Henry and the Balance of Probability
Reggie was late, a very rare occurrence. While they were waiting, Damien and the others booted up Final Combat 6 on Mattie's X-Box 360.
Finally, Lance said, 'Where's Reggie? This isn't like him.'
Damien agreed. 'I'll check me texts. Nuffink. Hang on, I'll ring him.' There was a wait, then a brief conversation. 'S'alright. He's on his way. Be here in a minnit.'
Unusually, when the SUV arrived, Reggie's second mum, Esther, came in and stayed to chat with Rachel Oscott. Reggie toiled upstairs, looking woeful.
When he came in, the other boys could not but notice his downcast expression. 'Whassup, me mate?' Damien asked.
Lance was alarmed. 'You alright?'
Reggie stood as if uncertain what to do or say. 'Fine,' he mumbled.
'No yer not,' Damien contradicted. 'Whass happened?'
Reggie sank to the carpet next to his friends, tears leaking on to his pale, thin cheeks. 'My mom's got a transfer to the State Department in Washington. We're leaving middle of August. I'm starting school in the States for the new semester.'
Three appalled boys just gaped at him.
'No, no...' was all Lance could say. He felt as though someone had just filleted his heart with a dull knife.
'When didya find out?' asked Mattie.
'Yesterday. Mom and Esther have finally agreed they need to go home so Esther can sell more of her art. She's having no success in Europe.'
'But Reggie...!' A cold, sick feeling had taken possession of Lance. He was learning about loss.
'I tried to talk them out of it... but they didn't listen. They said I didn't understand, and I'd soon make new friends in Maryland... that's where we're going to live. Oh, and they said that webcams and e-mails meant I could still keep in touch with you guys.'
'Adults!' scoffed Damien. 'Buggers don't have a clue whass important.'
Silence descended. Reggie could not raise his eyes to meet Lance's stricken face.
'Maybe you can run away, and we'll hide ya?' speculated Mattie.
'Mattie! Talk sense,' warned Damien. 'Look, Reggie, this is bad... worse, iss awful. But maybe yer'll be back holidays. And Esther's right, there is IM and stuff. We won't lose yer.' Unfortunately, the look on Damien's face contradicted his positive words.
Lance was crying by then, and seeing this, Reggie went over to him. The boys embraced. 'I'm sorry, Lance,' Reggie whispered in his friend's ear. 'I'm gonna miss you so much.'
'Me too,' Lance hiccupped miserably. His mouth blindly found Reggie's, and with Mattie and Damien looking on mutely, the two young gay boys kissed long and hard, for all their clumsiness and inexperience. And, as they did, Lance's eyes widened, for that strange and yet familiar smell again filled his nostrils: a sharp, warm fragrance that cleared his mind and seemed to thrill his every sinew. He pulled away, startled, to see a yearning in Reggie's pale eyes that at last he thought he recognised.
Henry hooked up with Justin at the Flavienerhof. 'Terry's gone?'
'Yeah. He says he's never been so disappointed with Rothenia.'
'What was he expecting?' Henry looked puzzled.
'Youknow. Demons, ghosts, coups, assassination plots, gangsters, end of the world.'
'A problem of expectations, then. You can clearly have too much of a good thing.'
'It's what I told him. Rothenia's not a theme park. I said to go to Disneyland Paris if he wants constant thrills and excitement. Daimey and Mattie loved the rides.'
'Of course, there are the queues,' Henry added meditatively.
'Damien had this knack of worming his way to the front... a mixture of charm and intimidation. I wince every time I remember what he did to that German boy at Big Thunder Mountain.'
Henry sipped his Taylor's Breakfast Tea, which the charming old restaurant stocked. Justin had his usual double espresso.
'So, ready to go over to Fritzy's?' Justin asked.
Henry gave his quirky grin. 'You bet. I'm glad the Peacher attorneys put the squeeze on the Justice Ministry. I want to see Tommy get his formal exoneration and apology.'
'Before we go, you gotta tell me what you're going to do about Count Robert.'
'Me? It's a problem for Rudi.'
'But you think the old guy killed Jakob Olmusch.'
'Yeah. Pretty much certain. When Tommy went up to the gallery and found it empty, it was because Jakob Olmusch must have met his brother Karl, instead of Brantesberh doing the job as had been planned. Jakob and Karl could have gone down the secret passage to let Count Robert in. That's why Karl's attaché case was on the stairs. He may have been lurking there while Jakob was having his dustup with the general. That's one scenario anyway. I'm giving it more thought.
