Bloodline

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Chapter 7

The events of the last six hours had left Alex hyped up and jumpy, like he’d drunk a gallon of espresso coffee and eaten a bag of sugar. He and Eve had been jokingly arguing over who slept on the mattress and who had a more comfortable night on the floor when all the lights had gone out. Eve had clung to Alex as sounds of a struggle came from beyond the door. Then the door had opened and a man in drag had rushed in, lit by flashes of the red emergency lights in the hallway. They were too stunned by his sudden appearance to put up any resistance as he ushered them out of the cell. Once in the open, the man helped his female colleague drag a chair, with someone tied to it, into the cell and slammed the door on him. The man then muttered something about getting back and the woman had shepherded them along a hallway, up a staircase and out into the Palace garden. The fresh air had woken Alex from his stunned state and in the shadows of a large oak tree he had demanded an explanation.

“My name is Lady Garland.” Her name caused Eve to shudder; the Lady prefix was well known throughout the city. “I have been contracted by Sid to rescue you.”

“Sid sent you?” Alex was relieved to hear a name he recognised and trusted. “I knew Sid would help me.”

“Now we just need to get you out of here. There is a safe house nearby. Sid will come for you in the morning.”

“Oi!” There was a shout from behind them. Eve clutched Alex again as a Palace guard rushed towards them. “What is going on here?” he asked, waving his truncheon around.

Lady Garland calmly turned and faced him. Her arms moved in a blur and the next moment the guard was on the floor. “You’ve killed him!” Eve shouted, horrified.

“No, he has merely checked out of reality for a little while. Now let’s get moving before anyone else turns up.” There was steely determination underlining her suggestion and they hurried along behind her without further question.

The safe house hadn’t been far. It was a large apartment, with stunning views towards the Palace. It was from high up here that Alex had got his first glimpse of the crowd outside the main gates of the Palace. Before Lady Garland had left she’d explained about the performance and that it had all been done to make sure he was safe. Alex was humbled by all the work that had gone into the jailbreak. Eve had gratefully collapsed on a large bed in the next room, but Alex had spent the hours till dawn watching the city below him.

*

It was dawn, and the Painted Ladies were drunkenly making their way home. The show had been a huge success; they had done three encores and received a standing ovation after each. The crowd had found flowers from somewhere and had thrown them on to the stage in rapture. Diaz himself had been the one to finally get them all off stage after personally thanking each member in turn. Arms full of flowers - waste not want not - they had gone back to the Scarlet Siren, where a bottle of champagne was waiting for them courtesy of Sid. Happily tipsy on champagne, the landlord at the Siren insisted on plying them with cocktails for the rest of the night. The landlord was quick on the uptake; he was already ordering new posters and signage proclaiming that the Painted Ladies started here.

Weaving erratically, they now made their way across to the nearest SVTS station. “I can’t believe it,” Nick said for the umpteenth time.

“I know, I know,” Vinnie put his arm around Luke. “Have I told you that you’re a bloody genius?”

“Yep,” Luke replied with drunken smugness. “I am a ... genie ... no a g ... genie?”

They all howled with laughter. “You’re our lucky genie,” Simon declared and kissed him sloppily on the cheek.

“Lucky kisses,” Nick shrieked and they all surrounded Luke.

“Yuck!” Luke said laughing, wiping his face in mock horror. They had reached the escalator for the SVTS station. Vinnie, Nick and Simon hugged Luke and Bret and descended to the platform singing one of the songs from the show.

“Our identities aren’t going to be secret for long with them singing like that,” Bret said with a laugh. They staggered on together towards Luke’s building. Bret was staying on Luke’s couch. “I can’t believe we did that.”

“It wasn’t a dream then?”

“No, I hope not.” They laughed; everything was extremely amusing tonight.

“Maybe I should quit,” Luke mused.

“Quit, after the success we’ve had?” Bret asked, sobering up somewhat.

“No, I meant the SVTS.”

Bret sighed in relief. “Are you trying to give me a heart attack or something?”

“Sorry, but we could live off the Painted Ladies now surely?”

Bret had always been the sensible one who insisted that they keep their jobs in case things didn’t work out. The others would moan that he was always expecting the worst to happen, but he called it being prepared. He thought about Luke’s question. They could definitely increase their fee, and maybe they would do more TV appearances. Luke was looking at him with a wistful gaze. Giving up the job at the SVTS was something he dreamed of doing. Despite the joking that it was his cover, he felt the strain of his unusual double life. Bret put his arm around Luke. “Maybe you can, why not?”

“Really? I can’t imagine the look on their faces when they find out I’m a Painted Lady.”

“We’ve all worked really hard, so let’s enjoy ourselves a bit.”

“Remind me to get you drunk more often.” Luke laughed. They had reached his apartment block and rode silently up in the elevator, each lost in thoughts of what their lives might be like now.

*

Ted had gone through all known stages of anger to reach the calm on the other side. His gaze sent people running in the other direction, and one clerk burst into tears when he told her she’d dropped a pencil. He made his way to the formal dining room. He knew he wasn’t supposed to be there but to hell with the consequences, nothing was getting in his way now. Lord knew Ted had tried to play by the rules for long enough. He’d had a message on his phone from his soon-to-be father in law who was furious about being lumped in with the protestors for last night’s performance, and it had been the final straw. Someone was going to pay, and it certainly wasn’t going to be him. He threw open the door and smiled as it slammed into the wall. The crisis team looked up astonished, and seeing the look on Ted’s face most of them quickly looked away again.

Diaz, however, was made of sterner stuff. “What on earth are you doing here?”

“I suppose it was the plan all along, hey? Make me look like an idiot.”

“You manage that perfectly well on your own,” Cyril sniped from behind Diaz’s shoulder.

“What are you talking about?” Diaz was genuinely concerned.

“Alex, that’s what I’m talking about. You have all been conspiring behind my back. Well, no more.”

“I still don’t understand?”

“Play dumb all you like, but I’m going to call on the Founding Families to vote tonight for a new President.”

“You can’t do that,” Cyril spluttered.

“You just try and stop me, Cyril,” Ted dared him, and Cyril swallowed nervously under his fiery stare.

“Ted, I understand where you are coming from, but ...” Diaz tried to placate him.

“No you don’t. Mr William Mitall-Patterson himself is behind me on this. He will be able to force the others to a vote.” The room was silent and Ted smiled triumphantly. He turned to Sarah, who jumped as he said her name. “Sarah, arrange a press conference for tonight, we’ll make proper use of that stage and the Founding Families can hold a vote in front of the TV cameras.” She nodded and began to make notes. “None of you,” he said, glaring at each person in turn, “can stop this, and you’ll only look bad if you try.” He stormed out, leaving a confused silence behind him.

*

Lady Garland had left Alex at the apartment as soon as she could. She was consumed with worry for Johnstone; she’d never worried about anyone like this before. They had arranged to meet at the company offices once Johnstone had got changed. She waited impatiently throughout the night, trying to type up her report but never managing more than a sentence or two at any one time. Finally as dawn broke she gave up all pretence of working and allowed her thoughts to dwell where they wanted. Namely on Johnstone and all the different ways he affected her.

During her apprenticeship she had been told about love, warned of its debilitating effects, and had seen firsthand how distracting it could be. Lady Mata Hari, her mentor, had fallen for a target, a dashing man who could charm blood out of a stone. Had it not been for Julie’s own intervention at a critical moment then he would have killed Lady Mata Hari. From that moment on Julie the apprentice was known as Lady Garland; saving her mentor’s life had earned her the respect of the Duchess and quick promotion. Lady Mata Hari faded from company records, but her name lived on as part legend. History had been kind to her and apprentices were enamoured with stories of the ultimate female assassin.

