Michael Arram







  ‘Hey!’ hissed a voice behind Damien, who was shouldering his pack and waving goodbye to his dad’s SUV as it accelerated up the hill to Bernenstejnegasse.


  ‘Oh!  ‘Lo Reggie.’


  ‘Anatole’s after you.’


  Damien gave a fierce little grin.  ‘Yuh?  Better hope he finds me then.  Could do wiv the laff.’


  ‘No.  It’s not funny!  He’s talked some Year 6 Russian guys into taking you out.  They’re waiting for you in the yard.  They’re real big.’


  Damien stood calculating the situation for a moment.  He stared through Reggie, who was noticeably trembling.


  Reggie stuttered out, ‘I’m with you, Damien.  If they come for you, I’ll help, honest.’


  Damien came back into focus, caught his friend’s eye and gave him a warm smile very different from his usual range of expressions.  ‘Yuh’d do that?  Yer a real mate then, Reggie.’  He put his arm protectively round the shoulder of the American boy.


  Reggie was comforted, but continued anxiously, ‘What you gonna do?  We can get into the school another way.  We can sneak through the teacher’s entrance and say we’re on an errand.’


  ‘Nope, Reggie.  The buggers’ll catch us sooner or later.  We goes in through the front gate.’


  ‘You’re not scared?’


  Damien’s fierce expression was on his lips again.  ‘Iss not me who needs to be scared.’


  ‘Huh?  Shit!  You got a knife or something?’


  ‘Nuh.  Doan’ go in for crap like that.  Dad says I gotta use me initiative like.  Okay.  Stay behind me, Reggie.  Kick any fooker that goes down.  Between the legs is good … oh, unless iss a girl, ’course.’


  The small and determined figure of Damien Macavoy shouldered through the gate amid the crowd of incoming pupils.  A slight scowl was on his face, and his bright blue eyes were darting round like a street fighter’s.


  ‘Hey!  You!  English boy!’  Two large shaven-headed thugs were sneering down at the group.  They focussed on Damien.


  Anatole appeared behind the two.  ‘That’s him.  He’s the little scum that tripped me up.’


  Damien looked small and vulnerable, squinting up at the Russians like Jack facing a couple of giants at the top of the beanstalk.  Then he gave an abrupt, cheeky grin straight in their faces.  ‘Morning, fookers!’  With that he was off, too quickly for the bigger lads to catch him readily.


  Damien heard the two Year 6 toughs gathering speed behind him, the scuff and thump of their boots heavy on the tarmac.  Sprinting ahead of them, he set the cool brain he had inherited from his father to ticking through options while he searched for something in the side pocket of his bag.  His hand closed on a cool, metallic object the instant he shot through an open double door.


  He paused, looked behind and kicked out the wedge as the two older boys closed on him.  One leaf of the glass door swung to.  Without slowing down the leading pursuer dodged through it, but it delayed his mate, just the way Damien had calculated.  The first boy’s glare of triumph as he bore down on Damien turned briefly into puzzlement when a puff of mist squirted into his face from the small aerosol Damien was holding.  Then he was on the floor, squirming and squealing, tears blinding his eyes.


  The second boy caught up, looking open-mouthed down at his friend.  ‘What you done …?’ he began.  He didn’t get much further before a kick from a leaping Damien slammed into his left knee and a flurry of small fists connected with his face in quite precise and painful ways.


  ‘Lemme … geroff!  No!’  Then the second boy was limping back through the door, crying.  The large group of their mates waiting outside to stare in perverse fascination at what might be left after the two bigger boys finished with Damien instead saw a Year 6 bully lurching out into the yard in tears while Damien planted a final kick smack into his backside.


  Damien paused, thrust his hands into his jeans pockets and looked round in triumph.  One or two of the watchers flinched when the satanic grin swept over them.  ‘T’other fooker’s inside, woss left of him.  Now fook off the lot of yer.’  And he strutted straight through the crowd, which parted for him hastily.


