Bloodline

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Chapter 9

Alex watched the sun rise over the Plaza in front of the Palace from the window of his apartment. Word had arrived late last night that his family and Doris would be arriving today and he hadn’t been able to get a wink of sleep. A mixture of excitement and nerves had kept thoughts like ‘Will mum be angry I’ve found out?’ and ‘Does Doris still love me?’ running through his mind and had made sleep impossible. His newly acquired feline companion had left the shelter of Alex’s dressing room and sat beside him watching as people moved like ants below.

The City was constantly moving. Alex had been amazed to see the late night revellers spilling from the clubs and theatres give way to the early-bird craftsmen and traders of the Trade Centre. Life in the village seemed so remote, like a different world. He wondered what his family would make of the City and the way life was lived here. Alex’s stomach churned at the thought of seeing them; clearly a large part of his life had been a lie. His parents had lied to him about who he was, about who they were. Had Tom known that Alex wasn’t his son? How did he feel about raising Alex? Did Mary have an affair? Alex found it hard to reconcile the parents he knew with this strange reality he was living in.

*

In the bomb shelter an argument was breaking out. Clive had called the Technicians together, hoping to take advantage of Bob’s absence, and led the group himself. The idea had not gone down well.

“I don’t see why you get to be leader,” Technician Hammer moaned. “I’d make a better leader than you.”

“You?” Technician Plasterer laughed. “We’d be better off following a puppy. I am a manager, I know how to lead.”

“Oh really,” Technician Hammer sneered. “You manage spotty sixteen year olds.”

Technician Winter snorted, “They run rings around you.”

“Well it’s better than being a lackey at the Trade Centre,” Plasterer shouted.

“Lackey? I am a highly skilled contractor,” Hammer spluttered, his cheeks burning red.

“What you all seem to have forgotten,” Clive shouted over them, “is that I am a personal friend of the President.”

“So?” they all chorused.

“I am going places, and I can take you all with me.” Clive stuck his chin out smugly.

“Where? To your cat infested lodgings? I don’t think so,” Technician Winter sneered. The others laughed. “Who was asked to provide the most important component? Who had to risk being fired and questioned by the Palace if they were caught? Me, that’s who. Clearly the Master Technophile trusted me the most, and therefore it is me who should lead our group in his absence.”

There was a moment of silence whilst they all thought about this. “I knew that bucket was a joke,” Plasterer mumbled. “But I’d rather start my own group of enlightened and liberal Technicians than follow any of you.” He started to gather his things.

“My group would be better than yours,” Winter sneered.

“Well, mine’s going to be the best of all!” Hammer shouted throwing off his cloak and thumping up the stairs.

“Oh yeah! I’ll show the lot of you!” Plasterer shouted, thumping up the stairs behind Hammer. Winter followed, muttering about how his group was actually going to accomplish something. Just like that, Clive was alone, and the enlightened and liberal Technicians of the mystical book of technology was over.

*

“Alex,” a shout came from downstairs. “Alex!” Diaz appeared at the top of the spiral staircase. “They’re nearly here.”

“Already?” Alex felt unprepared even though he was desperate to see them.

“Yeah, come on.” Diaz pulled Alex up and hurried him down the stairs. The guards saluted as they passed through the doorway and out into the entrance hall, where the other minsters had formed a small greeting party. Alex ran his fingers through his hair and straightened his shirt. “I look okay, right?” He asked Diaz.

Diaz smiled reassuringly. “You look fine, you’re going to be fine. Just relax.”

Alex took a shaky breath. ‘Relax’, he thought to himself. ‘It’s your family, and they love you.’

The large doors opened and in the early morning light a familiar figure appeared. “Alex!” The figure ran towards him.

“Doris,” Alex breathed as she ran into his arms.

“I missed you so much,” Doris said when they broke apart.

“I never stopped thinking about you.” He kissed her briefly.

“Don’t ever leave me again,” Doris scolded, tears welling up in her eyes.

“Thank goodness you’re here.” Alex held her to his side and saw that his mother, father and three sisters were right in front of him. “Mum.”

“Oh Alex.” Mary hugged her son tightly, tears running down her cheeks.

“We’ve missed you, son,” Tom said joining the hug.

“I’ve missed you too, Dad.” Alex luxuriated in their embrace for a minute before pulling back and turning to Bridgee. “I’ve been looking for you.”

Bridgee laughed. “We must have just missed each other. I got back a few days after you left. You can imagine what mum had to say when I walked in.” They laughed together and he hugged her and his two younger sisters who stood in an awed silence. After a moment a polite cough brought the real world back to Alex and he made introductions, holding Doris’s hand all the while.

After the introductions Alex led his family up to his apartment. As they were filing out Diaz pulled Sid aside and took him to his office. Diaz took a seat and Sid sat down opposite him. As he glanced around the room Sid’s mind went back to the night of the break-in. The office seemed bigger in the daylight. Sitting here now he could scarcely believe the rebellion had been real, and that he’d done the things he had.

“I just wanted to congratulate you on a job well done,” Diaz began.

“Thank you. They seem a very pleasant bunch.”

“And what about Doris?” Diaz was desperate to know what the possible future First Lady was like. “Is she suitable?”

Sid saw at once what Diaz was referring to. “She is fiercely devoted to Alex, and she seemed popular in the village as well.”

“That’s good enough for now. We shall have to take her in hand if Alex does propose.”

“We?” Sid queried.

“That was the other thing I wanted to see you about. Alex and I have been talking and we want to offer you a permanent role in the Palace.”

“I don’t know what to say...”

“Let me give you some more details. Your job would be to assist Alex in getting to grips with our technology to begin with. He already trusts you, which is brilliant.”

Sid thought for a moment about the way his life had been as an undercover operative. Working with different people all the time, never making friends, always feeling like an outsider. “I’ll do it,” he said without hesitation.

“Excellent.” Diaz rummaged in his desk and produced a contract. “Once you’ve signed this you can start straight away. You will be provided with lodgings close by.”

“Wonderful. Thank you.” Sid read the contact carefully, his eyebrows rising in disbelief at the par rise he would receive. Happily he signed on the dotted line. “Where shall I start?”

“Keenness, that’s what I like to see.” They stood up and Diaz continued, “I will let Alex know of your appointment. In the meantime you can use my office to write a report on your adventures with Alex.”

“What, all of it?”

“All of it.” Diaz said and went to find Alex.

“All of it,” Sid echoed as he sat at Diaz’s desk. “This could take some time.”

*

A manager at Branson’s Bank looked warily at the two ex-assassins who sat across the desk from him. Julie and Johnstone had presented the manager with a business plan and were hoping to get their start up loan. Johnstone had achieved notoriety after admitting who he was live on television and the bank manager was thinking of how he could run away, as he had to turn them down.

“After reviewing your plan,” he started nervously, “I’m afraid it doesn’t meet our current criteria.”

“Oh no!” Julie grasped Johnstone’s hand.

“I understand what you are trying to do,” the manager tried to soothe. “It’s just the bank doesn’t see it as being profitable.”

