Henry and the Eschaton

VI

By Michael Arram

It took a few moments for Max to realise something was wrong on the night-time Soho street, or more wrong than usual.

He felt rather than saw Davey stiffen next to him. He observed Alan the bouncer frowning as he talked urgently into a mobile while his colleagues looked nervous - which in such fit and stocky men was perhaps the scariest thing.

The remnants of the queue were being forced back on the door. A variety of men were doing the shoving, some shaven and tattooed, others dressed in biker gear.

Max saw one very good-looking young man push back, then go down under a welter of kicks, punches and shouts. Alan led his men into the fray and pulled the bloodied boy out, hurling him behind them through the club door.

Fighting was now general. A half brick sailed past Max's head to splinter against a wall. Davey grabbed him by the arm and dragged him away.

More and more of the gays fled down the street towards the distant lights of Leicester Square, the gang howling in pursuit. The road was full of running forms. Some of the thugs jumped up and over cars. There was the sound of a lot of breaking glass. Now Max and Davey were themselves running, and for their lives.

A gay man was rugby-tackled beside Max and brought down by two of the attackers. Davey turned and kicked one of them in the head while Max pulled their victim to his feet. Unfortunately, the act of defiance gave the homophobes time to catch up with them.

Now at last Max fully realised the trouble they were in. Five grinning men flanked and confronted them. One had a bicycle chain swinging in his hand. But Max's attention was caught particularly by the man who was obviously their leader. He had on a dark leather coat, gleaming under the sodium lamps, and a pair of unnecessary sunglasses that made his square face anonymous. What particularly struck Max was the fixed snarl on his lips, the smile of a man without conscience, fear or mercy.

The first blow took Max quite by surprise. He was knocked to the ground by the concussion of some sort of club on his shoulder. He felt the kick in his abdomen rather more. As he squirmed about trying to protect himself he saw Davey was also down. At least the man they had saved had been able to make his escape.

Another kick span Max round and scraped his face across the oily tarmac. He struggled as hands pulled him up.

'Now, you fucking perv, it's time for yer to learn to keep off the streets where normal people walk. Yer boyfriend inn gonna recognise yer after this.' The chain wielder was in front of him, slowly spinning his weapon, while two other thugs held Max to stop his desperate effort to break away. He heard the sound of police sirens in the distance, too far for him to believe they would arrive in time to be of any help.

It was then, as he caught the eye of the leader who had a yelling Davey by the hair, that the uncanny sensation Max had felt in the club returned to him in far greater force. He looked beyond the struggling figures at the lights of the street stretching behind. They were flicking off at regular intervals, causing the darkness under them to approach at great speed. It seemed there was something in the blackness that was becoming denser the closer it came.

The leader, suddenly awake to possible danger, spun to meet it. Now there was no doubt something very strange was happening. The cars on either side of the road rocked as whatever it was passed them by. Vehicle and shop alarms burst into life. Discarded plastic bags and street rubbish lifted into the air as if a tornado was whirling them up.

The bicycle chain suddenly glowed white and its wielder screamed, dropping it on the tarmac. The men holding Max were jerked to one side and hurled into shop fronts. The thug with the chain, cursing and sobbing as he nursed his hand, was lifted away from Max to land with a thud against a car and fall unconscious to the ground. The fourth thug was running away as fast as he could.

Only the leader stood his ground, not seeming to be particularly intimidated. He still held Davey by the hair with a knife at his throat, as if defying the darkness to approach.

The blackness was now palpable and loomed up over the group like vast wings spread above them, almost to roof height. The alarms and even the city noise had been hushed. All was silent apart from a throbbing hum which seemed to vibrate the very air.

The leader began crying out in a tongue Max did not understand, though it fell on his ears like a language of incantation echoing as if from ancient temples littered with skulls and reeking of spilled blood. A fierce wind came up the street from the other direction and beat on the darkness, driving it back as if it were a sea mist. It dwindled quickly to the shape of a slight young man - a rather familiar one too, if only Max could remember how that was - standing with his hands loose at his sides, his eyes glittering black as the street lights came up behind him. The leader cast Davey away with careless strength before advancing on the stranger.

