The sidelong glance at the state of the knees of Yuli’s dress trousers said it all, but no words were spoken on the subject immediately. Instead, his father was warmly interested in the evening’s performance and its reception as they drove home.
‘Son, it seems to me that you’ll be able to support your mother and I in our impoverished old age. It was worth the pain, as your mutti would undoubtedly say were she here.’ The last comment was made in a passable imitation of his wife’s tone. ‘So what’s next?’
‘Er … well, that’s a point. I dunno. We’re part of a Christmas programme at the palace, so Romesczu and I had better get our skates on thinking about something seasonal.’
Herr Lucic pulled into the parking bay at the bottom of the lane that led up to their house but did not get out, instead turning to Yuli.
‘Julius, apart from that excruciating conversation we had when you were thirteen, which I wish I could obliterate from my memory, I’ve not had anything much to say about your romantic life, and I’m not going to say much now, but I have to ask you this. Are you being safe in the way you have sex?’
Yuli blushed scarlet. ‘Dad … er … well … yes. I’m not going looking for it on the Wejg and stuff, if that’s what you mean.’
‘I think there’s one boy, and do I have to guess which one?’
‘It’s Roman von Ebersfeld, and we’ve been boyfriends for a few months now.’
‘A very handsome lad, and if his character matches his looks and dress sense you’re a lucky boy. Just so you know: this is not the Middle Ages. He’ll be welcome in our home if ever he wants to come around. He does seem incredibly shy though.’
Yuli nodded regretfully. ‘True enough tatti, but when you get through the barrier he’s … well … utterly adorable, funny and sweet. You and mutti will love him, seriously. I am so lucky.’
His father ruffled Yuli’s dark hair. ‘The luck is just as much on his side,’ he declared. ‘But then I would say that. And does his father know?’
‘Hmm. I wonder what he’ll say?’
‘So do I. Romesczu’s not eager to find out, any more than I am.’
‘I’m afraid I’ll have to tell your mother.’
‘I guessed. It’s unavoidable. I’m reconciled. Just don’t tell her how you worked it out, will you? That would be so embarrassing.’
Trepidation was growing within the consciousness of Henry Atwood: a consciousness which generally met life with a whoop and a jump into the thick of things with both feet, even if one of them subsequently ended up in his mouth. His feet may have been part of the problem. It was something that Davey Skipper had mentioned in one of their not infrequent phone calls.
‘Fantastic, Outfield!’ he had declared. ‘I can’t wait till next May, honest. You’re crossing over into the Skipper Dimension. Showbiz! I expect to be consulted, mind. And … God! The Eurovision Song Contest. Remember that marathon Contest Fest when we were in the lower sixth? It was the last time the UK won it. We had no idea of the drought to come. We were gonna go down to Brum in the school minibus for the next year’s contest. Why didn’t we?’
’cos Rudi got himself made king! He refused to come on the grounds of security and total disinterest.’ Henry sniggered. ‘He can’t get out of it next year, though. His people will expect him to lead the national rejoicing.’
‘I want tickets, mate. Do not forget! I may even try to talk one of my bands into entering a tune. That would be something: a Skipper act wipes the clock of Rothenia with you looking on in tears.’
‘Save your gloating till after you win it for Queen and Country, Bounder.’
A chuckle came down the line. ‘So what you gonna do, dance or sing?’
‘The hosts have to perform some sort of act.’
‘Didn’t they tell you? He-he! It’ll be eternally captured on video.’
‘Oh God. Can’t I just be cute and funny in several languages?’
‘Cuts no ice in showbiz, babe. You have to act the prat. Wanna go and vomit with stage fright somewhere?’
A casual enquiry later to Will Vincent concerning the draft for the stage order of performance that was being put together sent a chill down Henry’s spine.
‘Hmm? Yes, I believe there has to be some sort of opening variety act. Should be fun. Not a thing we normally do at Strelsenermedia, but I’m looking forward to it.’
So Henry went home from work that evening with his mind in a state of unease. Surely no one could expect him to sing. His tunelessness was legendary, and as for dancing …! He absently checked his mailbox in the entry hall of his apartment block on Osragasse, while his mind still brooded. He dumped the small pile amongst lots of other piles of papers on the coffee table, slumped on the sofa and carried on brooding.