“There is more to life than money,” Julie argued.

“I agree,” he hastily added. “But the bank doesn’t.”

“But...” Julie started to argue again but Johnstone quieted her.

“There is nothing he can do, sweetie.” He squeezed her hand and turned to the manager. “Thank you for your time.” They all stood up. The manager flinched slightly when Johnstone held out his hand, a move that did not go unnoticed by both Julie and Johnstone. Limply the manager shook the proffered hand and Julie and Johnstone made their way outside.

“I can’t believe it. I was so sure we’d be approved. Johnstone, what are we going to do now?”

“Maybe we should just give up?”

“Give up!” she shouted. The crowd around them stopped and stared and she pulled Johnstone into a nearby shop. “We can’t give up yet, we’ve only just started.”

“Let’s be reasonable. Where are we going to get the money from?” Johnstone asked.

Julie gazed around the shop, which was selling a selection of brand new televisions. They were showing muted pictures of the news. Suddenly a picture of Alex flashed across the screens. “That’s it. Alex will help us.”

Johnstone thought for a moment, Palace backing would be a huge advantage. “You’re right, it’s worth a try.”

*

Mary Winthrop was addressing the family when Diaz made his way up the spiral staircase. She was standing in front of the sofas, her family sitting before her. She looked up as Diaz apologised. “Sorry. I’ll give you a minute together.”

“Wait. You should hear this as well, P.A Diaz.” Curious, Diaz perched on the arm of the sofa and Mary began.

“I know you all have a lot of questions regarding the circumstances of Alex’s birth. I want to be completely honest with you all, and tell you how it happened.”

Mary had been Alex’s age when she had been approached by the President and his wife. Bridgee was six months old and Tom had proved himself an excellent stay at home dad. The President’s Personal Assistant at the time had been a fiftyish man called John Cotswold. He had called Mary, the first Lady’s companion, to his office one spring morning.

Cotswold’s office was a more lavish affair than the one used by Diaz. It commanded great views of the Palace gardens. He sat Mary down on a sofa and pulled his office chair to sit in front of her.

Mary’s nerves increased tenfold as he settled himself. ‘What on earth could the P.A want with her? Her mind replayed key events since she had returned from maternity leave. Had she been different? Was Anne displeased with her?

Cotswold cleared his throat and smiled. “How are you finding it being back?”

“It’s great. I feel like I’ve never left.”

“That’s brilliant; you must miss the little one though?”

“I do,” she nodded. “It’s hard to tear myself away every morning.”

“I can imagine,” Cotswold sympathised, even though he had never had any children. “Anne tells me you are a natural mother.”

“Really?” Mary beamed. “I guess I learnt from the best, she is so good with Bart.”

“You heard about his health scare?”

“Yes. Anne says he nearly died.”

“It was touch and go for a while.” Cotswold sighed, “We almost saw the end of the Smudge lineage.”

“Thank goodness he’s ok.”

“For now. Don’t tell anyone, but the doctor’s afraid he could relapse.”

“No?” Mary couldn’t believe things had been so serious.

“I’m afraid so, If only Bart had a brother. Then there would be some way of safeguarding the Smudge family line.”

“But can’t Anne?” Surely they could have another child.

“No, there were complications after Bart’s birth.”

“I had no idea.” Mary was flabbergasted. Why hadn’t Anne told her that she couldn’t have any more children?

“It wasn’t in the President’s interest to make her condition public.”

“Of course not. How terrible.”

Cotswold sighed and nodded ,He took a deep breath and brought up the subject he’d been asked to talk to Mary about. “As you know, Dirk is very much in love with Anne and he certainly doesn’t want to divorce her.”

“No.” Mary could understand; Dirk and Anne were true soul mates.

“And the idea of Dirk sleeping with someone else is a complete non-starter.”

“Hmmm, but what if Bart gets sick again?”

“That’s the dilemma. The only thing Anne could think of was implanting Dirk’s sperm into another woman.”

The truth suddenly dawned on Mary. “You mean me?”

Cotswold was relieved that Mary had put two and two together on her own and that he’d not had to spell it out for her. “You were Anne’s first choice.”

“They really want me?”

“The way you are with Bridgee, the strength of your relationship with Tom. You’ve worked closely with Anne for five years and she trusts you completely.”

Mary sat stunned. As far as she knew this was completely unprecedented. When she had started at the Palace Mary had sworn an oath to protect the President and his family, an oath she took seriously. “I don’t know what to say.”

“You don’t need to decide right away. Go home, talk to Tom and let me know as soon as you can.”

“Of course.” Mary stumbled home in a daze. Tom was pleasantly surprised when she collapsed next to him on the sofa after he had put Bridgee down for her afternoon nap. He put his arm around her and pulled her close. “This is a nice surprise.”

“How’s Bridgee?”

“Sleeping like an angel. You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

“How would you feel about having another baby?”

“Are you...” He sat up

“No no, I’m not pregnant, but I could be in the not too distant future.”

“What do you mean?”

Mary explained her meeting with P.A Cotswold. As she wanted to help Anne and Dirk, she wanted that baby. It wasn’t hard to convince Tom, he’d always wanted a big family and it was a huge honour.

The following day they had a meeting with Dirk and Anne. There were tears of joys in Dirk’s eyes when Mary said she’d do it.

“Thank you,” he gushed. “I know it’s asking a lot.”

“We are honoured that you thought of us.” Tom said.

“Seeing the way you are with Bridgee,” Anne explained. “We know you will be the best people to bring up our child.” Anne was clearly as positive as Tom about the proposal.

“Did Cotswold mention that we have found the perfect village for you to move to?”

“Move?” Tom looked to Mary.

“Nobody said anything about moving.”

“Oh.” Anne looked to Dirk.

“Well, we have to keep this absolutely top secret. I have enemies who would hurt anyone close to me for the chance of gaining control over England. It has been decided that officially Bart will be my only heir. We”- he took hold of Anne’s hand - “we want the baby to be able to live a normal life away from the City.”

“I can understand that, we are worried about raising Bridgee in the City ourselves.” Tom agreed.

“Exactly. You would be well provided for. We would buy you a house and give you a sum of money to raise the baby on,” Anne elaborated.

“Ideally, the baby would never know about me or the City.” Dirk had spent hours agonising over this decision; he dearly wanted to watch the baby grow up. But the baby’s safety had to come first. “What do you think?”

“We’ll still do it,” Mary said, squeezing Tom’s hand.

“Thank you,” Dirk and Anne said together. “You have saved Londinium from potential chaos if anything were to happen to Bart.”

The details for the artificial insemination were discussed and a timetable was worked out based on Mary’s monthly cycle. Three months later she was pregnant.

It was decided to postpone moving until after the week sixteen ultrasound scan, as this scan would not only tell them the sex of the baby but also tell them if it was developing healthily. The date for the scan came and Dirk and Anne were waiting anxiously for news. Tom and Mary were shown straight to them once the scan was complete.

“How was it?” Anne asked rushing to Mary’s side, Dirk a step behind her.

