It had been one of those weeks. Monday I got the news that I would not be landing the juicy new account repping the Emirate of Matar. Matar was trying to improve its image in the United States, which needed some buffing because six of its citizens had been apprehended trying to set off that radioactive device in the New York subway. That was Monday.
Wednesday I arrived in the office to the marvelous news that a pilot for an airline I represent had tried to fly a jumbo jet from Chicago to Paris while drunk. The air-traffic controllers ordered him back to the gate after he started singing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" as the plane taxied for takeoff. I issued a statement highlighting the fact that the co-pilot was a Mormon and would have been able to land the plane safely. In public relations you live with the reality that not every disaster can be made to look like a misunderstood triumph.
So I wasn't in an excellent mood when my secretary told me there was someone with a pronounced English accent on the phone who wouldn't give his name but was "most insistent" that he speak with me. Frankly, I almost didn't take the call. I don't want to give the impression that I'm one of those snooty types who stand on ceremony. On the contrary. Ask around and they'll tell you that Renard Strategic Communications is a "people" firm. To us, a client is not just a source of endless billable hours (though he is also that) but a soul in need, whether it's a soul who has just been charged with insider trading or one whose product has poisoned some watershed and made an entire species extinct (usually some type of frog that really no one aside from biologists with too much time on their hands is going to miss). Anyway, I took the call.
The accent identified itself as a Lord Sir Knatchbull Fogg-Smythers. Hard not to feel a bit inadequate after that. Still, I managed to make "Rick Renard" sound like it has passed down through the generations from the first Rick Renard, Richard le Renard, who performed an incredibly valiant deed during some twelfth-century battle. We're not clear on the details, but apparently he was quite a guy.
"I'm calling on rather a delicate matter," he said.
"Mr. Figg-Smothers," I said, "Smogg-Fithers ..." Those hyphenated British names can be murder if you're a bit dyslexic.
"Fogg-Smythers," he said, frosting my phone with a coat of ice.
"How may I be of assistance, Sir Lord?" I said.
"Your name has come up. I'm calling by way of preliminary enquiry to see if you might come over to London. I believe you will find it quite worth your while."
"May I ask, Lord Sir, what this concerns?"
"The survival of the British monarchy."
You can't just say "I guess I could squeeze you in next Wednesday between three and four." I said I could be there tomorrow. He then asked if I would be flying "privately or commercially." Before I knew it, I was telling him that—"of course"—I would be flying in "my own plane," though the closest I've ever come to that was a balsa-wood glider when I was eleven.
Sir Lord didn't sound the least bit impressed. He just sniffed, "Much easier all round," as though I'd spared him the indignity of having someone meet me at the baggage claim. He said to have my pilot land at Brightfarthing RAF Base, in Wallopshire. "I'll arrange it so they don't shoot you down."
I hung up thinking, Well done, Renard—you've just spent $25,000 of your own money trying to impress someone named Knatchbull.
I summoned LaMoyne. LaMoyne is my executive assistant. I gloomily instructed him to arrange for the cheapest fractional-ownership jet he could find that stood a sporting chance of making it from here to England. When I told him who'd summoned me, his eyes bugged out of their sockets and his bow tie twirled like a pinwheel.
"The Lord Sir Knatchbull Fogg-Smythers?" he gasped.
"No, the other Lord Sir Knatchbull Fogg-Smythers. Who the hell is he, anyway? He sounds like he sat on his sword at some coronation ceremony and never had it removed."
His voice dropped to a whisper. "He's the private secretary to the Prince of Wales."
"Well, whoop-de-do," I said, still fuming over the plane.
LaMoyne reads that British magazine Hello!, the one that chronicles royal happenings like they were Second Comings. One issue I saw open on his desk had a twelve-page color spread under the headline "THE COUNTESS OF PUDDINGTON SPENDS AN EXHILARATING AFTERNOON JUDGING HENS AT AN AGRICULTURAL FAIR AND AFTERWARD ENJOYS TEA WITH HER COUSIN THE MARCHIONESS OF WOOLHAMPTON AT HER 152-ROOM ANCESTRAL HOME, GLAND MANOR."
