Michael Arram







  Terry was not happy with Justin’s idea about meeting up with his father, but could hardly argue against it.  He pointed out that everybody was now vulnerable, including the kids in the house.  They could easily end up as hostages, even if Anson didn’t look upon them as targets.  But Justin and Nathan came back fiercely saying they had lives to lead, and there was no way of knowing how long the house would be under siege.  Finally, they compromised on Terry’s being allowed to drive Justin to Ealing to surreptitiously check out his dad.  After father and son had their time together, Terry would link up with Justin and bring him back home.


  Another problem cropped up when Tim suggested a visit to a pub on Saturday evening.  In the end, Justin and Nathan dodged Terry and Jenna to take the American over the garden wall so they could stumble through the back lanes to the village.


  Tim was by turns morose and artificially cheerful that evening.  The boys were sure it was because his relationship with Peter was on the rocks.  He had already been informed curtly that, when they got back to the States, Peter would be moving his stuff out of their shared house in New Haven.


  They were not inclined to condemn Tim too much.  Justin in particular had a good deal of sympathy for him, especially as he’d been one of those who had been tempted by and fallen to the man’s sexual allure and good looks.  When Tim was in the loo, he said to Nathan, ‘He won’t be on his own too long, I’ll bet.’


  ‘Maybe not, but losing Pete Peacher won’t look good on his sexual CV.  He might try selling his story to the press for a huge amount, although I can’t imagine Terry letting him get away with it.  He’s proved he can’t be trusted.  I wouldn’t trust him even if I went to bed with him.  He’s nice and he’s funny, but he doesn’t seem to think past the end of his cock.  I need a boy I can trust to be my partner, not just my sperm injector.’


  ‘Iss not true for everyone.’


  ‘I know that, but it’s true for me.  Is it true for you, Justy?’


  Justin paused and thought.  ‘This may not be the best time to tell you, but I let him suck me off one night in the Caribbean.’


  ‘What?  Justy!’


  ‘Don’t get all uppity on me, Underwood.  I did it and I ain’t sorry.  It seemed right at the time.  But I still think I’m faithful to you.  And hey, if Terry and Ramon, say, or Will and Felip wanted to get together with us for some fun, what would you do?’


  ‘I dunno, Justy … they’re a bit on the old side.  I’d not be happy about it, I think.  But Tim I’d not trust.  How many other men has he been involved with behind Pete’s back, and … this is the awful bit … has he always taken precautions?’


  Tim returned at that point, and the air between him and Nathan became frosty.  They soon left and returned to Matt’s house, where Terry was furious with all three of them.








  Sunday came.  Matt and Andy disappeared early to church, taking Nathan to drop off in Winchmore Hill.  Jenna drove.


  Terry and Justin went in the other direction, following the North Circular Road westward through the light weekend traffic.  The dog walkers were out on the common, strolling the tree-lined avenues, and throwing balls for their pets on the lawns.  It was humid and overcast.


  Terry parked on a side street.  He and Justin slowly ambled across the grass to the houses on the farther side.  When they found the right street and pub, Justin walked straight in while Terry continued past.


  Justin’s heart was suddenly beating high and he felt very nervous.  His father hadn’t sent a picture, just told him to look for a dark-haired man of about six feet, dressed in denim and carrying a Sunday paper.  Justin was early, so he settled down with a half of lager.  He was well-built these days and shaved daily, so he was not often questioned as to his age.


  With the appointed hour approaching, it was all Justin could do to stay still in his seat.  The clock passed twelve, and there was no one.  Justin had sat where he could check out the main entrance.  At twelve-fifteen he suddenly realised there would be no father appearing that day.  If the man had planned to come, he would have been punctual, or even early, for such a momentous meeting.  No man would play power games with time in that sort of situation.  Justin felt a little sick with the reaction and, he admitted to himself, with the further evidence that his father was not a man to be relied on.  He stood up and left.