Eventually he shook himself out of his brown study and put on the TV, then went into the kitchen and pondered a pasta recipe for the evening. Checking the food cupboard he found that, as ever, Ed had stocked up on the necessary. They may have failed as a couple in most of the routine task associated with housekeeping, but Ed was a demon shopper. He looked around the desolation that was their kitchen and began to think that some of their resources were going to have be devoted to a cleaner.
A text alerted him to the fact that his soldier boy had left the city barracks and was on his way home, so he started a saucepan bubbling, sliced up some mushrooms and garlic, and extracted the mince from their fridge. It was a bit grey in colour but was at least not smelling, or not all that much. He cleared a space on their lounge table and two steaming platefuls were awaiting as Ed athletically ran up the stairs and into the open door, grinning.
‘Great! Famished!’ He kissed Henry and grinned as he took his seat, while Henry marvelled at the hunk in the chair opposite him, as he not infrequently did.
The meal was passed in barracks gossip, of which Henry was unsurprised to find there was quite a lot, and his life partner, a battalion commander of the Guard Fusiliers, made a point of knowing it all.
They were watching the late night news when Henry remembered the post, and as he sorted the pile was intrigued by an A4 yellow envelope. It had been hand-delivered, and had the Rothenian word DUVRENNE scrawled across it in red: so what was so ‘confidential’, Henry asked himself?
Yuli and Willem had always had joint birthday parties, as if they were twins. They had been born within three minutes and ten metres of each other, so it seemed proper, and after they had become so close as small children it seemed entirely natural that they should jointly celebrate their entry into the world. It also cut the cost, as their mothers frequently pointed out; though that was only a relative benefit, as their sixteenth had been celebrated at Universal Studios in Florida. ‘While you’re still young enough not to be cynical about it,’ as Frau Kral commented, with Willem’s counterpoint observation that it was the last chance their parents had to hit the resorts vicariously with them as an excuse. But it had been great, even idyllic, with an awesome road trip from Orlando to Atlanta to finish it off.
But their seventeenth was clearly going to be different. Firstly there was the Della and Roman question. Romantic others had to be accommodated as quasi-family members; of course it helped that Della and Roman were part of the same friendship group. Also there was the more adult nature of the entertainment, and alcohol this time could not be avoided.
‘Do they know yet?’ Maria Lucic asked her son.
‘Er … no,’ Yuli replied. ‘Romesczu is finding it really hard to bring it up with his parents.’
His mother pursed her lips. Yuli had come to realise she was more than a little smug that Yuli had brought her and her husband into the knowledge of his affair, while the parental Von Ebersfelds were still in the dark. She was discreetly desperate to have Roman in their house, almost as if that would be another victory. But Roman had not obliged, and of course Yuli’s own parents would remain as ignorant as the Von Ebersfelds about the couple of secret visits Roman had made to their home at an earlier stage of the romance, and what they did then.
‘So what would you boys like to do?’ his mother asked.
Yuli went into default mode in reply, which was to refer tough decisions to Willem. His response was to call a committee meeting at gymno, with the four most interested parties ‘and Bolo to give his offbeat perspective’.
Willem’s suggestion was that maybe there should be a family event and a kid event, and somehow Roman had to be introduced into the equation, even if his own parents didn’t get to know why. Roman himself was reasonably confident that it wouldn’t be a problem, and that he might even get consent to sleep away from home, though he was dubious about imparting that it was in the Lucic household that he would be sleeping.
Bolslaw rolled his eyes. ‘Ya mean they’d object to you associating with the Red Mayor of Strelzen? Bit nineteenth-century that, innit?’
Yuli’s eyes jerked away from admiring his boyfriend’s profile and flawless nose. ‘You what?’
Bolo shrugged. ‘It was in one of the papers in the library. That Leuwen rag. Can’t remember what else it said. Had it in for your dad though.’
Yuli snarled. ‘That’s not so unusual, but the “Red Mayor”?’