Falling in love, as she could no longer doubt she had, with another employee was unprecedented. She began to pace about her office. What should she do? One option was of course to ignore her feelings and make sure she never laid eyes on him again. That was what the Duchess would recommend, she was sure. To be a Lady meant you had to be able to cut yourself off from human emotion, to keep a cool clear head. She had been excellent at keeping her focus solely on her job and not getting involved with the emotions of her clients or potential targets. Until now. She replayed the first time she saw him; he looked majestic holding the sniper rifle in the sunset. Her dreams had been full of potential encounters, both good and bad, ever since.

The intercom on her desk buzzed and she rushed to answer it. “Yes,” she said, trying to keep her composure whilst worry knotted her stomach.

“You have a visitor.” Annie’s voice was quiet. Julie had installed Annie at the reception desk to make sure that news of her visitor didn’t spread.

“Put him in the Pink Room, and lock the door. You remember what I told you about the CCTV cameras?”

“Yes Milady, they all happen to be pointing the wrong way. I will make sure you are not disturbed.”

“Thank you, Annie.” Julie took a deep breath, trying to calm the butterflies in her belly. She crossed to a full length mirror and checked her appearance for the hundredth time. There was not a hair out of place. She wiped her slightly sweaty palms on her pencil skirt and made her way to the Pink Room. The door Johnstone had entered the room through was only for clients or visitors; the Ladies had a private door which opened onto the opposite side of the room. There was a spy hole in the door which was invisible from inside. Through it she could see Johnstone sitting uncomfortably on a gaudy pink sofa, one of a pair in the centre of the room. Julie closed her eyes, briefly counted to five and opened the door, unable to suppress a bright smile as their eyes met. Johnstone stood and Julie crossed to stand in front of him. Without thinking, she threw her arms around him and gave him a big hug. Johnstone was shocked but quickly returned the hug, equally glad that she was okay as well. They parted slightly awkwardly. Blushing furiously, Julie sat on the sofa and motioned to Johnstone to sit next to her. With a matching blush he complied and they sat in silence for a moment, just glad to be in each other’s presence.

Johnstone coughed as searched around for something to say. “They weren’t kidding when they called this the Pink Room.”

Julie laughed. Johnstone had a point; the walls, carpet, furnishings and even the ceiling were all one shade of pink or another. “It’s a bit much, isn’t it.”

“I’ll say, and I thought I couldn’t question my masculinity any more today.”

“There is nothing wrong with being in touch with your feminine side,” Julie said with a laugh. “Speaking of which, how did it go?”

“I got some strange looks from the real Painted Ladies, but they didn’t blow the whistle.”

“Thank goodness.”

“How about you? Are Alex and Eve at the safe house?”

“Yeah, I dropped them off hours ago. I had a bit of trouble with a nosey guard but it was nothing I couldn’t handle.”

“I bet there is nothing you can’t handle.”

“I’ve not had any complaints.” Now the serious business had been taken care of Julie enjoyed flirting with Johnstone.

“I bet Alex is very satisfied.”

Julie didn’t know if she was imagining it but she could have sworn that he sounded jealous. “As long as the client is happy that’s all I care about,” she replied, deliberately nonchalant.

Johnstone smiled. “I am impressed with your professionalism. Drugging that brownie was inspired.”

“You’re not upset about it?”

“No, I should have thought of it first, but I was a little distracted.”

“Oh really?” She encouraged him to continue, anxious to find out how he felt about her.

“Yes. I meant what I said, you are the most distracting woman I have ever met.”

“I find you can be very distracting yourself.”

Johnstone’s face brightened. “We make a good team then.”

“Yeah, we do.”

“You’ll let me know what the client wants us to do next?” he asked, suddenly businesslike again.

“Of course.” Rather than being offended by the change in his manner, Julie was impressed at how easily he could go into ‘work mode’. One day her life could depend on him doing just that.

Johnstone stood, not wanting to leave but not knowing how to prolong their meeting. “If you need anything...” he began.

“I know where you are. I would invite you to my office for a drink but you know all about the Company rules.”

“Yes, it’s a shame that some rules can’t be broken.” He sighed.

“Of course,” Julie had a brainwave, “I am not officially on duty now and I can invite who I like to my apartment for a drink.” She smiled cheekily.

“Is that a good idea?” Julie’s face fell and Johnstone rushed on. “I am extremely tempted but...”

“I know. I could lose my job just asking you that. I used to think the rules were good, but now...”

“Me too.” He hugged her again. “Call me soon though?”

“Yeah, I will.” She blew him a kiss as he left.

*

Sid had every reason to celebrate. Not only had the performance made the rebellion the heroes of the city, but he had just received news that Alex and Eve were safe. However, the celebrating would have to wait; he had a lot of explaining to do at the Palace. Cyril had summoned him to a meeting with himself and Diaz; he didn’t relish the thought of seeing them. For once he decided not to put duty first. Instead of being grilled by Cyril he decided to see Alex. He needed to tell Alex the truth about his father. The lie was starting to eat him up.

After a quick phone call to Lady Garland, Sid was knocking on the door to the luxurious apartment. “Who’s there?” was the hesitant reply.

“Eve? It’s Sid, let me in.” Sid smiled at the peephole. After a minute the door slowly opened. “How are you?” Sid asked, pushing his way in.

“I’m good, just had a wonderful hot shower,” Eve said closing the door behind Sid, Alex was still staring out of the window and seemed unaware that Sid had even arrived.

Sid frowned. “How’s Alex?”

Eve huffed. “You’ve got some explaining to do.” She went back to one of the bedrooms and left them alone.

Confused, Sid approached Alex. What did Eve mean? “Hey, Alex.” He clapped Alex on the shoulder and stood beside him.

“Hi,” Alex replied, without looking away from the view.

“I am so sorry.” Sid’s apology hung between them. “It’s my fault you were arrested,” Sid clarified. This still didn’t seem to get much of a response from Alex, just a one-shouldered shrug. “What’s wrong? Talk to me.” Concerned, Sid stood directly in front of Alex, blocking his view and forcing him to meet his gaze.

“How long have you known?”

Sids heart started to race. “Known what?” he asked, trying to look innocent. He had a sinking feeling that someone had told Alex about his heritage before he’d had the chance.

“About my Dad?”

“Eve told me in the hospital.” Sid decided that honesty was the best policy now. Better late than never.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Alex started to pace. Part of him still wanted Sid to deny the accusations, for his life not to have been a lie.

“I wanted to, I did.” Sid watched helplessly as Alex’s pacing became more frantic. “I couldn’t find the words.”

“Were you ever going to tell me?”

“I came here to tell you this morning.”

“Yeah, right,” Alex barked out a laugh.

“Honestly, I was. Keeping the truth from you was tearing me up.” Sid once again stood in front of Alex. For a moment he was sure Alex would hit him. Nothing less than Sid thought he deserved.

But the moment passed, and Alex deflated in front of him. “You mean it really is true then?”

“I’m sorry.” The words sounded weak and ineffectual. He led Alex to a large sofa which dominated the open plan living room. Sitting beside him, Sid tried once again to put into words how he felt. “This whole situation has spiralled out of control. I never meant you to find out like that.”

Alex thought about it. He knew really that Sid was a good person, he’d been nothing but kind to him. “It’s not your fault,” Alex said, knowing that it was true. It wasn’t Sid’s fault that his mother had lied to him for his whole life. “I just don’t know what to do now.”

“Well, your place is here.”

“But I don’t know anything about running a country.” Alex started pacing again. “The speeches feel like they are coming from someone else. I’m just a country boy, and that’s all I want to be.”

Sid thought for a moment. “Why did you come to the city?”

“To find Bridgee, which I’m no closer to doing.”

“There was no other reason?”

Alex paused. “Well...” Had it really only been a week or so ago that he’d been sending off for brochures? Had he and Doris really argued about it? “I thought it would be an adventure,” Alex mumbled, embarrassed by his younger, more naive self.

“It has been, and the adventure is just beginning,” Sid said, trying to engage Alex again.