  Terry, standing nonchalantly further along the street, raised his eyebrows when he saw Justin, who shrugged.  The two of them had started back to the common when a white van pulled up a little further along the road.  As they walked alongside it, the back doors burst open and two men in black jumped out.  Justin froze, but Terry had his gun out with an impressive display of reaction time.  He levelled it at the two men, who apparently were armed only with truncheons.


  It was a standoff, until a polite cough from behind Justin introduced a third player in the situation.  ‘I’d put the gun away, Terry, there’s a good fellow.’


  ‘Why, Anson, you fucker?’


  ‘Cos otherwise I’ll have to shoot the boy’s brains out.’


  Terry looked back.  Justin was standing with Anson’s gun at his head, Anson grinning happily over his shoulder at Terry.


  Terry dropped his gun and raised his hands.


  ‘In the back with him, lads.  And you, kid, you too.’  Anson shoved Justin into the arms of one of his accomplices, who had retrieved Terry’s gun from the ground.


  Once Terry and Justin were cuffed and gagged in the back, the van drove off and kept going for as much as a quarter of an hour.  When it stopped, bags were placed over their heads and they were shoved stumbling into an echoing space, down some narrow stairs and into a room.  A door slammed behind.  After they were forced to sit, the cuffs were taken off and their arms tied competently to their chairs.


  Everything had so far been done in silence.  Suddenly Anson’s voice snarled, ‘So Terry, we meet again.  A cliché, I know, but in the circumstances it’s the best I can do.  You’re going to be here quite a while, and it won’t be the most comfortable period of your life, either.  That’s a pity, really, because it’ll be the last bit of your life, too.


  ‘Okay lads, I’ll take it from here.  Off you go.’


  Steps retreated and a door opened and closed.  There was a moment’s silence before Anson got busy.  He removed Terry’s clothes, efficiently cutting off his shirt and jacket, but left the hood and gag on both of them.  Then he too went out.


  Time passed in darkness and fear, made more acute by the urgent pressure building up in Justin’s bladder.  Finally the door opened again.  His hood and gag were removed and he blinked, although the light was dim in the room.  Terry, still hooded, sat a foot or two away from him.  There was a steel mortuary table with restraints in front of them, its present purpose all too obvious.


  Justin looked at Anson, the man who had ruthlessly tortured two Afghan teenagers.  He could have no illusions what the man was planning, and it almost caused his bowels to open.  Anson was dressed in denims as Justin’s supposed dad was going to be, and he looked like the description.  What had been left out was the cold and perfectly self-possessed look in the man’s eyes.


  ‘Hello Justin.  This is a old undertaker’s business, which I’m renting.  It came with some useful stuff.  So Justin, sorry to disappoint you about the family lunch in the pub.  A necessary deception to get Terry into my reach, and I don’t suppose you’ll forgive me, but I’ll have to live with it.


  ‘Are you tellin’ me you’re actually me dad?’


  The man gave a snort of amusement.  ‘What do you think?  Whittaker’s a name I use, and it fitted so nicely with your needs, Justin.  But Anson’s my mother’s name, the one under which I enlisted in the services: Lieutenant J.M. Anson RM, officer and gentleman.’


  ‘If you want me to believe you’re me dad, lemme go, and let Terry go too.’


  ‘Oh I can’t do that!  Too much history.  Too many scores to pay.  No, Terry isn’t leaving here alive, or even in one piece.’


  ‘Then you’ll have to kill me with him.’


  ‘That’s the plan, son, that’s the plan.  I can’t let a witness survive, so you’ll have to die as well, but at least for you it will be quick and uncomplicated.  Not so for Terry here.’  Anson replaced the gag, but not the hood.  ‘And now the fun begins …’


  He replaced the cuffs, cut the ropes, and with impressive strength hauled Terry up across the table, cuffing him underneath so his backside was open and vulnerable.  He removed his own clothes and forcibly entered a squirming Terry, brutally fucking him with evident enjoyment.  Once he had satisfied himself, he took off the hood and gag.  Terry was wild-eyed and in evident pain.


  ‘Just like old times, eh Terry?  You were always a brilliant lay.  Now what am I going to do with this sweet boy of mine?’