After the meeting had concluded with an agreed plan to try to hire Lisztomania for an early evening lock-in, Yuli, Willem and Roman went looking for a copy of the Rotenisker Leuwen, the hard right-wing tabloid published in Strelzen.
‘Whew!’ Willem’s eyes widened as he read the front page feature. ‘They really do have it in for Uncle Radek. It says he was quite the Marxist back in the eighties and … oh fuck.’
‘It says he was an ODR informant in his university days.’
Yuli was outraged. ‘That is just utter scacza! He was thrown out of the Rodolfer because of his activism for free speech. Tatti was on the barricades in the May Rising! Mutti took me along in my pushchair for the big demo when the government fell! There’s a cute photo of me being militant and two years old in the Plaz. Sure, he was one of the Young Socialists — it’s his joke that he’s since graduated to being an Old Socialist. He’s never betrayed his principles, but he was never, ever an agent for Horvath’s secret police. What’s their evidence?’
Willem muttered as he scanned the article. ‘Just “sources say” and “old police files” but they don’t quote any. It’s pure insinuation.’
Henry was looking at the same page of the Rotenisker Leuwen with distaste. ‘Seen this crap, Tomas?’
His boss held his nose. ‘Really bad reporting. We’re not touching the story.’
Henry scowled. ‘I know where they got it from at least.’
Henry produced the envelope he’d found in his letter box. ‘I guess I can’t have been the only local journalist seeded with this poison. Take a look.’
Tomas put on his glasses, usually looped round his neck. He scanned the sheaf of notes. ‘Not signed, and just a stapled note from a “Concerned Citizen of the Staramesten”. So here’re some pictures of what I assume must be the young Radek Lucic behind a very naff moustache at a meeting of a suspiciously left-wing looking youth group. The Association of Young Socialists of Strelzen, according to that convenient banner. Oooh! Look! A photo of him in a very proletarian leather jacket earnestly shaking the hand of the Great Leader of the Rothenian People himself, Comrade Party Chairman Wittel Horvath. They seem chummy.’ He peered more closely. ‘I’m no expert, but I’d be willing to guess that someone’s been photoshopping. I’ll have the picture desk check it out.’ He smiled down at Henry. ‘So tell me, my young padawan, where does this calculated leak lead your questing intellect?’
‘Not in the direction of Radek Lucic, that’s for sure.’
‘Yes indeedy, Hendrikczu. Any journalist other than the idle morons at the Leuwen would immediately be intrigued as to who it was who was trying to manipulate us, and why. Any ideas?’
‘Leon Gratzke told me a while back that he’d been the victim of an orchestrated smear campaign when he came into competition with Dieter von Ebersfeld for the Senate seat for the city of Strelzen. So someone seems to be using the same box of tricks.’
‘And for the benefit of the same person. So we have a prime suspect, don’t we. But what is he trying to deflect our interest from, eh? He wants us looking at Lucic so we won’t look at … well?’
‘Dunno boss. Bizarre really. Von Ebersfeld’s doing well enough as far as the North Martzfeld development case is going, so why the overkill on his opponent?’
‘I suggest you start looking, Henry. You wanted this story, and it seems to be getting more interesting by the week. Start with the Staroman; he may be pissed off enough to suggest some leads if he doesn’t eat you alive as a representative of the hated Fourth Estate.’
‘Yes boss. Can I borrow young Marek Toblescu?’
‘The spotty boy in Accounts? I’ll have to clear it with his department head. Why?’
‘I need someone good with numbers, and he has ambitions to make the newsroom. I have some ideas, and my innumeracy may be an obstacle.’
‘I leave it to you, Henry. By the bye, who do you suggest I assign to the developing story over same-sex unions. After putting it off again and again, the bill’s finally to go before the Chamber for a first reading next week.’
‘Damn! I’d have really liked to cover that. I hate Eurovision already. I guess I’d ask Danushka; she’s in a relationship with a lady police lieutenant. She’ll have a stake in the story.’
‘Excellent. I hope you didn’t mean what you said about the Song Contest?’
