HENRY AND THE BALANCE OF PROBABILITY
Henry folded his arms and settled back in his chair. Scrutinising the general, he said, ‘I know you had an unplanned encounter with Jakob Olmusch in the gallery. Let me guess. After the seminar, he stormed upstairs where you were waiting to meet his brother for that crucial interview, and there was a dispute between the pair of you.’
General Brantesberh was startled. ‘How do you know this?’
‘Ottokar Willemin told me he buttonholed Jakob during a break in the seminar and revealed to him some details about your background which you had concealed.’
Glowering at Henry, the general flushed red despite himself. ‘My parents were perfectly respectable people.’
‘I don’t think that was the point, was it?’
‘I have documentation proving our lineage to the barons Brantesberh of King Ferdinand’s court.’
‘No doubt,’ Henry observed drily. ‘But Jakob Olmusch was not willing to wait to see it, was he?’
‘He was always … lacking in patience.’
‘Not to mention tact, tolerance and humanity. I imagine he was brutally frank.’
‘He called me an upstart, a liar and a social climber.’
‘So you fought.’
The general stared at Henry. ‘No! Certainly not. After hearing what he thought of me, I left. I was shocked … to say the least’
‘But weren’t you supposed to be meeting Karl Olmusch?’
‘I was too stunned to know what I was doing. Jakob had more or less told me I was finished as far as the RA was concerned.’
‘Convenient for you therefore that Jakob did not survive to pass on what he’d learned about you.’
‘Now … look here!’
Henry raised a hand. ‘Very well. The witness Tommy Entwhistle saw you descending the main stairs to rejoin your colleagues.’
‘But that doesn’t mean you could not have returned unobserved via the servants’ back stairs.’
The general waved dismissively. ‘There are other witnesses to prove I was in the lower gallery at the time of the murder. I have told the police this.’
Henry was brought up short by that information. After retrenching, he observed, ‘But apparently you haven’t told the police everything. You realise your evidence incriminates Karl Olmusch in his brother’s death.’
The general shrugged his shoulders. ‘That is hardly my concern.’
‘If Karl went up to the gallery to meet you and instead met his brother in that mood, violence might well have been the result. I have no doubt you had been detailed to meet Karl because Hendrik Willemin didn’t trust Jakob to conduct discussions so critical to the RA and the pension funds.’
‘That is as may be.’
‘Is there any further information you can offer? Has Karl Olmusch met with you or Hendrik since?’
‘I refuse to answer that.’
‘Then you will have to talk to Captain Mannstejne.’ Henry and Justin rose. Declining to offer their hands to the general, they left without further word.
‘No, I tell you I saw that old guy before.’
Fritz gave a quirky look at Tommy on the adjoining running machine. ‘Maybe it was in the glossies … be fair, sweetheart, you read a dentist’s-waiting-roomful of them every month.’
Tommy returned the look with interest. ‘I could slap you. But, honestly, I know the face. Anyway, didn’t you say Count Robert was a recluse?’
‘I suppose … at least as far as public life is concerned. That’s why I doubt you’d have seen him. He lives deep in the heart of the countryside.’
Tommy pounded along his personal conveyer belt in silence. Fritz had got him into the habit of regular workouts, and he was beginning to appreciate it. He had not done serious exercise since school, where he had been a footballer of some talent. The sexual complications of his adolescent and post-adolescent years had driven out other interests for a while. Now things were changing, even if Tommy’s gym kit was hardly masculine.
Eventually his unhealed abrasions began to complain and he shut down the machine. Catching Fritz’s eyes, he realised his lover needed some reassurance. ‘There’s a sauna, isn’t there?’
‘I could do with the soothing of something hot, big guy.’
‘I just need a little more of a sweat first.’ Tommy grinned suggestively and began removing his clothes. Naked in the middle of the Osraeum’s mirrored gym, he put a hand on a hip. ‘That bench looks convenient.’
‘Tomasczu! Anyone could come in!’
‘Then you’d better be quick.’ Tommy lay on his stomach along the leather, his genitals hanging over the edge. He spread his legs wide in expectation.
