A New Friend
11:28am. 1st July. Canberra, Australia (the next morning). A New Friend
The Dysons disembarked the Holden Caprice limousine onto the driveway of the Prime Minister’s Lodge in Canberra and straight into a heavily armed contingent of soldiers. Elsa instinctively huddled the kids into her legs, while Max scanned the vicinity, noting that a significant number of extra soldiers patrolled the grounds around the stately building. It was now late morning in the Australian Capital Territory after they had all been whisked away from the Sunshine Coast in the Prime Minister’s private jet and the whole family was well and truly in unknown waters.
The three black Land Cruisers that had accompanied the limousine from the airport now spewed out another armed detail. These men weren’t dressed like soldiers, but instead were clad in jeans, polo shirts and black spray jackets. They moved with quiet purpose and rarely spoke directly to each other, instead using ear pieces and wrist microphones. Right now their hand guns nestled discretely beneath their jackets, but Max knew they could come out any time, fluidly and lethally. These were no mere soldiers. They were trained killers.
The apparent leader of the detail walked over to them. He was tall and while not hugely built, he definitely had a strong physical prowess about him. His keen, dark eyes never stopped moving. Nothing missed his gaze.
‘Come with me, please?’ he said quietly, but clearly.
Max turned and waited for Elsa to nod that she was ready and then he led them into the grand, old building behind the leader of the team. They went through a procession of antique furnished state rooms and hallways until they emerged into a room with only a single, elderly male occupant. The man rose as they entered.
‘Thank you, Peter,’ the man said, his voice matching all the media clips Max had ever heard or seen of him.
The leader of the security detail nodded and silently slipped back out the door they had come through, closing it as he did. The elderly man motioned for Max, Elsa and the kids to come and sit with him on the over sized, leather buttoned plushly sofa and chairs clustered generously around the fireplace. As they approached, he held out his hand and after giving it a hesitating glance, Max accepted it and immediately noted the surprising strength in the older man’s grip.
‘Good morning, Mister Dyson,’ the man said. ‘I’m Joseph Tollsen and thank you for coming.’
‘Good morning to you, Mister Prime Minister,’ Max replied, releasing the man’s hand and stepping aside to reveal Elsa and the kids. ‘This is my wife Elsa and Millie and Jason.’
The Prime Minister gently shook Elsa’s hand and then squatted down to eye level with the kids, his movements also more firm and agile than one would expect of a senior citizen. Max squinted at him, mentally locking the detail away.
‘Good morning to you both,’ Prime Minister Tollsen said to the kids. ‘Would you like some morning tea?’
Silence returned as Millie and Jason shied deeper into their mother’s legs.
‘You can have anything you want,’ the Prime Minister added, ‘if it’s okay with Mum and Dad that is?’
The Prime Minister looked up to see Elsa shrugging and nodding.
‘Can we have ice cream?’ Millie asked timidly.
The Prime Minister smiled. ‘Of course you can. What flavour?’
‘Chocolate!’ Jason suddenly called out, his eyes as wide and as bright as sunflowers.
‘Chocolate it is,’ Prime Minister Tollsen said. Pulling a mobile phone out of his pocket, he pressed a button to place the order through to the kitchen. ‘Anything for mum and dad?’ he asked.
‘English Breakfast tea?’ Elsa asked.
‘Of course,’ the Prime Minister replied. ‘Max?’
‘I could actually do with something to eat.’
‘Sandwiches. Whatever you’ve got.’
The Prime Minister nodded and placed another order for tea and roast beef sandwiches. Then, putting the phone away, he motioned for them all to sit with him around the fireplace.
‘Please, come and sit down,’ he said. ‘I’m sorry I don’t have anything for the kids to play with. Not having a family of my own, I don’t have a stash of toys at hand. They’re welcome to watch television next door if that’s okay?’
‘We came prepared,’ Elsa said as Max unslung the backpack he carried on his shoulder. Elsa zipped it open and pulled out a couple of children’s’ books and packs of cards. ‘Why don’t you two go and sit over there on the floor while mummy and daddy talk to the nice man?’
Millie turned to Elsa and asked, ‘Is he the Prime Minister of Australia?’
