'What do I wear for clubbing? I've never been in a gay club before.' Phil was nervous.
Ben shrugged. 'My experience isn't all that wide. Generally, I'd say don't wear a top you'll miss if you lose it. They tend to come off and disappear if you get into dancing.' He looked sultry. 'I'd love to dance with your naked chest in front of me... everybody envying me, the sweat shining in rivulets across your muscles, ooh!' Then he blushed.
Phil grinned. 'Christ, now I have an erection.' This led to a long gap in the conversation, involving a loss of clothes and a lot of sweat. Half an hour later, the talk resumed.
'I love you, Benny, you're so up for it.'
'I've missed it. The last few years, Alex and I didn't have much sex. I can't tell you how unloved it made me feel, but you Phil...'
'Ah, but I've got to catch up on a dozen years of misplaced heterosexuality. I'll go off the boil one day.'
'In the meantime, though, we could fuck nonstop and it still wouldn't be enough for me.' Ben got up, his lean, pale body painted in warm tones by the flush of evening sunlight spilling into their hotel room. Phil followed him, taking his hand and leading him to a window whose curtains were drawn back on the striking vista out over the spires and towers of Strelzen below. The two men stood there together naked, kissing. As they were doing it, instead of feeling exposed, Phil got a flush from the idea that the whole city could see their love if it were looking. It didn't seem to bother Ben either.
Eventually they dressed and went down to the reception area, where they picked up a street map. They had insisted they would make their own way to Henry and Ed's apartment in the fashionable Fourth District. From the hotel, it should have been no more than a ten-minute walk.
The Hilton was in the Martzfeld down by the river. They found their way from there left on to Modenehemstrasse, which took them across the inner ring road. Phil hissed at Ben to check out if they were being followed, but neither of them could see anyone showing any interest in them at all. Still, Phil kept shooting glances behind him, and looking for cars which appeared to be passing them persistently. Ben told him to stop it, it was making him nervous.
They strolled past the pillared Classical frontage of the Rudolfinum, the city's great concert hall, taking a long, slow look at the magnificent bulk of the Ostberg palace on the other side of the road. As they headed towards the Salvatorskirk and Rodolferplaz, they passed numerous small pavement cafés whose outside tables were empty in the cold autumn evening.
Just before the square they turned south on to Postgasse. Five minutes' brisk walk along the grand residential avenue brought them to the corner of Osragasse, where they were to look for a mansion block numbered 45. They found the entrance with some difficulty, hidden as it was in an alcove next to a wine shop. A buzzer admitted them to a narrow stairwell. There was no lift.
A shout came from above. 'We're up on the third landing!'
Henry, out of his suit and barefoot in jeans and a polo top, welcomed them at the door with a quick kiss. Such was the nature of the man, it seemed to Phil a perfectly normal greeting.
A much bigger man loomed behind, dressed in green camouflage gear and large army boots. The insignia of a Rothenian officer was on collar and epaulette, the name CORNISH in black capitals on a chest tab. He had a very English face, despite the foreign uniform. He was also strikingly handsome. 'Hi! Ed Cornish.' The introduction was followed by a powerful handshake.
They were ushered inside. Phil had got used to the instant neatness to which Ben reduced every room in which he resided. This was a very different couple.
The room was clean enough, though it smelled close. Henry and Ed obviously employed someone to wash windows and hoover carpets. But papers were stacked on coffee tables, spilling on to the floor, while books lay about randomly. Discarded clothes were everywhere. An uncleared meal sat congealed on the dining-room table, where a handgun had been disassembled on spread-out newspaper next to the dinner plates.
A few minutes later, the door buzzer sounded again, heralding the arrival of a clearly-excited Justin. 'Believe it or not, lads, it's been a year since I was in so much as a gay café. Work don't let me out. Then there's the kid and the fact that we live in the outer suburbs of nowhere. Think there's a chance I might get corrupted tonight?'
Henry giggled. 'Nah... Nathan e-mailed Ed, telling him to shoot you in the goolies if you so much as look at another man.'
'Bloody hell! There's no fucking fun left in the world, is there?'
Phil was both thrilled and nervous. 'So where're we going?'
'Liberation?' Justin was eager.
Ed frowned. 'It's not what it was when you were here five years ago, Justy. It's become a right dive.' He turned to the others. 'Liberation was the first big western-style gay club in eastern Europe. It was a really great place, relaxed and a bit old-fashioned with tasty busboys. We had some brilliant nights there when we were kids.'