‘Er … no … not at all. Put it down to frustration. I can’t wait for the talent contest cycle to start in the new year: A Song for Rothenia.’
Remarkably, Radek Lucic was willing to talk to Henry when he put in a request for an interview. It turned out that it was his son’s opinion that swayed him.
‘Julius speaks highly of you and the boy is outraged over the Leuwen story. In fact he suggested I talk to you.’ Herr Lucic looked tired rather than angry.
‘He’s a great kid and very talented, I hear. His reputation is getting round. Willem Vincent was at the concert Yuli played at the palace. Will’s a singer himself. The arrangement Yuli made of old Rothenian songs quite entranced him.’
The man seemed gratified. ‘So Herr At-vood, tell me this: where did the Leuwen get that story?’
‘I can tell you it wasn’t through investigative journalism. A file of supposedly incriminating documents has been doing the rounds, and the Leuwen decided to run it without checking it out. The editorial team there isn’t just right wing, it’s a disgrace. Even RTV smelled a rat, and its newsroom isn’t up to the finest standards of the profession in my partisan opinion.
‘I’ve got the copy here that ended up unsolicited in my mailbox. You can keep it if you want to take the matter up with the police. Our people had no difficulty is spotting a couple of supposedly compromising pictures as being faked up, which was enough for us to discount the whole file. Still, the copies of secret police reports may have enough meat on them to cause you problems. I gotta ask: did you inform on fellow students?’
The Staroman scowled. ‘I did not. I have no idea where those files come from.’
‘I can tell you that. Such reports are freely available amongst the recently declassified National Archives ODR deposit. There are quite a few researchers working their way through the names and codenames in the files at the moment, looking for scandal. I’m trying to find out which busy little data miner found those files, to whom he sold them, and whether they looked like that when he found them or if they’ve been doctored.’
‘You’ll let me know?’
‘Sorry, no sir. My own sources remain confidential. All I will say is that I’m rather more interested in who’s behind the story than in what it says. It’ll be up to you to vindicate your reputation, Herr Staroman. It may well be that the other channels and papers are still looking at it and trying to work out if there’s enough there which isn’t fake to run with the story. You’re not out of the woods.’
‘I rather thought not.’
‘Do you have any ideas who’s behind this?’
The man spread his arms. ‘I have enemies. I’m a politician. But I’m not going to speculate other than that I’m looking in the direction of the CDP.’
Henry took his leave, but was not discouraged from approaching Herr Lucic again.
Marek Toblescu was indeed spotty, but behind the spots was an open and cheery smile and a fierce work ethic. Still only twenty, he had completed his maths degree at the University of Glottenberh and was now enjoying the big city. Less so the accounts department of Strelsenermedia.
He had attracted Henry’s attention not because of his looks, though he was slim enough with a nice ass. He had that quality Henry found and admired in quite a few young Rothenian males: quiet humour, moral steadiness, a frank and open outlook on life, and a determination to enjoy it. Yuli Lucic also seemed to have much the same quality about him. Henry was beginning to theorise that there was indeed something unique about the Rothenian people — Germans and Slavs alike — which produced such men. It also produced a lot of determined and controlling women, perhaps the reason why Henry’s mum felt so at home in Strelzen.
Marek smoked, and Henry encountered him outside the office in the huddle of nicotine addicts at a statutory three metres from the Strelsenermedia entrance. Marek looked with distaste at his own cigarette. ‘I really have to give these things up, Herr At-vood, what with the new law and all. But I started in my freshman year and they get a grip on you. You notice the difference down on the Wejg and Schustergasse now the ban is being enforced.’
‘It’s a little quarter of student music clubs at the south end of the Wejg. My housemates took me down there my first weekend in the big city. Awesome. Nothing like that in Glottenberh: techno, house, jazz funk, and some really class acts. The Technische digital music students are really cool.’
Henry’s interest was piqued. He realised that as a budding media impresario, he knew sadly little about the Strelzen music scene. The White Tree veered between growling rock classics and strutting American divas. He had a feeling he would be mocked for his Live Action tee shirt if ever he turned up in the places Marek frequented. How could he already be feeling past it when not yet even twenty-five?
