HENRY AND THE ESCHATON
‘I couldn’t believe it! He just disappeared, the … the bastard!’
‘Hey! Easy, Henry babe!’
‘All these years, all the worry, all we meant to each other, and he fucking took off! Not a fucking word!’
‘Yes, I understand how you feel, but Gavin was always very shy about some things. Maybe the idea of dealing with you was just too much for him, so he ducked out. The kid has got serious worries. He may also have been embarrassed.’
‘Well, he and Max… Come on, you must have noticed.’
‘Of course. I know Max has the hots for him, but … you think it’s reciprocal? Oh! I just supposed Gavin was beyond that, being dead.’
‘He’s not dead. Far from it. Okay, he’s not alive either, but Tobias told you he’s between worlds, didn’t he? He still has his humanity, which means he can fall in love.’
‘Yeah … I suppose, and Max is Gavin’s type. More so than me, it has to be said. But … I feel as if I’ve been cheated on, or something.’
‘There you are, then. If you can feel that, Gavin can too. Be fair to him.’
Ed smiled and cuddled Henry close on their sofa. ‘But you’re right, baby. It would have been better had he stayed and talked.’
It was one in the morning. A furious Henry had marched an apologetic Max back to Davey’s apartment with some pointed words about communication and security, then sought out his own flat in Postgasse. He had found Ed back from the barracks, waiting up for him.
For a while both men lay together quietly, then Ed spoke up. ‘I think it’s time we should go and find him.’
‘Yes. It’ll be a while before the crisis is upon us, if that’s what’ll happen when Bishop Jack gets to Rothenia. Let’s sort out the Gavin thing once and for all.’
‘Er … I don’t know about that. I mean, are you sure it’s what Tobias intended?’
Ed chuckled. ‘It seems Gavin’s not the only one who’s cagy about meeting up.’
‘Smart-arse!’ But Henry turned and kissed Ed on the nose.
‘It really is time you two talked. We need more coordination here. It’s clear Gavin has no idea about Tobias and his agenda. Why are the forces of good always so bloody disorganised, while the bad guys have objectives, weapons and no scruples to hold them back?’
‘There speaks the professional soldier. So, how do we go about it?’
‘To begin with, point out to me in which direction you think the Icon is. You said you could feel it beating on your face like the sun.’
Henry got up and stood in the centre of the floor of their cluttered lounge. He took a deep breath, meditated a minute, then put out his right hand as a pointer. He closed his eyes and swung 360 degrees, eventually rotating back to point through the door into the littered squalor of their kitchen. He opened his eyes, grinned and said, ‘It’s in our fridge.’
‘And who in his right mind with a respect for his own health would look there? No, don’t move.’ Ed took a book from one of the teetering piles on their coffee table and placed it where Henry had been standing. ‘Okay, babe, find the big UGR maps of Rothenia – y’know, the red series.’
Henry hesitated a moment in despair. There was a stack of the definitive Ustakh Geografiskje Roteniske maps somewhere, but he couldn’t remember where he’d put them. Finally focusing on the idea of redness, he noticed a small pile of red folders under an armchair. ‘Got ‘em!’
‘See, you can do magic!’
‘Ha bloody ha! Anyway, here they are.’
Ed sorted through the folders and found the one he was looking for. He placed the open map on the floor directly under the book which marked Henry’s position, then pulled out a compass from his battledress jacket and oriented the map to north. ‘In the direction of the fridge you reckoned? Okay sweetheart, then we’re looking towards Ober Husbrau and Lake Maresku. I’ll need to give this some thought. Finding Gavin will be a full-scale military campaign; in fact, we’ll need my boys to help out on this one. You know what that means?’
Ed grinned lasciviously. ‘You gotta wear your uniform, and you know how that turns me on.’
Henry grinned back. ‘You sick puppy.’
Ed looked out the window and on to Postgasse below. ‘It’s our ride, little babe.’ A green Humvee was gunning its engine by their front door.
‘Will you tell him to keep the noise down? The neighbours will complain.’
‘You tell him! It’s Rudi.’
