The Green Side

VI

By Michael Arram

Danny leaned smiling against the corridor wall outside the lecture hall. It was late morning. Classes in the Rodolfer Universität did not usually begin until after eleven. Too many of the students survived by evening and night-time jobs, and it would have been impracticable to start classes early. The lecturing staff did not complain, since they used the first part of the morning for committee meetings or research.

Casually greeting his fellows in Rothenian, Danny felt cool. He had been seen on a student night getting priority access into the most élite club in Strelzen. Then he had not just shared a table but had actually danced with the legendary Davey Skipper. Several of the girls almost seemed to want to come up and touch him, just to acquire a bit of the gloss of celebrity that still hung about him.

He was the centre of a small clique when he moved into the theatre at the beginning of the lecture. Somehow everything seemed easier now that he had gained a measure of confidence. His bar work was even paying off in class, where he could juggle Rothenian numbers in his head with ease.

As he was leaving the lecture, Danny's mobile throbbed in his pocket. 'Hullo?'

'Danny? It's Nate. You and Gus can do me a favour if you're free on Saturday afternoon.'

'Babysitting?'

'No, worse. We've got twenty or thirty little eight- and nine-year-olds coming round. We need you two to keep watch on the pool and lead some games.'

Danny was amused. 'Daimey having his class round?'

'Yes. He's been a hit in Year 4 of the International School. It's a barbecue and bouncy-castle event.'

'I don't think it's a problem, Nate. Gus'll love it. But aren't there any other parents volunteering to help?'

'Surprisingly, the unexpected gift of a free Saturday afternoon has made them keen to go shopping, or to the Spa. Can't say I blame them. I'd do the same if it were other parents being suicidally sociable.'

'Well, count on us, Nate. You know we love Damien.'

'There's money in it for you.'

'We'd do it anyway.'

'I know. You're a love.'

The moment Danny hung up, he was carried away to the commissary in a cloud of admiring Rothenian girls. They all sat laughing over milkshakes until Gus appeared, shyly smiling.

Girls found Gus irresistible, in the sense that they liked to mother him. So he was welcomed, hugged, kissed and petted. He looked mildly apprehensive wedged in between a very glamorous Carlotta and an equally stunning Maria. They hung on his shoulders and giggled when he tried to explain his morning lecture on Hegelian idealism.

Danny looked across the commissary to see a neglected Kristof and two male friends glowering sullenly at him. He smiled and winked.

***

The blue smoke of the barbecue was beginning to rise into the fig trees which shadowed the poolside lawn of Nate and Justin's rented house in the Sixth District. Damien spat into the reddening charcoal; he liked the sizzling sound, so he grinned and spat into it again.

'Stop it!' commanded Nate.

'Hang on, I can hawk up some phlegm in a minnit. That'll sizzle.'

'Do it and I'll see what sound your bum makes when I stick it on the coals.'

Damien changed the subject. 'When's Reggie coming?'

'Any minute now, babes. It was nice of his mums to volunteer to help.'

'Yuh. He's me best friend in all Rothenia.'

'Good. He can sleep over if he wants.'

'Really? I never had a friend to sleep over before, apart from Mattie, and that wuz only when he wuz staying at Grandad Andy's. When's Gussie and Danny gonna be here?'

'They said they'd be here at two. Danny's got all sorts of pool games to play with you.'

'That's ace.' Damien suddenly looked a little nervous. 'Will it be alright?'

Nathan picked the boy up and kissed him. He never loved Damien more than when the mask of invulnerability slipped. 'It'll be great: sun, a big swimming pool, games, party food – you just can't go wrong.'

Despite the sputtering of the air pump inflating the bouncy castle at the bottom of the garden, they both heard the sound of an SUV parking outside. Nathan put Damien down and ambled into the house. Justin was already at the door welcoming in two women. Reggie wormed between them and ran up to Damien. 'Do I hear the castle air pump?'

'Yuh. Come on, we can get on it before anyone else is here!' The two boys ran barefoot down the garden and began hurling themselves around the billowing plastic cushions, screaming and laughing.

In the meantime, Justin and Nathan were shaking hands with Moira and Esther, Reggie's parents. Moira, the birth mother, was a tired-looking lady in her early forties, with the hair and pale colouring which were Reggie's own. Esther, her partner, was a blowsy redhead in a peasant smock. Justin noticed the paint staining her hands.

It was Esther who spoke. 'We've brought some vegetarian quiche and salad.'

Justin looked puzzled. 'Oh! Right! Yer vegetarians, then. No meat. Got it. That applies to Reggie too?'

Esther nodded.

'Reggie the Veggie. I hope that don't get round the school.' Both women looked at him blankly.