I could hardly put it down. LaMoyne can't get enough of this sort of stuff. He memorizes royal-family trees. He can tell you how the King of Romania's uncle was related to Queen Victoria's aunt and what kind of hemophilia he had. LaMoyne grew up in Indiana. His father managed a cement factory; his mother taught high school English. People like LaMoyne tend to leave Indiana as soon as they attain legal age, and head west or east until they reach the continental shelf. I suppose you can't blame them.
I told him what the subject of the meeting with Lord Sir was. He sniffed, "The monarchy could use some saving."
I wasn't really up on the latest royal catastrophe. There seemed to be at least one a week. Something was always going wrong with that dynasty. I read somewhere that a Hungarian monk two centuries ago put a curse on it. You're not off to a good start as a dynasty when you have monks putting curses on you unto the tenth generation.
While not a royal-watcher myself, I was aware that the Prince of Wales had recently shot a beater accidentally during a driven-pheasant shoot. The man survived, and as soon as he could walk, or limp, out of the emergency room, he made a beeline for the nearest tabloid newspaper, where he sold a Homeric account of the peppering of his hindquarters for £200,000. (Headline: "DOES HE LOOK LIKE A BLOODY PHEASANT, SIR?") If I'd been handling His Royal Highness's affairs at the time, I'd have put out the word that the man practically hurled himself in front of the Prince so that he could cash in. Sometimes, in PR, you have to take off the old gloves.
I told LaMoyne he could brief me on royalty on the way over. Needless to say, he was beside himself with excitement to be coming along. When, that evening, we boarded the jet, a hideously expensive six-seater that would have to put down in Iceland to refuel, he had three suitcases with him.
"Those are going to cost me an extra thousand dollars in fuel."
"They're not for me," he said. "They're for you." He'd apparently gone out and bought me a trousseau.
"What's that?" I pointed to a white box with a see-through lid.
"It's a boutonniere," he said.
"LaMoyne, I'm not going to a prom, for God's sake."
"They notice these things. Trust me."
LaMoyne briefed me on royal matters as we flew over Newfoundland. I was getting to know as much about the House of Windsor as your average Hello! reader. I even felt some sympathy for the Prince of Wales.
It can't be that bad a life. He's richer than most Arab sheikhs. He has someone on his palace staff who irons the five-pound notes he puts in the Sunday collection plate—this being the only money he spends, since London headwaiters apparently know not to present him with the check. He also has someone on staff to hold the specimen cup for him while he's providing royal urine samples. By most standards this would qualify as the Good Life.
On the other hand, it's in some ways an aimless existence. His only job, really, is to become King when his mother dies. But the women in his family live longer than Galápagos tortoises. At this rate he won't be King until he's so old he'll be getting up five times in the middle of the night to provide royal specimens. Not much fun for the guy who has to hold the cup. Maybe he gets hardship pay.
HRH's track record is, frankly, mixed. There was the disastrous marriage, the taped telephone conversation with his mistress in which he told her he wanted to be reincarnated as her—well, I'm sure you heard all about it. Must have been fun to read that in his morning newspaper. These moments of glory were followed by an endless series of serve-and-tell memoirs by palace butlers, footmen, grooms, garbage men. You wonder why everyone in England doesn't apply to work in the palace. The latest memoir included the news that the dead Princess was convinced the Prince was underneath her car at night, draining the brake fluid. One third of the British people believed it, apparently. No wonder HRH's approval rating was in the single digits. Most British people didn't even want him to become King; they couldn't wait for the crown to go to his twenty-one-year-old son. You can be 100 percent American—as I certainly am—and still feel a bit sorry for a constipated monarch who's losing a popularity contest to his kid and whose mother is the Energizer Bunny of queens.
