Henry and the Eschaton

I

By Michael Arram

This new thriller follows on directly from the conclusion of the story, The Green Side, though it also wraps up the questions raised by the last Henry story, Henry inFinkle Road. Henry Robert Atwood is now twenty-five, a TV personality and journalist resident in Rothenia, but in essence he is still the same Henry; quirky and over-curious, loving and humorous. Fortunately, there are some traits that develop in childhood and stay with us. Unfortunately, Henry has another legacy to deal with, the lost love of his student days, Gavin Price. It literally comes back to haunt him.

I must begin by regarding my gratitude to the amazingly tolerant and responsive editors and readers that make this story something of a joint enterprise: Rob and Terry M in particular; but the amusing and literate reviews of James, Eldon, Terry A and Andrew were always positive and helpful.

New readers who don't want to read the back story to this saga (and I can hardly blame them) might appreciate a cast list at this point.

***

Henry Robert Atwood (25) : younger son of the Reverend Robert and Mrs Marjorie Atwood. Graduate of the English university of Cranwell (between Reading and Swindon). A journalist and media personality living in the mythical central European monarchy of Rothenia (formerly Ruritania), wedged somewhere between the Czech Republic, Bavaria and Austria.

Edward Cornish (26) : devoted partner of Henry since their days in King Edward VI School Medwardine. Graduate of Cranwell and career soldier. A newly-promoted colonel of the guard in the Rothenian army, 'the only man who could put up with Henry's mess' (quote).

Rudolf Elphberg, Rudolf VI, or 'Rudi' (26) : king of Rothenia, schoolfellow of Henry and Ed. Graduate of Oxford. Married to...

Harriet (Harry) Peacher (25) daughter of the entrepreneur and multi-billionaire, Richard Peacher. Currently very pregnant and not enjoying it. Younger twin sister of...

Edward (Eddie) Peacher (25) completing doctoral research in the English department of the University of Cranwell under the direction of...

Dr Paul Oscott (31) establishing himself as an authority on conspiracy theory in literature, Senior Lecturer in English in the University of Cranwell, married to Rachel and father of...

Matthew Andrew (Mattie) Oscott (9) close friend of...

Damien Macavoy (9) friend of Reggie Mayer (9), co-pupil at Strelzen International School, Damien being the rather remarkable son of...

Justin Peacher-White, formerly Macavoy, (27), sometime petty criminal, gardener, security consultant and now Senior Vice-President of the Peacher Corporation (Europe) living in Strelzen, Rothenia, life partner of...

Nathan Underwood (26) formerly garden centre manager and now studying botany in the Rodolfer Universität, Strelzen.

David (Davey) Skipper (25), close friend of Henry Atwood at Medwardine School and graduate of the Business School of Cranwell University. Clubland entrepreneur and band manager. Lover of...

Terence (Terry) O'Brien (30), graduate of John Adams College, VA. Security consultant and former boss of Justin. Probably the most dangerous gay in the western world.

Dr Matthew White (33) graduate of Cranwell University. Male model and media entrepreneur. Adoptive father of Justin Peacher-White and civil partner of...

Sir Andrew Peacher (33) eldest son of Richard Peacher. Formerly of Rugby School, graduate of John Adams College, VA. Philanthopist and authority on childhood deprivation. Adoptive father of Justin. His younger brother...

Peter Peacher (28) is President and CEO of PeacherCorp Europe and civil partner of...

Oskar von Tarlenheim (33) former porn star, now count of Modenheim and chief of staff to King Rudolf. His younger brother...

Franz VI, or Fritz, (21) is count of Tarlenheim and prince of the Holy Roman Empire, just graduated from the Harvard Business School.

William Vincent (33), English-born, onetime lover of Oskar, now naturalised Rothenian, is CEO of Strelsenermedia and its main outlet, Eastnet, the Rothenian based media news network, and boss of Henry Atwood.

Dr Phil Maddox (31), Reader in English at Stevenage University, friend of Matt and Andy and lover of...

Ben Craven (32), CEO of Wardour Publishing Ltd, and university friend of Matt and Andy, former lover of...

Alex Johnson (33), foreign editor of the Guardian newspaper.

And not forgetting the mysterious Gavin Michael Price (deceased) former lover of Henry at Cranwell University, whose end was detailed in Henry in Finkle Road, and his friend...

Mark Tolmie (also deceased) who goes by the name of Elijah and committed suicide at the age of twenty over a decade before these events, and who first appears in After Alex.

