“Was there anything else, Home Secretary?”
Alexia De Vere smiled. Home Secretary. Surely the most beautiful two words in the English language. Except forPrime Minister, of course. The Tory party’s newest superstar laughed at herself. One step at a time, Alexia.
“No thank you Edward. I’ll call if I need you.”
Sir Edward Manning nodded briefly and left the room. A senior civil servant in his early sixties and bastion of the Westminster political establishment, Sir Edward Manning was as tall and grey and rigid as a matchstick. In the coming months, Sir Edward would be Alexia De Vere’s constant companion: advising, cautioning, expertly guiding her through the maze of Home Office politics. But right now, in these first few hours in the job, Alexia De Vere wanted to be alone. She wanted to savor the sweet taste of victory without an audience. To sit back and revel in the profound thrill of power.
After all, she’d earned it.
Getting up from her desk, she paced around her new office, a vast eyrie of a room perched high in one of the baroque towers of the Palace of Westminster. The interior design was more functional than fabulous. A matching pair of ugly brown sofas at one end (those must go), a simple desk and chair at the other, and a bookcase stuffed with dusty, un-read tomes of political history. But none of that mattered once you saw the view. Spectacular didn’t begin to cover it. Floor to ceiling windows provided a panoramic vista of London, from the towers of Canary Wharf in the east to the mansions of Chelsea in the west. It was a view that said one thing and one thing only.
And it was all hers.
I am theHome Secretary of Great Britain. The second most important member of Her Majesty’s Government.
How had it happened? How had a junior prisons minister, and a deeply unpopular one at that, leapfrogged so many other senior candidates to land the big job? Poor Kevin Lomax over at Trade & Industry must be spitting yellow, coffee-stained teeth. The thought made Alexia De Vere feel warm inside. Patronizing old fossil. He wrote me off years ago, but who’s laughing now?
Pilloried in the press for being wealthy, aristocratic and out-of-touch with ordinary voters, and dubbed the new Iron Lady by the tabloids, Alexia De Vere’’s sentencing reform bill had been savaged by MPs on both sides of the house for being ‘compassionless’ and ‘brutal.’ No parole sentences might work in America, a country so barbaric they still had the death penalty. But they weren’t going to fly here, in civilized Great Britain.
That’s what theysaid. But when push came to shove, they’d all voted the bill through.
Cowards. Cowards and hypocrites the lot of them.
Alexia De Vere knew how unpopular the bill had made her, with colleagues, with the media, with lower income voters. So she was as shocked as everyone else when the Prime Minister, Henry Whitman, chose to appoint her as his Home Secretary. But she didn’t dwell on it. The fact was, Henry Whitmanhad appointed her. At the end of the day that was all that mattered.
Reaching into a box, Alexia pulled out some family photographs. She preferred to keep her work and home lives separate, but these days everyone was so touchy-feely, having pictures of one’s children on one’s desk had become de rigeur.
There was her daughter Roxie at eighteen, her blonde head thrown back, laughing. How Alexia missed that laugh. Of course, the picture had been taken before the accident.
The accident Alexia De Vere hated the euphemism for her daughter’s suicide attempt, a three story leap that had left Roxie wheelchair bound for the rest of her life. In Alexia’s view, one should call a spade a spade. But Alexia’s husband, Teddy insisted on it. Dear Teddy. He always was a soft touch.
Placing her husband’s photograph next to their daughter’s, Alexia smiled. An unprepossessing, paunchy middle aged man, with thinning hair and permanently ruddy cheeks, Teddy De Vere beamed at the camera like a lovable bear.
How different my life would have been without him. How much, how very much, I owe him.
Of course, Teddy De Vere was not the only man to whom Alexia owed her good fortune. There was Henry Whitman, the new Tory Prime Minister and Alexia’s self-appointed political mentor. And somewhere, far, far away from here, there was another man. A good man. A man who had helped her.
But she mustn’t think about that man. Not now. Not today.
Today was a day of triumph and celebration. It was no time for regrets.
The third picture was of Alexia’s son, Michael. What an insanely beautiful boy he was, with his dark curls and slate-grey eyes and that mischievous smile that melted female hearts from a thousand paces. Sometimes Alexia thought that Michael was the only person on earth she had ever loved unconditionally. Roxie ought to fall into that category too, but after everything that had happened between them, the bad blood had poisoned the relationship beyond repair
After the photographs it was time for the congratulations cards, which had been arriving in a steady stream since Alexia’s shock appointment was announced two days earlier. Most of them were dull, corporate affairs sent by lobbyists or constituency hangers-on. They had pictures of popping champagne bottles or dreary floral still-lifes. But one card in particular immediately caught Alexia’s eye. Against a stars and stripes background, the words ‘YOU ROCK!” were emblazoned in garish gold. The message inside read:
‘Congratulations, darling Alexia! SO excited and SO proud of you. All my love, Lucy!!!! xxx’
Alexia De Vere grinned. She had very few female friends – very few friends of any kind, in fact - but Lucy Meyer was the exception that proved the rule. A neighbor from Martha’s Vineyard, where the De Veres owned a summer home – Teddy had fallen in love with the island whilst at Harvard Business School - , Lucy Meyer had become almost like a sister. Lucy was a traditional home-maker, albeit of the uber-wealthy variety, and as American as apple pie. Alternately motherly and child-like, she was the sort of woman who used a lot of exclamation points in emails and wrote her I’s with full circles instead of dots on the top. To say that Lucy Meyer and Alexia De Vere had little in common would be like saying that Israel and Palestine didn’t always see exactly eye to eye. And yet the two women’s friendship, forged over so many blissful summers on Martha’s Vineyard, had survived all the ups and downs of Alexia’s crazy political life.