'Damned right,' agreed Justin. 'Remember Davey Skipper and Anton?'
Henry shook his head. 'Could I ever forget combing the streets for him for two days afterwards? But it's gone downhill. Too many drugs and prostitutes there now. It badly needs a refit. Stinks a bit too, they tell me. On the other hand, the southeast corner of the Rodolferplaz and the upper end of the Wejg has blossomed into a full-size gay village, the biggest in continental Europe. There're cafés, restaurants, bars and lots of fresh new clubs.'
'Which one do you go to, Henry?' Phil asked.
'Well, none of them really. Ed and I favour the old White Tree club. I mean "old", too. It operated before the May Revolution and the fall of Communism. It's Rothenians only there, and it's got a private membership list nowadays. It's like my gay local. It's quite a way from the tourist areas, and most of our friends and the older gays in town go there. Yeah... I know, we're getting married and boring, but it suits us, and it keeps us out of the celebrity mags.'
'So what will we do tonight?'
'I thought we'd start with a drink and a meal in a restaurant, and then go to Gay Hussar, the prebar for Event Horizon, which the reviews and the web say is the busiest and best of the clubs.'
Henry looked up at his partner. 'You going in uniform, baby?'
'Love this place,' commented Ben quietly, as he looked round smiling.
Henry had settled next to him. 'Thought you'd like it, Benny. The Jednorocesz is pretty historic. It's the art deco style, isn't it?'
'It's like being inside a jewellery box. And that fantastic mural... surely it must be older?'
'Yes, it goes back to the original café of the 1870s. This was the place to be when Strelzen was called Strelsau and Rothenia was called Ruritania. Maxim Elphberg used to come here before he was king. They say this was where he made his plans for the overthrow of the Thuringians. Do you see the subject of the mural?'
'A unicorn in a forest approaching a maiden?'
'That's right. "Jednorocesz" is Rothenian for "unicorn".'
'Ah, I get it.'
Strelsener café society was concentrated on the Fourth District's revived area of Stracenzstrasse. The restaurants had lines of tables along the pavements, where ecologically-unsound patio heaters were burning away to encourage the tourists to take seats. Although it was still quite early for dinner, the party of young men was going to make a big night of it.
Henry was well-known here as much as anywhere else, and several men and women came over to exchange greetings. A girl approached to get his autograph on a menu. Henry smiled and was charming through it all, leading Phil to conclude this was no act: the man was genuinely happy to talk to anyone.
'They know you're gay, do they?'
'Not easy to miss, is it Phil? But apart from star-struck boys hitting on me, it's rarely a problem. It's how you live your life.'
Phil gazed pensively at him. 'I'm beginning to learn that.'
Ed marshalled the dinner orders. It was the authoritarian in him, Henry told them. 'You wouldn't believe how harsh he is to his poor men.'
Ed grinned wickedly. 'Henry loves it too, doanchya little babe?'
Henry laughed. 'Perhaps you can get round to organising our cleaner. The place was a mess tonight. I was quite ashamed.'
'Henry, it's a mess because you never put anything away.'
'What about you, with that oily gun all over the table?'
'I think it's maybe time for your mum to visit again.' Ed looked round the group. 'Whenever it gets too much, I ask Henry's mother to come see us. She's on autopilot. Soon as she's through the door she starts packing things away, dusting and polishing us. You can't resent it. She doesn't even know she's doing it half the time. Though the other day she tidied Henry away in a cupboard, and it took me hours to find him again.'
'I did shout out, but she put me amongst the blankets and I was sort of muffled. Still, it was cosy and quiet in there. I quite enjoyed it actually.'
Ben stared at them, wondering how serious they were. Phil noticed and squeezed his hand. He never loved Ben more than when he didn't get things.
When the meal came, it was a rich stew. Henry looked sharply across at Justin. 'You didn't have the venison one with garlic in, did you?'
'So? What if I did? I likes garlic.'
'Yeah, all too much. Your digestive tract parties whenever it gets some. And we all know what that does to you. Don't bother coming back to our flat afterwards. We don't want it uninhabitable in the morning.'
Justin grinned. 'Yer exaggerates, Henry babe.'
'I do not. Don't sit near him tonight, you two. He's really shameless about letting rip.'
'Some guys are turned on by it.'
'Not Nathan. Don't kid yourself. What sort of example are you to your son?'
'He thinks it's funny. We used to have farting competitions at breakfast.'
