With relief, I slide into my apartment and drop my keys in the bowl on the tiny table. I check my phone again and am shocked to see that it’s before ten o’clock. But I do need an early night, especially with the candidate debate tomorrow. It’s good for me to have a break away from the office as well.
Ever since our uncomfortable encounter in the conference room last week, Kinnesberg and I have been all business with each other. Whatever she’s asked, I’ve done, without protest or pithy quip. I’ve been on my best behaviour, trying to avoid another moment of awkwardness with her. Surprisingly, I’ve found it easier than I expected to just do as I’m told. Of course, I’ve bristled a few times, been infuriated with her proposals. Yet, she’s also listened to my concerns and held reasonable discussions with me, taking on board my points. We’re almost acting like a team, and it’s had the desired effect. My ratings continue to climb. I’m nowhere near winning, but I’m showing my rivals that I mean business, slowly chipping away at their numbers. It’s all positive progress, and happily, it means I’m allowed a little extra rest tonight.
I should go straight to bed and get some sleep, but I feel a strange sense of energy. I think I need an hour to myself, a little time to do something that isn’t just campaigning, strategizing, or smiling. At that thought, I play with my face. The muscles in my cheeks are suddenly sore.
I head for the tiny kitchen in my pokey flat, retrieve a cheap glass, and pour myself a small whiskey. Just a little something to help me try to relax. I wish I’d been able to find a potter’s wheel, but I haven’t really had the time to look for one. Instead, I slip a record from its sleeve and delicately lower it to the player I got from Amelia’s charity shop. I’ve been back a few times since that first meeting. Mainly to keep her on my side and remind her I’m worth talking about to others. It’s been nice, though, seeing her spirits boosted by my efforts in the mayoral race. It’s made a difference to her, and that’s helped me. As the soft tones of old Blue Eyes waft from the old-fashioned device, I take a sip of my drink and ease my head back. Knots pop in my shoulder, and I close my eyes in relief. It’s such a welcome feeling.
The apartment’s buzzer squeals, and I almost throw my drink at the ceiling. Who the hell can this be? It can’t be someone from my campaign team. They would have called. Surely it’s not my neighbours. I don’t have the record turned up that loud, do I? The metallic shriek flies from the door again, and I move towards it huffily. Who is disturbing my night off? Then it hits me. Maybe it’s trouble. The former mayor was murdered. Shot as he left his car in broad daylight. Someone couldn’t be coming after me now, could they? No, that’s ridiculous. If you were taking out candidates, you’d be focusing on someone more popular than me. Unless you wanted to send a message. It’s what I’d do. Why didn’t I foresee this? Every time I think I’m at full strength, I’m shocked to realise I’ve missed something, not anticipated a twist or a turn. I’m still not the god I was before all this.
With a heavy heart, I yank open the door and find myself staring at a face filled with good humour. Edward Beagly looks as kind and caring as he does in all his literature. It’s exactly the same smile, slight upturn of his wrinkled lips, and tiny twinkle in his eyes. Although his hair is a little greyer, thinner, and the creases in his forehead a little deeper.
“Ah, Darnell. Hope I haven’t caught you at a bad time.” It’s clearly rhetoric as he plows on, “Can I come in?”
I hesitate. What are the rules for this sort of thing? Can I talk with him? Should I really be bothered? Beagly holds out his hands to me in a show of peace. My eyes are drawn to how perfect his cuffs are, showing just a little flash of white against his dark suit, a glint of a link. “I know, it’s late. You probably have work to do, but I really would like a quiet word with you. Quick tête-à-tête. Maybe a drink?” From the depths of his overcoat, he pulls a bottle of whiskey. “A little peace offering.”
I step back and stretch out my arm. He strides past me with the air of someone already in public office.
“When were we at war?” I ask as he appraises my living space. I move past him and silence the record. I don’t think we’re worried about the order of horses and carriages right now.
“Got any glasses?” Beagly asks, sniffing at my own drink with displeasure. I don’t think he really wants to stop. He’s got something on his mind. “Do the honours, will you?” He tosses the bottle to me and steps towards the window. He glances casually outside, but isn’t fooling me.
“How can I help you?” I try to push this on as I collect two new glasses and open the bottle. The aroma of the liquor makes my tastebuds water. I haven’t had a drink this good in a long time. I pour a couple of shorts.
