After Alex


By Michael Arram

Ed Cornish peered over the rim of his coffee mug at Henry and Phil. 'Kaleczyk? Course you know it.'

Henry shrugged. 'I know the name. I just can't place it.'

They were back in Osragasse 45, Apt 3. Mrs Atwood had - as threatened - been through the flat like a whirlwind with a sense of tidiness. Since she was still busy scouring the last grease-spill from the kitchen, Henry hastily pushed a coaster forward before Ed could set his mug down on the gleaming tabletop.

'So tell us, Ed. Put us out of suspense.' Phil folded his arms and sat back.

'It's one of the old fortress-prisons. It's where Rothenia kept state prisoners before the Second World War. It's notorious, or it was. The Nazis used it as a POW camp for captured Soviet officers during the occupation. Over a thousand died there. It has the only Soviet-era memorial still standing from the time when Rothenia was a member of the Warsaw Pact, and was cut off behind the Iron Curtain.'

'Oh, right. Now I remember. But I thought the Red Army dynamited the fortress, and it's just ruins now.'

Ed nodded. 'So far as I know, you're right. I haven't been up there myself. My duty's not taken me in that direction. From what I've heard, though, it's high in the mountains on the Austrian-Slovak border: a real eyrie of a place.

'Look, Henry, I know what's coming next. You're about to go haring off on one of your adventures, aren't you. Well, this time I'm under direct orders from Rudi to keep my eyes glued to your little butt... and I'm extending that to Phil's quite-nice butt too. So don't try and sneak out early tomorrow. I'm driving.'

Henry grinned. 'I don't mind, Ed. 'Sides, we're not doing anything without Terry and Justy involved. They're worth a battalion of troops on their own.'

Ed frowned. 'What do you think you're actually doing here, little babe?'

Henry shrugged. 'Finding out stuff. There is something wicked burrowing into the heart of Rothenia, and evil men are involved. I want to know what it is and expose it. It's my job as a journalist. What I do for Eastnet isn't all chat shows and Eurovision.'

Ed softened. 'I know that, little babe. And I'm proud of what you do. It's just that you're not such a physical guy and...' Ed faltered, looking troubled. 'Henry, there've been two occasions when I thought I'd lost you. It breaks me up. This time I want to be there when the bad stuff happens.'

Henry took Ed's hand and entwined his fingers with his lover's. They looked at each other for a moment. Henry smiled. 'Like old days, Ed. We'll go into this together.'

Phil decided it might be a good moment to disappear. He rose and made his apologies, saying he had to get back to Ben and find out how wealthy he now was.

Henry promised to liaise with Terry and Justin. He would be back to Phil that evening with arrangements for the next day.

When Phil reached the Hilton, Ben had not yet returned. He tried Ben's mobile but found it was switched off. Frustrated, he took a shower and snatched a nap to clear the effects of the wine.

A knock on the door an indeterminate time later pulled him back to a bleary consciousness. He stretched, yawned and went to see who was there. As he reached for the door handle, he recalled just in time that he was naked. Deciding modesty was more important than haste, he asked loudly, 'Sorry? Who is it?'

An inarticulate growl answered him.

'Be a minute! Gotta get dressed.' But his trousers were inside out and he couldn't find his underpants. His impatient visitor banged the panel again. 'Giss a chance!' Phil shouted.

It was in fact a couple of minutes until he finally got himself dressed and to the door. When he opened it, no one was there. Odd, he thought. If it had been a staff member on an errand, his visitor would have waited.

He closed the door with a sudden cold feeling. There were people in Strelzen who did not have his best interests in mind. Dressner was out there somewhere, and his past behaviour gave Phil reason to think there was no boundary on what he might do. Suppose Phil had opened the door to be met by a bullet? It would have been put down to casual, violent crime in a foreign city.

With a trembling hand he tapped the number for Ben's mobile again. It rang for a long time, and Phil sweated until it was answered.

'Phil? Sorry, I was in a meeting.'

'Baby, I just had a scare.' Phil described the incident, feeling a little foolish as he did so. But he could tell that Ben shared his fears.

'Phil, Justin's here with me, and I'll tell him. Hang on...' There was a muffled conversation. Ben returned. 'Baby, he doesn't like the sound of it. He's going to mobilise Terry, and says you shouldn't open the door again until Terry gets there. I'm nearly finished up at PeacherCorp. I'll be back soon.'

Terry arrived in a quarter of an hour. Phil opened the door to his knock after checking through the eyehole. Terry gave him a look-over. 'Yer don't seem too happy, sweet babe.'