'So while Tommy was going down the main staircase, the others were coming up the passage from Wenzelgasse. But how did the row about the Adelsgenossenschaft's finances turn into murder? That's what I don't understand but would certainly like to.'
Both men's mobiles bleeped simultaneously. They looked at each other and checked the texts.
'It's Lance,' said Henry.
'Mine's from Daimey. Christ! Does yours say the same about Reggie?'
Henry stared. 'The Mendamero Men are losing their secretary and intellectual powerhouse. How sad is that? Poor lads. They've all grown so close over the past few years.'
'Daimey's suggesting I do something. You gotta feel sorry for them. It'll be like losing a family member. But it's been on the cards for a while, Nate says. He's chummy with Esther, who's told him they just can't afford this posting anymore, even with the rent they get from their house in Maryland. Reggie's mother needs the promotion.'
'My Lance is distraught. He's not had to deal with loss before. Looks like it'll be a long chat tonight before bed. God! It'll be the end of the Mendamero Men, I'd guess. For now, though, come on, we'd better get over to Fritzy's place.'
Fritz had put a lot of thought into the meeting. He had insisted the press be there, including a photographer from the Ruritanischer Tagblatt .
Tommy too had given the meeting serious consideration. He was wearing a severe black dress, with pearls, as well as black tights and high heels. He had left off makeup, but had on some fetching, large, silver earrings.
The deputy justice minister's expression as he shook Tommy's hand for the camera was somewhere between embarrassment and outrage. He knew he had been ambushed. Ex-governor Müller, Captain Mannstejne and the Strelzen district magistrate stood behind the minister as, in both Rothenian and English, he made a formal apology for Tommy's treatment at the hands of the Rothenian justice system.
So far so good, but then the minister managed to earn his salary by turning the tables. He concluded, 'And I am glad to be able to announce at this time that Count Karl Gustav von Tarlenheim zu Olmusch earlier this morning confessed to the manslaughter of his brother, Count Jakob. He has been remanded to appear before the city court for sentencing next week. The ministry is pleased to commend the Strelzen Investigative Division of the State Police for the rapid closure of the case. Thank you. A press conference will be held this afternoon at the ministry.'
'Well, damn!' Henry swore in Justin's ear. 'Now I have to get over to Eastnet. My mobile's already buzzing.'
Justin whispered back, 'Before you go, come with me to talk to Kristof. See his face? It's like he's been sucking a lemon someone's soaked in chilli.'
Captain Mannstejne gave every appearance of wanting to be buttonholed. He shook hands with both men, then indicated they should take a quick walk to the upper gallery, while the rest of the party was making its farewells. When they were at the place where Jakob Olmusch had departed this life, the captain cautioned, 'Of course this is off the record.'
Henry and Justin both agreed.
'Karl Olmusch could not have committed the murder, much though he undoubtedly loathed his brother.'
'We knew that,' Henry confirmed. 'He's not tall enough to have used the sword the way it was employed to kill his brother.'
'I see. You worked that out before the crime scene investigators.'
'We had some help.'
'Hmm. There are other things which tell against him. How was it that he and his brother were arguing in English? The two boys who overheard the argument were clear about the language that was being used in this gallery. And though both men knew how to speak English, Rothenian aristocrats in the heat of a violent encounter would not use a foreign language to express themselves. It makes no sense.'
Justin chipped in. 'Oh yeah! Don't forget the sword. No Olmusch fingerprints. How did he account for that?'
'He said he used a rag wrapped round the handgrip, which he dropped down the laundry chute as he cleaned himself up.'
Justin scoffed. 'Clever of him to think of bringing a rag, since he didn't go into the meeting with the intention of terminating his brother. This story's got more holes than Damien's socks. Why is the examining magistrate buying it?'
'The motive at least is clear: Jakob had caught his brother out in several thefts and had confronted him. There was also a known history of animosity between the two that could have precipitated violence. The magistrate simply shrugged off any complications in the evidence. Every one of us has been under pressure to close this case, which has caused the government severe embarrassment. Under the circumstances, a confession settles it once and for all.'
Henry nodded. 'Except, that is, for a police officer with a tidy mind and a conscience. What do you think really happened, Kristof?'
