Henry in Finkle Road

XIX

By Michael Arram

'Studs out, baby, suits on. Today we are media executives.'

A neatly turned-out Henry picked up his battered briefcase, and gave an equally smart Gavin a small kiss. They trooped down to reception, where a taxi was waiting. There was a meeting at the rented HQ in the Strelsenermedia Building in the Old City, at which Henry was very eager to be present. He had to be early for a briefing beforehand with Matt, whose PA and research assistant he became that day, for the duration of the project.

Gavin, falling quickly into the role of Henry's PA, took the briefcase with a very serious look on his face.

At the Strelsenermedia reception desk, Henry asked for Matt's temporary offices. He collected IDs for himself and Gavin, which they pinned on each other's breast pocket.

The Rothenians had been very efficient. Matt's office already had a nameplate on the door, and the adjacent office advertised H. ATWOOD and G. PRICE, above PERSONAL ASSISTANTS TO MR WHITE.

'Baby, we got desks!' laughed Henry. 'Mine's the one with the window behind. You can have the one with the plant on it, cos you're the sensitive one and will remember to water it. Hey, Gavin! That was my first executive decision... and now my second. I need you to keep notes of the meeting, and particularly what the two prima donnas say.'

'Yes sir, Mr Atwood!' Gavin saluted; he was enjoying this. He checked his desk. 'Hey, Henry! They've left us two second-hand laptops.'

'How kind! And they're both linked to the web. Let's boot up. We can play Civilization IV multiplayer, and I just happen to have brought the setup disk. It's in my briefcase – in fact, it's about all there is in my briefcase.'

Henry worked out how to use the internal phone. He waited till nine-thirty, then dialled his boss. 'Matt, it's Henry. Do you want me and Gavin now?'

'Henry, lovely to hear your tuneless voice. Come on through. It's going to be a day and a half, and no mistake.'

The boys knocked and entered the large corner office, with its rather splendid view across the Starel and the New City to the palace, bright in the morning sunlight. They took the seats indicated for them at the side of a table.

Matt sat at the other side, with several thick files in front of him. 'So it's the battle of the giants in...' he checked his watch, 'ninety minutes. You'll find flak jackets hanging on the back of your office door.'

'And they've never met in person before?' asked Gavin.

'Apparently not. I expect Bannow to be rather polite and civilised. Paulie says he's one of those very cultured and good-mannered Americans, with a great deal of natural dignity.'

Henry snorted. 'I wish I could say the same about our Professor Wardrinski. How much did you have to pay to get Dr Bannow to consent to get in front of the cameras?'

'An awful lot. I had to sell an interest to National Geographic to afford him in the end. Wardrinski had better not find out the difference between their fees. Also, he wanted conditions such as no face-to-face confrontations on camera.

'Henry, I've got all the files and your research here. I need you whispering in my ear while we iron out the details of filming. What's Gavin going to do?'

'Make notes, boss.'

'OK, good. The producer will be in with us, but we thought we'd meet separately from the full team, in case it gets really hairy. Excellent. Will Vincent said he wanted to see you for a moment, if you've got time, Henry. After you have your chat with Will, if he's in, I suggest you and Gavin go get a coffee, then come back here fifteen minutes beforehand. OK, off you scoot.'

Gavin went next door with instructions to tidy up the office, while Henry trotted upstairs to Will's executive suite. He found Will's secretary, who told him to take a seat. After ten minutes he was sent in, to be received into Will's arms and given a big hug and kiss.

'Nice office, Will,' he said, and it was.

'Lovely to see you, Henry. My, you've grown a bit.'

'But not upwards.'

'Height is relative, little one. There are other ways of being a big man. Henry, would you like a summer job here in Strelzen next year?'

'Oh God! Would I!'

'I'll take that as a yes. Of course, we can't pay the sort of rates you'd get in London, but you'll be quite well-off, because accommodation here is so cheap. You've got a boyfriend, Fritz was saying.'

'Gavin, yes.'

'Does he speak Rothenian? German?'

'No, he's your typical English monoglot.'

'Pity. Maybe I could find a job for him nonetheless, sweeping the floors or something.'

