After Alex


By Michael Arram

Phil looked out across the windy spaces of the grand Hofbauener Plaz. Autumn was come and grey clouds were racing low across the rooftops. Henry had been right. Hofbau was indeed a handsome city, with magnificent brick and stone townhouses, their gables towards the road. It was impressive even on such a dull day.

The Hofbauener Plaz might have been laid out in imitation of the Rodolferplaz, but it looked like Strelzen's great square would have done two centuries before. The modern Rodolferplaz was a place of plate-glass frontages, cafés and clubs. The centre of Hofbau was much sleepier, being still largely residential apart from a few legal offices and dental clinics. The commercial district had grown up in a different part of town.

From where Phil was sitting in a bar on the southern side of the square, he could see across the great sea of cobbles and lampposts to the long, jumbled mass of the Radvovedske, the ducal castle. It was a miscellany of eighteenth-century brick ranges between sandstone towers of the fifteenth century. The gate tower blazed with painted sculpture and gold leaf. A huge astronomical clock situated over the gate itself clanged out the hour of twelve as Phil watched. Even on that cold November day, a group of tourists was there to film the clock's rotating planets, moon and sun, which moved on the hour according to a medieval rather than a modern cosmography. A brass comet dashed across the blue-and-gold star field behind the planets.

Phil felt cheerful. Henry had disappeared under that very gate an hour before to see his friend Jerzy, who, it appeared, was someone important in the immigration department. To pass the time, Phil had hit the local red wine, the Tavelner, thick and fruity on his palate with the rich tang of sloes. He was now on his third glass, which might have accounted for his slight euphoria.

The café bar had only a couple of other customers, and the barman had little English. As Phil was contemplating a fourth glass and an inevitable drooling snooze in Henry's car, the door darkened briefly as a young man entered. He came up to the bar and gave Phil a shy smile before taking the next stool.

Getting the barman's attention, he ordered a glass of Czech beer in English. He fidgeted a little as he waited for the order. He looked about twenty, perhaps slightly older, with a small, triangular face which reminded Phil very much of Max Jamroziak. His clothing too was like Max's: tee shirt and low-slung jeans barely held up by a wide belt; a lot of the top of his Calvin's was showing. A gap-year kid, Phil concluded.

They caught each other's eye, and the sweet, shy smile appeared again. Phil did not like to patronise younger men by classifying them as 'cute', but this one was just that.

'Hello,' he found himself saying, 'you're British, aren't you?'

The boy's smile broadened. 'Yes I am; so are you too, I think. Are you here on holiday?'

'Yes, though it's not the best time of year for it. Still, the wine tastes just as good in November as in July. Are you here with friends?'

'No, I'm on my own.'


'I live here nowadays. I've just started a job.'

'Oh really? Doing what?'

'It's sort of evangelical work, church extension.'

Uh-oh! Phil's head warned him. God squad. Take cover. Probably a Scientologist and ... oh shit! I fell right into the trap.

But the boy had extended his hand, giving Phil no immediate escape. 'Hi! I'm Elijah.'

'Hullo. I'm Phil. So... er... what church do you work for?'

Elijah confirmed his suspicions by becoming evasive. 'Oh... it's sorta new, not really affiliated to the other denominations. We're looking for a base locally. And you, Phil, are you here on your own?'

Got it! Phil's mind crowed. This'll get rid of him. 'I'm here with my boyfriend.'

But Elijah grinned. 'Gay! That's way so cool. Is your guy looking around Hofbau or something?'

'No, he's in Strelzen. A friend gave me a lift out here.'

'It's a nice place, the capital. I spent a couple of months there, and it's really gorgeous, but this place is just as nice, nicer even. People are so sweet here. They don't get so many tourists.'

When his beer arrived, he expressed his thanks in a string of fluent Rothenian phrases which brought a smile to the barman's face.

'Oh! So you speak Rothenian. That's rare in a Brit.'

Elijah waved his hand dismissively. 'It was a crash course. People here love it when you try their language.'

'What you just said seemed to indicate more than just a passing acquaintance with the vernacular.'

