HENRY AND THE BALANCE OF PROBABILITY
Lance Atwood scratched his perfect butt, which tended to itch first thing in the morning, just like anyone else’s. He yawned, then made his morning call to the loo, watching his inconvenient stiffie deflate as he peed. He was still absently thinking about his new friend, Captain Voynovich, although he didn’t associate his stubborn erection with the man.
Since urination had not yet lost its novelty for Lance, he tended to stare as the bowl went yellow, and remained rather intrigued by the odd echo of the tinkling sound. All part of the mystery of being human, he reflected, just like relations between the sexes.
His next call was to boot up his laptop and check his MSN account. His astonishingly dark, profound eyes widened even further than usual. Captain Voynovich and even Damien were driven from his mind. There were a half-dozen messages, all asking if it was true. If what was true? OMG! WTF! Lance trembled between dismay and rage. If he had still been the Destroyer of Worlds, Olga Massenovic would have been a small pile of dust by then, all memory of her obliterated from human consciousness.
<Hi Lance!> gloated one girl’s message. <Evry1 says U + LN r tite now LN’s dumped DA-ME! So cool!> There were a lot of pulsating emoticons attached to that one, together with sick-making pink hearts.
There was no doubt who was spreading the poison: Olga and Tatiana had seen him coming out of Helen’s house the day before. He boiled as he thought of it, for he was a boy to whom injustice was a deep offence. It was unjust that a wilful girl should invent a hurtful insinuation on little evidence, then urge it on all her friends as the truth. It was a trespass against the order that he (who better?) knew underpinned the Universe.
What else could he do but protest? Grinding his teeth, he sat down and began tapping denials which he somehow guessed – being a wise boy for his age – would be mostly discounted.
He closed his laptop’s lid, stumbled out of his room and down the stairs. Mrs Willerby was in the kitchen going about her duties. ‘Good morning, Lance dear,’ she greeted him.
‘Hi, Mrs Willerby.’ Her presence forced Lance back into focus. He took the pancakes and syrup she always seemed to have ready for him and began his breakfast. ‘Mrs Willerby?’
‘I was one once.’
He smiled and nodded. ‘Why are they so … gossipy? I mean, they don’t just talk about stuff that’s happened. They make it up too!’
‘Ah … and boys don’t?’
‘Not like girls do.’
‘You may be right, dear. It’s not true of all girls, but it’s true you do get some like that. They discover the power of words much sooner than boys, and the sillier ones haven’t the sense to realise how much damage words can inflict. Has someone said something to you?’
Lance shook his head. ‘I was just thinking.’
She smiled kindly. ‘Sticks and stones, Lance.’
‘Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me. You know the old saying, don’t you dear?’
‘Oh yeah,’ he lied. Then he thought some more. ‘But it’s not true, is it. Injustice does hurt. You just said as much.’
‘What I meant was that a strong mind can ride above these things. I learned to feel sorry for such silly girls, manipulative and malicious. Until they mature, they’ll never have real friends, or learn about trust. They’ll never know what it is to love or be loved.’
Lance nodded seriously. ‘I see your point. You’re a wise woman, Mrs Willerby. Quite as clever as my grandma.’
‘Why, thank you, dear. That’s high praise. More pancakes?’
Templerstadt had not been left unchanged by its new owners. The former stable and office block at the rear had been converted into a large indoor pool and gym. Beyond the poolside plate windows was a handsome terrace adorned with marble and bronze sculptures, and scented by rare and fragrant shrubs. The view from it over the wide Taveln valley was magnificent.
Tommy was lying out on a recliner in just shades and a tiny pair of Speedos, topping up his tan. Fritz was splashing about indoors. Tommy looked up as shadows crossed his face.
Nathan and Justin settled next to him, both in casuals and flip-flops. Tommy noticed Justin giving him a thorough checking out. Feeling mildly flattered, he returned the compliment. Justin was a small man but well put together, with a remarkably mobile and intelligent face. He must have been in his late twenties, but could have passed for Tommy’s age with ease, apart from a few stray grey hairs at his temples.
‘You wax, doanchya?’ the man said with an insinuating grin.