  ‘For Chrissake, leave the kid alone!  He’s done nothing to you.’


  ‘Ah yes, but he means a lot to you and it’s clearly mutual, so it just adds to my fun to see how the things I do to you affect him.  It’s great hearing you beg.  Now I’m not quite up to fucking you again, so enjoy this.’  He inserted a black butt plug hard and deep, although its passage was eased somewhat by the recent opening of Terry’s hole and the lubrication of Anson’s semen.  Then he repositioned Terry, cuffing him to the table on his back, spreadeagled and exposed.  ‘I’ll see you later, boys.  Try to get comfortable.  I’ll be back.’


  Terry looked at Justin compassionately.  ‘I’m so sorry, sweet babe, so sorry.’


  ‘Terry, we’re not going to get out of this, are we?’


  ‘No, babe.  Although I wish there was something positive I could tell you, all I can say is that sooner or later it must be over.  God knows what we’ll have to go through before our bodies finally give up, but Anson will have to kill us in the end, and there’s peace after that.’


  ‘This is shit.  My life was so good, and this mega-cunt’s gonna take it from me for no other reason than he’s mad.’


  ‘Get resigned, kid.  It’s a terrible hard thing, but if you resign yourself to whatever horrors he inflicts, they won’t mean so much.’


  ‘You know he claims to be me dad.  He’s lying, isn’t he?’


  There was a long pause as Terry gathered his strength.  ‘I did once see a passport of his in the name of Whittaker, but that’s not an uncommon surname.  His mate Laurie always called him Johnny, which I thought was a code name, but perhaps it may have been his real name after all … Jack can be short for John.  Whether he's really the man your mum was talking about, though, doesn’t seem likely now.’


  ‘Is he … going to, y’know, cut you?’


  ‘Don’t think about it, Justy.  Your own imagination’ll help him torture you.  Concentrate on breathing and saying goodbye to everything you know.  Can I just start by saying goodbye to you, you beautiful boy.  I’ve been so proud of you, as proud as a proper father could be, and I love you so much it hurts.  Watching you triumph over your shite life and transform into the thoughtful, funny and loving boy you are has been such a privilege.  I love you, Justy, you’re the babe of babes, and you’re a thousand times the man Anson is.’


  Tears were streaming down Justin’s face by now.  He couldn’t think of a thing to say.


  It was quite a long time before Anson returned, still naked.  He came up to Justin, bent down and went to kiss him.  Justin turned his face away, until a stinging slap that set off fireworks behind his eyes forced him to take the attention.


  ‘Got no respect for your old man, have you, Justy?’


  ‘Don’t call me that, it’s reserved for people who I care for.  You’re just a lump of shit.  Let Terry go.’


  Anson gave him a considering look.  ‘Your concern for him isn’t going to endear him to me.  He’s got to die after all he’s done to me, and the fact that he’s got your affection is just one more reason to kill him.’


  ‘Go fuck yourself!’ Justin croaked.  Another slap left him with his ears ringing.


  Anson then turned on Terry.  He introduced a trolley containing batteries and wires into the room. and proceeded to hook them up in a sickly imaginative way.  Justin tried to close his ears to the screams and pleas, but they went on and on, for hours.  Terry passed out several times and eventually couldn’t be revived with any ease.  Justin sat stunned as Anson kissed Terry’s drooling mouth.  The room was full of the stink of burning flesh.  Anson left Terry lying there.


  As the hours passed, Justin got more and more thirsty and hungry.  At some time his control over his tortured bladder gave way, and the smell of his piss-soaked trousers added its acrid tang to the atmosphere in the room.


  Terry was still unconscious when the dreaded rattle of the door handle announced yet another session of torture.  Anson appeared, dressed in overalls now, turned on a water source and hosed down Terry’s body.  At last Terry coughed, spluttered and groaned.  His eyes opened.