“I think it might be the other way round.” Beagly collects his drink, stops, takes mine, and pours my whiskey into his glass. “You’ve really made a name for yourself, haven’t you?” He moves across the apartment, a liver-spotted hand easing back his hair as he does. “And it’s like you just popped out of thin air.” I try not to show my fear of him seeing through my disguise. Is that why he’s here so late? “Never campaigned before, have you? Not into politics in any way, shape, or form. Not even class president back in the day?” I slouch slightly, my secret still safe as he takes a long glug from his glass. “Yet, here you are, doing a bang-up job. By which I mean,” the nearly empty glass is now waved at me, “You have some reasonable numbers. It’s a great achievement, especially for someone without a party. But let’s be serious here.” He’s now facing me down, his expression a little tighter. “You’re not going to win. You might take second, but that’s no prize, is it? Nothing to show for all the effort and money you’ve invested. In a few weeks, you’ll just be someone looking at their fifteen seconds of fame in their rear-view.” He moves closer, and for a second, I think he’s going to grab me. “But I can help you.” There’s a soft clink as Beagly refills his glass. “Why not make sure that you get a return on what you’ve put in?” He pauses long enough to down his whiskey. “Come join me.”
“Excuse me?” I’m too shocked to think of anything else to say.
“You heard me. At the big debate, throw your lot in with me. Bring the support you’ve garnered across to my team, and I’ll make sure I look after you.” His face lights up. “You might not have noticed, but I’m not a young man. Work with me, let me hone your raw talent, and in a few terms, when I’m ready to move into retirement, all this can be yours.” He gestures out into the world. “And it will be in a hell of a better place than it is now.”
“Perhaps I like the challenge of fixing everything?” It sounds feeble, pathetic in the face of what he’s offering.
“I get it,” Beagly chortles at me, “you want to fix something that’s broken. That’s commendable. But, son, you are out of your league. You can’t beat me. So why not make things easy on yourself and come help me? Together, we can sort this place out, and when it’s your time—and trust me, that will come one day—you can build on it all. You’ll be winning awards for everything I set up for you. Let me sow, and you can reap.”
There’s no point asking what’s in it for him. It’s obvious. I’ve become a big enough fish to get noticed. I’ve created problems for my opposition. It suddenly seems like it’s time to decide what my future holds. Do I continue to back my own horse or risk it on someone else? Would I have more sleep that way? Feel a little less out of control.
“You’d do that for me?”
“You’re darn tooting I would.” A new look spreads across his face. “Join me, and I will make sure you are one of the most valued members of my team.”
“What about my team?” It’s a serious consideration. I’m starting to grow quite fond of those around me.
“Bring them with you. You’ve obviously got good people. Well, except one, if you know who I mean.” He winks, but I can only look surprised. “Come on, kid. That Kinnesberg is no good. She might have got you this far, but she ain’t right for big politics. Kick her out, and I’ll consider anyone else you want to bring with you. We’ll be in this all together. Your family is my family, so to speak.” Once again, he’s at the booze, but this time he hefts the bottle up and drinks directly from it. “Look, it’s late. Hell knows I need my sleep.”
He shifts past me and heads for the door, pausing at the threshold. “What do you think?”
“It’s a very tempting offer.” I lie, unsure what else to do. He beams,
“Good lad. You do your bit on the stage. Tell everyone off the bat, and I’ll sort everything straight after with you.” He points his finger at me and mimes a firing motion as he clicks his tongue. “The opposition won’t know what’s hit them.” Then he’s gone, and the flat feels oddly quiet, and a little violated.
But what of his offer? Would it be worth it? Give up after I’ve come this far? Have I really peaked? I think back to what this was all about in the first place, tricking a whole town. Well, I’ve done that, haven’t I? They all believe I live here. A bunch of them think I could run the town, and I’ve put the wind up my opponent enough for him to offer me a job. It is something a little less centre stage, and after the last few weeks, that has a certain appeal.
How do I feel about parting company with Kinnesberg? If you’d asked me a week ago, I would have answered differently. Losing her would have been a deal-breaker. Yet after our encounter at the office, I’m wondering if separating would be better for me. I don’t need the added complication of an emotional attachment, real or imaginary, and taking Beagly’s offer would make it easier on me.
But is that what I really want? I’m just not sure I know anymore. There’s a knock at the door, and I pause. It can’t be my would-be boss coming back. If not him, then who else wants to see me at this late hour?