‘So what exactly happened last night, Benny?’
‘You liked it, didn’t you?’
‘Liked it! It blew every erotic fuse in my body it was so hot. And when that guy inserted his fingers in my … y’know, from behind as I was drilling you, I came harder than I ever had. What I mean is, where do we go sexually from there? Cos I think it could lead us down some very dark avenues.’
Ben suddenly grinned. ‘No, darling. I don’t think so. I think we only want each other. This won’t lead us to the bathhouse. But when you took me like that, with other men watching, I’ve never felt anything like it. It shook me. It was like you were possessing me in a new way: showing other men that I was yours in the most public possible way … and everyone tells me how shy I am.’ He shook his head in wonder at what he had done.
Phil pursed his lips. ‘Then we’d better see what their friend Felip can do to get us into the porn industry. It seems one solution.’
Ben gave his I’m-not-sure-if-you’re-serious look, the one which always made Phil feel particularly tender towards him. Phil reached over the café table and squeezed his hand. The woman at the counter shot them a curious glance, then smiled.
Phil continued, ‘How odd that you can still keep finding out things about your sexuality when you’re in your thirties.’
He shook his head and refocussed. ‘Ah well, we’ve seen the cathedral and it’s still only half ten. Where now, baby?’
Ben riffled his guidebook. ‘The Romanesque abbey of St Waclaw is across the square. It’s very historic. Most of the cardinal archbishops are buried there. Then you have the interesting and unusual Veronkenkirk on the hill below it. We could go further down the river on this bank. There’s the famous military museum at the Arsenal. It’s not too long a walk. It contains a reconstruction of the battle of the Spa Hills, when King Maxim personally led his army against the German invaders.’
‘I didn’t think you’d be interested in military history.’
‘No, it’s Maxim Elphberg himself. He’s been a hero of mine since I read his biography when I was a kid. He’s so romantic, and he was a literary figure when he was in exile in Britain between the world wars.’
‘Quite a babe in looks, wasn’t he?’
‘I don’t think he was gay. He’s just one of those historical characters I’d have loved to meet. So where shall it be, Phil?’
‘Oh … the Arsenal by way of the Veronkenkirk, if that’s OK with my Bennyboy.’
‘This is so different from holidays with Alex. It was all poolside bars and clubs, or barbecueing yourself on a beach. I always took lots of books.’
‘When are we meeting Henry?’
‘Twelve at the hotel, and we have to dress smart.’
‘Did he say why?’
‘Only that we were going to attend a literary function with him.’
‘Oh well, we should at least feel at home there.’
Ben and Phil trailed into the hotel reception at ten to twelve, a bit flustered after a problem with the trams that could only be retrieved by a taxi trip.
‘Sorry! Sorry!’ Ben gasped. ‘This is so embarrassing.’
‘Really, it was my fault!’ Phil offered. ‘I put us on the wrong tram.’
Terry and Justin looked amused.
‘Yer’ve got ten minutes, sweet babes, or you are so in the shit. No time for a quickie against the wall.’
Ben gave Justin an old-fashioned look. ‘You told him.’
Justin smirked and winked. ‘Mate, I told everyone … apart from Damien, but it’ll get back to him one day.’
Ben looked grumpy. ‘Why can’t people keep public sex private?’
Terry glanced at his watch. ‘I’m counting.’
In ten minutes, Ben and Phil were duly back in reception, Ben with the knot in his tie uncharacteristically awry, Phil red and sweating. Terry smiled because they looked so contrite. Both men clearly had a punctuality hang-up which was making victims of them.
‘So where’re we going?’ Phil finally asked as they entered a black limousine under the Hilton portico. ‘And where’s Henry?’
‘Henry had a change of plans, and we’re going to the palace.’
‘The palace? I thought this was a literary reception.’
‘Oh it is. I just didn’t mention the fact that it’s being hosted by the king.’
‘Oh my fucking God,’ Phil sighed, with a crudeness unusual in him.