  ‘Hullo, Terry.  I want you awake for the next bit.’  Anson uncuffed him and simply rolled him on to the floor, where he flopped with a heavy thump and lay unable to move.  Then Anson hauled Justin up from the chair.  He could barely stand, so Anson heaved him bodily on to the table on his back and restrained him.  Anson looked down on the boy with a mad smile, kissed his cheek lightly, and said, ‘Justy, you have been a bad boy.  It’s about time a father took you in hand.  Oh and you’ve wet yourself, so we’d better have these off you.’


  Justin heaved on the table in desperation.  He could guess what was coming next.  A sharp knife slit his clothes and the rags were thrown to one side, leaving him lying naked on the cold metal surface.  Clamps bit on his scrotum, and Anson laughed while throwing the switch.  Pain more intense than Justin could ever have imagined arched his body, taking him to a black place.


  It could not have been long afterwards when he came round, his nostrils full of the smell of his own cooked flesh.  He was shaking uncontrollably.  Anson had disappeared from view.


  There came a dragging sound as Terry was hauled over the floor to a chair.  It was as he was being pulled up that Terry made a superhuman effort and grappled with Anson, seizing him by the throat.  They swayed and staggered across the room where Justin could not see them.  He heard cursing, a clatter as if a tray of instruments had been overturned, and heavy breathing.  Suddenly a male voice cried out in agony.  Justin strained at his bonds, to see with horror a bloodstained Anson rising unsteadily to his feet, a knife in his hand.  He stared round, eyes wide, and focussed triumphantly on Justin.


  At that moment his attention switched to the door.  There came a crash and a detonation as the room filled with smoke and laser lights.  Dark bodies moved in the gloom amid swearing and several flashes.


  Shouting surrounded Justin.  Strong arms released him from his restraints and cradled him gently.  ‘Terry, Terry!’ he shouted, ‘I gotta get to Terry.’  But he was carried out into a passage, stretchered and taken at a run up some stairs to an ambulance.  It raced away screaming into the night, a doctor and paramedics labouring over him as it went.








  Morphine and shock kept Justin from regaining consciousness for twenty-four hours.  When he finally awoke, he found himself in a hospital ward.  A hand was holding his, and he turned his head to see Nathan sitting beside him.  He tried to smile, but only managed a grimace.  ‘Hi, babe,’ he croaked.


  ‘Oh, Justy, I thought I’d lost you!’ and Nathan was sobbing on top of him while Justin patted his head weakly.  Nathan mastered himself and pulled back.  ‘Sorry, Justy.  Hope I didn’t hurt you.’


  ‘Nah.  Everything hurts.  You couldn’t avoid it.  No sex for weeks, I’d guess.’  He paused as his mind sent image after image pulsing back into his head.  He sat up abruptly.  ‘Terry!  Where’s Terry?’


  ‘Easy, my babe!  He’s here.  He’s in intensive care.  It’s not good, but he’s alive.’


  ‘Thank God.  Oh, he’s such a hero!  Christ, what he went through!  What he did!  And that fucker Anson?’


  ‘Dead.  They shot him as they burst in.  They were taking no risks.  Six in the head, a copper told me.’


  ‘Good.  Nate, I’ve decided to believe in religion, just so I know the evil bastard is in hell where he needs to be.  But Terry, what’s happened to him?’


  ‘Anson did terrible things to him … well, you know that … and knifed him in the gut, deliberately slashed him wide open.  But the doctors got to him in time.  He was in theatre for fourteen hours.  They’ve stitched him up.  He’s lost some bowel, and the electrical torture meant he’s lost a testicle too.  He’s got third degree burns over parts of his body.  They’ve done grafts.’


  Justin lay back appalled.  ‘If they’d come any later, I’d have been much the same.  Christ, my balls ache!’


  Nathan looked as though he was going to vomit.  He stood up abruptly and walked to the window.  It was night time outside.


  ‘What day is it, Nate?’


  ‘It’s Wednesday.  He had you from Sunday to early Tuesday morning.’


  ‘How in hell did you find us?’


  Nathan looked troubled.  ‘It’s a long story, babe, and some of it will be difficult to take, so if you don’t mind I’ll leave it for a while.  Andy said to keep it quiet and not to tell you.’