'Yeah, until Nathan made you both eat out in the garden.'
'It wasn't kind. It was midwinter.'
It went on and on. Phil was in near hysterics by the time dinner was over. He'd never met funnier or more self-assured men.
'No coffees,' Ed announced. 'Time for Gay Hussar.'
As they were heading through the Fourth District to Rodolferplaz, Phil suddenly had a doubt. He tapped Justin on the shoulder. 'Where's Terry? I thought he loved clubbing.'
Justin laughed. 'Nah, he's got old'n boring.'
'I don't believe that.'
'Jess say he's got anuvver job tonight, then. OK?'
'Sure, I'm curious, that's all.'
Henry put down his second double gin-and-tonic with deliberation. He smiled around the room at the drinking groups. All five of them were slumped around a metal table in the pink and blue light of a very shiny bar on Gildenfahrbswejg, or the 'Wejg' as it was more popularly known to people visiting Strelzen. The modernity of the bar pointed up the incongruity of staff in hussar get-up with laced jackets, tight pants and tasselled knee boots. The owner had selected his boys for the shapeliness of their backsides. A lot of unattached males were at the counter, their tongues hanging out. The bar boys were not necessarily happy with this, as Phil realised when one of them slapped a particularly insistent customer's face.
Music was muted, which meant that - despite the hubbub - conversation was possible in a way he did not expect when they moved on to the club from the prebar. Henry took advantage of it. 'Guys, we need to talk. I know we're here having fun... the first time in an age for all of us, boring farts that we've become. Still, the real world out there is brewing up something nasty.'
Phil leaned forward holding his Jack Daniels and ginger ale. 'You have some idea what it is, don't you Henry?'
'Maybe I know what it's not. It's not drugs, I'm sure of that much. The Rothenian drug rings are run by Moldovans and Ukrainians. Although they're a problem, the national police narcotics bureau has them under control, more so than in the west.'
Ed nodded. 'So it's something political, you think?'
'If it's Willemin, it'll be about profit. But he has a track record of meddling in politics too.'
'Doan' I remember it,' leered Justin. 'It was me that put a spoke in his fucking wheel last time, when he was sponsoring a takeover by that arse Bermann and his Communist thugs.'
Henry smiled. 'That's a story you should hear one day, Phil and Ben.'
Ben answered, 'There seem to be a million of them.'
'Justy, tell him.'
'Aw right. Well, thing is, Benny, Willemin had compromising stuff on Henry's boss, Will Vincent, who had masterminded the restoration of the monarchy. Willemin was blackmailing the king for an exclusive and profitable media deal in return for silence, so me and Terry played on his weakness.'
'Slim and tasty dark-haired young kids like I used to be. When he ran Falkefilm, Willemin made a habit of auditioning new porno actors in his office, and if they appealed and were up for it, he'd do sexual stuff wiv 'em. So I presents myself to him all anonymous and sexy-like, an' he doan' resist the temptation. He gave me a thorough finger-fucking naked on his sofa. Problem was, royalists had wired his office, and caught him on camera doing sex acts with a kid who looked underage. That let me and Terry meet him in Liberation and counter-blackmail the bastard.' He grinned and stretched. 'That was when I knew what me future career was goin' to be.'
Ed reached over and ruffled Justin's thick dark hair. 'God, was he deceptively pretty and he could appear so appallingly innocent... till he opened his mouth, that is.'
Justin looked offended. 'Still am pretty, thank you very much! Me Nate thinks so, anyway.'
Ed laughed. 'But you're a dad now!'
'So! The prettiest dad in Suffolk.'
Henry leaned over and kissed Justin on the mouth. 'You are, too.' He settled back. 'Now then. Where were we? If it's Willemin, it could well be he's up to something ambitious in Rothenia. But you can also bet he's after money. How he's going to do it is the thing.'
'How about this Josseran and his Albanians? What's their racket?' asked Ben.
Henry pondered. 'They're tied up with traditional blue-collar crime: mugging, theft, pickpocketing, protection, things mean but not ambitious.'
'But now they're fighting amongst themselves.'
'Like dogs over a fresh bone, I'd say. What sort of animal the bone has come from, however, is not possible to say... at least yet.'
'We're a bit old,' Phil observed to Ben as they watched the rotating flesh on the dance floor of Event Horizon.
'But we don't look it, darling. There's not a twink out there who's half as gorgeous as you are. Even the go-go boys haven't a patch on you.'