‘Yes, he is, darling,’ Elsa replied smiling and shooting a quick glance at the Prime Minister who winked back.
Millie then grabbed her brother’s hand and marched them both across to stand in front of the Prime Minister’s chair where she said, ‘You have a very nice house, Mister Prime Minister.’
The man smiled warmly in return and leaned forward to say, ‘Thank you, Millie. You have very nice manners and it’s a pleasure to have you and your brother here. If you need anything, please ask. I’m sure we can sort anything out.’
Millie nodded and dragged Jason away with her to sit off to the side on the richly carpeted floor. Elsa took the books and cards over and Millie promptly opened one of the books and began to read to Jason.
Elsa sat back down again, next to Max on the couch and the two of them looked expectantly at their host. The up close position gave Max the opportunity to take in even more detail in the Prime Minister’s appearance. He was not a young man. The creases around the corners of his eyes and across his forehead betrayed both his twilight age and a life likely spent in relentless worry. Fortunately, he had managed to retain a full head of thick, fulsome hair, but it was completely grey.
However, there were some clear signs that despite his advanced years, the Prime Minister of Australia was still as self aware as any younger man. His appearance was neat and trim, his cotton trousers pressed perfectly and his long sleeve shirt fitted to his frame like a glove with a pair of what looked like gold nugget cuff links adorning the finish. His crossed legs allowed him to show off a pair of gleaming, burgundy dress shoes that completed the ensemble, but it was his eyes. Within the confines of his older face, the Prime Minister’s eyes shone clear and sharp, like a panther’s eyes in the thick darkness of the jungle. This was not a dull witted man and now Max understood how both his movements and strength of grip were superior to his outward, elderly appearance. The Prime Minister had grown old before his time. The office had dragged him down, but not burned him out.
‘Sixty-eight,’ Prime Minister Tollsen said, locking his gaze onto Max’s. ‘I’m sixty-eight years of age, which doesn’t make me the oldest elected Prime Minister in history, but it does put me in third place for the honour.’
‘You move well for your age,’ Max returned.
‘Max!’ Elsa hissed, slapping her husband on the thigh.
The Prime Minister smiled and waved his hand. ’The observation is fair, Elsa and besides, I accept the flattery. I may look like an old man, but I assure you, up here where it counts, ’he tapped the side of his head, ‘I can still keep up with the youngest of my colleagues and adversaries.’
Max nodded, his gaze still locked onto the Prime Minister’s sparkling eyes. Next to Max, Elsa silently preened out some offending creases in her skirt.
‘I must also add,’ the Prime Minister started again before the silence pushed through into discomfort, ‘is that you have two beautiful children.’ Elsa lifted her gaze and smiled. ‘I’ve always considered the manner of children in unfamiliar places to be a fair reflection of their parents’ manners and your children have passed the test with impeccable marks.’
‘Thank you, sir,’ Elsa said. ‘That’s a nice thing to say.’
‘Please, Elsa, you may dispense with the “sir”,’ the Prime Minister said, waving again. ‘Call me Joe. That’s what my friends call me and that’s precisely what I am hoping we can be?’
‘With all due respect, Joe,’ Max chimed in, ‘since your boys smashed their way into our apartment in the middle of the night, none of this has felt like an offer of friendship. It feels more like a kidnap.’
‘And for that I must apologise. Unfortunately, as I’m sure you can appreciate, these unusual circumstances have driven me to make some aggressive plans. However, what I can assure you of is that the guns that have confronted and surrounded you are for your protection. You are not in custody here. You are free to leave any time if you wish, but as I said, I do genuinely want us to be friends and before you dismiss that offer, please hear me out?’
Elsa turned to look at Max and said, ‘Well, we don’t have a holiday to go back to, so we might as well sit and listen?’
Max nodded and they both turned back to Joe.
‘Thank you,’ Joe said. ‘I will not begin with what has already transpired such as the engraving of your face on various natural landscapes, the unprecedented occurrence of aliens on our streets and of course, the forced invitation of yourself to fight a series of death duels to defend the survival of the human race. While extraordinary, let’s put those things aside for now. Instead, I wish to first explain how I feel about all of these developments and what I see as the implications of them.’
