Catriona Scott sends us part five of her ongoing serial To Prove a Villain.
Richard Plantagenet – Comptroller of New York City.
Edward Plantagenet – His brother, Mayor of New York.
Elizabeth Plantagenet – Edward’s wife.
Harriet Stafford – Speaker of the New York City Council and confidante to Richard.
Katherine Woodville – Elizabeth’s sister and Harriet’s partner.
William Hastings – Public Advocate and good friend to Edward.
Dr Shaw – Doctor at King’s County Hospital.
In Momentary Grace of Mortal Men, the fifth chapter of To Prove A Villain, we revisit our key players, Richard and Harriet, in the wake of Edward’s death. Edward is dead, but that is not yet enough. Richard persuades Harriet to get rid of one of his competitors in the mayoral race – and when he says that, he really means it.
Momentary Grace of Mortal Men
“Over the course of the past month it had seemed the mayor’s condition was improving, but his health took a turn for the worse two weeks ago and this is being cited as the cause of his death. The full details surrounding the circumstances of his death have yet to be disclosed – ”
Richard laughed as he re-read the article once more, smoothing out the page the better to look at it in full. Those fools. Accepting everything without question. Purporting these lies. How were they so blind to the truth, how could they not even suspect that –
He stopped himself there. He should not question their blindness, their stupidity, but instead accept it. Questioning it would only arouse suspicion, and that was what he needed to avoid. He had been supportive, comforting to his grieving family, tearful when he addressed the press to respect their privacy – it was all an act, of course, but a very good one. Noone, not for one second, doubted his sincerity. And why should they? He had lost his brother and it was only natural that he should grieve.
And yet, and yet…
The elections had been announced in Edward’s obituary, and it was not unknown that Richard was running for office. Some would see this as strange, suspicious – but he was able to allay these fears with the assurances that he simply wished to continue his brother’s legacy (a lie that was painful even for such a dissembler as him to tell). But there were still others who had been unhappy with the very idea of an election, let alone his running for office, and William Hastings – the Public Advocate and second in line to succeed to the mayor’s seat – was chief among them. Richard and Harriet had discussed how best to oust him from office – ruining his name by exposing the scandals of his past was a given, as was using his position as the public face of the hated martial law against him. But they needed something more than this. Hastings would not go quietly, that was certain, and even if he kept his mouth shut for the present, it would not be long before he opened it again, to say something incriminating. No, they would have to do more than just remove him from office. They would have to remove him entirely. It was the only way. A violent solution was the best solution.
“I wish you wouldn’t laugh when you read that, Richard.”
And here was someone else who could work against him, for all her protestations to the contrary. Harriet Stafford was loyal, that Richard knew. But he did doubt her loyalty; he mistrusted her as he mistrusted everyone, even someone as sycophantic as she. Her flattery could be as false as his, the means to an end. She seemed loyal to his cause – but how far would this loyalty go? He was paranoid, and he knew it – Harriet was the most loyal associate he had, she knew so much and she had not breathed a word against him. She had accepted his faults, his plots, almost without question. But she knew too much. If he was to ensure the security of position, of his ascent to power, he would either need to be rid of her, or have her be just as incriminated in the plot as he was. And Richard did not want to be rid of her just yet.
“I can’t help it, Harriet. You can’t deny the piece is amusing – ‘Edward Plantagenet was a great man and he did great things for this city’ – honestly…”
“Amusing as it may be, I like to think you didn’t ask me to come here this morning for a dramatic reading.” Harriet stood then, closing the folder she had been scanning as Richard spoke, moving towards his desk and placing it before him. “I have the article exposing William Hastings ready to be sent off to the New York Times’ offices; I thought you would wish to read over it before it goes to print.”
Richard opened the folder and glanced at the paper within before looking up at his colleague and closing the folder once more.
“It’s excellent, Harriet, as is everything you write – ”
He did not miss the flicker of a smile on Harriet’s face at this compliment, but pressed on without further response.
“ – but it isn’t enough. I said before that we would only rid ourselves of the man politically, ensure he wasn’t a contender in the mayoral race, but I have come to the conclusion that a more, shall we say, permanent solution to the problem is needed.”
There was a slight pause. Then:
“But I thought you said we wouldn’t need to…Richard, we discussed this – ”
“And I have changed my mind, Harriet. We simply cannot take the risk.”
Harriet’s tone became desperate as she fought to find a solution – any solution other than the one Richard was proposing. “But if we remove him from office – ”
“He would still pose a threat to us. He doesn’t know the circumstances of Edward’s death, true, but there are other things he knows too much about, truths he’d be all too happy to tell. No, we need to silence him.”