“Everything’s fine, he’s going to be a lovely baby boy.”

“A boy?” Dirk gasped. It hadn’t been until this moment that the whole situation had seemed real.

“We were wondering if you had any particular names in mind,” Tom asked.

They thought for a moment, “I have always loved the name Alexander; it was my father’s name.” Anne suggested.

Dirk smiled, “I love that.”

“Alexander.” Mary tested the name, and smiled brightly. “I love it too.” Tom nodded as well. Mary’s hand went to her belly where she was just starting to show, the others added their hands. “Our little Alexander.”

“We left the next day for our new life in the village.” Mary finished. There was silence for a moment.

“So is Alex still our brother?” the youngest sister asked.

“Of course,” Mary reassured her.

Alex turned to his two sisters; they were so much younger than him. He smiled and enveloped them in a hug. “It will take more than that to get rid of your bossy big brother.” He laughed and the girls giggled.

Mary sighed in relief. “Alex, I’m so glad you understand.”

Alex thought about it. His short time in the city had shown him how fragile Londinium was. If he was in Dirk’s position he would probably have done the same thing. Had Alex found out about his real father before he’d left the village he would have revelled in a teenage hissy fit and spent weeks sulking. However, that person was so far removed from the man he’d become that losing his temper didn’t even enter his head. Tom looked on proudly as Alex hugged his mother; Tom joined the hug and whispered. “You have always amazed me and I’ve always been proud to call you my son, but never more than I am right now.”

“Thanks, Dad.”

Diaz was stunned and relieved in equal measure. He hadn’t expected what Mary had said, but it meant that he could clear Dirk’s name and squash all notion of an affair for good. He couldn’t believe that Cotswold hadn’t told him when he had taken over as P.A. The fact that there were no records on the intra-net wasn’t surprising, but how could Cotswold not have said anything? He turned his thoughts back towards the job at hand and cleared his throat. The family turned to look at him. “Firstly, thank you, Mary, for explaining what happened. I hope you understand that I am going to have to release an abridged version to the press if I am to stop all the rumours.” Mary nodded. “Wonderful. Now I need to borrow Alex for a while. We need to discuss invitations for the inauguration tomorrow.”

Alex reluctantly allowed Diaz to draw him away to the TV screens at the other end of the room. “You ok?” Diaz asked, Alex had a deep frown etched on his face.

“Hmmm?” Alex’s face cleared. “Yeah, it’s just going to take some time to sink in.”

“I bet.” Diaz tapped on the keyboard and a list of names appeared on one of the screens. “Now this is the list of guests we have compiled. I wanted to run it by you before invitations are officially sent out.”

“OK.” Alex studied the list. He sighed. “These names mean nothing to me. Has Eve been invited, and I’d like to see the Painted Ladies and my old landlady and Clive. Not to mention Rodney, Sid and the two people who helped me escape prison, Lady something and a man.”

Diaz nodded, “I will get their names added. The rest are just influential citizens, and Founding Family members of course.”

“That all sounds fine.”

“Thank you. I will get things organised. Oh, and Sid has accepted the job.”

“Alex beamed. “Wonderful.”

“I’ll leave you and your family to catch up,” Diaz said, hurrying off to make arrangements.

*

People milled around the @ Greens that Julie and Johnstone had chosen to spend the afternoon in. This branch was attached to a large supermarket on the edge on the Upper Town. From their vantage point they could see everyone who came through the large automatic doors. It was a trait which had been drilled into them when they had been training with The Company and now they did it without really noticing. They were perfectly placed to see a Palace guard in full uniform walk into the supermarket and turn in their direction.

Johnstone felt Julie tense beside him. “I’m sure he’s just here for coffee,” he tried to reassure her. However, Johnstone was also nervous. Since admitting he used to kill people for a living on TV he’d been waiting for some sort of backlash. The guard made eye contact with them and headed towards them.

“He’s here for us, what shall we do?” Julie asked. The idea of being separated from Johnstone was unbearable.

“We mustn’t be rash, Julie. Just try and act naturally,” he whispered to her as the guard stopped in front of them. A hush came over the coffee shop as the guard saluted them.

Julie frowned, confused. “Can we help you?”

“I have an invitation for you.”

“An invitation?” Julie’s interest aroused. “To what?”

“If I can just scan your right thumb first.”

Julie held out her right hand and pressed her thumb on to a portable scanner which verified her identity in seconds. Once he was satisfied he produced an embossed envelope from his pocket and handed it to Julie, he saluted again and left them. Julie turned the envelope over in her hands and looked at Johnstone who simply shrugged his shoulders.

Carefully Julie prised it open and took out a card with gold writing. “It’s for the inauguration!” she exclaimed. “We’ve been invited.”

Johnstone took hold of the card. “So we have. I can hardly believe it.”

“I told you Alex would help us. This proves that he hasn’t forgotten about us.”

Johnstone smiled and kissed Julie. “Are you always right?” he queried with a laugh.

“Of course.”

*

Meanwhile Mrs Rose was also receiving a Palace guard into her parlour. So overwhelmed by her visitor was she that the cats were shooed off the furniture so he could sit down. Offers of tea or coffee, although frequently made, were strenuously refused, the guard wanted to get out of the dingy house as soon as possible. Mrs Rose, however, didn’t seem to notice his reluctance as she explained how Alex had come to live with her.

As she paused for breath the guard interrupted, “I just need your thumb print so I can deliver my package.” He thrust the scanner under her nose.

“A package from the Palace, for me? How exciting,” she twittered, applying her thumb to the scanner. “Alex always was such a thoughtful boy. Why, when he stayed here...” Mrs Rose began her story again.

“Well, here it is.” The guard put the envelope on the table and beat a hasty retreat.

Once she realised she was alone Mrs Rose called out, “Mr Finkle, Mr Finkle.” Slowly Mr Finkle trudged in; he was used to receiving summonses from his landlady. His interest was aroused when he saw the Presidential seal on the envelope.

“What’s that?” he asked.

Mrs Rose preened happily. “A Palace guard just brought it round.”

Mr Finkle took his customary seat and watched as she opened the invitation. “Oh my heavens.” She fanned herself with the gold edged card. “I’m feeling all faint.”

Mr Finkle rushed to the kitchen and fetched her a glass of water; she sipped it and giggled slightly. Taking a deep breath she said, “I’m OK now, thank you. It came as such a shock.”

“What did?”

“Didn’t I say? Alex has invited all of us to be his personal guests at the inauguration.”

“Oh my.”

*

After escaping from Mrs Rose’s clutches, the guard made his way back into the Upper Town, and towards the Scarlet Siren where the Painted Ladies were rehearsing. His official uniform gained him quick access to the dressing room where Luke and the others were changing. Wary of being buttonholed and told more stories about Alex, he saluted and held out the scanner. “If you could just give me your thumb print Sir, I have an envelope for you.”

There were squeals of delight as Luke stood up and used the scanner. “Hi there,” Nick said, coming over and rubbing his arm. “I bet you have a most impressive package.”

