'You packed, baby?'
Ben frowned. 'I think so. We've never been away together before. It's almost romantic. I just wish they'd tell us where we're going.'
'They said to pack the passports, so it's not Margate or Blackpool.'
Ben finally smiled. 'I don't care where it is. But I do wonder who's paying for all this. It's Matt and Andy going overboard again, I'm sure.'
'Then let's not ask. There's too much at stake, not least our arses.'
They hoisted their travelling bags and headed downstairs where Justin and Terry were standing ready in the hall. Matt and Andy were also waiting, Matt in his business suit.
'So where is it?' Phil insisted.
Matt laughed. 'Lucky you. It's Rothenia.'
Phil and Ben looked at each other. Ben nodded. 'You've got lots of friends there.'
'And some enemies,' added Terry.
Phil pondered this. 'What's Dressner's connection with the place?'
Terry grinned. 'I may not be much good wiv accents and foreign languages, but I understand enough Rothenian to know those heavies of his were from there, no doubt about it. We been on to our contacts in Strelzen, who've had an interesting story to tell us. But the clincher was finding out why Clive Dawson a.k.a. Dressner was sent down at her majesty's pleasure for nine years.'
'You got your office on it.'
'Oh yeah... he was sentenced for - surprise! - abduction and rape of a minor. A moron of a judge only put him away for fifteen years, and he was let out early. You can bet Wardour's doesn't want it known that they knew.'
'So what's going on?'
'We're going to find out. We all ready?'
Two SUVs were waiting outside the front door, engines running, drivers looking as though they could handle themselves. After quick hugs with Matt and Andy, they were off towards the North Circular Road.
Ben and Phil sat together silently. Eventually the cars turned off along Western Avenue towards Northolt. Another turn brought them to the apron of a private airfield where a long, sleek jet was waiting.
Phil let out a long whistle. 'I really do hope Matt and Andy are paying for everything. This one trip would wipe out my salary for a year.'
'They're good friends, the very best. Money isn't a consideration for them. Their only concern is how they can help.'
As the jet fired up its engines and slowly manoeuvred towards the runway, Phil had some questions.
'So will we be safe in... where is it we're going?'
Terry smiled. 'Strelzen ultimately, the Rothenian capital, where our mates are. You'll be a lot safer there than here, believe me, though with someone like Dressner after yer, yer never can tell.'
'That's not too reassuring. What'll we do when we're there, just hide in our hotel room?'
'You and Benny can do some tourism if yer want. No place better than Strelzen for that. Nice gay scene too. But you two are up to yer necks in this, and I'll bet you'd like to get back at Dressner, wouldnya?'
Phil's lips turned up in a nasty grin. 'I think I would. Just let me know how.'
'I'll do just that, Phil. Now folks, how about a game of cards? Blackjack OK? And no cheating, Justy.'
'Me cheat? You're the worst fucking loser in the universe. You remind me of... hang on...' Justin flipped his mobile.
'Justy, you're not supposed to use it at takeoff.'
'Won't be long.' His face took on a peculiarly tender look. 'Hiya babes. Jess wanted to leave a message on yer ansaphone. I'll get yer those Converse sneakers ya wanted. Luv ya, Daimey.'
He looked around. 'Well, he misses me. Even now we got the dog.'
The Peacher jet arrowed down the valley of the Starel, Rothenia's great river. They were not landing at Strelzen International Airport, but at a new municipal airfield to the northwest of the city adjoining the financial district. Ben and Phil craned to look out of the windows at the great city turning below them. Neither had ever been to Rothenia.
'You can't tell much from up here, but it looks absolutely beautiful. Phil, we're going to have a honeymoon! Isn't that great?'
'Yes it is, baby. And I can't imagine a better place to choose, either.'
'A pity the summer music season is over...'
'... and that a pack of homicidal gangsters is after us. If this were Expedia, I'd be asking for a refund.'
He turned to Terry. 'We're coming down near that huge complex. What is it?'
'That's the European headquarters of PeacherCorp, my employers for this job.'
Hmm. Phil registered the information about Terry's contract, filing it to the back of his mind. 'It's enormous! It's also not very corporate-looking.'