“But I was always going to go home,” Alex protested. Was that right? He thought, didn’t he want his life to be in the city, to be rich and famous. To provide a home for Doris, to do something with his life? He thought about what he would have been doing if he was still in the village. Right now he’d be toiling in the fields to bring the harvest in before the rain came. Just like he’d done for the last ten years, just like he thought he’d be doing forever. He thought of something. “It’s in my blood, that’s what Eve says.”

“You can’t help but be who you are. Your ancestors were great men, not farmers, Alex. You can be great too.”

“Oh I don’t know.” He rubbed his eyes and returned to the window and the view of the Palace. “It’s like a crazy dream.”

“Don’t fight this, Alex.” Sid returned to his side. “All this,” he gestured to the Palace and city beyond, “is for you. Londinium needs you. I need you.”

“I could bring Doris here, right?”

Sid laughed and slapped him on the back. “You can do whatever you want.”

Alex smiled. “I think Doris would like it here.”

“What woman wouldn’t?”

“But...”

“Hey, you leave the buts, why’s, if’s and wherefore’s to me, okay.”

“Thanks, Sid.”

“We are going to have to go public soon though. You know that, right?”

“I know. I hear the Welsh are thinking of invading as we don’t have a President.”

Sid laughed, “Look at you, thinking like a President already.”

“There’s no hope for me then?” Alex joked.

“There is always hope, Alex, there is always hope.”

*

Sergeant Thistle had come to certain conclusions over the course of the night. He strode, puffed up with importance, to the formal dining room to tell Diaz exactly what he thought had happened. He stood stiffly to attention and knocked on the door, his righteous anger covering his nerves.

“Come.” Cyril’s voice barked from inside. Sergeant Thistle entered and Cyril barely glanced at him before returning to the papers he was working on. “What do you want?”

Normally Cyril’s attitude would have left Thistle stammering and sweating, but today he barely noticed. “I have information for Personal Assistant Diaz.”

“He doesn’t have time for the likes of you,” Cyril replied

“With all due respect, Sir, I have information about Alex Winthrop which he needs to hear.”

Cyril bristled and stood up, “What on earth could you know that is so important?”

“I...” here Thistle did stumble over his words under Cyril’s intense gaze. “I am afraid that I can only trust Diaz himself with the information,” he bravely maintained.

Diaz had been working at a computer terminal with Sarah Lovely. He looked up at the Sergeant and wondered what could be so important that he was willing to risk Cyril’s wrath. “I think I will hear what he has to say, Cyril.”

“Very good, Sir.” Cyril sneered at Thistle and returned to his work.

Diaz approached the Sergeant who was still standing to attention. “At ease Sergeant...”

“Thistle Sir, Sergeant Thistle. I work in the cells Sir.”

“Well, Sergeant Thistle, what is so important?”

Thistle looked round nervously. The room was full of Ministers watching to see what he did next. He leaned closer to Diaz. “I was wondering if I could speak to you in private, Sir.”

Diaz was curious despite himself; he normally wouldn’t have given the jumped up little guard the time of day. But things had been anything but normal of late so he decided to indulge him. “Follow me to my office, Sergeant.”

Thistle saluted proudly and followed Diaz down several corridors and into his small office. Thistle had expected a grand room with lavish decoration; he was disappointed with the small room lined with bookshelves into which he was led. Diaz sat in a comfortable looking armchair. “Well, what is so important that you can’t tell me in front of the other Ministers?”

“I believe that Minister Bundy has murdered Alex.”

Diaz gasped; he couldn’t have heard that right. “What? Is Alex dead?”

“I can’t say for sure Sir, but he has disappeared.”

“Why has no one told me?” Diaz demanded.

“Minister Bundy said he was going to, Sir.”

“He did, did he? Is there anything else I should know?”

“Well, just yesterday afternoon Alex asked me to deliver a message to you. He was deadly afraid of Minister Bundy, and wanted to warn you, Sir.”

“And now he’s gone and Ted is up to his old tricks,” Diaz mused. Could Ted really have killed the rebellion leader?

“I am afraid that I might have helped him by accident, Sir.” Thistle admitted.

“What did you do?”

Thistle took a deep breath. “Last night, just before the Painted Ladies performance, Minister Bundy approached me and said that he would guard the prisoner and that I could watch the performance in the security room with the other guards.” He hung his head. How could he have abandoned Alex in his hour of need?

“It’s not your fault, Sergeant Thistle; you just followed his order the same way anyone would have done.”

“Thank you, Sir.” Thistle’s relief was palpable.

“Well done for telling me. You should get back to your duties now.”

Sergeant Thistle saluted happily and left, a great weight lifted from his shoulders. Diaz sat quietly, his head in his hands. After a few minutes Cyril quietly entered. He pulled a chair away from the desk and sat in front of his old friend.

“It can’t be true, can it?” Diaz asked.

Cyril had been listening from the next room through a purpose built microphone hidden in Diaz’s bookshelf. Therefore he knew exactly what Sergeant Thistle had said, although like Diaz he was having trouble believing it. “Ted wouldn’t dare.”

“Wouldn’t he? Remember that Minister Granger was convinced that Ted was planning a coup.”

“But there is no reason to kill Alex. Despite his public support he would never be voted in.”

“True,” Diaz conceded. “What about your undercover man, any news from him yet?”

“No, but I should be hearing from him soon.”

“Well, bring him to me. I have some of my own questions for him.”

“Very good, Sir, I will go and find him straight away.”

*

The Mitall-Patterson household was quiet this morning. William Mitall-Patterson, the family patriarch, was the only family member in residence; his wife and daughters preferred the mod-cons in the penthouse apartment to the chilly antiquity of their big town house. The house had been in the Mitall family since the founding of the Presidency. William’s mother, the last of the Mitall line, had married the youngest son of the Patterson family in a bid to secure the name for future generations. She had been fiercely proud of her heritage and would have backed William’s plans to become President completely had she been alive. His Patterson cousins had always looked at him suspiciously, as if he wasn’t truly worthy. His name should have proved to them that he was twice as worthy as they were, but snobbery was bred into them as soon as they were born. But all of that was inconsequential now. With Ted Bundy steering things from inside the Palace; it would soon be his turn to shine.

In his study, William sat at his desk, papers spread across the green leather insert. He had a top of the line computer, but still preferred paper printouts for his most delicate work. Electronic files can always be undeleted, but a burned piece of paper can never be put back together. There was a distant commotion from the front door and after a few moments William’s butler politely knocked on the door and slipped inside.

“Sorry to disturb you Sir, but there is a man at the door demanding to speak to you.”

“What’s his name?” William had a sneaking suspicion as to who would be calling on him in this manner.

“Ted Bundy, Sir.”

“Show him into the drawing room. I shall see him shortly.”

“Very good, Sir,” the butler departed somewhat disappointed. He’d been looking forward to throwing the man out.

Ten long minutes had passed since Ted was shown into the drawing room. The loud ticking of a grandfather clock accentuated every second that he waited. Ted tried sitting in the upright sofa in front of the fireplace, but it seemed to have been designed to prevent anyone getting comfortable. He examined the large oil painting of a former Mitall patriarch which hung above the fireplace; it had been painted over one hundred years ago. The paint was cracked with age but otherwise well preserved. Ted’s gaze wandered again as he paced the length of the room. Outside people were tending the garden, weeding the flowerbeds and trimming the hedges which blocked the view of the street. It seemed like a different world here, genteel and refined, a world where you could make anything happen. The ticking of the clock was starting to grate against his nerves. He was considering taking drastic action when the door opened and William Mitall-Patterson walked in.

As the door was closed behind him William sat on the sofa and nodded to Ted impatiently. “You have good news, I trust?”

“Not as such, Sir.” Ted began, coming to stand in front of the man who would hopefully be his father in law. “Alex has escaped.”

“What? How could you let this happen?”

