HENRY AND THE BALANCE OF PROBABILITY
Tommy was still bemused as Harry led him by the arm up the palace stairs to the domestic wing. ‘This must be very weird, Tommy. One minute in the lower circles of hell, the next in paradise.’
‘It’s a Dantean moment.’
Harry gave a laugh. ‘Of course, you have a degree in English literature, and quite a good one, Fritz said.’
‘Just missed a first.’
‘What are you planning to do with it?’
‘Oh … I don’t know. Max thought I should go on and do a further degree in journalism. He had this fantasy I could be a fashion writer, but it doesn’t appeal to me. One of the reasons I came here to join Fritz was so we could spend the summer thinking about my future. Look how that turned out!’
A footman opened the door to the lounge. A large figure was up from his seat as soon as they entered, a sobbing Fritz gripping Tommy tightly to his chest
‘Ouch!’ yelped Tommy.
Fritz separated. ‘Oh my God! I’m so sorry! Fuck!’ His wet eyes widened at the mess his lover was in. ‘Someone’s gonna die for this!’
Tommy clasped Fritz’s face in his hands. ‘Easy, big guy. You forget we’re all under suspicion for homicide. Saying things like that …’
‘Look at your face!’
‘Yeah, well, easy come, easy go.’
‘I’m sorry, Tommy. It must really hurt. Sit down. No … the doctor’s coming. Oh fuck!’ Fritz slumped on the sofa and started crying again.
Tommy sat next to him, holding his lover round the waist. ‘Wish I could cry too, but I’m all out of tears.’
Harry had tactfully disappeared. Fritz, mastering himself, went over to the fireplace and looked back at Tommy. ‘Tell me what happened … that is, if you’re ready to.’
Sitting in this homelike environment, back with friends, Tommy felt he was. Realising that talking through his trauma would help ease the shattering effects of his ordeal, he allowed the words to pour forth without interruption for half an hour.
When he dried up, Fritz sat back down next to him and held his hand. Tommy leaned into Fritz’s shoulder, and they were quiet.
Harry must have been listening somehow. Almost immediately, she came in, Prince Maxim trotting after her.
‘Tomm-EE!’ the prince cried, running up to him. He stared solemnly at Tommy’s damaged face. ‘You hurting?’
‘A bit, Maxxie. It’s alright.’
‘Needs a plaster.’
Tommy felt a certain easing of his heart. He laughed, and held out his arms so the little boy could swarm on to his lap. Tommy picked him up and walked him over to the window, which looked out over the Rodolferplaz.
The boy placed an arm round Tommy’s neck. He began telling his friend about his morning, but kept on mentioning Tommy’s injuries. ‘Will your mummy kiss it better?’
‘She would if she were here, that or tell me what a silly boy I am.’
Maxxie giggled. ‘My mummy tells me that, and then she laughs. Can I kiss it better?’
‘Course, baby. I’d love you to.’
The little boy pushed himself up in Tommy’s arms and planted his lips firmly on Tommy’s. Tommy winced by reflex, but instead of pain he felt an odd warmth to his lips and jaw. Then there was a slight giddiness. Maxxie looked up into his eyes and grinned. ‘Better now.’
Tommy put Maxxie down. The boy ran over to his mother and climbed into her lap, looking back at Tommy with a certain air of consideration.
When the feeling of giddiness continued, Tommy turned to press his cheek against the cool glass of the window. After a while his head cleared, although he was left with a strangely heavy feeling to his jaw. He looked across the room to face Fritz, who caught his eye and stared at him oddly.
‘Tommy … all that swelling round your mouth, it’s gone!’
Harry glanced over, startled, then gasped. ‘Open your mouth, Tommy.’
Tommy gaped at her.
‘Can’t you feel it?’ she exclaimed.
Tommy finally did, running his tongue over his shattered mouth. ‘Ohmigod!’ He went to the mirror over a side table and retracted his lips. A full set of teeth, white and perfect, smiled back at him.
Henry yawned as he reached the Hotel Stracenz’s breakfast bar. It had been a bad night in Piotreshrad. He had stayed in the bar far too late trying to match Terry and Justin’s drinking. Even though he had stuck to single measures of gin and tonic, the empty glasses had stacked up alarmingly before he finally stumbled off to bed at two. Restless and hot, he woke at four and then could not get back to sleep till six. Now he felt dopey and exhausted. He took a table and waited for coffee.
Terry arrived a little later, and not alone. He came in with Walther, with whom they had met up the night before. Henry had assumed that, after leaving the party, Walther had returned home and gone to bed. Clearly Walther and Terry had had other ideas. The way Terry was beaming, it was pretty clear what he and Walther had been up to.