The guard turned bright red, snatched back his scanner and pushed the envelope into Luke’s hands before all but running out of the room. Nick laughed devilishly and turned to Luke. “What is it?”

Luke’s eyes lit up as he read the invitation. “Ladies, we are going to the ball.”

*

Bob Presley looked at himself in his full length bedroom mirror. He turned this way and that, admiring the way his suit had been tailored. Bob had gone to the best tailor in the entire City to have his suit handmade; it had cost more than most people earned in a year and entirely wiped out his savings, but it had been worth it. In his mind he now looked like a President should. With this suit he could take his rightful place in history.

In the distance the Palace clock chimed the hour. Bob started; it was ten pm already, he’d spent far too much time admiring himself and now he was running behind schedule. Carefully he took off his expensive suit and hung it up ready for the inauguration tomorrow. He then changed into black trousers and a black shirt. He inspected his bomb one last time. Once he was sure everything was ready he gingerly wrapped it in brown paper. Being careful to keep it level, Bob made his way from his apartment to the Palace.

Silently he crept through the gardens until he came to the door he had tampered with. This was the moment of truth. If someone had noticed that the door didn’t shut properly and had fixed it, then Bob didn’t have a Plan B. Holding his breath he pushed, and sighed when he felt the door move and open for him.

Once inside he listened in the dark for sounds of pursuit, but there was only silence. Fate was truly on his side. Slowly he crept upstairs towards the backstage area. He had expected things to be quiet and most people to be in bed as it was only twelve hours until the ceremony, but Bob could clearly hear voices beyond the curtain. He made a small gap so he could see what was going on.

Peering through he caught sight of the Pretender to his throne, the man he would have to kill in order to take his rightful place. In his mind Alex looked hopelessly out of place, like a lost little boy, not worthy of claiming Londinium as his prize. Shifting his weight, Bob felt the handgun he was carrying move against him. He smiled as he toyed with the idea of taking out the gun and shooting him here and now, but Bob knew it would be no good. He had to make his move where everybody could witness it and therefore no one could cover it up. The whole country would know the lengths he had gone to to secure the Presidency, and they would surely love him for it.

Shaking himself from his daydream, Bob watched what was obviously a dress rehearsal, making mental notes on the order of events and when would be the best time to interfere if he needed to. It wasn’t until nearly midnight that the rehearsals finished and the Palace grew silent. Once he was sure it was safe Bob parted the curtains and slipped onto the stage. The Seat of Office looked even more magnificent up close, Bob was slightly upset that it would have to be destroyed, but he made a mental note to have an even more extravagant one built for him.

Gently he put the bomb down and knelt in front of the chair. He removed the padded seat cushion to reveal an empty space beneath. Carefully he unwrapped the bomb and lowered it into position. He held his breath as it settled into place. Now for the moment of truth, Bob thought, as slowly, inch by inch, he lowered the seat cushion back into position. ‘Phew’, Bob sighed, glad he hadn’t been blown up. Quickly he gathered up all the evidence that he’d been there and left the way he’d come in.

*

It was three in the morning and Alex was a bundle of nerves. He paced around his bedroom wallowing in his loneliness. It had been deemed unacceptable for Doris to share with Alex until they were married, and now he missed her more than ever.

Poppy, the cat, meowed at him from where she was lying, right in the middle of the bed. Absently Alex sat beside her and rubbed her under the chin. “You are going to love Doris,” he murmured. “She’s great with cats.” Poppy purred loudly and looked at Alex as if to say ‘Why isn’t she here right now to fuss me?’ Alex laughed. “Soon, sweetie, there are rules, you know.” Poppy stood and stretched before turning her back on him and washing herself. Nobody would ever have to remind a cat who the rules applied to. Poppy quite clearly believed she was above such things. Alex watched her. She was right, he was going to be the President and he was sick of sitting alone. He got up and made his way over to the spiral staircase. “Hello?” he shouted down. “Is anyone there?”

“You need something, Sir?” a guard asked, coming into view at the bottom of the stairs.

“Yes,” Alex said, trying to feel and sound like a President. He coughed. “Fetch Doris for me, will you.” The guard’s eyes widened. “I just need to talk to her,” Alex explained, forestalling the guard’s questions.

“Right away Sir.” The guard saluted. Alex felt an unexpected thrill of power as the guard marched away. Ten minutes later the guard was back with Doris beside him. Alex smiled widely as she made her way upstairs. Even though she was just in pyjamas and a dressing gown with her hair ruffled from sleep, to Alex she’d never looked so good. She gave him a hug, “Is everything OK?”

“I can’t sleep.”

“Oh Alex.” She gently led him to the sofas and sat down. Arranging Alex so his head was on her lap, she stroked his hair. “Tell me about it.”

Alex sighed and relaxed. “I am just nervous about tomorrow.”

“I don’t really blame you. How did the dress rehearsal go?”

“It was awful, I kept forgetting what I was supposed to do and tripping over things. I could tell that Diaz was really disappointed.”

“You don’t want to worry about him.”

“But I’m going to make a total fool of myself in front of everyone.”

“No you won’t.” Doris sounded completely sure.

“Yes I will.”

“No you won’t and I’ll tell you why. Each time you feel overwhelmed or that something’s going wrong, you are going to look at me and I will smile and you’ll know that you are doing brilliantly.”

“Oh Doris, I knew you’d make me feel better.” He leaned up and captured her lips in a gentle kiss.

She smiled as they parted. “I know I said a girl loves pretty packaging but you didn’t have to go this far.”

He laughed. “You deserve the best.”

“I was worried one of these City girls would lure you away from me.”

“Are you kidding? All I kept wishing was that you were here with me.”

“Well, I am here now.” She ran her fingers down his face. “Old Jones kept trying to get me to marry his son.”

Alex laughed at the disgust in Doris’s voice. “I got you away from there just in time then.”

“That you did.” Doris yawned and Alex felt himself yawn as well. “We should probably both try and get some sleep,” Doris said, snuggling down into the cushions.

“Don’t go.” Alex knew he wouldn’t be able to sleep alone.

“I won’t,” she smiled, and kissed his forehead. Alex felt his eyelids get heavy as sleep pulled him under.

*

Londinium glittered like a jewel in the early morning light. The sun rose, painting the skyscrapers a mixture of pinks and oranges. The Plaza, in front of the Palace gates, was festooned with red, white and blue bunting, which fluttered wildly in the breeze. Beneath, lines of trestle tables were being set up in preparation for the street party to be held after the Ceremony. As tradition dictated, local restaurants and eateries were providing free food as a token of good will.

With the prospect of a free party, queues had already formed along all the side streets which fed into the Plaza. Some of the sleepy eyed revellers had been there most of the night. Even though there were over five hours to go until the Ceremony, street entertainers plied their craft: jugglers, mimes and fire eaters were working the queues for tips.

Inside the Palace the staff were working just as hard to complete the decorations throughout the ballroom and entrance hall. The kitchens were bustling, preparing breakfast and the Ceremonial banquet. The breaking of dawn meant little to the cooks, kitchen maids, and pastry chefs, as they hadn’t been to bed yet in any case.

