Archibald Weevil, Senior Assistant to the Highest Seat of Parleyment, stood in a fancy foyer featuring marble countertops, bevelled mirrors, and a gleaming tile floor. With trembling, white-gloved hands, he placed objects on the red velvet lining of a polished mahogany tray. Archibald had wispy white hair and a hunched back. He wore formal livery, a white shirt, black trousers, and a black jacket with tails. One by one, he pointed to objects on the tray. “Silver teapot, cup and saucer, silver spoon, three imported sugar biscuits, linen napkin. Something’s missing.” He rearranged the things hastily, and then shook his head, dazed.
Archibald had been Senior Assistant for three decades, since before the storms. In those days there had been elections. He’d served a new boss every four years, and benefitted from a fresh start. The grand Parleyment building had bustled with activity, every office occupied. Groups of tourists had shuffled between ornately carved columns and spiral staircases, on guided tours led by earnest young law students. Now his boss never changed, and the stately hallways were mostly empty.
Brrrrrring! A harsh ring pierced the air. Archibald flinched, and wiped beads of perspiration from his wrinkled forehead. Balancing the tray elegantly on the fingertips of his left hand, he opened the door to the Highest Seat’s opulent office with his right.
Harpminster Abbott, Highest Seat of Parleyment, sat behind an expansive oak desk, hands folded casually on a deep brown blotter. His skin was like ivory candle wax, and his pink lips were pressed into a thin, grim line. His scalp was bisected by a severe part, the midline for two identical oily crests of russet-coloured hair. Shelves of leather bound books lined the walls, their spines embossed in gold leaf. Plush cream coloured carpet silenced Archibald Weevil’s footsteps as he approached the desk. He set the tea tray down delicately.
“Your tea, Sir,” Archibald bowed, straightened, and put both hands behind his back. He crossed his fingers, praying for an incident-free day.
With bored, half-lidded eyes, Harpminster Abbott surveyed the tea tray before him.
“How long have you been Senior Assistant, Archibald?” Harpminster Abbott’s voice poured out, smooth as syrup.
“Thirty years, Sir.”
“Thirty years. Tell me something, Archibald.” Harpminster Abbott looked up from the tray, and fixed his Senior Assistant with a benign stare. “What is it I do every single day at teatime? Do I merely drink tea and eat biscuits, or is there some other task I accomplish—me, the top executive of the nation—as I consume mid-afternoon refreshment?”
What colour there was drained from Archibald’s face. He blinked rapidly, and stammered an answer. “Y-you open and read your mail, Sir. I have f-forgotten to bring you the letter-opener.”
“That’s right, the letter-opener. Answer me this, Archibald. Why does the letter-opener require sterilization after each use?” Harpminster Abbott put his elbows on the desk, pressed his fingertips together, and placed his chin atop his index fingers.
“It’s because—I don’t know, Sir. I apologize. I can’t recall.”
“I’m surprised, Archibald. I really am.” Harpminster Abbott sighed. “Shall I refresh your memory? In your defence, you are old, and likely received your mail electronically for the majority of your adult life. For several years, however, computer systems haven’t been entirely reliable, have they? We live in difficult times, Archibald. The technologies we trusted were flimsy and fallible. Paper messages are once again the surest form of communication.”
“It won’t happen again, Sir. Would you like me to get the letter-opener now?”
Harpminster Abbott interlaced his fingers, and cracked his knuckles.
“Would you say I’m a popular man, Archibald?”
Harpminster Abbott shook his head sadly. “No. I am not a popular man. Popularity has never been my ambition. There are those who are loyal to me, yes, and they count in the thousands. But there are thousands more who have no love for me, Archibald. They despise me, resent my leadership, and cannot see the wisdom of my ways. However, dire circumstances require a strong ruler, and I have stepped up, at great personal sacrifice, to unite a splintered country.”
Archibald Weevil nodded miserably.
“These detractors of mine oppose my government, and resist my rule. They would like to end my captainship at the helm of this nation, end it permanently. They would like to see me dead. This building is well guarded, so traditional methods, bombs and bullets, aren’t practical for would-be assassins. But my nature-loving enemies have great facility with plants and organic compounds. Poisons, Archibald—poisons come in many forms, do they not?”