  In his wake trotted a bewildered and amazed Reggie.  ‘What did you do?’ he asked breathlessly.


  ‘Pepper spray.  I took it out of me dad’s arsenal.  I thought it might be useful.  Hope the cunt isn’t asthmatic.’








  Danny and Gus lay together on Gus’s narrow bed, a rough blanket uncomfortable under their sweaty bodies.  Danny sighed.  ‘We’ve not got the most comfortable of rooms, have we?’


  Gus kissed the back of his neck.  ‘We decided to live like Rothenian students, Danny.  That means staying in these dormitory blocks for the first year.’


  ‘I knew they were Spartan, but even so …’


  ‘Yes.  Our Rothenian colleagues at least understood that they had to bring their home comforts with them.  I can’t quite acquit the university authorities of deliberate evasion in their prospectuses.  They more or less claimed that every student room looked like the one in the brochure, while failing to point out that the photograph showed part of a new block reserved for disabled students who needed en-suite accommodation.’


  ‘Yeah, well, we can have a brief taste of Soviet-era living till the Christmas vac, and then return with the stuff we need … like a heating fan or three, microwave, proper bedding, maybe even a decent mattress.  This one’s like sleeping on a bag packed with cobblestones.’


  ‘It’s probably very good for my back.’


  Danny turned round and kissed his lover.  ‘You’re amazing, Gussie.  You always look on the positive side.  You keep me chirpy.’




  ‘Big blond god of mine.  Do me again.’


  They nuzzled, giggled and very soon were intently engaged in one of the cheapest yet most profound of student pleasures.  Another cheap and popular student activity followed when they subsided into sleep.  They didn’t awake until late afternoon.


  Danny sniffed himself, frowned and observed, ‘I’m a mess, babe.  I need a shower.  Giss a towel and I’ll have a quick one.’


  Gus yawned and stretched.  ‘I’ll use the sink.  We need to be off to work in half an hour.  Do you think it’s going alright?’


  Danny shrugged, then laughed in a carefree way which Gus had not heard for a while.  ‘We survived the first night.  Now I know the Rothenian, Czech and German names of all the major drinks served on the Wejg.  My education is advancing.’


  Gus smiled at Danny’s broad, muscular back as his lover left the room.  ‘Bless Terry O’Brien,’ he murmured.








  Magarethe, Justin’s PA, coughed gently as she entered his office.  Justin looked up from his laptop.  ‘Problems, Maggie?’


  ‘No, sir.  Mr Peter Peacher wonders if you’ll join him for lunch.’


  ‘Uncle Pete?  Sure.  Fix a time.  Does he wanna go off site?’


  ‘I’ll check and be back to you with the details.  Thank you, sir.’


  Justin put his hands behind his perfectly styled head and stretched.  He ticked off in his mind the list of issues he would like to address with Peter.  He imagined it would be a business lunch and regretted it a little.  There was a wild streak in Peter Peacher which paralleled a similar and broader streak in Justin’s personality.  He half hoped that one day he and Peter might end up on the Wejg together, maybe without Nathan and Oskar, just two twenty-something gays on the loose looking for a good time.  But the longer this job went on, the less likely it seemed that his fantasy would be realized.


  Somewhere along the road, life and responsibility had caught up with Justin Peacher-White.  Was it when he fell in love with Nathan?  When he accepted the high-profile job with O’Brien Associates?  Or was it when he found his son and became caught up in the bewildering world of fatherhood?


  There was no use resenting it, because Justin loved his life, his Nathan and his Damien.  It was just that the champagne fizz had gone out of everything lately.  Certainly there was a part of him which was happy to be challenged by high-level executive decisions on which billions of dollars might rest.  He loved observing people and constructing teams.  He could set goals and harry subordinates till those goals were achieved.  He could do all such things superbly well.  He just wished he didn’t feel as though the party had gone elsewhere and left him behind.  Was he having a mid-life crisis at twenty-five?


  He reached for the phone and put through a call.  ‘Dad?’


