'Luc?' Lance called out cautiously.
The sobbing faltered, and the dark figure wiped its face with the sleeve of its jacket. 'Who's there?' a hoarse voice replied.
'It's me... Lance, I mean.'
'Putain! Qu'est ce... What are you doing here, Atwood?'
'I was sent to find you.'
'What the...? Who would send you to find me? What is this?'
'Come out of there and tell me what's wrong.'
There was a curse, a scuffling sound and a wet-eyed French boy emerged into the garish illumination of the Wejg.
'I'm glad I found you,' Lance murmured, with huge relief.
'But how did you find me?'
'A guy I know took me to Melmoth. I didn't see you there but, er... well, I knew you couldn't be far away.'
Luc seemed unimpressed with the lame explanation, though not inclined to pursue its illogicality.
'Why're you so... upset?' Lance continued.
Luc hesitated and looked away. 'C'est tout merde.'
'What's all shit?'
'My life ... toutes les choses! Rien marche!' And suddenly he was again in tears.
This time Lance took the boy in his arms and held him tight. Luc briefly struggled, but finally sagged into Lance's embrace.
'Maybe we can make it better, if only you'll trust me.'
'Why do you care?' Luc sobbed. 'I betrayed you as much as anyone.'
'Not everyone hates you. Barry...'
Luc struggled again. 'It's Barry I hurt most. Le connard de merde Sczneczen, he has Barry and will kill him!'
'What! How did this happen?'
'Todo Voynovich... he told Sczneczen it was Barry who smashed up our site. Then the English fool himself turns up this afternoon at Melmoth, just when Sczneczen arrives. He asks the enfoiré for a job. I try to get rid of him but... no! Idiot Barry talks himself into Sczneczen's bordel des garçons down the road there. I was ordered to keep him from leaving till this evening, when the clients come... now he'll never leave there alive. They'll fuck him over day after day, till Sczneczen has what's left of him disposed of.'
'Oh my God! We've gotta get the police!'
'No police! They will make things worse, especially for me. Maybe I can save Barry!'
'How? This is beyond what a kid can do, Luc! These are criminals.'
'I have influence... mon patron... he has power over Sczneczen.
'What man is this?'
'No matter. I will do it.'
'But I can't just stand here and wait while all this is happening.'
Luc set his jaw. 'You must. If it goes wrong, I will signal with my handij. I have your number still. Put your phone to vibrate. I will have mine ready in my pocket. If all turns out badly I will let it ring you three times, then maybe you should get the police, if it's not too late. Will you do this for me?
Lance eyed the desperate French boy uneasily. 'Okay... but don't take risks, either for yourself or for Barry.'
Luc shook his head, then loped off down the crowded alley. Lance tailed him until Luc disappeared into a side lane next to the lurid pink front of a massage parlour. Putting up his hood and resuming his shades, Lance melted into a doorway, watching impatiently while he measured up his options. If Luc did fail, there was only one real course of action he could take if he was to obey Maxxie's command. He dreaded having to use it.
Henry drove like a maniac to the Residenz. Nervous police leaped out into the road at the Reitschule gate with machine guns levelled and signalled him to a halt. He had to get out from behind the wheel with his hands in the air. It was only when the police had verified his identity that he was allowed to proceed. It took a call up to the queen to stop them from breathalysing him.
He pounded up the stairs to the domestic wing, to meet Tommy racing down. 'Other way, Henry! We're heading to the Wejg... if you can remember where it is.'
They took the turn that led to the forecourt of the palace, striding rapidly out past the checkpoint and on to the Rodolferplaz.
'So what's up?' demanded Henry as he recovered his breath.
'Bela will meet us at Voydek. He's got information.'
'He's been on the track of Hadjek, as I told you before. What I didn't tell you was that his investigations led him to Bar Melmoth, which I'll bet is where Lance has gone tonight. Melmoth's the source of a lot of bad stuff on the Wejg. Bela has linked the owner, Sczneczen, both to Hadjek and – it seems – to underage rent boys. Sczneczen has a house off the lane where Lance might be headed if he's in pursuit of his friend. Tell me, is one of Lance's friends French?'
'Ah... then Lance must have some connection to Sczneczen's pedrastijne, whom they call Lucky on the Wejg. I talked to him one night at Melmoth... an unusual boy.'