Harpminster Abbott’s rhetorical question hung in the air. He reached up with a pale hand, idly patted his coiffure, and resumed speaking.
“They do, Archibald. Take it from me, they do. Powdered poisons, sprinkled in envelopes, have been used throughout the ages to assassinate the powerful. So I ask you again: why does the letter-opener require sterilization after each use?”
“In case, in the event I mean, that your mail has been poisoned, Sir.”
“Correct. But that is not the only reason. A letter-opener would make an excellent weapon for an inside enemy to use against me. And there is a third reason, Archibald, why I require the letter-opener removed from my office each day: because I wish it to be removed. I will give you precisely thirty seconds to retrieve my letter-opener. If it is smudged, clean it with your tongue. If you fail to return in the allotted time, your position here at the Offices of Parleyment will be forfeit. Go.”
Archibald Weevil stumbled in his haste to leave the office. The letter-opener was on the marble counter in the foyer. He snatched it up, and rubbed it frantically on his sleeve. When he reentered the office, he sidled up to the desk, his head lowered in contrition. The Highest Seat was pouring himself a cup of tea.
Archibald Weevil put down the letter-opener and fled.
Lines around Harpminster Abbott’s pursed lips betrayed his stress. He unfolded a newspaper. In stark black letters, a headline read: PARLEYMENT IMPOVERISHED, DISABLED. As currency becomes increasingly obsolete, Harpminster Abbott’s rogue Parleyment is unable to enforce tax collection. Black market trade in food and equipment has all but replaced the exchange of paper money. A panicky Seat of Finance, Micky Smothers, announced this morning that Parleyment will begin accepting payment in non-perishable food, and other items considered useful and valuable.
Harpminster Abbott slurped his tea, and skipped to the next headline: HURRICANE CRIPPLES EAST COAST. He flipped the page impatiently. COOPERATIVE FARMS ON THE RISE, the next page announced. Traditional employers are closing their businesses in record numbers, but that doesn’t mean there’s no work available. Sign up to work in your local community garden! Gardening gives you something to do with your time, and a share in the harvest for your dining table, says Ophelia Pistil, co-ordinator and manager of the Capital Area Garden Edibles network.
An old-fashioned black telephone on the desktop jangled. Harpminster Abbott snatched up the handset.
“Highest Seat. Speak.”
“It’s mother,” said a haughty voice. “Don’t answer the phone that way, Harpy. You sound ridiculous. Parleyment was dissolved years ago, and local governments have taken over. You’re the Highest Seat of nothing. The truth is you’re a laughingstock, and your father and I are embarrassed to go out socially because of your behaviour. Are you coming for Sunday dinner? I’m cooking a roast.”
“A roast what?” Harpminster Abbott asked sulkily.
“What do you care?” his mother snapped. “An animal. It used to be alive, now it’s dead, and we’re eating it on Sunday. Arrive at six.”
Harpminster Abbott hung up the phone. Folding the newspaper and shoving it aside, he drank his tea, and consumed his biscuits in tidy, conservative bites. He lifted the letter-opener, smirked, and placed it on a stack of unopened mail. At length, he replaced the teacup, stood, and stretched. A formal portrait photograph of his parents sat in a gilded frame on a bookshelf, angled toward his desk. Harpminster Abbott crossed the room in two strides, leaned close to the photo, and spat on his mother’s image. Bubbles of spit obscured her face for a moment, then drizzled down to the bottom of the frame. He slammed the photo face down on the shelf, smiling with satisfaction at the tinkle of broken glass, and wandered to windows behind the desk. He opened one, thrust his head outside, and sniffed. Greasy black clouds smeared the horizon, and rain fell steadily. The Parleyment building was a grey stone fortress, high on a hill, overlooking a river. Factories, crammed shoulder to shoulder along the opposite riverbank, sat barren and forlorn. A line of smokestacks poked idly toward a steel grey sky. Harpminster Abbott remembered how in his youth, the same smokestacks had belched yellow and brown puffs of industry, night and day. Parking lots once clogged with shiny cars and trucks now stretched out emptily, like crumpled newsprint.
