After Alex


By Michael Arram

Ben and Phil had a passionate reunion as soon as Henry brought Phil back to Strelzen.

'I'm so proud of you, baby.'

Ben kissed Phil and caressed his flanks as they lay together. 'Our life will change a lot.'

'Oh, I don't mind. There's quite a tradition of academics being kept men. What worries me is if you get sucked into the job and have no time for me.'

'That'll never happen. Look at Matt and Andy, how they manage.'

'Matt's away a lot.'

'But they are together a lot too, and it's not just on holidays. Oh, dear. I'll have to buy so many more suits.'

'And you'll look gorgeous in them. Oooh, I have a fantasy of you fucking a naked me while fully dressed in a three-piece Saville Row suit. Think you could manage that?'

Ben laughed, suddenly carefree and happy. The decision had been made and, oddly, it was no longer Phil whose reaction most concerned him, or even Alex, but his estranged parents in Yorkshire. Now maybe was the time to make one more assault on the fortress of their alienation. They were nearly in their sixties and he was their only child.

Phil was up on his elbow looking down on Ben. He cupped Ben's preoccupied face with both hands and stared into his eyes. 'What is it, baby?'

Ben looked up and offered his mouth for a kiss before telling him.

Phil nodded. 'Benny, I'll come with you. We'll do it together. I can charm your mum, I know I can.'

Ben shook his head. 'Even Alex couldn't do it. They slammed the door on us when we tried the hand-in-hand happy gay couple thing. It was... horrible.'

Phil cuddled into his lover. There seemed little more to say. Phil's mother at least was still talking to him, though he had not been down to Cannock since the bombshell. His father had been a lost cause even before he had come out.

'We're both their only children,' Phil observed quietly. 'I suppose that gives us an obligation to try to heal the breach. Life is lonely enough as it is without opening up gulfs within our small families.'

Ben kissed his dark hair. 'You're right. Maybe if I turn up in a Rolls Royce they might come round to me more.'

'You never can tell. A private jet or a helicopter might be even more effective.'

'I'm not in that league...'

'... yet. But you may be, Bennyboy, one day.'

The room phone buzzed and Phil reached over to pick it up. It was Terry inviting them down for a drink.

Justin was looking moody and chewing a toothpick when they walked into the bar. Phil asked him what the problem was. 'Given up smokin' again, inn' I. An' this time iss for good, innit.'

Terry shook his head and raised his eyes.

Justin stared at him accusingly. 'Iss awright you lookin' like that, Terry, but iss the kid. Nathan said on the phone he'd caught Daimey and his mate Sean throwing up in the back garden. Daimey had found a pack of twenty in me coat pocket. Well, Sean got the wrong end of the stick an' tried to eat a filter tip... thought it was a sweet. Course, Daimey knew better an' lit up. They both spewed for England. So Nathan said it was high time to set an example and stop smoking.'

Terry smirked at him. 'It had to happen, Justy. Sooner or later, fatherhood was going to conflict wiv your baser urges.'

'OK, you give it up too!'

'No chance. I am old in vice and, in any case, I have no kid to corrupt, do I.'

'Life's unfair!'

Phil tried to move things on. 'How was your day in Zenden, guys?'

Terry shrugged. 'Not entirely pointless. We had a meeting wiv a local firm of investigators. They didn't want anything to do wiv any mucking around involving Josseran - an' who can blame 'em? - but tracking Willemin was a different matter. These are good guys, I've used 'em before. They'll start feeding me results soon.

'So, what about your day, you two?'

Phil filled him in on Ben's great news, while Ben fidgeted.

Terry laughed. 'Maybe ya can hold yer office party in Orton's. Iss just down the road from yer premises, Benny.'

'That might not go down too well with some of my colleagues. But maybe I'll start having long lunches with Davey. My old boss worked a two-day week.'

'So yer will be taking it?'

'Yes, I will. It's a job I can do. I suppose Phil and I must start thinking about where to live.'

Phil nodded. 'A flat not far from Matt and Andy's place would be nice.'

Ben smiled. 'That's exactly what I think too.'

Phil did not have to explain his day to Terry and Justin, since Ben's news trumped anything he had done. He did mention that he and Henry were going for another jaunt the next day - although he wasn't sure where - while Ben was negotiating his contract with Magnamedia.

For a variety of reasons, Ben and Phil slept restlessly. At six Phil was staring into Ben's open eyes. 'We should have had more sex before sleep.'