Henry laughed. 'I'm sure he'll appreciate it. It'll be so good, Will. What have you got in mind?'

'Eastnet. We're always in need of production assistants with good English to work with the agencies. You have native English, and pretty passable Rothenian too. I'll be putting you on the news desk, working for Tomas Weissman, our head of news and features... I think you know him.'

'Yeah, nice guy. I met him at the palace last year.'

'You impressed him, and now you have Marlowe Productions on your CV, so you're even more attractive.'

'Hey, this is great Will... I'd love a few months in Strelzen, to see if I'd like to make it a longer stay one day, like you did.'

'I can recommend it. This place saved my life... you know the story. It's so different from Britain, or even France, which I like well enough.'

Something stirred in Henry's mind. 'Tell me Will, what is it about this place which makes it feel so different. You're probably the person best qualified to answer that question. Cos – you'll think me mad – I feel, not exactly different in Rothenia, but enhanced. I'm more Henry-like... it's nuts, but do you know what I mean? And Rudi – when he became king – he was a man not just transformed, but transfigured. I thought it was the grooming for the crown his grandma and mum gave him, but I wonder...'

Will looked at Henry with some consideration. 'It's odd your saying that, but there is something of a difference between me when I'm in Plymouth visiting mum and dad, and me when I'm walking Mikhelstrasse. And it's a feeling that's grown on me since the king returned. Henry... what are you implying?'

'Nothing... I really don't know, Will.'

Will looked a little suspiciously at Henry, then smiled and asked if he had time for a coffee.

Henry said he would pass. The big meeting between Bannow and Wardrinski would be in twenty minutes, and he wanted to prepare himself. He also wanted to rig Gavin for a storm. Gavin hated loud arguments: they made him cringe.

Henry and Gavin slipped into Matt's office in the wake of the ladies bringing coffee and a platter of rather fine Rothenian cream cakes. 'Down boy,' hissed Henry to Gavin, whose fatal weakness for sweet things he had learned to recognise.

Wardrinski arrived first. Henry thought the professor looked quite Rothenian, now he was in the land of his ancestors. You would have taken him for a local had you passed him on Radhausplaz. However much he might have looked like a native, though, he certainly did not look at ease. Odd, because the prospect of a fight would normally get him quite excited. Henry wondered if it was he who was putting Wardrinski on edge – after all, he had faced the man down in Camden last January, and Wardrinski didn't look as if he would take defeat easily, especially from a kid.

Matt was all affability. 'Chad! You looked so tanned. How was the desert?'

Wardrinski perked up at this point; apparently he had enjoyed his adventures in the Middle East and Turkey. He and Matt chatted amiably for a while about the filming in Syria. The professor had been impressed by the antiquities he had seen However, he was predictably dismissive of the remnants of ancient Christian communities he had encountered in the desert, communities which sounded both deeply melancholy and very interesting to Henry.

Finally a tap on the door announced Alastair Bannow, who was ushered in by an assistant producer and followed by his own publicist.

Henry was impressed first of all by how tall the American was. Bannow was a man in his mid-fifties. His skin was weathered, while his hair and small, pointed beard were silver. He looked very like Hollywood's idea of an old frontiersman. The only thing discordant with his hawk-like image was a certain unfocussed and distant look in his blue eyes. Matt did the introductions. Bannow shook hands politely with Wardrinski, then sat opposite his nemesis.

'Gentlemen,' said Matt, 'I hope your accommodations in the Hilton are comfortable?' The two academics nodded. 'Very good. I think we're likely to be filming here for the best part of two months. This won't be continuous, of course, and I imagine you have other projects that will take you away from Rothenia off and on. Henry here has a basic schedule for filming which we need to get agreed today, and we have to keep certain days clear.

'The other thing on the agenda for this week is to approve the script. Now I understand, Dr Bannow, that you wish to talk unscripted to camera?'

Bannow stirred, and said in a rather dry and high-pitched voice, 'That's right. I prefer to speak without constraint on camera.'

