HENRY AND THE BALANCE OF PROBABILITY
Justin Peacher-White pulled his car into the drive of his Sixth District home, the security gates closing automatically behind his tail lights. It was getting dark, and he was tired. He found Nathan on the lounge sofa, Lance and Damien on either side of the big man, watching reruns of Friends on cable.
‘Whass new, dad?’ Damien was on his feet, with Nathan’s restraining hand large on his shoulder.
Justin took off his tie and went over to the bar to get a stiff gin. ‘They okay, Nate?’
Nathan shook his head. ‘Over-excited, stressed, traumatised, you name it.’
‘I’m alright really, Uncle Justy!’ Lance insisted. ‘I’ve seen lots worse.’
‘No doubt you have, Lance,’ Justin agreed, ‘but that was when you were the Destroyer. I’m willing to bet that the way boys experience stress is very different from archangels.’
Damien was rebellious. ‘We ain’t kids, dad! We wuz there when the Hellhound took Harry prisoner!’
Justin sat down next to Damien and pulled him into his lap. ‘Thass why I’m gonna bring you up to date, babes. So stop your moaning.’
‘Where’re my dads?’ Lance asked.
‘They’re still in town. Henry’s at Eastnet and Ed’s with the king. Ed says you’re to stay here tonight, that alright?’
Justin took a sip from the clinking glass he was holding. ‘Now then. You probably know nothing more than what Eastnet’s been reporting, yeah? Well, the body’s been officially identified as that of Major Jakob Emmanuel von Tarlenheim zu Olmusch. The surgeon-general said he died almost instantly, babes, so there was nothing you could have done for him. But you did right by running down to tell Ed.’
‘How long had he been dead, Uncle Justy?’
‘Not more than a few minutes, but there was no way to revive him. Massive internal bleeding. The sword went right through his heart. It was either a lucky blow or the talent of a real expert.’
‘Have they arrested anyone?’
‘No. The state police are still there interrogating the officers. They’ll probably be there all night. Even King Rudi had to give a statement. Iss not going to be easy for the police. The palace was packed with people, and I suppose it could have been any of them. Apparently he wasn’t a popular bloke, was Jakob Olmusch.’
‘Why’d they let you go, dad?’
‘Oh … Captain Mannstejne – he’s the chief homicide bloke for the Strelzen region – and I are mates, we are. He let me go early.’
Nathan stirred. ‘How’s Fritzy dealing with it? It can’t be easy having police trampling over your house, not to mention a corpse in the upper gallery.’
‘He was complaining that the palace has probably acquired yet another ghost. I told him to be more sensitive. The bloke was his cousin after all.’
‘Very tactful, babe.’
‘Yeah, I thought so too. Now you two boys have to go to bed, ’cos tomorrow I have to take you to the police barracks for questioning … Nah! S’okay! You’re not suspects, but Captain Mannstejne needs to ask you what you saw and heard before you found the body.’
Damien shrugged. ‘We only heard what we told Uncle Ed.’
‘Well now you have to tell the captain officially, babes. It’s evidence. I’ll take you in there for ten. Now … bed. Night babes! We’ll check on you later, so go straight to sleep.’
The two boys reluctantly got up, kissed the men, and headed for the stairs.
After they had gone, Nathan invited Justin over to sit by him. The smaller man leaned into him, nestling his head on his partner’s shoulder. ‘You look tired, Justy.’
‘Nackered, Nate me mate. Is this feeling my age?’
Nathan grinned. ‘So is that all?’
‘More or less. The crime-scene people have unpinned Olmusch from the woodwork and laid him out in the palace chapel, before they take him for the autopsy. His brother was there, and seemed a bit upset. Odd, ’cos Henry told me the two of them didn’t get on, but there you are. Death takes people in strange ways.’
‘What’s the theory?’