Joe paused. Max and Elsa nodded. The Prime Minister restarted.
‘While it has been less than twenty-four hours since news broke of the etching of your face across the world, Max, the global search for you has intensified into the single biggest and most outrageous man hunt in history. Every nation with the capability to do so, is scouring the planet for you. Secret Service and Special Forces elements are running rampant. Fortunately, we got to you first and so the reason we had to smash into your apartment in the middle of the night is because we did not know if you were already being detained by forces from another country or organisation. If that had been the case, God knows what would have happened, but we would have fought tooth and nail to keep you safe. You need to know that there are several other nations and factions out there with less than honourable intentions for you. That is also the reason why you have been surrounded by armed men and women everywhere you have gone today. I am trying desperately to protect you. Does that make sense so far?’
Max held his gaze on the Prime Minister and all he could find in the man’s expression and most of all in his deep blue eyes was truth.
‘Yes, it does,’ Max said.
‘Good,’ Joe continued. ‘Now let me go on by offering a plan and then I would like to pass across to you both to say anything you feel you need to. Is that okay?’
Both Elsa and Max nodded.
‘Very well,’ Joe added. ‘It seems we have six months, virtually to the day until you are expected to enter the arena. New Year’s Eve seems a rather melodramatic date, but so be it. We probably can’t change the schedule, so let’s use it in our planning. What I propose is that you and your family place yourselves under my protection and I will provide you with whatever means are at my disposal to ensure you are firstly kept safe and secondly, you receive all the freedom and tools to train in preparation for what is coming. The details we can work out in due course, but as part of this offer I will place two guarantees at your feet. One, you will be safe, absolutely and completely. That goes for your whole family. You will never need or want for anything and I will not restrict your freedom unnecessarily. You will have the best security resources surrounding you, all day, every day, all the way up to the arena date and if, dear God, you are successful, Max, my protection will continue beyond the arena for as long as needed. My second guarantee is you can leave my protection at any time, freely and completely. My protection is an offer and you can rebuke it at any time without repercussion and without giving reason. I will not have you living in fear or restriction. If you do decide to leave, you are welcome back at any time, again without reason. So, having said that, this is why I started with an offer of friendship. I want you all to feel safe and there is no better place to feel safe than in the company of those you trust and it is in our friends and family that we place the greatest trust. I promise I will be nothing but honest, respectful and as understanding as any person can be. So, it would be my honour to accommodate you from here on. Now, I’ll be quiet and you can have time alone to think or ask me any question you want.’
With that, the Prime Minister leaned back in his chair. On cue, the door opened and a man bearing a wide silver platter entered. Walking across to the coffee table in the midst of the Prime Minister and Max and Elsa, he placed it down and quietly left. The Prime Minister leaned forward and gestured to the two bowls of chocolate ice cream. Elsa nodded.
‘Jason? Millie?’ Joe called out. ‘Your ice cream is here.’
Squeals came back as the two kids jumped up and scampered across. Joe handed them both a bowl and a spoon.
‘Outside on the patio, please kids?’ Max said. ‘We don’t want to ruin the Prime Minister’s expensive carpet.’
Elsa stood up and led both Millie and Jason out through the wide French doors and onto the broad patio overlooking the gardens. Once outside, Elsa again noted the liberal security presence surrounding The Lodge.
‘Just sit here, kids where mummy and daddy can see you okay?’ she asked.
Both children plonked themselves down and started to hoe into their desserts. Elsa cast another glance around at all the armed soldiers and guards and while none of them directly returned her look, she had no doubt they were all cognisant of her and the kids.
Inside, Joe had poured himself a cup of tea and was about to pour Elsa one when she came back and sat down. ‘Milk or sugar?’ he asked her.
‘One sugar, please?’ she replied.
Meanwhile Max took up two roast beef sandwiches and promptly ate them both with minimum fuss.
Joe noted Max’s relish and said, ‘I apologise if my staff onboard the jet didn’t offer you anything to eat?’
‘Don’t worry about Max,’ Elsa cut in. ‘They did give us something on the plane, but Max is always hungry, so he always eats like that. Costs a fortune to feed him.’