Harriet’s tone was quieter when she spoke again, almost fearful. Before she had smiled at the idea of herself and Richard working together, conspiring together, not ‘you’ and ‘I’ but ‘us. But now? She could not bring herself to even force a smile.
“All this time and you didn’t think to discuss this – ”
“We’re discussing it now, aren’t we?”
Richard was leaning back slightly in his chair as if this were some banal office small talk, rather than the discussion of a colleague’s murder. Harriet continued to stand on the other side of his desk, unwilling to meet his eye.
“Y-Yes, I suppose we are.” It was then that she looked up and met his eye, her voice now steadier – almost accusatory. “But it seems to me that your mind is made up and that this is, once again, ‘our only option’. Murder.”
Richard smiled, unfazed by Harriet’s tone, the panic and fear poorly disguised beneath her show of strength.
“And so, once again, we are on the same page. Excellent.”
He moved from behind the desk and towards Harriet as he continued to speak, extracting something from the inside pocket of his suit jacket and holding it out to her, expectantly.
“It dissolves clear. There should be enough there to get the job done. The symptoms won’t begin until a few hours afterwards – that’s how it was with Edward, at least, and the dose is the same-”
Harriet looked from the small bag of powder in Richard’s outstretched hand to his face and back again. He couldn’t possibly mean…he didn’t…this was just him explaining his plan, wasn’t it…?
“ – we’ll write the death off as a tragic suicide in light of his best friend’s death, or maybe guilt for the chaos martial law has caused, we’ll figure it out – Harriet, have you been listening to a word I’ve said?”
“I…I have, I just…Richard, I can’t – ”
Richard suppressed a sigh.
“What part of ‘get the job done’ don’t you understand, Harriet?”
“The part that involves me doing this! I can’t be the one to – ”
She paused then, trying to calm her rising hysterics, trying to speak more calmly even as her voice continued to tremble. “Richard, I have lied for you, I have supported you loyally in every aspect of your plans, I will ensure the elections run in your favour – is that not enough for you?”
“If you were truly as loyal as you profess you would have accepted this without question!” Richard’s voice had risen too. He didn’t understand why Harriet was finding this concept so difficult to grasp. He tried to make his voice softer, coaxing, as he spoke again, recalling how such a tone had worked before. “It’s not as if this will be difficult, Harriet, it’s not as though you’re killing a relative – ”
“And since you have no problem with that, Richard, surely you’d have no problem killing a colleague! I will help you in every way I can, but I won’t – ”
“You won’t?” Richard repeated, still calm in the face of Harriet’s fury. “You won’t do this…not even for me? For us?”
He could see her resolve beginning to weaken even as he spoke those words. He took the advantage and moved closer, taking one of her hands in his and placing the poison in her palm, closing her fingers around it with his other hand. This done he did not move away again but held her hand in his – comforting, pleading – however Harriet wished to read it.
“You will do this, won’t you, my dear Harriet? For me. For us, for our cause. I can’t do this without you; my plans won’t succeed unless you help me. I need you, Harriet. I need you to prove that you feel the same.”
Harriet did not know what to think, what to say. She wasn’t a murderer. She couldn’t believe she would ever be…and yet, Richard’s words made sense, and what words they were – this was their only solution: he needed her to do this for him, he needed her help, he needed her… She felt the weight of the small packet in her hand, and she did not feel it, all at once. That did not matter – what mattered was the man before her. He needed her, and she would prove herself worthy of that. She would do this.
She saw Richard was smiling at her, and she returned his smile, hesitantly. She found she was holding back tears – gratitude, fear, relief, she could not tell. He’d noticed. His smile faded a little, and he held her hand in his more tightly than before. Reassuring.
“You shouldn’t look so worried, Harriet. This is our only option, and it means so much that you would do this for me. You won’t regret this. Trust me.”
And, like the fool she was, Harriet did. Even though Richard was the man she should trust least of all. As Richard released her hand, she placed the poison in the inside pocket of her jacket. Without any further words they parted. Richard stood a few moments more after her departure before returning to his desk, looking over the article again as though he hadn’t just manipulated one colleague into murdering another.
Richard Plantagenet shall remain as the city’s de facto mayor in this period following Mayor Plantagenet’s death, until such time as elections can be held to establish New York City’s new leader.
It would not be long now.
When Harriet had called at the Public Advocate’s office to speak to Hastings, it was to find he had yet to come into work that day – which wasn’t unusual, as the man often ran late, but he had become even more tardy recently, following Edward’s death. That Hastings mourned him, Harriet was certain – William Hastings had been one of Edward’s closest friends and confidantes, and they had often been seen together out on the town, and in the headlines of the tabloids the following morning. He was a far worse drinker even than Edward himself, yet in spite of this his reputation in office was still somewhat respectable – he was popular and well liked, even with his many faults, and he had maintained a good relationship with the public he helped to govern.