Nathan moved in smoothly. 'We have quorn burgers and a mass of coleslaw. We're expecting more than one or two of the girls to be vegetarians. Hi! I'm Nathan Underwood, Justin's partner.'

They smiled in a way that showed they'd warmed to Nathan. The jury on Justin was clearly still out.

Nathan continued to play host. 'Come on through. We'll show you the garden and pool area. Does Reggie swim?'

Moira shook her head. 'Not very well. He's not very robust, you know.'

Justin reflected that the full-bodied whoops resounding from the two boys in the garden seemed to contradict the last observation.

Nathan looked earnest and sympathetic. 'We have two qualified lifeguards supervising the pool while the children are in it.'

Moira and Esther positively glowed at Nathan. Justin trailed along behind, feeling rather out of things, but relieved that at least Nathan spoke Lesbian.

***

'You asked that son of a... You asked Anatole?'

'Well, yuh!' The two boys were now climbing the trees at the bottom end of the garden. The arrival of the rest of the kids was imminent.

'After what he did to you?'

'Look at it this way, Reggie: now I beat the crap outta him and his thugs, we gotta make peace. We gotta live wiv the fat arse for the rest of the year.'

'Yeah, but you didn't hear what he was saying yesterday. He's got a big brother, and he's gonna get him to sort you out.'

Damien narrowed his eyes. 'How big?'

'Waddya mean, how big? He's a grownup and Anatole says he's hard and mean. He's been in prison maybe, and does drugs.'

Damien looked philosophical. 'Tough, then. Bet I can run faster than him. Bet he's fat and flat-footed jess like Anatole. Anyway, Gussie and Dan'll be here. They'll smack his brother around if he tries anyfing...' He pondered a moment while assessing that last remark. 'Well, Danny will, maybe.'

Reggie looked dubious. 'Who're Gussie and Danny?'

'They're students, and Gussie is me best grownup mate. He's Nathan's cousin.'

A quavering cry reached Reggie from the house. 'It's my mom.'

Damien strolled back to the poolside, his arm around Reggie's shoulder.

Moira Mayer peered down at the boys. 'So you're Damien. Reggie's told me all about you. My, you're a handsome young man; you look just like your father.' She actually had her eye on Nathan when she made that comment.

Justin blushed. 'Er... to tell the truth, iss me thass Damien's dad.'

Moira turned her attention to him. She was clearly dubious as to the accuracy of his assertion, almost as if she wanted to ask him if he were sure.

The ringing of the doorbell was a relief. Justin scarpered and admitted a flood of girls and boys, remembering to tell itchy-footed parents when it was necessary to collect their offspring. He looked around anxiously for Gus and Danny, but there was still no sign.

***

'It's off here... I think.'

'Gussie, you're never uncertain about maps. What's up?'

'Oh... this handbook doesn't include the Sixth District outside Martzfeld, and Justin's place is on the wrong side of Modenehemstrasse, but I think it's up there... yes... Fridricswejg leading to Fridricsgasse, and they're at Fridricsgasse 2273.'

'Masterly.'

They strolled up the tree-lined street leading southwest away from the main artery of Modenehemstrasse, loud with the rumbling of trams and lorries. The houses were all set back from the road behind neat gardens. As the two young men climbed the hill and turned on to Fridricsgasse, they noticed the properties were becoming larger yet, and acquiring walls and gates. This was where Strelzen's growing executive elite had chosen to settle. All the villas were sizable and most had only been built in the past ten years or so.

Danny suddenly stopped Gus and pointed at a figure further up the road. 'Look, babes! Isn't that...?'

'Pavel. What's he doing over here? I thought he lived down in Sudmesten.'

'So did I. At least that's where his university is. But maybe he's not in halls of residence. Come to think of it, I don't know much about him other than that he's Russian, gay and just broken up with his boyfriend. Let's catch him up.'

They moved up a gear, and when they were within a hundred feet of him saw that Pavel was not on his own. A moody younger boy was scuffling along beside him.

Danny called out and Pavel turned, surprised and then very pleased. 'Danny! Gus! What are you doing out here?'

'We could ask you the same. But we've come to help some friends who're having a kid's party.'

'Not Fridricsgasse 2273?'

'Yup. Who's this?'

Pavel glanced down at the boy with what looked to Danny like distaste. 'This is my little brother. Say hullo, Anatole.'

The child, a pudgy specimen, sullenly mumbled, 'Lo.'

Gus smiled sweetly at him. 'So you'll be a friend of Damien's?'

Anatole scowled and muttered something inarticulate.