  ‘Justy?’  Andy Peacher, Peter’s elder brother and Justin’s adoptive father, was yawning.


  ‘You still in bed?’


  ‘Mmm.  Matt and I had a late night – more of an early morning really – with Ben and Phil at the club.  We hit the wine a bit.  Phil’s just published his Dressner book and we’d been to the launch at the Guildhall.  It was a media scrum.  Phil was the man of the moment.  Even Sky News was there.  You’d have loved it.’


  ‘Wish I’d been there.’


  ‘I wish we’d remembered to ask you.  But aren’t you busy with the new job?  And how’s my grandson?’


  ‘Pacifying his new school like a sheriff in a Western cattle town.’


  ‘Oh … is it getting bloody?’


  ‘Three down so far, according to this morning’s complaint from the school.  He was set on by two older boys.’


  ‘Anything left of them?’


  ‘Their parents are complaining like fuck.  But as I told the principal, I can’t believe iss not me complaining that the school is so poorly run it allows gangs of bigger kids to set on the juniors.  I suggested maybe I might have cause of serious complaint to the school trustees.  He got very humble and apologetic.’


  ‘Does this mean a grounding for poor Damien?’


  ‘Not this time.  He wuz in no way to blame.  I told him to issue invites to all of Year 4 for a big pool party this weekend.  He’s established hisself as king of his year.  Now he needs to win the hearts of his subjects.  Nate’s goin’ to town – bouncy castle, barbecue, disco and stuff.  He’s gonna get Danny and Gussie to come and help wiv the games and mind the kids in the pool.  It’ll be a heck of a busy Saturday.  The weather looks good, too.’


  ‘It’s always good in Strelzen.  I wish Matt had got himself sorted about buying a place there, or somewhere in the Starel valley.  He said he would and then never got round to it.  Tell you what, why don’t you ask Nate if he’d be willing to scout something out for us?  You and he could use it as a country retreat too.’


  ‘Really?  What a great idea, dad!  Yeah!  Though if yer asks Nate to do it, it’ll be the garden that he looks at, not the amenities and the plumbing.’


  ‘Oh, I don’t mind that.  No, I am serious.  This is a thing Matt and I have talked about for years.  I’ll ring Nate myself.  Hear that, Matt?’


  There was a muffled expostulation, as if from deep within a duvet.  Andy’s voice returned.  ‘Matt agrees.’




  Andy went quiet for a moment.  ‘Was there anything else?’


  Justin hesitated.  ‘No, dad.  I jess needed to hear yer voice.’


  ‘Love you, Justy.  Matt loves you too.’


  ‘I know that.  Bye, dads.’  He put the phone down.


  His day had just improved.  He had touched base with the men who knew him best and loved him unconditionally, the two who had changed his life infinitely for the better.  Suddenly, he did not feel too bad at all.  In the bright mirror of his fathers’ love for him, he saw how far he had grown, and what he had going for him.  There was too much to like about his life.








  Gus and Danny arrived for work promptly.  Wulf Sczneczen greeted the two with a raised eyebrow as they came in from the teeming, sunlit Wejg holding hands.  He returned his attention to the skinny teenage boy he was hanging over, one of the Slovak or Turkish hustlers who were just respectable and clean enough to be allowed in off the street, rather than hanging around the doorways looking for customers.  This one was paid a little money to clear tables.  If he picked up men from time to time while doing so, Wulf seemed to turn a blind eye.  Danny wondered what Davey Skipper would say if he knew about it.


  Pavel was already robed up.  His pale face glowed with a smile when Danny walked upstairs to join him at the sink and dry the glasses he was washing.


  ‘You gotta boyfriend, Paul?’ Danny asked.


  ‘Er … I did till recently.  He went back home to Russia.’




  ‘It’s okay, actually, I’m getting used to it.  I just wish I could resent being abandoned by him more.  I would like what you have going with August.  How did you two hook up?’