The Reverend Anthony Willis checked his watch. The surge of praise-songs from the gospel choir on stage beat out from the open doors, mingling with the rhythmic clapping of the congregation. It was a humid North Carolina night in July, and the Evangelical Church of Christ, Thomasville, was packed.

Anthony was glad to be outside for a breather, even though the vast church had air conditioning. But soon he would have to plunge back in. The singing died away in a last hallelujah as the accompaniment subsided into rising minor chords. That was the cue for Anthony to return to his duties inside. The hubbub called 'speaking in tongues' had begun, mixing with the music of electric guitars and synthesisers.

On the stage, Anthony's boss sat with his head sunk between his shoulders. Bishop John James lived for these moments. Anthony had seen him virtually trembling with the Spirit as he channelled the congregational prayer into a burst of astonishing rhetoric and prophecy. Such moments were not to be missed. Indeed, Anthony needed to capture them on video. He flicked open his digital camcorder and began recording.

The pastor of the Thomasville megachurch raised his hands. Then, as he gently lowered them, the murmuring of thousands of people subsided into a low hum. The bishop stood, swaying slightly. He was in shirtsleeves, with a tie loosely knotted about his neck. His attire gave no clue that he was in fact a senior Anglican bishop despite his relative youth. Bishop Jack, as people called him, always dressed for the occasion, and the effect he had chosen for Thomasville was that of a charismatic and youthful televangelist. He knew what his audience needed from him.

There was something different this time, however. Anthony had been the bishop's chaplain for a year now and had often heard him preach. But as Anthony zoomed in with the camera focus, the bishop's eyes appeared glazed. And was there not something different about his voice? It seemed to echo back from the walls and raked seats of the cavernous church without benefit of a sound system.

'These are the latter days! The days Isaiah proclaimed! Often promised and often denied, yet they must come and have come, as the Lord has promised. The forces of evil have risen and almost triumphed, yet in fire and thunder will the Lord of Hosts descend from His mountain and cause their armies to become as one with the Midianites and Amalekites! The beast has arisen and revealed himself and his name is MENDAMERO. But the sword of flame will be drawn and he will be cast down, he and his foul and corrupt demons: sodomites and perverts, an abomination in the Lord's sight.

'Though the world go down in fire, it will be a cleansing flame, and those the Lord loves will rise unscathed. All will be as Eden, the saved will walk the green grass under clear skies for evermore. Those the Lord loves will have everlasting life. Those who follow the beast will die the real death, as did those in the cities of the plains.'

Anthony was astonished to say the least. He had heard the bishop prophesy before, but never like this. All other sound had died away, allowing his words to pierce the air like knives. Anthony found himself shaking and yet hugely exalted.

Pictures formed unbidden in his mind: marching armies and devastated cities flickered across his inner sight, and above them rose a shining figure with golden wings and a sword of flame, poised to strike the earth. Terrible fear seized his heart and he was on the verge of panic, yet the figure on the stage commanded all his attention, seeming to offer the only hope of safety. The bishop's words continued, but were no more to Anthony now than a glowing torrent of terrifying images. He was mesmerised, his mind and jaw slack. He knew the thousands around him were in the same state.

When the bishop demanded they kneel and pray, all fell as though a scythe had run through a stand of corn. A few minutes later, when he invited them, dozens of the congregation surged forward asking blessings and cures. While Bishop Jack often did this, never had Anthony seen such a response.

A bewildered boy, maybe in his late teens, was brought forward by someone who must have been his father. The man spoke urgently to the bishop, who directed his gaze towards the boy.

Bishop Jack turned to the congregation. 'This young man is possessed by the hateful demon that ruled in Sodom long ago.' He raised his hand in the gesture Anthony privately called the 'power blessing'. 'Get thee gone, demon of homosexuality!'

The boy fell like a stone. His father knelt beside him, then carried him away with the help of two security men.

Anthony seemed to come to himself. He looked at the camcorder and checked the tape. To his surprise, all he found he had recorded was static.

***

'Mendamero, bishop?'

'Is that what I said, Tony?'

'Yes, sir.'

Bishop Jack laughed. 'The Spirit has its own purposes and language.'

'You were... amazing tonight. I can't tell you how moved I was. Sir, it was truly the Spirit. The exorcism too. That was new.'

'I felt the force flow through me. I knew I had the power to change that boy, to cure his perversion, that vile sickness.'

Although an internal shudder reminded Anthony of something he would rather have forgotten, he grimly stayed with his train of thought. 'It wouldn't go down too well in Britain if it got around.'

Bishop Jack grimaced. 'These are indeed the latter days. Yet change is coming. I feel the wind and flame of Pentecost upon us. Here, we can be more forward in the struggle, but even at home the mood is changing.'

