The Heart of Oskar Prinz

VI

By Michael Arram

It was a night to remember at Club Liberation in the ancient and beautiful city of Strelzen. It would have been a good night, whatever. Liberation was set in the south eastern corner of the square, just where Gildenfahrbswejg emptied into it. Gildenfahrbswejg, or 'the Wejg' as locals called it, was always heaving. Pink, red and green neon lights glowed down from the houses on both sides of the narrow street, with messages like 'Boogy Bar', 'Cabaret Olympus', 'Non-stop dance', 'Budvar 55kR the litre'. Sports bars and strip clubs for three blocks south along the Wejg seethed with German, Italian and British drinking gangs, and the road outside them heaved with as yet unattached groups being preyed on by Somali and Balkan hustlers, like piranhas closing in on fat cows fallen into a jungle stream.

At the end nearest the square, next to a huge porn emporium called Erotic Dream City, was Club Liberation, the biggest gay venue in Central Europe, and the cafés and bars in that corner were marked by rainbow flags. Gay couples and drinking groups clustered under the statue of General Voydek opposite, eyeing up the shaven-headed and stocky Rothenian bouncers who policed Liberation's doors and discouraged gawping straight gangs who had lost their way.

The club was packed, even though it was only a Thursday. That Thursday had been a glorious day, one of those rare days when the very air seems to sing with happiness and a lot of people seem to hear it.

Harry had been amenable to a night out with Terry and Ramon, and was affable towards them when they had met in the hotel foyer. Being a lawyer, he had somehow caught the scent of big money around them. Will noticed Terry's professional and appraising glance over his lover. Oddly, he was a bit sensitive to Harry's impact on his new friends, and he noticed the things about Harry that grated on him: the bumptiousness and the insensitivity that didn't seem to bother him when they were on their own. But he stifled his unease loyally, for he was a man very loyal to friends, however unworthy.

Liberation inside was big and glitzy and catered to the foreign gay, although there were quite a few local Rothenian youths, seemingly very interested in getting to know the foreigners. Harry found a pretty one early on and disappeared with him.

Will gave Terry a quirky look. Terry laughed, 'Well, no loss. Want to dance, babe?'

'You OK if I do, Ramon?'

'No problem, Will. You can have too much dancing with Terry.'

As they walked hand in hand on to the big floor, swept by pulsing lights, Will asked, 'What did he mean?'

'I think, sweet babe, he was referring to the fact that I'm majoring in dance and theatre studies at JAC. Don't worry, I won't forget you're with me.'

Will soon realised what Ramon meant. Terry was not just a good dancer, he was an amazing dancer. But Will was not entirely without talent in that department, he tended to lose himself in music, and the pair were very happy with each other well before the second dance, while a lot of men on and around the floor were watching them. He saw Harry in a corner, ignoring his Rothenian pick up, looking at them with his mouth hanging open.

They left the floor and Ramon smiled up at them, 'Tired out now, Terry?'

'No. It's your turn. Mind the table and the drinks, Will. Oh...' Terry focussed on Will, '... we're expecting a friend to join us in quarter an hour or so. I told him on the mobile what you look like and what you're wearing, so if a stranger comes up behind you, don't necessarily think he's trying to pick you up.'

'Fine. What's his name...' But Terry and Ramon were already on the floor and deeply into each other. They were a gorgeous couple. Will was envious.

A smiling waiter brought him a drink and Will settled comfortably down, watching his friends on the floor, crunching the free crisps and nuts, and soaking up the atmosphere. He definitely liked Club Liberation. This was not like Prague; he felt comfortable, secure and in the right place. He did not sense someone behind him till a young and cultured English voice asked politely, 'Hi! Are you Will Vincent?'

He half turned to glimpse a dark figure behind him, 'That's me, sorry, Terry didn't tell me your name.'

The man sat down opposite and smiled at him like the first sunrise of Creation, 'It's Matthew.' And Will fainted.

Will was only out for a few seconds, but he had hit the floor, and he was looking up into Terry's concerned face when he came round.

'God. I'm so sorry, Will. I didn't realise you'd take it like that. Ramon'll kill me.'

Will coughed and sat up. He seemed OK, no bumps and bruises. But there was something that his memory was blocking at this point. Strong brown hands took him under the armpit, lifting him up effortlessly from the floor. Then he remembered what his mind had blocked, as the man who had picked him up smiled at him like a seraph on a good day and helped him back into his seat.

'You're Matt White.'

'Does that need an answer?'

'Excuse me, Dr White, but these sorts of occasions bring out the inner idiot in me.'

The supermodel laughed in the same warm and generous way as he did on film. 'Call me Matt, Will. I think it should be me apologising, but I've never caused someone to faint before. I'll certainly remember to put it in my CV: knocked out a kid in Strelzen by smiling at him.'

