After Alex

XV

By Michael Arram

'Oh Philip! Really, you don't want to develop a taste for adventure. Believe me, it'll age you - all the uncertainty and stress.' Henry was laughing at Phil across a table at Ribauds, the famous restaurant on the Nueveplaz. Ben was at Peachercorps headquarters, and Henry was keeping Phil entertained.

'Well, I did love the adrenalin rush, and the look on Dressner's face as the trap closed was priceless! It paid me off for the beating-up his thugs gave me in Stevenage. I still want him to suffer for the way he screwed up my Benny's career, though.'

Henry sobered with a sigh. 'It's called "high adventure" for a reason, Phil. It's all too addictive, and there's a big price to pay.'

'What do you mean?'

Henry's dark eyes had saddened and his gentle smile had disappeared. 'Sooner or later there are casualties, even fatalities, and they're not always the bad guys.'

'I'm sorry?' Phil suddenly saw, with some concern, that Henry's eyes were wet. 'Are you alright?'

Henry looked away. 'There was once a boy, my lover. This was before Ed and I got back together again. His name was Gavin. He was the sweetest, gentlest and bravest of men.'

'Was? You mean ...?'

'We came here on a great adventure several years ago, when we were still at university. He never went back. I lost him here.' Henry's solemn gaze swung back to Phil, chilling him. 'Before you embark on adventures, Phil, be sure you're willing to accept the consequences. You can gamble your own life with a clear conscience maybe, but the stakes are sometimes higher than you might wish.'

'What happened to him? Was he killed?'

'We and other friends fell into the hands of some very evil men. The only way to save us was for him to give up his life, which he did gladly and freely. God help me, all I can think still is that, if it were not for my over-developed sense of curiosity, I need not have lost him at all.'

A pale ghost of a smile appeared on Henry's face. 'Don't get me wrong. I love Edward madly and deeply, and the loss of Gavin doesn't sour our relationship. I don't compare the two men. They are... were... very different. Yet if you go down that perilous road looking to find happiness, you may encounter more regret and guilt in your baggage at the end of it than you bargained for.'

There followed an unfillable silence, broken at last by Henry's inimitable little laugh. 'That's enough solemnity. You've been warned. The rest is up to you. Now, you wanted to know about the princes of Tarlenheim...'

It was the day after Dressner's arrest, and the man was still being held in the police barracks in Strelzen. The web news-sites and British national newspapers had already picked up the story, which probably explained why a large figure loomed above their table to ask if he could join them.

Henry looked up, surprised. 'My God! Alex Johnson!'

'You remember me then, Henry?'

'Yeah, we had a run-in a few years back over your lack of principle.'

'That's a bit unfair.'

'Trying to pump an innocent and unsuspecting seventeen-year-old boy about one of his best friends was not that ethical in my book.'

'You were neither innocent nor unsuspecting as a kid, Henry, as I learned to my cost. Be reasonable. You did me a favour over the Rudolf photo shoot, for which I was always grateful.'

'Something tells me you want to extend your credit with me.'

'You're in the same trade as me nowadays, Henry. You know the way it goes.'

Henry nodded. 'That's a fair comment, I suppose.' He glanced across the table quirkily. 'I take it you two know each other.'

Phil nodded stiffly at his predecessor in Ben Craven's life, while Alex gave him a conciliatory look back. Something had to be said, and it was Alex who tried.

'Come on, Phil... may I call you Phil?' Phil nodded. 'It's not ever going to be comfortable between us, but you gotta believe I never wanted to hurt Benny.'

Phil was not perhaps as adult about relationships as he should have been. He growled, 'But still he was hurt... rejection can do that, y'know.'

'I do know. It hurt me as I did it. But our relationship was over, it was obvious.'

'To you maybe, but not to Benny. To him it came as a total shock.'

'Don't tell me he himself hasn't said much the same as me since then.'

That bothered Phil. 'Maybe. It was a hard way to learn it, though.'

Alex sighed and slumped. 'Can you tell me an easy way? I'm not pretending to be the pragmatist here. I know what my motives were at the time, and they were selfish enough. But we're all aware now that it was better it happened.' He hesitated for a moment, looking at Phil through his eyelashes, before mumbling, 'After all, Benny has come out of it the better, hasn't he? He has you, while I have nothing but an empty flat, with only regrets for company.'

Phil bristled. 'I hope you're not saying you want Benny back.'

'No, no. That's not what I'm saying at all. That bridge is burned for good. But I had hopes that one day we could build some sort of friendship. We will go on meeting, after all. We have too many friends in common.'