Alex and Doris had slept on the sofa for a few hours until the pale light sliced though the curtain less windows and woke them. As they stretched and adjusted themselves, Eve came up the spiral stairs carrying a tray full of breakfast plates. Carefully she placed it on the long table and turned. “Good, you’re up.”

“What time is it?” Alex asked blearily.

“It is T minus four house and forty five minutes.”

“Huh?”

Doris stood nervously and looked Eve over. “Alex, who’s this?”

“Sorry Doris, this is Eve, we spent some time in a prison cell together.”

“Doris,” Eve said, smiling and clasping Doris’s hand. “I have been dying to meet you, Alex talked about you all the time.”

“A prison cell?” Doris asked, “What?”

“I tell you what, let’s let Alex eat breakfast and I can help you get ready,” Eve said guiding Doris towards the stairs.

“Alex?”

“Go. You and Eve will get on like a house on fire,” Alex replied, eyeing the breakfast tray hungrily.

*

“Good morning Londinium.” A middle aged presenter greeted his viewer with a dazzling white smile. “I’m Mike McCarthy and I am honoured to be your guide to today’s historic inauguration.” The camera angle widened to show Mike sitting on a deep purple sofa. Beside him sat a twenty-something blonde with long legs and a vapid expression. “To give you the best coverage of today’s events,” Mike continued, “Amy Randall will be going out onto the streets to report live from amongst the crowds.” Mike turned to Amy. “Are you ready?”

“Oh yes rather, yes I am.” Whilst Mike was a serious reporter, Amy was making a name for herself in slightly less lofty circles. Not that she minded; thanks to her long legs and ample bosom she was living the high life in the Upper Town.

“Where are you going first?” Mike asked.

“I am going to Londinium’s premier fashion house to get some idea of what people might be wearing.” She smiled to the camera, which zoomed in on Mike again as she left.

“Sounds interesting,” Mike replied before briefly consulting his notes. “We also have a special guest commentator at our Plaza studio, Herman Irvine.”

The picture changed to show Herman standing next to an interactive TV screen in a roped off corner of the Plaza. Behind him the Palace gates could be seen with countless revellers gathering either side. “Can you hear me, Herman?”

Herman looked baffled for a moment, smiling at the camera. “Loud and clear, Mike. My job here today is to explain the history behind the Ceremony. I will be explaining the meaning behind the oath and the significance of the Seat of Office, as well as answering some of your questions.”

“Thanks,” Mike said as he reappeared on the screen. “As Herman said, you can ask questions by leaving a message on the phone number which is on screen now.” Mike paused a moment before turning to a different camera. “Now it’s time for a weather update.”

*

Cyril paced inside the closed Palace gates. Nearby a clock tower chimed the hour. It was nine o clock, time to get this show on the road. Cyril straightened his tie and turned to the Captain of the Guards and nodded. The guards would check everybody’s identity with a fingerprint scan before ushering them inside the main hall, where a member of staff was waiting to show the guests to their seats.

The Captain saluted and ordered the gates open. Outside, two hours before the Ceremony was due to start, were the first officially invited guests. These were the least important and destined for seats at the back of the ball room. As eleven o clock approached the more important guests would sit nearer the front culminating in Alex’s family, friends and government minsters in the front rows.

Cyril watched as the first guests to arrive were identified and led past him. They could not afford to make any mistakes today.

“Cyril.” A voice shouted from the doors to the entrance hall.

Cyril turned and smiled. “Diaz,” he greeted him as he walked inside with him.

“How’s it going?” Diaz asked as they moved into the formal dining room.

“Just getting the first guests in now.”

Diaz consulted his schedule. “Right on time, excellent.”

“Start as we mean to go on, hey?”

Diaz thought about all the problems there had been since Bart Smudge had died. “Only if our luck changes,” he declared morosely.

*

Mrs Rose was panicking. Her hair wouldn’t sit right, one of the cats had been sick on her new dress and now Clive was nowhere to be found. “Where can that boy have got to, Mr Finkle?” she asked, patting her hair in front of the mirror on the landing.

“I...” Mr Finkle began, but Mrs Rose had clearly meant the question rhetorically.

“Here I am struggling to get ready with no help at all.” Mr Finkle merely shrugged, which clearly wasn’t what Mrs Rose had been hoping for by way of a response. She huffed angrily. “Go and sort your beard out, it’s a disgrace.” Mr Finkle gratefully slunk away. Mrs Rose returned to her room to do something about her dress. “Oh no.” She patted the bed where the dress had been. “Where is it?” she asked the world in general, panic building. Suspiciously she lifted the quilt in case the dress had somehow manoeuvred itself underneath. “Mr Finkle! Mr Finkle!” she cried, running her hands absently through her hair, destroying the last remnants of the style she’d been trying to achieve.

Grumbling, Mr Finkle appeared in the doorway. “What is it?”

“My dress! Mr Finkle, have you seen my new dress?”

“Aye, very pretty I’m sure,” he said, hoping this was the right answer.

“I know that,” she snapped. “Where is it?”

“I don’t know,” he said, raising his hands and backing away quickly. Luckily for him the front door banged at that moment.

“Clive?” Mrs Rose called, pushing past Mr Finkle and descending the stairs. Clive looked up and smiled. “Oh Clive, where have you been? Something dreadful had happened, my dress is missing.”

“It’s right here,” Clive said, holding it up from where it had been draped over his arm. “I had a friend of mine look at the stain.”

“You did?” Mrs Rose’s anger melted away as she took the dress and examined it. Where the cat had been sick was now covered with a dainty appliqué flower. “Oh Clive, thank you.”

“Any time. Now let’s get ready, the limo will be picking us up in an hour.”

“I still can’t believe we get to ride in a limo,” Mrs Rose twittered, going back upstairs. “The neighbours will be so jealous.”

*

Doris was horrified by her reflection. Surely Eve had to be joking, she couldn’t wear this in front of everyone. Doris had been squeezed into a ball gown with a tight corset top and wide billowing skirts in a delicate shade of lilac. As far as Doris was concerned she looked like a lilac jelly.

Eve however was thrilled. “That is perfect.”

“You have to be joking. I am going to spill out of the top of the corset.”

“No you won’t.” She came and stood behind Doris and looked at the reflection in the full length mirror. “Look at those wonderful curves,” she said wistfully, pointing to Doris’s waist. “You were made to wear dresses like this. Not like me, I am too straight up and down.”

“You will be wearing one too?”

“Everyone will be. Trust me.”

Doris thought about this; it made her feel marginally better. She wouldn’t want to show Alex up on his big day by not being properly dressed. She sighed. “If I must.”

“That’s a girl. I will change into mine now.” Eve picked up a similar dress in pale blue and went behind a screen.

“So,” Doris began. “You and Alex, hey.”

Eve chuckled. “There is no need to be jealous if that’s what you mean. He’s like a big brother.”

Doris relaxed. “Have there been any other girls?”

“No,” Eve laughed. “He only had eyes for you; he talks about you all the time.”

“Does he?” Doris twirled her dress slightly and preened.