‘When I was queuing to talk to the detectives, most of the army officers I was chatting to believed there’d been a duel in the gallery. Rothenian men still do that, y’know, and Jakob Olmusch had a talent for rubbing people up the wrong way. In Rothenian law, killing a bloke in a proper duel is only manslaughter, not murder.’
‘But you don’t believe that was what happened, do you?’
‘Nah! Henry said that for it to be a duel there had to be seconds and a formal challenge. No one owned up to a challenge to Olmusch, and no seconds came forward.’
‘Also, the boys heard no clash of swords from upstairs.’
‘Exactly. It was murder, alright.’
As Lance undressed, he was very conscious of a sideways glance from Damien. Now he had confessed his sexuality, he realised there were going to be consequences. He dropped his jeans, then hesitated about pushing down his briefs. Catching Damien making the same hesitation, he somehow knew that Damien had sensed his sexual interest and was coming to a decision.
Then Damien did a wonderful thing. He came over to his gay friend and hugged him, warm body against warm body. Holding on to him, Damien murmured in his ear, ‘You’re me mate, Lance, and yer always will be. Now, drop yer undies and I’ll drop mine. Iss never bothered us before, and we’ll not let it bother us now, right?’
So they stood there naked, until Damien took Lance by the hand and led him to bed. ‘No pyjamas tonight, mate. We’re friends same as ever, right?’
They slid under the duvet and lay side by side, still hand in hand, talking in low voices about the day’s cataclysmic events.
When Damien went to put out the bedside light, Lance, feeling the familiar tingle in his loins, had to ask, ‘What do I do if I get a stiffie?’
Damien chuckled. ‘Not what our dads do, thass for sure. Just don’t make a noise in the night when yer goes to the loo to jerk off … and wipe up afterwards.’
Both boys erupted in a fit of laughter that chuckled and spluttered between them for a long time. It was more than just merriment. They were conscious that their friendship had gone to an entirely new level, with an openness between them that was both physical and emotional. There was nothing now they couldn’t talk about. Lance felt healed.
Despite the late hour, the Eastnet offices were humming with activity. Henry, still in his colonel’s uniform, was in the producer’s box of the 24-hour channel with Will Vincent and Tomas Weissman. Although he had been editing the news bulletins, he had not sent home for a suit so he could go on-screen. He rather feared he might cause legal problems for himself later on should he do so.
‘No you won’t, Henry,’ Will demurred. ‘You’re hardly a suspect.’
‘What I mean is that prematurely releasing key information about the enquiry might bugger up the investigation and compromise me later as a witness. I have to be careful.’
‘You’re being too scrupulous,’ Will insisted.
Tomas shrugged. ‘It doesn’t matter, Willemju. As usual, Henry’s allowed us to scoop CNN and Sky. I can see the next press award already on your shelf. He’s always in the wrong place at the right time.’
‘Cheers!’ Henry grinned. ‘I want that on my gravestone.’
Will looked pensive. ‘So this Olmusch guy …’
‘You never met him?’
‘No. I may be the Baron Willem Vincent zu Strelsenern-Altstadt in this country, but somehow the Adelsgenossenschaft forgot to send me an invitation to join their august ranks.’
‘It’s what Rudi’s been saying. The RA is developing an anti-Elphberg stance. Because you were deeply implicated in the restoration, they were never going to have you in their club.’
‘Should I apply, just to embarrass them?’
‘It might be interesting to do it, if only to see their reaction.’
‘I’ll get my PA to investigate. By the way, Henry, Magda has been nagging me to let her return to your office … you just went white, incidentally.’
‘Was that a wind-up?’
Will smiled. ‘The very thought! I imagine you’d move to our rivals were I ever to contemplate it. She can stay in costumes and sets. I’ll find a way of giving her a raise to keep her happy. She’s very efficient, y’know.’
‘Oh … I know, believe me.’
‘Go home, Henry. Tomorrow’s going to be a long day.’
Henry found his cap and looked for his briefcase. Then he realised that Otto had been minding it for him when all hell broke loose at the Tarlenheim palace. Henry flipped his mobile, but got only voicemail from Otto’s number.
