After Alex


By Michael Arram

The passage along which they were walking grew darker and darker. In Phil's dazed state it seemed to reach on forever.

'Do you know where we're going?'

Enoch squeezed the arm by which he was guiding Phil, who could barely see either of his escorts now.

The floor grew more uneven. Enoch flicked the switch of an electric torch. It was clear they were no longer following a manmade tunnel, but were now in a natural cave which curved downwards abruptly. The floor was wet, and there was a sound of rushing water close by.

Elijah hissed, 'Nearly there.'

They almost stumbled into a dark torrent, whose gurgling and surging sent echoes back from the walls. On a miniature beach of black sand or grit lay a body, half in and half out of the water, which tugged at its legs.

Elijah set down his torch and knelt by the head, rolling the body so it was face-up. There was a whimper. Phil knew the face at once, even though it was pale and badly bruised. It belonged to Dressner.

Phil sat down abruptly, his gaze fixed on Enoch. 'Is he dead?'

Enoch considered the man. 'Nearly. But not quite.'

'Aren't you going to get help?'

Enoch and Elijah both glanced at him.

Elijah murmured, 'Help? No.'

Enoch responded in turn, 'He's been given all the help he needed, but he wouldn't have it.'

'You'll let him die?'

'There's no stopping that now. Look at the wounds. His body's been smashed on rocks and his lungs filled with icy water. He has only minutes.'

Phil observed the face, near enough for him to touch. Dressner's eyes were open and glittering. He coughed agonisingly.

Elijah looked down at him. 'You're dying, Clive.'

The man groaned out, 'Fuck you.'

Despite his hatred of Dressner, Phil was impressed by the man's defiance.

Enoch seemed to read Phil's mind. 'Now is not the time for bravado, Clive.'

'Who... are you?'

'I've come to conduct you on your way, Clive. Humility may yet save you.'

Elijah said gently, 'I can forgive you. I know why you turned out the way you did. But you have laid waste hundreds of lives without mercy, and you chose that path. Say it was a wrong choice.'

'When I get out of this...'

Enoch put his hand on Dressner's arm. 'There is no escape now. The time is here, the time you never thought would come. But it comes to us all. It came to Lije, and it came to me.'

'Fucking cold... your hand, it's burning me!'

'Repent. The real death is upon you.'

'Fuck you! Fuck the lot of you! Fuck...'

The light dimmed and the noise from the water abated. To Phil it looked as though the shadowy figures of Elijah and Enoch bending over Dressner were growing in size. He could see Enoch's pale face in the heart of the blackness, the expression utterly dispassionate.

Dark as it was, a sudden deeper shadow seemed to stretch out over Phil's head like great wings being flexed. There came a scream from a pain more terrible than the world could contain, followed by a profound silence. And in the silence he heard a whisper, 'Live, Philip. Love. Enjoy.'

He fell into a personal blackness filled with the noise of thundering water.

Terry picked his way back to the scene of the battle. Ed, on his knees next to an unconscious Justin, looked a question.

'The bastard fell into a well and never came up. I assume he's dead and gone.'


'How's Justy?'

'I've stopped the flow, but he's lost a lot of blood. We need medics.'

'I'll go check on Hendrik.' He knelt down and kissed Justin's forehead, tears unaccountably filling his eyes as he did. Standing and regaining some balance, he added, 'I'll see about our other responsibilities too. Phil's gotta be somewhere.'

Terry found Hendrik at the entrance to the complex. He'd not got a mobile signal but he had found a landline and made the necessary calls. He was checking on their captives. Terry helped him move them together into a windowless lockable office.

'So you killed Dressner?' Willemin asked, as they worked.

'Yup. He's either shot or drowned. He won't ever blackmail yer again.'

'You think you can get me clear on this one?'

'Soon as I talk to the king, I should think so. Though they'll try and charge yer for something, yer criminal.'

'I've got a proposition for you, by the way.'

'Later, Hendrik. I need to tie up some loose ends before the police get here. Send the paramedics down to Justy soon as they arrive.'

'Not good?'

'No. I'm worried. He's not a big bloke and he lost a lot of blood. But crying over him won't do any good. I'm goin' ter look for the other lads. You'd better go to Ed and help. There's a roomful of captive kids who need reassurance and taking care of before the police show up.'

