The Muffler's Ministry: Chapter 2



Having sent off my agent submissions for My Family and Other Ghosts, I'm back working on my next novel. The Muffler's Ministry. I provided the first draft of the opening chapter a while ago, so here I am with the delights of chapter two.


So, what's changed? I'm still playing with the draft cover, above, for inspiration – which has unexpected side-effects. The picture of a ruined castle was selected at random when I prepared the post containing chapter one, but it's inspired me and has now turned into a key location in this novel.


What's going to be inside this castle? Will it be a Ministry of Alchemists trying to create alkahest? Or maybe a Ministry of Magic led by someone called Fudge? Well, you'll have to wait until chapter three to find out.


I was made to think about my sources of inspiration – and in particular the selection of images to stimulate the imagination – by reading Olivia McCabe's excellent Writing for Wellness. I'll probably return to this topic and book at a later date in its own post, but if you're not following Olivia on Twitter, you're missing out.

The other change you might notice is that I've updated the name of the series of books of which The Muffler's Ministry will be the first. I was never that satisfied with Familiarity, and I suddenly had the inspiration that the name of Rowan Webb gave me a rather twee option that works slightly too well: Webb's Wide World. I might tire of its tweeness before long, but it will do for now.


Right, I'm digressing again. Here's the early, rough draft of chapter two. I'll be back with chapter three when it's ready, which will be the last sneak peek you're getting. After that, I'll have enough information to go back and plan the rest of the book, flesh out more characters and plough on. I'm glad I've written these early chapters as it's really helped the characters tell me who they are. I'm looking forward to Ashley Carter telling me her story in chapter three...

 

Chapter 2: Confrontation


We remained poised in silence on opposite sides of the doorway, staring blankly ahead at the flaking paintwork, unsure what to say to each other.

I was unsettled by the way the interview had ended. I knew I could have handled those questions better, but other than that, I felt I'd presented myself as well as I could. That Bristow guy was odd though.

'Have you seen Bristow before?' I said. The silence had become unbearable.

'No,' said Dave. 'Not sure what the point of him being there was. It's not as if he said anything, just sat there taking notes.'

'True,' I said.

I didn't want to reveal he'd been different with me, not until I'd worked out what that string of questions at the end meant. It was feeling odder all the time.

We reverted back to a silent nervousness. My initial confidence began to waver as time passed and the moment of reckoning approached, but I was still confident I was the best man for the job. They'd see that, I was sure. Wouldn't they?

We yearned to hear the door opening, ached for the sound of footsteps behind it, and yet when the door opened, we both jumped in surprise.

'Come in please, Mr Elkington,' said the scribe.

Dave was being called in first. That must mean something, but was it good news or depressing?

I then spent five minutes going through the permutations in my mind but came to no reliable conclusion. I could spin things both ways, and more. Still, I'd know as soon as I saw Dave's face; he could never keep a secret.

I jumped again when the door opened.

'Enter,' said the scribe.

As I followed him into the room, I wondered what had happened to Dave, but then caught a glimpse of his back as he left through the far door with Martha Deveson. Only Courtney Godel and the scribe remained; there was no sign of the enigmatic Bristow.

Shit.

'Please take a seat,' said Courtney.

I did as instructed with relief. My legs felt weak; my heart beat rapidly as I held my breath.

'Thank you for your application for promotion to Principal Information Officer as XD4.1 section head. You presented yourself very effectively, and I'm sure you will make an excellent section head in the future. However, we decided to go a different route on this occasion. Mr Elkington is the new XD4.1, effective immediately.'

I'd convinced myself over the last few minutes that this was the outcome, but it was still a kick in the crotch to hear it. I needed to know what had happened.

'May… may I ask what I did wrong?'

'Nothing wrong,' said Courtney. 'You were both excellent candidates, with differing strengths. The clincher was that Mr Elkington's skills fitted more closely with the new mandate for the role going forward. We received updated directives for the XD section heads, which led us to conclude that he was the better fit.'

'New directives?' I said, suddenly feeling cold. 'Where from?'

'The Minister's department.'

'XD?'

'Presumably with his authorisation.'