Matt nodded – this had already been agreed. 'Yes, although as I said, that does not mean we won't edit what you say.' Bannow made a vague gesture with his hand, which might have indicated acceptance. Matt continued, 'If that is understood, Gavin will distribute a provisional list of locations and dates, and we can start checking them against our diaries.'

The meeting swapped dates for the next half hour, and it was pretty clear to Henry that both Bannow and Wardrinski were playing status games. Each was trying to impress the other with the commitments he had pencilled in over the next two months. Henry thought Bannow won hands down, with lecture engagements in Tokyo and Chicago, and filmed interviews with three separate networks. Wardrinski just had a presentation before the Royal Society and a lecture to the Secular Society. But at least they weren't shouting at each other – yet.

There was to be a lunch at Ribaud's, the famous Rothenian restaurant on Radhausplaz, to which Henry was invited, but not Gavin. Gavin was happy enough about that, and said he would dust the office and pretend to work. If Gavin needed anything, most of the Strelsenermedia staff had some English, so Henry wasn't too worried about him.

Ribaud's was a new experience for Henry. Matt wanted to eat outdoors on that sunny Strelzen day, and Henry was delighted to see Oskar, Fritz's big brother, at another table. Making his apologies, he went over to get a hug.

'Sit down, Henry.' He was introduced to a couple of Oskar's colleagues at the palace. They were having a leisurely business lunch, getting ready for the summer season. The king was returning from Oxford the following week, and Oskar had masterminded a busy social schedule. There was also the first state visit to the USA in September to fine tune. King Rudolf was a media sensation across the Atlantic, where he would have several days along the East Coast. Oskar was buzzing with it.

Finally Oskar got round to Fritz. 'He has been to stay with you, Matt was saying.'

'We had a fun weekend, that's for sure.'

'How is he dealing with the separation from home, Henry?'

'He seems to love being Frankie Prince, that's all I noticed. Not that he doesn't miss you and Helge, but he looked more than a little delighted not to be the prince of Tarlenheim for a while.'

'Hmph,' growled Oskar. 'That Bannow person made Fritzku's life a misery. Some people should be prosecuted for writing without due care and attention. I wish it had been libellous, I would have loved to have had the lawyers on him.'

Henry grinned. 'You could go and tell him yourself. That's him with the beard, sitting next to Matt.'

Oskar's look hardened. 'I would, but you know Rothenian ideas about hospitality, Henry.' His handsome face cleared. 'But now you're in Strelzen, I know the king will want to see you, so you had better leave your contact details with me. Besides, you need to come out and see Pete and myself in our new house at Templerstadt. I know Matt intends to be there sometime soon. Edward and Harriet Peacher will be staying with us for a lot of the summer too. Or have you seen enough of Eddie, now?' Oskar looked mischievous.

'Not at all, Oskar. Eddie is a very good friend, my best non-gay friend apart from my brother.'

Henry took his leave and returned to Matt's table. He found that in the meantime the conversation had gone from edgy to brittle.

'So, Mr Bannow...' Wardrinski was beginning.

'It's Dr Bannow,' came the swift interjection.

'Naturally... yes,' Wardrinski agreed, with an annoying simper. 'Dr Bannow, could you tell me how it is that holiness travels down a genetic bloodline?'

Bannow looked stony-faced at Wardrinski. 'I don't think I ever said that.'

Wardrinski looked innocent. 'Surely that's the implication of your book. Don't you say there is a particular lineage in which holiness and power is concentrated, running from Ephesus in the first century to Rothenia here in the twenty-first, and doesn't this lineage now safeguard a holy treasure?'

Bannow was now looking at Wardrinski as if he were a particularly irritating insect. 'I said nothing of the sort. I suggested that there were some strange things about certain families and certain places that raised questions. I did not have the answers. I would propose that scientists look at the evidence I presented, and make up their minds about what it means. That is what scientists do, is it not? Look at evidence and construct theories?'

'Yes, of course it is,' Matt cut in, and sidelined them towards the menu.

The meal was not a relaxed experience. Henry concluded that, had Gavin joined them, the tension in the air would have given his nervous boyfriend heartburn.