Elijah gave a little laugh. 'The vernacular! I bet you're an academic of some sort.'

'The big words, you mean.'

'Very impressive.' Elijah laughed again, and almost to his surprise, Phil found himself laughing along with the boy. It was as though a clear spring of merriment had welled up between them.

'What part of the UK are you from, Elijah?'

'The North Midlands. My parents live in Cannock Chase now. You can call me Lije, since we're friends.'

'Cheers. Well, yours are not too far from my parents. They're in Leek.'

'So are you an academic?'

'Yes. I lecture in English at Stevenage. Did you graduate?'

'I started a course, but I dropped out. Got the call... you know.'

'So are you in training for ministry, Lije?'

'Something like that.'

The boy's vagueness had closed in again, like shreds of fog on an otherwise clear summer morning. Phil tried to pin him down. 'So what is it?'

'Oh, I dunno. Sort of like helping out, walking alongside people who need a hand. A bit of rescue work.'

'Oh! Social action. I understand.'

Elijah gave him an odd look. 'Do you?'

'Like the Salvation Army and Samaritans.'

'Hmmm... I guess. There are a lot of people in need in this country. The poor of Eastern Europe and Asia are sucked in by its prosperity. They want a new start. Once they're inside the EU in Rothenia, they think it'll be easy to move on further west, to Germany, Britain and ultimately to the States. Too many of them get trapped.'

'How's that?'

'There are some bad men out there who use them, make them pay more than they can afford to get here. Then the debts get bigger and bigger until they can only pay off by selling themselves and their children.'

'Human trafficking? How can...'

'... a kid like me do anything about it? I can't much, well, not without help. But I do what I can with what I have. You'd be surprised.'

Phil stared at this young man, who looked as though he'd not long finished his A Levels. Elijah smiled back, sank a long pull of beer and wiped his mouth. Phil suddenly felt a bit intimidated by Elijah, who had just unveiled social ambitions both remarkably courageous and daunting. Phil found himself asking, 'What sort of help, Lije?'

The boy smiled again. Something in his eyes seemed to reach out and take possession of Phil's. 'You'll know when the time comes. Bye, Phil.'

Elijah stood up. He was not that tall, only 5'6" Phil guessed. He finished his glass, straightened his backpack and headed out on to the square, leaving Phil confused and unsure what to make of his new acquaintance. He wondered if he had been evangelised.

He was still staring out the café door when another short figure blocked it. It was Henry. 'Ready, Phil? You look vague. How many of those Tavelners have you sunk?'

There was nothing wrong with the meal which had been prepared to Michelin standards for the PeacherCorp executive dining room. That didn't keep Ben from moving his fork aimlessly around his plate. He was aware that Peter was watching him under lowered eyebrows, while the Magnamedia suits talked corporate gossip.

Ben had not said much since the job offer, other than that he was flattered and would need time to think about it. The others insisted they would prefer a quick reply, as Wardour's reputation would need rebuilding, and there was no one currently holding the fort there. He was adamant that he needed to talk to Phil before he gave the final answer.

He felt numb. He knew what his abilities were, and so far as he was aware of them he had no false modesty. He had been a senior commissioning editor in the States, before Alex's return to Britain had set his career back. He had run high-powered committees and sat with the board. He could do the job; there was no doubt about that. He also knew Wardour's, and where it was going wrong in the market. When he thought of himself as CEO, schemes and priorities tumbled out of his mind.

However, there was the issue of his personality. Ben was naturally reclusive and quiet. He knew the glad-handing thing was not his strong point. Could he enthuse and dominate the management team he would like to build at Wardour's? Would he be taking on a job beyond his emotional capacities? What about the stress? But he would never find out unless he tried it.

The waiters took the plates. Feeling as though he could, Ben declined dessert. After amiable remarks about waist lines were made, Ben rose to his apologies. He said he needed the afternoon to think, but would be back to them first thing next morning. Hands were shaken and he left, guided by Peter to his PA who called a cab.

Peter shook his hand. 'We could go up to £360,000 on the salary, you know.'

Ben's stomach lurched. That was six times his current wage. It would transform his life and make so many more things possible. But what would Phil say?