'Luc Charpentier is wrapped up in a vice ring? What has Lance got himself into?'
'I think I may have some idea.'
Tommy drew Henry to a halt outside the Leuwen Pasacz. 'It's like I told you, Henry. The old princess of Vinodol has spilled the beans on Count Robert. We've recovered the documentation on his resignation and he's screwed... big time. But the thing is, there's a lot more. The envelope also contained a letter from the past addressed to Maxxie! It has big revelations, and they're to do with your Lance. It looks like he's about to go angelic on us.'
'What? No!' Henry was appalled.
'Yeah, and what with his heading for the Wejg tonight, it seems we've reached the crisis point. But why's he doing it?'
Henry shook his head. 'He didn't say, only that his friends were in danger on the Wejg and he had been told to go and help them.'
'Not the Mendamero Men, I'd guess. It may be that half-baked English kid Lance hung around with for a while... Barry Hignett. Now I think of it, Lance said that, before he and Barry had their fling, Barry had a bad time from Luc. That's maybe the Wejg connection.'
The two men hurried off along the east side of the square, where they found Bela waiting at the statue of General Voydek. He quickly greeted them and without further words led them into the noisy, weekend press of the Wejg.
Barry's bleary eyes took in the arrival of several men talking amongst themselves in Rothenian, which he could not follow. Sczneczen, accompanying them, ran a considering eye over the half-clad boys who were the evening's entertainment. He motioned to the younger teens, Laszlo and Franco, who sashayed up to two fat moustachioed men in suits, draping themselves round their necks flirtatiously.
The other four boys occupied a single sofa, staring back at the men. Barry wondered what was to come next. What eventually did happen took him by surprise, even in his semi-drunken state. A scuffle on the stairs announced the arrival of a harassed-looking Luc Charpentier.
Sczneczen stared and made a sharp remark.
Ignoring him, Luc went over to an armchair, where a hatchet-faced, slimmer man had been eyeing up Barry with undisguised interest. Luc put his arms round the slim man's neck and kissed him, murmuring into his ear. The man listened closely to what Luc was saying, then stared fixedly at Barry.
The man set Luc on his feet and leaned over to address Sczneczen. Luc shot a quick, desperate glance at Barry.
The man stood and gestured at Barry. Luc ran over to take his hand. 'Come with me, vite, mon copain!'
Tugged to his feet, Barry staggered to the door and was led on up to Luc's attic dive, where he collapsed on the mattress. 'What's going on?'
'I talk to my patron, Hadjek. I think he will help get you out of here.'
'Dressed like this?'
For all the anxiety, Luc gave a snuffle of amusement. 'You look pretty bad. Here, strip that shit off. I'll wipe your face clean... there, better?'
Naked, but at least feeling more of a boy, Barry agreed. 'Why would he help you, though?'
'We have to do some things first.'
'He likes to watch.' Luc was stripping, pushing down his underpants as Hadjek entered.
The man quickly removed his shoes and upper clothes, revealing a chest thickly covered with black, wiry hair. He gave a rather dangerous smile at the two boys sitting thigh to thigh on the mattress, then took a seat by the wall. He tossed a few casual words at Luc in Rothenian. Luc replied anxiously in a pleading tone. Hadjek stared, then laughed.
Now Luc was angry. He made a grab for his coat, pulling out a small black object, a flash drive as it seemed to Barry. He waved it in front of Hadjek's face and hissed at his sugar-daddy.
Hadjek was no longer amused. He held out his hand for the drive.
Luc snatched it away, then dived for his coat again to search in a pocket. As he was doing so, Hadjek leaped on him, clutching his ankle and dragging him off the bed. A mobile phone clattered across the boards.
Barry, though bewildered, could tell things had gone very wrong. He gripped Hadjek round the waist and, with Luc's help, managed to wrestle the man to the floor.
'What do we do now?' Barry cried.
'I don't know!' Luc yelled. 'Oh... putain de merde!'
Alerted by the noise, Sczneczen was pushing into the room. Taking in the scene, he wound his fingers around Luc's long greasy hair and pulled him up screeching. Barry was hurled off Hadjek and into a corner.