Terry handed out cards embossed with the Rothenian royal arms. Phil squinted at his. It was not in English, but he worked out that the king was hosting a reception of the Angliske-Roteniske Liternaturic Bund. ‘When did I RSVP this?’
‘Oskar managed it.’
‘His excellency, Oskar zu Terlenehem, count of Modenehem and chief of staff to his most pious and steadfast majesty, Rudolf VI of Rothenia. More importantly, he’s Peter Peacher’s partner. He’s a mate.’
‘Not a mate of yours,’ chipped in Justin.
‘Well, we’ve had our differences, it’s true. But he’s on board over this Willemin business. He’s no friend of Hendrik’s either.’
The car rolled along leafy Gartengasse, past the handsome palace called the Osraeum, and then turned directly into the royal palace’s old stable yard. Policemen inspected their identity documents before allowing the car to proceed onwards up a gravel drive to a rear entrance with an awning set up over it. It was flanked by soldiers in blue guard uniforms, with white-feathered shakos.
They disembarked. A tall officer approached them, his white-gloved hand on his sword, gold braid and epaulettes glittering. Phil did a double-take. ‘Ed? It’s you! God, you look amazing.’
There was a grin above the chinstrap of the shako. ‘You think? I had Henry up all night polishing my buttons. Come this way, gentlemen, his majesty wants a moment of your time before the reception begins.’
They followed a side stairway winding up the palace’s western wing on to a carpeted gallery featuring pictures of royal ceremonies.
‘Lads! Lads! Wait. You gotta see this one! Rudi sent me a digital photo of it.’ Justin led them to the left of the door opening out of the gallery, to stand in front of a large painting of a wedding in the cathedral of Strelzen. It was very recent. A handsome red-headed man and a very beautiful woman in white were taking their vows before the cardinal in full pontificals.
‘Where is he then?’ smiled Terry.
‘There! Inn’ee cute?’
A bridesmaid in a tiara and a young boy in a white-and-gold uniform – which mimicked the king’s own – were looking up at the bride and groom. The boy had a silver helmet under his arm and a hand on his miniature sword.
‘Thass me boy Damien,’ Justin announced with a good deal of paternal indulgence. The pride was justified. The boy’s curly black hair and pretty elfin face were very like his father’s. ‘Course, they doan’ show him picking his nose and eating it, like ‘ee was doin’ when he came into the church. I had to threaten to cut off his index finger wiv his little sword before he’d stop.’
Ed laughed. ‘He did you proud that day. What a great kid. Totally cool about the whole thing. Through here, please.’ He knocked the door and entered.
Beyond was an office which looked more like a study, one wall covered in books, another in a Gobelin tapestry of a hunt. A well-built blond man in shirtsleeves sitting behind the desk looked up and grinned at them. He rose and came over to shake hands with Terry, giving him a tighter-than-necessary grip, Phil thought.
Justin’s face lit up. ‘Fancies a kiss, lordship?’
‘I certainly do,’ agreed the man in almost perfect English. He picked up Justin, embraced him and pecked him on the mouth.
The introductions were made to Phil and Ben, who understood they were in the presence of Count Oskar of Modenehem.
‘His majesty is waiting for you, and I’m to show you directly in. If you’ve not met royalty before, please remember that you do not initiate conversation. The appropriate address is “your majesty” on the first occasion you talk to him, and “sir” thereafter. No calling him “Rudi”, Justin, and if you light a cigarette in his office again I will break your fingers.’
Oskar ushered them through a door in the tapestry, into a large lounge with several sofas and a desk with tall lamps. When the red-haired man of the wedding picture rose from behind the desk, it did not take Philip Maddox much thought to realise that it was his own place to bow low, along with the other men, to the king of Rothenia.
King Rudolf VI was the same age as Ed and Henry, but of a different order of looks. His pale skin and red hair gave his beauty a quite ethereal cast, yet he was a very masculine man, to the extent that Ben’s legs went weak at the knees.
The king smiled and indicated they were to sit at a grouping of sofas. Ed Cornish stayed standing at the king’s shoulder, however.
‘Good to see you all. It’s been ages, Terry.’