By the time we landed at Brightfarthing, LaMoyne had got me up to speed. I could tell you how many kids George V had and which of them stuttered. His son George VI had such a problem that they had a doctor standing by at his coronation with a hypodermic needle full of amphetamines, ready to stick him if he stalled at "I, G-g-g-g-g." Poor guy. Apparently he never even wanted to be King, but his brother—that would be Edward VIII—fell in love with Mrs. Simpson, who may or may not have been a hermaphrodite. And I thought my family was odd.
"Don't shake hands," LaMoyne said. "They hate touching. They think it's vulgar and American. And don't introduce yourself by name. Just nod slightly and act as though you'd rather be somewhere else. If they offer you something to drink, ask for a medium sherry and take teensy sips."
"Can I blow my nose on the drapes? I'm not some barbarian from the steppes, damnit."
LaMoyne's briefing stood me in good stead during the interview with Lord Sir Knatchbull Fogg-Smythers. He received me—one is received—in his study at Wheaters, the Prince's estate near Least Cudding. I don't know where they get the names.
He extended his hand. Naturally, I withheld mine and just smiled thinly. He seemed relieved not to have to touch me.
"His Royal Highness has concluded that the time has come to take a more aggressive stance with respect to press relations," he said.
"Um," I said. I found during my time in the Prince's employ that you can get through most conversations in England by just saying "Um." They prefer to do all the talking anyway, and really don't care what you think. Every so often you throw in a frown to show that you haven't had so many Botox injections that you can no longer register facial expressions.
"Of course," he said, "we don't think it would be judicious to be seen to be employing a foreign firm for this sort of thing. So you would be functioning from rather behind the arras, as it were." He chuckled dryly.
"Arras" is not a word that comes up every day at Renard Strategic Communications, but I caught Sir Lord's drift. I later learned from LaMoyne that it's some kind of curtain that Shakespeare's characters are always running their swords through—an Elizabethan piñata. As it were.
At this point the door opened, and in walked HRH in the flesh, looking like he'd just spent an exhilarating morning on the moors shooting beaters.
He couldn't have been more gracious. He thanked me for coming all this way, hoped they were taking good care of me—must be jolly jet-lagged, and what about this rotten English weather? LaMoyne had told me, "If you meet him, don't say anything to him. You're not supposed to initiate conversation." He was adamant about it.
So I stood there while the Prince went on about nothing in particular. Finally he stopped and stared at me. I wondered if he was waiting for me to unzip the royal fly and hold out a cup. Then he murmured something to Lord Sir, who frowned, and HRH suggested that the two of us "go for a tromp."
I blurted, "As long as you don't bring a shotgun."
Lord Sir looked like he was going to shoot me himself, but HRH just laughed politely and said they had some medieval armor that I could wear if that would make me feel safer. Awfully sporting of the man. I was starting to like him. This isn't always the case with my clients, who have included some pretty fruity characters, as they say in England.
While we tromped, HRH told me that it had been his idea to hire me. He'd read about my effort to get an American cardinal elected Pope and the celebrity pro-am golf tournament I'd staged in North Korea. He said I was "rum."
He was painfully aware of his own bad press. "I just can't seem to put a foot right," he said. "And now they all want me to abdicate—before I've even sat on the throne." My heart went out to the man. He said, "Do you know why I wanted to talk to you out here, alone? They listen in. The gray men. With tape recorders. It's a nightmare."
A look of pain came over his face. "That ghastly business with the cell phones." Suddenly I saw him not as the future King of England but as just a fellow human being who felt not particularly great at having had his wish to be reincarnated as his mistress's Tampax broadcast to the world. I myself have not entertained that particular fantasy, but if I had, I'm pretty sure I wouldn't want to read about it in USA Today.
"I've come to wonder if they don't have it in for me," he said. He stood there on the moor, looking like Heathcliff only not as handsome and with bigger ears. "It's almost as if they want me to fail."
"Sir," I said, the time having come to say something more than "Um," "with all due respect, we need to take the bull by the horns. You've been playing defense. It's time to kick ass."
You're probably not supposed to use words like that with royals. But when I looked over at him, he was chewing his lower lip thoughtfully, and I detected a smile on the part of his mouth he wasn't chewing.
