Mary sat waiting in the gloom. The room was shrouded in darkness as all the lights, except the one at her desk, had been switched off. Where was Des? He should be here by now. She considered starting on one of the dossiers in front of her but couldn’t face any more policy documents. Des, just get yourself here. Bored by having to wait, her mind wandered.
She looked at the shrouded office. The gloom reminded her of the Three-Day Week during her last year at school. The electricity had been cut off. Heath’s government had instigated rolling power blackouts. It was all the fault of the miners. She had thought not having electricity a bit of a giggle. She remembered one evening well. She had sat with her friend Katie in her bedroom, their only light a candle, discussing her then boyfriend Jeremy.
No power. Now that would be catastrophic today. What had Lauriston from that outfit of his, the Global Warming Protection Federation, told her? Ah, yes, South Australia’s blackouts. How can there be an electricity shortage there in the summer? It didn’t make sense.
There was a gentle tapping at the door. Da, dad-da, da, da, dad-da. It opened, and Des entered, followed by another man she did not recognise. She was startled to see the stranger was dressed in a Pyle’s Plumbers jacket, complete with the new slogan: “We Love It When You Flush”. What’s he brought one of his men along for? What’s happened to Trump’s emissary? She had a sudden deep dread. Something’s dreadful has occurred to him. She had a sudden vision of having to phone the POTUS and tell him that his man from the State Department had met a sticky end.
‘Des, where’s the President’s envoy?’
The stranger dropped the tool kit he was carrying and stretched out a hand. Dazed, Mary accepted it. ‘Howdy, Mam. You must be the big honcho.’ He gave her a bone-breaking handshake. ‘It’s so great to meet yah.’ He removed his jacket. ‘Name’s Acheson, Dean Acheson—the third. Just like me pa and me grandpa. State Department. Special Envoy.’ He waved at Desmond who was grinning like a schoolboy who had just played a practical joke. ‘Des here thought it best I disguise myself. Never been a plumber before. Can’t wait to tell the boys back in DC.’
Mary glared at her husband. What if someone had recognised him and there was a leak! What were you thinking?
‘Des, how could you? You were meant to smuggle him in! The two of you just walked in, just like that?’
Desmond shrugged. ‘No one pay’s any attention to a tradesman.’ So much for security!
‘Well, you’re here. I suppose that’s what matters.’ She eyed the State Department envoy up and down. He’s wearing cowboy boots. ‘You’d better tell me what’s so important.’
Desmond made to sit down on the sofa. ‘Sorry, honey, but this is government business. Just the two of us. Do you mind?’ She could see he did mind. He climbed to his feet, gave her a grumpy look and let himself out. I’ll make it up to you later, I promise. The door banged shut.
‘You’ve certainly got a dude there, Mary. He’s got moxie.’
‘I’m sure he has.’ Especially when he’s angry. ‘You had better tell me what brought you all the way from Washington. The message said it was hush-hush.’
He looked at her desk as if seeking something. ‘Well, if you’re not going to get me some bourbon, we’d better get down to business.’ He rubbed his hands. I’ve got a date later at the embassy.’
‘Of course. So, what’s so important that we have to smuggle you into Number Ten?’
‘Just needah to keep whatta I tah tell you between you and me. We don’t want no nosy reporters to catch wind of what’s up.’ He winked at her.
He hunched forward as if intending to whisper in her ear. ‘As our closest ally with that special relationship you keep bragging on about, the President felt you should know his plans to deal with Kim Jong-un.’ North Korea!
‘He’s planning something?’ Acheson grinned and nodded. Fire and furry—he really means it!
‘Man, our Donald is the winningest POTUS of all time. You know what he’s going to do?’ He slapped a hand on his thigh. ‘He’s going to send in the B2’s!’ Oh no! He’s going to bomb them.
‘He’s sending in the bombers?’ WW3! She couldn’t quite believe it.
‘Yup, it’s the least worst option.’ He reached into the bag at his feet and fished out a piece of laminated paper. Below it was attached a small bag with what looked like a toy inside. ‘This’ll put young Kim in a real conniption.’
