. “Hands in.” Jerry put his hand out and the other layered theirs on top. “All for one and one for all.” They shouted together, and thrust their hands upwards.
“Let’s get this show on the road.”
Bob had spent longer than he anticipated fixing the lock, but it was a job well done and that was all that mattered. Sneaking back up the staircase he quietly opened the door to see that the backstage area was now completed. A dark sacking was hanging from the ceiling, hiding the seating beyond, there were a set of steps leading up to the stage, which smelt overwhelmingly of paint, a velvet curtain was hanging across the front ready to be pulled back at the right moment. The backing on the stage was a glittery canvas panel, hung with gold stars. Bob thought about staying to watch the performance. He had heard a lot about the Painted Ladies, who provided entertainment at very exclusive parties, but he would watch it on his TV at home. Better to get away whilst he could. He slipped around the sacking and merged into the crowd of Palace workers running this way and that finishing the last minute preparations.
Even in the cells Thistle was aware of the feeling of excitement that was running fever pitch through the Palace. The guards had joined the security team to watch the performance not only on TV but on the CCTV monitors as well, Thistle was torn between watching with the others and manning the desk. He was about to write a list of pros and cons when Ted Bundy appeared in front of the desk. Thistle jumped out of his chair and saluted.
“At ease, Sergeant,” Ted said, peering round to make sure he was not being watched. “I have decided that it is not fair you being cooped up down here whilst the show is going on and I want to relieve you of your duty tonight.” Thistle stared at Ted for a full minute, the confusion clear on his face. “What I mean is, I’ll watch Alex. You go and enjoy yourself.”
“I... I,” Thistle stuttered. “Really? Thank you Sir.” He was stunned at this unprecedented show of generosity. He quickly grabbed his packed lunch and rushed away in case Ted changed his mind.
Once Thistle was gone, Ted breathed easy. As soon as he was in power Sergeant Thistle would be thrown out for deserting his post. Ted grabbed the chair Thistle had been sitting on and made his way to Alex’s cell. Quietly, so as not to disturb them, Ted checked that both Alex and Eve were still locked up tight. He smiled when he saw that they were, and settled down to wait on the chair in front of the door. No one was getting through him tonight.
Johnstone was waiting, draped in a large cloak Lady Garland had given him, by the back entrance to the Palace. It was obvious that the Painted Ladies would have to be brought in this way; they would have been mobbed had they tried to push through the crowd at the front gates. After a short while his wait paid off, as Luke and the others appeared from round a corner tottering on their heels. They approached the door in the wall and Johnstone tagged along behind them. After a loud knock they were swiftly ushered inside, through the gardens and into the Palace. Only a brief glance at Johnstone confirmed to the guards that he must be with the Painted Ladies. The guards were much too excited anyway to bother counting the members of the group. Once inside, Johnstone pulled the cloak tightly round himself and slipped away from the real Ladies as they were being shown to the back door to the ballroom which led to the backstage area. As he headed to the basement he could only hope that Lady Garland had been able to get in as easily.
Luke had noticed the strange addition to their numbers as they were shown into the Palace. Once alone in the backstage area he prepared to confront the intruder.
“Where is he?” Luke asked. It was soon obvious that it was just them in the room.
“Who?” Vinnie asked.
“I ... I thought...”
“You OK, Luke?” Bret asked, concerned.
Luke shook himself. “Yeah.” It must have been his nerves playing tricks on him.
“At least we have a nice big mirror,” Nick said approvingly, pulling out a makeup bag and beginning to touch up his foundation.
“Can you believe that Alex is here somewhere?” Simon asked suddenly, reminding them all of their onetime colleague.
“Yeah, I could tell he’d be a big star.”
“No you couldn’t, Jerry.” Simon protested.
“There is something about him though,” Bret conceded.
“Yeah, there is greatness there all right,” Nick agreed.
“You are all going to have to introduce me to him later,” Vinnie said with a pout. “I can’t believe I missed him.”
“Yeah, we’ll have to catch up with him later.” Luke decided to ask Diaz the first chance he got.