Max was seized with a sudden determination which seemed to come out of nowhere. He picked up the bicycle chain in front of him, gingerly at first, then more firmly as he felt only cool, greasy metal. He whirled and curled it hard round the neck of the leader. There was a huge, silent flash of blinding white light.

When Max could see again, he found himself alone with Davey and their unconscious assailants. He picked up Davey and held on to him, suddenly sick with tension and aching all over his body. 'You okay?' he breathed.

Davey leaned on him. 'What the fuck was that? We need to get back to Covent Garden. Nowhere's safe tonight. I gotta get hold of Henry and fucking fast!'

'Henry? What about the police?'

'Sweetheart, our beloved Met is gonna be no help here. Only Henry can deal with cosmic crap like this.'

***

Henry stared at his niece, who stared back at him. This little red-faced scrap of humanity was Caitlin Helen Nicola Atwood, which seemed an improbably long name for such a small being. He smiled down at her and was disconcerted to get no response.

'She doesn't find me cute. What's wrong with her?'

'They don't smile till, I dunno, two months.'

'You should know, you're her dad.'

'You're holding her wrong.'

'She's not complaining.'

'Drop her and I'll get mum to kill you.' His brother was grinning. He was clearly delighted to be a father. All by himself he had fitted out the terraced house in Headingley with a beautiful child's bedroom in which pink and ruffled linen were predominant motifs.

Henry was astonished. He'd never suspected Ricky of having any practical talents, apart from an effortless ability to bum drinks without paying for them.

Henry passed Caitlin on to Ed, who did the nursing and cooing thing disturbingly well for a professional soldier. 'Look! She's dropped off to sleep!' he whispered.

Ricky chuckled. 'It's no big deal. She'll not do much more than sleep for the first month.'

'Damn, and here I was thinking I had a talent. Congratulations, Ricky, she's beautiful.'

'Thanks, but Helen did all the work. My contribution was 9cc of you-know-what and a lot of sweat.'

Henry produced a digital camera and took endless shots while Ed passed Caitlin back to her father. 'Is Mark coming up?' Mark Peters was Helen's brother and an old school friend, now doing something very profitable in the City.

'He sent a huge bouquet and an embarrassingly large cheque. He told us to invest it for her to pay for ballet classes. But he claims he can't get away.'

'Hah!' Henry retorted. 'Davey says he's deeply entangled with his current girlfriend, apparently a stunning but highly possessive Lebanese doctor. Which reminds me...'

Henry went through the back kitchen to the garden. He could hear Helen and his mother chatting and laughing in Caitlin's room upstairs. His dad was visiting a clerical friend in the university theology department.

When they had got on the seven-o'clock Leeds train from King's Cross, Henry had switched off his mobile so he could get some sleep. Now it was time to re-connect with the world. There were a lot of missed calls and several texts. Most were from Davey, whom he had intended to ring anyway to find out the results of his night with Max Jamroziak.

The return call was answered promptly. 'Henry! Bloody hell! You okay?'

'Yeah. Fine. No problem, apart from the smell of baby sick hanging round me. What's got your knickers twisted, mate?'

Henry paced the small patch of lawn while listening intently to his friend's account of the previous night's horrors. 'And where's Max now?'

'Still... er, with me in the flat.'

'Did you and he...?'

'He's really cute, Henry. It's fine, he knows it's fun, nothing more. You think I should hang on to him?'

'The gang last night in Soho was attacking gays indiscriminately, but whatever protected you was there to save just you... or Max. Why should that be? Did you see the boy at the heart of the cloud?'

'No. Max did, though, and said he looked familiar.'

'Did you get a description?'

'Yes, but it was vague. Do you think it was Lije... or Gavin?'