Winded, he watched Luc struggling in Sczneczen's grip. 'Laissez-moi! Connards! Aidez-moi! Mon dieu! Aah... aah! Je suis mort!' Luc stared down at himself as a knife point emerged from his belly beneath his navel. Sczneczen had stabbed him through his back.
As the long knife was withdrawn, Luc fell on to his knees, holding his belly at the exit wound. His dimming eyes caught Barry's. 'Oh, Barry! Le petit roi... Tell him... I'm sorry.' He swayed and collapsed to the floor, blood slowly spreading out on to the boards.
His hand in his hoodie pocket, Lance felt his handij throb once, twice, and then a third time. It was the alarm signal from Luc. All the other options had failed. He squared his shoulders and prepared to surrender to the inevitable.
Suddenly, just as he was summoning up the strength to transform, a hand grabbed his shoulder. 'Baby!'
Lance turned to find himself confronted by his father, Tommy and Bela. 'Dad! What're you doing here?'
'I was warned by Tommy that you were up to something, and then I found your note. What's going on?'
'Dad, I have no time. Luc and Barry are up those stairs and they're in danger. Only I can help. Don't stop me. Just get the police.'
'Lance... I don't know ...'
'Really dad, it'll be alright, I can transform...'
'...back into angelic form, we know.'
'You do? Look, I can't wait. I have to do this now. Whatever happens, and whatever you see, don't for any reason follow me.'
Lance hesitated, kissed his father's hair, then ran towards the entry to the brothel. The door was locked, and he transformed as he hit it. The door burst inwards and it was a vast, winged figure that trod over its splinters into the lower hallway.
Barry stared at Luc's prone figure, tears filling his eyes. With an evil smile, Sczneczen reached down and used a handful of Luc's long hair to wipe his blade. Then he paused to survey Barry with amusement.
'So, Pony Boy. Shall I let you live a little? You see what happens to two-timing bastards like Lucky.'
Hadjek stared nervously down at Luc's body as he directed a few fierce words to Sczneczen. They looked around the room. Apparently it was the flash drive which was on Hadjek's mind. But it was nowhere to be seen.
The two turned over the mattress, finding nothing. It was while they were doing so that a tremor ran through the house, as if thunder had detonated overhead, only there was no sound. Exchanging glances, Sczneczen and Hadjek ran from the room.
Barry crawled to Luc and turned his body over. The boy's face was pale, his eyes closed, his mouth a little open. For the first time, it occurred to Barry that Luc had a certain sallow beauty about him. Tears dripped from his eyes on to Luc's face, and he lowered his mouth to kiss the boy. 'Please, someone... help me... help him!' he prayed.
A movement behind him caused Barry to turn. He observed a small face peering at him around the door. It was a face he recognised well enough, but it was incomprehensible to see it there in that hell-hole. It was Maxim, the boy-king of Rothenia, and he was smiling at Barry.
'Maxxie.... am I going mad?'
'Hi, Barry,' the little boy said. 'You oughta be mad after all you've been through, but it'll get better, I promise.' He looked down at himself. 'I put my sweater on over my pyjamas, and I remembered my slippers. You think my mummy won't mind so much if I sneaked out dressed warmly? Toby said it'd be alright.'
'This is insane!' Barry protested.
'It's okay, really.' The child giggled. 'You look terribly silly like that. Sorry. I shouldn't laugh.'
'Why're you here? How're you here?'
'Luc asked me for help, so I came, as I promised him I would. Toby brought me.' The child padded across the floor to kneel beside the prostrate teenager. He stroked Luc's hair affectionately before reaching down and kissing his forehead.
There was a sudden pause in the world round the three boys, and Luc's eyes shot open. He coughed and reached convulsively for his belly, but found no wound. It had closed, though his skin was still liberally smeared with his own blood.
Maxxie knelt up again and laughed. 'Salut, enfant de Dieu! Tes prières sont écoutées! Maintenant, tu comprends?'
Luc stared. 'Oui, mon roi... t'es roi du monde entier, c'est ça?'
'C'est vrai. Enfin, il faut que je juge ces pêcheurs, ces traitres. Suivez-moi, mes enfants!' Maxxie stood and, carefully avoiding the blood pool, left the room.
Luc struggled up, with Barry's assistance. 'Are you alright? This is incredible!'