‘Get much sleep?’ Henry asked pointedly in Rothenian, which he knew Terry had acquired.
It was Walther who answered. ‘Not a lot. This is a real man here.’
‘Nice to know some people don’t need to slow down,’ Henry commented, a certain amount of jaundice in his voice.
Terry just shrugged and grinned. Although he might have been well into his thirties, with grey hairs distributed amongst his curls, Terry O’Brien was still a vigorous and attractive guy, as Henry had to admit.
Justin wandered in looking as trashed as Henry. Yawning, he slumped next to his friend. ‘Dunno what’s got into me. Just can’t drink like I used to. Iss Nathan’s fault. All that healthy living’s bad for you.’
‘Hasn’t Walther got to be at work over the lake?’ Henry enquired.
‘Not for a few hours, Henry,’ Walther replied. ‘And you’re going to give me a lift, yes?’
‘Sure. The boat’s booked for nine. We’re meeting the owner in the harbour.’
Walther’s grin broadened. ‘The lake’s a bit choppy today. Make sure you have a really big breakfast.’
‘I hate you, Walther!’
The Mendamero Men had also experienced a disturbed night. Since all four were at Damien’s, they had resisted sleep as long as they possibly could. Then Lance and Reggie had moved to a guest room, where they had talked way past midnight, lying side by side staring up at the ceiling.
‘Shall we tell Mattie and Daimey?’ Reggie wondered.
‘Daimey knows I’m gay. It seems unfair not to tell Mattie. What about you? Do you want to come out?’
‘I thought I had! But yeah! If you’re out, I’m going to be too. I’ll tell the guys tomorrow.’
‘What about school?’
Reggie gave that idea some thought. ‘Maybe not yet; it’ll just make stuff complicated. But one day, I guess. What d’you think, Lance?’
‘I might. But if I do, I’ll ask you first.’
‘Would you really?’
‘Yeah. You’re a clever guy, Reggie.’
‘Even though I got it so badly wrong with Helen?’
Lance laughed long and loud, and Reggie joined in. Then Lance stopped to ponder. ‘Maybe we don’t have much … what do my dads call it? … gaydar. Henry said Ed’s crap at spotting other gays.’
‘You probably need to be older and have more experience.’
‘Guess so. Okay, who do ya think is gay in school? Apart from us, of course.’
‘There are some big kids in Year 11 who don’t make a secret of it. Tibor Markowicz for one.’
Lance nodded. ‘He’s the one with emo hair and a snakebite. He’s weird. There’s a boy from my year he hangs round with … Luc Charpentier, the French kid. Do ya think they … y’know?’
‘Luc’s a bit young for that. But I did see them smoking together once. The police might have something to say about it if they were … y’know. I thought you didn’t like Luc much.’
Lance considered the French boy. Luc was one of the oldest in Year 8, whereas Lance was one of the youngest, so they didn’t have much to do with each other. Besides, Lance found Luc standoffish and cold. He liked boys who were as funny and upfront as Damien and the Men. But if Luc was gay, then maybe he had better make an effort. It seemed to him that young gays ought to stick together and support each other. He was very much his father’s son, if he but knew it.
The two boys chatted some more. When Reggie finally gave a huge yawn, Lance yawned too. ‘Better say g’night, Reggie.’
‘You can kiss me.’
‘I’d like you to. We gay boys do that kind of stuff.’
‘On the mouth?’
‘Well … if you want.’
Reggie got up on his elbows, leaned over and pressed his lips on Lance’s. It was a little exciting and his reward was a whiff of that remarkable fragrance again. Somehow this time the scent was calming rather than intoxicating, and it floated Reggie away into some unusually serene dreams in which seashores played a large part.
They both awoke refreshed. Lance hugged Reggie and kissed his cheek. ‘Morning, gay boy!’
Reggie gave his cute smile back. ‘Morning mini-faggot!’
They convulsed. Their shared secret had somehow relaxed Reggie with Lance, who had till then tended to overawe Reggie with his looks, physical prowess and background.
Reggie was thinking about just this as he performed his morning ablutions. I’ve just spent the night in bed with another gay boy, who might perhaps be the most beautiful guy in the world, and yet I didn’t have any thoughts about that sort of thing. Maybe I’m not as gay as I thought, or maybe I’m just too used to him to think about him in that way. Weird.