Ben smiled. 'You're right. But we stayed too long in the bar with Terry and Justy. I was only ready for it the once, especially as it was me performing.'

'I love it when you do it. You're so long, I can't believe how it all goes in. I didn't know I had so much space up there. You must unkink my lower intestine just to fit inside me.'

Ben looked at him earnestly. 'You do like it?'

'Like it! I totally love it, baby. Er... don't answer this if it seems over-curious, but did you go up Alex when you and he made love?'

Ben looked surprised at the question. 'Yes, though not very often. He said he didn't like it much when I played with his hole. But we did do it. Alex wanted me to enjoy our sex fully... well, at least in the early years. He said it was only fair that I top too.'

'Do you like it?'

'Oh yes. Very much. But I like it more when you take me. The look in your eyes when you enter me, like you're pouring your love into me...' Ben gave a small smile. 'That's how it feels to me. And if you're rough - which I like - I can feel you there for much of the next day.'

'So a sore arse reminds you that you love me.'

'Yes indeed. Now... are you going to give me a token of your esteem and affection before we get up?'

Phil laughed as he threw off the covers and pushed back Ben's legs.

At seven, after showering away the consequences of their passion, they went down to an early buffet breakfast. They loaded their plates while a pleasant waitress poured their coffees at the table. Phil ate his fruit salad hungrily. He told Ben his appetite was always good when he travelled. He had served himself a tall stack of toast, which vanished while Ben watched with raised eyebrows.

'Phil, are you eating for two?'

'No, baby, I'm just really hungry. It's this place. Don't you feel it?'

'Hmm, I suppose, though not through my stomach. To me, it feels as though my head is in overdrive a lot of the time, as if I had been misusing controlled substances.'

'Speaking of unusual sensations, a funny thing happened yesterday while I was waiting for Henry to rejoin me. I met this odd young man...' Phil described his encounter with Elijah in the café bar in Hofbau.

Ben gave him a close look. 'What was so odd about him? He sounds really nice, sweet even.'

'It was his self-possession, baby. He was the most together twenty-year-old I've ever met. I remember being twenty, and I was nothing like that. I was scared of my own shadow most of the time. I hid in my books. Life was just too confusing.'

Ben smiled. 'It sounds familiar. I was exactly the same. And when I met people who seemed totally together - like Matt White - after I got to know them better I found they were quite as confused as I was.'

'Elijah was full of charm and humour, but you could tell it was just the velvet around the steel glove. You could sense a strength there. And he did this thing as he left.'


'It was odd. He looked at me with a concentrated stare that made me feel he... how can I say this? As if he had taken control of me for a moment. Very weird.'

Ben looked at Phil expectantly, supposing there was more to come. When he realised there was not, he asked, 'Where are you two off today?'

'Henry said he wanted to follow up the Willemin end of things. He's set up a meeting this morning here in Strelzen. He'll pick me up at eight.'

Phil was in the foyer as Henry arrived to announce, 'Did you hear Dressner was released yesterday evening?'

'No, it wasn't on CNN - the only English news channel we could get - and Terry and Justy didn't know it either. Where is he now?'

'He disappeared somewhere in a big black car. Of course, he can't leave Rothenia. But no one at Eastnet knows where he's holed up. Anyway, come on Phil. You'll enjoy this morning. We're going to meet Willemin's fixer. Button up your coat. It's a bit cold out there.'

Henry had not brought his car. He said that as a Strelzen resident he didn't want to add unnecessarily to traffic in his city, which was considering congestion charges on cars. He then paused, grinned and added that also they could drink their way through lunch this way.

'It's trams today, Phil. There should be a number 14 on Modenehemstrasse in just five minutes.'

Phil did not like trams particularly, whatever their ecological advantages. But with Henry's help, using them was much easier. Henry managed the automated ticket machine for him. They chatted amiably on the platform about living in Rothenia, while well-wrapped-up Strelseners read newspapers and smoked strong cigarettes around them. Those not smoking contributed their steaming breath to the cold air. Phil tried not to stare as a young lesbian couple made out just next to them, their hands exploring inside each other's coat.

Henry smirked. 'Yes, it's a very liberal city, is Strelzen.'

