After Alex


By Michael Arram

Phil twisted around, trying to determine who was with him, but it was too dark. The hand left his back. A young man's voice whispered softly, 'I'm going to get you free of these restraints.'

'Who are you?'

'A friend of Elijah's.'

'God! Don't you know he's dead? They killed him!'

'I saw it.' The man went down on his knees, and Phil could feel and hear him working on the shackles. First one, then another leg was free. The man came into view as he moved to free Phil's wrists. He helped Phil up. Phil felt very odd - shock undoubtedly - but also anaesthetized, almost floating free.

Once Phil was standing he could see a little more in the dim light. The stranger was short, like Elijah, but dark-haired. 'How did you get in here?'

'I followed Lije.'

'Have you got a way out? I need to find and help my friends.'

'They don't need your help. They're taken care of. The world still has its heroes, and your friends are exactly that. Besides,' he chuckled, 'you're not dressed for a rescue mission.'

'Where did you come from? How could you get in here?'

A smile lit the young man's face. 'So many questions. Don't you even want to know my name? That's the usual one.'

Phil stared at him.

'Well, since you ask, it's Enoch.'

'Elijah, and now Enoch. Is that your real name?'

'It is now.'

'Fine, I won't go there. You know they'll be back soon.'

'No, I don't think so.'

'How can you be so sure?'

'Just a hunch. Look, we can at least find you some trousers. You're... distracting.'

'Here we are in mortal peril and you're checking me out!'

'Nice arse, really, and your dick...'

'You wouldn't be gay, would you?'

Enoch laughed. Given the bizarre circumstances in which they found themselves it was frightening, because it was an altogether normal, happy laugh, the sort you shared with a friend.

'I'll be back in a minute.'

Phil looked around. There was a splash of blood on the ground where Elijah had been stabbed. He stared at it until Enoch returned to hand him a tracksuit bottom and a tee-shirt. They were a little tight at crotch and armpit, but Phil felt relieved to be clothed.

'What do we do now?'

'Why, I think you and I need to find Mr Dressner and have a word with him. There needs to be a witness.'

'A witness?'

'Yes, it's sort of a new rule.'

'Who are you, Enoch?'

The young man just smiled. In the light from the open doorway he looked younger than his level of self-confidence would indicate, the same age as Elijah, just turned twenty. His dark hair was fallen in his eyes, which were large and profound. By the left-hand corner of his mouth there was a small mole.

Ben tied a very neat knot, as Terry observed with approval. 'It's of a piece with the rest of your approach to life, sweet babe. You're a bit like Davey. He's much the same.'

'What, do you do bondage sex?

'That's not quite what I meant, but since yer asks, we do like to experiment at times.'

Ben dusted his hands and got up. So far they had surprised three of the gangsters taking a coffee break, whom they had trussed and placed inside metal kitchen cabinets.

With a smile Willemin slid the doors across, then picked up the three guns the captured guards had contributed. 'Now I think we can try and find your lads. Down here Terry,' he directed in his gravelly whisper.

Terry led the way, Ben following on.

A door opened into a corridor lined with cells. There were no keys, just outside bolts and eyeholes. The first cell revealed an embarrassed Justin, who padded out barefoot.

'War'nt me fault, was it.'

'What?' said his boss.

'They jumped us and had Henry by the froat. Couldn't do a fing, could I.'

Terry shrugged. 'Don't beat yerself up, Justy, there's plenty of people 'ere who'll be happy to do it for yer. Take this gun and try to find yer shoes. You'll catch yer death.'

Ed Cornish was in the second cell. 'Where's Henry?' was his only demand.

'Next door, soldier babe,' replied Terry.

'Thank God!' As Henry emerged, Ed lunged to envelope his small lover.

'Easy, big guy,' Henry smiled. 'Take a gun and do your stuff. Nice to see you, Mr Willemin. I take it there's a reason you're with Terry and carrying a shotgun.'

'No time,' commented Terry.

'I thought that's what you'd say. Explanations later, I suppose. Benny, what are you doing with that gun?'

'It's fun, Henry. I can strike a great pose, look at this!'

'Gays with handguns.' Henry threw up his hands. 'I suppose next you'll want them colour coordinated.'

Ed growled, 'It's not a laughing matter, little babe. We have friends to find and enemies to lose.'

