Alexia De Vere was different. Her file was so thin it was practically a pamphlet. Up until last year, when her sentencing reform bill had made headlines in all the wrong ways, Mrs. De Vere had been as good as invisible. There was nothing at all in her records prior to her brief stint as a Liberal MP’s secretary as a young woman. Since then, an uneventful few years in local politics had been followed by a spectacularly good marriage to a wealthy British lord and a free pass into the uppermost echelons of the social and political establishment. There were two children, one of them a dud. (Roxanne De Vere’s rumored suicide attempt over a broken love affair was the only hint of color in an otherwise storybook-perfect family life.) A modestly successful political career had no doubt been boosted by Mrs. De Vere’s personal friendship with Henry Whitman, the new prime minister. (Something else that bothered Sir Edward Manning. What on earth did the nearly sixty-year-old Mrs. De Vere have in common with the young, newly married head of the party? There must be a connection, but Sir Edward was damned if he could see it.)
But there was nothing, absolutely nothing, to indicate why Alexia De Vere had been plucked from the lowly Prisons Ministry and appointed to the position of home secretary.
Where are the dead bodies, the enemies she’s seen off along the way as she shimmied so silently up the greasy pole?
Where are the land mines, the tangled web of unexploded bombs for me to dodge and weave my way through?
Alexia De Vere’s file was not interesting for what it contained, but for what it omitted.
She’s keeping secrets from me. But I’ll find her out. If I’m going to protect this office and our work, I need to know who she is, and what the hell she’s doing here.
“Good morning, Edward. You’re in early.”
A lesser man would have jumped. Sir Edward Manning merely closed the file calmly, slipped it into his desk drawer, and composed his hawklike features into a smile.
“Not at all, Home Secretary. It’s almost eight o’clock.”
He had told his new boss to call him Edward and to dispense with the title, but he found it irritated him every time she did so. Perhaps it was the grating, pseudo-upper-class accent. Or perhaps it was simply because Alexia De Vere was a woman. Sir Edward Manning had worked for women before, but never by choice. Discreet about his own sexuality, the truth was he found women quietly repulsive.
“I wish you’d call me Alexia.”
“I know you do, Home Secretary. If I may say so, you look a little tired.”
Alexia caught a glimpse of her reflection in the office window and winced. He wasn’t kidding. Her eyes were puffy and swollen, her skin dry, and every line on her face was etched visibly deeper than it had been a week ago. They say high office ages you. Maybe it’s starting already.
“I had a difficult night last night.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Somebody showed up at my house. A man. He wanted to talk to me, but by the time I got down to the gatehouse he’d gone.”
Sir Edward frowned. “You don’t know who it was?”
“Not for sure, no. But I have my suspicions.” Alexia filled him in briefly on the Sanjay Patel case, and the threats she’d received afterward. “We did get some footage of him on tape, although the quality’s awful.” Pulling a silver disc out of her briefcase, she handed it over.
“Excellent. I’ll send this directly to the Met. We’re scheduled for a review of your security arrangements anyway this Friday at three. Can it wait until then?”
“Of course,” Alexia said brusquely. “The whole thing’s a distraction anyway. I’m not worried. Now let’s get to work.”
He heard voices in his head.
Some were voices that he recognized, voices from the past.
His best friend.
His wife. Ex-wife.
His daughter’s voice always calmed him, made him smile. But never for long. Because then there was the voice.
Sometimes he thought it was the voice of the Lord, full of righteous anger. At other times it sounded more like the devil: distorted, sinister, inhuman. All he knew for sure was that it was the voice of fear. It told him terrible things, and it demanded terrible things from him. It was a voice that must be satisfied, must be obeyed. But how could he obey if he couldn’t even get to see her?
Alexia De Vere was untouchable.
“Did you say something, dear?”
Mrs. Marjorie Davies eyed her latest paying guest suspiciously. During her twenty-five years running a bed-and-breakfast in the Cotswolds, Mrs. Davies had seen all sorts of oddballs come through her door. There was the couple from Baja California, who’d brought crystals down to breakfast every morning and arranged them in a circle around their sausages and beans, “for positive energy.” Then there were the French queers who’d refused to pay the bill because they’d found a spider in the bath, not to mention the born-again Christians from Canada who’d ordered and eaten four full cream teas (each!) in a single sitting. But this latest chap was more than just eccentric. He was downright strange, talking to himself and wandering around the house at God knows what time of night, spouting religious claptrap. This morning he’d come down to breakfast in a stained T-shirt, and he clearly hadn’t shaved. Mrs. Davies wondered, belatedly, whether he might actually be dangerous.
“I’m sorry,” the man mumbled. “I didn’t realize I’d spoken aloud.”
Definitely a nutter. Mrs. Davies held up her teapot like a weapon.
“More Earl Grey?”
“No, thank you. Just the bill, please. I’ll be checking out after breakfast.”
Mrs. Davies had noticed the Didcot-to-London railway timetable wedged under the toast rack and had hoped as much.
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that,” she said on autopilot. “Have you enjoyed your stay in Oxfordshire?”
The man frowned, as if he didn’t understand the question. “I need to see Alexia De Vere.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“I said I need to see the home secretary!” He banged his fist on the table. “She’s expecting me. We’re old friends.”
Marjorie Davies backed away. The man returned to his breakfast, and she rushed out to reception, quickly printing out his bill. His suitcase was already in the hallway, a good sign. As soon as he finished eating, she returned to the table.
“I think it’s best if you leave now. We take Visa or MasterCard.”
She was surprised by the firmness in her own voice. But she wasn’t about to spend another minute in the company of a card-carrying lunatic. Certainly not in her own home.
The man seemed unfazed. He signed the bill, took his suitcase, and left without another word.
After he’d gone, Mrs. Davies looked at the signature on the credit card, half wondering whether she’d hear the name again on the news one day, linked to some awful crime or some plot against the government.
Mr. William. J. Hamlin.
She would have to remember that.
Prison life suited Billy Hamlin.
It was a bizarre thing to say, but it was true. The regularity, the routine, the camaraderie with the other inmates all suited Billy’s easygoing, follow-along character to a T once he got used to it.
The first year was the toughest. Having been transferred to a facility closer to his father, Billy was devastated when Jeff Hamlin died suddenly of a heart attack just three months into his sentence. Billy tried to tell himself that it wasn’t the stress of his arrest and trial that had destroyed his father’s health, but deep down he knew the truth. Guilt gnawed at him like a dog with a bone.
Meanwhile, Leslie Lose, Billy’s lawyer, would leave messages from time to time about an appeal. But as the weeks passed, then the months, and finally the years, with no date set, Billy resigned himself to the fact that he would serve his full sentence.
Twenty years was too painful to contemplate. Even fifteen with good behavior was a bitter pill. Billy Hamlin decided to focus on the one positive he had left in his life: Toni Gilletti.
When I get out, Toni will be waiting for me.
It was a sweet, addictive fantasy, and Billy Hamlin clung to it like a life raft.
When I get out of here, Billy told himself in his cold, lonely bunk each night, I’m gonna make love to Toni every night, five times a night. I’m gonna make up for lost time.
He fell asleep dreaming of Toni’s soft, sensual teenage body and woke up with the smell of her skin in his nostrils, the soft caress of her silken blond hair on his chest. As the years rolled by and he heard nothing from Toni whatsoever—no letters, no visits, no calls—he made up a series of stories to explain her absence.