A gilt-framed mirror above marble countertops reflected a decrepit man, his complexion ghastly and his expression stricken. Long strands of grey hair stuck wetly to his scalp, and his cheeks hung like dead fish off his skull. Tufts of white hair puffed out his earholes.
Shouts and curses came from Harpminster Abbott’s office. Archibald Weevil organized the tea tray. His hands shook, and silverware slid between his sweaty fingers. He donned white cotton gloves, and wiped the silverware dry. The letter-opener lay on a swatch of red velvet. Archibald picked it up with trembling fingers and placed it on the tray, in front of the biscuit dish.
Harpminster Abbott was raging about a telephone call from Ichamus Nickel. The call had been amplified on speaker phone, and audible in the foyer. Archibald Weevil had overheard everything. An attempt to quash a rebel community called Sassamatta had failed miserably. Ichamus and his recruits had tried to set fire to a cluster of treehouses where the rebels were living, but heavy rain had put the fires out. Then Parleyment forces had attempted to cut down the trees, and failed at that too, and retreated in defeat. The telephone call had ended with a series of slams.
Brrrrrrrrring! The teatime bell rang. Archibald Weevil lifted the tray, and entered the Office of the Highest Seat. Harpminster Abbott’s eyes bulged as if he were choking; his white nostrils flared with each rapid inhalation. Pink lips were pulled back to expose bloody gums, and an excess of teeth.
“Put it down,” Harpminster snarled.
Archibald placed the tea tray carefully on the desk and stepped into position, hands clasped behind his back.
“Charter an aeroplane—we’re flying out west. Arrange for departure today, tomorrow morning at the latest, destination Botsford airstrip, in the suburbs. Pietro will pick us up. I have given orders for all troops loyal to Parleyment to assemble, travel by train, and rendezvous with us there. Pack my bags. Bring the limousine around the front of the building. We’re going on a business trip, Archibald.”
“S-s-sir! But the Planetary Protection Laws, Sir!”
According to PPLs, no one could travel by air unless it was a life-or-death emergency. A jet-fuel powered aircraft was a rare sight. Small remote-controlled solar planes sometimes buzzed overhead, but a gas-powered plane with a pilot was rare, and one carrying passengers was unheard of.
“Who am I, Archibald?”
“I am the Highest Seat, commander-in-chief of this country.”
“Of course, Sir! But a with a plane, I thought one couldn’t…”
Harpminster Abbott flicked his fingers, a silent dismissal. Archibald scurried into his tiny office, an anteroom off the marble foyer, and fumbled through a polished wooden box of index cards. No one charters planes anymore. Unable to find the card he needed, Archibald removed his gloves, and tried again. Ah, there it was! Unlimited Air. He dialled the number with difficulty; the buttons on the old telephone were sticky from disuse. A brisk female voice answered his call.
“I am the Highest Seat’s Senior Assistant, and he urgently requires a private flight.”
“No private charters. Doesn’t matter if you’re the Queen of England. How did you get this number? You’re not on our designated list.”
“I demand to speak to your manager,” Archibald said miserably.
The manager listened to Archibald’s request without interruption, but he could hear her tapping impatiently as he spoke. He finished speaking, and she released a long sigh, as if she’d been holding her breath. “Look,” she said, “everyone knows Parleyment is finished, and that Harpminster Abbott wasn’t elected. PPL’s are International Law. We don’t contravene them for anything but an emergency.”
Archibald knew what to do. Bribery was the only way to get around the problem of international laws that couldn’t be broken. “So, how many case lots of canned vegetables will it take to make this situation an emergency?” he asked.
A rapid, hushed conversation resulted in a private flight the following morning.
The plane took off at nine o’clock sharp from the Capital airfield. Archibald Weevil, Harpminster Abbott, and two armed guards were the only passengers. Archibald sat woodenly, gloved hands on his knees, while his boss joked with the guards, remarked on the excellent view, and expressed his regret that air travel was so uncommon. No one mentioned the jet fuel they were burning, long considered a crime against the planet, or the criminal circumstances under which the flight was arranged. The flight was turbulent over the Rocky Mountains. Archibald struggled with nausea. He grew increasingly dejected as the aircraft lost altitude, the landing gear opened, and they touched down smoothly on a runway in the scrubby Vancouver suburb of Botsford.
Pietro DiPisco was waiting for them on the tarmac. Dark ovals stained fabric under the arms of his shirt, and he had plastered a forced smile on his face.
“Welcome to Botsford, Sir,” said Pietro. “I have arranged everything precisely as you requested. You’ll be staying on Wailsmouth Street with a most engaging hostess, who lives only a stone’s throw from Ichamus Nickel’s house. Staff will attend to all your needs.”
“Why aren’t we staying at your house, Pietro?” Harpminster Abbott raised his eyebrows in mock surprise. “I thought you’d jump at a chance for us to become…better friends.”
“I wanted to host you Sir, but I have a wife and children. I thought you would be more comfortable at Violet’s place,” Pietro wrung his hands in distress.
Harpminster Abbott’s eyes narrowed. He glanced beyond Pietro, toward the humble concrete-block airport building. “Why isn’t Ichamus Nickel here to meet my plane?”
“Ichamus isn’t feeling well. A touch of the flu. Terrible shame, such poor timing. Your visit is a great occasion, of course.”
