Prime Minister Etherington sat at his desk, staring at the reports laid out before him. The words swam before his eyes, with particular phrases leering at him.
“Possible conspiracy”…. “grave threat to the nation”…. “utmost importance”…. “imminent danger”…
“I have no idea what to make of all of this. Can any of it be substantiated?” he asked.
“Of course, sir. We’ve triple checked all of it before we even brought it to you. Loughborough thought it was just a rumour but sadly not,” replied the short man standing near the door. He held a bowler hat in one hand, and a battered briefcase in the other.
“So what do we do?” asked the Prime Minister.
“That was rather what we were hoping you might be able to answer, sir,” replied the short man.
“It’s been so long since we had to deal with conspiracies and whatnot. My great-uncle would have known what to do,” said the Prime Minister. He looked up at the portrait of Finnigan Etherington above the fireplace.
“I do not wish to sound trite but unfortunately he is no longer here. We need to know what to do about all of this. I’ve asked Dundridge to come up here to advise.”
“Dundridge? I don’t recognise the name.”
“He’s the Head of the Secret Service, sir. He keeps himself possibly too secret, but if it’s anyone’s job to sort this out, it’s his.” The short man deposited his briefcase on the floor.
A triple knock sounded at the door.
“Come in,” called the Prime Minister.
The door opened, and a tall, thin man entered. He wore a long black trenchcoat and a black fedora.
“Ah, Dundridge! I’ve been explaining the situation to the Prime Minister,” said the short man.
“Damned shame, sir, damned shame. I’ve had men on this for some time now and all they can give me is bad news,” said Dundridge. His voice barely rose above a whisper, and the Prime Minister could see why he’d work so well in the Secret Service.
“So what do I do? Mackleworth here tells me that you’re the man to give advice on this,” said the Prime Minister.
“I’ve got eyes and ears everywhere, sir, and this thing is bigger than we can perhaps realise. I think there’s only one thing you can do.”
“Consult the Shadow Cabinet.”
The Prime Minister gulped at the mention of the name. As far as anyone knew, the Shadow Cabinet had existed long before Parliament – possibly long before the nation itself. No one would dare doubt their loyalty, but they might question their methods.
“I really don’t want to bother them, Dundridge.”
“You might have to, sir.”
“There are reasons we don’t involve the Shadow Cabinet in decisions. Their assistance always comes with a price. Remember what happened to Heartstone?”
The short man shuddered.
“But still, sir, this is bigger than any of us. None of us are equipped to put down a conspiracy of this size. The Shadow Cabinet is, sir,” said Dundridge.
The Prime Minister looked at the reports on his desk and nodded. He didn’t want to admit it, but Dundridge was right. Perhaps their price would be reasonable this time given the severity of the threat.
He left Dundridge and the short man in his office, and made his way through the Houses of Parliament to an old door at the far end of the building. This part of the House was at least two centuries older than his own wing, and it existed in a twilight of shadow and silence. It did not exist on maps, or the tour they gave to schoolchildren.
The Prime Minister knocked on the door. A few moments passed, and it swung inwards without a creak. He straightened his tie and entered.
He found himself in a large wood-panelled chamber. Ancient tapestries hung on the walls and straw covered the stone floor. Fires blazed in iron wall braziers, casting flickering shadows around the room. The cavernous space smelled of dust and tradition.
“Prime Minister Etherington. I do not think we have seen you for at least a year.” A deep voice sounded from the far end of the room.
The Prime Minister inched into the chamber, until a long table became visible in the low light. Five shadowy figures sat at the table, and the Prime Minister gulped. The Shadow Cabinet was comprised of seven – where were the other two?
“I apologise for my absence, things have been rather hectic.”
“Indeed, and with the current state of affairs I imagine they will only get more hectic.”
“Well, that is why I’m here.” The Prime Minister explained everything that he’d been told that morning, though he got the feeling the Shadow Cabinet already knew.
“This is indeed a difficult situation, Prime Minister, but it is not without resolution in the favour of our great nation,” said the shadow with the deep voice.
“We can solve this problem with little trouble to ourselves.”
“We will name our price when we have solved the problem.”
The Prime Minister frowned. What a risk to take! Would the price be too high? He thought again of the reports on his desk and sighed. He couldn’t solve this himself – there was simply no other way.
“Very well.” He heard himself saying the words before he’d even realised he agreed to their terms.
“Excellent. Expect a resolution within 48 hours.”
The shadow held out its hand, a dark stain against the air around it. The Prime Minister held out his own and the ice-cold handshake sealed the deal. He withdrew his hand as quickly as he could, eager to get some warmth back into his skin, and he hurried out of the stone room.
As he headed back to his office, he glanced down at his palm. Either some residue had been left by the Chairman of the Shadow Cabinet….or he had blood on his hands.
A week after consulting the Shadow Cabinet
Prime Minister Etherington sat at his desk, staring at the single sheet of paper in front of him. It was pale cream, edged in a sooty residue that now spotted the ink-stained blotter beneath it. A line of type sat in the centre of the page.
Problem solved. Payment taken.
He didn’t need the page to tell him this. He’d been listening to the reports for the last five days. The mysterious plague began affecting the citizens who’d long graced their Suspicion Lists, the same plague that wiped out the entire Ministry of Secrecy in neighbouring Retirany. Supposedly natural disasters destroyed whole sections of Retirany’s major cities, throwing the entire populace first into uproar, and then disarray. He didn’t need to be told why it was happening.
Etherington knew that could be explained by the first half of the message. He slumped forward, his fingers curling into his hair as he cradled his head in his hand. The first half was bad enough, but nothing connected those events to his meeting with the Shadow Cabinet.
Indeed, Parliament congratulated him on his decisive action, and the destruction of the threat to the nation from their neighbour. They’d figured out the connection between the two, and didn’t seem to question the ethics of destroying the lives of innocent citizens to wipe out an invasion plot. During those first five days, he didn’t even question it himself. However, what he did mind, what really bothered him, was the second half of the message.
For every Retiran citizen who perished, they lost one of their own population. Not through natural disasters, or mysterious plagues that could be noticed by one side or the other. They simply ceased to be, winked out of existence without warning or fanfare.
Etherington didn’t need to know why. He’d asked the Shadow Cabinet for help, and now he needed to reconcile himself to what they’d done. They’d tipped the scales first one way, and then the other. His only advantage was that no one else knew; the moment one of their own population disappeared, they took the memories of their existence with them. No one remembered or mourned them. The nation simply seemed quieter, and less crowded than usual.
Only Etherington knew they had once existed, and now because of him, they didn’t. He scratched the spot of dried blood on his palm and gazed up at his great-uncle.
What price had he paid to secure his own leadership?
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