© Stuart Martin
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This would be comedy/drama if YWO had such a category.
The first of three short stories with a link.
A Tragic Opportunity (Rev)
Clive Paxton frowned as he looked through the reading glasses perched on the end of his nose. The pen he held over a Post-it pad shook as he waited for the file to download. He glanced across at his wife, in her favourite blue dress. A tear crept down his cheek. He held his breath to supress his emotion. The screen flickered - he scribbled an address on the Post-it and slotted it into his top pocket.
Clive had never taken to computers the way Mabel had; everything always seemed to take five times longer than it should. He put it down to age. But Mabel, at sixty-one, only a year younger, had made that claim look silly - taking to it like a teenager. He scowled at the screen. Picking up a blood-spattered smart-phone, he watched a video message recording for the seventeenth time. He cleaned the phone with a wipe before easing it into the pocket with the note.
The doorbell chime paralysed him for a second; a mental slap-in-the-face focused his thoughts. He took a note from the pile of money on the cabinet and answered the door.
A delivery driver handed over a bunch of white roses. The driver’s dour mood lifted instantly when Clive slipped him a fifty pound tip.
At the kitchen sink, Clive removed excess leaves and arranged the flowers in a glass vase. With trembling hands he placed the vase on the dining room table a few inches from Mabel's head. As tears blurred his vision, he took her cold hand and held it to his cheek, kept it there for a few seconds, then carefully lowered it to her side. He dabbed his eyes with a tissue, straightened his tie and adjusted his waistband. "A bit tight love, the old suit, but it still fits." With one finger, he caressed strands of her hair into place before gently kissing her on the forehead.
In the bedroom he pulled an old sports bag from the wardrobe and emptied the contents onto the bed: a cricket box, screw in spikes, and thirteen year old mud. Clive gave a resigned sigh as he ran his fingers through the mess. Returning to his purpose, he filled the bag with towels from a cupboard, went downstairs and stood in front of the hall mirror. Clive had long been impressed that only a few flecks of grey were appearing in his hair, but today that didn’t seem of any consequence. He drew himself to attention. Satisfied his appearance would suffice he carried on to the kitchen.
Having thrown the towels onto the floor near the double doors he returned to the dining room, scooped the pile of notes into the bag and zipped it up. He kissed the index finger of his right hand, touched it softly onto Mabel's lips, and held it there for a few seconds.
He put the bag next to the back door, picked up the towels and stepped into the conservatory, carefully avoiding the pool of blood. One by one he spread the towels on the floor at the side of the young man who was lying there. Once all the towels were in place he stepped onto them. On his haunches next to the body, he eased the young man onto his back, gripped the large kitchen knife by the un-bloodied tip of the handle and worked it from side to side until it slid out of the young man’s chest. Careful to avoid any blood, he pushed the young man’s legs straight and crossed his arms over his chest.
Heading back to the kitchen, twitching with emotion, he snatched up a crystal owl ornament with the intention of throwing it, only stopping himself when he remembered it was a favourite of Mabel's. He returned it to the table, took a deep breath and dashed into the dining room. There, he grabbed the computer screen and ripped out the wires. "Sorry, love."
Outside he slammed the screen onto the ground and stamped on it repeatedly before cramming it into the blue bin. He took a few moments and a few deep breaths to compose himself. Steadied, he locked the back door, placed the bag in the car boot, pressed the Post-it onto the dashboard and drove off.
"Sir, I know you want to get straight into makeup, but the program doesn't start for over two hours, and I think these guys could really have something. Today could be your big chance, and this could be a clincher." Carlton Hoog strained every muscle in his face to keep his ‘trust me’ smile in place. "What do you think…Sir?"
Milton Marchant, junior minister in the home office, was a man with connections, ambition, and great belief in his own talent. Two things held him back: his lack of brain power, and an ability to say the wrong thing which Prince Philip could only stand back and admire. Marchant also had aesthetics on his side; he was a lady killer, so long as conversation could be avoided. His personal assistant, Carlton Hoog, saw him as a meal ticket for life, and took on the task of elevating his charge with relish.