"Um," he said. Historically, you have to be careful interpreting royal gestures, or before you know it you're slicing up archbishops in the cathedral. But it sounded like he was giving me the green light.
As we tromped back to Wheaters through the fog, he brought up the fact that his grandmother had lived to the age of 101, and his great-grandmother Queen Mary to the age of eighty-five, and his great-great-great-grandmother Queen Victoria to the age of eighty-two. He didn't sound thrilled by this longevity.
"Long live the Queen and all that," he sighed, "but the people might be a bit more excited by the idea of Charles III if he didn't look like an Egyptian mummy when he assumed the throne. Don't you think?"
I said to myself, Tread carefully, Renard. We were being trailed at a distance by two of his Special Branch bodyguards. What with all the taping going on, who knew if they had long-range parabolic microphones under their anoraks. "PRINCE HIRES YANK HIT MAN TO 'MURDER' QUEEN."
"Have you discussed with your dear mother," I said, sounding like some brown-nosing courtier, "her thoughts with respect to, um, abdication?"
"Her Majesty has made her views on that subject abundantly clear," he said with a grunt. "Au même temps," he went on, "were she to become a figure of ridicule, as I have been, then her views might moderate."
He gave me a sly look, like Henry II asking the staff, "Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?"
"We have the same situation with my mother," I said, laughing. "We've been trying to get her to move into an assisted-living home, but she won't budge."
HRH looked at me. "Well, hardly."
As his great-great-great-grandmother would have said, "We are not amused."
Before we got back to Wheaters, he said, "There's someone I'll put at your disposal. Someone I trust, with very good connections. She's rather a bit of all right." You need a glossary with Brits.
LaMoyne was standing in the gravel driveway, clearly hoping to catch a glimpse of HRH. He swooned when we walked up. I know I saw LaMoyne curtsy, though he denies it.
"What the hell was it, then?" I said to him in the plane as we flew back across the Atlantic at a cost of $18 per mile.
"My knee. Sometimes it locks. I'd been standing there for hours."
"Whatever," I said. "Well, your idol His Royal Highness wants me to take down his mother."
"Oh, dear," LaMoyne said.
We were back in England ten days later—by commercial carrier—and set up shop in a suite of offices a discreet distance from Pituitary House, HRH's London residence.
Lord Sir sent over a couple of Oxbridge-type dons to educate me on the history of Princes of Wales. Pretty rich stuff. What I was after was which PoWs were successes and which ones had tanked. The dons kept bleating, "But Mr. Renard, they didn't take polls in the eighteenth century." I said, "Well, maybe if they had, you wouldn't have lost America and India."
The second day a very attractive woman in her mid-thirties showed up with skin like porcelain and a figure like one of those Greek statues in the British Museum. Long eyelashes, too, which I have personally always been a sucker for.
"Serena Tompkins," she said. "I believe you're expecting me. Mr. Fitzwater sent me?"
"Fitzwater" was our code name for HRH. She'd been one of his Special Branch bodyguards, and had done a lot of the advance work for his foreign trips. She was plugged in to MI5 and MI6 (their version of our FBI and CIA). She was now a private security consultant. She seemed loyal to HRH and "livid"—a word she used a lot—over his treatment at the hands of Fleet Street "hacks and parasites." She seemed so loyal to and admiring of him, in fact, that the thought did cross my mind that it might be more than your standard monarch-subject relationship.
"I'm a bit nervous about all this. Your being American. Rather awkward if it got out."
"You know, ma'am," I said a little wearily, "it's impressive how one British person can make the word 'American' sound more damning than a crowd of Middle Easterners screaming 'Great Satan.' What is it about us that bugs you so? Aside from the fact that we're overweight, vulgar, arrogant, and ignorant?"
"Sorry. Didn't mean to start off on the wrong foot."
"No big deal. I'll be the crass American, you be the tight-assed Brit. So who's been taping our Mr. Fitzwater and leaking stuff to the tabs? I don't get it. He's the Prince of Wales and his own government is taping his phone calls to his squeeze? Is this normal in a monarchy? Do they do this in Belgium and Denmark?"