Will was beyond bewilderment. He looked in that blindingly gorgeous face and tried to make normal conversation. 'Er. Sorry, Matt. Don't feel too bad about it. It's not the first time. It used to happen to me all through adolescence, that and migraines. They used to put cushions around me in school assemblies ready for the inevitable flake-out. I've got glandular problems, my doctor said. My mum thinks I'm fragile. Embarrassing really, but it got me off games a lot.' Matt laughed again. Will was now hopelessly in love, and conspiring in his head to murder the unfortunate Andrew Peacher.

Off to one side, Ramon was having hard words with Terry, until Matt called them over. They settled round the table. A small crowd had already gathered off to the other side, watching them hungrily and quite openly. Matt was oblivious; used to it, Will imagined. Matt looked Will over, 'We've got a friend in common, I think.'

'We do?'

'Jeremy Faber.'

'Oh sure, Doc Faber. Yes. I did all his modules, he's a great teacher.'

'He was my supervisor for my doctorate. Oddly, he once mentioned you.'

'Me?'

'Yes, you, Will Vincent. I recognised the name when Terry told me about this friend he'd made at the cathedral. Jeremy wanted you to go on and do research. He's got quite an instinct for a born researcher. He was keen that you should sign up and upset when you wouldn't. He thought you were the best prospect he'd ever met. I think he was including me.'

'Yeah, but I really wanted to teach. It was the right decision. I only got a 2:1 anyway. So what brings you to Rothenia, Matt?'

'Research. My company's going to film a series on European monarchies: we're going hard for the international market for the first time. I always do my own research, and the Elphbergs look like a classic to me. So here I am in Rothenia... a place I've been desperate to see for years. Since I knew Terry and Ramon were coming, we agreed to meet up and do the place together. It's a real bit of luck that you're here too. I hope you'll do us the favour of joining us for the next few days. It'll be easier to do this with the help of a knowledgeable enthusiast.'

'Wow. What can I say? Love to. This is utterly brilliant.'

'Fantastic. Drinks all round then lads.' A hand respectfully tapped Matt on the shoulder, and he was signing autographs for a while on split beer mats. Will was impressed how he did it with a permanent smile on his handsome face. When Matt had satisfied the demand he turned the smile on Will, and he found himself being invited on to the floor. This was a height beyond heaven for him, as envious eyes followed him walking hand in warm hand on to the floor with his hero.

Oskar Prinz hated Club Liberation, especially now his notoriety was getting him noticed by foreigners, but Hendrik wanted him there on Thursday. 'Talent-spotting, my love. We have to find our American, and we've got nowhere so far. The only likely American contact I had in Rothenia went and fell off his motorbike last week and broke his leg in three places. Then there was that backpacker, but you nearly threw up at his picture. And I do accept that whoever it is has to be someone you can work with, the chemistry makes these things.' Oskar had a friend on the security staff, and he was able to get in through a side door and miss the queue and the lobby. He wore shades, despite the darkness, and slipped quietly to the raised corner table where Hendrik was stationed.

Oskar sensed something odd in the atmosphere. No one knew Hendrik for what he was, he kept out of the limelight, so something else had stirred the club up like an anthill.

'Are the scouts out there, Hendrik?'

'Yes, but it won't do any good.'

'What's going on?'

'Look opposite, and do you see that group near the dance floor?'

'Yes.'

'Take those glasses off, and concentrate on the guy on the right.'

'He looks familiar.'

'He should do.'

'Christ, it's the English supermodel, White. I didn't know he was in town.'

'The man against whom even you, my sweet Oskar, look plain. The whole club is rotating on its axis to get near him.'

'I've got to have a closer look. Who are the guys with him?'

'No idea. Go and have your look.'

Oskar shrugged and edged across the floor. No one noticed him, all eyes were straining over to the right and the floor had emptied. In some ways this was good, Oskar thought. He got too many knowing stares these days. As he reached the fringes of the crowd which was unabashedly staring at White's table, the man himself stood up and took one of his companions by the hand and went out on to the empty floor. They danced, and pretty soon a thick crowd of other dancers were right there with them.

His shoulder was tapped, 'Ahoi, Oskar. No one seems interested in you tonight.'

'Felip!' They kissed briefly.

'... or me for that matter.'

'In the sunshine,' Oskar reflected in an old Rothenian proverb, 'the moon becomes pale.'

'Who's he with... is it his billionaire boyfriend?'

'Let's find out. Can I have this dance?'

Oskar and Felip went out on to the crowded floor. They edged nearer Matthew White, near enough to hear the dancing pair talking happily in native English, and as they did Oskar stiffened.

'Is it the billionaire?' asked Felip.

'No. But he's...'

'What?'

'Give me a moment.' They carried on moving together, Oskar staring over Felip's shoulder. 'He's the one, if there is one. He's the guy we need, I'm sure of it. I'll tell Hendrik.'