“Yeah, I feel like I already know you.” Eve appeared from behind the screen, and stood next to Doris examining her reflection in the mirror. Doris felt better when she saw that Eve had been right, Doris looked much better in her dress than Eve did in hers. “That lilac really suits you,” Eve complimented her. “I get all washed out in lilac.”

“The pale blue is pretty though.” Doris would have preferred blue to lilac any time.

“Thank you.” Eve caught sight of the time and started. “We had better get to the stylists and makeup artists quickly.” The Palace had hired Londinium’s top professionals to make sure all of Alex’s family looked their best. Eve grabbed Doris’s hand and led her out of the door.

*

Meanwhile Herman was educating the viewers. “The actual oath will be administered by the Master of Ceremonies from the historical guild. As I am sure most of you are aware the guild is as old as Londinium herself, its primary function is to safeguard the Forbidden Knowledge from before the Collapse. The position of Master of Ceremonies was created on the occasion of Aloysius Smudge’s appointment as the first President. The oath itself hasn’t changed from that day, with the new President solemnly swearing to act in the best interest of England and her citizens. Then the new President will make a speech, these vary enormously over the years.” Clips of old speeches played on the screen.

“Thanks for that Herman.” Mike McCarthy said as the cameras in his studio went live. “In case you have just joined us, this is the live coverage of the inauguration. So far we’ve seen important guests start to arrive, and soon members of the Founding Families will be shown in.” Clips of guests being greeted were played before Mike continued. “Now our roving reporter Amy has been to the Trade Centre to check out the special commemorative merchandise on offer.”

*

Bob was so excited and nervous that his hands shook as he buttoned his shirt. He couldn’t believe that the day had finally arrived, that by this time this evening he would be the absolute ruler of Londinium and England. He shivered with anticipation and went over the plan again in his mind; once Alex was gone he would threaten to blow up more of the city if they didn’t give in to his demands. Carefully he placed a scarlet silk tie around his neck and tied it firmly. He was still in awe of his suit. He imagined that putting it on was similar to a solder putting on his armour. Now he felt he was invincible.

He turned his attention to the T.V as the Founding Family members arrived. The women all done up like dolls and the men in sombre dark suits. Bob sneered at them, he hated those entitled pigs the most. It was people like them that had stopped Bob getting on as he should have done in life. They were the reason he had to go to such extreme measures, but once the dust from the explosion had settled they would all see him then.

Bob pulled on his suit jacket and quietly made his way out of his apartment and towards the Palace, where he had arranged to be secretly let in.

*

Diaz consulted his schedule. It was ten thirty, and just as planned Alex’s friends were now making their way through security and he was ready to greet them personally. The first to arrive were the inner circle of rebels, led by a very nervous Rodney. Diaz let all his years of experience in dealing with Palace politics come to the fore as he effortlessly put Rodney at his ease. “Mr Crumple, so good of you and your friends to come,” he said, shaking Rodney’s hand and gently steering him into the ballroom. “You will find your names on your allocated seats.” He pointed to the empty seats near the stage.

“Those seats at the front?” Rodney was not the type of man to be asked to sit at the front. Even in his own life, he felt he was watching from in between people’s heads.

“Yes, indeed.”

Rodney swelled with pride. “Come on, lads.”

Diaz returned to the entrance hall in time to greet the Painted Ladies, who were, much to the general disappointment of the crowd, not dressed in drag but in beautifully tailored suits. Diaz, however, was relieved to find them conservatively dressed; he was worried they would make a mockery of the whole Ceremony. “Welcome back,” he smiled, warmly shaking them each by the hand. “And so nice to see you looking normal.”

Luke chuckled. “It was a near thing.” The Ladies had spent some time discussing what they should wear and sanity, with its sensible suits, nearly hadn’t prevailed until Luke threatened to tear up the invite.

“Still think dresses would have been better,” Nick mumbled.

Diaz led them into the hall and to their seats. “You should have a good view from here.”

“This is amazing,” Vinnie swooned.

“Thanks,” Luke said, ushering them along the row.

Diaz could hear a commotion as he approached the entrance hall; a loud female voice was making very pointed comments about being made to wait. A sincere looking smile, which in reality was anything but, slid onto Diaz’s face as he spoke. “Mrs Rose, I do apologise, but I wanted to greet you personally.”

Mrs Rose spun round and blushed a furious red when she came face to face with Diaz. “I ... I” she stuttered, much to the amusement of Clive and Mr Finkle who were standing behind her.

“Please, won’t you come this way?” Diaz took Mrs Rose by an unresisting elbow and guided her to her seat, by which time Mrs Rose had found her tongue again.

“Thank you Mr Diaz, you are most kind.”

Diaz smiled, bowed slightly and withdrew. Mrs Rose fanned herself with her hand. “He looks so handsome in real life,” she murmured.

The last of Alex’s personal guests had arrived by the time Diaz returned to the hall. Julie and Johnstone made an extremely handsome couple in complementing designs and colours. “Good of you to make it,” Diaz said, shaking their hands.

“Good of you to invite us,” Julie replied.

“No hard feelings about the jail break, I hope?” Johnstone asked, and Julie shot him a furious look over her shoulder.

“No, no. There is no need to worry about that.” Diaz waved their concerns aside and led them into the ballroom where two seats on the aisle end of the first row had been reserved for them. “Make yourselves comfortable, it won’t be long until things get under way.” Diaz hurried out of the ballroom, but rather than stopping in the entrance hall he made his way to his office, where he could get a moment’s peace.

*

Had Alex known that Diaz was getting five minutes’ peace he would have demanded the same. Ever since he finished breakfast teams of people had been dressing him, doing his hair and even, heaven forbid, putting make-up on him. A large scowl on his face lightened into a smile when Sid appeared beside him. “Tell them I don’t need all this stuff,” he begged.

Sid laughed. “We have to make sure you look your best for the TV cameras.”

“I don’t see what all the fuss is about,” Alex complained grumpily.

“Oh come now,” Sid admonished. “You know full well how important this is.”

Alex sighed, “I know. I just wish it was all over.”

Sid glanced at the clock. “Well it is T minus 12 minutes, so it soon will be.”

“That’s something I suppose.”

“Cheer up will you, there are hundreds of people who would kill to be in your position.”

“I know. I’m sorry, I didn’t get much sleep last night. I really do appreciate all that is being done.”

“That’s better. Remember, smile and the whole world smiles with you.”

“Are you feeling okay, you are starting to sound like my mum.” Alex laughed and Sid joined in, happy that he had lifted Alex’s mood.

*

Diaz’s peace didn’t last long; there was soon a knock on the door. “Come in,” he shouted, standing and straightening his jacket.

“The Master of Ceremonies is here,” Sarah Lovely said, ushering a thin elderly man into the office.

“Thank you, Sarah, go and get yourself and all the other ministers seated and we’ll begin soon.” Sarah nodded and left. Diaz turned to the Master of Ceremonies, who was dressed in royal blue robes with a large pointed hat as is traditional in these circumstances. “Welcome,” he said, and they shook hands. “Everything appears to be running to schedule, so in a minute I will escort you to the stage, where everything has been set up as you asked.”