With a quizzical expression, Pavel turned to Gus and Danny. 'You know this Damien? I'm told he's a bully and a troublemaker. I'm supposed to have a word with his parents and make sure that Anatole is taken care of while he's at the party.'

Gus's eyebrows raised right up to his fringe. 'Damien? A troublemaker? My dear Pavel, the boy is as kind and gentle a person as you're ever likely to meet.'

Danny smiled to himself. Gus would always believe what he wanted about people he liked.

Pavel glared suspiciously down at his brother. 'Well, I shall nonetheless talk to this Damien's mother.'

Danny blinked. 'Er... Pavel. There's a few things you should know about Damien and his family.' They sauntered on under the trees as Danny explained Damien's peculiar circumstances to Pavel, while Gus walked ahead with Anatole and tried out his conversational Russian on the distracted boy.

***

Reggie scampered over to Damien as soon as Anatole appeared in the garden. Damien was chatting to a group of girls, who were very interested in him.

'He's here, and he's got his brother!'

Damien looked across at the French windows that opened on to the poolside. A strange young man was talking to his father, with Anatole standing uneasily between them. Damien gave Reggie a look before trotting over to his dad.

Justin reached down and took Damien by the shoulder. 'Hey, babes. This is Pavel, he's Anatole's big brother. He says little Anatole is very shy about coming here, and wants you to look after him.'

Damien stared up at Pavel, who grinned and winked at him.

Damien winked back. 'Sure dad. Poor Anatole, come along then, I'll look after yer.'

Anatole slouched after Damien with a savage glare back at his brother. As soon as they were out of sight of the adults, Damien turned on the Russian boy. 'What is it wiv you, Anatole? Why can't yer jess leave it?'

Reggie had followed. 'We don't want to keep on fighting with you. So let's leave it out, right?'

Anatole made a little pantomime of being smacked about. 'It's all very well you're threatening me. There's two of you and just one of me.'

'Damien took out the two big boys you set on him all on his own!'

'Yeah, well you wouldn't have been much help to him, would you.'

Damien folded his arms and glowered at Anatole. 'Iss no wonder you're short of friends. Why you gotta be so mean to people?'

Anatole's sullen expression did not change.

Damien shook his head. 'Leave it out, then.' He abruptly stuck his hand forward. 'Tell you what. Put it there. Let's stop the war. You can't win anyway.'

Anatole looked uncertain now. 'How do I know you won't gang up on me?'

Reggie raised his eyes. 'Why's it always got to be about you? Why should anyone want to beat your head in? Why should anyone care that much? Just chill, Anatole. It's time to get a real life, time to make friends. If you hadn't noticed, you're on your own.'

Damien glanced approvingly at Reggie. The boy had a talent for words Damien knew he lacked. 'Yuh, lissen to Reggie. He's talking sense.'

Anatole slumped. 'Well... maybe.'

Damien nodded. 'Okay then. Yer mate Kyril is down on the bouncy castle, go and join him... oh, and doan break anyfing, right?'

With something that looked vaguely like a smile, Anatole trotted heavily off down the garden path.

Damien put his arm round Reggie's shoulder and leaned lightly on him, claiming the Yank as his best friend, a gesture which set Reggie aglow. Damien let out a relieved sigh. 'Thass him sorted, so no more problems, right?'

But it was not to be Anatole who caused Damien his main trouble that day; it was Reggie.

***

The girls turned out to be Reggie's downfall. The class's alpha females had predictably latched on to Damien. To be sure, Damien was hardly averse to their hero worship, and several of them were very happy to offer it. Indeed, each competed to flatter him most.

'What did you feel like when those two big Year 6 boys met you at the gate? Were you scared? You didn't seem to be, you just said, "Morning foo..."' She dissolved into giggles.

'Nah. I wasn't scared, but me dad says you gotta be a bit nervous or you loses yer edge, like.'

Another one shyly massaged Damien's upper arm. 'Ooh, you've got quite hard muscles. You're very strong.'

Reggie sat on a low wall nearby, looking a little scornfully at the girls. His disapproval was registered by them too.

There was clearly a history of antagonism between Reggie and Olga Massenavic, the glamour princess of the year. That afternoon she was dressed in the tarty fashion of someone eight years older.

For his part, Damien was surreptitiously staring at her, fascinated by the fact she was wearing a bra and wondering what there was for it to contain. He was also beginning to daydream abstractedly about how he might find out.

Secret though Damien thought those feelings were, their expression had not escaped the attention of Nathan, who pointed out to Justin that there was a chance he might yet live to be a grandfather. 'I suspect your boy's straight, babe. Relieved?'

'A bit. Though I thought it might be good if we wuz one day able to sit in a pub and share cruising stories. Ah well.'

