A collective gasp goes up from the crowd. The beautiful blonde’s eyes seem to gaze into a soul that doesn’t exist inside me. I don’t know her. I’ve never seen her before in my life. Yet, she is getting in the way of me conning the city into making me mayor. She’s interrupting the big debate by throwing around untruths about me being the father of her unborn child.
Well, of course, even if I knew her and had bedded her, it is impossible. We gods don’t have offspring with mortals. Fact. It can’t happen. I’d like to say there’s only been my dead lover, Lily, but I will admit I did go off the rails for a while and got into a few sticky situations. But those were all overseas, nowhere near my new home. And this harlot wasn’t there. However wasted I was at those whorehouses, I’m certain of that.
The venue’s security team closes in on the lithe figure. Assuming she’s telling the truth, which I believe she is she won’t maintain that shape for long. I might not be as great a trickster as I was this time last year, but I can spot a truth. Someone who genuinely believes what they are saying. And this woman believes she is the mother of my child. She slips the grasp of a burly bouncer and moves closer to the stage while the three of us mayoral candidates take in the scene. We’re all a little too stunned to be able to react. “Why won’t you answer my calls? Any of my messages?” A bald goon snatches at her, and she yelps.
“Hey, hey, hey,” my rival Beagly calls. He’s got a little glint in his eye. The old man is enjoying this, especially after I humiliated him by not joining his campaign. “That’s no way to treat a woman who is with child. You guys leave her alone. Let her speak.” Beagly gestures towards the crowd, ready to rabble rouse. “We want to hear from her, don’t we?”
“I don’t think this is appropriate,” Howard butts in, looking too stunned to revel in my suffering. “Someone who is pregnant should not be stressed. Let her be checked by a doctor. My team can make arrangements. I’m happy to pick up the bill.” It’s like his words break the spell the woman has cast over the crowd as rows of people burst to life. Some want her removed. Others demand she is given a chair. Mobiles are brandished, threatening the bodyguards with internet fame if they don’t handle the situation properly.
“You’d like that, wouldn’t you?” The woman’s eyebrows arch up.
“What are you talking about?” I ask, struggling to know how to construct a mistruth to prove I don’t know her. Why is she doing this? Or, more to the point, who put her up to it? Which of my rivals saw my betrayal coming and plotted revenge? And why didn’t I expect it? I almost groan out loud. This whole not being my old self is hard. I like who I am now, who I’m becoming. But I’m not the plotter I used to be, and that’s hard on me.
“What am I talking about? What am I talking about?” She’s screaming now, pitch high, her stare wild as she stabs a finger at the stage. “Ask him!”
I can’t believe I’ve been so stupid. It’s Howard that she’s staring down, not me. I breathe a small sigh of relief, my shoulders lifting higher. She isn’t here to ruin my life. Quite the opposite. She’s going to make it tough on my opponent. I was doing well so far tonight, and this is going to cement me in second place in the race. After that, it’s not far to the top.
“You bastard!” A voice carries above the crowd, and my attention, plus half the audience’s, turns to take in a woman in the front row. She’s a little on the large side. A woman for whom dessert is not her friend. She is glaring at Howard, too. “You told me those days were behind you! You promised you were keeping it in your pants, and now this!” She sobs and turns away, making a dash for the exit.
“Darling…” Howard moves to follow his wife, then stops as the mother of his unborn child bellows.
“You said you were leaving her!”
“Sugarplum, please.” The man steps towards the side of the stage.
“This stops now!” The voice is full of authority as it cuts across the chaos. Jade Jones, our moderator, stands with her hands on her hips, her head cocked at a very disapproving angle. She doesn’t react to the fact that she now holds the whole auditorium’s attention. She simply lets her glare shift from Howard to his mistress and back again. “This is a debate. A grand part of our democratic process. Something that has been enshrined in the way our nation works for years.” Her features brighten as more phones turn to take in her words. “Right now, our town is starting to make a mockery of it. This is an event for people to put their questions to those who would be in charge. A serious exploration of politics and it has become a sham. This is not a venue for airing your dirty laundry.” Howard is looking at his feet, and somehow I feel equally guilty. I didn’t create the situation, although maybe a small part of me wishes I had, but I didn’t exactly react to it, did I? It’s not really the sort of thing I do. I struggle with being in the moment. It’s not one of my strengths.