“Wonderful. I am most keen to get started. This will be a once in a lifetime event for me. Not every Master of Ceremonies gets to perform the inauguration, you understand.”

“Of course not. We don’t want any surprises though. Just the simple oath, that’s all.”

The Master looked insulted. “I am perfectly aware of what you need,” he said haughtily.

“I am sorry, I just have this horrible feeling that something will go wrong,” Diaz explained, trying to placate him.

“Well, you needn’t worry about me. I have been practicing for this moment for longer that Alex has been alive.”

“Thank you, that is very reassuring,” Diaz said, leading the Master out into the entrance hall. Diaz beckoned a member of staff over. “Is everyone seated?”

“Yes, Sir,” the young man answered promptly, excitement coming off him in waves.

“Excellent.” Diaz turned to the Master of Ceremonies. “If you would just like to follow me.” An expectant silence fell as Diaz and the Master walked up the aisle. Once the Master was settled on the stage and sorting out his papers, Diaz hurried back out and went to find Alex.

*

Meanwhile Bob had been able to secretly gain access to the Palace; a few bribes in the right places and the doors had just swung open for him. He made a mental note to have the bribe takers executed once he was in power; he couldn’t have that going on. The execution would be an example to everyone: follow your orders or else. He appeared from behind the backstage curtains which still hung around the stage and stood unobtrusively at the end of the first row by the wall. Bob had been smart in spending all his money on the suit. He might have been moved on, but the suit spoke volumes and clearly announced his right to stand wherever he liked. However, there were two people who weren’t fooled by the suit. Julie and Johnstone exchanged confused glances and decided to keep their eye on him.

*

Sid just had time to slide into his seat before the guard of honour lined the aisle, trumpets parping announcing the beginning of the ceremony. Alex moved slowly down the aisle being saluted by the guards as he passed. Diaz helped him onto the stage before taking his own seat and leaving Alex alone with the Master of Ceremonies. The trumpeting stopped and the guard marched out smartly.

Doris felt her heart racing as Alex walked past her; she longed to send him a reassuring smile but he didn’t look her way.

Out in the Plaza an eerie quiet had descended as people watched the events unfolding inside. Even Herman Irvine had nothing to say at this moment.

Alex kneeled in front of the Master of Ceremonies and placed his left hand on the book of Law and Ordinances that was being held out for him.

“Please repeat after me.” The Master had perfected the art of public speaking and his strong reassuring voice washed all the way to the back of the ballroom. “I Alexander Smudge.

“I Alexander Smudge.”

“Do solemnly swear to uphold.”

“Do solemnly swear to uphold.”

“The integrity, the honour of England.”

“The integrity, the honour of England.”

“And act in only the best interests of her people.”

“And act in only the best interests of her people.”

“Then rise, President Alexander Smudge.”

Alex rose, and the crowd cheered in earnest; outside in the Plaza the cheering was deafening. The Master of Ceremonies called for silence. “Your new President will now say a few words.”

Alex crossed to the podium, beyond which sat Doris and his family. He could see that his mum was crying, but Doris was beaming at him just like she had promised. He looked down at the speech which had been placed for him, clearing his throat he began. “Thank you, England. I am honoured to be your new President. It is a role I intend to take seriously, and I vow to put the political uncertainty of the past months behind us, and lead us to a brighter future.”

In his seat Diaz was mouthing the words in time with Alex; he had been up half the night trying to get the speech just right. Sid and Eve were sat side by side willing Alex on as well. It was hard for them to comprehend the changes in Alex since they had first met just a few weeks ago. Luke too was feeling the difference in the new President Alex from the country boy he had helped at the SVTS station. Mr Mitall-Patterson was the only person not enjoying Alex’s speech. Inside he seethed with rage; it should have been him up there making promises to the masses. Bob was too excited to really pay much attention to the contents of the speech. All he cared about was that once the speech was over, Alex would take his place in the Seat of Office and get blown sky high. Johnstone was aware of the standing man fidgeting restlessly, a sinister smile on his face. Johnstone was suddenly acutely aware that something terrible was going to happen but he couldn’t decide on what course of action to take.

Alex was now coming to the end of his speech. Personally he wasn’t impressed with what Diaz had written, but if the smile on Doris’s face was anything to go by then nobody else had noticed. “... thank you,” Alex finished and went to sit down.

“Our new President is about to complete the final part of the ritual by sitting in the seat of office.” Herman was commentating for the people watching on T.V. “This sequence of events has remained unchanged since the very first inauguration. That is strange,” Herman continued. “He seems to be reluctant to sit in the chair.”

Alex felt time slow to a trickle around him. There was something wrong, something different from last night’s rehearsal. The hairs on the back of his neck stood on end. He felt the pressure from everyone in the room telling him to sit down, but he couldn’t bring himself to. The seat cushion, that was it, it was clearly upside down; he could make out the seams and the stitches. Diaz had said no one would be allowed into the room. The cushion shouldn’t have been moved.

By now Bob was beside himself. Couldn’t this guy do one simple thing? “Sit down!” he screamed, rushing towards the stage. Before even Johnstone could react Bob was standing a few feet away from Alex, a gun clenched tightly in his hand. “Nobody move,” he shouted as guards started to appear.

Diaz stood up. “Hold on,” he said to the guards, who stopped.

“And you can sit back down, unless you want something bad to happen to your brand new President,” Bob shouted at Diaz. Diaz reluctantly took his seat again. “Good. This is between me and Alex, nothing to do with you.”

Alex had been hypnotised by the appearance of the gun but was roused by the sound of his name. “Let’s just talk about this. I am sure we can work something out.”

Bob sneered. “You don’t have a clue, do you? I want what you have. I want to be the President.”

“Why?” Alex asked, genuinely interested. Why was everyone plotting to take over?

“Because it is my destiny. I was born to rule this country. I will take this city in a hard grip and make it work for me.” Bob’s eyes glazed slightly. “I am going to take all those people who thought they were better than me and put them all in prison, where they belong. Anyone who has belittled me will learn how wrong they were.”

From his seat near the front Clive watched horror-struck as Bob ranted on and on. He’d been following a mad man; a man who Clive now realised had got his hands on a large quantity of gunpowder. Clive sunk lower in his seat hoping that Bob wouldn’t spot him and ask him for support. All the Technicians had wanted to change Londinium, but this was insanity.

Doris could barely breathe as she watched the gun in Bob’s hand wave in front of Alex’s face. This just couldn’t be happening, not now, not after they had just found each other again.

Julie nudged Johnstone and whispered, “We have to do something.” Johnstone nodded but wondered what exactly he could do. As he watched Bob shouting he noticed a subtle shift in his body language. You didn’t spend your life watching people through sniper sights with learning a thing or two. Johnstone tensed, ready to spring onto the stage should he be needed.

Bob was finally running out of vitriol. His rant had been cathartic and now he just had one job left to do. He held the gun pointing steadily at Alex. “All that stands in my way is you.” And he squeezed the trigger and fired the gun.