Luc shook his head. 'It's a miracle, certes. And it's not over yet. The king said we must follow him, and he is not the person to disobey. You know who he is?'
'I haven't a clue what's going on here. I just want some clothes.'
'The resurrected don't need such things. We go to be judged.' Arms around each other's waist in mutual support, the two teenagers descended the stairs.
What struck Barry most as they reached the first floor was the silence. It was as if the entire universe had paused to stare at this shabby house where evil and lust had reigned without shame. The two passed through the door to the room where the men and boys had been, but found no room beyond. Instead, they stepped out on to cold, black rock in a great cavern, with the echoing sound of cascading water close by.
Immediately in front of them loomed a great figure with vast wings displayed behind projecting horns. It held a spear.
'Oh fuck! It's the Devil! We've been sent to hell!' moaned a terrified Barry.
'Wash your mouth,' commented the figure. Barry stared harder at it. Its face was ethereal beyond beauty, yet was somehow familiar. 'Lance?' he quavered.
The angel's hands took their shoulders and set the boys on either side of him. 'Lance Atwood is the day job,' the angel observed. 'You're safe, and don't worry. I'll bet you're not so agnostic now, are you, Barry Hignett?'
They emerged on to a beach of black sand next to an underground river. A group of men cowered against a wall, among them only Sczneczen daring to gaze directly at the small figure enthroned before them. It was Maxxie, sitting in his sweater, pyjamas and fluffy bunny slippers on the lap of an angelic figure – this one golden, with triple wings springing from its shoulders, the middle pair curved protectively to canopy and shield the boy-king.
Lance left Barry and Luc, and bowed his great shoulders before the manifestation as he knelt.
'You know what you must do, my Accuser?' asked Maxxie.
'Yes, lord.' Lance stood up smoothly, and brought the boy-whores before the king. They stood in a sheepish line, not daring to meet his eyes.
'You all five have been foolish, but more victims than criminal.' He looked at Laszlo and Franco. Hopping down from the lap where he had been sitting, he took their hands. The two abused children stared down at him, and slowly began to smile. 'You have suffered. There is no cure for what has been done to you, yet I can make things better. I think there is love in you both, for though you squabble and fight, you have cared for each other in your long pain and misery. So, come with me.'
Maxxie drew the boys closer to the protecting seraph, who reached down and took their hands from the king's. The seraph straightened, leading Laszlo and Franco towards a black wall, but before they reached it, a golden light blazed up around them like a portal. Looking back at the others with identical happy grins, the two boys strode forward into the light with their guide, and were gone.
Maxxie turned to look at Boromeo, Vito and their companion. As Lance pressed them to their knees, Maxxie shook his head. 'You three have a lot to do to make your lives better, and it is up to you to do so. Franco and Laszlo had no choice in what they did and what was done to them, but you three chose this life, and must choose better in future. Are you sorry?'
The three kneeling teenagers simply stared.
Maxxie looked up at Lance. 'My Satan, they are yours.'
'No!!!' howled Boro flinging himself at Maxxie's slippered feet. 'Save me, lord!'
'So you know me? Then you should know also that I would not torment anyone for my own satisfaction. Trust me, and go with my archangel. He's not what you should fear. It's your own greed and stupidity you should worry about. Now, be good!'
Lance nudged all three to their feet, laid his spear across their necks and suddenly both he and they were gone.
Now Barry and Luc were alone before Maxxie. They unconsciously took each other's hands and knelt. Maxxie was smiling at them.
'Barry, you're a bit silly, but I think you're okay. You want to be loved, you just have no idea who's right for you. Will you let me choose?'
'Yes, lord,' Barry replied in a small voice.
Maxxie came over and stretched up to kiss both boys. 'Apart, you two are quite useless, but together you'll be something really special. Trust me. All you need to do is love each other – and please, Barry, listen to Luc, he's twice as clever as you. Luc, take care of Barry, who can love you back like no one else ever will. He's the person you've always needed. He'll make you whole.'
Luc's lips were turned up in a new smile now, with not a trace of superiority or cynicism in it. He gripped Barry's hand hard. 'I'll look after him, monseigneur. It's a life sentence, but I'm happy with your mercy.'