"We don't know for sure who did the taping," she said. "It is possible the security services were involved."
"Well, you work on that. I'll concentrate on relaunching the product."
"He's not some new brand of cereal," she said.
"Assuming it was MI5 or 6, what is it about him they don't like? I know he's got old-fashioned ideas about city planning. Was it that speech he gave in Paris, where he came out against the British position on GATT, in favor of French farmers? That wasn't very popular, as I recall."
"It caused a huge stir. But I can't imagine the government would have retaliated with such vehemence."
"He could have started a trade war and screwed up the entire world economy. What was he thinking?"
"He's a very intelligent man, but sometimes he goes at things instinctively. From the heart."
"Well, no more speeches for our boy in favor of French farmers. I'll tell Lord Sir Knatchbull. Speaking of which—is he on the level?"
"On the level? Do you mean a Mason?"
"No. Is he on our side?"
"Of course. He was at Gordonstoun with the Prince."
"Does that mean they had sex? I know how it is in English schools."
"Really, Mr. Renard. I—haven't the slightest idea. I should very much doubt it."
"Well, let's check his phone records for the past, say, ten years. See if he's been yakking it up with Fleet Street or MI5 or 6."
"That's rather a tall order, Mr. Renard. To say nothing of being highly illegal."
"Well, then, you'd rather better get going. Oughtn't you, Ms. Tompkins?"
She huffed out of my office (the British are very good at the huffy exit), practically knocking over LaMoyne, who'd been pouring sherry into the dons and grilling them on fourteenth-century attitudes toward Princes of Wales.
The next two weeks—fortnight, as the British would say—were a period of intense activity. We did focus groups up and down the sceptered isle, from way up in York, where you can barely understand what the hell they're saying, down to Kent, where they are slightly more intelligible. I wanted a broad cross-section of the population, but the idea of rustling me up some nobles gave Lord Sir a case of shingles. He was convinced that it would leak to the press. But I held firm, and in the end I got a couple of old duchesses and something called a viscount (you don't pronounce the s, which I learned by putting my foot in my mouth) behind the one-way mirror. LaMoyne wired them up for galvanic skin responses and breathing.
"Will it hurt?"
"Not at all, Your Grace," LaMoyne said. He missed his true calling, LaMoyne. He should have been a butler. "It's simply to measure your response to the questions."
"How very exciting."
We focused more than 2,000 people, from every walk of British life: mine workers, gamekeepers, curry chefs, soccer hooligans, shoe bombers, a couple of cross-dressing members of Parliament, a retired army colonel, punk rockers, poachers, an IRA kneecapper, a bobby (policeman), a fishmonger, a gaol guard, a Gurkha, junkies, footmen, a lot of transplanted Arabs—one of whom claimed to own Harrods, the big store, and kept insisting that my client had ordered MI6 to kill his ex-wife. Good thing he didn't know what I was up to. Anyway, very interesting, the Brits. I have to say, a bit more varied than your average Iowa or Florida focus group. I came away with quite an appreciation for the country, though I don't think I'd want to get seriously sick there, to judge from the stories I heard about their National Health. No wonder it's free of charge. You have to schedule —or, as they would say, shed-yule—your serious illnesses months in advance, and when you get there, the CAT-scan machine has an OUT OF SERVICE sign on it. At any rate, by the end we had a very good statistical sample. I don't like shooting from the hip when I'm promoting monarchy.
LaMoyne and I pulled consecutive all-nighters getting it together for our PowerPoint presentation to HRH. Lord Sir wanted us to rehearse it with him first, but I nixed that. I didn't want him telling me, "You can't tell His Royal Highness that."
In fact, I didn't even want him to hear what I had to tell HRH. If you've got tough news for the client, there's no point sugarcoating. One of my previous clients was the manufacturer of the guidance system on that geosynchronous (in the end, not so geosynchronous) three-ton satellite that landed on Kansas City. It fell to me to break the news to the chairman of the company, a decent enough guy, that the latest Gallup poll showed he was now the most hated person in America. But he needed to hear that.