“I was guarding him myself, Sir, but was overpowered by several assailants.”

“Enough of your excuses. What do you plan to do about it?”

“I think you should force a Founding Family vote for tonight, Sir, before the rebellion have time to reveal Alex’s heritage.”

“Hmm.” William stroked his chin thoughtfully. Ted’s idea had a certain merit. By forcing the situation he could be inaugurated before Alex could ruin everything. Londinium law was clear that once a President was declared then his position was permanent; no one could challenge him. “Very well. I will prepare a statement for the press and get the other Founding Families on side.”

“Very good, Sir. I will take care of arrangements at the Palace.”

“Good work, Ted,” William said, getting up. “We have much to do. Call me later once things are in place.”

“Yes, Sir,” Ted replied, beaming with pride.

*

Now that Alex had learnt the truth, Sid could put off his meeting at the Palace no longer. Once inside he followed the sound of shouting to the formal dining room. Cyril seemed to be in an unstoppable bad mood and Sid pitied whoever he was shouting at. He knew better than to disturb his boss, lest he be shouted at as well, so Sid waited patiently outside the door until it was opened and several guards filed out, faces bright red with embarrassment. Sid waited for a count of ten before knocking on the open door and sticking his head inside.

Thinking that some hapless clerk was at the door, Cyril bellowed, “What?”

Sid however was not easily scared. “I can go if you want,” he said, sauntering into the room.

Cyril smiled. “Don’t you dare. Diaz has been asking for you all morning.”

“Let’s get this over with then.”

“My sentiments exactly. Come with me.” Cyril led Sid to Diaz’s office. With a start, Sid realised that it had been in here just a couple of days ago that Alex had been arrested.

“Is this your undercover agent?” Diaz asked Cyril, as soon as they door had closed behind them.

“Yes, Sir, this is Sid.”

“Is Alex safe with you?” Diaz asked, thinking back to what Sergeant Thistle had suspected.

“Yes, we have him at a safe house.”

“Thank god. I had heard rumours that he’d been killed.” Diaz sat in his armchair.

“No. A contract was taken out on him but I’ve been able to rectify the situation.”

“Good work. You’ve saved us a lot of trouble.”

“Thanks.” Sid enjoyed the praise; at least someone understood how hard he’d been working recently. “The performance last night was amazing.”

“A real coup for us, that’s for sure,” Cyril added.

“It’s not that I didn’t appreciate the idea,” Diaz began. “But I need to know what’s really going on. Why did you go to all that trouble just to help Alex escape?” Diaz and Cyril stared at Sid.

“I’m not sure how to say this.”

“Just spit it out.” Cyril barked impatiently.

“OK. Alex is Dirk Smudge’s illegitimate son.”

Diaz and Cyril both gasped. They had never thought Sid was going to say that. “You are sure?” Diaz asked.

“The night manager of the LCDD survived the explosion and she saw the results herself.”

“Wow. I, er...” Diaz was lost for words. “What do we do now? Ted is forcing the Founding Families to vote tonight on a new President.”

“He works quickly.” Sid was impressed. “We’ll have to announce it at the vote. Alex is the rightful heir. The Smudge lineage can’t just be written off.”

“I didn’t see this coming.” Cyril was still shocked. “We need Alex at the Palace tonight.”

“I will keep him safe till then. Just let me know when you need him.” Sid was pleased with how trusting they were being.

“You’d better be sure, Sid,” Diaz said. The consequences if Sid was wrong were too huge to think of.

Sid remembered something Alex had said. “It’s in his blood, he can’t help but shine.”

“Okay, how about you tell me the story from the beginning.” Diaz settled in his chair as Sid told him the whole story.

*

Bob had called a mid morning meeting for his Technicians; he had hoped that by now they had gathered what he’d asked them for. Slowly in ones and twos they all assembled in the bomb shelter where Bob was waiting. His gleeful smile was hidden by the deep shadow created by his hood. Once their hoods were in place he started the meeting straight away.

“01010100 01000101 01000011 01001000, 01001001 01010011, 01001100 01001001 01000110 01000101,” the chanting began.

“Direct current, alternating current, amp and volts complete our circuit” Bob shouted, the excitement getting the better of him momentarily. “Welcome, Technicians. I appreciate your continued support and agreeing to a meeting at such short notice.”

The technicians preened smugly in their cloaks. “We are all committed to the job the Palace has given us, Master Technophile,” Technician Hammer said proudly.

“We all know how urgent things are,” Technician Fisher agreed. “I was at the Painted Ladies concert last night and...”

“How did you get in?” Technician Winter asked jealously.

“Alex is my roommate,” Fisher proudly announced.

“No way.” Technician Plasterer couldn’t believe it.

“Oh yes, we are good friends,” Fisher embellished.

The Master Technophile listened to the conversation that arose, indulging their need for petty one-upmanship for a while. After a moment he redirected them, “We can all agree that Alex would make a good President. Maybe once I have all the equipment I asked you for we can see if Alex is the one.”

The Technicians rummaged around in their robes and produced what they had been asked for. The Master Technophile examined every item whilst the Technicians held their collective breath. “Excellent,” Bob pronounced.

As one the Technicians started breathing again, congratulating each other on a job well done. “Wouldn’t it be good if Alex was the new President?” Winter murmured. “We don’t want another stuck up Upper Town snob.”

Inside his hood Bob bridled. Upper Town snob? What did that mean? He lived in the Upper Town and he was going to make a brilliant President. Winter was clearly another candidate for his corporal punishment programme. “Now let us continue with a reading from the Book,” Bob said, marshalling his thoughts and the Technicians’ wandering conversation.

*

Alex had finally crawled into bed once Sid had left, exhaustion blurring his vision and tugging at his eyelids. He wanted to sleep forever, to wallow in slumber’s soft embrace, protected from the madness of the city. He was determined to at least sleep this odd day away. For a few hours it looked like he would manage his goal. Midday came and went, with not so much as a murmur. It was three in the afternoon when Eve and fate called him.

Eve ran into Alex's bedroom and shook him awake."Alex, you have to see this." He groaned but Eve only shook harder. "You can't sleep at a time like this." Finally the urgency of Eve's voice roused his curiosity and he got up. In the living area a huge TV screen had been revealed, from where it was hidden in the wall. Alex privately marvelled at the way TVs just seemed to appear from nowhere around him, as if called into being from the raw ferment of the universe.

Eve settled him on the sofa beside her before turning the volume up high. A news reporter was standing in front of a large crowd outside the Palace. He was chattering excitedly. "...It seems as if the deadlock has finally been broken here. By announcing a vote the Founding Families have effectively called a halt to the process of finding an heir. Mr Mitall-Patterson is spearheading the initiative and after his statement of only moments ago it appears that he has the unanimous support of the other Founding Families.”

Behind the reporter the protestors, many of whom had stayed the night, were gathered. They started chanting, “Alex for President, Alex for President,” over and over. As the camera panned across the crowd Alex could have sworn that he’d seen Sid orchestrating this sudden vocal outburst.

The reporter stepped to the side to try and finish his broadcast. “It seems that the rebellion leader Alex is a popular choice amongst the crowd, but surely Mr Mitall-Patterson himself is the most likely candidate to lead Londinium out of these difficult times.”

The newscaster in the studio asked a question. “Has there been any reaction from the Palace about the vote this evening?”

"No word as yet, Kay. It is reasonable to expect that the Ministers are scrambling through the law to see if they can stop the vote, as they have been completely upstaged by this announcement..."

The report continued, but Alex didn't need to listen any further. He got up and crossed to the window and gazed across at the Palace. Eve stood and joined him. "What are you going to do?" she asked.

"I guess I won't be going back to bed. I'm sure Sid has a plan."

"He's a man with a plan all right," Eve agreed. "I guess he will need my help too. I did see the results and I can prove it too."

"Prove it?" Alex turned to her in shock. "How?" he asked.