The cab brought him into the city by Modenehemstrasse. Asking the driver to take him to the Rodolferplaz rather than the Hilton, he alighted at the Salvatorskirk. He had a visit to make.

Entering the great church from the south entrance on Lindenstrasse, he was carried back to a quieter, less technological time. The church's tall lancet windows were set high in thick limestone walls, effectively blocking out the traffic noise and street conversation of the twenty-first century.

A couple of tourist groups were wandering the aisles, and several figures were dotted among the chairs, meditating or resting. There was a blaze of candles in front of the statue of the Virgin in the north aisle. Ben dropped a handful of krone in the alms box because it seemed a polite thing to do.

He knew where he wanted to go, though he had never been in the church before. He followed the signs that pointed to KRYPTA. Steep steps led down below the sanctuary to a different, low-pillared subterranean space. What he was looking for was immediately under the high altar.

Two marble sarcophagi were set side by side, picked out in spotlights. Upon the left-hand one was a sculpted rendition of the Crown of Tassilo, ancient symbol of Rothenian royalty. Upon the other was a lesser diadem, a queen's crown. The left-hand tomb bore the simple legend MAXIMVS D.G. REX ROTHENIÆ, the other HELGA D.G. REGINA ROTHENIÆ. Garlands of fresh flowers decked the lids, scenting the air.

Ben slid into a seat immediately in front of the resting place of his hero, Maxim Elphberg, the king who had ousted the usurping Thuringians and guided his nation safely through the storms of the Great War, before sacrificing his throne for the sake of civil peace. The king and his queen had lain here only for the past twelve years. They had died in exile in England, and had long been interred together at Farnborough Abbey in Surrey, until the post-Communist regime allowed their remains to be brought back to Strelzen to the place Maxim had selected in his will.

Ben knew why the king had chosen to be buried here rather than the cathedral. He had won his people's hearts by his bravery when dragoons had massacred peaceful protesters outside the Salvatorskirk. He had saved the life of Marcus Tildemann, who ironically would later supplant him as first president of Rothenia. From a portrait of the royal couple set between their tombs, the king gazed into Ben's eyes with a slight smile.

Ben reflected on the great trials of Maxim's life, his victories and defeats. It was Maxim's sense of duty that had always impressed Ben, who thought of duty as the lodestar of his own life. He knew what it was urging him on to. This was not just about his fears of screwing up, or coming forward; it was about the future of an enterprise where he had good friends still working, and whose clients depended on it.

Ben resurfaced from the crypt and emerged into the light of day. The clouds broke as he entered the Rodolferplaz. He reached for his mobile and rang Phil.

'Go for it, my Bennyboy! It's totally amazing. I love you. Love you forever!'

Henry looked across from the driver's seat at Phil sitting bemused, his mobile still open in his hand. 'So what was that about?'

'Ben's been offered the chance to run his former company, Wardour's Publishing'

'That's fantastic! So he's been agonising, has he?'

'Wouldn't you?'

'Mmmm... probably. Not that they'd ask me. Will Vincent'll go on forever as CEO of Strelsenermedia. Mind you, if someone offered me Falkefilm, I'd jump at it. I went over there for lunch with Felip the other day. God, it was a dream come true. Naked, buff, tanned men everywhere. I felt so inadequate I went to the gym for three days on the trot afterwards.'

'Ben'll take it and he'll be brilliant.'

'I have no doubt of it. How much are they gonna pay him?'

Phil told him and the car swerved noticeably under Henry's wheel. 'Jesus! That brings Rothenian salary scales into a new focus. What about you?'

'Well, er, that's about twelve times my annual salary.'

' Hmm. That's to think about. You'll be a kept man, mate.'

'Holidays'll be good, though. Besides, with that salary, we can live in North London. Fantastic! How much does Ed Cornish earn?'

'A major in the Rothenian army earns £18,000 a year.'

'Christ, that's a starting salary for a British nurse.'

'It goes further here.'

'What about you?'

'Mine's more comparable to industry standard across Europe, £45,000, and I get other commissions on the strength of my famous little face.'