'I feel like a twit.'

Terry laughed. 'Yer shouldn't be hard on yerself. There are bad guys out there wiv a low opinion of ya, Phil. Iss as well to be cautious. Justy's been tagging Benny around, and perhaps you need a minder too. It wuz an oversight on my part not to have done it already. I'll get our Strelzen people on it. There'll be surveillance in reception tonight.'

'What about Henry? Did he tell you who we talked to at lunch? Do you know about Kaleczyk?'

'Yes, the little guy has been on to me. I'm not sure what he thinks he can do at Kaleczyk, but we're all going to find out, 'cept for Benny. But iss only a scouting expedition. Thass all.'

Terry's attention turned to his earpiece phone for a moment. 'Iss Justy, he and Benny're here. I'll get off now. But there'll be people downstairs, and I'll have me phone on. Ring us any time. I gotta meeting tonight in town, which I can't miss.'

Phil's curiosity was piqued, for there was something about Terry's manner that was odd. He seemed deeply amused, but was concealing what had caused it. Phil gave the man a hard stare, to be met by a bland smile. 'You're up to something.'

Terry laughed. 'Sweetness, I'm always up to something.'

Ben and Justin arrived at that point. Ben nodded when Terry told them they were to stay indoors that evening. He said he generally preferred a quiet night in anyway.

When Justin and Terry had gone, Phil took Ben in his arms, for which he got a kiss on the nose. 'Good day with the boys from Magnamedia?'

'We sorted out the package for the contract, and I signed. An announcement will be in the financial press tomorrow. They hope it'll stop Wardour's shares falling even further.'

'So babes, tell Philip about it.'

Ben grinned. 'It was a funny sort of negotiation. They made a proposal, and I did my usual hesitant thing, and then they capped it with a better offer. They were in an auction with themselves for the most part.'


'Oh right. Well, the salary is what Peter was nudging me to ask.'

'My God!'

'But there's the other stuff I hadn't realised was included. Full health insurance for myself and partner - that's you baby. I can have a car of my choice: I decided not to mention the fact I couldn't drive. There is a Magnamedia private jet I can use for business trips to the States. If it comes to being fired, the severance deal I get will cushion the shock. They'll pay subscriptions to gyms and clubs and season tickets for regular rail and tube travel. I can have the Magnamedia-sponsored boxes at the Emirates Stadium, Stamford Bridge, Wembley and various American venues I've never heard of. It all includes you too, Phil'

'Bloody hell! It's like the denouement of a Victorian novel, without the marriage.'

Ben looked thoughtful. 'Then let's hope Dressner and Josseran don't turn it into the final scenes of a Jacobean tragedy.' He laughed, then suddenly looked shy. 'Are you pleased?'

Phil took Ben's cheeks between his hands and kissed him lingeringly. 'I'm so delighted to be here when you get the recognition you deserve, my baby. This is justice and I love it. Now if we can only swing an equal amount of justice in the direction of Clive Dressner, I'll be happy.'

'What happened with you today?'

'I'll tell you. Just get changed and we'll go down to the hotel bar. That should be safe enough.'

'That's it. I'm coming too.' Ben was adamant.

'But... what about PeacherCorp?'

'I signed the contract yesterday. We've only got a week left here. I've been on the phone already to the Long Acre office. They're an hour behind us in England. My appointment was announced at a staff meeting yesterday. I've already promoted the people I want in charge, and I'll deal with the rest when we get back. My new team are going to forward press statements and a draft corporate plan to me. I can look at them here as well as there.'

Phil's mouth sagged. 'Blimey, Benny. You can be decisive when you want. Is that a side of you Alex ever saw?'

Ben smiled a little. 'Not really. He never worked for me, did he? Is it offputting?'

'No, I love it. Seriously. Are you so decisive about curtains and carpets?'

'Oh yes. You watch.'

'I can't wait.'

They were kissing as the room phone rang. It was Terry calling them down to reception. 'You coming too, Benny? You sure? You'll just have to squeeze in as best you can.'

Terry had driven up in a wide, black six-seater SUV. Ed was in his camouflage uniform behind the wheel, his peaked cap on the dash. Justin was grinning from the passenger seat. Henry was behind Ed. The other three took the remaining seats, Phil and Ben in the back. They added their travel bags to the pile in the tail.

They followed the inner ring-road round the south of the Nuevemesten to join the trunk road east to Kesarstein. Ed had chosen it in favour of the A2 headed for Rechtenberg, which might well have been quicker even if less direct.