‘Oh, well, I don’t suppose the neighbours will complain.’ Henry craned out the window next to Ed. ‘No, I see they’re all waving flags and taking pictures of him on their mobiles. Loyal sort of folk, aren’t they?’
‘Let me square you up, sweetheart. My, but you do look cute, like a kid all dressed up.’ Henry stood patiently while Ed straightened his peaked cap and did other military things to his Guard colonel’s undress gear, even having to unravel the golden aiguillettes of a royal adjutant which Henry had hopelessly tangled putting on. Then Ed went into a drawer and got out the chipped silver star of the Rose, clipping it to Henry’s breast pocket next to an embarrassingly large expanse of medal ribbons, larger in fact than Ed’s.
‘Okay, little babe, you’re ready. I’ve got the bags. Kiss. Salute. Off we trot.’
The two colonels, one tall and broad, the other short and slight, exited Postgasse 45 to a small cheer and clapping from the crowd which was principally engaged in staring at its king.
Rudi was behind the wheel drumming his fingers, a burly Guard sergeant in the seat next to him. ‘Ready? Took your time, you two, didn’t you?’
‘Didn’t know you were coming, sir.’
‘And will you learn to salute, Colonel Atwood?’
‘Sorry, Rudi. You’re in a great mood for what might be a very exciting adventure.’
Rudi snarled inarticulately, nailed an official smile on his face, and to applause and waving flags pulled the Humvee out. He drove off in the direction of Leibgardgasse and the Guards Barracks, all the while grumbling at the traffic.
‘Herrengasse’s always blocked in the rush hour,’ Henry observed. ‘If you wanted a clear run, you should have asked for outriders.’
‘Will you keep your opinion to yourself, you annoying little … field officer? We’ve got to go this way to pick up that boy Max.’
‘And Davey. I’ll get him on my mobile so they’re waiting at the end of his road.’
Sure enough, as they crossed out of Rodolferplaz and on to Herrengasse, they saw Davey and Max standing on the kerb further along, signalling as if for a taxi. The two climbed in the back, Max looking nervous, especially in the direction of Henry.
Davey was in outdoor gear and walking boots, while Max was as usual in tee-shirt, jacket, jeans and trainers. Davey snuggled in between Henry and Ed, with a peck on the cheek for both his friends.
‘Cut it out!’ ordered the king. ‘No snogging on duty in a military vehicle! Max, tell me about your encounter last night with Gavin.’
Hesitantly, Max obliged while the Humvee made its slow way north fighting the traffic of the Third District to the Guards Barracks. As the boy stumbled through his account, Rudi stopped him occasionally to clear up his many obscurities of language with pointed questions.
When they turned off Torgasse, they found a small column of vehicles awaiting them. Parked on the expanse of raked gravel which was the Exerciser Plaz were six lorries carrying the best part of a company of the Guard Fusiliers under the command of Major Anders, an old friend of Henry's and Ed's. Two armoured cars were at the front, and the king pulled in behind them.
He called the officers present to a conference around a map of Ober Husbrau spread out on a folding table.
Ed had marked a red area fanning out northward from the capital in the direction of the great lake Maresku. ‘It’s a big segment, unfortunately. I suggest we get as far as Strelfurt and ask Henry to try another triangulation to see if we can narrow the search area. It’s difficult from here.’
Rudi nodded. ‘Further comments, gentlemen?’
Henry chipped in. ‘Max has been to Enoch and Elijah’s base. He’s pretty convinced it was in a large medieval building in the countryside, though he had no idea where in Rothenia it might be. If the place is at all accessible to the everyday world, then it must be in a known ancient site. That may narrow things down a bit.’
‘Agreed. Very well, let’s mount up and hit the A22. Lunch is at the barracks at Strelfurt. We’re expected.’
Engines burst into life as the officers returned to their vehicles. After a red-and-gold pennant indicating the presence of the king had been affixed to the Humvee, the convoy trundled sedately off the grand parade ground on to Torgasse, then by Domstrasse to the Altstadt bridge. It wound up the hill of the Staramesten, under the cathedral and thence to the A22 leading to the province of Husbrau.