HRH wasn't going to like a lot of what was in my presentation. But I had a plan. If you have to tell a client that his approval ratings are in the basement, it's always better if you can hand him a flashlight and point him toward the stairs.
I called Lord Sir and told him that I was ready to go. And that I wanted to give it to HRH straight up and alone, just the two of us. He didn't like that idea at all. He insisted that he be present—said it was a point of "protocol." They get very nervous, courtiers, if you want to spend some quality time alone with the fromage.
I called Ms. Tompkins, who said she was in the bowels of some government building looking up phone records. I told her to get a message through to Mr. Fitzwater, instructing him to ask to speak to me alone after the presentation, if possible out of earshot of any "gray men."
"It all sounds rather conspiratorial," she said. "But I'll pass it along."
Lord Sir and HRH didn't say a word while I walked them through my presentation. It was not easy telling the heir to the throne that after thirty-five years of hard work—604 public appearances in the previous year alone—most of his subjects thought that he had murdered his wife and wanted to be reincarnated as a tampon. I told him we were going to have to confront the tampon business. One maker of tampons in Singapore was using his face on its billboards next to the slogan "In my next life, I want to be one of these!" The British Foreign Office was making an official stink about it, but all that did was keep it in the newspapers. And the brand was now the No. 1 seller in the Far East. Go figure.
I went over the results of the focus group in quick, broad strokes. The good news was that he was doing pretty well in Wiltshire and Stiltonshire among sixty-to-seventy-nine-year-olds. I wrapped it up by saying I was working on a media plan.
Lord Sir said, "Is that all?" with the air of a disappointed headmaster.
"Well," I said, catching HRH's eye, "for now."
"I must say, Mr. Renard, you haven't told us anything we didn't already know."
I sort of hemmed and hawed, at which point HRH said he wanted to talk to me alone. Lord Sir didn't seem at all pleased by that, but there wasn't much he could do about it. It's one of the advantages of being a Prince: you get to dismiss people. In the old days, in fact, they had to walk backward.
When we were alone, I hit him with my big idea. HRH may talk to his rosebushes and have some fruity ideas about international trade, but the man knows his history, and he got my drift right away. He told me to get right to work.
I urged him to keep it to himself, and for God's sake—sir—not to discuss it on the cell phone with the mistress. He said not to worry, he'd learned that lesson.
Then he asked me if I had any ideas about how to get the Queen to step down. I said let's start with this first and then start planting stories in the press about how his mother was having orgies with the postilions.
I called the director Reg Gibbins, reaching him in his home town of Sydney, Australia. I had to do some fancy talking to get past his guard dogs, but when you say you're calling on behalf of HRH, the doors tend to swing open.
Reg Gibbins, I don't need to explain, is the award-winning Australian director who was adapting Alistair Squinch novels about the British navy during the Napoleonic wars. The second movie in the series, Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash, was in pre-production. (It ended up being titled Topgallants and Trysails.)
I had had LaMoyne speed-read the novels, all twenty-one of them. He said there was more than enough room in the basic story line to add the part I had in mind. It wouldn't have to be a huge speaking part, so long as HRH got to skewer French sailors with a saber.
The bottom line of my extensive research with the Oxbridge dons and the focus groups was that the English people value one quality above all else in their monarchs: killing the French.
One of the most successful early Princes of Wales was Edward, the Black Prince (great title), who in the year 1356, at the Battle of Poitiers, cut the army of the French King John II to ribbons, and into the bargain took a bunch of Parisian aristos back to England as hostages. Man, those were the days! All that remained of that era in England was the quality of health care.
I was convinced that when British audiences saw HRH up there on the big screen shouting "Death to Bonaparte!" and running the Frogs through like cocktail olives, they'd leap to their feet and start singing "God Save the King." (And, who knows, maybe even demand that the Queen abdicate, so that Charles III could get started waging war against France.) When I presented the idea to HRH, he went for it. He said he'd "crept the boards a bit" at Cambridge. I had to look that up afterward. I gather his younger brother has done a little creeping himself.