‘Can you come up to my office at eleven if your department head allows it. Did you get the e-mail from Tomas Weissman?’
Marek beamed. ‘Yes sir. Thanks for remembering me, Herr At-vood. But what’s it about?’
‘Call me Henry. As to what this is about, I’m not entirely sure. But it’ll be journalism of a sort. That okay?’
The boy looked blissful. ‘You bet, Henry.’
‘So me and Willem want to hire Lisztomania for that Tuesday evening. They do that sort of thing as long as we clear out by ten. Are you okay with it, tatti?’
Radek Lucic shook off his abstraction and nodded. Yuli understood why his father was being so out of focus, and it bothered him.
‘So this is the number to ring: it’s Jan Miclas, he’s the manager.’
‘Did he mention how much to hire the place?’
‘They’re not too bothered as long as it covers the lost alcohol sales, so maybe eight hundred krone. Tuesday’s quiet.’
His father smiled. ‘I imagine you and Willemsczu fully intend to make sure alcohol appears anyway. Just make sure there’s not so much that you and your friends embarrass yourselves.’
Yuli gave a rather arch look of faux-shock, in a way that brought home to his father that his son really was gay, and was picking up mannerisms from his gay friends.
Yuli’s face settled back into the apprehensive look it had acquired recently. ‘Tatti, are things … er … okay at work?’
‘You mean, how upset am I about all these lies that are getting into the papers? I’m a politician, Yuli, this isn’t the first time I’ve been attacked by unscrupulous people. Admittedly, this is quite a new sort of campaign for me, but what it’s doing to you and your mutti is what’s bothering me. Are you getting any … um … problems at school?’
Yuli surprised his father again with a sharp look. ‘You mean, how is Romesczu dealing with it? Me and Willem are sure enough this sczaca is coming from the Nuevemesten, and that puts Romesczu into the firing line. So far he seems unaware of the possibility, but maybe he’s just keeping quiet and hoping it’ll all go away … the trouble I mean.’
‘That was insightful, Yuli. You are growing up.’
Yuli shrugged. ‘Maybe it’s because I care about him so much. It’s an antidote to self-absorption.’
‘So how do you see your relationship playing out then, son? Just asking. You don’t need to answer.’
Again the shrug, accompanied by a troubled look. ‘Just hoping, tatti. Sooner or later it’s got to come out into the open if it’s ever gonna last.’ He sighed.
His father reached over and pulled him in for a hug. ‘I guess we’ve both got problems then. Okay. So I won’t worry about you, if you promise not to worry about me.’
‘Deal,’ came the muffled reply over his shoulder.
Marek Toblescu looked expectantly across the table in Henry’s small office, which was stacked with files relating to the next year’s song contest. He had his pencil poised over a pad, waiting to take down Henry’s words of wisdom.
‘To be honest, Marek, this is new territory for me, but this is the background.’ He sketched out the main points of the legal contest between the Staramesten and the Nuevemesten, and the personalities involved.
‘You see, this scandal-mongering over Staroman Lucic is weird and a little pointless unless simple malice is the motive. So it may be the people behind it are trying to cover their own vulnerabilities. Which brings us to Burgomeister Von Ebersfeld and his apparent wealth. He’s a baron from an ancient family and I guess his ancestors must once have had estates and money. But how much of that was recoverable after 1989? What indeed did he recover? Then there’s his lifestyle which at first sight seems pretty ample: I did the wristwatch test on him, and he flaunts a Patek Philippe Nautilus which the sites reckon as worth a good 200,000 krone. That’ll be twice as much as your annual salary, kid.’
Henry continued. ‘It seems to me that we should be looking at the new building in the Sixth District which began the year after he came into office, and has transformed the property market in Strelzen. Serious money was made. Then there’s the recent Martzfeld development, which concluded last year and attracted major investors with massive amounts of money, not least PeacherCorp.’
Marek raised his eyebrows. ‘Big targets, Henry. So what do you want me to do?’