'Or some other force... maybe the one I met at the abbey of Medeln that took the shape of Jed Scudamore. But since Max recognised this one it may mean that what he saw is something new. Max had no connection with the earlier weirdness, yet suddenly he's become a player, Davey.'

'I'd better get him some new clothes then... is black leather butch enough for a cosmic supernatural adventurer?'

Henry had to laugh. 'Are you free for a trip to Cranwell, Davey? I need you to bring Max and Phil too. We must hold a conference, at which we need Eddie's input. Be there tomorrow and we'll rendezvous at the King's Cross at midday.'

'Gotcha, Henry.'

Henry closed his mobile and wandered around the garden in the morning sunshine for a while longer. He looked up at the neat little limestone house, hearing the laughter of his family. It was all so normal, while what he and his friends were facing was so very uncanny. He felt depressed, cold and lost. Why did these things come looking for him of all people? Sighing, he called up Phil's number. He had troops to mobilise. Battle had been joined.

***

Ed Cornish pulled the hire car off the M4 slip road on to the A411. The familiar signs began reading 'Cranwell City Centre'. Ed was smiling to himself.

'You're looking forward to being back?'

'Absolutely, little babe. This place has so many brilliant memories for me. Good old Finkle Road. Don't try to pretend those two years there weren't among the happiest of our life together.'

'No, it was good. And at least the supernatural left me alone to get on with my degree in peace. Very considerate of it.'

'And working at the King's...'

'Yes, that was... well, I can't say wonderful, but certainly a different sort of education from the one the university was offering.'

'I don't suppose it'll be the same, now Frank has gone.'

'No. It'll be friendly, warm and welcoming. But Davey had to get rid of him, and last I heard he was doing alright in Swindon.'

'Funny how exciting it is to be coming back. Hey! It's the ring road and the malls. Remember making out in the Odeon?'

'Well, you did dare me.'

'Fancy another go at sex in the toilets with the main feature on?'

'What, now?'

Ed grinned. 'Whatever happened to spontaneity, babe?'

'Well hell! We could still do it! It's just we've got more important things at the moment: meetings to hold, a world to save... that sort of thing.' Henry checked his mobile. 'Text from Phil. They're just past Reading in Davey's monster Audi coupe. Now I need to check in with Eddie.'

Henry made his call and discovered that Eddie Peacher was already on his second pint at the King's. By the time Henry rang off, he and Ed were on the fringes of the city centre crossing the Avon bridge. It took quite a while to find a parking place, although eventually they discovered one at a multi-storey car park ironically not too far from the King's Cross. It had taken them so long they found Davey already pulling his car into the slot reserved for the owner.

There were quick hugs before Henry grabbed Max by the arm and began interrogating him as they entered the bar. Henry was so absorbed that the sudden burst of applause and cheering took him quite by surprise. The bar was full of grinning faces and shouts.

'Ooh! In'ee grown up!'

'Still no sense of style!'

'Mine's a Guinness, Henry!'

The regulars clearly still remembered him, and whether he wanted it or not, Henry got dragged off to the bar for handshakes and a big kiss and hug from his former colleague Will Thomas, the barman. A giant gin-and-tonic in a pint glass was pressed into his hand. It was a while before he could break away.

Grinning, Davey went behind the bar and served the others. Henry eventually found his friends gathered round a table under a window, intently discussing what Max had to say.

'Hey, dude!' Henry was dragged into Eddie Peacher's lap and kissed. 'Missed your little butt. It's been too long.'

'Will you stop confusing me and act the straight you are?' Henry scolded, but through a grin. 'Now tell me all about it, Max.'

'Okay, Henry. There was this big black cloud thingy that came up behind the dangerous guy and it sorta hurled bad guys everywhere before turning on the dangerous guy. It was sorta striking at him but he said some sorta spell thingy and a wind came from nowhere. Then the cloud got beaten back and all that was left was a kid with sorta shaggy hair and gleaming eyes. It was just like an anime.'