That was until martial law. Although it had been Richard who was instrumental in introducing these new policies, it was Hastings who bore the brunt of the criticism and backlash for them as he was the one to announce them, the one who kept the people updated on how far these new measures stretched. Although he did not mean to shield Richard from the harsh words he deserved, by virtue of his public office this was unavoidable – and while Richard was responsible, it was Hastings who was blamed. He tried, in vain, to redirect the people’s criticism to its proper target, but he himself was far too obvious a target which they did not intend to miss, while Richard remained in the shadows, unknown by comparison, difficult to grasp.
Following Edward’s death martial law had been lifted, but this had done little, if anything, to salvage Hastings’ damaged reputation. It was now not just his affairs and his drinking that weighed on his position, but his failings as a politician into the bargain – there were even rumours now circulating amongst the tabloids that his wife was planning to divorce him, and take their two children with her.
All this in mind, Harriet could not say she was surprised when Hastings arrived at her office that afternoon, looking more downcast than she had ever seen him, a copy of the New York Post held limply in his hand. The paper had reported details of the upcoming elections that morning – a blow by blow account of who was in the running and how each of the candidates was rated amongst the public. Richard was doing surprisingly well, although that may have been due more to the bribing of an editor or two than it was his own merit.
“I was told you wished to speak to me, Harriet,” Hastings began, his voice perfectly matching his dejected expression, sitting on one of the office’s sofas without invitation and tossing the paper carelessly on the table before him. “If it’s an election update, you can save it. I’ve seen the papers.”
“Good afternoon to you too, William,” Harriet replied, somewhat coldly – but still managing a smile, however small. She stood and moved from behind her desk towards the table just beyond the sofas on which stood several glasses and a decanter of water, underneath which was a small cabinet. Before she could move to pour her guest a glass, however, Hastings spoke again.
“You wouldn’t happen to have anything stronger?”
Harriet turned to face him then, one eyebrow raised.
“It’s two o’clock.”
“It’s five o’clock somewhere, Harry. So long as you don’t tell the ethics committee on me, we’ll both be fine, right?”
Harriet frowned, but decided it was best not to antagonise the man further, as their conversation was likely to be unpleasant enough as things currently stood. She bent down and opened the cabinet with a key from her inside jacket pocket, and retrieved a small bottle of whisky and a crystal glass from its interior. Having stood up once more it was the work of a few moments to pour a suitable measure and, with her back to Hastings and her movement hidden from view – to empty the contents of the sealed bag Richard had given her into the glass as well. It all seemed far too easy – she didn’t feel anything, no worry, no fear, just a steely determination to get the job done. If this was what Richard needed her to do then she would do it.
But then, however calm and determined she may have felt inside, it seemed her body was betraying her. She could feel her hand shaking as she passed the tainted glass to Hastings, and he was quick to notice. His frustration seemed to dissipate a little at this: “Go ahead and have one yourself, Harry. I won’t tell if you won’t.”
She dealt him a small smile at the offer, and indeed did not need much encouragement to retrieve a second glass from the cabinet and pour a measure. Having done so she replaced the bottle in the cabinet and locked it again, ensuring as she returned the key to her pocket that the empty bag was there as well. It was still there. Thus far Richard’s plan had worked. She couldn’t believe her luck. When she turned back to Hastings and sat on the sofa opposite him, her smile was genuine. She was quick to hide it behind her glass, however, for such an expression on her face would surely be cause for suspicion.
“I’m afraid it was the elections I wanted to speak to you about,” she said, having set the glass down. “As I understand it, you have been working alongside a number of others to try and prevent them from happening – I want to know why that is the case.”
Were they in a different period of time, Hastings’ actions could be viewed as traitorous, treasonous. As it was, in this day and age, such attempts at sabotage were simply politics, only to be expected. But that wasn’t to say his actions weren’t throwing a spanner in the works in terms of the progress towards the votes – yet another reason why William Hastings had to go.
“Isn’t it obvious?” Hastings replied, setting his own glass down having taken a large gulp from it. “They shouldn’t be happening at all – I should be sitting in Edward’s office right now, as mayor, instead of Richard, and the elections should take place in November. Richard shouldn’t be running this city – he isn’t fit for the position!”
“Your opposition to the change, then, is a result of your own ambition?”
“No!” Hastings replied, a little too quickly. “No, I just think that…this isn’t what Edward would have wanted.”