‘Hair today, gone tomorrow. How’s your lad?’
Nathan replied, ‘In a foul mood. He didn’t want to come out to Templerstadt. He’d have rather mooched round and been sullen at home. It was only the fact that Harry and Maxxie will be here tomorrow that persuaded him. He’ll brighten up when he sees the queen. She knows the secret of handling him.’
Justin added, ‘He won’t come down from his room. He brought his PS3 with him so he can take out his aggression in his most bloodthirsty games. Pity the SS battalion or Panzer squadron that meets him in this mood. Damn, iss hot out here. Wanna drink or something?’
‘Wouldn’t mind. How do I get one?’
Justin grinned and pressed a brass button set in a balustrade, then settled back in Nathan’s lap.
A minute later, a young footman in a bright-green coat arrived. He took the orders and disappeared.
‘Nice huh? Oskar only employs babes.’
Nathan shook his head. ‘But very straight ones. He doesn’t want Peter tempted. By the way, did you notice the livery?’
‘Same as the footmen at the Tarlenheim palace.’
Nathan nodded. ‘It’s Tarlenheim green, as opposed to the olive green of the Elphbergs. The Tarlenheims were always a loyal family. It’s one way they express it.’
Tommy levered himself up. ‘It’s nice that the Elphbergs are loyal back to them. King Rudi’s being very supportive to Fritz over our … y’know, all this.’
Nathan gave Tommy a compassionate look. ‘I’m sorry we had to meet in these circumstances. It should have been a happier time. We really do think you and Fritz are great together.’
‘And so does the press. Have you seen the web?’
‘Spend a lot of my time there,’ admitted Justin. ‘It’ll pass, Tommy man. We’ve all been there. They really do lose interest in the end. Though I gotta admit, you two gave them the best scandal they’ve had in years. My guys on the gate tell me that the paps have followed ya even out here!’
‘What!’ Tommy looked round for a robe to grab.
Justin sniggered. ‘Don’t bother, mate. I’ve got the entire estate locked down, and a secret service detail will be here this afternoon since the king’s on his way. There’s no pap in range, not unless he’s got a helicopter.’
‘Is this gonna be my life from now on?’
Nathan looked serious. ‘I wish I could reassure you otherwise, Tommy. Unfortunately, Fritz will always be in the eye of a media storm. It's not that he wants to be, it’s just the way his personality and his position combine, a bit like volatile chemicals.’
Tommy went quiet, for the first time beginning to ponder his future. As a tranny student he had courted notice, yet it had always been possible to escape it if it got too much, either by a retreat into his room or a weekend with his mother in Catford. With Fritz, however, the world beat down the doors. The only escape was to retreat inside the fortress of Peacher security or behind the walls of his lover’s palace. Could he cope with this, even for Fritz?
Henry dropped Lance off at Mattie’s house, located on a quiet back street south of König Heinrichstrasse in the Third District. ‘What’re you going to do today, baby?’ he asked, after his son had kissed and hugged him.
‘Not a lot you can do round here, dad. There’re no parks or anything, unless you cross the bridge and go down past the Arsenal. Mattie’ll moan about the walk, even though it’s only half an hour. Maybe his mum’ll give us a lift. Otherwise we’ll be on his Play Station.’
‘Have you been to the Army Museum in the Arsenal? It’s quite something.’
Lance perked up. ‘Not a bad idea, dad, though I’m not much into history, as you know.’
Henry grinned. ‘You did live through it all.’
‘Zactly, dad. Museums are like watching reruns. But the Army Museum … I like uniforms and pictures. It’s why I’m so keen on painting my models.’
‘There you are then, sweetheart. Here’s a hundred krone. That should be enough.’
‘Wicked, dad!’ Lance grinned and waved as Henry pulled out and headed for the bridge over the Starel. Henry thanked the Fates that Lance had three stalwart comrades in the Mendamero Men, whose parents were both willing and able to host him during the school holidays. Because Lance was a very special boy, his friends had to be special too. They all knew his story, yet they treated him as a normal playmate, which was just what Lance needed.