Speed-dialling Ed Cornish brought better results. ‘Hi, little babe. Where are you?’
‘Up at Eastnet. Should I join you at the Residenz, or are you going home?’
‘I’m in Oskar’s office helping him manage the crisis from the military end. Rudi’s with the chancellor. I’m likely to be here for an hour or two yet. Oskar says he’d be glad if you dropped by on the way home.’
‘His wish is my command. I’ll take out a mortgage and get a taxi down.’
‘The driver might give you a discount if he knows you’re going to the palace.’
Henry scoffed. ‘This is Rothenia, babe. He’ll mark the price up.’
Police Captain Kristof Mannstejne was an amiable-looking man in his forties. He carefully cultivated his image as a continental version of an English country gentleman, wearing a tweed jacket and a white trench coat. In an earlier age he would probably have been a pipe smoker. Although there was an unfortunate air of Inspector Clouseau about him, Fritz reflected that, as Strelzen’s senior detective, the captain had to be more than he seemed. He was certainly a professional.
‘Now, Serene Highness, can we get down to some questions? I am sorry for all this inconvenience, by the way. Hopefully, my men will be finished here within forty-eight hours. Of course, if you had closed-circuit surveillance all over your home, our work would be a lot easier.’
‘An oversight, captain. My ancestors had the odd secret passage put in, mostly for erotic purposes, but were otherwise blind to the possibilities of technology.’
‘Hardly. The tour guides all know exactly where they are. One or two even have illuminated exit signs on them.’
‘Perhaps you can show me some other time?’
Fritz nodded. He stretched his long legs in front of the armchair of his study where they were sitting. It was past midnight and it had been a stressful day. The last of the military officers who had attended the seminar had just left, but police remained stationed all over the palace. Blue-and-white incident tape blocked off the top flights of the grand staircase. Investigators in jumpsuits were still working in the gallery.
The captain pondered a while. ‘I need to ask you something about the murder weapon. Here’s a picture. Do you recognise it?’
Fritz scrutinised the shot. ‘Why, yes. It’s my light cavalry sword. I believe it once belonged to Prince Franz III. It normally hangs with several other blades on the wall between Princess Theresa Maria and Archbishop Milosc of Glottenberh. The murderer took it down, I assume?’
‘So it seems. For a “light” cavalry sword, it’s quite weighty.’
‘But very well balanced, believe me. It’s my fencing épée.’
‘In that case, we’ll need to take your finger prints, sir.’
‘Of course. The United States immigration service does it all the time.’
‘Can I just run through where you were between twelve-thirty and one o’clock yesterday afternoon, and who you were with?’
After giving the required details, Fritz was discharged. As he went, the captain asked, ‘Your … er, associate, the young Englishman?’
‘Yes. He’s yet to be interviewed. Can you make sure he’s available first thing tomorrow at the police barracks, say … nine o’clock? I know it’s Sunday but it can’t be helped. I gave up weekends when I joined the police.’
Fritz nodded and said his goodnight. He found Tommy already asleep in the Metz room.
The next morning, Tommy and Fritz slipped away from the palace early, taking advantage of the fact that the press and cameras were all drawn to the Radhausplaz side by the police guards on the main gate. Fritz led the way out by means of an exit Tommy had not used before, a narrow stone stair concealed behind a moveable press in the library.
‘A secret passage?’
Fritz flicked a switch. ‘Do secret passages have electric light and regular dustings from Mrs Malenkova?’
‘I imagine not.’
The passage wound down. At one point, Fritz tripped and swore, then braced himself against the wall. ‘What the heck?’ He picked up a narrow attaché case that had been dropped on the stairs. ‘How did this get here?’ he asked rhetorically, replacing it upright where no one could stumble over it.