Henry had hoped to talk to Bannow about some of the things he had learned while reading the works of St Fenice, and the various depictions of her Vision he had encountered. But Bannow wished to make no general conversation, and did little more than murmur comments on the food and the restaurant to his publicist. So Henry concentrated on the meat dish and on making contributions to support Matt's laboured attempts to keep up a conversation round the table.

It was not until the dessert course that Henry got Bannow's attention. 'Dr Bannow, I was very interested in what you had to say about the facial similarity that runs in the Tarlenheims.'

Bannow focussed on Henry, and gave him a small smile. 'Yes, er... Mr Atwood, isn't it?'

'That's me, I'm Henry. Is there any other example of a face passing down the generations quite like that?'

'There are Hapsburg lips and Windsor noses, but no, nothing like it that I have ever read about.'

'You make no conclusions about it in the book, but do you have any theory?'

'None, Henry. But it is odd, and odd coincidences often indicate that there are new things waiting to be discovered.'

'So you think that there might be a scientific way of accounting for it?'

Bannow smiled at Henry again. 'I'm open to any reasonable explanation.'

Henry decided he liked Dr Bannow, despite the purgatory the man had put Fritz through.

By now Wardrinski was chafing to take command of the conversation. 'It seems quite clear to me that a lot of this oddity is simply that people want to see a likeness, the same way they see the Virgin Mary in patterns of mould on subway walls. They want to make something out of a similarity, so as to experience the thrill of a pseudo-miracle. And the only thing stranger than the idea of a divine miracle is the willingness of some people to countenance it.'

Henry got the idea he had just heard an aphorism that had been recycled several times. He also caught a mocking stress on the word some. 'I suppose,' he said, 'a scientist with an idea that the structure of the universe is regulated by laws which permit of no exceptions would find the idea of a miracle of any sort absurd.'

'Exactly. This idea of the miraculous flies in the face of all scientific observation.'

'Ah...' said Henry, 'but assume for the sake of argument that one day someone – a qualified scientist – observed such an exception.'

Wardrinski's face took on a look of intellectual distaste. 'A pointless scenario. Unless exceptions to the laws of nature could be repeated under laboratory conditions, they could always be explained away as subjective errors on the part of the observer. And if they could be repeated, then they would not be miraculous or exceptional, but simply a part of nature we don't yet understand. The point about miracles – such as I think you are describing – is that they don't recur when you want them to, but only when divine providence determines. They can never be objectively tested.'

'But they might happen.'

'No... I said they can always be explained as errors or wishful thinking. So the respectable – indeed the only permissible – standpoint is that they do not happen. You merely play with language.'

Henry saw he was getting nowhere. He knew he had himself once experienced the supernatural –not just he, but several of his friends. The power of that experience was not to be denied, which was the problem with Wardrinski's reasoning. Once one experienced such a revelation, and all the logic in the world would not explain it away, even if it was not possible to convince others of what had been seen.

Matt was looking on in an amused way, while Bannow was decidedly interested in the exchange between Henry and the professor. 'I'll be interested in your take on the Tarlenheim face, then,' Henry concluded.

Henry and Gavin were lying on the bed that night. Gavin had his glasses on, reading the draft of the scripts for the conference in the morning. Otherwise, he was naked.

So too was Henry, who was taking advantage of the fact by attempting to distract his lover. Currently he was stroking the length of Gavin's erection, moving his hand slowly, then cupping and massaging the smooth and shaved balls. He was thinking hungrily about the moist purple head that had emerged from Gavin's foreskin, and concluded that it needed more-urgent attention.

'Happy, baby?'

'Oh yes, Henry. It was a good day. But I was glad that I didn't go to that lunch with you.'

'There was a bit of a row. Bannow and Wardrinski did not disappoint expectations.'

'You like Dr Bannow?'

'I think I do, a bit. He's a lot more human than the professor. But they're both very odd men. They're too caught up in their own ideas to notice much what they're doing to the world around them. Basically, someone needs to tell their mums that they're not safe to be let out on their own.'

Gavin laughed, then squirmed as Henry's mouth closed around his penis. A long, sweaty time later, Gavin turned to Henry and smiled in his face. 'I do love what you do to me, Henry. You're so patient with me.'