Captain Mannstejne sighed. 'I have no alternative theory, except that surely there must have been a third person. It cannot have been Enn-vissel, or the prince, so much is clear. Who else it might have been, I do not know. I'm looking seriously at General zu Brantesberh, yet I cannot find any motive. If it was one of Count Karl's criminal associates who did the deed, I have no idea who it might have been, or for that matter, why the count should confess at this stage. It is a diabolical mystery.'
They stood moodily for a moment, staring at one another. Then Henry had to leave, although he delayed a moment to thank the captain, whom he thought more kindly of after this interview.
He took the secret passage down to Wenzelgasse, so as to make good his escape to Eastnet. On the way, he began to wonder if – as Karl himself had once said to him – he was not becoming susceptible to conspiracy theory. He had certainly got it wrong this time about the resort at Wilberhtesee and its miscellaneous investors. Also, for once, Hendrik Willemin seemed to be in the clear.
Was his suspicion about Count Robert Rassendyll anything more than another conspiracy theory? He thought not. The balance of probability tipped towards the count's being the culprit. But how to get more evidence? What had gone on in that gallery at the time of the murder? There had been, by his and Justin's reconstruction – and now Captain Mannstejne's as well – three men present, not two.
Henry realised his options were limited. He could try to get Rudi on the case. Despite the existence of issues between the king and his uncle, however, Henry could just imagine Rudi's reaction to the suggestion that his tall, eccentric Uncle Robert was Jakob Olmusch's murderer.
Should he leave it alone? Henry sighed, knowing he couldn't. It was just not in his nature to let mysteries go.
Tommy and Fritz went from the press event directly to their former quarters in the Osraeum. They were there merely to check that no personal items had been left behind by the staff, who had packed their bags and were waiting to take them over to the Tarlenheim Palace.
As Tommy was triumphantly emerging from under the bed with a discarded bra, the bedside phone burred.
'It's a palace internal number,' Fritz commented before picking the receiver up. 'Hey, Harry! Just caught us leaving for my place. What's up? What, now? No, no problem, though I have to get back to the bank after lunch. Yeah, he can come... can't you, babe?'
'What was that about?' Tommy asked as Fritz hung up.
'She wouldn't say. But Harry has a way of letting you know when attendance is not optional. This is one of those occasions. It shouldn't take long. Wanna change? Boy clothes are probably advisable where Maxxie's concerned. He's already ruined two of my suits. You don't want to be wearing anything you value when he throws up, believe me.'
They walked across to the Residenz, checked through security and found themselves ushered directly to the domestic quarters. Harry was at her desk with her social secretary. Other than a scattering of toys, there was no sign of Prince Maxim.
The queen indicated a social grouping of seats, where Tommy and Fritz took a sofa. After her secretary departed, she settled opposite them.
'So, what can we do for you, Harry?'
Harry got straight to the matter. 'Tommy's leaving Strelzen, and I find I can't allow that.'
'What?' Tommy was bemused.
'You can't imagine what fun it has been to have someone intelligent to talk to about clothes and their use, someone with taste and imagination. You notice I exclude Rudi from this sort of activity. He just doesn't get it, poor love.
'No,Tommy can't leave. I find I need an assistant chief-of-staff with responsibility for my image and wardrobe, someone who in addition is well-instructed in political life in Rothenia, and whom Maxxie likes. You have the job, Tommy, if you want it.'
Tommy's mouth hung loose.
Fritz burst into laughter. 'You don't look too intelligent like that, sweetheart. Seriously, Harry, that's too generous.'
'No, it's self-interested. Tommy really is good at that sort of thing, and he may even be the best. Besides, since he already knows where the bodies are buried in palace life, he has the advantage of not needing to have it explained to him, in all its uncanniness. So, what do you say, Tommy dear?'
A blissful grin had taken possession of Tommy Entwhistle's face, which was all the answer the queen needed. 'The salary won't be huge, but I can swing a grace-and-favour apartment for you somewhere in the palace. You may live your own life, and deal with Fritz on your own terms. Isn't that what you wanted?'
Tommy agreed that it was exactly what he wanted. He gripped Fritz's hand by way of affirmation.
The queen pursued the matter. 'Another thing is this: I'm serious about prison reform. It's my next Rothenian crusade, and you will be an invaluable aide as it develops.'
'Absolutely!' Tommy enthused. 'I can't forget poor Bela in the Arsenal prison. If I can help him and people like him, it's all I want in a career.'