The passage ended in a door with a spring lock. Once outside, they found themselves in a small alleyway to the rear of the palace, which delivered them directly and unobserved on to Wenzelgasse. They turned right on Lindenstrasse, then passed out into the Rodolferplaz under the walls of the Salvatorskirk. The great square was nearly empty, apart from a few hardy early tourists and churchgoers. Once across the square they took Domstrasse to Lauerngasse, and so came to the police barracks from the north.
The headquarters of the Strelzen state police had occupied the same premises in the Third District on Herrengasse since King Maxim’s day. Fritz reported to the main desk. They were told to take seats on one of a group of wooden benches, just like those in an old-fashioned railway-station waiting room. The building, which could have done with some investment, Tommy thought, smelled oddly of unwashed people, cabbage and another unfamiliar scent. He wondered if it might not be fear. He felt edgy, recalling the interrogation techniques Eastern European nations had employed under Communist rule.
Tommy was called over to the desk and sent into a side room, where his prints were taken by a dour woman whose femininity he thought a doubtful quality. He rejoined Fritz, who had found a discarded Sunday tabloid. Its treatment of the ‘Tarlenheim Palace Murder’ was lurid to say the least. They waited for a further hour, chatting desultorily.
Eventually an officer beckoned Tommy to the desk, then escorted him up three flights of an echoing concrete staircase to a narrow corridor lined with glazed doors. The officer tapped on one of them and motioned his charge through. Tommy found himself in a room bare except for a table and three chairs. The two opposite him were occupied by other officers, one of whom he recognised as Captain Mannstejne. The other, a thickset and hard-looking man, was a stranger.
In good English, Mannstejne introduced Lieutenant Czerescovicz without saying why he was in the room. Czerescovicz apparently knew no English, so his presence seemed pointless to Tommy, who assumed that interrogations just needed two official bodies present. He was a little flattered that he rated two senior officers. Perhaps it was due to his connection with the prince of Tarlenheim.
The captain patiently took him through his memories of lunchtime the previous day. Tommy described leaving the Metz room, then wandering around the first-floor reception rooms. He recalled edging his way through the crowd of lunching military men on the stairs outside the lower gallery.
Mannstejne nodded. ‘Several of them confirm they saw you. They also say you went up to the next floor. Is this true, young man?’
‘Sure. I went on up the stairs. It was crowded down there.’
‘Where were you planning to go?’
‘To the upper gallery. It’s quieter upstairs. Also there’s a ghost.’
‘A ghost?’ Mannstejne looked bemused. He turned to his colleague and remarked, ‘Streczich.’
The lieutenant grunted and fixed Tommy with an unreadable gaze.
Tommy shrugged. ‘A lady in grey appears there. I’ve always wanted to see a ghost. And grey is such an interesting colour, don’t you think?’
The captain fought confusion successfully and rallied. ‘Ah … I see. And did you meet your grey ghost?’
‘No such luck. But I bumped into this officer guy coming downstairs.’
‘I see. Did you recognise him?’
‘No. But he was tall and had a lot of gold braid.’
‘And when you got to the gallery, was it empty?’
‘Yes. No one was there.’
‘You knew the victim, Major Olmusch?’
‘He’s Fritz’s cousin. We’d met.’
Mannstejne paused and nodded. ‘What was the nature of your contact with the late Jakob Olmusch?’
Tommy grimaced, and recounted briefly his meeting with the count that day at the palace when Fritz had been confronted by his family over their affair.
‘It was not a happy meeting?’
‘I would have said not.’
‘Do you understand what it was that he called you?’
‘I think so. Not nice.’
‘Not at all. Were you a Rothenian and a man of his class, it would have been sufficient provocation for a … physical encounter.’
Tommy smiled. ‘I’m not that sort of guy … either in background or disposition.’
The captain momentarily smiled back, but then looked serious. ‘According to my understanding, you were in the gallery at approximately the time of the murder, and yet you saw no one there.’
Tommy shrugged. ‘It was empty.’
‘How long did you stay in the upper gallery?’
‘I strolled up and down it, but I couldn’t settle, so I left and went down the back stairs.’