Anthony knew what his employer meant. After decades of decline, the churches - or rather, one section of the church - had begun to regain ground, and Bishop Jack had risen with it. A former lawyer, he had felt the call in his early thirties. He had served a brilliant curacy in a metropolitan evangelical church, his charisma and telegenic looks earning him a mass following. Then he had found sponsors to construct Britain's first evangelical megachurch in the South Midlands. He was everywhere: at conferences, theological workshops, on TV comment shows, on the bookstalls. It was inevitable that he should leap into the purple, and his appointment to the small diocese of Cranwell had been hailed as a stroke of imagination and of faith in a new future for Anglicanism.

Now, five years later, Bishop Jack was an international celebrity, the favourite to succeed to the next archiepiscopal appointment. He was a social and theological conservative, the bugbear of the liberal press, whose wit and intellectual depth were more than a match for the most hostile interviewer. Something about him appealed to Middle England. He could play on its sympathy for the underdog against the liberal establishment. He went down just as well in the U.S. Bible Belt. His Conservative Coalition was a rising force in the world church, and he had such support across the Third World that his eventual nomination to Canterbury was regarded as almost a certainty.

Anthony knew how lucky he was to get the appointment as Bishop Jack's domestic chaplain. He half believed it was because, as a deacon ordained at only twenty-three, he looked the part of a chaplain for such a dynamic and youthful prelate. Bishop Jack could employ whom he liked. His vast financial backing permitted him to run his private office at a level far above what any of his colleagues on the bench could afford. There were PAs and interns in large numbers operating out of Church House in Cranwell, which even had a full-time press secretary.

The sky of that July evening was darkening into night, and the stacked lights of Thomasville's small crop of high-rise buildings were bright around them when Anthony turned the Lexus into the underground garage of the downtown Marriott and pulled up in a bay near the elevators. Gareth, the bishop's American minder, was straight out and opening the door for their employer. Anthony found Gareth mildly disturbing on a number of levels. He was taciturn and humourless; his shades never left his face, even at night. Anthony was half-convinced he packed a gun.

The bishop paused on his way towards the elevator. 'What time do we need to be up to catch tomorrow's flight?'

'Breakfast at seven-thirty, bishop. I'll check us in online in the foyer. I'll have the car round at eight-thirty, which'll give us two hours for security clearance and baggage drop-off.'

Bishop Jack smiled his Hollywood smile. 'I don't know what I'd do without you, Tony. Sleep tight.'

Sleep, however, was not on Anthony's personal agenda. As he watched Gareth's muscular backside in motion away from the car, he was reminded of the other level on which he found the minder disturbing.

He left the car park on foot and climbed the ramp to the warm, empty pavement of downtown Thomasville. He saw he was at the corner of State and Sixth streets. His MapQuest printout told him to head south on Sixth, which brought him to a better-populated district of café-bars and brewpubs, and beyond that to the former warehouses down by the Charlotte River. Raleigh Avenue took him eastwards, parallel to the river.

Eventually he found 315 Raleigh. His pulse rising, he looked at the lot outside the flat-topped building. There were a large number of pick-ups and saloons. Sunday night was apparently as busy here as in Thomasville's evangelical churches.

The battered door of the Riverwater Spa let a whiff of chlorinated water escape as he entered. There was no one at the glazed window of the front office, so he pressed a buzzer.

A black attendant appeared, his head shaved in artistic swirls and his bare, muscled arms elaborately tattooed. 'Bin heeyah befowar?

The phrase took Anthony a while to translate. 'Er... no.'

'Australian, huh?'

'British, actually.'

'See yowah ID?'

Anthony fumbled for his driver's licence. The attendant entered some details on a computer screen. In the meantime, the door had admitted two other men who lined up behind Anthony, making his neck prickle.

'Wanna locker owah room?'

Anthony panicked a little. He was dying to ask which was better, but had rather not reveal his inexperience in the area. So he echoed, 'Room.'

'Thutty dollahs.'

Anthony paid over and pushed through the inner door as it buzzed. The attendant handed him a large white towel and a key with what he thought was ostentatious disinterest. Sighing internally, he caught sight of his bespectacled, pudgy face in a mirrored surface. It was not the sort to raise immediate interest in other men, but here at least there was a chance he could find some way to satisfy his need for sex.

'Er... which way?'

The attendant pointed at a further door. 'Through theyah and sharp right up them stayahs.'

With a deep breath, he followed the directions.

Anthony's 'room' was a numbered partitioned cell in a maze of corridors lined with similar doors. The damp smell of the steam room and Jacuzzi permeated the place, along with the sound of piped music. He grimaced when he recognised the track of Grease. Music to fuck by? No, he decided, music to disguise the sounds of fucking.