A heavy, sweaty body covered his. He relaxed his opening and Fritz pushed hard into him.
‘Ooh!’ he moaned as Fritz’s entry moved him up the bench. He pushed back and Fritz’s cock swelled inside his hole. Then he was being pounded enthusiastically. Fritz, squatting above him and thrusting powerfully downwards, didn’t seem to be especially concerned about being quick.
The assault on his prostate caused Tommy’s penis to erect dramatically. He only had to reach back to grip it before shooting over the floor with a gratified groan. Fritz heard the sound and in his turn came so hard that Tommy could feel the repeated pulse inside himself.
They lay breathing heavily, Fritz’s sweat trickling and dripping down his lover’s flanks. After a while, he lifted off Tommy, pulled him up and kissed him deeply. ‘Come on Tomasczu, the sauna. And don’t tell me you never want to do sex with me again.’
‘No, big guy. I like taking it as much as you do giving it. You can’t deny that.’
‘So why go back to Britain? My dick’s here!’
‘You know why.’
‘No, baby, I don’t. You’ve lost me.’
They entered the heat of the sauna cabin. Tommy leaned against Fritz on the bench and an arm crept round him. They were silent for a while, Tommy idly watching Fritz’s impressive cock deflate and the foreskin close back around his glans.
‘I thought Rothenians got circumcised as kids.’
‘No, baby. If you come to the Spa with me one day, you’ll see we are a nation of the uncut. It’s only done here for medical or religious reasons. You’re thinking of America, although even there circumcision happens less nowadays than it used to.’
‘There’s so much to learn about this country.’
‘You like it, despite everything that’s happened to you?’
‘Yes, of course I do. After all, you’re Rothenian. What’s not to love? And the people in the street are really great. They laugh and chat a lot more than the British do, or at least more than Londoners. The women are prettier too. And they’re so friendly when you try to communicate with them in their own language.’
‘My people are like that, it’s true. They really enjoy a good verbal punch up. There’s nothing louder than a bunch of Rothenians having a political debate or a row about a queue for a tram.’
Tommy pulled away from Fritz and sat up, gripping the edge of the bench.
‘What is it, Tomasczu?’
‘I’ve remembered where I saw Count Robert … and when!’
The arrest of Count Karl Olmusch for the murder of his brother Jakob took place in mid-afternoon. Henry felt no compunction about alerting Eastnet’s news desk that there was likely to be action. His colleagues were there filming as Olmusch was led away by the police.
Justin went round to Henry’s house that evening, a grinning Damien trailing behind. He and Lance immediately hared off to Lance’s room.
‘So, Justy. Have the police finally got their man?’
‘Dunno, Henry. But Olmusch is going to find it difficult to talk his way out of this one. ‘Cos of old Brantesberh, we know he had a motive. We also know he was in the upper gallery of the palace, right before the murder. His briefcase was dropped on the secret-passage staircase in what we presume was his panicky exit after the deed. His brother Jakob was deeply pissed at him. Yup! Looks like the police may believe they have their man. But you’re not convinced, are you?’
Ed came in at that point. He dropped his bag and took off his uniform jacket, asking if anyone wanted a gin, as he could murder one. Justin took a beer. The three men settled in the lounge, where Justin repeated his question.
Henry gave a shrug. ‘Things look bad for Karl Olmusch. The embezzlement charge will ruin him, even if he gets away with manslaughter rather than murder.’
‘You think he’ll argue he was attacked by his infuriated brother, and it was self-defence?’
‘It’s a way out for him if the magistrate goes for the lesser charge, so he well might.’
‘But you’re not convinced.’
‘No. And here’s why not. Our two boys were sitting at the bottom of the stairs while the murder was going on. They heard English being spoken in the gallery above them. Now why would two Rothenian aristocrats be exchanging English insults in the heat of a deadly argument?’
Ed observed, ‘They both do speak English. You know that.’
‘Yeah, yeah. But under those circumstances, shouting at one another in a foreign language seems unlikely, to say the least.’