'Then we're agreed. You must understand, of course, that the post requires you to wear suits. It's up to you, however, which gender the suit belongs to, Tommy darling. Now, a little lunch for anyone?' The queen rang for sandwiches and fruit to be laid out in the conference room.
Maxxie burst in at that point in advance of his nanny. 'Mummy! Tomm-EE! Unca Fwitzy!'
Fritz settled beside the queen as the waiters arrived. 'You look a little under the weather, Harry,' he observed.
The queen shook her head. 'I've been feeling a bit queasy in the mornings. Rudi thinks I've picked up a case of food poisoning. If so, I wish it'd clear up.'
'Mummy's been sick!' Maxim gurgled gleefully. 'Just like me!'
'Yes. Well, junior, you were sick because you helped yourself to cooking chocolate from the kitchen. It's not like the eating stuff. You know that now, don't you?'
'I was greedy.'
'You certainly were, lambkin.'
'When I have my little brother, I'll tell him not to be greedy.'
The queen rolled her eyes at Fritz over her son's head.
Tommy raised his eyebrows. 'You still want a baby brother, just like Louis Bernenstejne has?'
'Mummy's gonna think about it, she said.' The little boy turned impulsively and hugged his mother around her waist.
'Easy, junior, you'll squeeze me in half!'
The child looked up earnestly. 'I'd never hurt my mummy!' he protested.
She kissed the top of his head. 'I believe you, sweetie.'
Henry signed off Eastnet's screens, thanked his co-presenter, and went to find a coffee. On the first floor of the company's offices, he discovered no less a dignitary than Will Vincent in the stylish little cafeteria, with its stunning view over the New City.
Henry was signalled over to join his boss's table. Tomas Weissman vacated his seat, relinquishing it to Henry.
'Good job on the Palace Murder, Henry. You've done Eastnet proud yet again. But all that business at Lake Maresku was nothing to do with the murder. That right?'
'I wouldn't go quite that far, Will. It was Karl Olmusch's embezzling of funds for the development which was the trigger for his brother's death, that's for sure. But Hendrik Willemin's seems to be in the clear for once, if that's what you mean.'
'The old rostac ! Life in Rothenia would be less interesting without him.'
'You've got a soft spot for him, haven't you.'
'Yes, well... he certainly changed my life, for which I'm grateful now, though at the time...'
Henry knew the story.
Will continued, 'I followed up on the Rotheniske Adelsgenossenschaft .'
Henry looked puzzled. 'Pardon me?'
'You know. I said I'd try to join, being a peer of Rothenia and all.'
Will grimaced. 'I had a neatly typed letter on very elegant headed paper from your mate Brantesberh. It informed me that membership was only open to families where the peerage had descended from before the time when Maxim was king of Rothenia.'
'Oh!' Henry exclaimed. 'That's pretty adroit. So Rudi's friends, like you and former president Maritz, though peers of Rothenia, are excluded. That's rather more clever than I'd give Brantesberh credit for.'
'I thought we'd agreed that Brantesberh was not the brains of the operation.'
'But now it looks like Karl Olmusch wasn't either.'
Will eyed Henry. 'I think you do believe that there is a mastermind behind all this. Is it Willemin?'
Henry shook his head. 'I've come to the conclusion that the RA's new President and Patron is the man.'
'What! Count Robert Rassendyll? You're kidding! He's an amiable old buffer, but very eccentric. I can't see him embroiled in political intrigue and murder.'
'Nor can Rudi. But Justy and I are convinced that Count Robert was also in the gallery when Jakob Olmusch was killed. Of the two men there, I believe he was the one who must have wielded the sword, not Karl.'
Will stared. 'Blimey! Well I never! Tell me how you came to that conclusion.'
Henry obliged, and wound up by saying, 'All we have are suspicions and circumstantial evidence, and a very big question. Why did Karl Olmusch take the rap for a murder he did not commit?'
Will frowned. 'Maybe he did it on a plea bargain. After all, he may get away with no more than a three-year sentence on a manslaughter charge, with an early release possible. But only Karl himself knows the answer to that one, and he's in the Arsenal prison.'
A light bulb came on over Henry's head. 'The Arsenal!'
The stench of the prison was unsettling as well as vile, the interview room dismal and dirty. Henry had dressed down for the visit. He had also pulled some strings. The sacking of Governor Müller had made the staff nervous and amenable to pressure from a high-profile journalist.