She rummaged in her bra for a moment and pulled out a crumpled sheet of paper. "I printed out the results before the LCDD blew up. It’s why I survived. I was collecting the printout in a back room; if I'd been at my desk I would be dead."

"Why didn't you say anything before?"

"I had trouble with my memory afterwards; I only found the paper when I got to bed this morning."

"Can I see?" Alex asked, holding out his hand, Eve nodded and he gingerly took it. Carefully he unfolded the warm printout and there, clear as day, was the DNA match. His name and photo on the left and Dirk Smudge's name and picture on the right.

"Are you OK?" she asked. Alex had gone pale.

"I still can't believe it."

"You even look like him a little bit. Alex, once I show everyone this there will be no backing out for you. Everything will change forever."

"I know."

"If you ask me to I will destroy it, then it will just be our word against theirs."

"You'd do that?" Alex was flabbergasted; his whole life could be handed back to him if Eve destroyed the evidence.

"Yeah. You could marry Doris, have a couple of kids and forget all about us city folks. I'd never tell anyone." She felt that Alex deserved the chance of a normal life; it wasn't his fault who his father was.

"I ..."

"You don't have to decide now. Think about it and let me know. But from the looks of it you don't have long to make your mind up."

"Thank you, Eve."

"That's OK." She patted him on the shoulder. "I know you'll make the right choice." She headed back into her bedroom, leaving Alex looking out on the city that could be his.

*

The Palace was in an uproar after the news of the impending vote became public. The crowds at the gates had swelled and the press were hungrily waiting for a statement. Sarah Lovely had been working frantically ever since Ted’s announcement that morning and was trying to remain optimistic. The statement she had been preparing for Diaz had gone through several drafts. He’d been unusually picky about what he said.

The formal dining room was practically deserted; every other member of the crisis group had left in a rush to deal with their own departments. Cyril had been in a meeting with Diaz for several hours, which had afforded Sarah some quality time to finish the statement. She smiled as she put the finishing touches to the latest draft, knowing that this time the tone was just right. As she re-read it there was a knock at the door. “Come in.”

“I have a report for Personal Assistant Diaz about the LCDD explosion,” a fat bespectacled clerk said.

“I can give it to him,” Sarah said, holding her hand out. “He’s not to be disturbed at the moment.”

The clerk seemed reluctant to part with the USB drive clutched in his hand. “His orders were very specific.”

His reluctance sparked Sarah’s curiosity. “What is on the drive?” she asked.

“The last hour of DNA reports and my analysis on what happened.”

“What did you find?”

The clerk coughed nervously. “Personal Assistant Diaz had classified it for his eyes only.”

Sarah stood up, and the clerk gulped. “I am a Minister in this government, and nothing is so classified that I can’t see it. Personal Assistant Diaz will be very disappointed when he hears that you...” Sarah didn’t even need to finish her sentence.

“Of course, Minister Lovely. It seems that the power generators were deliberately triggered to overload.”

“Who could do that?”

“Only a Minister would have access to the system and they would have to know about the programme, as it wasn’t supposed to be there.”

“Well, as foreign minister the LCDD was under Ted Bundy’s remit,” Sarah mused aloud. “I will take the report. Thank you.” She held out her hand again, and reluctantly the clerk handed the small USB stick over and left.

The door flew open a few moments after the clerk had gone and Ted Bundy himself strode into the room. Quickly Sarah put the USB stick in her pocket. “Ahh Sarah, just the person I needed,” Ted said, placing his arm around her and leading her towards the door. “I want to go over the procedure for the vote with you.”

“Of course,” she said as she was propelled towards the ballroom.

“Firstly let’s check the equipment.” The stage was less flamboyantly dressed than last night; Sarah had ordered the painters to get rid of as much of the glitter as possible. “That is perfect. Diaz doesn’t use you nearly well enough.”

Sarah decided that Ted probably meant that as a compliment. “Thanks. I have had wireless microphones made ready for every member of the Founding Families and whoever else is on stage. The lighting rig has also been changed to completely light the stage rather than the spotlight arrangement from last night.”

“Very thoughtful.” Ted was in his element now he had a purpose again. “I also want a laptop on the stage with a large screen projected onto the back of the stage.”

“I can arrange that. How many guests have you invited?”

“We’ll have about the same number as last night. I thought it would look good if we got the protestors to fill out the back. I will send you a list with VIP names shortly.” He looked around the ballroom and sighed happily. “Can’t you feel it, Sarah?”

“What?”

“We are on the brink of making history. In this very room in just a few hours a new President will be elected for the first time in Londinium’s history.”

Sarah shivered. “It is the end of an era,” she said sadly.

Ted clapped his hands together, making Sarah jump. “Lots to do, lots to do,” he said, and walked off.

Sarah stared after him, wondering if he had really blown up the LCDD and what possible reason he could have for killing those people. After a moment’s reflection Sarah could hear her name being shouted by Cyril. She rushed back to the formal dining room where Diaz and Cyril were waiting for her.

“Do you have the press statement for me?” Diaz asked.

Sarah went to her computer and ordered a printout. “It’s just here,” she said, taking the sheet once the printer had spat it out.

Diaz read it through and smiled. “Brilliant work. Let’s get this out ASAP.”

Fifteen minutes later Diaz was standing in front of the assembled press. He looked down to the prepared statement and began to read. “Thank you for joining us today on what might be the most important day in the whole history of Londinium. Never before has such a crisis threatened us, never before have we had to fight so hard for what it means to be a citizen of England. I speak for the entire Palace staff when I say that I welcome the Founding Family vote planned for this evening. It is time to put this matter to rest.”

“Were you consulted?” a journalist asked.

“Yes. Early this morning it was discussed, and a decision was made to privately approach the Founding Families. Mr Mitall-Patterson’s announcement was delivered as planned once everyone had been consulted.” Diaz was very impressed with Sarah’s mental gymnastics which had allowed the Palace to seem in control once again. “The vote will take place in a few hours in front of all your cameras. This is a moment that the whole country should be able to watch.” To Diaz’s surprise, some of the reporters started clapping and soon the whole room had joined in and applauded Diaz as he left the conference.

“I’d say that went well,” Cyril commented.

“Well let’s hope Lady Luck keeps shining on us.”

“Yeah, we’ll need her tonight alright.”

*

Annie rushed to find her mistress in her office. The other apprentices were buzzing with the news that Lady Garland had entertained a male colleague outside office hours. Annie didn’t know how they had found out, as she hadn’t told a soul. Now she had to deliver a curt summons from the Duchess to Lady Garland.

“Milady?” Annie called on entering Lady Garland’s rooms. “Milady?” She called again somewhat bolder. Maybe she wasn’t in.

“In here, Annie.” Annie followed the sound of Lady Garland’s voice into her dressing room. Her mistress was staring at herself critically in the mirror. “Do you think this colour suits me?” she asked, holding a turquoise jumper up against herself.

“Yes, Milady, although perhaps a paler shade would be less domineering.”

Lady Garland cocked her head. “You’re right as usual,” she said, throwing the offending jumper onto a nearby chair.

Automatically Annie moved to hang it up, fiddling with the hanger as she imparted her news. “The Duchess has asked to see you straight away, Milady.”

Lady Garland stared at Annie. “How bad is it?”

“All the apprentices are talking about it. I swear I didn’t say a word, Milady, I would never ...”

“Calm yourself, Annie. I trust you completely.”

Relieved, Annie hung up the jumper with a sigh. “Thank you, Milady.”

“I suppose I always knew she would find out. Wish me luck, Annie. Here I go.” Taking a deep breath, Lady Garland left Annie and made her way to the Duchess’s office. She wasn’t sure if it was her imagination but she could have sworn people fell silent as she approached, only to start whispering when she’d passed. Steeling herself, she knocked on the door to the Duchess’s office. After receiving the command to enter, Julie quietly opened the door and went in, closing the door behind her.