Phil looked at this unhappy man, thinking he could understand him. He did not sympathise with him particularly, but recognised they were not unlike in some ways. He gave a wry smile into Alex's anxious face. 'Sure. OK. I don't want to act like some straight Neanderthal here. I can be your friend, for what it's worth.' He reached out a hand, which was gripped gratefully.

Henry was beaming. 'Excellent, lads. You've both done the hard thing, and you'll be the better for it.'

Alex raised his eyes. 'You never let us forget you're a vicar's son, do you Henry?'

Henry shrugged. 'You hear sermons. Sometimes they make sense. Now, what do you want to know?'

'Oh for Christ's sake, Henry, stop being so tight. You know damn well what I want. Is it true that international best-selling author Clive Dressner is actually a guy called Dawson who's on the sex offenders' register?'

'Ask his lawyers. I'm sure they've prepared a statement.'

'Henry!!!'

Phil broke in. 'It is true. And you should know that the man who found it out is Benny. It's why he was sacked by Wardour's.'

'They sacked him!'

'Yes, because he was being his honest, decent self.'

'The bastards! I'll crucify them!'

Phil growled, 'The nails are already in place. It just needs the hammer blows.'

Alex brightened. 'Aha! There is more to this story.'

Henry looked over at Phil. 'Dealing with people like Alex takes a bit more finesse than that last exchange betrayed. You walked right into it, Phil. Fuck off, Alex.'

'But we were getting on so well.'

'In your dreams! Fancy using your regrets about Benny to get more out of us.'

'The regrets are genuine, but I gotta make a living.'

'You stay any longer on this table and you can settle the bill.'

'Make it worth my while and I will.'

'Bye, bye, Alex.' Henry was getting annoyed.

Alex got to his feet. 'Love to Benny... and I mean it sincerely, as well as in a platonic sense, Phil.'

'Understood.'

***

'So you saw and talked to him?'

'Uhuh.'

'And he was full of regrets.'

'Yes, and apologies, though he still thought the break-up had been the best thing in the circumstances.'

'Poor Alex.'

'Benny!'

'I don't wish him bad things, Phil. We have too much history for that.'

'Well... OK, but you gotta know, baby, that I'm not comfortable with him. I realise it's silly, but you were his Bennyboy for ten years and you've been mine for only ten weeks. It makes me feel insecure.'

Ben hugged Phil's arm and kissed his cheek. When Phil embraced him, Ben - to his surprise, not being a man given to crying - found tears running down his lover's cheeks. He moved back, looking stricken. 'No baby! You're the strong one. Don't!'

Phil sniffled like a child. 'Can't help it. Sorry.'

Ben held him hard. 'You're my guy. You and only you.'

'Let me blow my nose. God, where did that come from?'

'The heart, I think.' Ben gave Phil time to recover before asking, 'What else happened over lunch?'

Phil wiped his eyes. 'Henry told me some interesting things about Willemin and his activities. He had some information - I think it came from police sources - that Willemin's working now out of the city of Zenden, to the south of the capital. Terry and Justin have moved down there to follow up their own enquiries, though I'm not sure what they think they can do. Terry's only got a little Rothenian, and Justin has none at all.'

'I suppose they have to earn their money. Besides, I wouldn't underestimate Terry.'

'What about us, Benny?'

'I suppose for the moment we're at liberty in this great city.'

'It beats Prague hollow, something I never believed I'd hear myself say. But the company I'm keeping has a lot to do with the way I feel about Strelzen, I think. Any news about Dressner?'

'They're going to release him on a pretty massive bail bond, so the papers say. There's a media circus going on around the Arsenal prison where he's being kept.'

Phil looked grimly pleased. 'He's finished, isn't he?'

'Who knows? The public has fits of forgiveness. If he gets the right media manager, he may stage a comeback. You can see how, too. He'd paid his debt to society. Intrusive and vindictive journalists like our Henry were determined to destroy his precarious prosperity. What will the public ever know about his links with criminal groups and his continuing addiction to forced sex?'

'Nothing, I guess, unless it comes out in the reporting of his immigration offences.'

Phil decided he'd had enough of Dressner for the moment. 'Hey, Henry suggested we go and look at the park of Bila Palacz and the university. Maybe we'll find them interesting.'

'I'd like that, Phil. My guide book says there are some nice cafés at the Lindenstrasse end. We could have afternoon tea, or whatever passes for it in Strelzen.'