Henry had brought companions. On one side, twitchy and pale, was a very brave Tommy, clearly reliving his recent experience and not too happy about it. On the other, perpetually cheerful like a healthy breeze of normality, sat attorney Willem Graznic. He had his briefcase open, and was making notes on an American yellow legal pad.
A clash of metal doors heralded the arrival of the man Henry wanted to see. Two guards entered with Bela cuffed to one of them, shackles on his ankles. He looked bemused until he saw Tommy. Then his pale, scarred face lit up, although he knew better than to speak.
'You can unshackle the man,' Willem ordered in Rothenian. The guards hesitated, but complied. Bela sat at the table opposite his visitors. 'And now you may go,' added Willem.
When the guards began to protest, Willem held up a hand. 'You know this is a privileged legal conversation. I am this man's attorney.'
Once they had left, Willem grinned and offered his hand. 'Bela Alexandrij, allow me to introduce myself. You've just retained me as your attorney-at-law in the matter of the review of your sentence.'
Bela looked puzzled. 'I have?'
'Certainly. A more lax and incompetent performance by the public prosecutor I have never seen. There are good grounds for an early release. Indeed, you should have been reviewed for parole last year. It was manslaughter you were convicted of, not murder.'
Bela looked as though he couldn't believe this was happening. 'But why? I can't pay you.' He switched to English. 'Tommy, did you do this?'
Tommy gave him a hesitant smile. 'I mentioned you to some friends.'
'Your face look good again. You had amazing doctor. Teeth look real.'
Tommy gave the man a compassionate look. 'Maybe we can do something for you too.'
'That would be dream come true. I hope. Look, fellows. I do not get this deal. Why you care about my sorry ass?'
'Do you know who I am, Bela?' asked Henry.
'Yeah, I know. You TV man At-vood. You famous. You Tommy's boyfriend?'
'Good. Is chance for me.'
Henry was impressed that this young man could joke, despite living in a daily purgatory. He gave a chuckle. 'I hope you're lucky one day, Bela, I really do. And you're right, there is a deal. Mr Graznic here will take on your case, and he'll be paid for it, though you don't need to know who's paying. In return, we need information.'
Bela nodded wisely. 'No surprise. Everything here a deal. But what I got you need?'
'There's a new remand prisoner, Karl Olmusch.'
'Yeah, I know him. We share cell, him and other guy.'
'My pedrastjne , he move me round. I always with new guys. I tell him if they gaij kluc ... faggots. If they like ass, they like me. Also I good at finding out things.'
'As you did with me?' Tommy gave a quirky look.
'Hey! It is a living, Tommy. With you it was fun. You could have had my ass anytime. You know that.'
Tommy shook his head. He was not proof against Bela's infectious grin, however, which got an answer from his own face despite everything.
Henry pursued his point. 'So, Bela, do you have any objection to sharing with us what Olmusch may have let slip?'
'Me? No. You pay better than Ludovic.' The glance that accompanied the next remark was shrewd. 'But you know what I say not evidence in court? I am criminal.'
Willem disagreed. 'That is not so. Your evidence could be used if wanted.'
Henry demurred. 'Look. It doesn't matter about courts. It's the information we want.'
'Ah then!' Bela responded. 'Is as I thought. There something funny here.'
'This Olmusch guy. He full of it. Like many new prisoners he think he be out soon, but this one pretty confident. He say he got friends. He know he innocent. Hell! We all innocent here, I say. Load of shit. No, no, say Olmusch. I do honourable thing, and I get benefit. You wait, he say, in a year time, maybe two, I be out of prison and Rothenia be different place.'
'What did he mean?' Henry pressed.
'He not say. But he expect good thing – reward maybe – for taking this rap, oh yes. Of course, might be madman, this place full of them, believe me. He hate our king, though.'
'Me and Boris, also in cell, we tell him shut his face, our king is good man, even if his prisons a bit shit. And queen is ace! She get governor sacked for what they do to Tommy. Tommy our hero in this shit hole. Ludovic so wish now he fucked Tommy's ass when he could!' Bela gave a brilliant if broken-toothed grin across the table at his former cellmate. 'Anyway, as I said, is something funny here. This Olmusch he act like some sort of hero who do great thing. He aristokratje , yes? Thought so. All crazy guys, with their adelszenost ... how you say? Nobility, yes? And their obijetovacz ... er...?'