Winding his fingers tightly behind his back, Harpminster Abbott tensed. His face, reflected in the window glass, contorted, and his lips stretched to reveal square, clenched teeth. Red veins scribbled a pattern on the whites of his eyes. From nearby offices came a series of screams and moans, muted by thick walls. On the street below, a fight broke out. Shouting and swearing carried up to the open window. In the distance, a multitude of sirens wailed.
A small ginger cat rubbed against the Highest Seat’s leg. Harpminster Abbott twitched impatiently. His shoulders relaxed, and his eyes returned to normal. Angry voices inside and outside the building diminished, and then ceased. Pushing the cat aside roughly with a foot, he opened a drawer and withdrew pen and paper. He set his jaw, and wrote:
INTERIM MARTIAL LAW – BY DECREE OF THE HIGHEST SEAT
All citizens must live in government-approved housing
All food must be purchased or earned from government-approved storehouses
All citizens will pay a monthly Food Tax to their local representative of Parleyment
**FAILURE TO COMPLY WITH THE ABOVE WILL RESULT IN ARREST
AND FORCIBLE CONFINEMENT**
The telephone jangled.
“Highest Seat. Speak.”
“Sir, this is Gwendolyn Pettipaw from the Sector of Vancouver. I interrupt you most unwillingly. Have you heard about our recent storm, Sir?”
“You’d better not be calling me with a weather report, Gwendolyn.”
“Sir, not at all,” came Gwendolyn’s tremulous reply. “Not only that, Sir. It was a very bad storm, but that’s not why I’m calling. We were asked to report suspected rogue communities directly to you. There’s a neighbourhood in this district where such a community is being established.”
“Whereabouts in the sector?”
“East of Vancouver, slightly northwest of the Highbury Ravine. The report states that since the storm, a large number of residents from that neighbourhood have abandoned their damaged homes, and are living directly off the adjacent parkland.”
“Who is our representative there?”
“Ichamus Nickel, Sir.”
“Oh him, right. Get me Ichamus Nickel on the telephone immediately.” Harpminster Abbott slammed the handset down, and stared at it intensely until it rang again.
“Highest Seat. Speak.”
“Uh, hello, your Honour. Uh, it’s, uh, Ichamus Nickel, your Honour.”
“Fool! Don’t call me ‘your Honour’. You will address me as ‘Sir’.”
“Oh, yes Sir, pardon me, Sir. I’m not used to, that is I’ve never—”
“Are you aware of the establishment of a rogue community in your catchment area?”
“Well, you see your Honour, I mean Sir, sorry. It’s like this. The storm washed away or destroyed a lot of homes, and now I don’t know where the occupants have gone. They haven’t returned to the neighbourhood, Sir.”
“You have no idea where these members of your catchment are? Not even a guess?”
“Well, I have a guess. I think they’re in the forest, the parkland that divides this neighbourhood from the next one to the west. One of the missing residents stole my dog. My men followed her, and she disappeared into the forest. She hasn’t returned, so I’m thinking there’s a rogue community.”
“Listen carefully Ichamus. Assemble a posse of those in your catchment who remain loyal to Parleyment. Declare Interim Martial Law, and deliver the following edict to every home in your catchment.” Harpminster Abbott read aloud from the paper on his desk. “Once those things are done, personally determine if there is, in fact, a rogue community. If you find evidence that one exists, use whatever means you have available to you to enforce this edict. Is that clear?” A bluish vein pulsed visibly on Harpminster Abbott’s temple.
“Yes, Sir. Perfectly clear.” The voice on the other end of the telephone paused. “But we don’t have enough weapons to fight them.”
“Good grief, Nickel—it won’t come to a battle. We have yet to descend into complete anarchy. Read them the edict, make them aware of the consequences. If that doesn’t bring them back to the neighbourhood, then use your imagination. Dig up their gardens, threaten them with pitchforks, intimidate them. And remember Ichamus, it’s for their own good. People who fool around on the fringes of civilized society get hurt.”
Harpminster Abbott replaced the phone gently. He licked a white fingertip and ran it across the silver tea tray, collecting crumbs.