Nervously, Anthony sat on the bed - not much more than a bench -and shed his clothes. There were no hooks, so he piled everything on the floor in a corner before wrapping the towel round his waist and sallying out into the dim light. As he turned sideways to pass a man of about fifty, he felt a gaze scan his overweight figure and saw himself dismissed.

Shrugging off the rejection, he navigated around the circuit of the bath house. Many doors were open. Behind one he saw an elderly man lying naked on his stomach. From other cells men wrapped in towels stared out at him. They looked away when he caught their eyes. Several men older than he were cruising round the corridors, but something about him seemed to deter their interest as well. Maybe they were sizing him up and waiting to make a decision for later.

He went out of the cell area and found the steam-room door. Inside were two men on the benches. One of them, as plump as he, was lying flat, dick erect and being stroked by the other. They checked him out as he entered. He hovered nervously, then abruptly left, though why he should feel like an intruder in a public space was more than he could understand.

Anthony slowly retreated to his refuge and closed the door behind him, unsure of what to do next. He sat there a while, listening to the movement outside. Some guys - regulars, he guessed - struck up a conversation nearby, talking about traffic congestion and road works on the Interstate.

Suddenly Anthony gave a low chuckle. So this was a bath house. A refusal to take himself seriously was one of his saving graces, and he began to see the absurd side of his sexual adventure. He opened the door a bit, sat on the bed and took up the same pose as other guys. Several men shuffled past and peered inside, but moved on. He waited, actually dozing off at one point. He had arrived at nine and it was getting on for eleven. Time to pack up, it seemed.

Just then there was an unusual stir in the corridor. A guy immediately outside gave a low whistle as his head snapped around. A young man, younger than Anthony, strolled past the door naked. He was short and slim but well-muscled, with beautiful legs and a graceful carriage. Even in the darkened environment, Anthony could see that the boy was tanned and toned. His hair was over his ears and neatly barbered. His dick was solid and long, although not yet aroused. But his face was the most gorgeous thing about him: flawless, fearless and sensuous.

Anthony's neighbour stared, but the boy simply walked on by. Anthony could not resist getting up to see the rear view as it passed. It was as rewarding as he had expected. He was not alone in his voyeurism. A dozen other men were ogling the boy and trying to get his attention. Halfway down the corridor the boy stopped, turned and put his hands on his hips as he ground his ass provocatively - but it was Anthony whose eyes he caught.

The boy gave a little smile to himself and approached. Without saying a word he twitched his head in the direction of Anthony's room.

Anthony led the way, his heart racing. His excitement was such that he collapsed on the bed. The boy closed the door behind himself before snatching away Anthony's towel to give him the once-over. As the other's face drew closer, Anthony could see one imperfection, a small mole to the right of the half-open mouth. Then the heady scent of the stranger filled his nostrils as the boy kissed him thoroughly, the softness of his intruding tongue blooming in Anthony's mouth.

'What's your name?' he breathed as the kiss broke off.

And now Anthony was truly stunned, for in a standard British English accent the boy replied, 'It's Enoch.'

***

Magda tapped on Henry's doorframe. 'He's ready for you.'

Henry Atwood looked up from his notes. 'Thanks. Be there in a mo.'

'Don't keep him waiting.'

'Magda, sweetheart, your concern is noted.' His secretary's controlling tendencies were a constant source of irritation, yet he was still too British to tell her to get knotted. He was not entirely sure this wasn't just par for the course with Rothenian women.

He pulled on his suit jacket, gathered up his files and strode to the lift. The Eastnet offices were unusually busy. The network, which had cashed in big-time with the recent terrorist onslaught against Rothenia, discovered its presenters and cameramen were achieving a world reputation. Not least among them was Henry himself, whose society contacts had already given him a notoriety well beyond the frontiers of Rothenia and the Czech Republic. He had a satellite interview programmed in only two hours with the morning U.S. networked news of CNN.

In the meantime, he had more personal concerns. He entered the corner executive suite on the top floor, where things were suddenly quieter and more plush. After glancing at the receptionist and being waved through, he tapped at the door marked 'Willem Vincent: CEO Eastnet'. He found his boss seated in an elegant leather swivel chair, looking out on the room's sensational view of Strelzen's Nuevemesten, the city's spires golden in the autumn morning sunlight.

'Take a seat, Henry. Are you ready for this?'

'As I'll ever be.'

'Let's see it then.'