‘Sorry I couldn’t get to the wedding, sir. But you had Justy at least.’
‘It was great. How’s your kid, Justyman?’
‘Brilliant, Rudi. He gave me this picture to give yer that he’s drawn of the Royal Rothenian Airforce reducing his primary school to rubble. He said it’s a hint, like.’
The king laughed loud and long. ‘Just like his dad.’ He turned to the others. ‘You must be Ben Craven.’ Ben nodded. ‘And you’ll be Dr Maddox. Welcome to my land.’
Phil replied a little nervously, ‘It’s a very beautiful one, your majesty.’ How on earth had his life suddenly leaped beyond the campus of Stevenage to palaces, billionaires and the jet set? Then the realization abruptly hit him: It was his quiet, retiring Benny who knew these people. He gripped his lover’s warm hand.
The king smiled and replied, ‘I want to keep it that way, too, which is why you’re here. Ben, you did a brave thing when you blew the whistle on your employers. I’m afraid you suffered for it, too, as whistle-blowers tend to do, so you have a right to know what it’s all about. As you’ve heard, we’re still stumbling round the edge of the problem, but thanks to you we do at least now know there is one, and who’s producing it. What’s the latest, Terry?’
Terry stirred himself. ‘I don’t think you’ve ever been to Liberation, sir.’
‘Not that I can recall. There was never a need.’
Terry smiled. ‘You would have been a hit there, sir. It has gone downhill in the past few years. Willemin still owns it, I believe, and it seemed a good place to begin. He used to hold court regularly in one of the booths.
‘It’s a tip nowadays. The carpet has patches and the toilets stink. Where they used to have really sweet busboys, they’ve just got moody Balkan barmen nowadays. They could even give Frank Hutchinson a lesson in deliberate insolence. The decline and fall of Liberation nearly reduced me to tears, it did.
‘But I got a drink and found a corner. There wuz a sad boy hustler who tried to interest me in his little arse, a Slovak kid on the run, I think. But he wuz good cover, so I bought him some food and a drink, and paid him – pretty handsomely – to be me escort for the evening. He wuz really pleased and quite chatty when he knew what I wuz up to and that his bum wuzn’t required in return for the cash.
‘The night wuzn’t too promising really, and by about midnight I wuz bored enough to take the Slovak kid out on the floor for a dance, though ‘course I kept in the background. Just as well I did, ‘cause your man Dressner turned up at the witching hour wiv two mean-looking minders. He took a booth and I watched him size up the meagre talent. He seemed no more impressed wiv it than I wuz. Eventually, after an hour or two of moody drinking, he nodded and one of his meanies brought a kid over.
‘They left not long after, money having changed hands. I tailed ‘em through Rodolferplaz and down Domstrasse. Risky business, but I found out he’s staying in a big private house near the Osten Tor.’
Oskar looked interested. ‘Willemin has a house on Domstrasse just before it reaches the Neuebrücke. It could be his. I’ll convey that information directly to the right ears.’ He got to his feet and went next door.
Phil’s mind was on other things. ‘What happened to the Slovak kid, Terry?’
‘I couldn’t do much for him, but I gave him some more cash and a suggestion that he use it to go back to Bratislava. He said he’d think about it. He was a bright kid with quite good English. It’s not nice to see someone like him wasting his young life away on the streets.’
The king nodded sadly. ‘There’re too many of them, and they’re increasing in numbers as economic prosperity pulls poor and dispossessed foreigners into Rothenia. The queen is engaged in raising money for shelters for the homeless, as well as the expansion and upgrading of children’s homes. Her brother, Sir Andrew, has been very generous. The government is aware of the problem, but lacks the funds to do as much as we would like.’
Justin leaned forward. ‘So what do we know, Terry?’
‘That Dressner’s here as Willemin’s guest, and they’re up to no good. Also, Dressner’s not easy to get at. He’s under armed protection.’
King Rudolf smiled. ‘Ah well, he will at least be accessible today.’
An ormolu clock chimed on the mantelpiece. Oskar returned, having resumed his suit jacket. ‘It’s time, sir. Gentlemen, this way please.’