'Thank you,' I said, not knowing what else to say. I wanted to get out of there. There was no point in trying to quiz Courtney Godel any further. The divisional head monkey was no use to me now; I had to speak to my organ grinder Dad.

*

I'll give Dave credit. He had the good grace to look embarrassed when I walked back into our office. Well, no. No our office any longer. He'd already started moving his stuff out and down the corridor to XD4.1's designated quarters. I guess I'll get a new minion in here with me before long – us Senior Information Officers don't qualify for an office on our own.

It was time to be magnanimous in defeat.

'Congratulations,' I said, holding out my hand from across the room.

'Thank you.'

I felt the acknowledging caress of his telekinesis on my palm.

'I still can't believe it,' he said. 'I was sure you'd get the job.'

'I'm not surprised,' I lied. 'Godel said you were the best fit for it.'

'You must be gutted.'

I shrugged. I didn't want to talk about it. Not yet. Especially not to him.

'Can I give you a hand with your stuff?' I said.

So, I did my dutiful act of carting stuff around, wheeling filing cabinets, carrying files, helping my new boss get settled in his office.

My new boss. Shit. And he had a carpet. The bastard.

'You OK?' he said.

My sickening realisation must have been written on my face, or more likely, he was using his empathy on me.

'Sorry,' I said, deciding to be honest for once. 'It's going to take me a while to adjust.'

I snuck a quick peek at his mood. He felt genuinely sympathetic, which made me feel worse.

'You and me both,' he said. 'Look, I've got a lot to think about, and I'm sure you don't really know what to do next. Take the rest of the day off. Go home, relax, come back fresh in the morning, then we can get together and discuss the future. I'm going to need your help to get things running smoothly, and I expect I'll send more responsibility your way, but I need to think it through first. OK?'

'Sure, thanks.'

I hated it when he was reasonable.

Work was the last place I wanted to be right now. I had a lot to think about. If the XD4.1 section head position was closed off to me, I'd need a vacancy somewhere else to be able to make any progress. Perhaps a transfer would be a sensible next step, get my feet under the table and make myself invaluable in a different section. That left the most crucial question: which section head was most likely to die next?

*

Much to my annoyance, my father didn't come home before I was so tired that I had to go to bed. Admittedly that wasn't unusual, as he often spent the evenings being the face of the government at official events, but it was still incredibly frustrating. I'd have hoped he might want to know how my interview had gone.

Then again, if he was responsible for the new section head directive that Courtney Godel had mentioned, perhaps he already knew. I didn't want to think about that, not yet. I needed to talk to him first before I jumped to conclusions.

I should make it clear at this point that I got on reasonably well with my Dad back then. We'd never been that close, but he'd always been there or thereabouts for me. Mum had died ten years earlier from a virulent cancer that even the healer's magic couldn't reverse, and that did bring us together for a while, but his job would have to come first. I always understood that.

I can't complain. I've had a comfortable life, living in a house larger than anyone else's that I knew. It was brick-built, had a second floor, and we even had fireplaces in our bedrooms, as well as those carpets that I mentioned. It was just, well… lonely.

When I went to bed, I intended to rest there until I heard Dad come in, and then get up to talk to him. I must have been more tired than I thought. The next thing I noticed was the morning sunlight sneaking through the cracks in the shutters.

Dad's bedroom door was shut, so he must have arrived back home sometime in the early hours. I made my way downstairs. After preparing myself a bowl of porridge topped with a swirl of honey from the town beehives, I sat at the small wooden table in the lounge and ate it, straining to hear for the first sign of movement.

I hoped he wouldn't be too late up, but no matter what the time, I was going to wait. If my new section head wanted to haul me over the coals for getting in late, then so be it, but I expected Dave would have other things to worry about today.

After washing my bowl and putting it away, everything was still quiet, so I sat on the cushioned chair in one corner of the lounge, opposite the two-seater settee where Dad usually sat. Our lounge was a reasonable size, over three meters square, although I must admit it was looking a bit worse for wear these days. I don't think we'd given it a fresh lick of paint since Mum died, and the carpet was pretty threadbare too. Still, it was home, and very comfortable.