The Duchess was in her fifties, silver grey hair pulled back into a severe bun. She was dressed in a mauve twinset and pearls. Her appearance may have fooled an ordinary person into thinking that she was no more threatening than the average mother-in-law. But in reality the Duchess had killed over one hundred people in her long career. She was seated at her ornate oak desk and bade Julie sit in a chair across from her. They sat in silence for a moment before the Duchess sighed. “Oh Julie, what have you done?”

“I’m just working the contract.” Julie tried to pretend she didn’t know what the Duchess was referring to.

“I’m not talking about your work. I’m talking about your early morning visitor.”

“He works for the Company,” Julie defended herself.

“And you are working together?”

“I had some information which I was duty bound to pass on.”

“So it has nothing to do with you wanting to invite him back to your place?” Julie winced, and the Duchess continued, “You’ve broken the number one rule, Julie. You’ve become emotionally involved.”

“But he’s one of us.” She tried to make the Duchess see reason.

“That is even worse. He is our competition. We fight our male counterparts for every contract, and now you’ve fallen in love with one of them.”

“I...”

“Don’t try and deny it. You may have tried to cover your tracks but I still got footage of your meeting.”

“I don’t deny it.” Julie hung her head low. If the Duchess had seen her with Johnstone then there was nothing she could do.

“You have left me no choice but to strip you of your Lady title and ask you to leave. I really hope he’s worth it,” the Duchess added bitterly. She had had such high hopes for Julie.

“You’ve never fallen in love?” Julie cried indignantly.

“Never so much that I arranged a liaison in Company offices. What were you thinking?”

“We were discussing Company business,” Julie began. The Duchess gave her a hard stare and Julie had to concede, “Mostly. I hoped you’d never find out.”

“I wish I hadn’t. If the news hadn’t got out then maybe I could have looked the other way, but I can’t jeopardise the training of all my apprentices.”

“I know,” Julie sighed. “If I was in your position I’d have to do the same thing.”

“You should go now,” the Duchess said, returning to her paperwork. Julie stood up and crossed to the door. “Julie,” the Duchess called and she turned. “Good luck.”

Julie nodded and left. Slowly she made her way back to her room, where Annie was waiting anxiously. Julie threw herself into her desk chair, tears burning in her eyes. Being a Lady was all she’d ever known. “Annie, be an angel and get me a drink.”

“Anything in particular, Milady?”

“Just something with a lot of alcohol in it.” Annie busied herself at the drinks cabinet, making a very strong gin and tonic. “Oh, and you shouldn’t call me Milady anymore,” Julie added as Annie passed her the drink. “I will write you an excellent reference, of course.” She took a long sip. “You’ll be a Lady yourself in the not too distant future.”

“I appreciate that, Milady, but it won’t be necessary.” Annie had done a lot of thinking whilst Julie had been in her meeting and she decided that she couldn’t abandon the only family she’d ever known.

“What do you mean?”

“My loyalty is to you. I am staying by your side.”

“Oh, Annie.” For the first time ever Julie embraced the girl. “Thank you.” She took another large swig from her glass. The burn of the gin helped to focus her. “Can you pack my things? We need to leave as soon as possible. I have to tell Sid about this.”

“Right away, Milady.” Annie happily set about her task as Julie finished her drink.

*

Alex had watched Diaz’s news conference with a stomach full of butterflies. It seemed that he had little time left to make up his mind. Was there really much of a decision left to make, he wondered. He knew he couldn’t really go back to the village and pretend that this had all been a dream, and did he even want to? He wasn’t certain anymore.

Sure Londinium was strange, bewitching and dangerous, but it was starting to feel like home. What would happen to his friends if he went home? Eve would be out of a job for sure. What if someone found out about Sid? Alex had let his name slip whilst he was at the Palace. Would someone try to kill him? Then there was what Sergeant Thistle had said about a war brewing. A war would even reach his village. What would happen to his sisters then? Alex crossed to the window. Londinium looked beautiful in the dusk. Who was he kidding? Alex knew he wasn’t really going anywhere. Sure it was nice to pretend, but the time for pretending was over. “Eve.” He called.

Eve appeared from her bedroom, “Have you made a decision?” she asked eagerly. The waiting was killing her.

“I have.” Alex paused.

“Come on, Alex, tell me.”

“You should probably call me Mr President,” Alex said with a smile.

Eve ran at Alex with a squeal and hugged him tightly. “I knew you wouldn’t leave, Alex. Sorry, I meant Mr President.”

Alex laughed. “I don’t think I will ever get used to that.”

*

Sid was lurking in the ballroom at the Palace, watching as the last minute checks were performed. He was worried. He’d been unable to contact Lady Garland and he needed her to fetch Alex for him. Cyril sidled up to him, although Cyril wasn’t built for sidling. “Everything going to plan?” he asked in a harsh whisper, which according to the laws of physics carried across the ballroom.

“I wish you’d let me leave. There are things I should be doing.”

“Oh no, Diaz was clear. Without you, we are all up a creek without a paddle.”

“OK, OK. How long have we got?”

“The vote is scheduled to begin in an hour. The seats will start filling up soon.” Cyril handed Sid some ‘reserved’ labels. “You will be able to reserve a few seats, but not in the first two rows.”

“Thanks. Remember I need my people let in.”

“I have told the guards, it’s all taken care of.” Cyril coughed and moved away.

Sid took the ‘reserved’ labels and began applying them to several seats to the left of the stage. He had to make sure that Eve and Alex could be seen when the time came.

Julie felt strangely vulnerable as she made her way across the Upper Town towards the Palace. Whilst the stripping of her Lady title left no physical mark, she felt it keenly in her soul. She was no longer part of the Company, with all their resources to call on at a moment’s notice; she was now just Julie, a single person in a whole city. Although she still had Annie, which was a comfort.

As she rushed, crowds of people rushed with her. Everyone wanted to be at the Palace for this announcement. She was buffeted around as she reached the edge of the almost permanent rebellion protest outside the Palace gates. People closed round her like a wall, shoving Annie hard into her side. There were shouts and jeers as the crowd tried to surge forward a few more inches. Julie grabbed Annie’s arm and slowly moved them both sideways towards the edge of the crowd, where they could breathe more easily.

“How are we going to get in?” Annie asked, scared.

Julie looked around helplessly before thinking, ‘What would Lady Garland do?’ The crowd was too thick to barge through, and there was no way she could get a message to Sid. ‘Think, Julie, think’

“I can’t see anyone getting in, not even the Founding Families.” Annie muttered hopelessly.

“The Founding Families, that’s it, Annie. Come on.” Julie rushed round the Palace wall Annie running to keep up.

“What about them?” Annie panted as Julie came to a stop outside the back entrance, the same one that she had smuggled Alex out of the night before.

Julie took off her scarf and turned to Annie. She draped the scarf over her head, hiding most of her face. “Just follow me.” Julie knocked smartly on the gate. After a moment it opened a few inches and a suspicious pair of eyes glared through the crack.

“What do you want?” the guard grumbled.

“Founding Family business. Please move aside,” Julie said briskly, pushing on the door.

“Now hang on...” the guard began to interrupt.

“Listen to me, my good man, do you not recognise Phyllis Greene, youngest daughter of Harold Greene, the man who owns all those pesky coffee shops?” The guard looked to where Annie stood shrouded in the scarf. Julie took advantage of his doubt. “Don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone. Come on, Phyllis.” Julie took Annie by the arm and guided her away from the startled guard and into the Palace. They made their way to the main entrance hall; Julie pulled Annie behind a pillar. “Wait for me here.”

Julie crossed to the ballroom and slipped inside. The room was filling up fast with TV crews, reporters, VIP guests and members of the protest. She made her way slowly towards the front, looking around for Sid. Suddenly there was a hand on her shoulder, pulling her into the wall. Without thinking she grabbed the hand and spun round, pulling the man in front of her and pushed his arm painfully up between his shoulder blades.