'Self-sacrifice,' Henry supplied.
'Is so, I think. Yes. This Olmusch like a man who earns medal in big war, not like man who is in prison for killing his brother. He expect to be rewarded. Is really odd.'
'Anything else?' Henry asked.
'Nothing I now think of. But I happy to tell you more if Olmusch say it.'
Henry smiled. 'All you have to do is tell it to Mr Graznic, Bela. He'll be in regularly over the next few weeks, and will pass on what you say.'
'No Tommy come any more? I sad.' The boy genuinely did look downcast.
Tommy took his hand across the table and squeezed it. 'It won't be long, Bela, and you and I can have a drink together on the Wejg.'
'Is good. Then I allow myself to hope.'
As they left the prison Henry took Tommy's shoulder. 'You've made a conquest there, babe. That's why he was so happy to help.'
'Poor Bela, what can anyone do for the likes of him? Ruined, broken and abused by a vile system.'
'Who knows. But there's a strength there all the same. Maybe it'll be enough to get him through.'
'I'm so up for this new job with Harry. No one else can help such people.'
'Bring 'em in.'
'What? You serious?' Justin stared at Henry.
'Perfectly. Those boys have been with this investigation from the beginning. They need to know the conclusion, especially as Reggie will soon be gone.'
Justin shrugged and called up his stairs. There was a subdued thunder as four pairs of trainers pounded their way to the lounge, where Justin, Fritz, Tommy, Henry, Nate and Ed had been in conference.
'Sit down there, Men,' Henry ordered, and the four boys obediently sank cross-legged on to the floor between the sofas.
'You gonna tell us who dunnit, Uncle Henry?' asked Damien.
'Yup. That's my plan. Here's what Uncle Justy – I mean your dad – and I think happened in that gallery the day you and Lance discovered the body.'
The boys frowned in concentration.
'When Tommy went up and found no one in the there, that was because one row had already taken place. General Brantesberh had staggered downstairs, bumping into Tommy on the way. Meanwhile, Jakob Olmusch had gone down the servants' stairs looking for his brother. While Tommy was meandering in the gallery, the two brothers were on the staircase coming back up, having a bitter little dispute. We don't know what was being said, but I can guess. Jakob, with a good deal of glee, was telling Karl he was finished, because Jakob now had the evidence to remove his brother from the family Stiftung , or trust. Also, no doubt he was saying that Karl had no future in the RA either. When they emerged in the gallery, Tommy was gone, but a third person was there.'
'Who was that, Uncle Henry?' asked Mattie.
'It was the king's uncle, Count Robert Rassendyll.'
'How did he get in, sir?' Reggie inquired.
'The same way you and the rest of the Men did: through the side door on to Wenzelgasse. Karl Olmusch knew all about it, being a Tarlenheim and familiar with the family palace. He'd been down the stairs and left the door on the latch. He'd had orders to let Count Robert in secretly that Saturday.
'You see, the old count had been told what Jakob, Brantesberh and Hendrik Willemin had discovered about Karl's misdoings. But he didn't care about that. He was there to tell them to back off Karl, despite his thieving. And since he was now the boss of the RA, he had the authority to do so.'
Damien piped up. 'What was so important that this old guy was going to let Karl Olmusch off the hook, Uncle Henry?'
'Well, here is where we have to guess. It's certain that Karl Olmusch has bought wholeheartedly into Count Robert's plans for Rothenia. The count needs his support more than he needed Jakob's. My feeling is that up in the gallery he sketched out his plans for the RA for Jakob's benefit, and tried to get him on side.
'But Jakob didn't like what he was hearing and said so in no uncertain terms. I'll bet he went on about family honour, and how his brother was disgracing the name of Tarlenheim. He may even have sounded off on his own duty as an officer of the king to expose Count Robert for a traitor. This was what you two babes heard from down the stairs.
'Jakob was given an ultimatum. Since the conversation with Count Robert was in English, it was Jakob you heard shouting "Never!" That was the last word he ever did say, because Count Robert whipped the sword off the wall and expertly skewered him where he stood.'
'Wow! Amazing!' the boys marvelled.
'Karl was probably stunned at such a decisive stroke, but soon realised he must do something about covering it up. I'd guess the old count was wearing driving gloves, so he left no prints. But they used a rag to wipe off some inconvenient blood spatter and threw it down the laundry chute. Then Karl hustled the count back down the secret stairs, dropping his briefcase in a panic as he went. He allowed the door to close behind himself in the alley so he couldn't go back to get the case. Uncle Fritzy tripped over it a day later, and you guys recovered it before Karl could.'