Terry nodded. 'When Pete - that's Peter Peacher, Andy's younger brother - when he commissioned it, he wanted something that looked as though it belonged in Rothenia. So it's a sequence of courtyards, spires and neo-baroque cloisters. Like it?'
'It's fucking unbelievable! Like an architectural fantasy.'
'Yeah, I told Pete it needed a throne room in the centre. He just laughed.'
The plane landed in the Strelzen metropolitan airport and taxied towards a small terminal building. After they disembarked, their passports were checked by two polite Rothenian immigration officials. A Peacher SUV was waiting at the exit from the Arrivals concourse to whisk them along the wide boulevards which ran through the city's new financial district. They marvelled at the super-modern Royal Bank of Rothenia building moments before they swung inside the Peacher precinct. Following a security check at the outer arch, the van, an ecologically hostile Ford Expedition, was parked.
'Wow! What an environment to work in,' murmured Phil.
It was cool in the courtyard amid the splash of several fountains. Young trees were growing there, the bright sunlight fluttering and flickering through their leaves. 'What would you call this,' Ben asked, 'Corporate Palatial?'
It was like moving through one of the great palaces of eighteenth-century Europe. At the same time, the courts and buildings that led into each other were indefinably yet undeniably modern. 'It needs statues,' Phil observed.
'Yeah,' replied Justin. 'Thass what little Henry Atwood said. He wanted a statue of Terry as the definitive Peacher hero, dinnee, Terry?'
'I wuz in full agreement,' Terry smirked, 'but Pete thought Henry wuz joking.'
A young Rothenian woman wearing a Peacher uniform and an earpiece mike approached. She ushered them across the courtyard and into a long vaulted corridor, at the end of which a security desk had to be passed before a lift could be accessed. Then they were rising through one of the central buildings to step out on the dormer floor. Burgundy carpeting and maple panelling were everywhere. Dutch masters hung from the walls. Their guide took them to the centre of the corridor where she tapped on a door. A handsome female PA stood waiting there to usher them without delay through a side door into a conference room.
'Terry ol' buddy!' a tall, handsome young man in shirtsleeves called out in an American accent. He enveloped Terry O'Brien in a hug that was rather more than just friendly. They kissed too. Newcomer though he was to gay life, Phil decided the two men must have been lovers at some time in the past. They broke off and the younger man swept the group with his eyes.
Peter Peacher was in his later twenties. His resemblance to his older brother was quite marked, though he was close to six-feet tall and considerably better looking. He did a high five with Justin before hugging him too. He shook hands with Phil and Ben rather more formally.
'Take a seat, guys. Coffee and a selection of fine Rothenian pastries will be here in a moment. Nice to see you all. It really is. How do you like the place?' He smiled as if he had read Phil's mind.
'Benny and I love it. It's very different from the Lord Rogers architecture next door.'
'That's deliberate. Strelzen can't take too many avant-guard buildings. Imagine if we had put up some sixty-storey Mies van der Rohe monster towering over the Staramesten... that's the Old City on the hill, where the cathedral is.'
'If you don't mind me asking, Mr Peacher...'
'... what's your involvement in this business of Clive Dressner? Terry said you're funding his contract here in Rothenia.'
Peter laughed. 'Did he now? Fine. It's on a number of levels. Benny here is one of my elder brother's oldest friends. I love my brother very much, which makes his concerns mine, and he is very agitated about the assaults on you two. The principal reason, though, the one that makes me willing to spend the firm's money on this business, is the structure of PeacherCorp. Let me show you.'
At the press of a button, a PowerPoint projection appeared showing a flow diagram. 'This is PeacherCorp Europe and this is one of our holding companies, PeacherMedia, whose publishing division is Magnamedia. Heard of it?'
Ben was tense. 'Oh! That's the firm that bought out Wardour Publishing eight years ago.'
'Yes, and my father recently purchased Magnamedia. So you see, I have a direct corporate interest in the public-relations catastrophe brewing in one of our subsidiaries. It all started when Terry called. Among other things, he asked if I knew any reason why the famous author Clive Dressner might have some sort of shady connections to Rothenia. He told me of the way Dressner tried to abduct Benny. The name Dressner naturally linked to Wardour as we talked, and set off enough alarm bells for me to request Terry to do what he could to assess and control the brewing crisis in my empire.