The Prime Minister smiled and nodded. Leaning back, he stirred his tea in front of him. ‘So, do you have any questions?’
‘Yes, I do,’ Elsa replied after taking a sip of her tea.
Max reached forward and took two more sandwiches from the plate. Joe’s gaze flicked to him and then back to Elsa as he silently held his cup up to his face, looking over the rim.
‘Firstly, thank you for coming to get us last night and even though it did seem a bit heavy handed at the time, I can now see why you had to do it that way. It makes sense that there might be...others looking for us that aren’t so friendly.’
’Secondly, thanks for the offer of protection and I know I appreciate it, but here’s my question. If we accept your offer, would you object to us living at home through all this? We need to make sure the disruption on the kids is as small as possible.’
Joe considered an answer and then said, ‘I promised I would be nothing but honest and so, while my answer is yes, you can reside at home if that’s what you really want, but quite frankly, I cannot encourage you strongly enough to not do that.’
Elsa paused. ‘Why not?’
‘There are two reasons, Elsa. The first is your safety. Again, while it has only been a matter of hours since your plight became public, we are already seeing a sharp rise in lawlessness across the country. Criminal activity has jumped. The potential for the end of the world will do that. People are frightened and reacting with violence. I don’t want you out in that world. You’re already the centre of attention. If the public knew you were at home, they would mob you, swarm your house and try to break in. Despite my security, your freedom would be greatly restricted and Heaven forbid, you may even be injured. Also, if any of these other rogue nations and factions scouring for you were to become aware of your location, they would try to kidnap you with lethal force and while my security would defend you against them, it would be dangerous for you and your family to be in any situation like that. The second reason for my discouraging you to go home is logistics. My team can protect you better if you are in a secret location that is fully self-contained. I propose a private estate that will not only be comfortable, but completely secure. It can be close to Brisbane if you’d prefer to stay local or it can be anywhere in Australia. I know that neither of you have any immediate family, but if you have friends that you want to stay close to, we can accommodate that. You can all live as normal a life as possible with tailored schooling for the children, provision of all your necessities and Max will have access to all the training facilities he requires, right on site without any need to go into the public forum. You would be free to come and go as you please with transport at hand. I know it wouldn’t be home and I would not treat you as a prisoner in any way, but I do think it is the best way to provide your protection.’
Elsa stayed silent and then sipped her tea. ‘I have another question,’ she finally said. ‘Will you tell anyone that you’ve found us and you’re sheltering us? By that I mean other nations or even the Australian public?’
‘That’s a good question,’ Joe replied, ’and the only way I can answer that is I won’t announce your location without your permission, but I think regardless of what we may want, information concerning your location will probably be gained by external parties within the next few days anyway. I can only keep you secret for so long.’
‘What do you mean?’ Elsa asked.
’Well, my security located you in about five hours, but it’s fair to say we had a head start with local knowledge. Other parties would naturally take longer, but probably not much. Any party with a half decent intelligence capability will by now have learned you are Australians, your home address and by now also where you were on holidays. In fact, I expect your home is currently being monitored by multiple parties and it would not surprise me if there are already eyes on this building right now because if anyone has tracked you to your holiday apartment, they will likely have followed the trail all the way here. To give at least the Americans the credit they deserve, they probably have a spy satellite overhead right now, so even if we wanted to keep your location secret, it is virtually impossible to do so for very long. However, the public are a different matter. We could hide you from them for some time longer, but the same outcome is inevitable. Information leaks, either intentionally or by accident. It just happens, but this is where I ask what you would like to do? Would you prefer to remain hidden for as long as possible or instead announce yourselves to the world?’
‘You’re more of an expert on these sorts of things, so what do you think?’ Elsa asked.
‘I don’t know yet. It’s too early to judge the best course of action. We need to wait and see what the public reaction is to all this. Apart from the immediate spike in general unrest, denial might take hold yet and the whole matter might wash over or alternatively, public unrest might continue to escalate. Either way, I still don’t know what the best course of action is, but there are two things I would suggest. First, we secret you as quickly as possible into a secure estate, while I navigate the diplomatic waters with our fellow nations and secondly, we keep you under wraps for as long as possible until I understand exactly what our security situation is. Does that make sense?’