“I…I…I think I need some time.” Howard is meek like he’s telling his teacher he needs to go to the bathroom after he’s wet himself.
“I said this is not a place for dealing with personal issues. Do that on your own time, like the rest of us.” Jones folds her arms across her chest. Her power seems to grow as the crowd whoops and claps. She doesn’t quite keep the smile from her face. She’s loving it. “We are continuing the debate. It’s your choice, all of you,” and she glares aggressively at Beagly and me, almost daring us to come up with our own difficult situations, “If you wish to stay.”
“I’m in,” Beagly is quick to respond. This is a great turn of events for him. I think it’s really taken the edge off my earlier betrayal.
“Do I look like I’m going anywhere?” I throw in, more than happy to stay. Tonight is working out for me, too.
Howard shuffles forward and back. He’s very conscious that all eyes are on him. He looks from his lover to the exit where his wife had disappeared. Then he finds someone else in the audience. His mouth opens slightly, as if he has something to say. When nothing comes out, he snaps it shut before nodding slowly.
“I will be staying.”
“Excellent.” Jones rubs her hands together. “We shall take five minutes to collect ourselves, then pick up where we left off.”
“Could we make it ten?” Howard asks quietly.
“We all have five. No more, no less,” Jones calls out, a look on her face that suggests anyone who dares to be late will instantly regret it.
Howard scampers off backstage while Beagly takes a deep gulp of his clear drink. I’m not sure it’s the water it looks like. I move quickly and descend to the ground, sharing a look with Amelia, the redhead who got me into this race. She gives me a little wave, looking so pleased that I’ve noticed her presence. Then my eye is caught by the grey-haired guy who has been at every public event I’ve held. He’s looking away, but I know it’s him. Suddenly Kinnesberg is at my elbow.
“What do you make of all that?” I ask, still a little taken aback by what just happened.
“Oh, please.” She waves a hand at me.
“What’s that meant to mean?”
“Know your opponent, as they say.” She taps her finger against her nose, and I find a new level of respect for the woman. “Just you focus on you, okay? You are doing well, and this is a massive opportunity for us. Focus, and all going well, you’ll really take a huge step forward in the ratings.” Then her expression twists momentarily. “Not even that bizarre speech of yours has done much to turn people against you, has it?” There’s something in her eyes, a little glint. I think she knows what happened and what I did for her. And I can see the little gleam in her eye. She smiles at me, and I can’t help but return the gesture.
“Can our candidates take their place, please?” Jones’s voice breaks the moment. “Audience, to your seats, please.”
“Any advice?” I ask Kinnesberg.
“Just be you.” I wish she knew that that’s harder than it sounds. I grin at her again and head back to the stage. Beagly gives me a nod, then looks a little sad as Howard joins us.
“Now, where were we?” Jones shuffles her papers needlessly. We all know she’s spent the intermission regrouping herself, too. She’s probably also got off a few tweets about what she’s doing to bring great journalism to these proceedings. “Ah, yes. Questions from the audience.” She picks up a cue card and flashes a winning smile at the camera in front of her. “We have a question on crime and punishment for Darnell.”
I give a nod, indicating I’m ready to go. And I am. Now is my opportunity to reduce the distance between Beagly and me. It’s a two-horse race, and I want to gain.
Jones stares around the crowd as she says, “The question is being asked by Ned.” When there’s no immediate response, the woman raises her voice. “Ned? Ned? Are you still with us?”
It’s the old man who rises. My almost stalker. We’ve never spoken, and I’m suddenly keen to hear what he has to say, to hear his voice.
“Darnell.” The word eases out of him, and I realise he’s not as elderly as I had thought. Somehow, he looks much older than he is. There’s still something about him that seems familiar. I just can’t place it. But then I also thought Howard’s mistress was accusing me of having got her pregnant. “I’d be interested in knowing what your thoughts are on the perfect punishment for murder?”
“Well…” This is a curve ball, and it’s not easy concocting a lie to address such a serious crime. Yet he’s not finished.
“Tell me, what should I do to you after you murdered my daughter, Lily?”
The crowd goes wild, and I can feel the colour drain from my face. I realise I know exactly who he is. That’s Brian. The father of my dead girlfriend. The woman I loved and killed in cold blood!