'So we really did help solve the crime, sir?'
'You certainly did, Reggie.'
Damien was pondering all this. 'Why did Karl Olmusch confess to his brother's murder?'
'Although again we can only guess, it's my belief that Count Robert has some sort of hold over Karl, whom he persuaded to take the blame. At the same time, he sketched out a scheme to get Karl out of prison and exonerate him, in due course, when indeed Count Robert has made himself king of Rothenia.'
'What!' the boys exclaimed.
Henry held up a hand. 'This is only speculation, and your Uncle Rudi won't even hear of it, but we all here are convinced the Crown of Tassilo is in danger again, and this time from the king's own family.'
'Oh jeez!' sighed Reggie. 'And I gotta go home to the States!'
Tommy looked down into Fritz's eyes. His cock was buried in his lover's body up to the root, and he was just holding it there, letting it pulse against the wall of Fritz's rectum. It was a moment he loved. He was joined with the body below him, whose beauty he marvelled at.
Fritz clearly felt it too. Much as he loved it when Tommy started moving in him, he waited patiently, his knees drawn back to his chest.
'Ai du lebst ,' Tommy breathed.
'Men sebst, Tomasczu, ' Fritz answered with a low groan.
Tommy took the hint and began his slow, steady movements. Twenty minutes later, hotter and sweatier, he was in exactly the same position under Fritz.
They made their way into the small bathroom of the flat under the eaves of the Residenz where Tommy was now living. Tommy filled the deep, old-fashioned enamel bath, and the lovers sank under the water, Tommy on top of Fritz. Fritz seemed to doze off for a while, leaving Tommy to daydream.
Eventually Fritz stirred. Closing his arms round his lover's chest, he imprinted kisses on the back of Tommy's neck. 'Ready for bed then, baby?'
'Nearly. Just a few things to say, big guy.'
'Here I am, Tommy Entwhistle, in a job and a select residential address in downtown Strelzen. The press has lost interest in us...'
'... and we can do boyfriend things without looking over our shoulders. I'm touching bottom with normality, and Gavin and Max will be with us next week at your place for a fortnight. So, Fritzku, would you say we're settled at last.'
Tommy felt as much as heard Fritz chuckle behind him. 'I think so, sweets. I feel settled at least. Long may it continue. We're even getting into a routine: alternate weekends at each other's place, Thursday nights out with the guys at the White Tree, babysitting for Justy and Nate.'
'So, shall we plan holidays? I want to see this glorious country that's now my home.'
'Great idea, baby. We can do it province by province, starting with Neder Husbrau, my native acre. We can see Terlenehem!'
'Do I get to look into the famous mausoleum?'
'Sure, baby. It's a while since I took flowers to tatta and mutta . I'd love to introduce you to the parents. Maybe I can meet your sister Alison soon too when we go to Britain?'
'Good. That's settled then. We can make a start when Gavin's here. I'll bet he could tell us a thing or two about Medeln abbey.'
'Bed and sleep now, Tommy. Busy day tomorrow.'
It started at the Arsenal gate. The wicket door opened and Bela Alexandrij emerged blinking into the sunshine like a pale nocturnal creature thrust into full daylight. He wore shabby clothes and had a cheap holdall slung round his neck.
Tommy got out of the car and waved.
His face brightening, Bela came across. 'Hey, Tomasczu! You here. I not believe you be, but I wrong like usual. Nice wheels!'
'Get in, Bela. We're ready to take you where you want.'
'Not got nowhere. Mother in Zenden, she not want me. Had friends on Wejg, but they all move on or dead, I bet.'
Tommy opened the passenger-side front door of the Mercedes.
Bela got in and stared at the driver. 'I know you... you the Prince.'
'Hi, Bela. And you know Henry Atwood in the back too.'
'What all this?'
'We have a job for you.' Henry smiled.
'Very. You've already come into contact with what's going on in Rothenia, and we think you're a friend to the king. Though you don't know it, you've already done him a great service, and you can do more.'
'This like police informer stuff?'
'No. Not the police, but King Rudolf's friends are gathering themselves to defend the Crown of Tassilo.'
'How I help?'