  Danny smiled.  This was his favourite story.  It lasted till opening time, and beyond.  He carried on while they served the slowly filling bar.  Even Wednesdays were busy on the Wejg, and soon there was a dense crowd along the counter.  Danny had his hands full registering orders in four languages, and trying to keep the smile on his face.


  As the evening progressed, Danny noticed how Pavel got interest from the customers.  He wasn’t flirtatious by any means, but his shy expression and pretty face caused men to home in on him.  If the place had been less busy, Danny had no doubt Pavel would have been hit on seriously.  Danny himself was continually drawn to Pavel’s graceful figure and movements.  The slim body beneath the silken robe that clung to it rather revealingly was irresistible to Danny’s gaze.


  The second time he caught Pavel’s eye he pulled himself together.  What was going on here?  Danny puzzled it through as he was serving the bar.  No other man had ever stirred him sexually, not even Justin, who everybody said was hot stuff.  Danny regarded himself as nothing special physically, and was still half surprised that a golden god like Gus could be so much in love with him.  Perhaps his innate modesty had left him diffident about contact with other gay boys.


  Danny had had plenty of chances to check out the bodies and packages of his many good-looking young mates in rugby changing rooms.  But somehow – apart from the normal curiosity about the shape of other males’ dicks – Danny had always managed to keep his eyes from wandering.


  Pavel, however, was a different case.  Danny’s gaze kept straying and catching the boy’s features: the light wisps of hair on his neck, the handsome curve of his jaw, the light dust of boyish freckles across his wide Slavic cheekbones, the dark, long lashes and the uncanny green eyes.  Danny erected hard and continually whenever they were close.


  Danny’s sexual imagination was struggling to get away from him.  He saw himself impaling Pavel beneath him as the other boy groaned and writhed, legs clamped around Danny’s waist.  He wanted to bury his face between those small, pert buttocks and force his tongue into the dark centre of Pavel’s most intimate parts.


  ‘Bit wild tonight!’


  The unexpected exclamation in Danny’s ear gave him a guilty start.  ‘What?’


  Pavel leaned closer to cut through the bar hubbub.  ‘I said, wild.  Those German boys over there are supping GHB.  Look at the way they’re goofing at each other.’


  Even boys from rural Suffolk knew the signs.  Danny nodded soberly.  ‘There go the bar profits.’


  ‘There are worse things, I suppose.  Oops, customers!’


  Danny returned determinedly to his job, resisting the pull of his eyes towards his Russian friend.


  When their shifts ended at midnight, Danny signed off with Pavel and Gus.  As they were changing back into their street clothes, the Russian looked a question.  ‘Well, how about Liberation?’


  Gus began to say something, then paused and glanced at his partner.  It appeared as though it was up to Danny, who could read Gus – though perhaps not as well as Gus could read him.  Danny knew Gus was not going to deprive him of some well-earned fun if he wanted it.  They had already spoken about this, and Gus had been at pains to indicate that he was not as averse to clubbing as some people might think, especially if Danny was there with him.


  Danny nodded.  ‘Why not?  Just for an hour or three.  This is supposed to be the hottest spot in Central Europe, and here we are.  Let’s do it.  Davey Skipper may be there.’  He added that last observation as an encouragement to Gus, if he was feeling nervous about where they were going.


  They emerged from Bar Melmoth and plunged into the press of bodies surging up and down the Wejg.  Gusts of music buffeted them as they passed open doorways.  Coloured spotlights dazzled their eyes.  They were already used to the Wejg hustlers, who for their part placed the boys’ faces as club staff and ignored them.


  The queue for Liberation spread nearly two blocks south of Rodolferplaz.  When Gus went to join the end of the line, Pavel and Danny grinned and grabbed an arm each, pulling Gus protesting up the Wejg.


  ‘But surely we should be joining the queue.  These poor men will be really upset if we jump the line.’


  ‘No Gussie, this is Clubland, it doesn’t work like that.’




  ‘No darling.  It’s who you know.’


  ‘Whom one knows?  But we don’t know anyone.’


  ‘Course we do.’