Marchant stood in the entrance of the BBC studios, posing model-like in front of a reflective pane of glass. He took out a comb, held it a few inches above his head then replaced it in his pocket having decided no improvement could be made. "Very well, I'll give them," he looked at his watch, "twenty five minutes. I want at least an hour and a half to prepare - understood?" He plucked two white specks from his designer suit and gave himself a nod.
"That won't be a problem, sir, just follow me." Hoog wore a self-satisfied grin as he hurried along a corridor. He dipped his head as someone passed in the opposite direction; remaining un-memorable had become a habit. He looked both ways, checking they were not being followed, before opening an office door and guiding Marchant to a chair.
Marchant lowered himself straight backed onto the seat and rested a hand on each thigh, posture being the one thing from his expensive education that had stuck. "I am ready to listen."
Hoog gestured to his right. "Sir, these are the young men I told you about. Mr Cope and Mr Field. Gentlemen, the floor is yours."
Cope and Field were an odd couple. Both in their early twenties, Cope was well over six foot, rake thin with wiry red hair. Field was just over five foot, dark-haired, and stocky. Field had a habit of biting on a pen continually, only removing it from his mouth to add a postscript to Cope's sentences. Cope had a tendency to speak as much with his hands as with his mouth, and held his hands up, fingers spread as he began. "We are so pleased you agreed to see us, Mr Marchant."
"So pleased," Field added with a smile.
Marchant glanced at his watch. "That’s all very nice, but we are on a schedule - so."
"Of course, sir. Well, I'm sure you’re well aware of the vast amount of work done on body language, the results put into practice by many. But never better than by the Reverend BC."
"The Reverend BC. Our benchmark"
Marchant jerked forward. "BC, is this some kind of religious…thing?"
Cope was waving his hands as if trying to stop a runaway train. "No, no, no, sir, BC, Bill Clinton, the undoubted master of the art."
“Undoubted master,” added Field.
Marchant sank back into his chair. “Bill Clinton…Really?”
Field’s mouth fell open. Cope clasped both hands to his head. “Wha…Whaa…Surely you have done the classic BC. I mean it had been done before, but BC showed us the way. Every politician since has done the classic Bill walk on.” Marchant’s face was blank, his lips slightly parted. Cope’s eyes widened. “What an opportunity. You could use our package and do your first Bill walk-on - on the same day…Out of the park.” Cope was virtually jigging on the spot.
Hoog saw the slightly bemused look on Marchant’s face, put his hand on Cope’s shoulder and applied a little pressure. Cope immediately got the message and slipped back into business mode. “Mr Marchant, let me explain our package, our system, and if you are interested, Mr Field here will demonstrate the BC walk on, he does it so much better than I do.”
“A little better, I’d say a little better,” Field said with a grin.
Marchant checked his watch again. “Gentlemen, time is money.”
Field walked behind Marchant, leaned in close to Hoog and asked in a whisper, “Do you ever worry about elevating an ego-maniac into a position of power?”
Hoog spoke from the corner of his mouth, “There are plenty of civil servants who get well paid to keep them on message. It’s just like a top-of-the-range care home when all’s said and done. The staff run the place, not the residents.”
Cope pulled a chair across and sat in front of Marchant. “Right, I’ll skip over what you already know. How every move the top boys make is stage-managed. From Blair with his mug of coffee, right down to the smallest hand gesture, all tried out and perfected using focus groups.” He looked at Marchant for a sign, an acknowledgement. Marchant nodded slowly. His eyes flicked to Hoog, who wore his ‘all good’ smile. Cope continued, “We have developed a software package that takes things to the next level.” Unable to contain his exuberance Cope got to his feet to give himself more room for expressive hand movements. “What our package can give is real time audience approval feedback.”
“Real time feedback. Real, time,” Field had a cheesy grin on his face as he spoke.