Max plugged his iPod into his ear and was soon away in a musical world of his own. Henry for his part brooded on Gavin and his mysterious purposes. So they passed out into the autumn countryside of Rothenia in search of the legendary Icon, which had defied discovery for over half a millennium.
For a while Anthony found it difficult to deal with his job in Cranwell. The bishop's minders frankly terrified him, and he was sure they must smell his fear. Fortunately, Gareth and his henchman Colin disappeared to Prague in the first week of November as part of an advance party for the upcoming trip.
Another helpful thing was that Bishop Jack’s influence over media and politics was growing on a daily basis, a change which frequently took him away from Cranwell. More staff were being added and a new office was opened in Church House in Westminster. The bishop was so often there now that he had seen fit to somehow acquire a London flat.
The bishop could do no wrong in the media. The dominant right-wing press proclaimed him to be Britain’s salvation. He led what he called a ‘Pilgrimage to Soho’, with scores of thousands of hymn-singing devotees following him through the streets of the now empty and shuttered gay village. The press announced a return to innocence with an end to vice and the sex industry. Overnight, Parliament repealed all the liberal sexual legislation of the 1960s and 1970s, which brought about a silent flight to Europe of tens of thousands of gay and lesbian couples newly threatened with arrest. Indeed, there were rumours of police roundups of any defiant homosexuals.
The strange events at Bishop Jack’s public appearances continued, although they were less reported in Britain than in America, where live broadcasts of his cures and sermons were transmitted almost daily by the religious channels.
The only times he and Anthony met were on the bishop’s few remaining church engagements. Bishop Jack continued to be his affable self, yet Anthony sensed a new sort of tension in him. He continually reverted in conversation to the approaching tour of Eastern Europe.
It was a week before the move to Prague that Anthony had a phone call at his desk in Cranwell. A relaxed and drawling voice asked, ‘Is that the Reverend Willis?’
‘Tony, yes. How can I help?’
‘I’m a friend of Enoch's.’
Anthony’s heart froze in his chest. For a while he blanked.
‘Hullo? You still there?’
‘Yes, yes. Who is this?’
‘Tell you later. But we need to talk.’
‘I’m not sure …’
‘I think we must, Tony, and you know why.’
Anthony considered this, then admitted it. ‘Fine. Where and when?’
‘This evening at seven. My former place of resort has regrettably been burned down due to the activities of your boss, so let’s say the Green Man on High Street.’
Anthony drove home to his little flat, where he found he couldn’t eat more than a sandwich. He walked into town and entered the pub exactly on time. A tall, athletic-looking blond man chatting to the landlord at the bar turned to him and nodded. Picking up his pint the man indicated a table, of which there were plenty to choose; the place was almost empty.
‘Your boss seems to have it in for the catering trade, straight as well as gay,’ the stranger observed. ‘Kids under eighteen are subject to a curfew after nine, and there’s talk of prohibition legislation. I'd have thought the Antichrist would be a bit more fun than this.’
‘Antichrist? What are you talking about?’
‘Oh come on, Tony. You're smarter than that.’
‘How do you know about Enoch?’
‘Me? I was a friend of his before he died. A really cute kid.’
‘Died! What …? Who are you?’
‘O'Brien, Terry O’Brien. Ah, I see the name means something to you.’
‘You were the owner of the King’s Cross. You’re in security. I read it in the papers.’
‘You might add that I’m currently on the run from the police, in a desultory sort of way. My dad tipped me off before he resigned as Assistant Chief Constable.’
‘What’s all this about?’
‘Sweetheart, you’re in this up to your eyeballs, and I need information. I want to know about the bishop’s movements, as well as whatever you can tell me about these demonic attendants who are your colleagues in the bishop’s office.’
‘Why should I tell you?’
‘I happen to know that, if you don’t, your soul will be on the line.’
Sirens suddenly blared. Fire tenders, blue lights flashing, streamed past the pub heading south down the High Street. Dimly Anthony felt the impact of a dull concussion that reached him through his shoes and the seat of his pants. The windows and loose glasses of the pub vibrated and shivered. The barman looked up alarmed from his polishing of the pint mugs.
‘What was that?’