Maxxie laughed. 'I love you both, and I bless you. We'll be seeing a lot of each other I hope. You're my friends.'
The child kissed their cheeks once more. 'Go home, you two. Now I must do the hard thing.' He turned a very different face on the men cowering still along the wall of the cavern.'
'Where the fuck...?' Barry stared around him.
Luc frowned. 'I know this place. It's Lance Atwood's bedroom.'
'Are you alright, Luc? Your stomach....!'
Luc explored his belly, smeared as it was with dried blood. 'It seems okay. I feel filthy... and you look... pute! Lance has a bathroom. No one can object if we use it.'
The two teenagers crowded into the shower cubicle and vigorously scrubbed each other, staring with distaste at the brown filth that drained off their bodies. They borrowed towels from a cabinet and wrapped them around their waists.
'So Lance...?' began Barry.
'Is more than he seemed,' agreed Luc. 'I mean... he was prettier than any human has a right to be. Now it looks like he was never actually human at all. What is the story there?'
'And little Maxxie!'
Luc shook his head. 'I think we know who he is, now.'
'But I don't believe in that stuff!'
'We had better hope he believes in you, then. The things he said...'
Luc took Barry's hand a little shyly. 'It's true, Barry. From that first day in the hall, I found you a turn on, more than any other boy. I know I was bad to you, but I always half hoped you'd go along with it, like Todo did. When you refused, I hated you. Mais... en fait, en actualité, je t'adorais.'
Luc sighed. 'It's time you learned French... not to mention Rothenian.'
Barry found the grace to laugh. 'You taking control of me?'
'It seems I must, mon copain. It is how I am to love you.'
Barry kissed him on the mouth hard. Things might have gone further, but suddenly a looming presence joined them in the room: vast, powerful and horned. The two boys shrank back, just as the figure disappeared into itself and became the far less threatening presence of Lance Atwood. He stretched, seeming to have forgotten he was naked. 'Glad that's over,' he announced. 'Damn! Lost my good trainers, watch and my handij this time! Maxxie sent you here then?'
'Apparently,' Luc replied.
'I wonder what his reasons were?' Lance pondered. He held up a flash drive between his fingers. 'You left this on the Wejg. I think you may need it, if it's what I think it is. You okay?'
'Never mind us, Lord Satan. You have some explaining to do!' Barry replied.
Lance grinned. 'It's good you know about it. The secret can be quite a burden. Okay, Maxxie thinks you two are trustworthy, all appearances to the contrary, so here goes. About six years ago, the Antichrist arose...'
'Will you just let me get on with it?'
Blue lights flashed as a convoy of police cars forced its way through the crowds of the Wejg. Henry signalled to the officers who emerged.
'Mr At-vood?' A police sergeant towered up over Henry.
'Yes, officer. It's in there! Down the side of the massage parlour.'
'Captain Mannstejne said he's on his way. We can't go in before he gives the order.'
'But anything could be happening!'
'We won't let anyone out, sir. The rear is covered too by now. You'll just have to be patient. How many are in there?'
'A number of rent boys – some of them underage – and a group of punters. I think one or two of them may be members of the government.'
'What!' The sergeant was deeply impressed. 'Sounds like another of your scoops, sir. The wife will be pleased; she's a great fan of yours.'
'Ever since the Eurovision Song Contest in Strelzen. She called one of our boys after you.'
Henry was charmed, despite the circumstances. Before he could reply, however, a tall man in a trench coat emerged from the crowd. The sergeant and his officers saluted their captain.
After a few questions, Mannstejne ordered a squad to enter by the shattered door. 'How did that happen?' he asked Henry.
'No idea. It was like that when we got here.'
'How did you find out about this place, Mr At-vood.'
'That would be me,' Bela confessed. 'I use the Wejg a lot, and I heard rumours. They led me here.'
'I'll be wanting a statement later.'
An officer emerged from the building and came up to the captain to report. Mannstejne listened gravely, then turned to Henry. 'They've arrested six men, one of them Mr Hadjek, the vice-chancellor. They've also detained three teenagers. There were two dead bodies in the house, young kids. A tragedy.'
[For those who use webmail: 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, etc). Each browser is subtly different or we'd give fuller instructions here. If it pastes with %40 in the middle, replace that with an @ sign.]