Justin nodded. ‘The height issue is also against Karl’s striking the blow. He’s not two metres.’
Ed leaned forward. ‘So was it Fritzy?’
‘Witnesses saw him with the king around the time of the murder.’
‘Could that git Brantesberh have slipped back up the gallery? Now he had a huge motive to do in Jakob Olmusch.’
Henry shook his head. ‘He claims to have been seen by several witnesses in the lower gallery. And Tommy bumped into him coming downstairs before the murder.’
Justin chimed in. ‘That’s what I just don’t get, lads. When Tommy went up to the gallery, it was empty. No Karl or Jakob Olmusch. But five minutes or so later a dead Jakob Olmusch was pinned to the wall like a butterfly to a board.’
‘I ‘spect your mate Kristof Mannstejne will be wondering about the answer to exactly that question, Justy,’ Henry replied.
Justin frowned. ‘Pass me a piece of paper, one of you, and another beer. I feel the need to draw diagrams. My brain is aching.’
In the meantime, in Lance’s bedroom, other concerns were being aired. The two boys were staring at an e-mail Damien had received earlier that day.
Lance mused, ‘Did you talk about it with your dads?’
‘Yuh … well, Nathan anyway. Me other dad in’t much good wiv emotional stuff. He just laffs. He don’t wanna take it seriously.’
‘So what did Nathan say?’
‘“Think carefully before replying.”’
‘Makes sense to me, despite my lack of experience … as well as the fact that I’m gay and can’t be expected to know very much about it.’
Damien gave a little laugh. ‘You got a head on yer shoulders, mate. Doan’ do yerself down.’
Both boys re-read the e-mail from Helen Debies. She had decided she had been hasty in breaking up with Damien, even though she felt she’d had good reason to do so. She would like to meet in town the next day to discuss things.
Lance stretched in his seat, put his hands behind his neck and let out a deep breath. ‘Look, Daimey, you know my background. I have to tell the truth … ‘cos truth is what I am. Aunty Harry said that thing about Helen not really knowing where a relationship should go at her age. She said Helen was confused and lost … or something like that.’
‘If you and Helen get back together, things aren’t gonna change. She’ll still not have much of an idea what she wants from you, and – be fair, Daimey – I don’t think you have much idea yourself either, do you?’
Lance blushed. ‘Umm … I mean, you and her … kissing and stuff.’
Lance went redder. ‘Umm … yeah. Point is, Daimey, I think you should try to be friends with Helen, but not be boyfriend and girlfriend. You’re both only eleven. You can leave it a while, yeah?’
Damien heaved what was for him an uncharacteristic sigh, a downbeat and sad one. ‘Yuh. Yer making sense, me mate. Iss juss that I like her, know what I mean? Life used to be sorta easier and make more sense when we were together. But now … I dunno what to say to her or what to do.’
‘So what are you gonna do?’
‘I’m gonna say sorry, but I doan think we should meet to talk it out, ‘cos there’s nothing to talk about.’
‘Try to say it nicely.’
‘I will. Trouble is, whatever I say, she’ll juss think I’m being upset wiv her. But I’m not, really. I’m juss sad about it.’
‘Say that, then’
Damien tapped his response into Lance’s laptop, showed it to his friend, and then – after a brief hesitation – sent it on its way. The two boys sat there quietly for a while, as if expecting some immediate consequences. But nothing happened, and privately Lance doubted there would ever be a response from Helen.
Eventually he broke the silence. ‘Wasn’t Reggie supposed to be coming over this evening? I thought he’d be excited over Karl Olmusch’s arrest.’
‘Nah. He cried off. He said there was family stuff keeping him at home. We’ll meet up tomorrer.’
‘You gonna stay over tonight?’
‘Yuh, if you’d like.’
Lance gave a disconcertingly devilish grin. ‘Course I would, Daimey. It means I’ll be in bed with a hot guy who’s on the rebound.’
Damien stared, then guffawed. He was still chuckling when they slid under the duvet an hour later.