Henry found a parking space north of the cathedral and made his way up to his office to drop his shoulder bag. He got himself a coffee, then went looking for Tomas Weissman, whom he found in shirtsleeves talking to a technician in one of the news studios. ‘Got a moment, Tomasczu?’
‘Sure Henry. Any news on your project?’
‘Too much. I can’t get my head round it. There’s something weird going on up at Maresku, but I have no idea what … at least not yet.’
‘First of all there’s the Socialist Veterans of Rothenia … the club for ex-commie soldiers. They hate the Elphbergs and want to bring down the constitution. They have an unsavoury connection with all sorts of bad boys, not just Willemin.
‘Hendrik’s in there with them, of course, and his connections with the underworld are pretty extensive. Though his principal aim is the enrichment of Hendrik, he’d really like to get back to his old position as a media broker. He can only do that if Trachtenburg’s government falls. As things stand, all his applications for media-franchise licences get bounced.
‘The big surprise is that the Roteniske Adelsgenossenschaft is also involved in this so-called resort. What’s an organisation dedicated to the furthering of Rothenia’s aristocratic elite doing in bed with the SVR? It’s like Stalin getting it on with Princess Grace of Monaco … excuse the image.’
‘And pretty revolting it was too, Henry.’
‘I’m convinced that General zu Brantesberh is in the centre of it, somewhere. He may have pretensions to be aristocratic himself, but he’s got contacts with the old Warsaw Pact officer corps as much as the RA. Also he hates King Rudi, whom he blames for halting his further promotion.’
‘Brantesberh … Marcus Brantesberh?’
‘That’s the guy.’
‘He’s descended from the General Adolfus zu Brantesberh who fought for King Ferdinand in the Napoleonic Wars.’
‘Like heck he is!’
‘I knew his family when I was a kid in Zenden. His tatta was a factory worker, a pal of my granddad’s. My grosstatta knew the family from before the war. They were second-hand-clothing merchants from Fridricschjaen, one of the run-down areas of the city. Been there since God knows when. If they had anything to do with the Brantesberh of King Ferdinand’s day, they must have come down in the world a damned long way since then.’
‘What?’ Henry exclaimed again. ‘You’re kidding me! Well, I never! I’d better check that out. He’s always alluding to his family tradition of service, and “zu” or “von” in front of someone’s name is guaranteed to put a smile on his frozen face. Are you sure, Tomaczu?’
‘There can’t be too many Marcus Brantesberhs in the army. He volunteered and left Zenden in the seventies. That would fit, wouldn’t it? My grosstatta has passed on, but you could ask my tatta. He’ll remember the Brantesberhs. I’m pretty sure his mother’s still living in Zenden.’
‘I’ll put someone on it.’
‘You think it could be important?’
‘It’s another indication that something fishy is going on.’
‘Morning, sweetheart.’ Fritz smiled into his face as Tommy awoke. Stretching, and then embracing his lover, Tommy decided that catching Fritz’s smile and being enveloped in his fantastic body and smell was a really amazing way to start the day. Add that to the balance, he told himself.
They kissed, and Tommy felt a hand gently stroking and manipulating his balls. He took the hint.
Twenty minutes later they headed for the bath. ‘Gotta be clean for Rudi!’ Fritz commented.
Tommy leapt to his principal concern. ‘What do I wear?’
‘Smart casual. However you define it.’
‘You think he’ll expect drag?’
‘Darling, you will never faze Rudolf Elphberg, however you dress.’
‘Then boy-clothes it is. I have a lovely embroidered shirt which will look great with my flares and waistcoat. What about you?’
‘Me, baby? The usual young banker’s gear, I suppose. Any suggestions?’
Tommy laughed and shook his head. ‘Make your choices for yourself, Fritzku. It’s not my mission to give you a makeover. Your clothes are your own.’
‘Then I’ll wear yet another of my Oxford shirts and slacks … my Boston wardrobe. I had an account at Brooks Brothers.’
Tommy gave a fake wince.
Fritz hugged him. ‘Come on baby, let’s get dressed, no time for what I’d rather do.’