Ninety minutes brought them to Kesarstein, whose improbably tall castle loomed high over the river Arndt where it flowed into the Starel.

Henry was leaning forward and chatting to Ed as he drove. 'Remember our day out in Kesarstein tourist village when we were sixteen?'

Ed had minor hysterics. 'God yeah! We gave your mum and dad the slip and went into a sex shop.'

'Remember what we bought?'

Another explosion from the driver's seat. 'I've still got it. I have a sentimental attachment to the thing.'

Justin too was laughing. 'I know that story. Very sexy. You told me it when we were drunk one night. I was proud of you, Ed, lyin' about yer age an' all.'

Ed shook his head. 'The things you do when you're a kid. Honest.'

Sobering, he remarked, 'It's about 150 miles to Kaleczyk from Kesarstein, Terry. But the roads get narrower now. It'll take maybe two and a half hours.'

The November morning was crisp and sunny, and Phil was enjoying it. They were travelling through the south of Glottenberg, Rothenia's large eastern province, a land of rolling green hills, some thatched with pine forests. Onion-domed churches had tiny villages clustered around their walls. Farms and small châteaux were up on the hills. Because it was dairy country, Phil quickly lost count of the herds of cows and goats he saw, each animal with a brass bell round its neck. He dozed for a lot of the time, resting his head on Ben's shoulder.

After two hours they came to the town of Wendel-zen-Glottenberg on the river Radeln. On the other side, the hills rose abruptly into serious mountains. Phil caught a glimpse of shining snow caps beyond the first ridge.

Terry announced it was time for a late lunch, so they parked the car on a side street off the marketplace. The town was a pretty one, its square surrounded by a picket fence of whitewashed house gables, with a brick Rathaus at the southern end. A large twin-towered church loomed up beyond the northern roofline.

The six men wandered companionably across the cobblestones. Terry called over his shoulder to Ben and Phil, 'Do yer two wanna be inconspicuous or what?'

They sheepishly dropped the hands they had clasped as they walked.

One of the large restaurants on the square was open, the Kung Rodolf Seszty, where they found a table under a large official portrait of Rudi. Justin looked greedily over the menu. He had not mastered much Rothenian, but he made an exception for food. 'The nosh in this place was designed juss for me: meat, gravy, spuds, sausages, apples. God, I love it! Can't wait to bring the little terror 'ere on holiday. 'Ee thought the food was brilliant, the last time.'

Terry looked across at Ed. 'So what you got to tell us, soldier babe?'

Ed pulled out some folded A4 sheets from one of the many pockets in his battledress. 'I went over to see a mate in the Ministry of Defence yesterday afternoon, and we did some research in the records. You'd have loved it, Henry. The Kaleczyk file was stuffed with historical documents. They even had the plans for Duke Rudolf III's extensions of 1556, gorgeously painted on parchment. A work of art. I could have stayed there all night.

'There was nothing for the period after 1939, of course, other than a survey carried out by the State Property Commission in 1992, which was just a block map of the actual land attached to the former fortress. It was made before the property was handed over to agents for sale.'

'Who bought it?' Terry asked.

'It only names the agents. It was four o'clock when I found the survey, and I rang over to their office. The guy who answered was not very helpful, just said they finally got rid of it last year. He couldn't be bothered to check who the purchaser was.'

Terry nodded. 'We can guess. Any idea why they would have been interested in Kaleczyk, other than the fact that it's remote and on the border?'

Ed grinned. 'Maybe I do. Henry and I did some thinking about this last night. Have a look at these copies I made at the ministry. They're plans from 1733 of major works carried out under the Kaleczyke Horja, the mountain on which the fortress was built. A series of excavations were made towards the Austrian side. Most were casemates for heavy artillery, but a whole warren of subterranean barracks and rooms was also constructed, including tunnels towards what is now the Slovak border. There is also this tunnel which runs down into the valley below the fortress on the Rothenian side.'

Terry put on his glasses and scrutinised the map carefully. 'How do we know these are still there? I thought the Russkies blew the fortress up.'

Henry shrugged. 'That was the surface buildings and walls. What's underground was sealed up over 150 years ago when Rudolf IV made the place a state prison. The Russians may not even have known about the tunnels.'

Terry took off his spectacles and folded them up. 'Why do you think Willemin, Dressner and the others might know about the underground complex?'