They found no tea worth drinking, but a rich, dark coffee in the park did them very well. Phil was charmed with the ancient campus of the Rodolfer Universität, its heart the ancient chantry foundation of Duke Rudolf II, surrounded by halls, spires and the famous medieval library. Although the brutalist concrete teaching blocks from the Communist era were agonisingly awful, it was heartening to see that some had been cleared away. Rising in their place was a handsome Maxim Elphberg Mediatek and Teaching Hall, funded by the Peacher Foundation.

While they were inspecting the university church of St Thomas Aquinas, where mass was still said daily for the founding duke, Ben was embarrassed by the ringing of his mobile. Other tourists gave them both hard looks. Ben ran outside red-faced, muttering into the receiver. Phil followed him into the daylight trying to look nonchalant.

Ben had finished his call by the time Phil joined him. 'So who was that?'

'It was Peter Peacher's office. They'd like me to meet him at eleven tomorrow.'

'Just you?'

'Yes, and I'm to join him for lunch. So that limits the possibilities for tourism tomorrow.'

'Did they say what it's about?'

'The Dressner crisis. He needs inside information about Wardour's Publishing.'

'I hope he's going to pay you. You're not a Peacher employee. He's taking advantage.'

'Oh! What do you think I should do? It was nice of him to fly us out here and pay for our hotel.'

Phil was a little embarrassed at the ungraciousness of his remarks, especially when he remembered Peter had quietly hired Terry and Justin to protect them. 'I suppose we do owe him.'

'Yes we do. I'm not going to be surly about this.'

'Of course. You're right. Henry said he'd run us out to the city of Hofbau in the morning to see the sights.'

'Oh, you go Phil. Henry seems to like you.'

'D'you think? He seems to like most people.'

'Matt says you can tell he really likes you when he starts talking to you seriously, without the nonstop jokes and charm.'

'That's nice to know. Tell me, who was Gavin?'

'Gavin? Ah. That would have been Henry's boyfriend at Cranwell University. There was something tragic about him. Matt gets very solemn when the boy's mentioned, and won't talk about him.'

'He was killed here, Henry said.'

'That may be it. Matt said Henry was heartbroken.'

'How did he die? I didn't like to press Henry.'

'I have no idea. I only have a memory of Terry telling me that Henry got tangled up with some right-wing religious nutcases. Gavin was caught in the crossfire and became a casualty. Henry did do something very brave, though. Do you know he holds Rothenia's highest decoration, and has an honorary rank in the army here?'

'I'll try and find out more from him tomorrow. I think there's a bigger mystery in this land than just Clive Dressner's sordid conspiracies and crimes.'

'Andy says it's a very strange place, Rothenia. Haven't you noticed how things seem harder-edged here?'

'That's an odd thing to say, Benny.'

'I can't quite explain it, but I think passions are stronger here. Love is deeper, anger flames higher and evil is blacker.'

'Now that's a very, very odd thing to say. Are you going mystical on me, Benny?'

***

Henry had an Audi that had seen better days and could have done with more frequent washing. The inside was afloat with crisp packets, drinks cartons and CDs. 'I must get round to clearing the car out,' he remarked vaguely and semi-apologetically when Phil opened the passenger door.

'No, leave it,' Phil replied straight-faced, as he gingerly picked up from his seat the remnants of a Big Mac lying in its waxed wrapper. 'I like it this way.'

'What, really?' Henry looked hopefully at a possible kindred spirit.

Phil shook his head with a grimace.

'Oh, right, being ironic.'

Phil's own car was immaculate and smelled of air freshener.

As they drove up the Starel valley along the A1 motorway, Phil asked, 'What's to see in Hofbau?'

'Quite a lot. Although people tend to ignore it for Strelzen, the heart of the city's got a lot of beautiful eighteenth-century streets and churches. There's a big central square modelled on the Rodolferplaz with an impressive château at one end, built and added to by a series of Rothenian dukes starting with Waclaw II. It's the administrative centre for the province of Merz nowadays. A friend of mine has an office there.'

Something in the way Henry uttered the last sentence caused Phil to stare across at him. 'You're up to something.'

'What, me? Never. We're just doing some harmless tourism. Well, perhaps we may stop off and see Jerzy, but if we do, it'll just be to say hello - or "Prosim" as they actually say here.'

'I don't believe you.'

Henry glanced at Phil and laughed. 'What have I done to forfeit your trust, Philip Maddox?'

'It's that impish gleam in your eyes which tells me you're up to something. I'm just an excuse, aren't I?'