'Baby, you're everything I want. It took me a while to realise it, but you make me a man... not because you're sort of girlie, but because you make me confront what I am and what I want out of a relationship. You give me all of yourself, and I have to show I deserve the gift, because it is such a special one.'

And that was it, thought Henry. Gavin gave endlessly and asked for nothing back. His was the true fullness of love, trust and self-giving. Gavin had given himself in just the same way to Wayne, and been abused and ridiculed, yet that had not stopped him being quite as generous to Henry. The boy was special, and he cuddled into Henry in total trust. Henry hugged him protectively. This was his lover, and what a brave little soul he had turned out to be, too. They slept in the complete happiness of mutual devotion.

The second of the two scheduled days with Wardrinski and Bannow together was as uneasy as the first. Henry noticed that all the sniping was coming from Wardrinski's side and that Bannow was bemused by it as much as resentful. Still, the filming schedule was being agreed, and the production was coming together. In the afternoon, Henry slipped away with Gavin to the National Library and raided the catalogues. Gavin wasn't much help but he was at least company. Mostly he sat and read the English-language newspapers.

Henry did a catalogue search for the Priory of St Veronica, and turned up very little. What he did find was that the devotion to Veronica had entered Rothenia from France by way of Hungary late in the fifteenth century. It had been popular ever since, and particularly prominent till recent years in the province of Husbrau in the north.

On digging deeper, Henry was intrigued to find that Veronica was supposedly a Palestinian woman whom Christ had cured. She had gone to Rome with a miraculous portrait of Christ and cured the Emperor Tiberius with it. Henry sighed. Yet more evidence of the veneration of Christ's face that Bannow had missed. A cult of St Veronica growing up in the same province of Rothenia which contained the castle of Tarlenheim was one more coincidence pointing towards Bannow's conclusion.

Henry ransacked the library for books on Stefan Gulik and the KRB. There were quite a few of them. He called up the most recent, a heavy and academic tome. Henry searched the index in vain for references to Professor Wardrinski's father, who was only mentioned in passing several times.

What finally caused Henry to sit up was a large section of plates in the centre of the book, with a range of photographs of the KRB in action: fighting with Communists on the streets of the city of Zelden in the 1920s; marching in torchlight processions; parading on Corpus Christi and the national day, Flaviendenn; and playing football in huge summer camps in the 1930s. At the end were portraits of the movement's leaders. One of them had Henry reaching for the photocopier. Gulik and twelve regional KRB commandants were standing in full uniform in a line in front of a religious building Henry did not recognise. On their chests were identical badges featuring death's-heads designed just like those in the woodcut of the Vision of St Fenice in old Mr Wardrinski's notebook. Henry had no doubt he was looking at the Master and Acolytes of the Priory of St Veronica, wearing their insignias. They stared glassily at him out of the large photograph. They looked very like a group of men who would not hesitate to rifle through ancient graves if by doing it they could find a religious talisman of great power.

Finally, Henry called up books on the cults of Rothenian saints. Fenice rated an entire chapter for having been the most celebrated of the nation's medieval saints, as well as a literary figure. There was nothing new in it. Of greater interest to Henry was what the book had to say about her place of burial, something the Priory of St Veronica had apparently looked for but failed to find. The Annals of Medeln, a sixteenth-century compilation, said that Fenice had died in the abbey and had been buried with the rest of the sisters, but had been translated to a tomb near the high altar on her canonisation. There was a description of quite a substantial shrine, plated with silver by Duke Rudolf III. But the shrine had been dismantled in the 1770s when Princess Osra remodelled the abbey, saying it lacked Classical elegance. Fenice's body was lost either during the building work or when the abbey was occupied by French troops from Napoleon's army, which had marched into Strelzen in 1808.

The closing bell rang, and Henry filed away his notes. 'OK, babe?' he asked Gavin.

'Ready for dinner, yes.'

'Good, because I've got a bit of a story to tell you about St Fenice and Dr Bannow's holy portrait of Christ.' It was time for Henry to share his thoughts, and there would be no one more interested than his superstitious little Gavin.

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