Terry checked his watch and smiled. ‘A meeting of the Social Action Ministry of the Riverside megachurch was interrupted five minutes ago by a small bomb going off under its table. They were the three bastards who burned down my pub and killed Will Thomas. Now they’re dead, and I’m fairly confident they’re in the place to which their merits have entitled them.
‘The explosion you just heard was the second bomb – much bigger – blowing the megachurch sky high. Amazing what some well-placed sticks of Semtex can do. I doubt there’ll be much to worship in come Sunday. My little Will’s been avenged!’
‘Where did Phil and Eddie go?’ asked Henry over a salad lunch in the officers’ club of the Strelfurt barracks.
Ed looked up. ‘Out to Matt and Andy’s new place in the Green Hills.’ This was an up-scale area immediately north of Strelzen across the Starel river. After having been a favourite place for the old Communist hierarchy to build large dachas and villas, it had subsequently been colonised by Rothenia’s new capitalist elite. ‘Damien and Mattie are there too. Paul and Rachel said Mattie’s not to go back to England during the present troubles, so he’s delighted to be staying with his godparents and best mate.’
‘Any news about Justy and Nate?’
‘Stuck in the Caribbean till a Peacher jet can reach them. There’s not much trouble there, thank God. But they’re keen to get back to Europe.’
‘Sooner the better, I’d say. I’d like to have Justy minding my back at the present moment.’
An aide appeared at Henry’s shoulder to request that the two colonels join his majesty in the commandant’s office.
Rudi had relaxed a bit since the morning. He laughed when Henry conscientiously and seriously saluted him in his idea of the correct military style. ‘You forgot the heel click, Outfield. Oh well, maybe Ed’ll give you some extra lessons.
‘Now then, Brigadier Raasmundhen and I have got the engineers to set up a theodolite out there on the terrace. It has already been adjusted to a true bearing using GPS. Henry, to start with I want you to point it in the direction from which you think the power is emanating.’
Henry went to stand by the theodolite. Meditating, he turned from side to side with his eyes closed. Once he located a definite power beating upon him, he centred himself facing straight towards where the emanation seemed strongest. He opened his eyes and shot the instrument’s telescope as exactly in that direction as he could.
An engineer lieutenant pressed a button causing the instrument's orientation data to be transmitted to a 17" laptop sitting on the brigadier’s desk. Having done that, he instructed Henry to move the azimuth a bit and repeat the sighting. The whole procedure was carried out a third time.
Returning to the office, the lieutenant spread out a large-scale map of the area, on which he quickly located the position of the theodolite. Then, referring to the data displayed on the laptop, he projected out Henry's three observations, all of them surprisingly close together. Finally he added a fourth line representing the average of the others.
‘Sir, the bearing of this green line indicates the most probable direction to the signal.’
They all gathered behind the lieutenant. The line he indicated reached directly NNE of Strelsfurt as far as the Czech frontier west of Maresku.
‘Okay,’ said Rudi. ‘Now that we have a general idea where to look, we’ll try to work out some likely targets to investigate. But Henry, won’t Enoch and Elijah have found ways to discourage interest in their lair, maybe even remove it from human consciousness?’
‘I imagine they’ll have tried. Max did say Elijah thought his visit there had “security implications”. Perhaps that meant it was breaching the cloak they cast around their movements and the veil around the Icon itself.’
‘So this is not a target which will be easy to approach.’
‘No, and although we may be able to get that far, the Icon will not allow itself to be touched or disturbed, even by friendly hands. When Gavin found it at Terlenehem, it removed him from the world – killed him, you could say, despite his being the finest of men. He had no choice in the matter. Ed, can you bring those reference books in here?’
Ed Cornish obediently disappeared and a few minutes later returned with a bag. He stacked the contents on a conference table.
Henry sorted them. ‘This is my little library of guidebooks and directories about Ober Husbrau, going back twenty years. Gavin occupied his present fortress about six years ago, yes? Well, let’s see if the contents of these show any differences over that stretch of time.’
Rudi, Henry and Ed sorted through the books and began making lists of medieval sites in the region. Henry collated them. Although it took an hour with the books and a search of available websites, in the end Henry sat back and pronounced the name, ‘Biscofshalch.’