Ben and Henry did not stay long in the bloodstained cell.

'Point is, Benny, his body isn't here. And until I see it I won't accept that Phil's dead. We need to keep looking.' He took Ben's arm and led him out into the studio area. 'Now down here is one way we've not looked. Come on.'

With a sense of purpose restored, Ben strode out, so that Henry had to work hard to keep up with him. Eventually, he stopped Ben.

'Look, Benny, this passage seems to go on and on, and we're getting past the tunnels into some deeper works, caves maybe. We don't have a torch.'

As Ben hesitated, a sudden boom echoed up the passage from in front of them, followed by a distant cry and something that felt like a warm draught against their faces.

Ben was off again. 'That's it! Phil's up ahead.'

'OK. I'm coming, don't run, it's dark down here.'

The sound of rushing water drew them on through the blackness, though it made them cautious. They soon saw a dim light ahead of them as they edged forward. It was coming from a discarded torch lying on the floor, its beam lighting up the rocks in front of it. The sound of a stream was loud now.

Ben picked up the torch and played it across the cavern. There were two bodies visible, one lying along the ground and one half-out of the water. He went to the nearest.

'Oh my God! It's him! Help me Henry.'

Henry knelt down besides Phil as Ben cradled his head. 'He's breathing alright, Benny. He doesn't seem to be injured, but where did he get those clothes?'

Henry went over to look at the other body. He grimaced. 'It's Dressner. Dead, and pretty badly messed up too. The look on his face...' Henry put down the torch and pulled the waterlogged corpse up on to the beach.

When he went back to the others, he found Phil stirring in Ben's arms.


'Darling. It's OK. You're alright.'

'Where are they?'

'They? There's only Dressner here, and he's dead. Terry and the rest are back in the complex - taking out the Albanians, we hope.'

'No... I mean Enoch and Elijah.'

Henry and Ben look at each other.

'There's no one else, baby. Who're Enoch and Elijah?'

'Kids. They were here with me. They took Dressner.'

'Dressner's dead, baby. No one's taken him anywhere. Is Elijah the kid you met in Hofbau?'

Phil struggled up. 'I feel weird.'

Henry shone the torch in his face and examined him closely. 'Phil, your pupils are permanently dilated. You've been dosed with something. Can you stand?'

'I think so. Whoa. That's shaky.' He looked down at Dressner's corpse. After a silence he said, 'You've just lost your most important client, baby.'

Ben scowled. 'He's one we could afford to lose. Besides, with him dead, his books will be free of his reputation. They'll sell again. Ironic really. Baby, it's time to get you to a doctor. Where did you get these clothes? They're awful.'

'Enoch found them for me. The bastards stripped me, they were going to...' He tailed off, losing focus as memory upon memory rose to confront him. Ben and Henry shot troubled glances at each other.

Phil shuffled forward and in the end was able to walk with just Ben's steadying hand on his bicep. They toiled back to the electrically-lit tunnels. Off the studio area was a bathroom where Phil cleaned himself up. He was glad to be reunited with his footwear at least.

Terry came in just as Henry was going to look for him. They exchanged news, and Henry went running off to see what he could do for Ed and Justin.

Terry took a close look at Phil, sat down opposite him and asked to hear his story.

He remained silent for a while afterwards. 'So I did my job as far as Dressner's concerned at least. Sent him direct to hell, did I?'

Phil nodded. 'That seems to be the implication of what I saw.'

Ben was unconvinced. 'But baby, there were no traces of those two boys, and you were drugged up to the eyeballs. It sounds to me as though you were hallucinating.'

Terry shook his head. 'Benny, this is Rothenia, where normal rules do not apply. What I saw in Tarlenheim a few years ago was enough to flush scepticism out of my system, I can tell you.'

'You believe him?'

'I don't disbelieve him.'

Ben was going to continue arguing the point, then gave a troubled look at Phil and backed off.

Shouting could now be heard in the distance. When the three went to find the source of the noise, they discovered green-uniformed border police everywhere. All three were searched, made to show identification and put under guard. Terry's gun was confiscated.

Justin came through on a stretcher with a transfusion pack strapped to his arm and an oxygen mask over his face. Ed was escorting him, briefing the police captain in rapid Rothenian as he went.