Cope gave Field an irritated glance as he continued, “We can do that because our software scans the audience, and evaluates facial movements and body posture to gauge approval or disapproval almost instantly.” Cope paced from left to right as he spoke. “We have top legal people on board, well, on-line so to speak. Meaning, we could guide you through a situation like today’s programme. You could be informed about the audience, and the opposition’s reaction to what’s said, and how it’s being said - even if they don't want to show it. And keep you legal - the whole shebang.”
“The whole package - the real deal.”
Marchant stroked his chin. "So you can tell me whether the audience like what I, or any of the others say, instantly." He recoiled slightly as Cope gripped his shoulders.
"You are such a perceptive man, Mr Marchant, sir. We will continually feed you a percentage audience approval or disapproval rating, on everything that happens – instantly. Well almost instantly."
"Very nearly instantly," Field nodded, the cheesy grin back on his face.
Hoog bent down and whispered in Marchant's ear. "And keep you legal, sir."
Marchant eased Cope's hands off his shoulders with a frown and stood up. "I think we should give this gizmo a run out. What do you think, Hoog?"
"I think this could be perfect for us, sir," Hoog allowed himself a smile as he rocked up on the balls of his feet.
Marchant stood with a half-smile on his face, the palm of his right hand flat on his chest, staring into the distance. Hoog knew that he was having one of his morning-after-the-election, outside-ten-Downing-street day-dreams. He tapped him on the arm. "Sir, we have five minutes to show you the classic BC walk on." Hoog pointed at Field who had positioned himself by the door.
Field pointed at his own face with both index fingers. The pen, which had been between his teeth, dropped to the floor. "Watch my face, Mr Marchant - the face is the key."
Clive Paxton rotated the barrel of a Webley revolver and returned it to the small holdall which contained some papers and a photo driving license. "Thanks. I really appreciate you getting this so fast." He held the license at arms-length, squinting as he examined it. “Jackson Holder?”
"He was on the radar of the service, and he had a ticket – quite lucky I suppose. And he was only too happy to sell it - for a wedge. He’ll probably blow it on his mistress, but that’s another story."
Clive took four wads of notes out of his sports bag and dropped them on the table. "Will this cover it?"
Douglas Paxton put his hands on his hips in a double teapot pose. "The money’s irrelevant…The favour’s from old colleagues.” He winced. “Anyway, if you can't help out your brother, even if you haven’t seen him for twelve years, who can you help?"
Clive zipped up both bags, and picked up one in each hand. "I know it was an imposition, and I do appreciate it. I don't want you to be out of pocket so…" He stopped halfway through the door. "I truly wish I'd made an effort to get back in touch before this, I really do."
Douglas shrugged. "Shit happens, and time slips by on it." He took a deep breath. “I should have made a move…The truth is I couldn’t face admitting you were right.” He broke eye contact. “I justified the things I did in the service by telling myself it was for the ‘greater good’. I know now there were times I was just furthering the interests of self-serving jerks who happened to have enough influence to drive agendas…I’d been stomping around on the far bank of my moral Rubicon.” He lifted his eyes. “Once I admitted that to myself I had to start living with it.”
Clive dropped a bag onto the floor and reached out. “Seems we’re not so different after all.”
Doug clasped Clive’s hand. “Who knew?”
Clive returned Doug’s weak smile.
Doug tightened his grip. “Why? Why do you want to do this? Why that programme, ‘How would you react’…?”
Clive’s smile evaporated. “I couldn’t think of a better way to get publicity quickly. And if my story can act as a warning, and prevent a single person making the same mistake, well, it would be something – and I need something.” The corners of his mouth flickered. “Mabel loved ‘How would you react’, but Marchant infuriated her. She always said: ‘I wish someone would make him give an honest answer’. So - two birds with one stone.”
Doug picked up the bag and handed it to Clive. “I’ll see you when it’s over - whatever happens.”
Clive turned to leave, stopping with his back to his brother. "Thanks, that means a lot."
Jackson Holder slipped out of the kitchen where his wife was refereeing the usual morning fracas between their four children, surreptitiously reading the text he had just received: - J where is the gift you promised? And when will we go away together like u promised?