'Well, that's very... articulate,' Henry commented dryly. 'But you said you recognised him?'

'Yeah, but I can't remember why. D'ya think my head's been messed with?'

'No,' smiled Phil. 'You always talk like this.'

'Phil and Davey must have filled you in by now on all the previous adventures we've had with the unknown.'

'Christ, yeah! It was amazing. You're like a computer-game hero!'

Henry looked at the artless admiration in Max's eyes, feeling a blush rise in his cheeks. He knew precisely how unheroic he was. 'So you've been told a little about the forces we've already encountered.'

'Yeah! Vindictive gay ghosts, spirits of vengeance, terrorists, criminal gangs and - my God! - the Holy Grail or something... couldn't work that one out.'

'I have to admit I didn't have the full story,' added Phil.

Henry nodded. 'And you'll have heard of Enoch and Elijah. Now Eddie and Phil each have a picture they want you to look at. Phil, give him yours.'

Phil handed him the picture of Mark Tolmie taken from his gravestone portrait. Max stared at it. 'Uh... he looks kinda familiar.'

'Really!' Henry sat up.

Phil nodded. 'That's Elijah. He was hanging round in the corridor outside my office on campus while I was talking to you that day. You may have caught sight of him as you left.'

'No, I don't think it was that.'

Henry was intent now. 'Eddie, give him your picture.'

Max took one look at the picture and cried, 'Hey! That's Gavin!'

'Gavin!' Henry stood up abruptly. 'How do you know that name? How do you know him?'

'He was in the Union the same day I saw Phil. I bought him a drink and we talked for a long time, until... yeah... the Elijah guy came to take him away. He told me who he was. He was cute. I really fancied him.'

Henry stared. 'Christ almighty! Looks like it was mutual. Was he the boy in the cloud?'

'Yes. I think it was him. In fact I'm sure of it. And he was in the club last night too. I caught sight of him between the dancers. Christ, I'm being stalked by an angel! Is he an angel?'

Henry sat down again with a sigh. 'No, he was Gavin Price, a student at this place with me seven years ago. We worked in this very bar, and I loved him more than words can say.' There was silence at this avowal. Ed was looking troubled. Henry's hand searched for his and grasped it hard.

'Gavin died in Rothenia so we all could live, except he didn't die fully. He exists now between worlds, a bit like the Flying Dutchman maybe.

'He touched something that isn't meant to be touched by human hands. It destroys the evil who reach for it, but the good - and Gavin was an innocent, beautiful and courageous boy - it takes from the world to become, we think, somehow linked to it. Anyway, he's never grown any older and has great power: he can cure the injured, raise the dead, and appear and disappear as and where he wishes. It now seems also that, if he chooses, he has the power to destroy.'

There was a sudden silence, with Eddie looking uneasily between Henry and Ed. Davey was considering Max with an unfathomable frown. Max himself looked stunned.

Henry gathered himself. 'Let me tell you the full story...'

***

It was four o'clock in the King's Cross and drinks were still flowing, though such was the intensity of the war council in the corner of the bar that the alcohol seemed to be having little effect on the group. Ed was on mineral water anyway, since he was driving. Davey was drinking, as he would be staying on in Cranwell. He had taken a double room for himself and Max at the local Marriott, to which they would walk from the King's. Phil was to stay with Eddie, whom he knew well from his academic work, friendship with Eddie's brothers and a mutual acquaintance with Paul Oscott.

After Max's sensational revelation over Gavin and Henry's own explanation of their affair, Henry had subsided, letting Ed come to the fore in the meeting. He respected Ed's skills in planning and prioritising. Ed was, after all, a gifted army field officer.

He was currently summing up. 'The one advantage we have over the forces of evil - I suppose I can call them that - is that we know their endgame. It's to destroy the sacred image that Gavin and Lije draw their strength from. We also know where it is: Rothenia. Okay, Rothenia's a big country, but its king is our ally and its resources are at our disposal.'