'Then there's another thing. I've learned Dressner is involved in something very suspicious going on here which I don't like at all, especially since it's all tied up with one of my principal business rivals.'
'In one, Terry. Justy's and your old enemy. The man himself. You know he sold Falkefilm?'
Terry laughed. 'Who bought it?'
'Would you believe a certain Felip Ignacij?'
'You're kidding! Will's boyfriend? Where did he get the cash?'
'He's got a lot of contacts through Will, and he's got a business head on his shoulders. He raised the price, bought Willemin out, and now he's running the biggest porn studio in Europe. Oskar tells me he's doing pretty well, too.'
'Why was Willemin ready to sell up?'
'This is the interesting thing. The rumour was that the collapse of the porn-DVD market had reduced Falkefilm's profits to very little. But some sources now tell me that Willemin was liquidating other assets at the same time. He wanted a lot of cash all of a sudden.'
'Why?' asked Terry.
'Ah, that's the real question. It's the same one we could ask about your Mr Dressner, and how he's linked to Willemin.'
Phil chipped in. 'How do you know all this?'
Peter smiled. 'Will Vincent's news network, Eastnet, has some very heavyweight investigative journalists.'
Justy cheered. 'You mean Henry! Woohooh! Is he coming?'
Peter nodded. 'He should be here in a few minutes.'
They broke for coffee. Phil stood next to Ben at a window, each with a cup. Across the roofs of the Peacher complex and the dip of the river they could see the spires and domes of the Nuevemesten, the beautiful New City of Strelzen.
Ben said dreamily, 'I'm aching to get there. What a place.'
'Tell me about this Henry Atwood.'
'I don't think I've got enough time. I've never met him in person, but he is pretty famous. He's a gay icon. Didn't you ever see that art poster by Meric, "Achilles and Patroclus"? Henry's Patroclus. Achilles is his boyfriend, Ed Cornish. They were at school together, and when Ed was abandoned by his parents, he was fostered by Andy and Matt. That's how Henry came into the Peacher orbit. But Ed and Henry were also at school with Rudolf Elphberg-Rassendyll, the present king of Rothenia. Terry, Justy and the boys played an important part in the events which brought about the restoration of the monarchy here. So Henry is very close to the king. He really is well-known everywhere.' Ben paused before adding, 'There are some very strange stories told about him, too.'
'Really? Like what?'
'I'm not sure I believe half of them, though Matt swears they're all true. I'll tell you again some time. Maybe you can ask him yourself.'
The door opened quietly behind them, and a short, slim young man in a dark suit stood there. It was the sweetness and humour of the face that struck you first, before you noticed the alert and confident demeanour behind it. This was a man whom you might instinctively like and trust, but you would not make the mistake of thinking him a fool or a pushover.
Phil recognised him instantly. He had seen that face on a black-and-white poster in so many Student Union sales and art-print shops. Although he had never thought of getting a copy for himself, his eyes had been continually drawn to it. Here was the original, not that much older-looking than when the picture was taken. He was not a handsome man, maybe, but there are various forms of beauty. Henry's, for want of a better word, was the spiritual sort.
His smile sweeping the room, he ran over in a very boyish way to be swept up and spun in Terry's arms for a deep kiss. Shortly he was passed on to Justin, with whom he seriously made out until Peter Peacher brought the session to a close with a cough.
'Loves ya, Henry,' smiled Justin as he broke off. It was clear he meant it.
'Love you too, Justy mine.' He smiled around again and fixed on the strangers. He came over purposely to Phil and introduced himself. Despite barely coming up to Phil's nose, this young man was oddly intimidating to the taller man, who could not explain to himself why it was so.
Turning to Ben, Henry remarked, 'So you're Ben Craven. Matt and Andy often talked about you and Alex. I met Alex,' he gave a little laugh and his eyes twinkled, 'but I never met you. It's a pleasure.' He threaded his arms between Phil's and Ben's and walked them both back to the table.
Phil had an odd idea that Henry was one of the gayest men he had ever met, though he was not in any way effeminate or affected. It was just that he was so completely at home in his sexuality in ways that Phil was not.
