Kinnesberg is shaking with rage as we step into our little room backstage. Outside the door, the pandemonium continues to rage. In the small space we’ve been given, the silence suddenly feels to close and charged with electricity.
She turns to me, opens her mouth and then stops. Her cheeks flush a darker shade of red, and she starts to wag a finger at me, then catches herself. I’m already trying to work out what she’s going to say, what she will demand of me, and how I’m going to counter. Although, it’s hard with guilt rising up my throat. I swallow and try to focus my attention on the woman in front of me.
This moment could well spell the end of us. Annoyingly, it comes immediately after I did right by her. She should feel very committed to me right now. We should also be celebrating a job well done. But the debate became a farce, and it’s all my fault. My awful past has caught up with me, and I really did not need it to be aired in public. Certainly not when I was trying to do something good. Something Lily would be proud of me for.
My hopefully not-ex-Campaign Manager drops onto the sofa against the back wall, thoughtful. She unconsciously slips her shoes off and rubs at her feet, her mind trying to process what just happened. How royally screwed we are. The revelation of Howard’s infidelity didn’t end the debate, but the accusation of murder sure did. Kinnesberg looks at me but still can’t find the words. She carries on rubbing at her heels, and I don’t dare try to say anything. I know that whatever I try, it’s going to be wrong. Finally, she whispers, “Is it true, Darnell?”
“What?” It’s a stupid move, but I might as well get her to say it. She needs to speak the words, especially if she’s going to come to terms with what was just said in front of the audience. Her reaction is worse than I anticipated.
She comes at me. Her face is twisted into a hideous snarl, as she demands, “Did you murder that man’s daughter?”
“No.” It’s the hardest lie I’ve ever uttered. I loved her, and yet I took her life. I was trying to change for the better, for her. Instead, I did the worst thing imaginable, and I still don’t know how I did it. Clearly, these thoughts, or some version of them, cross my face because Kinnesberg stands and pads across the carpet. She gets so close I can feel her breath on my face. It’s hot, heavy.
She stiffens and retreats from me. It’s like she’s seeing the monster that’s within me for the first time.
“Because your face says you did.”
“What do you want me to do? Smile?” I glare, going on the offensive. “A woman’s dead, isn’t she?”
“That’s more like it,” she throws her hands in the air, the shoes she still holds clapping together with a thud. “Now we’re back to questions. Always with the questions.”
“Do you really believe him?” I force the incredulity into my voice, but I’m not sure I’m convincing her. Not yet.
“I don’t know what to believe, Darnell. Because you don’t exactly look guilt-free.” It’s hard on me, having this conversation. Difficult to try to avoid my wrongdoing. But it’s out there, and nothing is going to change that. What I need, though, is some damage limitation. I need Kinnesberg.
“He’s some nut.” No, he isn’t. He’s a grieving father. A guy who followed me halfway across the globe and sniffed me out in this quiet place. There should be no trail linking me to here, and yet he found me. He was there at my first big public appearance. How the hell did he do that?
For a moment, I wonder if he’s had help. Maybe someone wanted to balance the scales, help him exact revenge, or maybe just stir up a bit of chaos. If that’s the case, where are they? Why aren’t the immortals here, clucking at me to return to Olympus or demanding whatever else it is they want from me? I gulp, wondering if I’m now due a visit from someone. Will I have to rake over every dark spot from my past with death, despair, or the big man himself?
“Some nut?” Kinnesberg breaks through my godly concerns. “You can’t say that, Darnell. And even if he is, he’s just done a number on our campaign.” Now I see something else in her eyes. It looks like sadness. A loss of her own.
“It’s not that bad.” Even I don’t believe that, but I’ve got to say something. I need her to focus on how to fix this. “Is it?”
“It’s terrible. Between you and Howard, you’ve gifted this race to Beagly. He’s the only candidate to come away tonight looking good.” Her gaze shifts as she stares at the wall. It’s almost like she’s having a conversation with herself. “All that work. Those hours! They have all gone up in smoke. I’m ruined again. This was meant to be the making of me.” She turns her head and eyes me. “This was meant to be the making of me, Darnell.”