“This isn’t a visit,” said Harpminster Abbott. “I’m not here to shake hands and kiss babies. Hasn’t anyone told you? We’re going to war, capisce?”
Pietro’s eyes slid to meet Archibald’s, and a glimmer of understanding passed between the two men: they both hated their boss. Pietro led the clump of men to a black sedan, the only vehicle parked alongside the airport. There were two deep dents along the driver’s side, and a broken front headlight.
“This is my limousine? You can’t be serious.” Harpminster Abbott’s upper lip twitched. “Did you get in an accident on the way here? Perhaps one of my guards should drive.”
The sweat stains in Pietro’s armpits expanded visibly. “There are so few operational cars in these parts, Sir! Our train system is extensive. Bicycling is popular, and possible throughout the year. This car was the best I could do on short notice.”
They climbed into the car in rancid silence. Pietro opened the front passenger door for the Highest Seat, who entered the vehicle reluctantly, wrinkling his nose. The two bulky guards stowed luggage in the trunk and squeezed into the back seat with Archibald. Pietro took the driver’s seat, and turned the key in the ignition. The engine coughed, and for a moment it seemed the car was going to stall, but Pietro gave it some gas and BANG! A cloud of blue smoke puffed from the tailpipe, and the motor achieved a rough idle. The drive to Wailsmouth Street was bumpy and uncomfortable. The roads were in disrepair, littered with potholes and broken pavement, and many of the cross streets were blocked off with concrete barriers. Derelict houses, neglected yards, and weedy, abandoned lots abounded. The sky was a low, whitish bank of fog and cloud, and the air was damp and chilly.
“Where is everyone?” asked Harpminster Abbott.
“Farmer’s Market day,” said Pietro. “And it’s harvest season, too. Most people are at their local village centre, stocking up on root vegetables, dried beans, and herbs.”
A cumbersome quiet filled the car.
“Tell me, Pietro. How many soldiers have you recruited for our mission?” The Highest Seat looked bored. He produced a toothpick, and pried between his teeth.
Pietro held the wheel rigidly, and stared out the windshield. “I can only provide an approximation, Sir, not a precise head count. I believe somewhere between fifty and a hundred soldiers have signed up at this time. I’m sure the number will increase now that you’re actually here. I don’t think people took us seriously when we told them about the mission. A lot of them laughed.”
Harpminster Abbott’s face reddened. His mouth opened and closed silently, and he stabbed the air next to Pietro’s head with his toothpick. Archibald wondered if the Highest Seat was preparing to jam the sliver of wood into the regional representative’s ear, but Pietro was spared a punctured eardrum by their arrival on Wailsmouth Street. Pietro bumped the car up against the curb and parked.
Archibald surveyed the dismal street with dismay; the houses were cheaply built, finished with beige horizontal strips of vinyl siding. Most of the windows were boarded up, and what few glass windows remained were broken, holes and cracks repaired with tape and cardboard. Clumps of weeds and bare patches of dirt separated the homes. A face peeped out of a second story window, and ducked out of sight. Peering to down a street, Archibald saw it ended abruptly in the jagged, muddy edge of a precipice. In the distance, treetops pierced thick clouds. A bald eagle swooped in majestic circles over a chasm between streets and forest.
Pietro had parked in front of a house. There was no lawn, just rectangular planters stuffed with plastic flowers: red roses, white tulips, and purple hyacinths, looked garish and tawdry amongst the browns of October. A purple front door swung open, and a woman emerged wearing a tight blue evening dress and a rhinestone necklace. Her bleached blonde curly hair was piled in an elaborate up-do, and two smears of orange blusher marked her cheeks. Preternaturally long eyelashes caked with mascara covered eyelids dusted with silver. She had completed her ensemble with white leather, platform-heeled go-go boots.
“Your Excellency! I’m your hostess, Violet Smacker.” She teetered down the steps, stretching out a hand, long-nailed fingers splayed.
Harpminster Abbott turned to Pietro. “A clown—we’re staying with a clown?”
Violet blinked rapidly, and pouted glossy pink lips. “He isn’t talking about me, is he?”
“You will be comfortable in Violet’s home, Sir.” Pietro gulped.
Archibald felt a twinge of sympathy for the outlandishly dressed woman, whose eyes were brimming with hurt tears. He shuffled in front of the Highest Seat, and gave her hand a tepid shake. “Thank you for your hospitality,” said Archibald. “Would you show us to our rooms?”
Harpminster Abbott ignored this attempt to smooth things over. “Do you know why I’m here?” he asked, too slowly, as if Violet were mentally deficient.
“Well, sure,” Violet pouted. “Sure I do. You’re gonna make all the people come back and live here, like it was before. I’m not a clown, you know, and I have the nicest house on the block—you can ask anyone. That’s why it was specially selected, just for your visit.”
“This house is inadequate. It can’t function as a military headquarters.”
“But you’re not going to war tomorrow,” Violet said brightly. “You can live here for now, and then find somewhere bigger for your headquarters.”
“We invade in two months and ten days! There’s no time to waste!” Harpminster Abbott pushed past Violet, and stormed into her house.
“Two months and ten days?” Violet echoed. “But that’s—”
“Christmas,” said Archibald quietly. “He’s going to start a war on Christmas Day.”