“It’s me, Johnstone,” he grunted.

Julie let go quickly. “I’m sorry,” she said, rubbing his arm as he turned round.

“It’s OK. I should know better than to startle a Company employee.”

“What about Ex Company employees?”

“Ex?”

“We were watched earlier.”

“I’m sorry, La...”

“My name is Julie. I will figure something out. For now we need to concentrate on helping Sid.”

“Did I hear someone mention my name?” Sid had been making his way over to Julie whilst Johnstone had been talking to her.

“Sid, there you are,” Julie said, smiling. “I would like to introduce you to Johnstone, another Company employee who has been helping me.”

Johnstone and Sid shook hands. “Well, the vote will begin soon, so I need you to go and fetch Alex and Eve for me.”

“Of course.” Julie turned to Johnstone. “You should stay here and help Sid stall if needed.”

“Good idea,” Sid said, taking Johnstone by the arm and leading him to the reserved seating he’d arranged.

Julie rushed back into the hallway and collected Annie from where she had left her. “We need to get Alex,” she explained, as she and Annie pushed their way out through the main doors and towards the gates.

Backstage the Patriarchs of each of the five Founding Families were gathered along with Diaz, Cyril, Sarah and Ted. Sarah was overseeing the application of the microphones on the Founding Family members. Ted and William Mitall-Patterson were whispering together in the corner like naughty schoolchildren, glancing at Diaz occasionally. Diaz and Cyril were waiting silently, their nerves palpable; the next few hours would decide the fate of the entire country. Ted and William smiled to each other before William joined the other Founding Family members and Ted swaggered over to Diaz and Cyril.

“Just to remind you, Diaz,” Ted said, putting his arm round Diaz’s shoulder. “We should get this done as swiftly as possible. Mr Mitall-Patterson is prepared to look favourably on you if you help to facilitate a quick and painless vote.”

“Bit sure of himself, isn’t he?” Cyril grumbled.

“Oh Cyril, it is a foregone conclusion that he will become President. He does represent two Founding Families after all.” Ted was right. Normally strict rules prevented Founding Family members to marry into another Founding Family. But in the case of the last Mitall, the young woman would have lost the name and her standing if she had married anyone else. It made William the obvious choice for President.

“I have to follow protocol, Ted, you understand that,” Diaz said, slipping out from under Ted’s arm.

“Just don’t make a meal out of it,” Ted snapped.

William was also trying to smooth over the transition with the other Founding Family members. “Life will be good for us again once I’m President.” The men nodded. For years William had been greasing palms, in case the opportunity for a vote had come up. “We’ll try and get this over quickly and then we can all have a celebratory dinner, I’ve had my chef working all day.” This cheered up everybody; William was famous for throwing the best dinner parties in the city. “There will be plenty more big dinners for us in the future as well.”

All across the city clocks started chiming the hour. Bob was watching his television avidly. The decision when to inaugurate the new President was crucial to his plans. He was working on his desk, bomb components scattered around him. As the eighth chime died away, the news coverage switched to show the ballroom. On the stage the five Founding Family members filed out and took their seats to the left of a podium which had been set up. Diaz and the other Palace Ministers filed out after them and settled themselves on to chairs on the right of the podium. The news reporter explained who everyone was in hushed tones, and went on to detail the procedure. “Firstly PA Diaz will officially call for a vote. Once the Founding Families agree to call a vote, PA Diaz will then ask for nominations. There is only expected to be one: Mr Mitall-Patterson. Then Diaz will ask for the Founding Family members to vote for a new President. The vote must be unanimous.” Bob carefully tidied away the gunpowder, prepared to watch history being made.

Rodney and his fellow rebels had seats at the back of the ballroom, staring in raptures at the city’s elite. Rodney was surprised that Alex wasn’t there; he hadn’t seen him since the break-in a couple of nights ago. Sid had been scarce as well, which was odd. Rodney didn’t know what was going on.

Thomas nudged Rodney. “Imagine if Alex turned out to be the President.”

“Well, he’s not here. You know a challenge has to be made in person. If Alex doesn’t turn up he can’t do anything.” He looked around the room. “Where is he?”

As Diaz stood up and prepared to get the proceedings started, Cyril caught Sid’s eye from where Sid was sitting a few rows from the front. Sid shrugged, and Cyril’s stomach tightened into knots. If they messed this up, if Diaz couldn’t slow things down, if Alex didn’t turn up, Cyril knew they’d end up in jail.

Outside the Palace walls the large screen, which had been used last night for the Painted Ladies performance, was now showing proceedings in the ballroom.

Diaz’s face loomed down over the crowd, his words echoing across the Plaza. “On behalf of the Palace I thank the Founding Families for attending this vote. Although I would like to add that there was a distant Smudge relation that we were waiting to hear back from. However, the vote has been pushed ahead due to the upheaval in Londinium.”

Julie was barely listening as she pushed her way through the crowd; she knew that Diaz wouldn’t be able to carry on like this for long. Annie was turning out to be remarkably good at clearing a path through the crush of people. Her elbows and knees jerked as she moved, and groans of pain followed behind them as they struck a vulnerable soft bit. Finally free of the crowds they rushed to the skyscraper where Alex was hiding. The large glass doors were locked with a keypad. The security was such that there was no way to break the glass. Without a code you simply couldn’t get in. Julie rushed to the lock and typed in her Company access code. There was a cross-sounding beep. She calmed herself and typed the number in again, being extra careful. Again there was the beep. She bashed the door in frustration.

“What’s wrong?” Annie asked.

“My code isn’t working,” Julie said, punching in the number again in the hope that something had changed. It hadn’t. “Damn it!” She paced in front of the door. How could she be so close but still so far? The removal of her Lady title may have only left a mental mark, but it seemed to have soured her luck. “The Company ... of course,” she muttered.

“What is it?” Annie was worried; she’d never seen her Mistress behave like this. Normally she was so controlled.

“My Company access has been revoked.”

“Oh no,” Annie whispered as she realised the full extent of the problem. “How are we going to get Alex down if we can’t get in?”

Julie looked around desperately for inspiration, “I don’t know.”

“I hereby call on the honesty and aptitude of the Founding Family members present, and ask them to declare ‘yea’ or ‘nay’ to the need for a Presidential Vote to be undertaken.” Diaz intoned, turning to face the five men. There had been no sign of Alex, so Diaz decided to prolong things as much as he could. “You have each been given an electronic voting device, selecting the answer from a menu of options. Your results will be displayed on the screen beside you.”

Mr Mitall-Patterson shot Ted a glare. Ted shifted in his seat and coughed. “We all know how it works, Diaz,” he whispered.

“Gentlemen, please vote,” Diaz ordered. On the screen a unanimous ‘yea’ vote was given.

Rodney had been given a special job by Sid earlier that day. He turned to his co-protestors. “Alex, Alex,” he started to chant. After a few sharp looks at the men around him, the chant was picked up. Slowly it made its way through the whole crowd until even some journalists were chanting without even realising it. From where Sid was sitting he saw the journalists signal for a break, to allow a reporter to speak to the crowd outside who had also begun to chant. Diaz gladly allowed this diversion and received a glare from Mr Mitall-Patterson. If this didn’t work, Mr Mitall-Patterson would have his guts for garters.

“Do you think Alex will be watching the coverage?” Julie asked, an idea forming. Even from here a couple of streets away the chanting could easily be heard.

“I would have thought so,” Annie replied.

“Good,” Julie said and started running back towards the Palace. Annie chased after her; they barrelled back into the crowd. Julie barely noticed as people scurried out of her way; the look of grim determination on her face parted the crowd. She headed towards the cameras where the live broadcast was coming from, stopping when she was a few feet away. She turned to Annie. “I need you to mingle with the crowd and get them to chant with me in front of the cameras.” Annie nodded and moved into the thickest part of the crowd. Julie barged her way past the cameramen to where the journalist was reporting.