Henry sighed. 'OK, OK, I'll bring up the rear. My usual position. So. Anyone seen Phil?'

Ben answered, 'He got into the complex from above quite a few hours ago. He may be anywhere. I want to go look for him.'

Terry made his dispositions. 'You and me go together first, Ed. Justy and Hendrik'll be backup. My guess is the rest of the guards will be wiv the captive refugees.' He looked at Willemin. 'You know this complex. Where would the kids be kept?'

'I think in the passageways behind these cells. The main tunnel goes through the mountain and comes out near the Slovak border. That's how they can smuggle truckloads of people into our country without being observed.'

'OK then. The rest of yer - thass Ben and Henry - poke around the front part of the complex and see what yer can find. Look for Phil if yer like, but stay outa trouble, right? And please be careful with that gun, Benny.'

Terry's four disappeared, leaving Henry on the floor, putting on his recovered shoes.

Meanwhile, Ben attempted to spin his gun like a rodeo gunslinger. 'It's cute the way you're enjoying that weapon of death and destruction, Benny. Like you're a kid again. Aren't you bothered it'll go off accidentally?'

'No. Terry put the safety on. He forgot to tell me how to take it off.'

'I'm not sure what would be more dangerous: you twirling it like that, or the same gun with the safety off. I really hope I don't find out.' Henry got back to his feet. 'Let's see what's to be seen, Benny.'

'Why did you bring me here?' Phil looked around. Enoch had led him off a side passage to a concrete bunker full of the stench of rotting food coming from a series of steel wheelie-bins. There was a light scuffling just on the edge of hearing, which Phil concluded must be rats. He was acutely conscious that he was still barefoot. His head was buzzing now and he did not feel entirely connected with the world around him.

Enoch took his hand and steadied him. It was a warm, strong grip. 'Philip, I have to warn you that you might find the next part difficult, but what comes after will be even worse, so let's get through it.'

Next to a bin there was a man-size object wrapped in black plastic, like a post-modern shroud. 'Is that...?'

'Yes. Now please don't shriek or anything like that.'

Enoch let go Phil's hand. Kneeling down, he dug his fingers into the plastic at the head end of the package and tore it through. Phil drew in his breath, for, as he expected, it was Elijah's head that was exposed. The eyes were staring upward, the mouth open.

Enoch contemplated the dead face for a moment, then put his hand on the forehead. A loud rumble, as though an underground train had gone past, caused Phil to look around. The rustling of plastic brought his attention back to the corpse, which was looking at him with a very troubled air. 'Get me outa here, you two,' it complained.

Enoch laughed and ripped away at the wrappings. Phil landed hard on his butt. He watched Elijah emerge from his cocoon and sit up.

'You were dead, Lije!'

'Well, sorta,' Elijah agreed. 'Christ, what a mess. I liked that tee-shirt too.'

'What was it? Some sort of body-armour? But I saw the knife go in, and the blood. Was the thug an accomplice with a trick knife?'

Elijah gave a grin. 'Whatever. Help me stand, Enoch, and please don't kiss me or do anything else gay. You know how I feel about that sort of thing.'



'Could you two weird kids please explain what just happened?'

'Do you see a wound?' Elijah asked. There was a bloody, ragged rip across his tee-shirt, but the skin underneath was unbroken. 'OK, touch my chest... just don't get too turned on by it.'

Elijah took Phil's hand and pressed it over his heart. The skin was warm and beneath it beat a steady pulse.

'There. Can't be dead then, can I?'

Phil shook his head.

Elijah looked at Enoch. 'He's not getting it, is he.'

'He'll work it out. Come along, Phil, we have an appointment to keep. Try and maintain an open mind.' Enoch took Phil's hand and led him back to the internal corridors.

'Where are we going?'

'To find Mr Dressner and have an earnest conversation with him.'

Henry and Ben edged along a side corridor. They came to the door at the end, beyond which was the studio area. It was empty.

'Let's check this out, Benny. I think I can guess what they do here, the bastards.'

They poked around inside. In a corner littered with discarded clothes and sex toys, Ben found a pair of Timberland slip-ons. He drew a sharp breath.

'Oh no! These are Phil's. We bought them at Brent Cross.' He sniffed at them. 'Oh God! Oh God!'

'Steady, Benny. We'll find him. This is no time to panic. Let's try through here.'

