The earnest discussions lasted deep into the night, and Ms. Pickford repeatedly raised the issue of Sheriff Millstone’s possible participation in her project. This was, as she explained it, a critical part of the picture since she wanted no allegations of corruption or malfeasance downstream. By the time she left Sir Hudibras’s estate, the great man had agreed to the sheriff’s participation on condition that she should convince him to give his valuable time as part of his normal duties. His judgment was that Millhouse was irreplaceable in his present position.
The PM wasted no time before contacting the sheriff to give the gist of the agreement that he had reached with the heiress. He explained that Ms. Pickford only agreed to proceed with her plan if the sheriff was committed to be the watchdog of her donated money. Sir Hudibras essentially obtained a euche from Millstone that he would undertake the august responsibility. Therefore, by the time Sara Pickford arrived at the Cracked Bell at eleven o’clock the morning after the banquet, the sheriff was primed to say yes to her request.
Sensational headlines about the unprecedented bequest followed shortly thereafter, and Parliament was transfixed by the implications of the public private initiative. To those who thought they might divert the donation to their own pet projects, the PM merely suggested they might wish to discuss the matter with Fatty Millstone before they started to plot and scheme. Such was the sheriff’s reputation for rectitude that unsavoury MPs and bent Lords withheld their slanders and other nefarious machinations.
Question Time that afternoon gave Hudibras a Bully Pulpit to express ideas that he and Ms. Pickford had shared at their dinner. Who could argue about the goodness of the centre of excellence, particularly after the ample lady’s lawyers presented the first annual increment of her gift together with the terms of a trust extrapolating twenty years of future bequests? As the only two hedges expressed in the plan were the matching donations and Sheriff Millstone’s involvement, the PM stepped out to corral the A list donors’ cheques while Sara met Fatty to arrange a weekly Friday meeting at his pub.
‘Sheriff, I am eternally grateful for your agreeing to help with the new healthcare centre. Sir Hudibras has already fended off unscrupulous parties from commandeering my money for their own purposes. Only using your name worked to keep vicious, venal men and women at bay.’
‘Lady Sara, the world is full of rascals looking to steal other people’s money, and in our Parliament and House of Lords the most shameless of those play their games. Rest assured, I shall inform you and the PM when I catch wind of attempts to seize your generous bequests. Sit down for a moment and enjoy a pint of bitters.’
‘I really shouldn’t as I have a thousand things to do, chief of which is to talk with the design team for our new alien medical centre.’
‘Don’t let me detain you, then. We’ll talk during our weekly Friday meeting over a pint.’
‘That sounds like a plan, Sheriff!’
‘Please call me Fatty, Sara. We are going to be close business associates for many years. Why be formal when we are meeting frequently?’
‘Well, then, Fatty, I shall see you this Friday afternoon for that pint.’
He stood to watch the great lady navigate her way through the crowd around the bar. All eyes were trained on her not only on account of her bulk and height but also because her picture had been displayed in newspapers throughout Europe as the heiress who had changed government funding forever.
As he sat back down in his captain’s chair, Millhouse noticed his pint glass needed a refill. Mildred fulfilled his wish before he raised his hand for another round. She winked at him with the quip, ‘So far, no good!’
The sheriff laughed and responded, ‘Your introduction has already caused history to be made.’
‘Sheriff, I do hope it results in a new relationship for you as well. I have been observing the way you two look at each other. I prophesy you and Lady Sara will be doing more than conducting state business before long.’
‘Nonsense, Mildred. The woman is worth more than many nations’ GDPs.’
‘Yet she puts on no airs, and I have heard your participation was a demand she made before she donated her money.’
The sheriff focused on his pint in a way that told Mildred to take care of her other customers for the moment. Meanwhile, Crenshaw the newshound swooped down to get material for a story.
‘Good afternoon, Sheriff. You certainly managed to dodge the imputation that you are behind our government’s good fortune.’
‘I don’t know what you are talking about, Crenshaw.’