In the breakfast room, they found Damien and Nathan munching toast. The boy looked up a little sheepishly. Tommy was half-afraid there would be an apology for the previous day’s behaviour, but he needn’t have worried. Damien never said sorry.
‘Morning, lads,’ Nathan greeted them. Damien gave a grunt.
When he and Tommy had filled their plates, Fritz asked, ‘Where’s everybody?’
‘Justy’s out with his Peacher security crews liaising with the secret service. He’s been up since seven with his ear glued to his mobile. Pete and Oskar are having their morning workout. Rudi and his family will be here at about ten. Henry’s coming along with them.’
Fritz nodded seriously. ‘Then we’ll be having a proper conference.’
They ate in silence. A footman came in with fresh coffee. Damien eventually got up and made off into the gardens, where he could be seen hanging round the terrace watching moodily for the royal motorcade to arrive.
Nathan indicated him. ‘He’s not a happy boy.’
‘I’ve never seen him like this,’ Fritz agreed.
‘Harry’ll have to do her magic. Neither of us can get through to him.’ He sighed. ‘It’s so much easier with a cut or a bruise. You can put a plaster on one of those, but a broken heart …’
The royal family arrived quietly. There were no outriders. Their escorts were nothing more than a black van of secret-service operatives and a police car. Henry’s old Audi brought up the rear.
Tommy looked out on the arrivals from behind the hall windows. Fritz was at the doorstep, talking animatedly to the king in Rothenian as he entered. The queen came in behind, holding Prince Maxim’s hand as the toddler marched sturdily and confidently beside her.
‘Daim-EE!’ the little lad yelled.
‘Hiya, Maxxie mate!’ Damien grinned broadly as he picked the boy up. His mood had instantly lightened.
‘Shoulders!’ the little one crowed. Damien obliged by putting him up behind his neck, to which Maxim responded with a delighted whoop. His bigger friend trotted him out the back door and into the garden, Maxim clinging on by gripping Damien’s curly hair with his little fists.
The queen smiled, then greeted Tommy with a kiss. He almost fainted. She took his arm and walked him out after the two boys. ‘I think Rudi and Henry want to speak with the Tarlenheims, Tommy. Let’s be frivolous and talk clothes.’
‘My dream queen!’
‘Now I wonder why Rudi never calls me that?’
‘What do I do about these people?’ mused the king.
Oskar shrugged. ‘Nothing. They have no constitutional standing. The only authority they can claim is a moral one, and their attack on Fritzku is nothing but posturing. “Bringing the peerage of Rothenia into disrepute” is such manifest nonsense as an accusation against Fritz. The hallmark of aristocratic behaviour down the ages has been nothing but disreputability.’
The king chuckled. ‘Go back through any of their family trees and you find libertines, perverts and eccentrics gibbering at you from the branches. The RA is making itself ridiculous. I wonder why?’
Fritz glowered. ‘We know why. It’s Jakob Olmusch. He’s making a bid to gain the Tarlenheim title. He sees this business with me and Tommy as a way of bringing me down.’
The king shook his head. ‘Unlikely, in my view. The news media are pruriently curious about your adventuring, Fritz, but there’s been little censure out there. Quite a lot of younger Rothenians admire your sexual openness. No, I think I may be the main target here.’
‘What?’ Peter raised his eyebrows.
Oskar answered, ‘Rudi means the RA is out to trade on the blue-blood bank and the money it represents. It wants to be recognised as a voice in national affairs, even though it’s an unelected one. It wants to rival the king’s very real authority and set itself up in opposition. It’s our civil wars all over again: the barons versus the Elphbergs.’
‘But who’s behind it?’ mused the king. ‘Brantesberh? Olmusch?’
‘Neither of those are bright enough,’ Oskar concluded. ‘But there is some brain power amongst them. Did you know that someone’s persuaded your uncle to become the RA’s Patron? That’s a calculated move, Rudi. It not only gives a big boost to their respectability but also shows up the disunity in the royal family. I think we can guess what’s behind it, sir. It’s back to your uncle’s …’
The king held up his hand. ‘Dirty linen, Osku. Let’s leave it. So who is the directing intelligence if we rule out Brantesberh on the grounds of insufficient brain cells?’