It was over half an hour before the first signs of life came from above, and twenty minutes later before I heard his footsteps bludgeoning the stairs. I was definitely going to be late to work, and was pretty irritable by the time the door opened and Dad entered, combing his beard.

'Good morning, my child,' he boomed in his usual understated way.

'I'm not a child, Dad.'

He said it at least once a week. I always remonstrated. He always ignored me.

'Thought you'd be at work,' he said.

'I wanted to speak to you.'

'Let me get my breakfast first,' he said, walking out to the kitchen without waiting for a response. I heard him put some more logs in the stove, and take a serving of porridge from the pot. Eventually he re-entered the lounge, sat at the table and started eating.

'Was there anything you wanted to ask me?' I said when I realised he was more interested in his breakfast than me.

He frowned and shook his head after stuffing his mouth with oats, a couple of globs dripping onto his beard. Grumbling to himself, he wiped them off, looked at me, but still didn't speak.

'I thought you might like to know how it went yesterday,' I said.

'Yesterday?'

'My interview?'

'Ah yes,' he said. 'I'm sorry you didn't get it.'

'So you knew?' I said. I shouldn't have been surprised, but it was the dismissive tone that got to me.

'Courtney told me yesterday evening,' he said, trying to deploy a reassuring smile of commiseration, making him look like a constipated bear. 'Your time will come.'

'When?' I said. 'When the section head directives change again?'

He grimaced and placed his spoon into the dish. Finally he turned to give me his full attention.

'Did Courtney tell you that?' he said.

His voice was quiet, calm and monotone. That was never a good sign. I nodded in response.

'I'll have a word. He shouldn't have told you that.'

'Why did the directive change?' I said, trying to match his tone. As much as I was seething inside, I wanted answers. I knew how best to work with my Dad.

'It was decided that the section heads need to represent a more diverse set of backgrounds.'

I waited for a bit more elaboration. When it wasn't forthcoming, I decided to work it out for myself. I mentally skimmed over the section heads that I knew, not just in XD4, but in the other XD divisions. I didn't see any issue. There were section heads of every ethnic group from the community, every sexuality, and they were there on merit. There had never been any need for any policy on this, although I know Dad had mentioned that there used to be one back when he started out. Why would they need one again now? Unless…

'Do you mean more section heads from less privileged backgrounds?' I said.

He nodded, showing no emotion.

'Like Dave Elkington.'

It wasn't a question, but he nodded anyway.

'When did this policy come in?' I asked.

'Last week,' he said. He wasn't usually this parsimonious with his words.

'Just before my interview.'

Nod.

'To intentionally block me?' I said, annoyed to hear my voice crack. I'd been doing so well.

He stared at me for a few seconds, that clear unnervingly blue gaze holding me while he gathered his thoughts. He took a deep breath, blinked slowly and smiled.

'Look–' he started.

'Don't bullshit me,' I interrupted, the spell broken. I was in no mood for being fobbed off with one of his conciliatory political speeches. 'Why did you do it? I assume it was you who changed the policy?'

'It was.'

At least he didn't deny it.

'Why?'

'There's a lot you don't understand; a lot of politics I've shielded you from.'

'Enlighten me.'

'Very well,' he said. 'Now listen. Just because I'm head of the Ministry, doesn't mean my position is secure. There are always people who want my job. They'll seize on any way they can to undermine me. If you'd been promoted, I would have been open to charges of nepotism, warranted or not. This way, that avenue is closed to them for the foreseeable future, without me having to get directly involved. It was the cleanest solution. Do you understand now?'

I understood. It was something I'd been tacitly aware of, but hadn't wanted to admit it because it had never gotten in the way before.

'That you're more important than me?' I said. I'm pretty sure the words came out as bitterly as I felt.

'Well, yes. I'm your father. It's up to me to look after you, to bring in the extra money that gives us all this comfort,' he said, gesticulating around the room. 'It's better this way.'

'For you, maybe,' I said. 'Basically, my career is over in order to protect yours.'

'Don't exaggerate,' he said, showing the first flash of anger. 'It's just… limited in its scope. At least for now.'

'Well, that's just great. Thanks, Dad. Thanks for your caring concern for my future.'

'Don't take it like that.'