  ‘Where is …?’


  But his question was answered by the arrival of Andy and Matt themselves.  Andy dripped tears all over him and kissed him.  Matt just sat next to him, gave him a tender embrace and held his hand.  Justin tried to tell them how he was feeling.  They in turn had more news of Terry, who had been stabilised but would be kept sedated for days yet.


  ‘Ramon’s with him, willing him to pull through.  He’s strong, Justy.’


  ‘Tell me about it.  His last effort to take Anson down was superhuman.  He’s like a hero of legend.  I love him so much.’


  ‘We all do, Justy,’ agreed Andy.  ‘We owe him far more than we can ever repay.  There’s talk of the government giving him an award of some sort, someone said it was the George Medal.’




  ‘Yes, kid?’


  ‘When I was strapped to that chair, waiting for a horrible death …’


  ‘… please, Justy.’


  ‘Hear me out.  I kept running over the regrets I had about my life.  The biggest one was that I refused to let you and Matt adopt me.  I wanna put that right.  I want to be your kid for good and all.  I wanna wipe out the memory of that monster who claimed to be my dad and was gonna kill me.’


  Andy smiled hugely at him.  ‘You sure?’


  ‘Yes, dad.’


  Andy started at the application of the term to him, then smiled through the tears.  ‘Let’s do it, son.  I kept the paperwork somewhere.  So the world gets a new Peacher boy.’


  ‘A Peacher-White, I think.’


  ‘Of course.  You’re our kid alright.  You’ll do exactly what you want and not listen to us at all.’








  The press was alight.  The kidnapping had made headline news across the world.  Therefore, when Justin left the hospital three days later, he was besieged by a mob of cameramen and reporters wanting to know all the gory details.  Having foreseen just such a possibility, Andy had called upon his lawyers to run interference and issue statements.  No one got near Justin, who was whisked directly to a plane and flown out with Nathan and his adoptive parents to the Peacher yacht, then moored off Nice.


  Richard Peacher was waiting as the helicopter landed, and shook Justin’s hand warmly.  ‘So, my boy, it appears I’m a grandfather at last.’


  Justin looked at him seriously.  ‘Only if you want to be, sir.’


  ‘Son, I doubt if I could be prouder of any grandson of my own blood than I am of you.  It’s an honour for us to have you in the family, and you can use my name with my blessing.’


  ‘Thank you, sir.  You don’t know what that means to me.’


  ‘Come into the main lounge.   I flew over a lot of your friends, who’ve been waiting for you to get here.  It’s about time for someone to explain to me – as much as to you – what really happened that Sunday.’


  Justin followed his new grandfather into the lounge, to find it full of his favourite people.  What surprised him was the large Rothenian contingent, with Fritz, Oskar, Will and Felip sitting together.  They grinned at him, and Fritz waved cheekily.  Justin was also startled to see Peter Peacher there.  ‘Hey, Uncle Pete.  Shouldn’t you be in Yale or something?’


  Peter came over, hugged and kissed him, then held him by both hands and told him how sorry he was at what had happened.


  ‘Thanks, Pete.  What … no Tim?’


  A spasm crossed Peter’s face.  ‘No.  No Tim.  You won’t be seeing him again.’


  Matt began organising people through some double doors into a board room.  Everyone took seats randomly except for Justin, who was ushered to the top of the table.  Andy sat on one side of him, Nathan on the other.  ‘Justy, we waited to tell you the full story till we could get Fritz and Oskar here.  You’ll know why soon enough.  So, where do we start?  Sunday we saw you and Terry off to what we thought would be a meeting with your long-lost father in Ealing.  Just after midday we had a call from Strelzen.  It was Oskar, who had better continue the explanation.’


  Oskar looked at him with a smile.  ‘Mine is – as you know, Justy – an old family, going right back to the early middle ages.  Some strange tales are told of it, strange even for my homeland, a place of many uncanny stories.  This one began long ago, in the wars between the Hussites and the last Rothenian duke, Waclaw III, when a Bohemian army besieged the old castle at Tarlenheim.  The count then was my ancestor Jerzy Cerescu … I think you would call him “Black George”.  I could tell you how he got his name, but it would put you off your dinner.