Mary gazed at the strange device. Have the Americans developed some new weapon we don’t know about?
‘How does it work?’
‘Simple. Here, have a look for yourself.’ He passed over the item.
With some unease, Mary accepted it and carefully deposited it on her desk. If he can handle it, it can’t be that dangerous. The uppermost side of the sheet had Chinese logograms on it. She carefully turned it over. This was in English. She started to read: “Greetings from the President of the United States…”
Acheson started talking again. ‘You should look at the little package.’ With some trepidation, Mary picked it up. It seemed to be a plastic toy. He pointed at the item. ‘We got ‘em from MacDonald’s. Trump negotiated a special deal.’
Mary examined it closely through the semi-transparent wrapping. It was one of those plastic Ronald MacDonald’s you get with kid’s meals. On the base, in tiny lettering, was stamped “Made in China”. China?
‘Is it dangerous?’
He laughed. ‘Only if ingested.’ He leaned closer to her and dropped his voice. ‘Now this is what’s going to happen. The POTUS has ordered the Pentagon to blast North Korea with six million of these.’ He tapped the item several times. ‘They won’t know what’s hit ‘em.’ It’s war! When I’m PM! Oh no!
‘This is appalling!’
‘Yeah. I’m a Burger King guy, myself. You couldn’t drag me through a McDonald’s.’
Mary had a lightbulb moment. Something about the leaflet that went with the device didn’t seem right. She flipped over the laminated sheet. Chinese writing—that’s wrong.
She tapped the sheet. ‘Why the Chinese? I thought the Koreans use a different writing?’
Acheson pulled the sheet towards him. ‘You sure?’
‘Yes, I’m pretty certain. They won’t understand what’s on it.’
‘My God! They’re going to start dropping these in twenty minutes. I must tell Donald to abort the mission.’ He fished about in his pocket and pulled out his mobile and started punching the screen. He waved it around. ‘No signal.’ She could see his mounting panic. What can I do? Is there time to get to the nuclear bunker. She felt the ground shake.
‘Mary, Mary.’ She blinked. The lights were on. She was half-sitting half-lying on the sofa. Andrew, her secretary was shaking her gently.
‘Who put on the lights?’ She looked around. ‘Where’s Acheson?’
‘There’ve been no visitors. I would have known. You asked to be alone until 19:00 hours.’
‘He came undercover. Des. I mean Desmond helped get him in.’
‘Your husband is up in Manchester. You told me yourself earlier today.’
‘Then I must have dreamed it.’ What do they say? There’s a kernel of hidden truth in each one. Is Trump going to bomb North Korea? The thought made her shake.
‘I came to tell you. There’s some good news about Korea. Trump has agreed to a date for that summit with Kim Jung-un.’
* * *
Aiden entered and searched around. Now, where’s Josh. The bar was packed. What is it with the place? He moved deeper into the bar. A waiter detoured past him, balancing a tray in one hand as if he was a circus performer.
‘Aiden!’ He spotted his friend lurking behind a group of what, by the way they dressed, looked like superannuated MPs. Except he recognised several of them. They were members of the “Brexit Brigade”, as Morton called them. Their presence made him uneasy.
He made his way to the minute table where his friend waited. Josh smiled up at him. ‘Wonderful you could make it.’ He had to raise his voice to be heard above the hubbub. He put away his mobile.
‘Sure is.’ Aiden sat down in the small chair beside him. ‘It’s really great to see you again.’ Josh nodded. ‘You know I find it amazing that we both now live in London but meet up, what? About once every three months? I can’t even recall the last time.’
‘Before Christmas. Hence my text.’
‘I nearly had to cancel. There’s some flap or other about the upcoming local elections.’ He grinned. ‘Managed to dodge that bullet.’ He gave Josh a gentle punch. ‘So, how’s the new job?’