Johnstone sprung from his seat as Bob levelled the gun at Alex. He didn’t need to hear Bob’s declaration to know he was about to shoot.

Alex was aware of those moments stretching out in endless slow motion; he could swear he could see the bullet coming towards him. Then pain blossomed and he was falling, and falling. In reality he had fallen just a few feet from the stage, he felt a huge weight settle on his chest before darkness claimed him.

A horrified silence engulfed the crowd, no one quite believing that they had just seen the President get shot. “Mwhahahahha!” Bob laughed, letting off a few more shots into the ceiling. He’d done it. At the side of the stage guards were gathering. Bob took a pot shot in their direction. “Don’t think about it, I have placed bombs all around the room, one false move and everyone dies.” The guards took a step back, waiting for orders before doing anything drastic. Bob turned back to his audience. “Right, where is the Master of Ceremonies?” he looked round to find the old man cowering behind the podium. “Read me the oath,” he ordered.

“I ... er ... I” the Master stuttered and cringed under Bob’s glare.

“I know the words, don’t worry.” Gleefully he turned to face his audience. “I Bob Presley do solemnly swear to uphold the integrity, the honour of England, and act in only the best interests of her people.” He looked round, satisfied, “There, all nice and proper.” Adrenalin rushed through, his mind soared high, barely even noticing the room around him Bob started to give his instructions. “The first order of business is, to bring on the beautiful women; I will exchange a position in the government for sexual favours. Next I want tributes from the Founding Families, money or jewels will do.” His mind filled with images of rooms piled high with gold and jewels, and a harem of beautiful women to attend to his every whim. His knees started to shake. Grinning inanely he reached behind him for some support, finding the arm of a chair he sat down. His smile froze as he heard a slight electronic click, he was sitting in the Seat of Office. His smile changed into a grimace for a split second, “sssshhhhhiiiii....” before the explosion shook the room.

Screaming was the first thing Doris was aware of once the ringing in her ears had subsided, high pitched, hysterical screaming. It took her a moment to realise she was the one making the noise. The stage had been mostly destroyed in the blast, debris and dust had been thrown across the room, whilst the flags which hung behind the chair were charred and on fire in some places. There was nothing left of Bob. For Doris, though, the scene of destruction went unnoticed; all she could focus on was the heap on the floor where Alex and Johnstone had fallen. She pushed past dazed guests and rushed forward. “Alex!” Her voice sound strange in her ears. “Alex,” she called, kneeling down beside him. She ran her hands over his face. “Please,” she begged tears starting to fall. “Don’t leave me now.” In her arms Alex started to stir, “Alex!” Doris shouted, scooping him up in a big hug, only letting go when Alex groaned. “Are you OK?”

“I think so,” he answered slowly. He could feel a few bumps and bruises starting to make themselves felt but there wasn’t the hot agony he’d expected.

“But the blood.” Doris stared in horror at the large blood stain across his chest.

“It’s not mine,” Alex said lifting his arm and patting himself to make sure. “I’m not injured.”

“Then?” Doris looked to Johnstone. Alex followed her gaze.

“Oh no,” he whispered.

Julie also paid the damage no attention. Coming to kneel beside Doris she pulled Johnstone awkwardly into her lap. “Come on, wake up,” she demanded. “Wake up!”

Alex reached across and grabbed her hand. “Is he?” Alex couldn’t form a proper question, he couldn’t bring himself to ask if Johnstone had given his life for him.

“He’s been shot, his shoulder.” Julie looked at the wound. At that moment they were joined by paramedics and Julie was forced to give up her grip on Johnstone. She watched in a horrified daze as they went about checking him over. Only one shouted remark sunk through into her mind. “We have a pulse.” Johnstone was alive, she had to hang on to that. Julie followed Johnstone and the paramedics out of the Palace and into a waiting ambulance. The cheering crowd meant nothing until she could share it with him.

Diaz rushed forward once the paramedics had gone. Grinning wildly he hugged Alex. Soon Alex’s family and friends were all crowded round hugging him and each other.

In the T.V studio Mike McCarthy blinked rapidly, before remembering that he was live on air. “We have just witnessed history being made, I can’t believe what I am seeing, the President is getting up and waving, he’s fine.” It wasn’t the most awe inspiring moment of T.V commentating but Mike’s words would go down in history. “We will now cross to Herman in the Plaza.”

Herman was jumping up and down with excitement as the crowds surged and cheered behind him. “How amazing, never before has such an attempt been made on the life of a President. Such brazen effrontery, to hold a gun on our President is unprecedented. But he survived. Truly Alex Smudge is worthy of leading us, there can be no questions about it now. All doubters and naysayers will be silenced by Alex’s bravery and survival.”

Back inside the ballroom Diaz was trying to get Alex to the safety of his apartment, but Alex refused. “No, Diaz. Can I have quiet, please?” The room immediately went silent. “Thank you.” Alex smiled and shook his head. “Well I hope every day won’t be this exciting.” There was a murmur of laughter. “I just want to reassure everyone that thanks to the outstanding bravery of a man known only as Johnstone I am OK.” Another cheer went up. “I have realised that life is fragile. But for Johnstone I would probably be dead. So there is no more beating about the bush for me.” He turned to Doris, who despite smudged makeup and blood on her dress looked like the most beautiful woman Alex had ever laid eyes on. “Doris Meeth, will you marry me?” he asked, getting down on one knee.

Doris’s eyes bulged and she squealed. “Oh Alex, of course I will.” He stood and she jumped into his arms and the crowd went wild. Things for Londinium finally looked secure.

The End?

It would be untrue to say the story ended there, with a happily ever after. But even now, as the celebrations are getting properly underway, there is one couple in particular which is plotting against Alex and Doris.

Mr and Mrs Mitall-Patterson had made their excuses and left as quickly as decency would allow. They remained silent on the journey home, each wallowing in unhappy thoughts. Once inside their town house, however, the silence didn’t last long. “This can’t be allowed,” Mrs Mitall-Patterson fumed. “We can allow some nobody farm girl to marry him.”

Mr Mitall-Patterson agreed, “we have to do something. The only hope we have now is getting Emily to marry him.”

“How can we with that girl in the way? She has totally bewitched him.”

“If only he could get to know our Emily, then he’d be bound to realise that it was best for us for him to marry her.”

“Us?” Mrs Mitall-Patterson queried with a smile.

“Well, what’s good for us is naturally in Londinium’s best interests as well.”

“That damn girl, what did he call her?”

“Doris.”

“Even her name sounds hopelessly backward. She will have to go.”

“Go? How do you mean?”

“As in gone forever. We need to remove her from the President’s life so he can be made to see sense.”

“Of course, I could hire...”

“No, I won’t have them screw up again. I know who we can ask.”

“Who?”

“Blackthorn.”

Mr Mitall-Patterson laughed. “Of course. There will be no stopping him.”

“Doris’s days at the Palace will soon be over.”

*

The story continues in ‘Lord of the Leeks’.


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