Rudi raised an eyebrow. ‘Never heard of it.’
‘Nor apparently have the editors of these books or the Rothenian Tourist Board, at least for the past seven years. But it’s in the old editions.’
‘What is it?’ asked Ed.
‘There’s not much information. It wasn’t well known even before the Icon picked it for a refuge. It's too high in the valley above Maresku. No metalled road goes there. Still, it was a tower-house on the borders of Bohemia, and once… are you ready for this? Yes? It was one of the residences of Bishop Josep Jamroziak. There’s irony for you.’
The column returned to the road at four that afternoon. Rudi was impatient. ‘It’ll be dark well before we get there.’
Ed, now at the wheel, suggested they spend the night at Piotreshrad on the lake.
The king demurred. ‘We’ve got the gear. We’ll stay under canvas wherever we get to tonight and resume the search first thing in the morning.’
Although Henry was not one for tents, he agreed that speed was a priority. So they drove on up the Starel valley through the gathering dusk. The sun had already set when they left the A22 south of Piotreshrad to take a dirt road deeper into the mountains. They climbed up and down hills for twenty kilometres until Rudi called a halt at a remote forestry campsite. The sky was clear and the air crisp, promising a heavy frost in the morning.
Henry watched the Fusiliers make their camp with impressive efficiency. In no time at all the tents were up, campfires were lit and Henry was sitting in his military greatcoat with a mug of hot tea in his hand. Davey and Max, also bundled up in scarves and coats, had settled next to each other on a log.
The smell of dinner came wafting from one of the fires. ‘Mmm! I think it’s one of their goulashes. My boys can sure cook.’ Ed was grinning with obvious pride in his regiment.
The stars were bright in the black sky as they all ate heartily. Afterwards. watching the orderly clear the plates, Henry burped happily. ‘There’s something really special about hot food out of doors. I mean, I don’t like camping, but there’re bits of it you can enjoy – unlike the sleeping-bag thing. I’ll miss my bed long before dawn. Now I suppose we’d better turn in. We’ll be up early.’
Major Anders began posting sentries while everyone else took to their tents. Fortunately, Henry had been given a proper camp bed and wasn’t on the ground. Despite his fears and anxieties for tomorrow, he was fast asleep before the familiar rumble of Ed’s snoring began.
Max, on the other hand, could not doze off. Although he did not have Henry’s sense of proximity to the Icon, he knew nonetheless that Gavin was close by, and the feeling of his presence grew strong. Davey was breathing lightly in sleep when Max rose and fumbled for his socks, trainers and jeans. He put his head out of the flap. All was quiet, apart from the muttered conversation of the Fusilier sentries. He caught the whiff of tobacco smoke on the night air.
Moving stealthily to the edge of the campsite, he quickly faded into the absolute blackness of the forest, where the crackling of pine needles under his feet was the only sound. He paused a while to let his eyes adjust. Soon he began to distinguish the shapes of trees above him outlined by the stars.
There was a movement off to his right. ‘Gavin!’ he hissed. ‘Is that you?’
‘Over here!’ a voice whispered back at him.
Max stumbled towards the sound. He could see something there, but slowly it dawned on him that the form was too square and bulky to be Gavin. Suddenly it was too late. He was seized by irresistible arms and a cold hand covered his mouth. Struggling was useless. He found himself hoisted up and carried away.
A long time later, he was thrown to the ground, his face pushed into leaf mould. A weight settled on his back, and to his horror he found strong hands clawing at his shoes and clothes. They were torn off his body effortlessly, leaving him naked and shivering in the cold air. The hands lifted him to his feet again, then slammed his face and the front of his bare body against the roughness of bark. He yelped as his hands were pulled above his head and roughly bound to branches low above him. Only his toes were now in touch with the ground.
A cold, deliberate voice grated, ‘Now boy, we talk, with no interruptions. But something to educate you before we begin…’
The first ruthless lash across his buttocks made Max arch his back in shock. His parents had never so much as smacked him. Pain like this was not part of his life. On the second stroke he whimpered and tried to dance away from the white-hot agony. It was at the inevitable and inescapable third that he began begging and sobbing.