She smiled at the man with her sexiest smile and pulled at her top to show a little more cleavage. The reporter was helpless and as he caught her eye she barged forward. “Alex, come down,” she said into the camera. From behind her Annie echoed her in a loud voice. It didn’t take many elbows to stomachs for the people around Annie to start shouting it as well. The carnival atmosphere meant that people would have chanted their times tables with a little encouragement. Julie could only hope that Alex would see her message and come down from the apartment.

Luckily for Julie both Alex and Eve had been avidly watching the proceedings. Alex jumped up and headed for the front door. “Where are you going?” Eve asked.

“Don’t you recognise her? She rescued us last night. Now she wants us to come down.”

“Right,” Eve said, taking a deep breath; she checked her handbag for the umpteenth time to make sure her printout was safely inside. “Let’s go,” she said, when she was satisfied that she had everything she needed.

Back in the ballroom quiet had descended again, and Diaz rose from his seat to continue the vote. “A unanimous ‘yes’ vote means that the next stage in proceedings is for candidates to be nominated.”

Ted jumped up. “I nominate Mr William Mitall-Patterson.”

“I thought you might,” Diaz muttered. “By statute there must be at least two candidates, so are there any other nominations?” Diaz smiled; he had spent hours trying to find a loophole that might slow things down for a bit. Mr Mitall-Patterson growled and nudged Mr Greene who sat beside him.

“Oh, I nominate -” Mr Harold Greene said, getting to his feet.

“Alex!” someone in the crowd shouted before Mr Greene could finish. There was laughter as more people shouted, “Yeah, nominate Alex.”

“This is outrageous, you are making a mockery of these whole proceedings,” Mr Greene blustered.

“Quiet,” Diaz called, trying to hide his smile. “Please, Mr Greene, continue.”

“I nominate Mr Cameron,” Harold Green said gratefully, sitting down again.

“Boo!” several people shouted.

William Mitall-Patterson had been getting increasingly angry at the way things were going. He knew that Diaz was probably stalling for time and could produce Alex at any moment. He caught Ted’s eye and nodded. “Do something,” he mouthed.

Julie and Annie were waiting once again outside the apartment building, hoping that Alex was on his way. Annie squealed and hugged her Mistress as Alex and Eve appeared through the doors. “That was amazing.” Julie smiled and disentangled herself from Annie, and met Alex and Eve at the door.

“We got your message,” Alex said.

“Let’s go and disrupt a vote, shall we?” Julie said, leading the way back towards the Palace.

Ted got up and pushed Diaz aside. “Right,” he said, assuming control of proceedings. “Now that we have our nominees it is finally time to call for the vote.”

In the crowd Sid was beside himself. Where was Alex? He turned to Johnstone. “You have to do something,” he begged. “They need more time.”

Johnstone nodded and thought for a moment. What he was considering would end his career with the Company. But Julie wouldn’t forgive him if he didn’t help. With Julie in his thoughts he stood up. “Wait.” His deep voice echoed around the room and everyone turned to stare at him.

Ted felt himself start to sweat as he recognised the hit man he had hired. “No, the...” he tried to continue but Johnstone interrupted him.

“I accuse you, Minister Bundy, of paying for the assassination of Alex Winthrop, the rebellion leader.” There were gasps from the crowd.

“You have no proof.”

“It was me that you hired to kill him, and I can show the authorities the bank transaction to prove it.” The crowd started to talk amongst themselves.

Ted stalked over to Mr Mitall-Patterson. “You said they could be trusted.”

“Me?” He looked around innocently. “I have no idea what you are talking about.”

“What? You gave me their number.”

“I did no such thing.”

Their argument now had the full attention of the crowd, “You ...You.” Ted stuttered as he realised that he’d be getting no support from Mr Mitall-Patterson, who it looked like would never be his father-in-law.

“Is this true, Ted?” Diaz asked.

“He’s a danger, Alex ...” Ted’s mind was jumbled; he’d thought he would always have Mr Mitall-Patterson to rely on. “He,” Ted pointed to William. “He promised me that I could marry his daughter if I helped him get into power.”

There were more gasps from the crowd. The other Founding Family members looked disgusted. They were actively trying to distance themselves from him.

“This is nonsense. Someone like you would never be good enough for my daughter.” Ted made a lunge for Mr Mitall-Patterson.

“Guards!” Diaz shouted, and within moments Ted was apprehended.

“Let go of me,” he shouted as the guards pulled him to one side.

William Mitall-Patterson turned to the other Founding Family members. “I am still the best man to be President, no matter what that madman says.” He pointed to Ted. “Can we please just have the damn vote now?”

Diaz looked to Sid. There was still no sign of Alex. There was nothing he could do; he had to call the vote. “Founding Family members, would you please...”

“Wait!” a voice shouted from the back.

“Not again,” William snarled.

Julie strode down the aisle of chairs towards the stage. “Allow me to present Alex Winthrop, the rightful heir to the Presidency.” The room went quiet, but as Alex walked in, followed by Eve, everyone erupted into cheers.

“No, no, no,” William groaned, as Alex jumped up onto the stage and pulled Eve up after him. “This is ridiculous. You have absolutely no proof.”

Eve took a microphone from Cyril. “That is where you are wrong.” Once again the room descended into a deadly hush as the whole of Londinium hung on her every word. “My name is Eve Sullivan; I am the night manager at the LCDD. Luck had me surviving Minister Bundy’s attempt to kill me and destroy the evidence that would put Alex in the seat of office. This piece of paper,” Eve produced the printout from her bag, “proves that Alex is the illegitimate son of Dirk Smudge.” There was uproar from the press, the crowd and the Founding Family members, who clamoured to see the paper.

“This is no proof,” Mr Mitall-Patterson shouted, snatching the paper from Eve. “You have made this up. It is a fake.”

“No it’s not.” Eve’s voice sounded weak; she hadn’t expected any doubt.

Sarah had watched mesmerised by what had been happening. Nothing like this had ever happened before. Ted’s comeuppance had been immensely enjoyable, and the thought of Alex as President seemed to make sense. He was so popular with the people. She shifted in her seat and felt something dig into her leg. Shifting again she reached into her pocket and pulled out the USB stick she’d been given earlier.

Mr Mitall-Patterson was now demanding that the vote go ahead as planned, as there was no way to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that Alex was who he claimed to be. Sarah looked at the USB stick and smiled, “I think there might be proof after all,” she said, standing up.

It was all William could do not to lunge at the woman and make her shut up, he was so close. “Nonsense. The data from the LCDD was destroyed in the unfortunate accident.”

“No, it was backed up to an offsite location. P.A Diaz ordered an investigation into the explosion and a retrieval of the backed up data.”

William paled. There was proof. He knew he shouldn’t have trusted Ted with this. Sarah strode to the projector and inserted the USB stick. “Alex’s DNA test should be one of the last completed.” She scrolled through and double clicked on his name. On the screen behind them Alex’s DNA match was shown for all to see. There was a shocked silence for a moment, before Sid stood and started to clap. Soon the entire room was on its feet clapping and cheering for Alex.

The Founding Family members had had a quick conference and now Mr Cameron stepped forward as their spokesman. “It is agreed by all the Founding Families that Alex is the rightful heir. We welcome him with open arms.” With that he hugged Alex briefly, and smiled to the audience. Alex smiled and took the microphone from Eve. He had recognised the ballroom from his vision. This was where he was meant to be. “Thank you,” he called, and the room fell silent. “It would be an honour to serve Londinium and England as your President.” There were more cheers and Alex was surrounded by well wishers.

From his seat Sid watched proudly as Alex talked to the Ministers. Beside him Julie had joined Johnstone. The three of them shared a smile and a sigh for a good job well done.

*


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