Henry grinned. 'Put it down to journalistic research. I've got a big file on Hendrik Willemin. One of the things it says is that he's a native of Glottenberg, and was born and brought up in a village three miles from the Kaleczyke Horja. He's got local knowledge. I bet hunters and shepherds from around here are aware that some of those tunnels exist.'

Terry leaned back in his chair. 'OK, adventurous babes. It'll be three before we've finished our late lunch, and the sun goes down by six. I votes we book into a local hotel and pursue things early tomorrow. Agree?'

Heads nodded around the table. Terry looked at the others appraisingly. 'Wonder what the gay scene is like here?'

'I think we're it,' chuckled Phil.

They settled down for the night in a low-ceilinged bar on the market square. Phil sat close to Ben across a table from Henry and Ed. They all nursed big glasses of the local beer. It was very companionable.

'And the best thing, Phil,' Ed finished, 'is that this beer is so pure and filtered you won't ever get much of a hangover.'

Henry snickered. 'You just need to worry about your bladder. The quantity Ed and his mates put down is awesome. He'll get a gut.'

'Will not. I at least work out.'

'I don't need to work out. I don't eat too much or drink a lot. I walk everywhere in Strelzen. I exercise as much as I need to do for my slight frame. 'Sides, if I went to the gym regularly, I'd be hit on so much my virtue would crumble. You know it happens.'

Ed looked uncomfortable. 'Well, there is the fame thing... as well as your sweet little bum. Er... how often does it happen?'

'Hunky big Czech guy hit on me only last week. It was pretty crude. After my shower, I was bending over towelling my legs and he stroked his hands up the inside of my thighs.'

'What? I'll kill him! Whoever he is. What did you do?'

'Wiggled my arse and told him my psychotic boyfriend was proficient in all forms of unarmed and armed combat. Managed it in Czech, too.'

'You what?'

'OK, I didn't do the arse-wiggle, but the rest I did. He apologised like a real gentleman, saying my bum was quite irresistible. We had a coffee. He seemed a nice guy with good taste in bums. He works in warehousing in Sudmesten. I didn't take his number, honest. Hey, Benny, you alright?'

Ben was looking sombre. Phil clutched his hand and said, 'It was Alex's cruising gyms that led to the break up.'

Henry coughed. 'Oh, sorry Benny. I didn't think.'

'No, don't mind me. Life goes on. Your reaction is the one I'd have hoped Alex would have shown. I'm glad you're a different sort of man.'

Phil suddenly looked past Henry, causing Henry to turn. 'What is it?'

But Phil was up out of his seat and heading fast for the door. Terry looked over from the bar sharply before pursuing him with Justin in his wake.

Terry caught up with Phil in the square outside, standing hesitantly amongst the empty pavement tables. 'Whassup, babes?'

'I saw him again, that boy... Elijah!'


'A strange kid I met in Hofbau... I didn't tell you about him. It didn't seem important, but here he is again in Glottenberg.'

Ben was now next to Phil. 'Was this that English boy?'

'Yes, he was with another kid, passing the bar door. They were trudging along with backpacks. But they're gone. Damn!'

Terry's eyes had widened. 'Why's it so important?'

'The kid knew something, I'm sure.'

'Come in and have a drink, Phil. Then you can tell me and Justy all about this kid.'

'I'm not being weird.'

'I know you're not. Believe me, hang around Henry and weirdness becomes an everyday occurrence.'

'Pardon me?'

'I'll tell yer again sometime, sweet babe.'

They returned to the bar. Sitting between Justin and Terry, with Ben at his shoulder, Phil retold his story of Elijah. 'What do you think?' he asked after he had finished.

'I'd say iss odd, sweet babe. Tell me what he looked like again.' Phil obliged. 'And yer said there wuz another guy with him. What did he look like?'

'I didn't see much of him, just a glimpse. But he was much the same slight sort of build. They both had backpacks on, and walking boots.'

Henry had come up behind Phil and was listening intently to him. 'This Elijah,' he asked. 'Was his hair black and his eyes brown? Did he have a small mole right beside the left-hand corner of his mouth?'

Phil shook his head. 'No, his hair was mousy and his eyes blue-grey, I think. Why do you ask?'

Henry looked both relieved and a bit sad. 'He sounded a little familiar, that's all.'

Terry broke it up. 'This Elijah may be important and maybe he isn't. Speculation ain't gonna get us anywhere. Everybody get another drink and come over to this big table. We got plans to make for tomorrow. Where's Ed and his map? Justy, you got yer pistol on yer? Good, cos I think yer gonna need it.'

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