The king stood. The others rose too and followed Oskar and the king out of the lounge, along a corridor to a set of open double doors. A buzz of conversation came from beyond them.
The king stopped. ‘I shall go in first, while Oskar brings the rest of you in by a side entrance. We don’t want attention drawn to you at this point. I will see you later.’ They bowed as he turned and entered the hall.
‘OK Benny, you go hide wiv Justy behind that convenient pillar. We doan’ want yer seen at this juncture. Phil babe, you come wiv me. You got a job to do, son.’
The Anglo-Rothenian Literary Guild was quite a high-powered group of scholars and authors. Oskar had given Phil a name badge to hang around his neck: DR PHILIP MADDOX, UNIVERSITY OF STEVENAGE, UK. Terry’s read: MR T. O’BRIEN, INDEPENDENT SCHOLAR.
‘Scholar of what?’ Phil couldn’t help asking.
‘I reads a fuck of a lot, Phil. The fiction of Edmund White and the Princeton School is a long-term project.’ Terry produced a pair of spectacles and placed them on his nose. He winked.
Phil stared. ‘Oh! Well, that’ll teach me not to make assumptions.’
‘You bet. Now take a glass of nice Rothenian white, and let’s circulate, me mate.’
Phil switched into academic conference mode, scanning the badges for familiar names. He recognised that of a professor from Rutgers whom he had met at the MLA meeting in Boston three years before when he was hoping for a job in the USA. He reintroduced himself and was flattered not only to be remembered, but to find that the professor had read his book. Further introductions followed, and after a while Phil almost forgot why he was in the room.
A sudden stir in the crowd brought Phil’s attention back to his purpose. An elderly gentleman in a grey suit was thanking the king in English in the name of the guild for hosting their annual meeting and prize-giving.
Prize-giving? Phil’s ears pricked up.
The king moved forward to the microphone. He thanked the scholars and authors for coming to Strelzen for the conference and prize-giving. He had a few jokes about the literary shortcomings of his predecessors on the throne. Then he introduced the annual award for Literary Excellence presented by the Guild.
‘This year’s winner was perhaps inevitable. Our Ministry of Transport tells me his books outsell all others in Strelzen’s airports. He cannot be faulted for originality and quality of narrative. I have every one of his books. Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, the prize this year goes to Mr Clive Dressner.’
There was a surge of applause. Dressner’s tall figure strode through the crowd to shake the king’s hand and receive an envelope.
Phil was aware of Terry at his left hand all of a sudden. ‘Iss a cheque for 20,000 krone. Sounds a lot like, that,’ Terry murmured out of the side of his mouth.
‘Why am I here, Terry.’
‘Bout time you met the bastard, innit? In this place you’ll catch him off guard. Go for it, Phil. Ask the hard questions.’
Dressner made a small and graceful speech – probably one he’d made before, but it came across well. Then, without giving the man time to wonder why, the king ushered him straight towards Phil.
‘Gentlemen,’ said Rudolf, when he reached Phil’s group, ‘have any of you met Mr Dressner. How about you, Dr Maddox?’
Dressner gave a start.
Phil saw the expectant look in the king’s eyes. ‘No sir, though I have long wanted to. A pleasure, Mr Dressner.’
Phil reached out his hand, leaving the man no choice but to extend his own. Phil wrung it enthusiastically. ‘I have of course tried to correspond with you, but I never knew whether your agent passed on the letters. I had some queries that never got answered before I published my book, more’s the pity.’
‘Questions? Er, now may not be …’
‘My word,’ interrupted the king with a deceptively innocent smile. ‘That almost sounds as if you’re a man of mystery, Mr Dressner. What would those be, Dr Maddox?’
‘I was wondering, for instance, which lecturer at Bedford had most influence on you when you were studying there.’
‘I really can’t say, Dr … er … Maddox. It’s been too long.’
‘Really? How many years is it now?’
Dressner got an internal look and said weakly, ‘I really can’t … at this time.’