Reg Gibbins was, shall we say, surprised by my call—indeed, blown away. In fact, he hung up, figuring I was a crank. I called him back and starchily said, "Look here, my good man, I can take this to Spielberg or Disney if you're not interested in having a live Prince of England in your next movie." He said to jump on a plane and come on down and discuss it.
"No," I said, "you jump on a plane and come up here and discuss it. Will you be flying privately or commercially?" I was getting the hang of this royal-summons thing.
Needless to say, he did have his own plane. I told him HRH and I would meet him at Brightfarthing, and we'd do lunch at Wheaters. He was thrilled—and why shouldn't he be? This was a pretty inspired bit of casting, if I do say so myself.
I woke up the next morning full of puissance and vinegar, as the Brits would say. Not to thump my chest, but here I was, a humble PR flack from the Colonies, about to engineer just the greatest comeback in British royal history since Prince Hal became Henry V.
I was feeling pretty good. At which point my phone rang. It was LaMoyne.
"Look out your window at the newsstand across the street," he said.
I looked out. A poster next to a stack of papers announced in large letters,
I had chest pains. I hung up. The phone rang again. I picked it up, slightly dazed. I hadn't even had my coffee. It was the manager, saying that there was "rather"—the Brits can't seem to get through a sentence without that word—"a large group of reporters and photographers" in the lobby, "clamoring."
As a professional media wrangler, I'm accustomed to swarms of these locusts. But this was far from the norm and even further from ideal. I called Ms. Tompkins.
"Perfide Albion!" I said. (You don't get to say this very often.) I explained the situation.
"Oh, dear. Stay where you are; I'll manage something."
"Better manage a helicopter. And call Mr. Fitzwater. Who the hell leaked this?"
"I was able to insinuate myself electronically into the palace phone system. No easy feat, let me tell you. There was rather a flurry of phone chatter yesterday right after your meeting with His Royal Highness."
"What do you mean?"
"Numerous phone calls. From Fogg-Smythers's office. To various newspaper offices, I'm afraid."
"The swine! I told you."
"I'm afraid that's not the half of it. He made another call first. I can't say any more over this phone. I'll explain in person."
Just then there was a knock on my door, and it didn't sound like a maid. I looked through the peephole and counted three photographers. They must have seen my dilating pupil through the other end, because they started shouting, "Rick!" "Mr. Renard!" "Come on out, mate!" and "Be a sport!"
"Stay in your room," Serena said. "Get dressed and be ready to move. Leave your luggage. The signal will be four knocks on the door followed by two. By the way, I did tell you, didn't I?"
"That it would be awkward, your being American."
An hour later I heard a scuffle outside my door—the pleasing sound of paparazzi being beaten about the head and shoulders. I opened the door to find a half dozen plainclothes beefeaters. Collectively they must have weighed nearly a ton.
"Mr. Renard, is it? Care to accompany us, sir?"
They hustled me down the fire stairs. Photographers kept popping out of doors, like skeletons on an amusement-park ride, and being shoved back by my scrum of protectors. We got to a basement garage. The next thing I knew, I was lying on the floor of an SUV having a blanket thrown over me to the sound of screeching tires. I've made more dignified exits in my day.
"Where are we going?" I said from underneath my blanket.
"RAF base, sir. Not too far. Can you breathe under there?"
After an hour or so of violent swerving so as to lose our press pursuers, we arrived at an air base. There were soldiers standing around with berets and machine guns.
A female voice said, "You look like you've been through it."
"You could probably use some coffee," she said. "Your plane's just finishing up being fueled." She nodded toward a C-130 cargo plane, and smiled apologetically. "Rather easier all round, we thought. Under the circumstances."
"His Royal Highness. He said to tell you that he is most appreciative of everything you've done. This rather confirms what we've suspected. The origin of the leaks, that is."
"Which we?" I said. "I'm confused."