The royal physician shook his head. When he began to speak, Tommy noticed that his English was excellent. ‘There has clearly been damage, but the teeth and jaw are whole and healing fast. I need to get this young man to a scanner. The bruising and tearing of his skin along his left side are unhealed, as you can see. They could do with some treatment, incidentally.’
Tommy, his shirt and tee-shirt removed, was sitting on the sofa next to Fritz. The queen had handed little Maxim over to a nanny. The king was imminently expected.
Harry was at the window looking preoccupied. ‘I’ll have Tommy taken to the military hospital for a scan this afternoon. I have to ask you, doctor, whether this rapid healing can in any way be put down to natural causes.’
The physician shook his head. ‘The sort of injuries you described would have needed months to recover from. I suspect the lower jaw was fractured and dental reconstruction would have been necessary … but not now!’
‘Thank you, doctor. My staff will arrange an appointment at the hospital for Mr Entwhistle. I appreciate your coming so promptly.’
After the physician had taken his leave, Fritz helped Tommy ease his way back into his clothes. The injuries to his abdomen were still painful.
‘What do you think, Harry?’ asked Fritz.
‘I think either Mendamero or Gavin needs to get here pretty fast, Fritzku. This is their territory.’
Fritz pondered a while. ‘I suppose we knew Maxim was going to grow up very special. After all, he is the Golden Elphberg of the prophecy. But this …!’
‘It’s scary, and for me as his mother, deeply worrying. My baby is no longer simply a baby.’
Tommy intervened. ‘Maybe, Harry, but there is this. Maxxie did whatever he did for the sake of love and kindness.’
Fritz nodded. ‘But did he know what it was he was doing?’
‘He’s just a baby,’ Harry murmured, half to herself. She turned away to look out the window.
Without warning the door burst open. Fritz and Tommy immediately stood.
‘Where is he?’ demanded Rudi.
‘Oh … fuck!’ Justin’s mouth was flooded with thick, sweet stomach juices. He vomited over the side of the reeling motor cruiser.
‘You okay?’ Henry asked solicitously.
‘Why couldn’t we have gone by car? Oh God …’ He threw up again.
‘It is a bit bracing,’ Henry commented. The boat was ploughing happily, if jaggedly, across Lake Maresku. There were white-topped waves whipped up by a strong, cold wind beating on them from the north. It was for once not at all summery in Rothenia.
‘Look … there’s the tomb of Baron Dönitz, on that promontory!’
‘Who the fuck was he?’
‘See that big, long house up above it? That’s owned by the Wemmyss family … one of whom is Gavin’s friend at Stevenage. It was built just before the First World War by the baron and his gay lover, an English guy called Underwood. You have to have heard of him! He was some relation to your Nathan.’
‘Henry, can you shut the fuck up with your history? Now is not the time to educate me.’
‘Just trying to distract you.’
Justin stood and wiped his mouth with the tissue Henry passed to him. ‘How can you be seasick on a lake? When do we get to shore?’
‘The owner says it’ll take about an hour with this wind.’
‘Fucking great! I’m not gonna be in the best shape for a break-in.’
‘C’mon, Justy, you’ll be fine. You’ve dealt with a lot worse.’
‘I’m getting soft, Henry. I’m not up to this anymore. I’ve lost my edge – along with my accent.’
‘You do sound posher nowadays. It was inevitable, really, living with Nathan, learning Rothenian and presiding over board meetings. It’s cute, by the way.’
‘My accent? You think?’
Henry cuddled up to the man who had become, after his lover Ed, his best and dearest friend. ‘More than cute. Hot, is the word.’
Giving a pale smile, Justin reached out and squeezed Henry’s hand. ‘If I didn’t think I’d vomit again, I’d give you a kiss, Henry babe.’
They stood at the boat’s rail and weathered its rise and fall. Justin was preoccupied with his stomach, Henry with forebodings about the day’s business.
Damien had them arranged round the dining table in his house. In front of them stood name-plates which Mattie had made by bending over A5 sheets of card.
‘Okay, Mr Secretary, run through the list of suspects.’
Reggie squinted at his notes. ‘Mr Director, possible suspects being considered by the police are as follows: Thomas Entwhistle, Prince Fritzy and General Brantesberh. Your dad and Uncle Terry think the victim’s brother, Karl Olmusch, is another suspect. He was seen by Otto Willemin heading upstairs before the murder, a fact the police may not know. Then there’s Otto himself … he was in the neighbourhood.’
Mattie Oscott tapped his pen on the table. ‘Mr Director, I don’t think it can be Tommy, cos he’s just not violent … and he dresses up like a girl. Oh yeah … and everyone knows the first guy the police arrest is always innocent. So can we just cross him off the list?’