The captain came over and called his men off Terry, Ben and Phil. 'Nonetheless, Mr O'Brien, you and I must have a long conversation. There is this man, Dressner, the writer.'

'He's dead. My friends here can tell you where to find the body.'

The captain looked stern. 'Are you telling me that you killed the man?'

'Yes. I pursued him after the fire fight with the gangsters which Major Cornish has told you about. He shot at me; I returned fire and thought I hit him. He fell into the pool of the fortress's water system.'

'Then I'll have to take you into custody.'

'I understand.'

The police began clearing the complex. The drugged youngsters were handed over to medics and ambulance crews for assessment.

Ben found himself being moved outside with Phil and Terry. He was stunned to see the dawn coming up over the mountains when he reached the chill air beyond the tunnel. Ed Cornish threw his coat across Phil's shoulders.

Terry and Willemin were taken away in a police van. Henry joined the others at their SUV. 'You'll excuse me, I hope, but I have to send my report in to Eastnet. We just got ourselves a sensational scoop: people-smuggling ring broken, Hendrik Willemin under arrest, Clive Dressner dead. My boss will go on the warpath if they end up arresting Terry. He and Terry go way back. Drive us down to Wendel, big babe. I need breakfast, and I need a signal.'

'More important,' observed Ben, 'Phil needs a change of clothes. I can hardly bear to look at him.'

Henry was inexhaustible in pursuit of a story. It had been seven o'clock in the morning when they reached Wendel, where an Eastnet crew had already landed by helicopter. He shaved from a toiletries bag which was apparently standard issue to Eastnet presenters, before embarking on his first talk to camera in the town market place. Early-morning passers-by stopped to gawk on their way to work.

The others had by now checked into a local hotel. Ben and Phil retired to their room for a shower and snooze. But neither could sleep. They lay together in the warm bed, naked and hugging. Ben wanted to know more about the mysterious Enoch and Elijah, but Phil didn't want to talk about them. He found he was reluctant to say anything else without a lot more thought. As the drug wore off, he began to suspect he had gaps in his memory.

Ben was still high on adrenalin, a new sort of Ben for Phil to get used to, chatty and facetious. Phil was quite interested in the effect danger had on his retiring lover. It seemed that behind the shyness was a man of some courage and dauntlessness. He wondered if Alex had ever met this Ben. He realised it also explained something else about his lover: this was the Ben who could be a decisive and fearless manager.

Room service sent up a breakfast at ten. They watched the Eastnet news on the Kaleczyk incident, with Henry's report repeated and updated every fifteen minutes. Although it was delivered in Rothenian, they managed to figure out a lot of it. Josseran the Raven, who had been on the Slovak side of the border when his base was invaded, was on the run, with an Interpol warrant already issued for him. Pictures showed a handcuffed Willemin and Terry just arriving at the police barracks in Strelzen. Terry looked pale and unshaven.

Ben went down into the town and found a clothes shop. He did his best to pick out material to dress Phil respectably. He kept apologising at the end result until Phil kissed him to a halt.

At midday a police captain arrived, along with Ed Cornish. They were to go in separate cars to be interviewed by magistrates in Strelzen.

By three they were again in the capital, where a mass of cameramen and reporters surged around them as they ran through a cordon of policemen from their cars into the barracks. Amongst the crowd Phil saw Alex Johnson looking astonished at their arrival.

The examining magistrate held them at the barracks repeating and taking apart their stories till nearly midnight. They were kept separate and though they were treated with consideration, it was clear the authorities were puzzled by many aspects of the stories they had to tell.

Phil obviously could not mention Enoch and Elijah, so how could he account for his discovery of Dressner's corpse? He had to blame it on the drug he had inadvertently drunk, which sent him wandering the tunnels in a state of hallucination. Tests at least confirmed its presence in his system.

What no amount of official scepticism could hide was that they had penetrated and broken up a very nasty crime ring, the worst in Rothenian history. Police cars took them out a rear entrance and back to their rooms in the Hilton. They went straight to bed.

Ben awoke to Phil's eyes staring into his. Kissing followed soon after. A surge of passion brought them together in the most potent coupling they had yet experienced. The horror of loss, death and fear could be subdued by the life-affirming joining of their bodies. As his groin battered Ben's arse and their mouths sucked at each other's, Phil felt as though he was fucking his way back towards light and life. It went on and on. Ejaculation did not stop him continuing to pound Ben, who scissored his legs tightly to prevent his lover's withdrawal in any case. It seemed they both wanted each other with the rawest of primal passions.