For some reason, that was the final straw. Someone flipped the red switch in my brain.

'How am I supposed to take it? What the… don't be so arrogant. I'm subservient to you. I just have to carry on doing the same things, day in, day out, until you deign that the time is right. Well, I won't.'

'Oh yes, you will. You will do as you're told,' he said, raising his voice.

I could see his face redden, but I ploughed on regardless. I think I inherited the angry gene from him.

'And what happens when you're gone? I'll be alone, this house will go to the next minister, and I'll have to start up my career again, years behind where I should be.'

'I'll make sure you're alright,' he said.

'As if you care.'

'Some me some respect,' he growled, rising to his feet to tower above me.

'Respect?' I said, standing and squaring up to him. Unfortunately, all I was doing was staring menacingly at his nose. The remnants of porridge on his moustache was very distracting. 'Mum would be ashamed of you.'

That was the wrong thing to say. Mum was someone that hardly ever got mentioned in the house; I think the memories were so painful for Dad, it was too hard to talk about. Using her as an accusation against him was a step too far.

He grabbed the front of my shirt, scrunching it up into his huge fists.

'How dare you? You–'

I pushed back against him, pulling myself free of his grasp. We'd never argued like this before. I knew I'd gone too far, so what did I say to calm things down?

I said: 'I wish you'd died, not Mum.'

I'm not sure which one of us was most shocked to hear those words come out of my mouth. I was even more shocked to see tears welling in his eyes.

'Get out,' he whispered.

I didn't move.

'Get out!' he bellowed, his breath spraying into my face.

I got out.

*

Look, I know I handled that badly. I shouldn't have said any of that, not even the bits I meant. Nobody's perfect. In my defence, I was upset and with good cause.

I don't remember the walk to work. My hands were shaking, my heart was palpitating loudly in my ears, and I was still so angry. What was I to do?

I didn't feel like making up with him, even if he wanted me to. Not yet. Anyway, why should I make the first move? He was the one in charge of me, or so he seemed to think, so it was up to him to make amends. Maybe I should find a place of my own.

Suddenly, I realised that was the solution. I'd never contemplated leaving home before, but now was the time to strike out on my own.

I'd have to go to the Ministry of Welfare and register for my own place. I didn't care what I'd get allocated; even if it was only a wooden shack the size of a shed, that would be fine. I'd met Summer Brock, the Minister for Welfare – XG, as Dad called her – and she seemed pretty nice. Maybe if I name-dropped her when I handed in my application, it would help expedite things.

I couldn't face work today. There was too much to think about, too much to organise, and I needed to find a way to calm down.

I knocked straight on Dave Elkington's door when I arrived fashionably late at the office. He'd had the name plaque changed already. David Elkington XD4.1. The bastard.

'Come… come in,' came the summons from inside. 'Oh, it's you.'

Dave was sat behind his new desk, looking bewildered at a huge pile of paperwork. At least he’d made an effort in his new role today – he’d washed his hair for once. Trouble is, his normally lank blond curls were fluffed up, making him look like a golden dandelion.

I shut the door behind me.

'I need the day off,' I said.

'Can it wait?' he said. 'I need your help today.'

'Not really,' I said, only just managing to keep my temper. It wasn't Dave's fault; not this time. 'I had a… chat with my Dad. I think I need to find a new place to live.'

Dave looked at me blankly for a few moments, before my words sank into his brain.

'Shit,' he said. 'What happened?'

I hesitated, feeling the need to tell the truth, but knowing it wouldn't be fair on Dave. It would burst his bubble of happiness over earning his promotion. I couldn't be that cruel.

'You only got the job because he blocked me,' I said.

I did say I could be a bit of a jerk back then. OK, a lot of a jerk.

'I… what… why would he do that?'

'He doesn't want to be accused of nepotism. I'm expendable as far as his career goes.'

'I… I'm sorry,' he said.

He did look genuinely sympathetic, damn him. I shrugged to convince myself that I didn't care.

'So, can I have the day off?'

'I…'

He broke off, and crumpled his face.

'Can it wait until this afternoon?' he said. 'I really need to talk to you after I've met with Courtney in a few minutes.'