In the meantime, Damien was soaking up the rather overdone admiration he was getting from Olga and her groupies. 'Your dad's nice-looking.' Olga nodded at Justin, who was bringing out a tray full of drinks bottles and arranging them on a table by the pool. 'My mother says he's very famous.'

'Yuh. He knows lots of people.'

She tipped her head at a fuming Reggie. 'Reggie Mayer's always telling us about the celebrities he's met.'

The use of his name did not escape Reggie's attention, nor was it meant to. 'Waddya on about, Olga?'

She gave him a superior look. 'Oh, didn't you make a big thing about the writer man who came to your mother's house? What was his name? Something like "Porn Video".'

Reggie hissed, 'It was Gore Vidal. He was on a lecture tour of Rothenia. Mom and Esther had a party for him.' There was the rare sight for Reggie of his cheeks reddening. 'Lots of well-known people were there... even the king! He talked to me for ages. We're pals, we are... I've got his phone number.'

Olga tittered to her hangers-on, 'Reggie's a pal of King Rudi's. Ring him up for us, Reggie! Give your friend a ring. Use my mobile.'

'You think you're so funny!'

'More amusing than you, Reggie.'

'I'll show you.'

'You gonna invite the king round to school?'

Reggie almost seemed to swell with irritation. 'Yeah! I will!'

Olga scented victory. 'Everyone! Did you hear that! Reggie's gonna have the king come and say hello to Year 4! King Rudi!'

The girls giggled, while the boys within range stared. Damien's jaw sagged. Reggie was still high with anger. 'You bet I will!' He stalked off down the garden.

Damien caught up with his mate hiding in the bushes by the wall, his eyes full of tears. 'What have I done, Daimey?'

Damien hugged Reggie unselfconsciously, his readiness to embrace other boys most likely the effect of being brought up by gay parents. His face hardened with calculation and determination. 'We'll sort something out, don't you mind.'

***

Vedayah tapped a pencil against his white teeth, as perfect as porcelain. He grinned across the library table at Prema.

'So there's Richard Peacher, the financial wizard, head of PeacherCorp International. He's got five children by three wives – consecutive, of course.'

Prema checked his sketch of the family tree. 'The eldest is Sir Andrew by the first wife; he's the lucky guy in Matt White's bed. Then there's Peter Peacher, head of PeacherCorp Europe here in Rothenia. By the same mom there are twins, a boy Edward, an academic, and of course the girl who's now Queen Harriet of Rothenia. Finally by the third wife another daughter, Elaine; she's just a kid.'

'What about grandchildren?'

'There's only one so far, Sir Andrew adopted this guy... Justin Peacher-White, a security consultant and famous as a friend to the stars. God, he's a dream; he's gay too. Look at the pictures on this fan site. Do you think that's really him naked?'

'Sit in a cold bath, Mal. It's just a sicko mock-up. Still, he is kinda juicy, even in clothes.' Vedayah brought his attention back to the task in hand. 'There's no doubt where the so-called Lady Benefactor fits in. She's Ellie Marquesa, Peacher wife number 2. They were divorced eight or so years back.'

'So that's where the money comes from.'

'Oh yeah. The divorce settlement was pretty small. In fact, it quite surprised commentators at the time. But small in Peacher terms is downright huge by anyone else's standards, and she hasn't let the money rest. There was a palimony settlement from some Italian dude four years ago, and a massive libel payoff from a British magazine. No wonder the Grand Abbot is in awe of her.'

'What do you think she's up to, Chris?'

'Ah... that's the thing, isn't it, babe? No good, you can be sure. She's dealing with bad, bad men. Not only that, but it looks to me that she's done bad things before.'

'This Josseran...'

'Oh yeah, the baddest ass in Rothenia.'

'Yeah, him. She's paying him a lot of cash to do something really dirty.'

'I'd bet on it. It's clear she has some hold over him, too. He's so desperately in need of money that he's willing to do her dirty work for her. It's murder, babe. She wants one of the Peachers dead, and though she doesn't say which, I think I can guess.'

'Her former husband?'

'No, Mal. It's the Peacher-White guy, and it's gonna be soon, oh yeah.'

'Christ, Buddha and Krishna! What are we gonna do?'

'Something.'

'What you got in mind? We can't tell the abbot; he won't believe us. The Lady Benefactor is the only reason we're here in Rothenia, and the Grand Abbot is her personal friend. We're screwed. The police aren't gonna believe two wacky monks.'

'Then we had better think about what our beliefs mean to us, hadn't we.'

'What do you mean, Chris?'

'It's time to put our vows about the sacredness of life into practice.'

'You do have a plan.

Yup. We're gonna make us a monk.'

'What?'

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