‘Is it true that you introduced Ms. Pickford and Sir Hudibras before their famous dinner?’
‘Who tells you such lies, Newshound?’
‘How can I help but notice the obvious, Sheriff. Anyway, you were part of the deal for the new alien medicine centre. Without your involvement, history would not have been made.’
The sheriff made no comment to this observation.
‘I don’t hear a denial.’
‘Listen, you are going to print whatever lies you like to sell newspapers. So I cannot be bothered contributing to your gutter tripe faux news.’
‘At least give me something on deep background. My editor is pressuring me to get a story about the new medical centre. Give me something I can use to please my boss.’
The sheriff knew the reporter would not stop pestering him until he pointed him in some direction. ‘Well, Crenshaw, did anyone consider why the innovation centre is specializing in alien medicine?’
The muckraker got a confused expression that turned quickly into a wily smirk as the idea dawned in his narrow, little mind. ‘Now that’s what I am talking about! Look, Sheriff, thanks. I would ordinarily let you buy me a pint, but I have to get my story to press before the deadline. I’ll see you tomorrow.’
‘I hope that is not a promise.’
‘Very funny! But I am thankful for your suggestion. Read tomorrow’s tabloid for the answer to your question.’
Mildred brought the sheriff another pint after the newshound passed through the door. ‘I don’t like it when a reporter rushes off to meet a deadline. I know he is going to manufacture more of his lies.’
‘You are right to be suspicious, Mildred. But you needn’t worry. What appears in the newspapers is, at best, a shadow. What is printed one day is old news in a matter of hours. The next day the opposite point of view is published without apology.’
‘Crenshaw is unscrupulous nonetheless. I fear you will have a lot of undoing to perform after tomorrow’s papers appear.’
The next morning, Crenshaw’s tabloid had published no fewer than five articles on the alien medicine centre. On the front cover was an illustration of a fictional building with large tentacles reaching out of every window. A space ship was hovering above the building with patients on gurneys being taken from the building up to the space ship on an immense ladder and down from the ship to the building. The cumulative effect was to instil fear in the populace and plant nightmares about the new centre that could not be easily eradicated.
When the reporter came to Millstone’s table to deliver copies of his scabrous rag to anyone present, the sheriff was red with rage and fit for violence. Crenshaw saw the signs, so he made a quick exit without saying anything. Mildred smiled to see the news man so discombobulated, and she brought the sheriff another pint. ‘Sheriff, the barkeep says, ‘This one is on the house.’ He says it’s amazing what you have to put up with every day.’
‘Thank you, Mildred. And pass on my thanks to the barkeep. By the way, you were right yesterday afternoon! That reporter is incorrigible.’
‘No matter what Crenshaw writes and what his editor publishes, the public will know the truth and discount the faux news in the tabloids.’
‘Let’s hope so. Meanwhile, I will have to deal with the fallout.’
It was not yet Friday, but Sara showed up in the pub with a copy of the tabloid under her arm. ‘Do you have time for a pint, Sheriff?’
‘Of course, Sara. Please have a seat.’ He raised his hand, and Mildred brought them both pints. ‘I see you have read the tabloid stories.’
‘At first, I was shocked and dismayed. But the more I thought about the whole mess, the more I realized the yellow press’s satirical thrust could only do our cause good.’
Their drinks arrived, and Fatty touched his glass to hers before he sipped his bitters.
‘This is only the initial thrust of the tabloids. Believe me, the less they have of substance to print, the more they will rely on rumour, innuendo and fantasy.’
‘The citizens will always distrust innovation. The centre of my conception is like nothing else in the world. At present, the scope and direction of its operations are unknown. Why not let imaginations fly with even the most absurd possibilities? I said as much during the dinner with our PM.’
‘Maybe you should meet him to reiterate that sane advice.’
‘Whatever you say, Fatty.’
The two drank for a few minutes as they kept their thoughts to themselves.