‘Ah … the servants’ staircase. Did anyone see you, or did you see anyone?’
‘No. I returned to the Metz room, but the kids had gone by then.’
‘The two English boys, Lance Atwood and Damien Macavoy. I picked up a book, and a little later there was every sort of fuss going on, with police and an ambulance driving up the square.’
‘I see.’ Captain Mannstejne scribbled a few notes before looking up. ‘Thank you, Mr Enn … vissel … This may be an annoyance, but I have to ask you to wait longer at the barracks. There are likely to be more questions. Your evidence at this point seems to be critical to our enquiries. I will have a coffee and some cakes brought out to you.’
Tommy murmured his thanks and concealed his irritation. As an officer ushered him out of the interview room, he passed Damien and Lance coming in – escorted by Justin and Ed, who greeted him with nods and winks.
‘Smelly police interview rooms … such a walk down memory lane!’ Justin enthused.
Ed grinned. ‘And it’s so nice when you can revisit them with your kid … a great father-and-son moment.’
‘Absolutely! What did you think, babes?’
Damien rolled his eyes. ‘Yer should grow up, dad.’
‘He has a point,’ agreed Ed. ‘You could be a criminal on a much more ambitious scale nowadays, Justy. You’re not being much of an example to the boy.’
‘Thass not what I meant,’ Damien protested.
Lance sniggered. He had enjoyed the experience of interrogation, which he and Damien had answered in impeccable Rothenian.
Damien was a different boy in that language and culture, which asked of children that they be polite and deferential. The accent he had picked up from the International School was also distinctly upper middle class. Whenever Damien spoke Rothenian, he found that adults smiled at him approvingly and were indulgent. He wasn’t sure he liked it, but he realised he was imprisoned in its alien cultural syntax.
They found Tommy and Fritz still in the waiting room, looking very bored. ‘Shoulda brought your iPods,’ Justin observed. They settled down to keep their friends company, and succeeded at least in livening them up.
They were all laughing when several officers filed in, followed by Captain Mannstejne. He went over to Tommy. ‘Mr Enn-vissel, we have some more questions, if you will accompany me and these officers.’
Fritz caught something in the detective’s demeanour. ‘Captain, what is it?’
Justin also caught something and frowned. He flipped his mobile and began talking into it, while keeping his eye on the group.
A policeman took Tommy by the biceps and pulled him up. He struggled a little, and as he did, his arms were pinned and his wrists cuffed. ‘What the ..!’ exclaimed Fritz.
‘Later, Highness!’ Mannstejne growled.
Tommy found himself propelled along a different corridor and into a tiled room. Lieutenant Czerescovicz was waiting for him. ‘Clothes! Off!’ he ordered.
Tommy stood bemused. The lieutenant nodded at his men, who pinned Tommy across a table, unsnapped the cuffs and removed his clothes with them. The men guffawed when they got down to his underpants, a frilly pair of pink briefs. Tommy blushed hot down to his shoulders. Naked, he continued to be held down, and a snap of rubber warned him what was coming next. He gritted his teeth and yelped as fingers probed inside him and were not gentle doing it.
Yanked upwards, he caught the green coveralls thrown at him and quickly struggled into them. His shoes were not returned. He was sat at the table and his wrists were then cuffed to the arms of the chair.
There was a wait until Captain Mannstejne returned. Tommy stared at the man. ‘What’s going on?’ he demanded.
‘Mr Enn-vissel, we have found some inconsistencies in your story. Witnesses do not corroborate your account, and we have some evidence that puts you at the scene of the crime. My colleagues are now at the palace with a warrant to seize your clothing.’
‘But the main point is that your fingerprints were found all over the murder weapon. In the name of the King of Rothenia, I must therefore inform you that you are under arrest for the murder of Count Jakob Olmusch. You have the right to see an attorney before your meeting with the examining magistrate tomorrow. I caution you that anything you say will be recorded and may be used in evidence against you.’