Rodney and Sid were settling themselves in the front row, when a nearby clock started chiming the hour. The front rows had been the last to be filled and Rodney had received a standing ovation from the protestors already seated when he’d arrived. Sid was very impressed with the way Cyril had handled everything. He couldn’t have done it better himself. As the clock finished its eighth ring Sid stood up, and whispered to Rodney that he’d be right back. He then made his way out into the main hallway and through a small door which in turn led to the gardens. He quickly crossed the garden and arrived at the gate where Lady Garland should be waiting. Cautiously he opened the gate a few inches and peered into the alleyway beyond. Sid was surprised to realise he was nervous, not a common occurrence; the whole plan hinged on Lady Garland being here. But the alleyway was quiet; he could hear the noise of the people gathered at the front gates, and the occasional shout from the hotdog sellers. Then Lady Garland appeared out of the shadows. She was dressed in a dark green fitted dress and handbag that seemed to blend seamlessly with the night. She smiled as she approached Sid; he let her in and closed the gate quietly. He took a breath to settle his nerves and led her across the gardens and back the way he had come. Before they got to the entrance hall he pointed Lady Garland down a small staircase which would bring her out near the cells. Sid then made his way back to Rodney and gave him a thumbs up. Now he could finally relax and enjoy the show.
Lady Garland silently made her way to the security room. Her plan was to disrupt the power supply to the cells and the CCTV cameras for just long enough for her to get Alex out. Johnstone would be meeting her at the cells soon, so she had to hurry.
Sergeant Thistle and five other guards were clustered around the CCTV monitors. The monitors showed only the ballroom and the entrance hall, where all the activity was happening. Nobody noticed as Lady Garland quickly peeked round the door. She adjusted the amount of cleavage she was showing and clutched the USB stick with a computer virus, which would cause the power cut, tightly in her hand. All she had to do was slot the USB stick into the computer for at least a minute and the virus would do the rest.
“My goodness, this must be where the real party is happening.” She sauntered into the room. The guards spun to face her, bewildered by her sudden appearance.
“This area is for staff only,” Thistle said, coming to his senses first.
“The Minister sent me,” Julie explained, “and in my goodie bag,” she rummaged in her handbag. “I have a treat for you hardworking men.” She put the bag on the control panel and bent over and wiggled her bottom slightly. Whilst the guards were distracted she slipped the USB stick into a handy slot. A small box appeared in the corner of a monitor showing the percentage of files transferred, all she had to do was wait until it reached one hundred percent. Taking two bottles of beer from her bag she swung round and presented them to the guards.
“The minister sent this?” Thistle’s boss, Captain Cardle asked.
“It is for all your hard work whilst the rebellion has been going on.”
“Well, we have all had to work extra shifts,” Brookes moaned, “Why shouldn’t we get a treat?”
Captain Cardle thought about this. “Don’t suppose you have any peanuts in there do you?” he asked, trying to peek into Julie’s bag.
Julie smiled and produced a jumbo bag. “It’s not much of a party without them now, is it.” The guards were now satisfied and decided to make the most of what providence had provided. Brookes fetched some mugs from the break room, and soon everyone had a frothy mug of beer in hand. Julie had been keeping a surreptitious eye on the percentage showing on the monitor. It had finally reached one hundred. She retrieved the USB stick, and slipped away when no one was looking.
Backstage wigs had been fixed, lips had been glossed, feet had been pushed into high heels and lashes were drooping with the amount of mascara applied. Luke and the others were running through last minute changes when Diaz appeared from behind the sacking.
“Wow, you look amazing.” Diaz said coming forward to shake them by the hand. “The music had been cued up and we are ready to go. Before you go out, I’m going to give a speech and then introduce you, OK?”
“Yep,” Bret said as the others nodded their heads.
“Right then, let’s get this show on the road.” Diaz walked up and out onto the stage.
The Painted Ladies looked at each other when they heard the applause Diaz was getting. As one they took several deep breaths.
Vinnie started to giggle. “Let’s just have fun and ignore all this extra fuss.”
They all smiled. “Here we go.” Diaz had finished his short introduction, and the applause was building again as they walked out onto the stage.
