The little man with the big moustache led Stan around the front of the house to where the prime minister, Gary Shemp, was addressing the gathering of reporters.
“In conclusion,” said Gary, “my government is committed to a swift and decisive response, but certainly a measured one. We will confront these issues head-on, while also allowing for variables, taking on board the advice of leading experts. With this bold approach, I will provide stability, innovation, and unprecedented economic growth for Australia. I will also cure diabetes.” Gary turned and nodded to Stan, then faced the press again. “I see Mr Berserkervich has finally decided to join us. A little late to the party—typical of my political opposition. Yes, he and I may be on different sides of the political aisle, and he may well be white supremacist—I’ll leave that for others to decide—but in the face of extreme circumstances, we must come together to create solutions that benefit all vaccinated Australians. Do Mr Berserkervich and I always agree? Far from it. Does he use his spare time to electrocute puppies? To my knowledge he has never denied it. But here we are, in our great nation’s capital, to put aside our differences and forge a new path through the apocalyptic crisis that is Covid-19. Stan, would you like to say a few words?”
Stan joined Gary, and the two leaders shook hands for the cameras.
In an upstairs room of the Lodge, Les Grenidge sat in an armchair, watching the press conference live on television. Les was a man of great influence, though he was unknown to the public. It was his gravelly voice on the phone that had caused Stan to tremble. Les was extraordinarily round, perhaps more spherical than any person earth. His narrow eyes were set deep in his plump, pink face; his nose, bulbous and pockmarked, lay like half a strawberry on a cupcake. A bulge of fat wrapped his neck like a stubbly python trying to asphyxiate him. Simply breathing was strenuous. He seemed always on the verge of rage. Nobody ascended to any position of power in the country without Les’s approval. He twirled a glass of Scotch in his stubby fingers as he watched Gary and Stan on the screen with keen interest.
Gary stepped to the side, and Stan faced the reporters. “Yes, thank you, prime minister, and good afternoon, everyone. When I heard Mr Shemp needed my help in combating Covid on a national scale, I was more than happy to come to Canberra. The prime minister and I may have differing views on many policies—and I’m not suggesting he is a spy for the Chinese government—you make up your own mind about that—but this is one of those times when party animosity must be laid aside. The fate of the country is at stake. Rest assured, if we fail to act against Covid now, it will kill everyone. Now, I’m not going to go comparing Mr Shemp to Adolf Hitler—even though he has the same colour hair and eyes as the Nazi dictator—but I will say this: together we must overcome Covid, put an end to the unvaccinated, and get this nation back on track.” Stan took a breath and looked around at the cameras and microphones. “Now, I think I have time to answer just a few questions.”
Upstairs, Les leaned forward in his chair.
As the reporters waved at Stan and called for his attention, a tall man in a red shirt spoke in a booming voice, “Mr Berserkervich!” Everyone turned to look at him. He seemed to have appeared instantly from nowhere. Stan looked at the man’s shirt, and remembered the instructions given to him over the phone. The man spoke again, in a more subdued, though no less commanding voice, “Mr Berserkervich, John Kane, The Daily News.” A few members of the press glanced curiously at one another and shrugged. “I’d like to ask you about your press briefing this morning. When you said that people were like little snails, were you referring to the ancient proverb that says the little snail is the most valuable of all creatures? And when you said you would forgive people’s sins, did you simply mean that you would be focusing on lowering the unemployment rate?”
The reporters were silent, and visibly confused. Every face looked to Stan and awaited his answer. Stan gave an awkward smile. He loosened his collar. A bead of sweat trickled down his cheek. He looked around at the eager faces, and the hands extending recording devices toward him. So many cameras. So many people watching him. The threatening voice from the phone call echoed in his head, warning him keep his answer to one word. At the same time, his stomach twisted with an excruciating urge to deliver a long-winded response. The reporters watched him. Inside the Lodge, Les glared at the television screen. After a full minute of silence, Stan cleared his throat. “Yes,” he said.
Les leaned back in his armchair, and the slightest hint of a grin curled his lips.
“But of course, in saying that,” continued Stan, “there are more complicated issues at play.” The knotted feeling left his stomach, and he launched into a lengthy, self-promoting spiel.
Les hurled his glass at the wall and slammed his fist on the chair’s armrest. “Arrogant little prick!” He turned to a man dressed in black, standing by the window. “Take him out.”
The man in black took a strange looking rifle with a long, thin barrel, and loaded it with a small pellet. He opened the window slightly and aimed the weapon down to where the reporters stood. He found Stan in the rifle’s sight.
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