'The Peacher Foundation is opening a hostel for newly released convicts in Sudmesten, near the station. It needs a caretaker whom we're sure is free of drugs, and we believe you're a good prospect. They'll just have to put up with your smoking. You've survived the Arsenal, you know the problems and the sort of people the hostel can help. We also think you're clever enough and brave enough to do the job we want.'
'And this is?'
'To collect intelligence in the darker areas of the capital. We want you to keep your ears and eyes open. You have contacts on the Wejg; we want you to extend them. When trouble comes, you'll know before anyone else.'
'That's the deal. The salary is a bit over what caretakers usually get, and a nice apartment goes with it.'
'Then I do it, and thank you, Mr At-vood. How do I report?'
'Tommy will be at the Peacher hostel pretty regularly. He's heading the team supervising the enterprise.'
'So we have drink and chat. I like.'
'Great. Now, first things first. You have an appointment with a dental surgeon in an hour. We need to make you look more respectable.'
Having dropped a nervous Bela off at the clinic with instructions as to where to report after his first bridgework appointment, Fritz turned his car towards the Residenz. He, Tommy and Henry were ushered in to find the queen at her desk.
'So, boys, have you recruited young Bela?'
'Yes. I have a good feeling about him,' replied Henry. 'I'm so glad you're taking this seriously, Harry.'
'I have enough deranged relatives to realise what our nearest and dearest are capable of... and you know who I mean. If Rudi won't take your warnings seriously, it's down to Queen Guinevere and the Knights of the Round Table to cover his ass.'
'You're looking... odd, Harry,' Fritz observed.
She rolled her eyes. 'You could take some lessons from your Tommy about how to talk to women. What do you mean?'
'Well, sort of flushed and bright-eyed. If I didn't know better...'
The queen blushed. 'I think you boys had better know this. I'm pregnant.'
'What!' all three exclaimed.
'But, Harry. You had a hysterectomy! This isn't possible... oh my God! Maxxie! He's done it again.'
The queen gave them an unfathomable look. 'He's the only obvious culprit. Unfortunately – or fortunately, as the case may be – his father tried to explain to him some weeks ago why he couldn't have a little brother. He understood enough of it to try to make it better, and he succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. Rudi and I have been having sex without precautions, since we didn't suppose we needed to bother. But we did. I thought the bleeding I had was something to do with the operation. In fact it was my periods returning. So there is a little duke of Ranstadt on the way.'
'How do you feel about it?'
'Infuriated, delighted, scared... you guess.'
'What about Rudi?'
'He's out of his mind with joy.'
The three men congratulated the queen. When she asked where Justin was, they made his apologies.
The last meeting of the Mendamero Men was in session on the concourse of Strelzen International Airport, where the four boys had found a grouping of seats near a window. Reggie's mums were checking in the bags. Justin had considerately gone off to get a coffee.
Reggie looked mutely round at his three great friends. There didn't seem much to say.
Lance sat next to him, eventually and with some trepidation taking his hand. 'Gonna miss you, Reggie.'
'I know. Me too.'
'Doan forget we expect to hear from yer soon as yer web link is up!'
'Yes, Mr Director.' The use of that title just added to the poignancy of the moment.
Esther bustled over. 'Have you said your goodbyes? We need to get on through security, Reggie.'
The boys stood. They embraced hard, each in turn.
Lance came last, gazing for a moment into Reggie's pale face before closing with his mouth and kissing him deeply. This time there was no scent of anything strange. Lance felt desolate, but there was no help for it.
The boys trailed after Reggie to the barrier, Mattie carrying his shoulder bag. Then they waved goodbye, standing silent till their friend had disappeared.
Lance found his shoulder gripped. 'He'll be back one day,' affirmed Damien.
But Lance could not get his hopes up. Disconsolately they wandered over to the Starbucks concession to find Justin.
'Kay lads? Sad day, I know. C'mon, I'll buy you all fraps. Then we can go out to the Spa or down to the mall, whatever you want.'
Lance caught Damien's eye. They knew those places would never be quite the same to them again, not without Reggie Mayer.
[For those who use webmail, or whose regular email client opens when they want to use webmail instead: Please right click the author's name. A menu will open in which you can copy the email address to paste into your webmail system (Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo etc). Each browser is subtly different, each Webmail system is different, or we'd give fuller instructions here. We trust you to know how to use your own system. If the email address pastes with %40 in the middle, replace that with an @ sign.]