“What I still don’t understand,” Ashley Redman pauses, pouting her deep red lips, “is why it took you so long to respond on the night in question, Mayor Till.” She tilts her head at me, blonde locks falling across her heavily made-up face. She almost grins, knowing the question is getting the rest of the council all roused up.
“Don’t you think that’s a little unfair?” I try.
“I don’t think so, son.” Mitch Miller’s Southern drawl is at odds with his smart appearance. He smooths over his white hair as he continues. “Pretty spot on the money there, if you ask me.” I turn my head towards him but don’t even get a chance to respond before Redman starts up again.
“The snow started at what?” She flicks fingers that give away her age through the meeting papers. “Ten o’clock, building up during the next few hours. Then the abandoned property at the corner of Pine and Eighth exploded, with a corpse that we are told looked exactly like you….”
“What does the appearance of the victim have to do with me?” I interrupt, getting an even harder stare for my efforts.
“I am just repeating the facts of the matter,” Redman resumes, her gaze unwavering. “You were on the scene—as reported by Fire Chief Beckett—and were present when lights started controlling themselves across the city, spelling out rather troubling messages.” Once more, she plays up her part in this damn charade and consults her documents. “You left the scene without taking action or leading any sort of media response, and it was not until five in the morning before you returned to City Hall to do anything useful. Not exactly a very professional response to a very serious moment.”
There’s a murmur around the room, the councillors muttering between themselves. I try to remain calm, not to rise to the bait being dangled in front of me, but it’s not easy for me. I’ve never coped well with authority. It’s not really my thing. It’s why I so often clashed with my parents and siblings. Of course, coming into this job, I knew I couldn’t run a city with complete autonomy. I understood I would have to be accountable on more occasions than just election years, but it doesn’t make it any easier sitting here under their judgement.
“I had to help an old friend.” After everything he did to me, I no longer know how to class Seth. But I know that the term ‘friendship’ is far behind us. Of course, it was kind of my fault in the first place. I did screw him over. But, and this was the point I was trying to make, that was the old me. Not the respectable, upstanding public servant I’ve become. Or I am at least trying to be.
“I don’t think that quite cuts it, young man,” Miller picks up the accusing tone of his colleague. “While everyone has personal stuff to deal with, you are meant to be orchestrating the heartbeat of this city. You are meant to be there, whenever its people need you. If it were me, I’d have a difficult time picking between dealing with my own mother on fire and this city burning.”
I bite my tongue. It’s not going to do me any favours to get into a row with these people. They can all make my life very difficult, and I really don’t need that right now. Finally, feeling that I’ve got my temper under control, I speak.
“Don’t the council believe that if I could have been handling the matter, I would have?”
Glances are exchanged, and I see that none of them do. Damn Seth! That night was meant to be my way of winning everyone round and showing myself as the leader I wanted to be. It was meant to be the kick-off for my plan to rebuild after my recent issues—a chance to show that I am turning everything around despite my issues. I should have led the emergency vehicles out into the snow, rolled up my sleeves, and taken charge of a crisis. And that thief took away my moment.
I can’t help but growl a little. In part, it’s seeing a perfectly good plan go to waste, but mainly it’s the thought that Seth actually got what he wanted, even if it was indirectly. I think it’s safe to say it’s now been an eye for an eye. He would probably revel in this moment if he could see it. Thankfully, this is a closed session. No public allowed. Not that it would necessarily stop him. I need to be on my guard.
The one positive of that night is that I’ve restarted my relationship with Khione. It feels good to have made up with her, to have her help. We parted on good terms, knowing we could always turn to the other if we needed them. And when it comes to the possibility of Seth rearing his ugly head again, that could be a very big advantage for me.
A pang of sadness stabs at my heart. At least I knew what was coming when Seth tried to reveal me to the world. I had expected something like that for many years. Honestly, after what I did to him, I deserved it. But Khione didn’t. And not from him. After he escaped, she told me he had been helping her. It was he that encouraged her back to the God Complex. And then he turned against her! It goes to show what anger and resentment can do to someone if they leave it to smoulder. Maybe it’s a lesson I should have learnt a long time ago. Perhaps, if I had, I wouldn’t have turned my back on my family and so many friends. Maybe it’s something I need to focus on going forward.
At least I have shown some growth recently. I am feeling bad that I never did get to apologise to Seth for what I did. Sure, what he tried to do to me recently was worse, or it would have been if not for the Blizzard Queen. Maybe, one day, I’ll have to find him and make a real effort to say I’m sorry.
“Are you even listening, son?” I realise that Miller has been carrying on, lecturing me, while I’ve been lost in reflection. I stare at him for a long moment, seeing him, knowing what makes him tick, and I recognise the telltale signs of a cheat. The child he had out-of-wedlock weighs heavy on him and he fears being exposed. And I can see how easy it would be to unravel all that for him. It would be interesting to see how he copes with work when personal matters get in the way. I suck a breath, straightening myself as I do.
“I was listening to your every word,” I lie to Miller, deflating him a little.
The old Dolus—the one who stole Seth’s moment—would have done something to the old man without giving it a second thought. But I am trying to be better. Do the right thing, and if that means getting a telling-off for something that sort of wasn’t my fault, then I guess I just need to take my slap on the wrist and move on. Tomorrow’s another day, as the mortals say.
“And?” Miller prompts, his forehead creases deepening.
I take in the group around me, meeting their concerned looks. If ever I need to show some leadership, it’s now.
“You are all worried about me, aren’t you?” I stretch my arms out on the desk, opening my palms. “A few of you think I can’t do this without the backing of a party.” It’s all, not just some of them. “Did things go wrong on that night, or did I eventually handle it? Was I slow? Where’s your comparison? Who set the standard?” I shrug lightly, trying to convince them they are applying a fictional bar to me. “Did nothing happen? Or did my people handle the response? Didn’t we see neighbours helping each other? Were our emergency services going above and beyond? Isn’t that what’s important?” I flick my head from one to another. “Shouldn’t we be celebrating what everyone did? Isn’t that now the right thing to do?” I’ve lost my chance of redemption, but I have to move on. “Would you believe I’m going to just get on and do the best I can for this town and all its wonderful people?”
“While I appreciate your candour,” Redman scoops up her notes again, indicating that we’re almost done. “We are all feeling very concerned about your behaviour. Things are not happening. Decisions aren’t getting made, work is slowing, and I can tell you Mr Till,” there’s a dangerous tone in her voice as she drops my title. I almost say something I shouldn’t but just manage to keep myself seated. “If things in this city get much worse, we will have to ask you to stand down as mayor.”
“You can do that?” My brow drops in anger.
“We can, fella.” Miller eases forward in his seat, his finger stabbing down on the desk. “It’s in the constitution. You know the one we sent you, but you didn’t bother to comment on it before we ratified it.”
I feel my shoulders drop as the weight on them gets so much heavier.