After breakfast the next morning, Tommy got on the computer. He e-mailed his mother, introducing the possibility that he would be coming home for a while. Then he checked return flights. While he was scanning the British Airways pages, Fritz came in from the shower, and a quick glance told Tommy his lover had seen what he was doing. When Fritz said nothing, Tommy realised he had got the message.
Fritz left for the bank after a hug and kiss. Tommy, at a loose end, decided to risk Strelzen. His time remaining in the city was limited, and there was so much of it he had not seen. He found a map and put it in his shoulder bag. Dressed anonymously, his face hidden behind overlarge shades, he left the Osraeum by the front door. Although he should have expected it, he was still disconcerted to be saluted smartly by the police officers on duty outside.
He took a right turn, then another onto Postgasse, intending to wander the streets of the Fourth District. He ended up taking an outdoor table at one of the many pavement cafés in Stracenzstrasse. When he ordered an espresso in his primitive Rothenian, he drew a glowing smile of approval from the waitress.
He watched appreciatively as the girls and boys of Strelzen strolled past. There were some nice faces and bodies on display that warm, sunny morning. The café, the street and the fine day made him feel good. Despite an undeniable pang of regret that Strelzen would soon be in his past, he was firmly convinced he must move on and establish himself as his own person. His self-respect demanded he do so.
What about Fritz? He desired the man, so much was beyond doubt, yet that was not enough. He loved Fritz as well, certainly. The question was, how much? Did he love him enough to resign himself to an existence as no more than his lover’s bed companion?
Something in Tommy revolted from such a feckless life, just hoping that everything would work out. He had taken control of his fate in university, buckling down and overcoming the potent distractions of his eccentric sexuality to score a high degree as a result. He could not turn his back on such great achievements now. It would be as if he was rejecting those friends who had loyally stuck with him and believed in him.
Finishing his espresso, Tommy left a tip by his cup and headed back towards the Radhausplaz, where he was delighted to discover that the press caravan had packed up and left. No doubt the bastards were now flapping round the Olmusch house, like crows circling road kill. He and Fritz could safely reoccupy the Tarlenheim palace for his last days in the city. That was a relief.
With a lighter heart, Tommy paid his eight krone and climbed the many stairs of the Radhaus tower, at which he had often stared from the palace windows across the square. High above the New City, a refreshing breeze on his face, he joined the cluster of tourists at the battlements to find a place between two middle-aged American couples. The matrons smiled at him, and he dimpled back. Apart from his mother, mature ladies somehow found Tommy irresistible, even when in drag.
Below him was Strelzen’s involved network of streets, divided by ridges and watersheds of red-tiled roofs. Spires, turrets and domes serrated every roofscape. To the east, the great towers of the cathedral reared up from the hill of the Domshorja. That sparked a memory: Fritz had urged him to contact Henry about the context surrounding his recognition of Count Robert. Tommy felt for his mobile and rang the number Fritz had given him.
‘Hi, Henry here. Who is this?’
‘It’s me, Tommy. Any chance of a meeting today sometime? I have some information that Fritz thinks may be important.’ They settled on a lunch date near Henry’s office in the Old City, on Erchbischofsplaz, and Tommy rang off.
When one of the American ladies asked him to take a group photo for them, he smilingly obliged. ‘Say,’ she suddenly said, ‘don’t we know you?’
The smile disappeared from Tommy’s face.
It was a scintillating morning, the pool surface sparkling with sunlight. Damien called up to Lance on the tower, ‘Shouldn’t yer be wearing Speedos?’
Lance laughed down at him. ‘Diving naked is fun! That is, unless you enter badly, then you limp for days afterwards. It’s a way of getting my technique right.’
Damien shrugged out of his own pyjamas and dropped into the pool from the side. He swam out to the shallow end to watch the show.
Lance really was exceptional when he took to the air. The elegance as he twisted and spun before entering the water without so much as a ripple was breathtaking: physical poetry.
Surfacing, he swam effortlessly towards his friend, who met him halfway. ‘That was amazing!’ Damien admired.