‘So-so. Hours are a bit of a bitch. Not good for my social life, if you get my meaning.’ Oh, I do. Back in Oxford you’d be shagging a different girl every night. So, it’s not so easy now? He thought of Quinn and winced.
‘Same here. It was so much easier at university. Remember that five-minute walk from the flat to the union bar which we used to complain about?’ We didn’t know when we were lucky.
‘Seems a doddle now. How long does it take you to get in from—where is it again you live?’
‘So, what’s it like?’ Perhaps I could move in with him? It’s not as if it’s great where I am.
‘It OK. I’m sharing with a couple of guys who work for Standard Chartered. They’re always off somewhere. It’s as if I live on my own.’
‘I’m out at Wembley Park. Not ideal.’ Maybe he’ll take the bait?
‘It’s a bit too far out.’
‘To run in from.’ What? Run?
‘You run in to work?’
‘It’s a great way to commute. Of course, if they don’t have showers, it’s a bit of a problem. Fortunately, we do.’ Running surely isn’t really a practical way to get to and from work?
‘What about work clothes?’ He had a thought. ‘You don’t run in what you wear to work, do you?’
‘Nah, I change.’ He reached down and pulled up a bulging backpack. ‘Carry the stuff.’ He reached in and pulled out a fitbit and examined the reading. ‘To get in this morning, I ran 4.8 miles. It took me 54 minutes. That’s 11.3 minutes a mile. Not bad but not my best.’ I wondered why you were looking so thin.
‘Wow. That’s impressive.’ Nine miles a day, five days a week. That’s some fitness regime. ‘So, you’ll be running home tonight.’
‘Probably not after a few gins. What can I get you?’
‘My round.’ I think I sponged off you last time, matey.
‘Thanks. I’ll have the watermelon rosemary lemonade.’
‘Oh, it’ll have gin it, don’t you worry.’ He waved his hand around. ‘This place is all about gin. That’s why I suggested it.’
‘And here I thought with all that running you’d gone teetotal. I should have known.’ Adrian got up and wandered over to the bar. A plastic display provided a list of possible drinks. It looked daunting. “Relaxed and trendy, the Woodwind Gin Bar offers London’s largest collection of gins, featuring over 500 varieties and 80 tonics and mixers…”
A bartender wandered over. She eyed him with a bored expression. ‘What can I get you?’ That bad eh? He remembered his short—and not very satisfactory—stint working at the Rutland Arms one Christmas.
He gave the order. While waiting he looked around the bar and its patrons. He noted the crowd of backbenchers had thinned out. Then he saw one of the most diehard Brexiteers burst into laughter at some joke. Ha! The cabal planning their next move.
The bartender returned. She placed the order on the counter. One of the drinks was what he expected, the other looked like something one gave to a child.
‘Here. That’ll be 15.65. Cash or card?’ What? Eight quid for a drink?
‘Card.’ The bartender produced a card reader and Aiden tapped it.
He took the cocktails back to Josh. ‘Bloody expensive place, this. Sixteen quid for two drinks.’
‘Well what do you expect in Westminster?’ He took a sip of his exotic mix. ‘Nice drink, even if you find it pricey.’
‘It’s just a bit of a shock. I can’t believe how expensive London is.’
‘Ah yes, the country boy.’ Josh grinned. Just because I don’t come from the big city I’m a country bumpkin. Is that it? Anyway, what’s wrong with the country? Rutland’s a beautiful place. ‘What did you get yourself?’
‘Just a plain gin and tonic. The barman suggested I try a rhubarb and ginger flavoured gin. But it just sounds weird.’
‘You’re too conventional. You should have gone for it. Widened your horizons and all that.’ Stop ribbing me, Josh!
Aiden changed the subject. ‘Did you hear Declan is planning on marrying that girl of his?’
‘I got the invite. I’m not surprised, they’ve been living together for, what, four years? You know what I think? They’re doing it, so she can remain in the country.’
‘That’s very cynical!’ Declan’s made a good choice. Valeriya’s lovely. A bit like Quinn. Why do I think that?