Damien nodded wisely. He had done as much research as Mattie in the ways of murder investigations, notably on afternoon TV. ‘I think Mr Deputy Director has a point. Everyone agree?’
Hands went up round the table.
‘Okay. Prince Fritzy. Mr Military Adviser, what do you think?’
Lance looked uncomfortable. ‘Well … I love Fritzy and all – I know we all do – but he has got a temper and knows how to use a sword. Also, his English is virtually perfect. It could have been him we heard shouting that day. We can’t honestly rule him out as a suspect.’
Damien called a vote. Seeing the results, he duly chalked up the name FRITZY on a child’s blackboard he still had from a time when he’d been a smaller boy.
‘What about this General bloke, Mr Secretary?’
Reggie shuffled some papers and passed round printouts he had made. ‘This handout summarises what I found on a couple of sites. Brantesberh is a one-star general, not very senior and a bit old. He’s just retired to take up an executive post with this bunch … the Rotheniske Adelsgenossenschaft …’
‘It means “the Rothenian Association of Nobles”, Mr Director. One problem. He doesn’t speak any English, which makes it less likely he was the man you heard in the gallery. But on the other hand, he is very tall.’
‘Why’s that important, Reggie?’ asked Lance, who wasn’t very good at remembering proper protocol around the boardroom table.
‘Well, Mr Military Adviser, when you saw the dead guy pinned to the wall, he was skewered high up in the chest by the sword, right?’
‘Yeah,’ Lance and Damien both said.
‘And you said the sword was horizontal to the floor, right, not hanging down?’
‘Well, if you look on my laptop screen, I’ve done a diagram calculating the height the murderer would have had to be to deliver a blow with that result. He had to have been at least six feet, two inches tall, or nearly two metres.’
‘Fookin’ ace!’ Damien exclaimed. ‘Thass what I call investigating! So that means it could never have been Tommy what done it, cos he’s not even six feet. Them police are wankers. Otto Willemin, what about him?’
Lance answered, ‘Way too short. He’s not much taller than my dad Henry. What about Karl Olmusch?’
Reggie shook his head. ‘I’ve not seen him, so I don’t know. But Fritz is the right height, unfortunately.’
‘Not so good then.’ Damien chalked up BRANTESBERH and K. OLMUSCH on his board. He continued, ‘Okay. So far so good. Now let’s take them one by one. This General Brantesberh don’t speak English, you said. Not only that, but he was seen coming down the stairs before the murder. I guess he could have got back up there again somehow, but he don’t seem very likely to me.’
The others nodded reluctantly. Mattie folded his arms. ‘So are you saying it’s between Uncle Fritzy and that Olmusch guy, Mr Director?’
Damien scowled. Fritz was their friend and occasional playmate. His Mendamero Men card number was pretty high. ‘Fritzy’s one of us, I know. But we gotta look at the evidence.’
Lance was inspired to chip in. ‘Maybe there’s more evidence.’
‘We’ve not been back there since it happened, Daimey. We need to make maps and diagrams. We should take digital pictures and stuff.’
Damien nodded. ‘I like that idea.’
Reggie put up his hand. ‘But how do we get into the palace, Mr Director?’
‘That’s not a problem.’ Damien pulled a set of odd-looking keys out of his pocket. ‘Uncle Terry gave me these skeletons for a present, and taught me how to use them. So, who’s for a field mission, Men?’
The motor cruiser put into the harbour of the lake village of Wilberhtesee. It was half a mile south of Willemin’s resort complex, not close enough for their arrival to be observed. With some relief, Justin stumbled on to the small pier. ‘That’ll be the last time I get on a boat smaller than Grandad Peacher’s yacht.’
‘Still moaning, Justy?’ Terry was distinctly unsympathetic. ‘Pull yerself together, cos we’ve got a job ahead of us. Now then, this is what we’re gonna do. Walther’s heading up to the complex to go to work, and he’ll phone us to let us know who’s on site and where the activity is. Meself, I think we’d better wait till the evening before we start our investigating. In the meantime, there’s a nice inn here so we can take up where we left off last night.’
Henry looked around. He knew this place. ‘Didn’t we come here that summer you and I first met, Justy? When we were staying on old Willemin’s yacht?’
‘Yeah, now you mention it. That inn was called the “Kung Rodolf” then. Seems to have changed owners since. I’ve heard it’s an Italian restaurant now. Pity. I liked the old place. It was traditional Rothenian and friendly.’