Phil guessed that if Henry were working in Britain he would be receiving three times that, but work to Phil was more than about pay, which was as well in an academic. He reflected besides that he would give many thousands to enjoy what Henry had going for him in Rothenia.

They drove on along the A18 for a few more miles in silence, possessed by their own thoughts.

'So this friend of yours...'


'What did he have to say?'

Henry grinned. 'He told me immigration investigators disagree with the police that the centre of Willemin's activities is in Zenden. They say he's been busy closer to the German border, in Mittenheim. We'll be there in an hour.'

'And what will we do when we arrive?'

'Jerzy's made a few calls. He's given me the name of a guy to talk to in the border police, a Captain Mecjev. Jerzy says the border police are fed up of the lack of attention their problems are getting. They're happy to co-operate in a TV exposé if it gets them more resources. So I'm a real gift for them.'

'So is this what TV journalism is all about: driving endlessly up and down motorways looking for the friend of a friend who might possibly know something relevant to your investigation?'

'What, you don't find that enjoyable?'

'The library is looking more attractive by the hour.'

The autoroute signs told them to take the next right for Mittenheim East. Soon they were in a light industrial zone where Henry pulled over to check his map. 'I had a satellite-navigation thingy,' he mentioned, vaguely indicating the car's floor, 'but I lost it... somewhere. I used to be good at maps, but that was when I was just a passenger.' He shoved the map at Phil, pointing to a road which Phil estimated to be somewhere on the other side of a long, low warehouse complex.

'That way, Henry. Tell me, does Mittenheim have any nice bits?'

'There's a cathedral somewhere.'

After two cul-de-sacs and a lot of retracing their route, they arrived at a white-painted 1950s office block bearing a green-lettered sign 'Ranicjeske Polizei'. White-and-green-checkered vans and cars were parked in the front courtyard. Officers in green fatigues and body armour, carrying automatic weapons, were coming in and out of the doors.

Henry led the way to the dingy reception area, where an officer looked over Henry and Phil without too much initial sympathy. After an exchange of Rothenian with Henry, however, the man brightened at what Phil presumed was a joke on Henry's part. He picked up a phone and spoke into it, then listened, nodded and signalled Henry and Phil to occupy two tattered padded seats against a dirty wall.

Captain Mecjev appeared ten minutes later. He looked harassed, but ushered Henry and Phil into a depressing interview room off the foyer. He was happy to talk in English for Phil's benefit.

'So, Mr Atwood, how can I help you?'

'It's to do with Hendrik Willemin and his recent activities. I was pointed in your direction by the immigration service.'

'Ah yes. Mr Willemin, the associate of Josseran the Raven.'

'So we've heard. What do you know?'

'Josseran's henchmen moved into Mittenheim about six months ago, so the police criminal intelligence people told us. We thought initially it was nothing to do with us, but it turned out we were wrong. Six weeks ago we were monitoring one of the small crossings into Germany and stopped a van on a random check.

'The driver pulled a gun and attempted to shoot his way out. An army platoon not too far away stopped the van, though the driver didn't survive the experience. We identified him from his papers as an Albanian associated with Josseran.'

'What was he trying to protect?'

'We found out when we opened the back of the van: a group of Chechen refugees, young women and boys. Two had been accidentally wounded in the shootout.'

'You interrogated them?'

'We tried, but between their terror and lack of any western languages we did not get very far. They had also been drugged with something new, which left their memories deeply confused. All of them had been sexually and physically abused.'

'What do you think was going on?'

'It was not simple smuggling, so much was clear. They were a cargo.'

'People trafficking,' broke in Phil.

'Possibly. But we never worked out where they were going and where they had come from.'

Henry pondered. 'What about Wilemmin's place in all this?'

'He's been seen around here, and our monitors show he has crossed into Germany from Mittenheim an unusual number of times in the past six months, the same period as Josseran has been showing an interest in the area. Is there anything more?'

'This drug you mentioned?'

'Analysis didn't recognise it, other than to place it in a family of drugs developed by the Soviet Union for mind control. They encouraged compliance.'

'Sounds sinister.'

'It very much is.'

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