The tram arrived, clanging its way down the road, picked them up and moved onwards into town. The No 14 rumbled across Rodolferplaz and along Domstrasse with the cathedral spires rising above them on the hill of the Old City. It was a dramatic sight. The tram then made a sudden right turn southwards into Bernenstejnsgasse, the long straight road that cut through the warren of the Third District.

At the corner with Herrengasse, Henry prodded Phil to alight. As the tram clanged off on its way to the railway station, Henry looked around.

'You know where we're supposed to be going?'

'Umm... I think so. Over there!' Henry indicated a nineteenth-century townhouse that had been converted to offices.

'Do you have an appointment with this guy?'

'Not exactly, though my office was supposed to ring him first thing. But he's a relative of a friend, so he should see me. I hope. 'Sides, I'm cute and charming, everybody says so. How could he refuse me?'

Phil scrutinised the brass plaque. It said KONSULTANTEN MASZKARADA ICC. The door led into quite a plush reception area, with a designer desk, glass tables, sofas and a chandelier. A lacquered blond woman looked up at Henry, did a double-take of recognition and smiled.

'Mr At-vood,' she said in English.

'That's me.' The Henry smile lit up the reception like a small sun. 'My office rang about a meeting with Niklaus zu Vinodol-Kesarstejne, one of your directors.'

'Yes it did. I'm afraid Mr Vinodol-Kesarstejne is not available at this time. He sent his regrets.'

'Oh, I'm so sorry. It was quite important. It's too bad my office didn't convey the urgency. We're looking to do a feature on Rothenia's new generation of entrepreneurs. Niklaus would be perfect: aristocratic background, jet-set lifestyle, and an international success of a company.'

As the receptionist mumbled apologies, Phil noticed her eyes swerve up to the security camera opposite her desk. He suspected they were under surveillance by the very man to whom they were being denied access.

Henry went on, 'Then can you tell Mr Vinodol-Kesarstejne that I have a table booking at Ribaud's for eleven-thirty? If he could join me and my colleague for lunch, we would be so very grateful.'

She nodded her acquiescence.

Back outside on Herrengasse, Henry dug his hands deep in his coat pocket and hunched his shoulders. 'Oh well, we tried.'

'Why was it so important to meet this guy?'

'He's the weak link in the Willemin-Josseran-Dressner axis. I know him, and so does Oskar, with whom he plays squash. They're cousins. Oskar told me that Niklaus used to be really close to Willemin, who provided the initial capital for his consultancy. Since this new scheme and the appearance of Josseran, though, Niklaus has been squeezed out. More than that, he plainly disapproves of what's going on. I'm hoping we can get him drunk and confidential enough to leak us some hints as to what Willemin is up to. Oh well. Perhaps it was a long shot. Such is investigative journalism. Let's go do some tourism before lunch.'

'Haven't you got better things to do at your office?'

Henry smiled his little smile. 'Probably, Phil. But you're a lot more fun.'

They had a good time on Mikhelstrasse, the wide commercial street running from Rodolferplaz to Neuveplaz. There were various new multi-level city malls which repaid examination. Their being heated made them a welcome refuge from the cold November morning. Phil browsed a number of craft shops and found several fabrics he thought might interest Ben. He bought a mat and had the shopkeeper put it aside for later collection.

Despite the cold creeping up through their shoes, they looked over the famous city church of the Fenizenkirk-zen-Graben, theatrical in its Austrian baroque style, which Henry said always put him in a good mood with the world.

'When are you never in a good mood?'

Henry laughed. 'I have my moments, just wait.'

Upon entering Ribaud's, Phil was deeply impressed that the maître d'hôtel recognised him as a return visitor, ushering him and Henry to their table as though they had been coming to the restaurant all their lives. He certainly knew Henry well enough to ask after Major Cornish, and did not mistake Phil for a new love interest.

As they were debating the starter menu, Henry suddenly rose to greet a figure looming over the table. Niklaus zu Vinodol-Kesarstejne was a tall, spare man, handsome in an aquiline sort of way. Henry shook his hand warmly and indicated the third seat.

'I'm glad you could come, Niklaus.'

'I was intrigued. And who is this?' The man looked Phil over.

Henry's eyes gleamed. 'Allow me to introduce an English colleague, Jehoiadah Scudamore.'

The aristocrat offered Phil his hand, 'An unusual name, Mr... er... Scud-a-more.'

'Call me Jed.'

'I think I will, it's so much easier. Henry I know very well, but what do you do, Jed.'