'Aw come on, Oskar, let's finish the dance at least,' pleaded Felip, but he was gone.

Hendrik frowned. 'Couldn't you set your sights a bit lower, Oskar?'

'It's not his boyfriend, the American. It's just one of his party. An ordinary western kid, but extraordinary in his way. The way he moved was... arousing. He has the looks too. We can try, anyway.'

'Then only you can do it, Oskar. And the best of luck. Otherwise I'm going to have to grit my teeth, swallow my pride, and subcontract a performer from my US rivals. And you know how I love my profits.'

Oskar did. The Dalmatian villa, the Slovenian health spa, the big yacht, all attested to Hendrik's love of his profits. There was a huge amount of money in good quality gay porn, as the young Hendrik had discovered in the 1990s, and that and his business instincts had made him a rich man very quickly.

Oskar pondered his strategy and used his mobile.

It was the most brilliant night of his life beyond any question, Will had decided, and he had also decided that included the bits of his life he had yet to live. Matt White was not just beyond gorgeous he was friendly, interested and interesting. Will would have been in a fair way to falling out of lust and into love, but somehow, that did not happen. It was not so much that he knew about Andrew Peacher, just that there was something big-brotherly about Matt. He was a man who made you feel safe and cared-for. And Terry was right. Soon you forgot the dazzling looks and the man inside shone out just as brightly. Terry and Ramon too were great guys. He had never had real friends since he had left school, but now he felt he did, and they were gay like him.

Sitting there in the club, knowing that every eye was on him, that half the room was envying him, that he had danced with the Matthew White, did wonders for him. He was bright, confident and amusing as he had never been before, and he had only had two drinks.

He felt emboldened to ask the great man some personal questions, 'Tell me, Matt. How did you go from postgraduate student to supermodel?'

'Uh, well, what you'd expect. Desperate for money really, or rather, my own money. Andy and I were already going strong at the time, and he was buying me fashion gear... so much of it, it was getting embarrassing. Also it gave me the impression he thought I was a scruff. But it paid off accidentally. An Italian fashion house saw me in the celeb mags with him, wearing their stuff; they liked my face... and the rest, and contracted me. The shoot was a success, although the ads were totally embarrassing. I had to get naked with this woman... me! I kept thinking what my mum would say.'

'What did she say?'

'As it happens, "Nice bum".' Will laughed. 'After that one contract came rolling in after another, and so did the cash. That was the important thing. I was independent then of Andy's money, and our relationship is all the stronger for it, although there was a while when it could have gone the opposite way.'

'You're not doing so much of it nowadays.'

'The other stuff is taking over. A few years ago Channel 4 signed me up to present a documentary on the strength that I was doing history in university and I had a recognisable face. It went off pretty well...'

'Pretty well! Come on, it was a classic. I use it with my Year 9 class. If the girls aren't interested in the seventeenth century, they just stare at the screen daydreaming about you. You can't lose.'

'Ha ha. Odd that my biggest fans are women, isn't it? But that was when I found out my real talent. I can research, write and present. So now I do consultancy, the odd presenting job for other firms and networks, but mostly I produce documentaries and features, a lot of them historical, but we do other stuff too now at Marlowe Productions. I set up the firm with some of my money and a loan from Peacher Corp, which has a media arm, but I paid it back and we're now one of the larger independents, with affiliates of our own. We don't make a huge profit because I plough the money back in, but we do more than OK, and profit's not the point. It's my life's work.'

'And you finished your doctorate.'

'Yup. It'll be published next year, finally.'

'You're an amazing man, you know that?'

'So they say, and it's nice of you to repeat it, but get to know Terry O'Brien a bit better before you make judgements about what amazing is.'

'What d'you mean?'

Matt looked enigmatic, something he did very well, 'You may find out one day, although I hope not. It's a scary thing getting to know the real Terry.' Will looked across at a happy Terry, convulsed with laughter at one of Ramon's comments: a relaxed and joyous twenty-something absorbed in his boyfriend, and he wondered what on earth Matt was hinting at.

They left the club. There was no sign of Harry and by this time Will could not have cared less. A big car and driver were waiting outside under General Voydek, who stared down disapprovingly at the gay couples sitting on his statue's steps, some of them kissing. The car drove south east and deposited them at a large and extremely expensive restaurant high up in the Old City, with a panoramic view over Strelzen.

Between the courses of a sumptuous late dinner, Matt discussed his strategy and the places he wanted to see. He sketched out the plan of a documentary with obvious deep knowledge of the media and real enthusiasm. Will had no doubt it would be great television, although he was willing to admit that he had fallen deeply under the man's spell. At the end of the meal, the conversation drifted off into areas known to Terry and Ramon, but not Will, although he picked up a few interesting details of the inner life of the Peacher dynasty.