‘Of course the thing that especially impresses me about your work is the remarkable evocation of the British justice system. Do you know, it’s almost as if you’ve been through it yourself.’ Phil gave a little laugh.
King Rudolf chipped in. ‘All credit to you, Mr Dressner, I have to agree with the good doctor here. That’s always struck me too. How do you know about it in such detail?’
Perspiration was beginning to appear on Dressner’s forehead. ‘Oh, er, I suppose … a sort of youthful enthusiasm.’
Phil closed in. ‘How strange. D’you know, in your third book, The Slammer, the character Rattray is taken through the entire dehumanising experience of arrest, up to conviction and then the prison beyond. It is very gripping, to see the hopes, fears, desperation and dehumanisation at work. I’d go so far as to say it’s masterful, as well as unique. If I were a betting man, I’d say you’d had some personal experience of the process. Did you go so far as to do research inside a prison?’
Dressner had a hunted expression on his sweating face. Another reason occurred to Phil why the man shunned publicity and large gatherings. He had been in prison long enough for strangers and groups to seem threatening. He still had some of the agoraphobia of a long-term inmate.
‘So when were you in prison, Mr Dressner?’ Phil’s face had become stony. ‘And for what reason?’
‘How dare you … you can’t possibly be suggesting …’ The full horror of the nightmare was dawning in Dressner’s face.
‘Because your name is Dawson, isn’t it, not Dressner. For the abduction and rape of an underage boy, you were sentenced to fifteen years, of which you served nine. You got your BA English in Bedford Gaol, not Bedford University. These are facts your publishers chose to conceal from your appreciative public. I wonder if this gathering is aware of exactly what sort of man they’re honouring today.’
Despite the presence of a head of state at one shoulder and an audience of astonished and then captivated academics round them, Dressner finally rallied. He turned to the king. ‘Sir, Dr Maddox is well-known in Britain as an academic mischief-maker. These are all charges he will have to substantiate in court. This is unsustainable slander.’
King Rudolf had gone cold, however, no longer playing the part of an affable and condescending host. ‘They may well be, Mr Dressner, if that is your name. Is it your name?’
‘I only ask because failure to disclose a criminal record when seeking a residence visa in my country, especially a record concerning minors, is a very serious offence.’
‘I think I need to see the British consul general.’
‘You shall have that opportunity. In the meantime …’ The king signalled Ed Cornish, who strode over. ‘I would like you to take Mr Dressner here to the guard room, major. I think the police may want to interview him. You may remove his passport from him.’
‘This is outrageous!’
‘You will, of course, have a full apology if these allegations prove false. If they do, things will not go so well with Dr Maddox. There must, however, be an investigation. I’m sure this can be settled quickly, but meanwhile I would be grateful if you did not attempt to leave my country. Please go along with Major Cornish.’
As Dressner stalked from the room with Ed’s hand firmly on his bicep, the king turned to Phil with a sardonic smile. ‘There you are, Phil. I think you’ve just had the first instalment of your revenge for what he did to you and Ben.’
Terry was smiling too. ‘Nicely played, sir. Pretty damned impressive, Phil. Now we’ve got ourselves some time and leverage to find out what Dressner is up to. Will your police know what to ask, sir?’
‘The criminal-intelligence branch will be briefed. Of course there are constraints on what we can ask, and he will very soon have retained the best Rothenian lawyers money can buy. It won’t be long before it all gets out, though, and then questions will be asked about him in Britain too. You will notice that everyone else here is agog. I had better go and brief the chairman, so he can communicate some details to his curious colleagues. But thank you, Phil. We now have some extra time to pin down what he and Willemin are up to.’
As the king turned away, Phil bowed before being guided back up the hall to where Justin and Ben were lurking.
Ben’s eyes were shining. ‘Phil, did you do what I think you did?’
‘Yes, my Benny. I asked him the questions he most dreaded in a place where his lies would catch him out. He’s under arrest. What next, Terry?’
‘Hey … who said you have any further part to play in this? You’ve done your bit and then some. Time to let the professionals work on it for a while.’