Alison held Olsson’s arm for support as they entered the hotel ballroom. She was delighted she didn’t need the walking stick — which would definitely have clashed with her gown. A sheer, dark blue that matched her sapphire eyes, it hugged her body until flaring from her hips, all supported, so it appeared, only by her breasts. When she moved, the fabric rippled and gleamed to emphasize her curves.
“That,” Olsson said as they dressed, “looks like it’s about to fall off.”
“That’s the idea,” Alison laughed. “But it won’t.”
“Really?” Olsson said. He ran his hand down her back. “Ah, you’ve got something on underneath.”
“But not much.”
“Your intention is obviously to be highly provocative.”
“You don’t like it?”
“I love it. But —”
Alison’s eyes sparkled. “Let the bastards feast their senses.”
Olsson smiled, but the muscles around his eyes contracted in puzzlement.
“They’re all going to look at me,” Alison said, scrutinizing her image in the mirror with a critical eye. “They’ll be embarrassed when they do.” She adjusted the gown to show a little more cleavage. “Now, they’ll be really embarrassed.”
“Are you making some kind of statement?”
“Yes. Isn’t that what you’re planning to do?”
His broad, dimpled smile was answer enough.
Alison held out a blue cummerbund made from the same material as her gown. “Would you like to wear this?”
“Surely,” Olsson said, “that message is far too subtle —”
“For men, yes. The women will get it immediately.”
“If you say so.” He put it around his waist, and finished tying his white bow tie.
“I thought you said it was black tie.”
“I’ve never been very good at following instructions.”
At their entrance, one head after another turned towards them, the background chatter in the ballroom falling as if someone turned the volume control from medium to low. Hugging the darkness of Olsson’s black tails, Alison’s skin glowed and her gown sparkled all the more. They were talking, grinning, laughing, as if unconcerned or even unaware of anyone outside their own, private universe. The onlookers were expecting … something else, anything else. Not this. It was like a slap in the face.
Just the same, husbands were transfixed by the way Alison’s dress, while perfectly decorous, left nothing to the imagination. Their wives glared at them angrily, while exchanging sharp, muttered comments — “How could she?” “Hussy!” “Unforgivable.”
They were greeted by a battery of camera flashes — and the chairman of the Award Committee.
“Ah, Mr. Olsson. Welcome,” he said diffidently, his hand limp in Olsson’s. “You’ve become, er, rather controversial. We were rather hoping —”
Olsson laughed. “Don’t worry. I won’t be talking about drugs or the Mafia or anything like that tonight.”
“Ah, good, then. Have you met Stanley Chow, our Minister for—”
“I know who he is,” Olsson said.
“The pleasure is mine,” said Chow. “Alison.” He dipped his head. “We’ve all missed you recently.”
“I’ve been telecommuting,” she said with a smile Chow assumed was for him, but was actually for Karla Preston who she spotted making her way towards them.
“I’m surprised we’ve never met, Mr. Olsson,” Chow said.
“The occasion has not arisen,” Olsson said. “Before.”
“Now that it has, I’d love to hear your ideas on how we can improve our services to business.”
“Do nothing,” Olsson said.
“I think Stanley is quite shocked, Derek,” Alison said. “Every businessman he meets asks him for some favor or other. Isn’t that so, Stan?”
“Really?” Olsson said softly, grinning at Alison.
Karla stepped into the small circle, nudging the chairman aside and gripping Chow’s arm as if to prevent him from running away. Wearing a plain white dress barely covering her knees, a bright shawl across her shoulders for warmth, and the shoulder-to-wrist cast now covered with signatures, she made — as usual — no concession to proper form.
“I think the concept of a government that does nothing,” Karla said, her deep voice suddenly dominant, “is not in Stanley’s vocabulary. That’s a fantastic dress, Alison.”
“And very effective.” Alison smiled in welcome, partly in reaction to her sense that Karla was a touch nervous.
Karla noticed how Chow’s eyes kept returning to the swell of Alison’s bosom; her deep laugh echoed through the room.
“It, ah, certainly is unusual,” Chow said, frowning at Karla.
“Just so we’re clear, Mr. Chow,” said Olsson, “I’m using the word ‘nothing’ in the sense of: stop doing something.”
“What? But — but — Mr. Olsson! Our policies are carefully crafted to create jobs and the investment infrastructure necessary for —”
“You want to send investment through the roof? Get rid of the company tax.”
“We couldn’t do that, Mr. Olsson.”
“Create jobs? Abolish the GST. Consumers will have more money to spend. Businesses will have to hire left, right, and center.”
“But, the deficit —”
Olsson shrugged. “Cut spending.”
“We do our best,” Chow sighed, “but it’s so difficult. Where would you start?”
“Everywhere at once, Stanley,” Karla Preston cut in. “At the end of every financial year, every government department rushes to spend the last of its money so next year’s budget won’t be cut. Change the incentives. For every dollar they come in under budget, pay fifty cents as a bonus to the staff. Hell, pay out the lot. But then, the department’s actual spending becomes next year’s budget. Waste will disappear almost overnight.”
“But — but, that could lead to indiscriminate cutting. Some essential services could be emasculated.”
Karla shrugged. “That all depends how you define ‘essential’ — doesn’t it, Stanley?”
Olsson laughed. “Now, that would work.”
Chow had moved half a step back, glancing here and there for some reason to escape. Karla grinned at his growing discomfort.
“An interesting proposal,” Chow said guardedly. “But I assure you, Mr. Olsson, that I have your best interests at heart.”
“How can you, Mr. Chow? You don’t even know what my interests are.”
“To make money, of course.”
“Really? Money is just a fuel, Mr. Chow.”
“That, Mr. Chow, is the far more important question.”
“Indeed. Yes,” said Chow, “but you’ll have to excuse me. Must talk to —” But he was gone before he finished the sentence.
“I guess he didn’t want to hear my ideas after all,” Olsson said.
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