They took their seats and topped up their coffees. Peter Peacher led off. 'Henry, I've told the guys why PeacherCorp is interested in this Dressner business. Maybe you should tell us what you know.'
'I don't know much about Dressner personally, though I've read a lot of his books. Don't you get sick of that smug bugger Enderby eventually? Always bloody right, though at some point in the book everyone doubts him, and the police are always thick snots who know nothing and are invariably corrupt. I bet your dad would like to sort him out, Terry.'
'He never reads crime fiction. He says he finds the real stuff hard enough to believe at times.'
'I can imagine. Anyway, you wanted to know what's going on in Rothenia. The answer is, a lot of bad stuff away from the tourist areas. Organised Balkan gangs moved into the deprived southern cities like Zenden and Eberczvel just after the civil war in Yugoslavia. It's the part of Rothenia foreigners don't see, places where there's a lot of deprivation and decaying heavy industry.
'That's where so many of the good-looking, healthy boys whom Falkefilm exploits come from. But much worse things happen there. And it's increased as the country's got wealthier. Drugs have been flooding in from the east despite everything the government can do. Now there's a new problem, a vicious gang war going on away from the public gaze. It's a turf war of some kind, whose combatants are using heavy weapons. Several bodies of Albanians and Serbs, apparently from Kosovo, have been found floating in the Starel... missing parts.'
'Like what?' Justin was intrigued.
'Heads mostly, but other bits were cut off before they died.'
Peter grunted. 'I think we've heard enough of that. Where does Willemin come into it?'
'All this broke out while he was turning a lot of his assets into cash. Myself, I think the two developments are linked. I've managed to tie him to one of the gangs. Willemin's got a nice yacht on Lake Maretsku - remember it, Justy?'
Justin grinned to himself and twitched his eyebrows. 'Yeah, we had quite a good trip on it - me, you, Nate and Ed - when we was kids and him and Will Vincent were still matey. Happy days.' From the look on Justin's face, Phil had quite a good idea what he might mean.
Henry gave his own private smile, then carried on. 'A local photographer based in the resort of Piotresrahd is a mate of Felip's, and knows Felip has an interest in what Willemin's up to. So he surreptitiously snaps the yacht when Willemin's hosting a party on it. He uses a telephoto lens, and the end result last July was this series of pickies.'
Henry passed a flash drive over to Peter, who fed it into his laptop. A number of thumbnails appeared on the projector screen. Peter clicked them in turn.
Henry used a laser pen to point characters out. 'That's Willemin.'
'Christ,' exclaimed Terry, 'he's put on a lot of weight since I saw him last. He's like a beached whale. I'd barely recognise him. He used to be quite a fit bloke.'
'Now that guy leaning over him with a drink... bald man, he's Amir Josseran. He's also called the Raven, cos he has a signature execution where he stabs out people's eyes before killing them.'
'Shit!' growled Justin. 'These are some mean bastards.'
'They certainly are. He's the leader of one of the Albanian factions. Looks like they're deep in discussion about some nefarious deed or other, doesn't it?
'That man is Niklaus zu Vidolon-Kesarstejne, a minor aristocrat and social fixer for Willemin.'
Peter snarled, 'He's a cousin of Oskar's. Not a nice man, but he had a bit of success in turning Willemin into an acceptable figure in some sections of Rothenian society a few years ago.'
'He doesn't seem too happy to be on the same boat as Josseran, does he? The next guy in that picture is an Italian banker called Claudio Tucci. Needless to say he's got some shady connections, but then, what Italian banker hasn't? Finally there's this guy, whom I don't know.'
Phil and Ben caught their breath. 'We do,' muttered Ben. 'It's Clive Dressner.'
'So are we safer here than in Stevenage, Henry?' Phil and Ben had been dropped off across the river along with Henry Atwood, who had volunteered to act as native guide.
Henry grinned. 'Depends what you mean by safe. The thing is that, here in Rothenia, your friends are influential. Terry's a bit of a national hero... he's got a prestigious Rothenian decoration. He won't talk about it, but Rudi would never have got to be king without him. He's even learned something of the language, and knows quite a bit of Rothenian history. Then there's the Peacher connection. PeacherCorp is big here, and Peter's partner Oskar is the king's chief-of-staff. So you can be protected more easily, and with heavier weaponry than in Britain. I imagine that's why Terry wanted you here. We're being followed, you know.'