'Oh, I'm an investigator of sorts, Mr Vinodol-Kesarstejne.'

'I prefer Nikki, please, both of you. And what sort of investigator would that be?'

'The stubborn sort, Nikki.'

The Rothenian laughed lightly. He turned his attention to the menu, and rattled off an order to the waiter who had appeared at his right hand. Henry did so too, and Phil stumbled his way through the unfamiliar Rothenian words, assisted by the English gloss on each dish.

They looked at each other as the wine and water glasses were attentively filled up by the highly efficient table staff.

'Now Henry, you invited me, so you really should tell me what you'd like to talk about. You said you're interested in a feature on entrepreneurial success stories, is that right?'

'Yes, in part it is.'

'So there's more?'

'It's the particular success story of Hendrik Willemin that grips me most at the moment.'

Nikki looked narrowly at Henry. 'I half-expected this. Henry, you have me here under false pretences. Why am I not surprised? You really can't expect me to talk to you about one of my major clients.'

'That depends. But, by all means let's talk about you. How's business, Nikki?'

With a narrow and suspicious look at Henry, Nikki began what must have been a corporate promotional talk he had given a dozen times before. Business was apparently good. His firm was raising contracts in Germany and the Czech Republic. The last year's dividends were well up on those of the previous years. His client base had expanded.

The starters came and went. They were well into the main course and a second bottle of a rather fine red Tavelner when Henry gave his little smile. 'So why aren't you happy, Nikki?'

The aristocrat stared coolly at Henry over the rim of his wineglass. He fenced. 'Is this a counselling session, Henry?'

'It's so obvious. You're anxious and you're even a bit desperate.'

Nikki turned away from Henry and gave Phil a considering look. 'Mr Scud-a-more, what can you contribute to this discussion?'

Phil caught the glance Henry shot at him. He felt oddly relaxed, and he didn't put that down entirely to the excellent wine they were drinking. His insouciant smile would have done Terry credit. 'I have an interest in a Mr Dressner. Do you know him?'

Nikki momentarily lost it. Expressions of mingled annoyance and apprehension shot across his face before he could recover his composure. They had him. He hated Dressner.

'I have heard of him of course. Who could not at this time when he is so much in the news.'

'I have reason to know he is a very dangerous man.' Phil leaned forward. 'I think you know that too.'

Nikki poured more wine. 'What do you want from me?'

Henry's smile had not wavered. 'Information - that's what Jed and I deal in - not a lot of information, just enough to help us find out things on our own.' He paused, and committed himself. 'It's about trafficking in people, isn't it? Modern slavery?'

As soon as Henry said it, Nikki's reaction told Phil they were on the wrong track. Nikki bit his lip to hide a little grin while he sipped on his wine. 'Were I to tell you something, it must never get out that I had.'

'Of course.'

'You have powerful friends Henry, I know that.'

'Yes, I do.'

'Then be warned. Even your powerful friends may not be able to protect you from the likes of Dressner. You see, he has nothing now to lose. You made sure of that. I keep well away from him. But... if you really do want to find his trail, then it's to Kaleczyk you must go.'

Henry twitched an eyebrow. 'Kaleczyk?'

'That's what I said, and that's all I'll say.' Nikki rose and placed his rumpled napkin on the table. 'I shall not stay for dessert. If something comes of your investigation, perhaps you may be so good as to remember at a later time that I assisted you.'

Henry stood and nodded. They all shook hands and Nikki left. Henry sat and looked meditatively at Phil. 'Dessert?'

'Where's Kaleczyk?' Phil replied.

'I really don't know, though I've heard the name somewhere.'

'And why did you pick that weird alias for me?'

'What? Jehoiadah Scudamore?' Henry laughed. 'It's the name of a very old friend of mine. I picked it for luck, really. Jehoiadah and I go way back.'


'I wish. No, it's quite a story, but one for long winter nights.'

'Henry, you can be very mysterious at times.'

'Part of my charm, Phil. Now, dessert?'

Talk about this story on our forum

Authors deserve your feedback. It's the only payment they get. If you go to the top of the page you will find the author's name. Click that and you can email the author easily.* Please take a few moments, if you liked the story, to say so.

[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 (it goes directly to your clipboard without having the courtesy of mentioning that to you) 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. Note: If the email address pastes or arrives with %40 in the middle, replace that weird set of characters with an @ sign.]

* Some browsers may require a right click instead