He stood at the end of the hall, one eye trained on the door as he keyed in his reply:- I’m booking it today. I came into some money. Tell u all about it when I see u tomorrow XxxxX
The kitchen door was flung open as he slipped the phone into his pocket. His wife, her hair slightly dishevelled, fixed him with a stare. "I thought you said you would help Kevin with his homework, you know I can't do the maths."
Holder snatched up his briefcase and opened the front door. "Sorry, can't chat, darling - see you tonight." He smiled to himself as the door shut off the sound of his wife’s chastisement.
He threw the briefcase onto the passenger seat. His phone vibrated, unknown in the display. “Hello…”
“Mr Holder, just a reminder to report your ticket stolen ten minutes before the show starts. That will conclude our business.”
Holder rolled his eyes. “I won’t forget…” With a thought his expression froze. “You promised this was nothing illegal. It won’t get ugly - will it?”
“Just report the ticket stolen, Mr Holder. Everything will be fine.”
Hoog, Cope and Field watched on a large screen from their small office as Marchant waited in the wings to be introduced. Hoog looked across at the computer screen to their left, where a young man sat with his feet up on a desk making paper dart aeroplanes. He tapped Cope on the shoulder and nodded towards the computer screen. "Your legal expert looks very juvenile."
"He is not as young as he looks, and I assure you he is top of his class."
"Top of the university in fact," Field added with his trademark grin.
Cope pulled down the microphone on his headset as the show's host took his seat. "Just touch your right ear if you can still hear me, Mr Marchant." Marchant pinched his earlobe. "Alright, Mr Marchant, we are ready to roll. Remember the face - the face is the key…This is your time to shine."
The host adjusted the lapels of his metallic grey suit and tapped sheets of A4 on their edge as the music faded out. "Hello, I'm Simon Beaufort, and this is ‘How would you react’. To help us answer the questions today, as usual, we have a politician from each side of the fence. And what won't we have here?" Beaufort cupped an ear towards the audience.
Almost to a man the audience chorused, "No sitting on the fence."
Beaufort beamed as he placed the papers on the desk in front of him. "That’s right, no sitting on the fence. Right let’s get down to it. Our first politician today is an old friend of the show, prominent Labour back-bencher, Fredrick Brooks. AKA, Red Fred." There was polite applause as Brooks, a robust, bluff Yorkshireman strode on to the set to take his seat. He squeezed the host's fingers with a too-firm handshake, only stopping when his eyes bulged.
"Just as a marker, sir. Brooks got a 21% approval reaction for his entrance," Cope informed him.
"Now our second politician. Seen by many as a potential future party leader. It’s none other than."
"That was mine,” Field whispered into the mic.
"Junior Home Office Minister - Milton Marchant."
After a few seconds everyone in the audience looked to the side where Marchant was expected to appear. Cope was counting down in his head. "Wait, wait, a little longer. Go."
Marchant walked out of the shadows, a business-like expression on his face. As a ripple of applause started, he hesitated, and looked towards a point at the back of the studio. He could only see the glare of the studio lights, but his face converted to a broad smile and he waved at the distant point. The applause increased in intensity as he continued to his seat. “For your first Bill, sir, that was top drawer. You just went to 76% approval by waving to that old friend.”
Marchant shook hands with the host then offered his hand to Brooks, who kept his hands firmly on the desk. “Not likely.”
Marchant turned to the audience with a look of disappointment. “Another score for you, sir, 81% disapproval - that’s for Brooks.”
Hoog spoke into the mic as Marchant’s face crept off message. “Remember what we said, sir - not too smug.”
Beaufort picked a roving mic up from the desk and handed it to a crew member. “Right, gentlemen, the first question is from Mary Stroud. Where are you, Mary?” The stage-hand passed the mic over to an elegantly-dressed middle-aged woman with rigid, permed hair. “Good evening, Simon, gentlemen.”
"Well this is one we have had before, but it's always good to get fresh input - right? Ok…Take it away, Mary."
There was a collective sigh from the audience when Mary mentioned Leylandii. "We're getting 98% disapproval on the question - just keep it brief," Cope advised.