  ‘So there was the Bohemian army camped in the river meadows round our castle, with Count Jerzy inside, feeling pretty good.  He had plenty of food, and the old castle of Tarlenheim was very much … what do you call a castle that cannot be taken, Will?’


  Will stirred.  ‘I think you mean impregnable.’


  ‘Yes, impregnable.  Not much chance for the Bohemians, who were becoming desperate.  Winter was closing in and they still had to get past our castle to penetrate the Husbrau region and sack Modenehem.  So they decided to break the castle’s spirit.  They rounded up the locals and began executing them quite horribly, one by one.  And of course they always killed friends or relatives of the defenders.  They also paraded the next day’s victim before the walls in order to prolong the agony … and people wonder why Rothenians and Czechs do not get on.


  ‘Now it so happened that on the seventh day they paraded a young woman as the next victim.  And it also happened that her father was in the garrison.  He saw the horror awaiting her and broke down.  On guard duty that night, he slipped out of the castle, and arranged with the Bohemians that he would secretly open a postern gate to them the following night, if they would spare his daughter.


  ‘Count Jerzy was a grim man, who always lined up the garrison to watch the torture and execution of the victims – to remind them, he said, why they were fighting such animals, and to “do honour,” as he also said, to the sufferings of a compatriot.  That day his keen sight noted that there had been a change of victim; a dark-haired young woman was killed and not a blonde.  He immediately suspected something.


  ‘Now another thing about the count was that his mother had been a lady aristocrat from the Byzantine Empire, a granddaughter of the empress Theophania, of whom strange tales are told: that she was a seer and a sorceress and other such things.  Certainly she had foreseen her own death and made many other predictions that had come true, the way these prophecies do, with people not realising the truth of them till after the event.  The bishop of Modenheim was a little reluctant to bury her in his cathedral as a result.


  ‘Nothing strange had manifested itself in the count’s life until then, but that night his mother’s blood boiled up in his veins, as we say in Rothenia.  While he nervously paced the walls expecting treachery, he realised he was being followed by a hooded figure in a grey cloak, which he could see out of the corner of his eye.  When he turned to confront it, however, it was gone.  No one else could see it.  Then he knew it was a spectral manifestation of power and purpose, and indeed he feared it was a prophecy of his own death that night.  Yet as he paced the parapets he noticed a strange thing: the figure was interested in others, not him.  He observed the figure pause at each sentry, nod slowly at him, and pass by.  But when the count came to the postern gate where the traitor stood guard, the spectre halted and this time threw back its hood, revealing a gaunt and terrible face.  It pointed at the traitor, nodded to the count and was gone.


  ‘Being a decisive man, Count Jerzy had the guard arrested.  On being questioned with instruments, the guard soon broke down and confessed his complicity.  The count then prepared an ambush for the Bohemians.  When they penetrated the defences, they found themselves trapped between bowmen and doused with boiling liquids.  Hundreds of them died, and the siege was raised.’


  ‘Wow,’ exclaimed Nathan, ‘and the father and daughter?’


  ‘Rothenian tales rarely have happy endings, Nathan.  The count hung the father.  The Bohemians butchered the girl in retaliation for their humiliation.


  ‘The grey spectre has appeared several other times in the history of my family.  The Field Marshal Prince of Tarlenheim, who fought for the Empire in the Seven Years War, received a visit from it in his tent on campaign in Bavaria in 1755.  He was led out into the dark in time to detect a night attack on his position by French grenadiers, who would have killed him.


  ‘I would set less belief in this story were it not that my own father, while interned in a labour camp under the Communists as a young man, was once visited by the spectre.  It seemed several agents provocateurs had been put in the camp to detect conspiracy.  He woke in the deep quiet of a moonlit night to find a gaunt, hooded figure pacing the barrack room.  It paused at each bunk, nodded and continued until it stopped at the one next to his.  There it pointed at the bunk’s occupant, a young man with whom my father had got very friendly, and dropped its hood.  My father went pale with the dread of that moment as he told me the story when I was a boy.  With the moonlight full on it, he could see that it was white and fleshless, he said, with the true horror of treachery etched upon its visage.  And indeed my father, knowing the significance of the vision, would not again confide in that young man, who betrayed several others in the camp to the secret police and to their deaths.’