Phil frowned. 'Admitting that, Ed, we still have no idea how the thing is guarded and if it can in any way be pinned down to an actual location. It's defended as much against us as the Enemy. It won't want to be found even by friends and will not allow us to approach it.'

'The point isn't to approach it, but rather to get into a position where we can assist its custodian, our friend Gavin. He clearly still is our friend and that's one reason to find him and it. The other of course is that, if the Icon is destroyed, very unpleasant things are sure to follow.

'We can also deduce something about its purpose. It's more than just a holy relic. It's a mark set on the world so evil will have a difficult time making headway.

'Even with the... er... Antichrist at large - God, did I say that? - Rothenia remains tranquil while his malign influence spreads through the rest of the world. The power of the icon gives Gavin and Lije some protection even here. Sooner or later, however, the Enemy will make his move, and then we must be in Rothenia, watching for the signs, ready to act in any way we can.'

'And what can we do?' asked Davey.

'Lije said there is power elsewhere in the world to combat him, and it lies in my Henry.' Ed grinned. 'Down to the gym for you, little babe.'

Henry smiled weakly back. 'This is worse than the last time, when I only had to solve a riddle. This time I have to confront one of the supreme agents of evil in single combat.'

Ed sobered. 'No one expects you to fight the thing alone. And Lije said you have power you weren't aware of.'

Davey hugged Henry round the neck. 'So what're you holding out on us, Henry?'

He shrugged. 'It's my cuteness. I'll charm the bastard to death!'

Ed nodded. 'And there's the question of the bastard himself, this apostate bishop.'

It was Phil's turn. 'That's why we're in Cranwell. The information we had from the intelligence services points to a connection between the Bishop of Central Europe and this Bishop Jack. I've done what homework I can between Crockfords and the web. He seems to have an impeccable background: Wellington School, Cambridge and the Inner Temple. Then a sudden conversion and almost straight into the clergy. After turning the Brierley church into a huge success, he became a bishop in record time. He's charismatic, media-friendly, articulate and highly intelligent. He's a devoted husband and family man.'

Eddie Peacher smirked. 'A designer clergyman.'

'What do you mean?'

'He's too perfect. It's as if someone sat down and invented him, dude.'

'Sorry?'

'I'm being existential.'

Henry nodded. 'I know what Eddie means. It's as if someone - or some thing - decided to write out a CV for the perfect bishop before settling down to live his life. He's so real he has to be a fake. I wonder...'

They all looked at him. 'What?'

'This is crazy, but I wonder if whatever created him did actually go through the bother of living out the life of Bishop Jack, or just used its power to backload him into existence.'

Max was looking confused.

Phil, on the other hand, was entranced. 'Wow! Instant life! It just inserted the character of Bishop Jack into the world and everyone's memories, then took up his career at the point in time when he would be most useful. God, that's so...'

'Fucking weird?' Davey suggested.

'Fiendishly clever, I'd say. What power it must have, at least power to deceive! When do you think Bishop Jack might really have come into existence, Eddie?'

'I'm thinking last year some time, when he began to appear at Downing Street, even the White House. That's when conservative politicians and evangelical clergy found an agenda, and when the liberals walked out. He appears, and the Church collapses in schism and recrimination - that's your apostate bishop at work, dude.'

Ed assumed control again. 'Since we're here, then, we'd better do something while we can. I suggest we scout out Bishop Jack in his own haunts. Lije told Phil he had deadly servants, at least one of whom Max and Davey seem to have met. While we will still have to be cautious, somehow I think we are not being detected as yet. We have allies we can't see. Also remember that Max was able to help defeat the servant he confronted. They're not invincible.

'Lije and Gavin are still in Britain. I believe they're putting out what power they have to screen and protect us, as Gavin did with Davey and Max last night.'

Henry looked grim. 'Then I know what I must do.'