"We are speaking confidentially?"
"Yes." I was carsick from all the swerving and lying on the floor.
"I'm not actually in the private sector," she said. "I'm with MI7."
"We were set up to oversee MI5 and MI6. All rather sub rosa. It was originated after the leaking of the cell-phone conversations. You can't have the security services broadcasting pillow talk between the future sovereign and his lady friends. At first we thought it might be the work of a rogue anti-monarchist element within MI5. Au contraire, as it turned out."
"Could you stick to English?" I said. "I've had a rough morning."
"I need your assurance that this will remain private. It's terribly sensitive information."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah."
"Sir Knatch made a call to Buckingham Palace before he loosed the dogs of Fleet Street on you. Look, this is delicate."
"If one more person tells me it's delicate, I'm going to start breaking things," I said.
"He called Her Majesty."
"Um. It rather confirms what we'd come to suspect. She's the one behind the leaks."
"She thinks he's made rather a mess of things. Marrying that silly girl in the first place, then the divorce, the romantic carryings-on, nearly starting a global trade war over a few smelly French farmers. She and he have never been what you'd call close. Point is, she thinks he's a disaster and that the Windsor dynasty will collapse if he ever becomes King. She can read polls too. She wants the crown to skip a gen—to her grandson Prince William. He's enormously popular. She thinks he's just the thing to put the 'Great' back in 'Great Britain.'"
"Well, that's just swell. His own mother. What is this, the Middle Ages?"
"As monarch, one does have to make the hard decisions. Goes with all the gold leaf. But maybe your clever film notion will do the trick. Have them all clamoring for him to take the throne. Jolly exciting."
"How did you know about the movie?" I said. "The only person I told was HRH."
"Yes, of course. Well, he mentioned it to me. Said how very thrilled he was and how absolutely brilliant you are."
"Ready, Ms. Tompkins."
"Thank you, sergeant. Well, bon voyage, Mr. Renard. Splendid working with you. Hope we will again soon." She gave me a kiss—a peck, really—and that was that.
It's loud inside a C-130, and cold. I was not in a particularly good mood when I was deposited at an air base in Newfoundland, eight hours later. But never let it be said that Rick Renard does not go the distance for a client.
You've probably seen the movie. It's grossed over $200 million. That being the case, you are probably also aware that the role I originally proposed to the director—that double-dealing swine—ended up being played by my client's son, for whom there is now a huge "clamor," as Serena would put it, to become King of England.
I admit it's a dramatic moment, when Prince William swings down on a rope from the rigging of HMS Indubitable onto the French ship, looking drop-dead gorgeous in his nineteenth-century Royal British Navy uniform, swinging his saber, firing his pistol into a mob of Frogs, and crying "Death to Bony!" They had to carry fainting teenage girls out of the movie theaters on stretchers. There hasn't been screaming like that since the Beatles.
Here is what I have been able to piece together. First, Serena was not working for MI7. There is no MI7. If this does not reflect well on Rick Renard, okay. Better you appear a chump than your client, I've always said. I still don't know exactly who Serena was working for, but I strongly suspect that she was reporting all along to Her Majesty Queen Cruella.
What I do know is that when Reg Gibbins's plane put down at Brightfarthing, a car was waiting for him, all right—but not HRH's. He was driven to Balmoral instead, where he was ushered into a room hung with a hundred antlers, and there was the Queen of England waiting for him. And who should be with her but Prince Good-Looking. William, that is. Reg took one look and said, "I don't suppose you'd be available for the part, sir?" And the Queen, she just smiled.
Now the kid's bigger than Brad Pitt, and the latest rumor, according to Hello!, is that the Queen is going to step down in his favor as soon as he's got his Screen Actors Guild card.
What a disaster.
So let me be the first to admit that this did not work out as I had planned. LaMoyne is on Zoloft for depression. As for my former client, I'm guessing that he is not thrilled, to gather from this invitation that has just arrived from St. James's Palace, inviting me to a driven-pheasant shoot. Under the circumstances I think I'm going to pass.
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