'I guess,' I said. It might work, although it would be tight. 'How long will it take with Courtney?'

'About an hour.'

That usually meant at least two.

'Can I pop out while you're with him? I should be able to get to the Ministry of Welfare and back again in that time.'

'Sure.'

Before I had a chance to say thanks, there was a knock at his door.

'Come in,' said my beloved section leader, more confidently this time.

It was Thelma with her mail trolley outside, the official deliverer of paperwork and office gossip. She plonked another thick pile of envelopes into Dave's in tray. He sighed.

'I've got one here for you,' she said to me. 'Ooo, looks posh. I need your signature first.'

I quickly scribbled on her clipboard and stared at the envelope until Thelma left, disappointed not to find out the details.

I don't think I'd ever received anything that needed a signature before. The front was addressed in a perfect calligraphic script: Rowan Webb XD4.1.2. For immediate attention. On the back was a wax seal, which looked like an official ministerial one, but not a design I recognised.

I broke the seal. Inside was a single sheet of folded paper. Reverentially, I unfolded it to reveal a printed version of the crest that had been stamped onto the seal. Again, I didn't recognise it, but it contained a scrolled design with the words Indecens latere and Vivamus inside. I had no idea what that meant, so I concentrated on the message in the same ornate handwriting beneath.

You are summoned under penalty to attend The Ministry at 11 a.m. today. Report to the East Gate, Portsea Castle.

There was an indecipherable scrawl for a signature.

'What the…' I said.

'Let me look,' said Dave. He did, and looked up at me, eyes wide. 'Shit, what have you done?'

'I… I've no idea. What Ministry is that? Is it really in the old castle ruins?'

'News to me,' he said. 'Guess I'll have to do without you today, that's not something I can say no to. You'd better be going if you're going to get there in time.'

He was right. It was a decent walk to get there, and I'm not sure I knew the quickest route.

'I–'

Before I had a chance to answer him, there was another knock on the door.

'Come in,' ordered Dave. I was still staring at the paper in my hand.

'I'm here for the carpet,' came a gruff voice from the doorway.

I looked up to see a man wearing a brown overall, carrying a toolbox.

'What do you mean?' said Dave.

'You're a Principal Information Officer, right?' said the man.

'Yes, of course,' said Dave.

'The last guy in here was a Senior Principal Information Officer?'

'Norman? Yes.'

'Then he qualified for a wall-to-wall carpet, you don't.'

'That's stupid,' said Dave. He looked as possessive of his carpet as I would have been. 'It's there. So leave it.'

'I don't make the rules,' said the man. 'The carpet comes up. Or most of it. You get seventy-five per cent coverage in the middle of the room, max.'

'What're you going to do?'

He looked around the room, rubbed his stubble, and sucked in through his yellow teeth.

'Half a metre off, all round the edge might do it, mate.'

'You'll do no such thing,' whined Dave.

The man pulled a piece of paper out of his coat pocket and handed it to him.

'You're first on my list today, mate. It says it has to come up, so it comes up.'

'Wait here,' said Dave. 'I'll see what Courtney Godel says about this.'

Dave stormed out of the room. The man looked at me blankly.

'Don't look at me,' I said. 'I'd just get on with it if I were you.'

The man nodded and took a tape measure out of his toolbox. I walked out of the room, and began my journey to the mysterious Ministry.

Under different circumstances, I'd have been laughing about Dave's carpet, but I was too distracted by my summons for it to lighten my spirits. What was going on? Had I done something wrong?

It seemed that one mystery had been solved: Portsea Castle was the home of a Ministry, but which one? I ticked them off mentally. XA was agriculture; that was based on the outskirts of town, near the farms. XB – business – was in the centre of town. XC, XE, XF and XG – Liaison, Education, Security and Welfare – were all in this same complex as our XD, the Ministry of Information. And that was it; there was no XH.

Was there? And if there was, why did they want to see me?

The Muffler's Ministry cover
The Muffler's Mission cover
In Memory of Chris Parsons cover
A Vision of Unity cover
A Division of Order cover
A Revision of Reality cover

The Tamboli Sequence

The Mufflers

Chris Parsons

Short Stories

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Juventas

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