‘Whenever the people are confused or frustrated, they strike out at aliens. No matter how the government tries to legislate equality, the visceral sense of differences divides the masses into aliens and humans. Consider how many aliens hide the truth of their existence so they won’t be subjects of prejudice and hatred. I know something about that, and so does our PM.’
‘Sara, I don’t know what you mean about your knowledge of the extent the aliens try to hide the truth of their existence, but the PM and I—and many others—are well aware of what must be done to survive.’
The sheriff felt a tentacle caress the back of his right thigh. He unleashed his own tentacle to grasp the feeler gently. He stroked the appendage and saw the look of understanding in Sara’s eyes. It was the unmistakable feeling of being appreciated for what one is with no judgments and no unsettling emotions.
After a time, Sara said, ‘How many of us do you think there are?’
‘A great many more than anyone suspects. The PM estimates half of Parliament are part alien, and nearly all the Lords are too.’
‘I begin to see why you and he thought you might be able to deal with my idea. But I must be clear. The idea was not mine originally. It was my husband’s. He kept his secrets until he went to his grave. Not only did he have long tentacles; he also had short tentacles that covered his face. I thought he looked like Cthulhu, and he liked the attribution. My acceptance of him as he was made our relationship blossom and grow. Having a shared secret helped us work closely together towards a common goal.’
‘I never saw a photograph of your husband the Marquis.’
‘There are no photographs. He insisted none should exist. I do not have even a keepsake likeness of him.’ She shed a tear, and Fatty gave her a handkerchief. ‘Thank you, Fatty!’
‘I am glad we are sharing our secret.’ He stroked her tentacle, and she responded by gripping his like a lifeline.
‘The first time I saw you, I suspected. Your moonlike face. The way your jacket bulges when you walk. It was worth the chance, so I took it. And here we are.’
‘Yes, here we are. And now Sir Hudibras is our accomplice, and the whole nation stands to benefit from our projects.’
‘What if people come to know that the prophetic tabloid images are close to the truth about what the centre will be doing?’
‘Is there any reason for them to know?’
‘None that I can think of. So shall we continue the subterfuge?’
‘Yes, but I like to think of what we do as constructive. We continue innovating and exploring.’
‘You are such a good example, Fatty. I believe what you say. Instinctively, I knew you would be a full partner in my plan—and you are perfection.’ He felt her caress the back of his leg.
‘Speaking of plans, I need to introduce you to Dr. Prbzt before he returns to his point of origin. I will need to brief you fully on his mission and our relationship before the introduction takes place. What do you think?’
‘I think meeting Dr. Prbzt is exactly what we should be doing.’
‘Then we shall meet tomorrow night at my humble abode. You can meet my clones.’
‘My offspring. I have three dozen including those that accompanied Dr. Prbzt on his world travels.’
‘It seems odd that you should have so many children.’
‘You have much to learn about other aliens that your sheltered, privileged background kept hidden from you.’
‘Fatty, I want to know everything. You will be my key to unlock all the alien practices. Of course, our centre will be the context where we will focus our discoveries and our treatments.’
‘I have a lot to teach you, and we have only a little time left. Perhaps over twenty years, we can scratch the surface, but we shall do our best.’
‘I don’t know why you say we have little time. We have only just met, and I fear the notion that time is an asset we are borrowing to become intimate.’
‘Aliens or not, we are not immortal, Sara.’
‘Then we should make the most of the time we have left, starting with our date tomorrow night at your place.’
‘Yes. A date. The first such in my existence. I think you will like meeting my clones. They are just like me in almost every respect.’
‘Clones.’ She looked bewildered when she said this. ‘I suppose I will have to learn how to deal with continual surprises.’
‘Be comforted. As you go through surprises, you gain strength, and your reactions become easier. You also become more comfortable in the process of adaptation to them.’
‘I must be going now. I’ll be here tomorrow afternoon so you can take me home.’
Fatty watched her sway as she made her way to the door. He was sad to see her disappear, but he consoled himself she would be back the next day. Would she like his clones? He did not know. But she needed to learn how to deal with radical surprises, and he had much to teach her.