  Matt stirred, thanked Oskar and looked at Justin.  ‘The next bit of the story belongs to His Serene Highness.  Fritzy, will you continue?’


  Fritz looked suddenly far too serious for a young teenager, yet he spoke up in his tenor voice as cool and confident as ever.  ‘Do you remember, Justy, the day we said goodbye in the hall of the Tarlenheim palace in Strelzen?  I came running down the stairs and gave you all the traditional blessing.  As I was going along the line and kissing you, I realised that something very odd was happening.  A misty, grey-hooded figure was standing behind each of you as I did it, and bowed toward me as I kissed you.  I tried to ignore it – I thought I was seeing things – but it became less misty at each kiss.  And when I came to the last person, it was as clear as if it were one of you.  In ragged grey sacking it was, and when I went to kiss the last of you, it dropped its hood and revealed its white face and dead black eyes.  It held its shrouded hand over that man’s head, and was gone.’


  ‘I remember now, but the last of us was … Tim.  My God.  You think …?’


  ‘Oskar took me aside after you went, and I told him what I thought I had seen.  Then he recounted the legend of the spectre and we discussed what to do.  But that was not the end of things.  The spectre was seen walking in the palace daily from then on, always at midday, and not just by me.  Oskar saw it too.’


  Oskar picked up the thread.  ‘It was the Sunday and by that time I was always with Fritzku at noon, knowing there might be a visitation.  We were in the breakfast room, and as the clock was striking the hour the thing was there with us again.  That day it did not just appear and stalk away, it looked full at us and dropped its hood.  I saw the white face too, as my father had done before me.  It was I think a personification of betrayal … in the view of Ernst Tokvats, one of our great writers, the worst of all sins.  In the countenance of that phantom you could see everything that was repulsive in the act of treachery.  I have to tell you I have resolved in future to attend mass and confession more regularly.’


  Fritz added, ‘That last time – for it has not appeared again – the thing did not just look at us.  It pointed with its swathed arm at the clock in the breakfast room.  That gesture told us the betrayal had already happened, it had happened in England, and Tim had been responsible for it in some way.’


  Oskar nodded.  ‘I immediately put through a call to Terry, but there was no answer even on his priority number.  Then I contacted Matt, to whom I tried to explain everything as logically and convincingly as I could.  He listened, and it is now to him to take up the story.’


  Matt looked around the table.  ‘It was a weird call to take, but I couldn’t regard it as a hoax.  Oskar is as sane and practical a man as I have ever met.  Besides, in the mood the Highgate house was in, I was expecting some imminent disaster.  So I got Jenna, who was by then quite alarmed not to have received Terry’s periodic check-in call.  She went looking for Tim and found him pacing in the garden.  He must have read something in her eyes, because he refused her polite request to come and talk to us in the lounge.  At that point, as Jenna does, she became less polite, and he accompanied her anyway.


  ‘So there we were and there he was, not knowing how to proceed.  Tim is not a criminal, however, and was very on edge, while Jenna is an experienced and clever interrogator.  It was an education to watch her.  She began by gently questioning him about his movements since he had been in London, and anyone who had approached him about us and our activities.  He swore he’d had no such contact.  Then she gave a pretty detailed description of Anson and asked if he recognised it.  By then he was sweating, but he claimed he’d never seen the man.  She coolly told him that her information was otherwise, that she knew of several meetings.  Then she stunned me: “So how was Anson blackmailing you, Tim?” she asked out of the blue.


  ‘He denied it, but he was flushed and panicking.  Every time he denied it, she told him he was lying, that she could smell the lies on him, and that his only chance to avoid charges of conspiracy to murder was to talk then and there.  And he talked.