'No, not at all. I like tourism. When you live in Rothenia, you forget how beautiful a place it is and how much there is to see. Visitors remind you it's here and force you to go out and look. But... maybe... if Jerzy has something interesting to say, we'll go and poke around, casually like. Any problem with that?'

Phil grinned. 'None at all. I'm up for it.'

'That's what I thought. You're not a conventional academic, Phil. I suspect there's a bit of the action man in you. It reminds me of Ed. If Benny were here, we wouldn't be doing this.'

'I understand, though you shouldn't underestimate Benny. He's tough inside. The retiring disposition is deceptive.'

'I believe it. But he's not the sort for an adventure, is he?'

'I thought you told me that adventures can lead to regrets and guilt.'

'That's why they're exciting. Ready to gamble with your life?' Henry, intent on the road, was smiling slightly.

A surge of anticipation shot through Phil. This was the real thing, hard-edged and dangerous. He too gave a smile. 'Yes, I'm ready.'

***

Ben took a magazine from the stack on the coffee table in the anteroom to Peter Peacher's office. All of them were glossy and uninteresting, more advert than text. Ben wished he'd thought to bring along a book or his iPod. He had been waiting now for twenty minutes.

At length Peter's elegant PA approached, smiling apologetically at Ben. 'I'm afraid it'll be a bit longer yet. I've sent for coffee.' She disappeared within again. The tray of drinks and pastries duly arrived, accompanied by fine porcelain and napery. Ben helped himself; it had been a while since breakfast.

The outer door opened to admit three men in suits, who walked straight past him into Peter's office. One stared curiously at Ben as he went by. Ben felt rather exposed in his Timberland jacket and boot-cut jeans.

The second hand on the clock ticked away the minutes. Ben was beginning to think he needed the loo when Peter, in shirtsleeves, finally appeared. Ben stood and took the offered hand. 'Come in, Benny, sorry to keep you... no, really. I don't like to keep people waiting when I've asked them to come and see me. It's just that today is a little tricky. Please come inside.'

The suits were sitting along the conference table. After introducing the president of Magnamedia, a vice-president and the CEO, Peter took his place at one end of the table. He indicated that Ben should take the other end.

'Ben, you know the situation. You also know that Justin carried out some industrial espionage in Long Acre on my behalf. These are the results.' He passed a number of printouts to Ben. 'As you expected, there had been a cover-up. The documents reveal that Wardour's signed Dawson/Dressner knowing exactly who he was and why he had been in Bedford Gaol.

'I think the original commissioning editor had the idea that Dawson was a good cause: a convict out to escape his background. The runaway success of the book and its sequels took everyone by surprise. Once he was established as a best-selling author, they were afraid to reveal who he was, so they collaborated in the cover-up. They went further, producing fake biographical handouts and sacking one of your predecessors who got too close to the truth.'

Ben nodded. 'I'm not surprised. What's happened to the Wardour management?'

'They've all had their contracts terminated with prejudice and their desks cleared. I'm sure you think that's no more than they deserved.'

'I can't feel too sorry for them, no.'

'You have a right to be resentful. Your fate was that of the whistle-blower, punished rather than rewarded for his act of honesty and dedication.'

Ben sighed. 'It's the usual story.'

'And not the right one.' Peter sat back and stared at Ben from his end of the table. He continued, 'In a sane world, the whistle-blower, who had identified wrongdoing and risked his career for the sake of his conscience and the company's good name, would be the one who was rewarded. After all, he had proved his dedication and integrity.

'So, Ben, now we're looking for a new CEO at Wardour's. Who would you recommend internally?'

It was Ben's turn to stare. 'You want my advice?'

'Please.'

'Well, the deputy senior editor, Eva Hartnell, she's really good, and has a background in management from her previous job in Pearson.'

'Not the senior editor?'

Ben coughed. He was being asked to give a candid opinion which would, if taken seriously, set a man's career back. Slowly he answered, 'No. He was too close to the former CEO, and I have not been impressed with his judgement in other matters.'

'Nice to see you have opinions of these people. Give me your assessment of Wardour's present place in the market.'

Ben obliged, speaking carefully and cogently for twenty minutes.

Peter looked over to the three from Magnamedia. 'Well, there you are gentlemen. Are we agreed?'

They nodded, leaving Ben mystified.

Peter stood. 'Ben Craven, I'm pleased to offer you the post of Chief Executive Officer and Managing Director of Wardour's Publishing Limited. Are you willing to accept?'

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