Oskar resumed. ‘Hendrik Willemin’s devious and imaginative, as I know well enough, but I’m pretty sure he’s not anti-Elphberg. It’s just not his style.’
Pondering the problem, Oskar looked over at Henry. ‘I think it’s time you and Justin got to work on the case. The Roteniske Sichertsdeinst can’t be seen to be involved. Because it’s not an obvious threat to national security, it would be improper to use state resources to investigate such a speculative threat.’
Peter Peacher grinned. ‘Ah! But when my sister, the queen of Rothenia, is under threat, Peacher security can get involved.’
Henry put up his hand. ‘Wouldn’t bringing in Terry O’Brien be a good move in that case?’
Rudi demurred. ‘Justy man and Henry make a very good team. Let’s give you two first crack at the job’
‘You realise I will want a story out of it in the end,’ Henry stated.
‘We’ll see,’ mused the king. ‘It depends on what sort of story you find, doesn’t it? Oskar, I want you to set up a meeting tomorrow at the Tarlenheim palace during the seminar. Henry will be there in his persona as a senior reservist officer. Justy, you’re staying here overnight, I know, but you can drive down for midday, can’t you?’
‘Yes, sir. I’ll get on to it. And Terry O’Brien?’
Damien Macavoy was sitting on his hands next to the queen on a bench in the Templerstadt grounds, kicking his legs. It was a glorious morning. Although Damien was not as sensitive to the aesthetic as his friends Reggie and Lance, he still knew there was a mismatch between the handsome sunlit landscape they were surveying and the persistent gloom in his heart.
Tommy and Maxxie had become instant friends. Laughing hilariously, they both rolled down a nearby grassy bank.
‘So … Helen?’ Harry prodded eventually.
Damien shook his head. ‘I juss doan’ get it.’
‘One moment we wuz chatting away. Next thing I know, she’s crying and saying … I dunno.’ The boy kicked his heels and looked morose.
‘Have you talked to her since?’
‘Well … no.’
‘What did Nathan say?’
‘He said I gotta talk to her. But she’s blocked me mobile.’
‘You’ll be back in school in a few weeks. She’s in your class, so you’ll have to talk then.’
‘Why do girls do this to yer, Auntie Harry?’
‘You want the inside track, Daimey?’ The queen smiled and drew the boy to her and kissed his head. He cuddled gratefully. ‘Some girls do it because they can, and they’re not nice girls. Others do it because … well, they’re quite as confused about their feelings as boys are supposed to be.’
‘I’m not confused. I really liked her!’
‘I know, sweetheart. And something tells me she feels the same about you. She’s just not confident enough about it, and …. well, she may have been afraid of where it was going.’
‘Girls think ahead more than boys do. You were just enjoying the friendship and fun of Helen, which was enough for you, maybe. My twin brother was just like that at your age, always living in the moment. But Helen’s a different case.’
‘What! Thinking about getting married and stuff?’
The queen laughed softly. ‘Probably not that far ahead. However – try this for size – she was afraid to commit to you because she feared a popular boy like you might move on to another girl. Then all the love and commitment she’d invested in you would have been wasted, leaving her broken-hearted and dumped.’
‘But iss me that’s dumped and br…!’ He couldn’t say it, which the queen noticed.
She hugged Damien closer. ‘Let’s just say that Helen’s a girl who still has a lot to learn about boys and her own feelings. Maybe it’s not so bad a thing your affair has gone cold for a while. It seems to me it gives both of you a chance to stand back and think what you want out of your friendship.’
Damien nodded seriously. Harry was making sense, and the weight and pain in his heart were beginning to lift.
The queen indicated her son and Tommy playing on the grass. ‘Feel up to a romp?’
‘Yeah, Auntie Harry! I does!’ He grinned his old familiar grin.
Half an hour later, two adults, a happy boy and a delighted toddler returned flushed and hilarious to the house. As Damien trotted up to his room, his mobile buzzed. He looked down. Why was Olga Massenovic texting him?
He read the message, and went white. A tide of fury washed away all the good Harry had done. He had been betrayed!