  ‘He was shaking and his voice was inaudible at times, but it had all begun on a wild night in New York when Tim had been seduced in a seedy club in Greenwich Village by an underage boy prostitute.  There were pictures and threats and it soon became clear that there was a mastermind behind it.  Tim began feeding Peacher information to his contact, either that or face exposure, the end of his university career and a period in incarceration.  Anson contacted him directly for the first time in Strelzen, not just pumping him for information but forcing him into some pretty demeaning sex acts too.  It was through Tim that Anson had daily information on our movements, so he could set up the kidnapping of Terry.’


  Justin butted in at that point.  ‘So, his stringing along about being me father, he must have begun that from prison.’


  Matt nodded.  ‘Yes, he was a clever man.  He spotted the story in Gay Universe and took a chance.  I don’t believe he was your father, Justy.  I’m even willing to arrange for a DNA test on his corpse to clear that nightmare out of your life.’


  ‘No wonder there were days between his replies and my questions.  But how did he know about me mam and stuff?’


  ‘He had agents, contacts and money.  I’m sure they located your mum’s friends and bribed them to give all sorts of details of her early life and boyfriends.  How sure are you that your mother wouldn’t have told her drinking pals what she told you in hospital?’


  ‘Can’t know for certain, can I?  Me poor mam.’


  ‘So Anson knew where you’d be at midday that Sunday, and Tim let him know it would be just you and Terry.  Having already rented his torture chamber in Uxbridge, all he needed was his victims.  You walked right into his ambush.’


  ‘But how did the police find us?  Don’t tell me the spectre turned up again.’


  ‘No Justy, that was the one good thing Tim was able to do for us.  He had Anson’s mobile number, and once he gave it to us, we were able to pass it on to Jenna’s contacts in the Met and MI5.  Within two hours they had a GPS fix on each location the mobile had called from during the past month.  It took a while, but eventually the police identified several premises he regularly used.  They found you in Uxbridge on the Monday night, and a SWAT team took Anson out, a process less dangerous because Terry was trying to save you and kill him at the time.’


  ‘What’s happened to Tim?’


  ‘On bail, awaiting trial for conspiracy,’ put in Peter


  ‘That’s not fair, Pete’ objected Justin, looking hard at Peter.  ‘He was a victim too.’


  ‘I suppose he was, although I’m convinced he could have handled the whole thing better if only his character hadn’t been so weak.  I’m not mad at him anymore, though.  I feel sorry for him.  I’ll even help him if I can, but whatever there was between us is over now.  I agree with Oskar that betrayal’s the worst thing you can do.  Tim betrayed me in more ways than one.’


  ‘Whaddya mean?’ said Justin.


  Peter looked uncomfortable with his father in the room but went on, ‘Tim had been getting increasingly promiscuous and careless.  I don’t know where he got them or when, but he picked up gonorrhoea and chlamydia and passed them on to me, the fool.  So now I’m under medical supervision until I get rid of them.’


  Richard Peacher looked more than a little stern at this.


  ‘Yes, dad, I’m sorry.  I told you I’d be careful when I came out, but I guess I chose the wrong partner.’  When he saw how concerned his father was, he added, ‘It’ll be okay, dad, they’re curable.  I’ll live to choose the wrong man again.’


  Richard Peacher stared stonily down the table.  ‘At least the man Anson, or Whittaker, or whoever he was will never trouble us again.  I’m sorry for you, Justin, to have to live with the memories he’s given you.  But you’ll recover, I know, and you’ve got new parents who love you very much.  Sylvia is in London, and she tells me that Terry is conscious again and recovering, though whether he will want to continue in his old job I rather doubt.  As long as he’s still with us, I could ask no more than that.  He’s swearing he’ll be in Virginia to begin the new semester with you, son.  When are you off?’


  ‘At the weekend, dad,’ said Andy.  ‘Justy and his Nathan need to get back to Highgate too.  Justy’s starting college … going to school voluntarily for the first time in his life.’


  ‘Then let’s enjoy what time we have together, friends and family.’