Now they were off the windy lake and on land, it seemed a lot warmer. Henry suggested they should see if they could get a cappuccino. The “Trattoria Rodolfi” was not yet open, but when they caught the eye of a smiling young waitress inside, she was happy to bring them a coffee. They sat on an outside table, where they were soon enjoying not only coffee but fresh, warm bread and bruschetta as well.
Justin was brightening up. ‘This is more like it.’
Henry and Justin tucked into the breakfast they had denied themselves at Piotreshrad. It was as the second coffee arrived, when Justin was beginning to recover his normal chirpiness, that Henry’s mobile chattered at him. He took it out and looked at the screen. ‘Oh fuck! Broody Rudi! Gotta answer this one.’
He walked up and down in front of the tables, stopping every now and again to stare out over the lake. He asked several questions and listened a lot longer. Finally snapping the mobile shut, he turned to stare at his friends.
‘Problems back at the palace. Big ones. The weirdness is beginning again, I’m afraid. This time, though, it has nothing to do with icons, Levites or demons.’
‘I’d better tell you the story. Then we need to finish up here, fast. Rudi and Harry want me at the Residenz.’
Terry leaned forward and nodded. ‘Off yer go, Mendamero.’
There was a click and the door swung inwards.
‘Can ya get off me now?’ moaned Mattie Oscott plaintively. He had been on hands and knees as Damien used him to reach up to the lock of the Tarlenheim palace’s side entrance, the one that led to the “secret passage”.
Damien grinned and hopped down.
‘That’s real cool, Daimey,’ approved Reggie.
‘Of course, it’s not really housebreaking,’ commented Lance, who tended to have more scruples than the rest of the gang. ‘After all, Fritzy’s a Mendamero Man, and we’re his mates. It’s just a way of getting past the crowds blocking off the front of the palace.’
‘Exactly,’ agreed Reggie. ‘We could always say we found it open.’ He looked around furtively, but anyone in the narrow alleyway which led to the door from Wenzelgasse was invisible to passers-by on the main street.
‘There’s a switch up here somewhere.’ Damien fumbled about, and a light came on, revealing the spiral stair to the second floor and the gallery above. They padded quietly upwards, Damien in the lead.
He stopped at the second turn. ‘Gotta clue!’ he hissed.
‘What is it?’ Reggie’s reply was magnified by the shaft of the stairs. ‘Sorry!’ he whispered.
‘Issa case or something, juss propped up here. Giss the evidence bag.’
Mattie passed up a Strelzen Marks and Spencer carrier, which was doing duty as a forensics container.
Using the tail of his shirt to avoid leaving his own fingerprints, Damien dropped the thin attaché case into the bag and passed it back. ‘Okay, let’s get on.
The four boys emerged cautiously on to the gallery through a concealed panel. There was no one else around.
Mattie and Reggie examined with great curiosity the splintered and stained wall where the late Jakob Olmusch had departed his life. Reggie took pictures and measurements, while the others combed the gallery, finding very little but carpet fluff and mouse droppings.
‘Okay lads, let’s check the servants’ stairs. That’ll take us to the kitchen, and if no one else is there, we can get some lunch. Fritzy don’t mind us borrowing from his fridge.’
‘That true?’ queried Lance.
‘Course. He’s a mate.’
‘Well, why did you say “if no one else is there”?’
Damien assumed his role of patient instructor to the celestial innocent. ‘Yer see, Lance, not everyone is as understanding as Fritzy. Thass all.’
‘Well … I dunno,’ stated Lance. ‘Let’s go to McDonalds in the Rodolferplaz, or the other one in the Mikhelstrasse mall. We’ve got our evidence, and maybe we need to examine it somewhere else.’
Reggie hastened to agree. For a moment, Damien seemed minded to resist this challenge to his authority, but he too was intrigued as to what they had found on the stairs. ‘Okay, then, Rodolferplaz it is.’
Lance thought he could work out why Damien preferred not to go to the mall. It was a favourite hangout of Helen and her friends.
As they were pondering this, the sound of someone ascending the main staircase came to them. Damien reacted instantly, making hand signals for them to retreat to the secret staircase. The boys disappeared noiselessly down the length of the gallery. Damien, bringing up the rear, held the door to the staircase ajar in order to get a look at the person approaching the murder scene.
‘Who is it?’ hissed Mattie behind him in the dark.
‘I knows him,’ Damien announced. ‘It’s Karl Olmusch, the dead bloke’s brother. I seen him on telly. Okay guys. Outa here fast. He’s coming our way.’
The boys quickly but silently made their way downwards and out into the street.