Ed's eyebrow went up. 'Not on your own, sweetheart.'

'You agree with me?'

'I couldn't stop you, and I won't try. Text Magda in Strelzen to set up a meeting for Eastnet with Bishop Jack. Henry Atwood, investigative journalist, wants to interview the next Archbishop of Canterbury.'

***

Fairview, Eddie Peacher's home, lay in heavily wooded grounds in the north of the city of Cranwell. 'Welcome to party central, dudes.'

'Okay, who keeps it tidy?'

'Well, since you weren't available, Henry, I hired Mrs Atkinson's niece, Tanya.'

'Niece? Is every Peacher house in Britain run by a member of the Atkinson clan? Andy has her sister-in-law; Richard Peacher her daughter, and you have her niece!'

'She's amazing, dude. She has like this mystical power. Remember Mary Poppins? Garbage just leaps into drawers when she clicks her fingers. Also...'

They were interrupted by the woman herself. Once he caught sight of her, Henry had no trouble working out what the 'also' signified. Tanya wore a tight and elegant black dress, her blonde hair severely styled. Only the flat shoes prevented her from projecting the air of a model on a catwalk. Henry might have been gay, but like many such men he had a sensitivity to female beauty.

After taking their coats she ushered them into a lounge where a large drinks tray was already laid out. Then she left them.

Henry rounded on Eddie. 'Bloody hell! Have you...?'

'I sorta tried, but she's just too fucking professional. I'm afraid to push it or she'll sue me for sexual harassment - or worse, sic her aunt on me.'

Ed was slumped on to a sofa in stitches by this time, his shoulders shaking and his breath coming in gasps.

'Well, at least you're beginning to recognise limits to your philandering,' Henry reflected. 'Nice pad by the way.'

'Yeah, it's sorta big for just me and whoever my current lay is, but I like the space. Reminds me of our old place in Santa Barbara, which was also built in the twenties, although this one is Lutyens rather than Spanish Californian. There's a great gym in the basement, Ed, if you wanna work out.'

'Thanks, Eddie.'

'And with our present crisis in mind, guys, there is also this.' Henry raised an eyebrow in query. 'The bishop of Cranwell is my next-door neighbour.'

'You're kidding!'

'No shit. He's in one of the villas at the back there. You can see it through the window. The place with the green-tiled roof, very Arts and Crafts.'

Ed grinned. 'Are you suggesting breaking and entering?'

'Nah! Well, only if you insist.' Eddie looked hopeful.

Henry shook his head. 'Do you know anything about his domestic setup?'

'Nope, but Tanya talks to his wife at Waitrose. She says that while the youngest of the three daughters is still here, the older two are away at some private boarding school. There's a cleaner who comes in three days a week, as well as a secretary and a chaplain with offices along from his grace of Cranwell on the top floor.'

'Tanya found this out for you?'

'Nah, she's naturally nosy. She knew it already. I just had to ask.'

'Not unlike her aunt, is she?'

Phil looked uncomfortable. 'This is weird. If, as you say, Bishop Jack is a projection into the universe of some outside force, a thing which has simply conjured up a life to insert itself into, what of his wife and his children? Are they projections too?'

Henry shrugged. 'No. I would imagine they're just logical consequences of his action. If he leaves the world and is erased from time, they'll still exist, but as different people in other circumstances.'

'It fucks my head,' mused Ed.

'It totally fascinates me, dude,' rejoined Eddie happily, 'but then I'm an English literature grad student. We have only a fitful relationship with reality ourselves.'

Henry's mobile sang to him. Checking it, he announced, 'That's Magda. She may be trying to be the Jewish mother I never had, but she's also efficient. She's had a provisional appointment by e-mail from the Cranwell diocesan press secretary. We're on for Thursday afternoon at two. Who wants to come?'

Phil put up his hand. 'And cop a look at the Antichrist? I wouldn't miss it for the whole world!

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