Ted checked his watch, 20:33; the concert would just be getting going, now he needed to be on his guard. At any time now the rebels could make their move and Ted would be the one to catch them. He could hear the sound of the crowd stamping their feet and cheering from above; he hoped that his future father in law had been able to get in after he’d added him to the list. Emily, his bride to be, didn’t approve of the Painted Ladies and was glad to hear that Ted was being sensible and not watching. He shook his head. This wasn’t the time to be thinking about Emily, he needed to be alert. There was an unusual sound; Ted listened hard, after a few seconds it came again. ‘A-ha!’ He’d been right; this had all been a ploy to rescue Alex. Well, not on Ted Bundy’s watch. It was at that moment that the lights went out.
Sergeant Thistle had been dispatched to check on the prisoners with Brookes, whilst the Captain worked on getting power back. Red warning lights flashed in unison down the length of the corridor. They passed the odd opened door; most people had run towards the security centre when the power had gone. One door though a little further down from them on their left remained closed. When they reached it they paused outside, listening intently for any sounds within.
“Now that’s strange. Do you hear…” Thistle asked
“Shhhh, I’m trying to listen,” Brookes whispered.
There was a strange muffled sound coming from within. Brookes’ hand reached out towards the handle.
“Hang on a second!” Thistle cried, pulling his hand away. “Just what do you think you’re doing?”
“What orders exactly?”
“Were you in the same briefing? We were told to check on the prisoners.”
“Okay, but this could be dangerous.”
“Oh come on!”
“Fine go ahead, get your head blown off. I’m stepping back.”
Brookes reached out his hand again, but this time he hesitated. “Head blown off?” he was unable to stop himself from asking.
“I’m just saying that with all my experience it might happen.”
“So you’ve had lots of experience then … with heads becoming detached and such like?”
“Not strictly, but it never hurts to be careful.”
“Right, I’m opening the door.”
“Nice knowing you.”
“Oh, shut up and stand back.” Brookes turned and with his back against the wall flung the door open. He held his breath for a moment screwing up his face, but there was no explosion. “See, I told you it was safe,” he said, once he had regained his composure.
“Yeah, but I really had you going for a moment there,” Thistle said smugly.
“Hello?” Brookes called, ignoring Thistles’ stupidity; he brought up his flash light and shone it round the room. The beam of light settled on a struggling figure. Of Eve and Alex there was no sign.
“Hey up, what’s this then?” Thistle asked, walking slowly towards the figure. There was a man tied to the chair. He had a gag in his mouth.
“Isn’t it Minister Ted Bundy?” Brookes asked mystified.
“Of course it’s not, it doesn’t even look remotely like him,” Thistle said, peering at the struggling man.
Ted would have screamed if it hadn’t been for the gag. ‘Idiots! Of course it’s me.’
“It is him!” Brookes insisted reaching his hand out.
“What for now? Surely he’s not going to explode?”
“He might have a false cavity in one of his molars.”
“So we’re not dentists, who cares?”
“Ahh, you’re not thinking like a proper guard. What if the cavity was filled with a chemical compound?”
“You’ve lost me.”
“Well, it’s a good job I’m here then, isn’t it? The compound could produce a deadly gas.”
“A deadly gas, come off it, you can only pull my leg so many times in one day.”
“It could kill us all.”
“But then wouldn’t it have done so already!”
“No he would have to snap his jaw first.”
“To start the chain reaction.”
“You can’t be serious?” Brookes asked in absolute bewilderment. “The first time he sneezed he’d gas himself to death!”
“Ahh you see, that’s where you’re wrong. The rebellion sends men like this in to destroy us. This,” he said, roughly poking Ted in the chest. “is a highly trained protestor.”
“You can’t train a man not to sneeze! Look, I’m taking the gag off. This is Minister Ted Bundy, not some spy with rotten teeth.”
“It’s your funeral,” he said, taking several steps backwards and holding his breath.
“Will you stop saying that.” Brookes reached forward and untied the gag, secretly holding his breath whilst doing so.
“Idiots,” Ted cried, the second the gag was removed. “Untie me this instant.”
“Told you it was him,” Brookes said, stepping backwards to join Thistle.
“Okay, that time you were right, but I’d like to think that…”
“Now!” Ted was beside himself. He’d been tricked by the rebels and now he had to deal with these morons.
“Yes Sir,” they said, saluting. Brookes walked behind Ted and untied him. He stood up and shook with rage as the two men came to stand in front of him, his face turning an ever-brighter shade of purple.
“I think you were wrong.” Brookes whispered to Thistle. “He is going to explode.”