Henry produced a linen bag from his inner suit pocket and withdrew a tightly folded square of dark parchment. Hanging from it by silk tags was a green wax seal, oval in shape and featuring the impressed portrait of a fifteenth-century countess holding a book in one hand and a lily in the other.

Will took the parchment and examined the seal, turning his head to follow the legend around its rim: + SIGILLVM SECRETVM MIHI FENICIE COMITISSE TARLENHEMENSI.

'So that's her?'

'Yes. The National Library says identical seals are on her charters to Medeln Abbey. It's authentic.'

'Wow!'

'And some. Would you like to start with the words written on the outside?'

'Sure. Easy enough to read. Fenicia comitissa bellatori dei Mendameroni. "Countess Fenice to Mendamero, the warrior of God." That's you, babe.'

'Don't I know it. You'd think she'd use my real name.'

'Fifteenth-century people liked word games as much as J.K. Rowling does. Fenice'd not care to call you "Atwood". It's not mysterious enough, so you're a Latin anagram of "ad nemorem".'

'Okay, now the big one. Give me that letter opener. Thanks. Here goes.' Henry slit the silk cords retaining the letter and slowly spread it out, holding back the edges of the parchment from springing back into the shape it had held for over half a millennium.

Will got up from behind his desk and leaned over Henry. 'Oh my!' he exclaimed. 'May I hold it?'

'Sure.'

Will carried the letter round to his side of the desk, where he took up a pen and began a transcription. Suddenly he put the missive down, allowing it to fold itself up as he frowned at the words he had copied. Henry waited patiently. Eventually, Will looked at him and shook his dark curly head. 'You aren't going to like this, Henry.'

'I already know that. So what does it say?'

'This is the text of the letter: Fenicia illustris comitissa Tarlenhemsis castellanaque de Bella Aspectu homini dei Mendameroni salutes et felicitationes in deo omnipotenti. Scias homo electe super omnes et dilecte in domino ut in aevo tuo princeps daemonum qui seculum tuum dominare tentaverit orietur. Ille apostatus episcopus erit atque officium suum cappa maleficorum suorum sua erit. Tunc tuus amator imaginis sacre custos tibi revenerit et iterum auxilium tuum requererit. Autem non ignem timeas, sed tuo sermenti et Christo fidelis eris. Dominus tecum dilectissimo. Per manum pueri Damiani. Datum xv diei mensis septembris anno domini MCCCCXXXVIII in castello meo de Bella Aspectu.

'And it translates more or less thus: "The noble Fenice, countess of Tarlenheim and chatelaine of Belvoir, to the man of God, Mendamero, greetings and good fortune in Almighty God. Know, O man chosen above all others and beloved of the Lord, that in your day a prince of demons will arise who will try to seize control of your world. He will be a bishop and an apostate who uses his office as a cloak for his evil deeds. Your lover, the guardian of the Sacred Portrait, will return to you and once more seek your help. Do not be afraid of the fire, but be faithful to your oath and to Christ. The Lord be with you, dearest friend. Delivered by the boy Damien. Dated 15th September in the year 1438 at my castle of Belvoir".'

'Holy crap!' breathed Henry. 'Some seer, eh?'

'Pretty miraculous, I'd say. Er... "a prince of demons" and a bishop? What's this fire and oath business?'

'I have no idea. But there ain't no doubt that what happened last month with Rudi up in Ranstadt was only a sideshow compared with what's about to go down.'

'And if I mistake not, you're being warned to prepare to meet Gavin again.'

Henry gave a mental gulp. 'So it seems,' he murmured. He was quiet under Will's scrutiny until he looked up with a lopsided grin. 'Can you fax a copy of that to Rudi at the palace and to Phil at Stevenage?'

'How about Eddie?'

'No fax. Can you scan a copy and send it by e-mail? I'll ring him later.'

'I'll do it myself. You don't want this information shared, do you?'

'No, Will, the fewer who know about this the better. Now I'd better get down to the studio. I want to consider all this while I go over my report for CNN.'

'Henry, I think it's time you took some leave. You worked like a maniac during the Dressner and Josseran crises. You're owed a sabbatical.'

'Will, wow! That's generous and all, but...'

'I'm serious. Besides, there is this. You may be about to embark on the biggest story the news media has ever encountered.'

Henry laughed. 'And Eastnet will be there with a cosmic exclusive.'

'Something like that. You'd better get over to the palace after you've done the CNN piece.'

'Yes, sir!'

'And Henry ..?'

'Boss?'

'There are strange things in the air at the moment. I mean, really strange. I've sensed it building up all year, even before the Josseran business. So take care. And I don't just mean of yourself. Remember Ed.'

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