Elsa nodded. ‘Max, what do you think?’ she asked.
Max, who had been looking out the windows at the passing security guards, broke his silence.
‘That all sounds fine to me,’ he said, turning back to the Prime Minister, ‘but I’d like to know why you haven’t asked me anything about myself? Don’t you want to know who I am and why these aliens want a piece of me before they kill us all?’
The Prime Minister looked across at Max over the top of his cup of tea. After a long pause he turned and put his cup down on the side table next to his chair.
’I do want to know, Max,’ Joe said, fixing his gaze directly on him. ’I want to know all those things, but it can wait for now. Those questions will come, soon. I already sense that you have little desire to divulge anything and that’s fine, but soon you will need to start sharing some fundamentals, mainly so I know how to help you. However, right now mine and your most important priority is to be safe and I’m confident that is the case right now, but today will be a long day. I expect a long list of international leaders and dignitaries to be calling me. Like I said, your whereabouts will stay secret for only so long. I just hope everyone behaves themselves and no one gets hurt. Fingers crossed.’
Max held the Prime Minister’s steady gaze for a few moments longer and reaffirmed the same sense of honesty he had gleaned from the man so far.
‘Okay,’ Max said. ’That’s fine with me too and while we’re being honest as new friends, let me share the first thing about us. We don’t have what you would call true friends. We pretty much keep to ourselves because we have each other and that’s all we’ve ever needed until now. So, we don’t let people into our lives very easily and to start doing that now will be difficult, but I have to say, Joe, I‘m a pretty good judge of character and you strike me as a decent, trust worthy bloke. I think we could be friends, but we’re a long way from that yet.’
Joe nodded. ‘I appreciate that, Max. Thank you.’
‘And thank you from us too,’ Elsa said, clasping her husband’s hand. ‘We’re coming to terms with all of this just like you, but now having met you and you’ve explained why you’ve, you know, surrounded us with guns, thanks for protecting us. We realise now that we could be in a much worse place if you hadn’t found us so quickly.’
‘Anything I have is your’s and your family’s’ Elsa. Like I said earlier, my security will defend you with their lives if needed. The man who led you into this room, Peter, will be team lead for your own personal security detail and I can assure you, there is no finer person alive than he to keep you safe. Peter has until now been my own team lead, but I bequeath him to you from here onwards. Trust him like your own blood. He will not let you down and neither will I. You are now my responsibility.’
‘Thank you,’ Elsa said simply.
‘Now, I think I should probably go and check the state of play out in the world. I suspect my list of return phone calls is building, so if there is anything else?’
‘I have one more question,’ Elsa said.
‘Please?’ the Prime Minister replied.
‘We need to get back up to Brisbane tomorrow morning to see someone. Can we do that?’
Max turned to look at his wife.
‘Of course,’ Joe answered. ‘Like I said, whatever you need is yours’. You don’t have to tell me who you need to see or why, but it would help plan the security detail.’
‘Oh, I’ll tell you. We need a personal trainer for Max and I know the perfect person.’
Joe raised his eyebrows. ‘I hadn’t thought about it, but now that you mention it, you will have access to all of our military resources and in there somewhere is probably the ideal training solution.’
‘Thank you and maybe you’re right,’ Elsa said, ‘but like Max said, we don’t readily trust just anyone and this person I have in mind is the absolute right person for this job. Whether or not she agrees is another thing, but Max needs a trainer and I think it needs to be her.’
The Prime Minister studied Elsa’s face for a few moments and then said, ‘As you wish. It obviously means a lot to you, so by all means. I’ll send Peter in to discuss the travel plan. As for the rest of today, you are welcome to stay here. Your rooms are made up and treat the house as your own. I will catch you when I can.’
With that, the Prime Minister stood and left the room, leaving Max and Elsa to watch him go. The room was silent except for the giggles of the children outside.
‘I meant what I said,’ Max stated. ‘He has a good feel about him.’
‘I think so too,’ Elsa replied. ‘Funny thing is, I now feel guilty that I didn’t vote for him.’
Max smiled and wrapped an arm around his wife’s shoulders to gently squeeze her.