The insistent beat was pounding through Phil's head. Henry and Justin were already on the floor. Ed, of all things, had met a fellow officer at the bar and was discussing army reform in rapid Rothenian.
'You're hot too, babes. Come on, let's do it.' Phil, who was no great dancer, was disconcerted when Ben started moving against him, eyes sultry and looking really very sexy. It was clear that Ben was one of those men who lose themselves in movement and public display. Phil did his best and the alcohol helped.
One throbbing number followed another. Since Ben clearly had no plans to leave the floor, Phil started trying to shed some inhibitions. He found it easiest when they got close. They were sweating now, the heat in the club palpable, the mingled male smells of musk and deodorant overpowering. Ben's top was hanging from the waistband of his jeans. It stirred Phil. He removed his own and threw it at Justin, who was passing him en route to the bar.
Phil's erection was very obvious. He moved his crotch against Ben's, and found Ben too was highly excited. Ben's hands pushed past his waistband and gripped his buttocks. Phil found Ben's jeans too tight so, staring him in the eyes, he unclipped the belt and forced his hands inside. Men next to them were ogling and grinning. Phil was loving the exhibitionism, and the burning in Ben's eyes was no discouragement.
As they passed a door, Ben pulled them off the floor. They joined several couples who were kissing, one partner jammed against a wall. Then they were through the door and in a dark area. The sounds of sex could be heard all around them. Phil pinned Ben against the fabric covered wall. Their jeans and underpants had dropped to their ankles and there, in the dark but in public, in an ecstasy of sexual excitement, Phil entered a standing Ben, who was urging his lover on in frantic whispers. Phil pressed in dry, but the friction was eased by the heavy sweat on them both.
Eventually, jeans back in place again, they staggered back out into the club, blinking and bewildered as to how far their mutual lust had taken them. Phil had found a new level of sexual arousal which scared him more than a little. Ben wiped his face with his tee shirt before they slid on to a bench next to Henry and Justin.
Justin cocked an eyebrow. He shouted over the music, 'Where you two been all this time... fuck, you never did! Henry, they've shagged. Look at 'em. Was it in the toilets? Why didn't you fuckin' tell me? I coulda watched!'
Henry looked surprised, then briefly envious. 'Justin likes watching, don't you?'
'Sure do. So next time yer gets carried away, giss some notice, right?'
'Er... sure,' muttered Phil, bright red now.
Henry looked a little bemused at what the older couple had got up to. But he was not a man easily flustered. As he often said to Ed, his capacity for such feelings had burned away long since. They sat in the bar and drank on till Ed announced he had to be at the Guards Barracks in only six hours, so he was ready for some sleep.
They made their tipsy way out on to the Wejg, past the crowd of shaven-headed bouncers on the door of Event Horizon. Gay couples and groups were still queuing to get in as they left. They pushed through the press in the direction of Rodolferplaz.
Flashing red and green neon signs lit up the road. Bars were still open and full, though the restaurants had closed. At the corner where the Wejg entered the square, another group of bouncers protected the doors of Liberation, where a fight was going on.
They skipped around the brawling group. The bouncers were grinning and ignoring the combatants. A bevy of females was screaming at them to stop - or possibly urging them on. 'The straights,' Ed observed, 'bring their bad habits with them wherever they go.'
Some groups and individuals were walking ahead of them. Phil glimpsed a curly head and a tall figure in the light of a shop front. He said a little loudly, 'Hey! Isn't that Terry?'
Justin hushed him. 'If it is, Phil, you don't notice him.'
Phil was convinced nonetheless that it was Terry, who appeared to be shadowing a pair of men farther on.
It was suddenly cooler as they made their way up towards the palace, floodlit white at the end of the square. Phil felt chilled in the night air, and wished he had more than a polo shirt on.
'We'll go with you as far as the fountain,' Henry told them. 'We'll find a taxi rank there.'
When they reached the famous Ferdinand fountain, Justin dipped his head in it. 'For old time's sake,' he claimed.
Meanwhile, Henry talked to the taxi driver at the head of the rank.
Opening the door for them, he and Ed took their leave. 'See you, guys. It's best you don't walk back to the Hilton. There's a lot of trouble on the streets tonight, I think.'
'What are we to do tomorrow?'
'Tourism. Enjoy. You'll be watched over, you just won't know it. Justy and I'll pick you up at twelve from the hotel. There's someone wants to meet you.'
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