'We are?' Ben looked around somewhat wildly.
'The Rothenian secret service is pretty efficient, though in a nicer way than under Communism. You're going to be watched carefully, since the authorities know you're in danger. Anyway, this is the Rodolferplaz, the New City's central square. Obviously that's the royal palace: pediments, pilasters, soldiers in pretty uniforms, it's a giveaway. The king's at home, too, because that's the Elphberg banner flying above it. Do you want the full tourist spiel, or just the highlights? I can do either.'
'We've got a several days for tourism, so a few pointers would be nice.'
'OK. Over there on the left - looking towards the palace - the tall spire is the Salvatorskirk, the mother church of the Nuevemesten. It's a college of secular priests founded in 1568 by Duke Rudolf III, the same Elphberg who planned and built this part of the city. And next to it, almost under the walls, is the Flavienerhof, or the Königen Flavia. It's an ancient inn, very famous, once called the 'Rot Leuwen', which does great food. I reckon you're ready for a cup of tea, and they serve English brands. That's one thing you miss about Britain, a nice cuppa in the afternoon. You both up for it?'
Phil smiled at him. 'Lead on, Henry.'
They chatted with increasing ease as they entered the pleasant panelled rooms of the inn. There were a lot of tourists at the tables even that late in the year. Henry was clearly known and recognised. The restaurant supervisor gave him a big greeting and ushered them all to a good table. It was the one immediately under the portrait of Queen Flavia herself. Henry made the orders in fluent Rothenian, and chatted with the waiter a while. It seemed that everyone wanted to talk to Henry.
Phil observed, 'I must say, you're a well-known man-about-town.'
Henry laughed. 'Yes, it's a bit of a disadvantage sometimes. Henry Atwood can't go undercover in Rothenia, not after I presented our Eurovision song-contest show for Strelsenermedia last May. But on the other hand, this is a friendly country where you can pick up an awful lot if you listen to people.'
'You're settled here?'
'My Ed and I are, yes.'
'What does he do?'
'He's an army officer.'
'I thought he was English.'
'He was, as was I, but we took out citizenship. This is our home, now, for oh so many reasons. With Ed in garrison in Strelzen at the moment, we're actually seeing each other. He's a major in one of the guard regiments, very fashionable. There is a down side, however.'
'He says he's ashamed of my being such a weed, when he's so military and all. He's making me go to the gym, the bully. It's just so not me. It's boring. I only go when my boss, Will Vincent, goes too. At least we can swap office gossip, and I can ogle him in the steam room. He's quite a hunk.'
Phil laughed, while Ben gave a sad little smile, saying quietly, 'I'm no big fan of gyms. They're why Alex dropped me.'
Henry looked serious. 'I'm sorry, Ben. It was a great shame you two broke up. I wasn't...'
'No, I know you weren't being insensitive. I was lucky to find Phil in the aftermath, as you can see.'
'Yes. If you and Phil had told me you'd been together for years, you would have fooled me. You seem to think and act as one. You interlock. It's lovely.
'Look, guys, the Peacher people have booked you into the Hilton, but I don't want you to think you're going to be kept under house arrest here in Strelzen, even if it's for your own safety. Come round to our flat after we finish tea here, so we can talk about going out tonight. There's a great gay scene in Strelzen, best in Europe. Ed and I don't get out enough, what with the jobs. He'll have to say yes if I suggest a little bit of clubbing. You OK with that?'
Phil looked at Ben, who gave a slight nod. 'We'd love to.'
'Excellent. We'll hit the Wejg! Maybe Justy'll come too. He'll keep us in order.' Henry's sly little grin suggested he was hoping for exactly the opposite.
[For those who use webmail, or whose regular email client opens when they want to use webmail instead: Please right click the author's name. A menu will open in which you can copy the email address to paste into your webmail system (Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo etc). Each browser is subtly different, each Webmail system is different, or we'd give fuller instructions here. We trust you to know how to use your own system. If the email address pastes with %40 in the middle, replace that with an @ sign.]