They found the cell in which Phil and Elijah had been kept. Ben picked up the rags of Phil's jeans and burst into tears. 'They've killed him. And what's this! Oh fucking God! It looks like blood!'

Henry held a sobbing Ben against his shoulder while he scanned the cell and saw other ominous signs. It looked to him as though Phil had met a pretty dreadful end here. The thought wrenched his gut. All he could do was get Ben away from this awful place. Dared he offer hope?

Terry sniffed the air as he got to a pair of double steel doors. The smell was ominous, to say the least, the scent of stale sex and terrified humanity. If evil had an odour, Terry decided, this was it, not brimstone.

He looked at his companions. 'Babes, I have a bad feeling that what we find behind here may stay with us the rest of our lives. I'm sorry for it, but we can't stop now. Justy, I really think you shouldn't go through them doors.'

He cut off Justin's protests. 'You're a fake, Justy, you're a loving, kindly guy who pretends to be hard. You're also a dad who adores his kid. You won't want to live with what's in there. Go and find Henry and Ben, and maybe Phil. They're wandering around like the babes in the wood. They need a protector.'

Justin shook his head. 'Sorry Terry. Appreciate it an' all, but the guys wiv guns are through there. You can't afford not to have me as backup.'

Terry sighed. 'If that's the way it has to be. This time we may have to go in shooting, but don't fire unless I do first.' He paused, his lips moving silently. Grasping the door handle, he nodded to his friends, wrenched it down and pushed hard.

Phil walked silently and slowly between Elijah and Enoch, who were gently guiding and supporting him. The buzzing in his ears was more insistent. They had left the main complex and were in one of the older, rock-hewn passages under the fortress, which headed steadily downwards.

When they came to a flight of steep steps, Enoch stopped Phil and sat him down. 'I think you need a rest, Phil, and we have time.'

Phil looked up at the young man's small face. 'What do you mean, time? Do we have an appointment to keep?' He gave an unaccountable little laugh. Elijah had sat beside him, and had taken him round the shoulder.

'I feel sick,' Phil announced.

Enoch looked at Elijah. 'Did he drink anything?'

'He sipped from a discarded water bottle.'

'Oh dear. I think we can guess what was in that.'

Phil made an effort. 'What d'you mean?'

Enoch frowned. 'To make sure their victims are compliant, the thugs lace their drinks with a pretty evil date-rape drug. It relaxes them and distances them from the horrors they're subjected to. But too much of it and they just float away into eternity, like the poor girl you found on the mountainside. She did well to get that far.'

'How do you know about her?'

'You wouldn't want me to tell you.'

'But I do. All these hints, all these strange statements. Who are you?'

Enoch looked sad. 'Maybe we're just projections of your outraged unconscious: dreams to help your sanity through a bad patch.'

'You feel real enough to me.'

'Drug visions can be more real than reality.'

'Why would my visions try to convince me they were just shadows? Surely they would want to be taken seriously.'

Enoch gave his startlingly normal laugh. 'Oh you know, we dreams like to be taken seriously, but we also like to be fair.'

Phil shook his head to try to clear it, but the vagueness would not let him go.

Elijah hauled him up from the floor. 'Walking is a good idea. Try to stay awake.'

'I'm not going to be much help when you run into Dressner.'

'We won't need that sort of help when we do.'

There were a few minutes of intense action and violence. The room beyond the doors had contained half a dozen armed men. There was no choice. Terry and Ed, who were in the lead, had hit three Albanians as they rolled through the door. Willemin's shotgun had blown the head off another.

Justin had caught the return fire and lay bleeding from wounds in the shoulder and leg, the latter pulsing out arterial blood. Ed was busy staunching the flow and applying pressure.

Of the remaining two Albanians, one had fled the room and the other had dropped his gun and put his hands in the air.

Terry leaned over Justin, whose eyes were wide with shock, his face pale and preoccupied. 'Hang on, yer little bastard. Yer can't give in... yer've still got five years of yer latest contract. Think of Damien! Fuck! That Dressner's gonna die today.'

He stood up, a look of wrath on his face. 'Hendrik, those are our mobiles on the table. Go back to the entrance and get help. Take Ed's, he's got the numbers of the local garrison and border police in his address book.'

'What about you, Terry?'