‘Well, I won’t be marrying any time soon. What about you?’ Aiden didn’t know what to say. Josh grinned. ‘Don’t tell me you’re going steady?’
‘No, just trying to play the field. But not very successfully.’
Josh patted his arm. ‘Well, perhaps you could use some of Josh Lowe’s life advice, eh?’
‘I think Graham Norton’s got that covered.’
‘Well, this isn’t his show, so spill the beans.’
‘Well, there’s this new intern, Quinn. I don’t know why but she’s making my life a misery. Everything I do seems to piss her off.’
‘Is she some bottle-glassed feminist? We saw plenty of those at uni.’
‘I think I could put up with her if she was.’ How to describe my troubles without sounding pathetic? ‘Quite the opposite; Quinn’s a stunner. She reminds me of Jennifer Lawrence’s character in Red Sparrow.’
‘I haven’t seen the movie yet. She was great in the Hunger Games.’
Aiden pulled out his mobile and played the trailer for him.
Josh laughed. ‘She’s a blonde; that explains everything.’ He paused for a moment, thinking. ‘She’s attracted to you.’
‘You’re kidding. She’s treating me like shit.’
‘No, no, seriously. She’s acting this way because she doesn’t want to admit her feelings.’
‘You’re blagging me. Besides, she’s in a relationship. I heard her tell someone she has a boyfriend in the City.’
‘She can still fancy you.’
‘Josh—take it from me, she doesn’t. If that’s your only suggestion I think Graham Norton’s position at the Telegraph is safe. Don’t give up the day job.’
‘Thanks indeed. And here I thought I had a sparkling career as a TV personality.’ He got up. ‘Listen just got to go the loo. Be back in a mo.’ He made his way past the bar towards a set of doors at the rear.
With nothing to do, Aiden observed the other customers. They were chatting away in tight groups. The usual crowd of after work boozers. And that includes me. He took a sip of his G&T. A buzzing sound started coming from Josh’s rucksack. He ignored it.
A moment later, a woman at the next table caught his attention. She pointed at Josh’s bag. ‘Excuse me, is that yours?’
‘Bloody hell.’ She jumped up. ‘It’s a bomb. Quick everyone out.’ What? It’s Josh’s bag. Relax.
Aiden tried to speak. ‘It’s Josh’s…’ There was a shout.
The man beside the woman caught her arm. ‘You’re joking right?’
She pointed at Josh’s bag. ‘There, it’s buzzing. It’s going to go off.’
‘Shit.’ The man stood up and banged loudly on the table to get everyone’s attention. ‘There’s a bomb. Get out.’ Someone screamed. Everyone rushed to leave. There was a noisy surge towards the exit. Panicky cries. Someone sobbing. The waiter put down the tray he was carrying and joined the exodus.
‘Come on.’ Someone jerked Aiden to his feet and propelled him towards the exit. Caught up in the rush, he was propelled through the door and ended up following a party of women to the far side of the street. Where’s Josh?
He looked around for his friend. Someone must have alerted the police because he could hear a siren wailing in the distance. The sound was heading their way.
A squad car screeched around a bend. It pulled up in front of the bar, blue lights flashing. Two officers jumped out. Immediately one of them started shouting for people to move back.
A second and then a third car arrived. Then a police van.
Aiden was pushed back as the cordon was expanded. He searched the crowd seeking Josh. He could still just see the entrance to the bar in the distance. A figure emerged from inside. He was carrying a bag. Josh!
A policeman ran over to him. There was an interchange between the two of them. Josh raised up and opened his bag. The officer riffled through its contents, said something to Josh before using his personal radio.
There was a burst of conversation from the nearest policeman’s radio that Aiden could not understand. The policeman beside Josh waved an arm.
‘You can relax. It’s a false alarm. Once we’ve checked the bar, you can go back in.’ The nearby policeman turned away and headed back towards his colleagues.
A lady beside Aiden turned to her party. ‘Was this some kind of drill? It felt real to me.’ And to me, too.