‘Well, this is outside my comfort zone, obviously. But I think you’ll need to start by locating the corporations and personalities who invested in both areas, and what it precisely was they invested in and how much they invested. We need to know who were the subcontractors, shareholders and beneficiaries of the schemes and what the profits were. As for me, I’ll track the planning process and hearings through the press and public record. Maybe we can reconstruct the networks behind it all.’
‘And you think maybe the baron got a lot more out of the development than people realised, not least his own constituents?’
‘We need to follow the money, Marek. Then we’ll make our judgements. Can you do this?’
The young man beamed. ‘I’m happy to try, boss. Could be fun. I’ve always wanted to see if I was the stuff journalists are made of.’
‘And you’re numerate too, unlike most journalists … well me, anyway. You might begin by chatting with Herr Wolfram on our finance desk. It’s okay, he doesn’t bite … I think.’
Marek toddled happily off, leaving Henry somewhat bemused to have been called ‘boss.’ His Song Contest team was not so deferential.
Roman squeezed Yuli’s hand as they faced the front door of his home. It was the inevitable big moment. Inevitable, as Yuli’s seventeenth was on Tuesday and a weekend family dinner was to precede it, at which boyfriends were obligatory. Yuli had no idea how Roman had evaded his parents’ surveillance this evening, but he had somehow.
‘Okay, baby. They’ll be fine. So will you. Just be my adorable Romesczu. Be for them what you are for me. Here we go.’
Yuli pushed open the door. ‘Hey, tatti, mutti! This is Romesczu, my boyfriend.’
The parents seemed as nervous as the boys. ‘Come in, son. Great to meet you at last — I mean, as Yuli’s boyfriend.’
‘My word!’ his mother declared. ‘I had no idea you were so … handsome, Roman. You make my Yuli look quite plain.’
There was a pause. ‘Hello, Herr and Frau Lucic. Thank you for inviting me to your home.’ The response was clear and confident, if a little formal. But so far, so good.
His mother had deployed her social lifelines: the family picture album and Yuli’s school photos were all ready to be perused and to spark conversation, which duly happened. Yuli sat close to his boyfriend on the sofa, an arm around his back. And even if Roman did not contribute much to the Lucics’ laughter and anecdotes, Yuli slowly relaxed. The dining table was set with lit candles and Frau Lucic had accomplished her best set piece — roast venison and country vegetables.
Yuli sat opposite his boyfriend and wine was poured. Roman was willing to talk about people from school and the Hofkapelle, and the quirky, dry humour that Yuli loved about him slowly emerged. Yuli caught his father’s eye and got a wink and a smile.
So the evening was a success, and Roman even joined in the toasts on Yuli’s seventeenth. ‘How are you getting back, Romesczu?’ he asked.
‘Ah. I have to get down to the bridge, and the driver will pick me up at the Osten Tor at nine.’
‘Better get going, son,’ Herr Lucic said. ‘It’s been a joy to have you. I know that you had to make a real effort to come this evening, and we’re grateful.’
‘Yes we are,’ affirmed Frau Lucic. ‘You’re a lovely boy, and just the boyfriend we could have wished for our Yuli. If it ever happens that you can stay over, we’ll be more than happy.’
Roman blushed scarlet, but managed to express his thanks without stammering. So with kisses and hugs, Roman left the Lucic house, the parents waving from the bright rectangle of the doorway as the two boys walked hand-in-hand down the dark lane to Domstrasse, the moon now sailing above the city in a clear and frosty sky, for the harsh Rothenian winter was on its way.
Yuli and Roman paused halfway across the bridge, by a stone pillar. ‘On this spot, where I’m standing, is the Staramesten,’ Yuli smiled.
‘And I’m over the line in the Nuevemesten,’ Roman replied. ‘So I guess we have to say goodbye here. I love you Yuli Lucic, and your parents are adorable. Not scary at all.’
‘And I love you, Freiherr Roman-Rudolf Staufer von Ebersfeld. You made them love you, as I knew you would.’
The two boys embraced and kissed for a long time as the moonlight shimmered on the river below and the cathedral bells tolled across the city for the hour.
‘Roman! What in God’s name? Who is this! What are you doing?
Unawares, the Burgomeister of Strelzen had come up behind them.