"Just don't tell her to trespass," the legal guy chipped in.
After three minutes of non-committal avoidance the host looked up at Mary. "Did any of that help, Mary?"
"That's what the last pair of pussies said, Simon." She thrust the mic into the waiting stage hands chest.
Beaufort gave a nervous laugh as he tapped his papers on the desk again. "Let's keep it civil, Mary. We are live!" He could see the producer in his booth at the back of the studio shaking his head. His presenter smiley face was back in place as Beaufort looked up from his papers. ”Let’s have the second question. This one should liven things up, Jackson Holder - please can we have your question?”
Clive Paxton had been physically strong as long as he could remember: pure genetics. So this moment was a first for him. He had to push up with his arms to get to his feet; he had quite literally gone weak at the knees. His hand shook slightly as he took the mic. “Thank you, Simon. I just need to give a little background - ok?”
Beaufort looked confused, flipping the papers over, scrutinising both sides. He mouthed to the producer, ‘that’s not what I have.’ The producer shrugged. He nodded as he looked back at Paxton. “Carry on, Mr Holder.”
Paxton cleared his throat. “The day before yesterday I came home and found my wife dead.”
Beaufort’s mouth fell open, Cope jerked up in his seat. “This is out of left field but this guy has the audience’s attention.”
Red Fred held up his hand. “Hang on, lad, are thee sure tha should be ere?”
“That’s another own goal for Brooks, he just got an 87% disapproval. The audience want to hear what this guy has to say.”
Paxton gave the stagehand, who was approaching, a look that stopped him in his tracks, then dabbed his eyes and nose with a tissue before continuing, “I’d been out of town for a couple of days – left Mabel alone…I found out later that the house had been burgled. The thief had left a note…it said - don’t call the police or I’ll come back and slice you.”
Marchant shuffled in his chair and fiddled with his earpiece. Hoog, who had noticed his discomfort leaned across to the mic. “We are still with you, sir, just waiting to see which way this goes. Just try to look sympathetic for now.”
Paxton was vibrating like an engraving tool. He took in a huge gulp of air and held it in for a second, and closed his eyes for a moment as he exhaled.
The sound technician tugged at the producers trousers. “Do you want me to cut his feed?”
“NO. No, this is twenty-eight carat gold.”
“My wife, Mabel, told the police. She didn’t even let me know anything was wrong. She probably didn’t want to spoil my trip, that’s what she was like. She was going out with friends that night. Well, she was supposed to be. But she got a phone call from the thief. I know because she recorded it on our machine. He said…He…He said, I know you blabbed to the filth. I’m coming… I’m coming tomorrow night to slice your wrinkly tits off. You fucking, old slag.”
The whole studio was stunned. Red Fred’s face looked like a halved pomegranate. “The basta…The bounder! What happened next, lad?”
“I found her the next afternoon. She was on the floor near the answer machine, wearing her best blue dress. She was so cold…And her expression...It must have been the stress of that call, her heart must have given out. The machine was on the floor, the receiver still in her hand. I moved Mabel into the dining room, then I listened to the messages. That’s when I heard that bile. I took the largest knife from the rack and sat in the conservatory, willing the bastard to come.”
Cope chipped in, “Careful, Mr Marchant, this guy has 99% approval but this is a legal minefield - sympathise but don’t endorse.” Marchant was fidgeting again, and fingering his collar.
Red Fred was perched on the edge of his seat, his fists clenched. “Go on, lad, we’re all waitin’.”
“I sat there for hours, just thinking about all the things Mabel and me had planned. It was about two am when I heard a noise and the patio doors opened. There was just enough moonlight for me to see his face before I drove the knife through his chest. He gasped, trying to speak as he sank to the floor. A few seconds later he stopped twitching.” There were murmurs of approval and a ripple of applause from the audience.
Red Fred exhaled audibly and slumped back in his chair. “I can understand how you felt, lad, but you’ll have to turn yourself in. People will understand.”