Apparently the great Richard Peacher had recently made his third marriage to Terry's former boss, and Terry had been godfather to the new baby girl. Will stole a sideways glance at Terry, who was on this evidence rather higher in the Peacher Corporation's inner circle than he had let on.

Eventually Matt rose and the meal was over.

'Can we give you a lift?' Matt asked.

'No, thanks guys, I'd just like to walk back down the hill. It's a glorious night, and it's been a glorious night. I want to stroll back in the cool air and take it all in. How can I thank you?'

'You just have,' smiled Terry. 'See you at nine thirty tomorrow at your hotel, then.'

'It's a date.'

The red tail lights of Matt's car disappeared, bumping down the cobbled street. Will got his bearings. The lights of the city were spread out below him, and a crescent moon was sailing above it. He struck off in the direction of what he thought was the Flavienplaz and his hotel, but somehow missed his way in the narrow lanes of the Old City, and failed to emerge on Domstrasse. But he crossed the river by another bridge, and in the distance along a wide and straight boulevard he could see the floodlit palace, so he knew that if he carried on in that direction he would end up back on the Rodolferplaz. He could navigate from there.

It was a long but leisurely stroll through the empty streets. Most Strelseners seemed to go to bed early. The odd car and taxi rattled past over the cobbles. It was too late for trams, even if he knew how to use them. He reached the Rodolferplaz a little tired and chilly, but ready for the next stage. Which way? He struck off along another wide boulevard with tram lines down the middle that looked familiar. He had walked about five minutes when he realised it was a wrong turn. He shrugged and stood under the dark of a spreading tree pondering his next move. A hand took him round the throat from behind and he felt cold sharp steel at his neck. A distinctive male odour, spicy and sharp, filled his nostrils.

'Don't move, American,' said a hoarse voice 'You have wallet? I want.'

Oh God no, thought Will, not this night of all nights, and all the guide books had said violent crime in Rothenia was rare.

'Inside pocket on the right,' he gasped, resigned that all his cards and cash were about to go down the drain. All the fucking phone calls he was going to have to make tomorrow. At least his passport was in the hotel room safe.

A hand found the pocket and extracted his worldly goods. 'Thanks. Do not look around.'

As the knife was withdrawn, a sudden shout came from across the boulevard, and two dark figures ran across the road. The mugger promptly took off and the strangers pursued him, calling out loudly in Rothenian. Will turned and walked out from under the tree. Running footsteps were still echoing down the road, but the two had given up the pursuit, and were walking back towards him.

One of them let loose an incomprehensible stream of anxious questions.

'I'm OK,' he answered.

'Oh, English,' the stranger said. 'Are you unhurt?' The words were a little precise but the accent and fluency was good.

'Just a bit shook up.'

'It's these foreigners,' the man said, 'probably an Albanian. They're turning this city into the Balkans. You will be glad to see this.' He presented Will's wallet. 'He dropped it as he ran.'

'Oh my God. How can I thank you?'

'Not necessary.'

'Please let me give you some cash, for your trouble.' Suddenly he knew he'd said the wrong thing. Rothenian honour may have been involved.

In a slightly cooler tone, the man said, 'It was no trouble, and that you are fine is thanks enough.'

'Do I need to tell the police?'

The mood immediately lightened. The man and his friend chuckled lightly. 'If you want, but only if you have a morning spare to fill in twenty forms. Our police are very good with forms. Not too good with detection.'

The quieter man said something in Rothenian to his companion. They shook hands and he left.

'Look, my friend. You seem shaken to me. I live just across the road. I can give you a brandy, it'll help.'

'No I couldn't, really.'

'It's good brandy.' The voice was young, pleasant and amused.

Will laughed. It was an oddly enchanted night in this enchanting city, and something was telling him that he should not hide from life tonight. 'OK then, my name's Will. What's yours?'

'It's Oskar.'

'Then lead on, Oskar.'

He followed the dark figure of the young man across the boulevard, which Oskar explained was the Lindenstrasse. They entered a tall and ornate apartment building, with railings at the windows glittering in the moonlight. Everything was dark. Oskar hit the minutiere, but the light didn't come on. He cursed. 'Nothing works in this place. The concierge is lazy. Sorry Will. Just follow me up the stairs and hold the rails.'

They trudged up five flights before coming to Oskar's door. There was enough moonlight through a skylight for Oskar to find the lock with his key. 'Now I have to warn you about Marietta. She is very enthusiastic. My dog, you understand.'

He pushed open the door and Marietta lived up to the warning, dancing frantically round her master. 'Come in, Will.'

Will entered as Oskar snapped on the light inside the door. Will looked down and patted Marietta, who licked him. He was grinning as he looked up to see his saviour. His grin froze. He fainted.

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