Lance, his brown hair plastered black to his scalp, grinned happily. They spent some time in horseplay, then Damien followed his friend up the tower.
Being boys living in Rothenia, neither of them had a tan line, just a light and even brown over their midriffs and groins. They sat for a while adding to their tans, side by side in the morning sun in their favourite place, the lower board over the pool. Their warm flanks and thighs touched, and Damien held Lance round his waist. For whatever reason, both felt very good about the world.
Damien smiled. ‘This reminds me of when we first met. Under that pool where you dragged us when you wuz still in the spear.’
With all sincerity, Lance replied, ‘That was the happiest day of my life. You guys were so brilliant to me. I’d never had friends before.’
Ed came out yawning on the patio below. ‘You two already up and about?’
Ed dropped his robe and plunged into the pool, his pale body making powerful strokes to the far end. As he returned, Damien and Lance launched themselves down into the water. Damien shrieked when his bottom and balls slapped the water in an incautious three-point landing.
‘Oh, fook! Fook! Fook!’
Lance and Ed swam up, concerned. ‘You okay, Daimey?’
‘No! I’ll never walk proper again! Fookin’ hurts!’ Damien gripped his aching nuts. ‘Next time I wears Speedos!’
Seeing the damage to Damien was not permanent, Ed smoothed the water out of his blond hair. ‘What’re you two doing today?’
Lance answered, ‘We’re meeting Mattie and Reggie at ten-thirty at Mattie’s place.’
Ed smiled. ‘Working out your response to the news about Karl Olmusch’s arrest?’
‘Yuh,’ Damien confirmed. ‘It doan’ make sense to us.’
‘Nor to your dad either,’ Ed agreed.
‘So you’re going back to Britain.’ Henry was regretful at the news.
‘I can’t see any other choice.’
Their coffees arrived, and the two men relaxed under their table umbrella. They were outside a small café Henry knew at the corner of the cathedral square on the summit of the Domshorja. In front of them, small tribes of nomad tourists – Italian, German and American – were ambling across the square behind their respective guides, each of whom was waving a colourful umbrella or car aerial adorned with a Rothenian flag.
Tommy asked, ‘Isn’t it annoying having these hordes of sightseers cluttering up your city all summer long?’
Henry laughed. ‘No. They’ve revolutionised the Rothenian economy … or at least parts of it. The capital, Kesarstejne Castle, Piotreshrad and Ranstadt all rake in the money. But there are lots more beautiful places far from the tourist circuit … places you won’t get to see if you leave us. Fritz is never happier than when showing off his country to his guests.’
‘We’re not breaking up.’
‘Sweetheart, with your being the best part of a thousand miles away from him, I can’t see much hope of your staying together.’
‘Henry, I’ve got to go. I really do. I can’t keep sponging off Fritz, and there are fewer jobs in this country than in the United Kingdom. You know that.’
‘It’s okay, Tommy babe. I understand. I only wish I had an alternative to offer. Just get back as often as you can, for all your friends’ sakes.’
They sipped their coffees in silence. The cathedral and abbey bells tolled the hour.
‘So tell me what this is about, Tommy.’
‘Sure. Fritz said you should know that, a little while before the murder at the palace, I was looking down into the square. There was a lot of pushing and shoving going on, and this tall, old guy got caught up in a scrum round the cameras on the Wenzelgasse corner.’
‘There was quite a Rothenian shouting match going on. Anyway, the old guy was Count Robert, the king’s uncle.’
‘So what was he doing there, Henry?’
Henry shook his head. ‘I have no idea. How long was this before the murder?’
‘I mooned around the place, then went up to the top gallery. That’s when I encountered General Brantesberh coming downstairs.’
‘And once you reached the gallery, you saw no one and came down again by the back stairs.’
‘That’s my story.’
‘Did you see where Count Robert went?’
‘Last seen disappearing up Wenzelgasse.’
‘Where there is a door leading to stairs and the upper gallery.’
‘Guess so. Say. Do you think he might have …?’
‘Yes, I do think he might have …’