Cope’s eyes bulged as he tapped on his keyboard. Hoog covered the mic as he whispered in his ear. “Give him something - he’s got brain lock.” Marchant still had his sympathetic face fixed in place, except for his eyes which flitted from side to side.
Before Cope could come up with anything the host tried to take control. “That gentleman will escort you to a private room, Mr Holder.” The producer stood at the end of the row of seats, a security man a few meters away. “We will help you to sort this out as best we can.”
A wave of support from the audience swept across the room as Paxton moved towards the producer. As he got to the end of the row, he produced the smart phone taken from the young man’s body and handed it to the producer. “Play the last video message on the monitors.”
“I’m afraid it’s time to go now, Mr Holder, come with me, sir.”
Paxton held his left hand high above his head, and turned to all sides of the studio as he spoke, “My name is not Holder. It’s Paxton, Clive Paxton. I want everyone to know nobody is in any danger but me.” There was a collective gasp as he pulled out the revolver and pressed it up under his own chin. He stared directly at the producer. “Play the message now. If you don’t I’ll blow my own head off.” Paxton drew back the hammer and pressed the barrel up even harder.
The producer shuffled back to his booth, hissing at the technicians. “Get us off air, you fucking idiots.”
Cope looked up from his screen. “Try this, sir. Advise him to give it up, not make things worse. And stand up to say it.”
Marchant shot out of his chair. “Mr Holder, sorry, Mr Paxton - give it up - hand over the gun - don’t make things worse than they already are.”
Paxton had tears welling in his eyes as he stared at Marchant. “Have a little patience, Mr Marchant. Watch this, then you can answer my question. Which is, if you were me, would you pull this trigger?”
Before Marchant could respond a young man’s face appeared on the monitors. “Sophie, Babes. I’m sooooo soz but I can’t make it tonight. Mum’s just called. Gav has lost it, he’s robbed some poor old girl and now he’s threatening to do something stupid ‘cos she called the, Old Bill. Now mum don’t know where he’s gone and she’s frantic. I’m off to the old girl’s to stop the idiot.” He kissed his fingers and blew a kiss into the camera, “Call you later, Babes.”
The mood in the studio imploded like a punctured balloon. Paxton was hyperventilating, his stare still fixed on Marchant. “I killed an innocent man. He came to try to stop his brother. His brother who probably never intended to return. He was trying to do the right thing, and I killed him. So, Mr Marchant, what would you do in my shoes?”
Marchant’s hand went to his ear and he looked back over his shoulder. Hoog grabbed Cope’s shoulder and shook him. “Give him something.” The legal guy was open-mouthed. Field had eaten half of his pen. Cope started to tap on his keyboard.
Paxton was now stood alone as people edged away. “Mr Marchant - no sitting on the fence.”
Hoog gripped Cope with both hands. “Give him something!”
Cope threw the keyboard onto the floor. “I don’t know what the fuck to say.”
Marchant’s eyes shot back to Paxton. “I don’t know what the fuck to say.”
Paxton sank down into a seat. “Well, Mr Marchant, that’s the one thing I didn’t expect from you – honesty…The truth is, I don’t know either.”
Douglas Paxton slid into the seat next to his brother, eased the gun out of his hand, and pulled his head down onto his shoulder. “You are a good man who made a mistake. I’m not saying it will be easy, it won’t - it will be fucking hard. But this is not the way. Mabel wouldn’t want this.” Douglas walked with his brother as he was led away.
Fred Brooks slapped Beaufort on the back. “That’ll tek some toppin, Si, fuck me if it won’t.”
Beaufort frowned. “You can drop the Yorkshire pudding act with me, Fred.”
Brooks whispered, “Awfully sorry, Simon - got carried away.”
Morning TV - Politics today
“Hello, this is Politics today. Today we have the man who made honesty sexy. Credited with saving a man’s life with a straight-from-the-gut honest answer. Tipped for a serious promotion in the upcoming reshuffle. He is none other than, the-man-of-the-moment, Milton Marchant.”
Marchant had an earnest look, his right hand on his heart. "I have always believed honesty is the best policy." THE END?