'Me? I gotta go squash an insect. None of you follow me. You stay wiv Justy, Ed.'

Terry O'Brien's expression was set. Although not a killer, he could kill when necessary. In this instance, he sensed a hand on him, as if someone had placed an inflexible purpose in his mind which set him free of fear and conscience. He felt like an instrument, not a player.

He followed in the steps of the fleeing Albanian. He barely noticed the twisted and exploited bodies of the young captives in the room next door. Their dulled eyes followed him as he ran past.

Just on the other side lay a corridor with a steep flight of steps beyond. The walls were no longer plastered, only bare, living rock. The lights were strung on cables. The steps took him, breathing heavily, to a passage that ascended to the old fortress.

The bulbs here were further apart and it was getting hard to see clearly. But Terry could hear talking, indeed shouting, ahead.

He paused and leaned against the rough side of the tunnel. Putting his ear to the wall amplified the conversation. Two men were arguing.

'Stupid Englishman! We need to get down to loading bay. There is van we can take under hill. Why go back just to kill one man when we can escape?'

'You fucking go then, Mehmed. I have a job to finish. That Maddox knows too much about me. Kill him and I can still get clear. He's not gone anywhere and he has to die. I know this place but those friends of his don't. I can take him out with plenty of time to escape.'

'Fuck you, Englishman! I not wait. I go.'

Terry heard Dressner cursing at Mehmed, who clattered away down some other stairs, as it seemed.

Dressner fell silent, then the sound of his footsteps echoed along the passage. Terry moved fast and silently to close, his gun drawn and his purpose firm. As soon as he had a clear shot, Dressner would die.

But Dressner was further along than Terry thought, and had taken a junction he had not anticipated. Terry had dashed past the opening before he realised it.

He carefully retraced his steps. Dressner had gone down one of the eighteenth-century passages, which opened into a curious chamber. It was in fact a platform surrounding what appeared to be a wide circular well whose shaft continued high above into the dark.

Terry looked over the low lip of the well. There were still traces of several windlass mechanisms reaching across the pit, identifying it as part of the fortress's original water-supply system. He saw the old royal arms carved on a plaque set in the wall, with Henry the Lion's monogram under it. The shaft descended into darkness, but he could hear footsteps echoing up from below. Then he saw why. Stones jutting out of the side at regular intervals formed a sort of spiral staircase. Dressner was out of reach and getting further away all the time.

Although Terry cursed sulphurously, he was beginning to cool down. He dropped over the edge of the well and started to pursue his target. He knew Dressner was bound to realise from the pattern of echoes that someone was after him, but there was no helping it. Quickly getting into the rhythm of his descent, Terry was going headlong down the steps when a flash and a crack from below warned him Dressner had taken a shot to make him more cautious. He threw himself to the side against the wall of the shaft.

Echoes told him Dressner was descending again. He caught a glimpse of the man as he made another circuit; he was a lot closer. Terry's fitness and superlative coordination were allowing him to catch up. He was off again at renewed speed.

They were approaching the bottom, as Terry could see from the oily reflection of the lights high above on the surface of a pool of water. What was Dressner doing? He must have an objective other than the bottom of this well.

One more turn and Dressner would be there, whatever he was after. Calculations raced across Terry's mind. He would have only one chance to snap off a single shot. That chance came an instant later. Seeing a pale face looking up, he fired. There was a yelp amongst the booming echoes of the gun. Dressner bounced off the side of the well, teetered and fell into the water. It closed black over his head. Ripples rose, fell and subsided. Dressner was gone.

Terry stood there, his hand limp at his side. He waited until any reasonable hope of the man's surfacing alive had passed before shaking his head and going down to the bottom of the steps. As he expected, he found a passage running off to the side, some sort of conduit exposed by the fall of the well water. A dim light showed further along it.

Terry walked on through the passage, trying not to think of the fact that he had just killed a man. Soon he was in a long tunnel which seemed to go on indefinitely into darkness. After a hundred yards, however, where the lights ended, a rusted iron ladder led upwards through a manhole. He climbed and found himself eventually emerging in a square chamber, beyond which was the well shaft he had previously run down after Dressner. That had been Dressner's intention, to double back on him. And then do what? He would never find out now. He walked slowly back to look for his friends and begin the clear up. Now that Justin's shooting had been avenged, anxiety about his condition dominated Terry's mind.

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