“Surely what Edward would have wanted no longer matters?” Harriet replied coolly, taking another drink.
“What are you saying, of course it matters – ”
“The man is dead, William, let’s not pretend otherwise.”
There was a small pause; Hastings’ eyes were wide with shock and he took another, deeper drink, as though to steady his nerves, abate his surprise. Harriet took advantage of his lack of response to continue.
“You would be against giving the people a voice, giving them a say in government, which they have so sorely lacked in the past month, thanks to martial law – martial law which you-”
“I wasn’t responsible for that, and you know it – you of all people know that!” Hastings snapped. “You think I’ll take the blame for Richard’s mistakes? You think I’m unfit to lead this city because of what he did?”
“It doesn’t matter what I think, it’s the public’s thoughts that I’m concerned with. They don’t want you as mayor, William, they don’t even want you in the race. I’ve heard that some would like to see you removed from government altogether.”
At these words Hastings drained the glass, setting it down with such force that Harriet was surprised it didn’t break. But when he spoke again he was not angry – instead his voice was thick with unshed tears, the understanding of the precariousness of his position hitting him with a force he couldn’t have anticipated.
“I didn’t realise…I knew I was being blamed for martial law…but this…”
Harriet found that she didn’t quite know how to respond, what to do, what to say. Instead she took another, larger drink from her glass. She was never much good at comforting people.
“I’ve failed him, Harry. I’ve failed my closest friend…I felt I couldn’t govern the city with him in hospital, nor did I deserve to…and now… I’ve let this happen, this is my fault…”
“You haven’t failed him,” Harriet replied, softly, although her heart was not in the words – but it wasn’t as though Hastings, in this state, would notice. “He would have wanted you to do what you felt was right, and you felt it would be wrong to govern the city in his stead, so you didn’t. No one can blame you for that.”
Hastings nodded, slowly. He looked up then, dealt Harriet a weak smile.
“Thank you, Harry, I’m sorry, I… I have to go.” He stood then, a little unsteadily. “Thanks for the drink…and thanks for telling me what you did. It can’t have been easy, but I needed to hear it.”
Harriet stood along with him, placing a comforting hand on his arm.
“You won’t have to deal with this for much longer, William,” she said, returning his small smile. “You can take comfort in that, at least.”
Hastings nodded, and left the office without another word. Almost as soon as the door had closed behind him, Harriet swiftly sat once more, and found she was trembling. She exhaled shakily, as if hoping to release the adrenaline and the tension she felt, but it did not abate. She stood again and picked up Hastings’ glass. Empty.
Richard had said it would take a few hours to take effect, but he had not said how long after this it would take for the man to die. But she could not say she was surprised at his desire to label the death as a suicide – with Hastings so despondent, she wouldn’t have been surprised if that were the case without their intervention. But with him gone – murder or not – they would be one step closer to their goal.
Now all they had to do was wait for the headline pronouncing his death.
It would not be long now.
She took his glass and hers over to her desk and set them down, picking up her cell phone instead and trying to stop her hands from shaking as she typed her message.
PUBLIC ADVOCATE WILLIAM HASTINGS DEAD IN SUSPECTED SUICIDE
Just days shy of Mayor Edward Plantagenet’s funeral, tragedy has struck the city once again in the loss of its Public Advocate, William Hastings. Hastings, a close friend and confidante of Mayor Plantagenet, was found dead in his City Hall office at approximately 9:45AM on the morning of the 29th of August. Although medical officials at the scene pronounced his death to be the result of a heart attack, there are some who suspect Hastings’ death was, in fact, a suicide, although the Times cannot cite the reasons for these suspicions. William Hastings was fifty two years old.
A popular and well respected man both in his public office and his private life, Hastings will be sorely missed by those closest to him and his colleagues at City Hall. A government spokesperson told the Times that Hastings’ death ‘came as a shock’ and that it was ‘sudden and unexpected.’ This same official expressed their concern at the rumours of suicide, stating that Hastings ‘had no reason, that we know of, to wish to take his own life’ – his unfailing cheerful demeanour had only begun to change following Mayor Plantagenet’s death.
The New York Times would like to express its deepest sympathies with William Hastings’ family during this period of mourning. He is survived by his wife, Katelyn Hastings, and his two children, Mary and Robert. His funeral is set to follow that of Mayor Plantagenet on Sunday 31st August.
Make sure you catch the last installment, which will be published next Friday at 12pm!
This serial is inspired partly by historical fact and partly by historical fiction (that being Shakespeare’s Richard III); however, as the setting (New York City) is very much a real location – as are other businesses and events I have used – I felt the following disclaimer to be necessary. This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or are used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
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