After a full two hours of intercourse, they stumbled into the shower to clean up.

'Look at your lips, baby. Ooh! They're puffy and bleeding. Did I do that?'

Ben nodded. 'You'll find bites all over your shoulders too, darling. That was me, sorry.'

'What a pair of animals.'

'Woof! Woof!' Ben gave Phil the sexiest of looks, inviting what happened next as his mouth closed over his penis and drained Ben's testes, the shower drumming on his head.

The sound of the phone brought them back to the mundane world of police, anxiety and responsibility. It was Terry.

Phil whooped. 'You're free!'

'Yup, released early in the morning. The examining magistrate has dropped any charge of homicide as the preliminary autopsy showed I'd barely winged him.

'Interpol loves me. The Rothenian police have provided them with enough evidence to break paedophile rings and the slave trade across Europe as far as Britain.

'Now get your arses in gear. We have a date at the palace. Rudi wants his turn at questioning us. A car will be there for you in half an hour.'

'Oh God! What shall we wear?'

'Smart casual usually suits Rudi, who's pretty casual himself when he's off duty.'

The car took Ben and Phil under the central palace arch and onward to an inner courtyard. A man in a black tailcoat and chain of office walked them through a security check and up a back staircase to the king's private apartment.

Rudi was watching TV in his lounge, bare feet up on a coffee table, flicking through the channels. The queen was curled up next to him, wearing jeans. Peter Peacher, the queen's brother, was at the window looking impenetrable.

The king stood and shook their hands, introducing the queen whom he called 'Harry'. He sat them down. 'Let's have your stories then, you two.'

They obliged. The king and Peter watched them carefully throughout.

Rudi finally said, 'Hmm. What are you holding back from me, Phil?'

'Sir?' The man had apparently read his mind.

'There's a part of your story that doesn't add up. You were strapped down on a frame by Dressner, ready to be raped, and suddenly you're free. How did that happen?'

'Oh... er... I must have wriggled free.'

'I have no experience of such objects, but I doubt that was really an option.'

Ben interjected, 'He was pretty much doped up by the Albanians, sir. He has only a partial recollection of what happened.'

'Maybe,' Peter remarked from the window, 'but according to what Terry told me, you can remember some very curious experiences. Now tell us. We think they're important.'

After looking round, Phil began anew with Enoch's showing up to release him from the frame. Then he described the apparent resurrection of Elijah and his own stumbling journey down to the torrent under the mountain where Dressner had met his dreadful end.

A long silence followed the conclusion of this tale. Eventually, Peter walked over to his jacket and withdrew an envelope from a pocket.

'Phil, just after I moved PeacherCorp headquarters here from Germany, Oskar and I had a visit from Henry Atwood and his then boyfriend, who were on an internship with Matt White's business. They came to stay at our house of Templerstadt for a week or so. While there, I took a few casual shots of the boys. See if you recognise anyone in this picture.'

He handed over a photo to Phil. Four young men in swimming trunks sat together on a recliner. 'Well, that's a young Henry kissing Justy, who's obviously into it. The other two... no, that's not possible!'

'Which do you recognise?'

'The thickset one, I don't know him.'

'That's my younger brother, Eddie. The other...'

'The slight boy, with the dark hair and the mole by his lip... it's Enoch. But it can't be, this is years ago yet he's unchanged from what he was then.'

'It was over four years ago. That's Gavin, Henry's boyfriend. He died five days after the picture was taken.'

Phil's head reeled. 'Was there ever a body found?'

'None. But believe me, he died.'

Rudi looked solemn. 'We suspected this as soon as Terry dropped us a hint. I think it would be best that you did not share this information with Henry, or not yet at least. I don't know how he would take it.'

'What does it mean, sir?' Ben asked. 'Do you actually believe that Phil met and talked to a boy dead nearly five years? And who was Elijah? How does he fit into this?'

'This is Rothenia, gentlemen. I think you may already be coming to realise it is a land with secrets. Although it is very beautiful, it is definitely not a safe place. And it seems it may be getting more dangerous all the time, especially for a certain sort of person.'

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