Standing by the window, Alexia gazed down at the Thames. From up here the river looked benign and stately, a softly flowing ribbon of silver snaking its silent way through the city. But down below, Alexia knew, its currents could be deadly. Even now, at fifty nine years of age and at the pinnacle of her career, Alexia De Vere couldn’t look at water without feeling a shudder of foreboding. She twisted her wedding ring nervously.
How easily it can all be washed away! Power, happiness, even life itself. It only takes an instant, a single unguarded instant. And it’s gone.
Her phone buzzed loudly.
“Sorry to disturb you Home Secretary. But I have Ten Downing Street on line one . I assume you’ll take the Prime Minister’s call?”
Alexia De Vere shook her head, willing the ghosts of the past away.
“Of course Edward. Put him through.”
South of the river, less than a mile from Alexia De Vere’s opulent Westminster office but a world apart, Gilbert Drake sat in Maggie’s café, hunched over his egg and beans. A classic British ‘greasy spoon’, complete with grime encrusted windows and a peeling linoleum floor, Maggie’s was a popular haunt for cabbies and builders on their way to work on the more affluent north side of the river. Gilbert Drake was a regular. Most mornings he was chatty and full of smiles. But not today. Staring at the picture in his newspaper as if he’d seen a ghost, he pressed his hands to his temples.
This can’t be happening.
How is this happening?
There she was, that bitch Alexia De Vere, smiling for the camera as she shook hands with the Prime Minister. Gilbert Drake would never forget that face as long as he lived. The proud, jutting jaw, the disdainful curl of the lips, the cold, steely glint of those blue eyes, as pretty and empty and heartless as a doll’s. The caption beneath the picture read ‘Britain’s new Home Secretary starts work.’
Reading the article was painful, like picking at a newly healed scab, but Gilbert Drake forced himself to go on.
‘In an appointment that surprised many at Westminster and wrong footed both the media and the bookies, junior prisons minister Alexia De Vere was named as the new Home Secretary yesterday. The Prime Minister, Henry Whitman, has described Mrs De Vere as ‘a star’ and ‘a pivotal figure’ in his new look cabinet. Kevin Lomax, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, who had been widely tipped to replace Humphrey Crewe at the home office after his resignation in March, told reporters he was ‘delighted’ to hear of Mrs De Vere’s appointment and that he ‘hugely looked forward’ to working with her.’
Gilbert Drake closed his newspaper in disgust.
Gilbert’s best friend Sanjay Patel was dead because of that bitch. Sanjay who had protected Gilbert from the bullies at school and on their Peckham public housing. Sanjay who’d worked hard all his life to put food on his family’s table, and faced all life’s disappointments with a smile. Sanjay who’d been imprisoned, wrongly imprisoned, set up by the police, simply for trying to help a cousin to escape persecution. Sanjay was dead. While that whore, that she-wolf Alexia De Vere, was riding high, the toast of London.
It was not to be borne. Gilbert Drake would not bear it.
The righteous will be glad when they are avenged, when they bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked.
Maggie, the café’s eponymous proprietress, refilled Gilbert’s mug of tea. “Eat up, Gil. Your egg’s going cold.”
Gilbert Drake didn’t hear her.
All he heard were his friend Sanjay Patel’s voice begging for mercy.
Charlotte Whitman, the Prime Minister’s wife, rolled over in bed and stroked her husband’s chest. It was four in the morning and Henry was awake, again, staring at the ceiling like a prisoner waiting for the firing squad.
“What is it Henry? What’s the matter?”
Henry Whitman covered his wife’s hand with his.
“Nothing. I’m not sleeping too well, that’s all. Sorry if I woke you.”
“You would tell me if there were a problem, wouldn’t you?”
“Darling Charlotte.” He pulled her close. “I’m the Prime Minister. My life is nothing but problems as far as the eye can see.”
“You know what I mean. I mean a real problem. Something you can’t handle.”
“I’m fine, darling, honestly. Try and go back to sleep.”
Soon Charlotte Whitman was slumbering soundly. Henry watched her, her words ringing in his ears.Something you can’t handle…
Thanks to him, Alexia De Vere’s face was on the front page of every newspaper. Speculation about her appointment was rife, but no one knew anything. No one except Henry Whitman. And he intended to take the secret to his grave.
Was Alexia De Vere a problem that he couldn’t handle? Henry Whitman sincerely hoped not. Either way it was too late now. The appointment was made. The deed was done.
Britain’s new Prime Minister lay awake until dawn, just as he knew he would.
No rest for the wicked.