“And why can’t it be?”
“Because you just got accused of killing someone!” she yells, spit flying at me. She heaves a heavy sigh, and then it’s like she folds in on herself. She goes quiet and looks at her bare feet. “Please, tell me. Did you do it?”
“I did not kill anyone.” Her gaze comes up, and I meet it steadily. I’m trying with all my might, all the trickery I have clawed back since I broke myself, to look sincere.
“And that guy?”
“Never seen him before in my life.”
“Absolutely.” She eyes me up and down. I think I may be turning her round, but I can’t relax yet. “The guy’s accent was English, right?” She nods slowly, trying to work out where I’m going.
“Never been there.”
“That doesn’t prove anything. His daughter could have lived here.”
“If she did, how would he know me?”
“Because we have social media projecting you far and wide. It wouldn’t take much for you to pop up on someone’s feed.”
I just catch myself from slapping my head. Lily’s father must have somehow seen my image online. He must have recognised me and linked me to what happened to his daughter. Lily and I were together for long enough that I must have aroused suspicion by not being at the funeral. Is that what gave me away? Should I have been there to cover my tracks? Could the police work that out as well? Have they already? Could her dad be telling the cops something incriminating right now?
One problem at a time, I chastise myself. If I can keep Kinnesberg on my side, then I’ve got someone watching my back. With her batting for me, I still have hope. And right now, I need that. If I’ve got any chance of becoming mayor, doing something good, I have to convince her he’s some crank trying to bring me down.
“How do we know Beagly didn’t put him up to spouting wild lies?”
“Please,” Kinnesberg scoffs. “There’s political mudslinging, and there’s that. I mean, come on, who would go that far?”
“How about whoever put Howard’s mistress up to confessing that she’s pregnant in front of everyone?” Kinnesberg’s eyes go wide. She hadn’t thought of it that way. “All very convenient, isn’t it? Didn’t you say he’s the only one who came up smelling of roses?”
“It’s a pretty low blow,” she muses. “But then he did try to get you on his team, didn’t he?”
“What would have stopped him from setting up an insurance policy?” I press, “Do you think he knew Howard wanted me, too?”
“It’s not exactly the way things were done back in the day, though. Beagly’s more old school politics.”
“Perhaps it wasn’t his doing? What about his team?” I catch her eye and can see I’m making progress. She paces a bit more, heels swinging as she moves. Finally, she turns to me. Her face is different, sincere.
“I never got a chance to say thank you, by the way.”
“Sticking with me.” I cock my head slightly, portraying confusion. She gives me a look. “Don’t insult me like that, Darnell. I know what those guys would have said to you. There was a condition, wasn’t there?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” I make sure that lie is easy to see. It helps me if she thinks I’m not good at it.
“Thank you, anyway.” Quiet descends on the room. She’s deep in thought again, but I have to ask.
“Well, your Campaign Manager is going to have to go on a big charm offensive. Salvage what can be saved from tonight and spin whatever they can.”
“And you’re going to do that, right?”
“It’s not going to be easy.” She flashes me a smile. “But I think I’m the right woman for the job. If I have the right incentive.”
My mouth drops open. “Seriously? You know I saved your job tonight, right?”
“That’s not really what happened. You’ve got yourself in a sticky situation, and you need a hell of a lot of support to get out of it.” She doesn’t realise, but I’m overjoyed. I will double her salary just to keep her.
“I think twenty percent would be more than generous.” I catch the further upturn of her lips.
“Ten?” I hazard.
“Fifteen. Do we have a deal?” I shake her outstretched hand and allow myself a little smile. That was touch and go for a while. “There’s just one thing, Darnell.”
“I think you need to meet that guy. Show that you care about him. You’re keen to offer your sympathies and set the record straight.”
I try to keep my face straight as I realise she is not kidding.