  They reached the head of the queue, where Jerzy’s bouncers stood in a bullet-headed squad, looking like a clip of ammunition and just as mean.  Brass posts and crimson ropes blocked the way into Liberation.  Jerzy himself was scrutinising each group as it approached.  To Danny’s impish delight, a handful of straight Rodolfer students – including some of those who had humiliated him in the bar in his first night at the university – reached the rope as he breezed up.


  Jerzy was not impressed with the students.  ‘You’re never gay,’ he snarled.  ‘You got as much style as Donald fucking Trump.’


  One of them, a guy called Kristof, blustered, ‘But, er … I thought, I mean, surely straights are allowed in here.’


  ‘Yeah, but they gotta look good and you look like shit.’


  Danny, Gus and Pavel brushed by them at that point.  Though he did not crack a smile, Jerzy nodded to his men and the rope disappeared when Danny came near.  Danny and Pavel gave Jerzy five as they passed through into the blue-lit foyer, although Gus just looked puzzled at the proferred hand.


  Danny glanced back over his shoulder.  With a smirk he shouted in his improving Rothenian, ‘I’ll leave a hrodvast for you at the bar, Kristof!’ and laughed as they went in.








  Prema hid the two flash drives inside the flat pillow of his sleeping mat.  Lying out on the aromatic sandalwood floor, his robe pulled around him, he continually felt for them, more to be sure they were still safe than anything.


  It was dark in the dormitory room, with just the dim light of a hanging lamp gleaming in front of an image of the Buddha.  The other monks were huddled and asleep.  Only Dravadam was absent.  Prema missed his friend’s rumbling snore, which he found somehow comforting, a stabilising bass note in his daily life pattern.  But Dravvie was servicing the Lady Benefactor that night.


  Vedayah always slept next to Prema, who turned in the dim light to catch the familiar planes and angles of his lover’s handsome face, which seemed to be smiling in sleep.  Vedayah was a mystery to Prema: endlessly enterprising, fearless and so very sexy.  Yet at the same time Vedayah was deeply committed to his studies in Vedanta and punctilious in his religious observance.


  That day it had not been possible to view the stolen contents of the flash drives, and it didn’t seem likely to be any more possible tomorrow.  The Lady Benefactor would be with them for only two more days.  If they were to make the most of another chance at her laptop, they needed to look over what they already had.


  Prema eventually dozed.  He awoke to Vedayah’s breath on his cheek and a gentle shake of his shoulder.


  Vedayah’s hand capped his mouth.  ‘I’ve got the drives.  Follow me, babe.’


  Vedayah was naked, having left his dark robe heaped on his sleeping mat the way the monks did when they went to the toilet in the night.

  Prema did the same and padded as quietly as he could behind the pale figure of his lover.  Vedayah led him swiftly to the abbot’s study and pushed the unlocked door open.  The abbot’s computer was still on, the screensaver idling through its motions and dimly lighting the dark room.


  In a strong whisper, Vedayah told Prema to open up the drives.


  Prema felt bound to remonstrate.  ‘This is too dangerous, Chris.’


  ‘We’re running out of time for caution, babe.  Now snap to it.  Dawn’s still two hours off, and I’m fucking freezing standing here.  My dick’s shrivelled away to nothing.’


  Prema permitted himself a grin.  ‘Not nothing, Chris, not even now.’  There was a giggle and a light slap on the back of Prema’s shaved head.


  He did as he was told.  Vedayah peered tensely at the screen over Prema’s shoulder,  the two young men scanning the last few weeks of the Lady Benefactor’s outbox with deep concentration.  Finally Vedayah said, ‘Okay, and now the inbox, but only selected correspondents.’  He listed what he wanted to see.  To Prema, it seemed that Vedayah knew exactly what he was looking for.


  ‘You making sense of this?’


  ‘Think so, baby.  Have we got time to look at the files you copied?’


  ‘Might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb.’


  But there was too much to make sense of and eventually Vedayah called a halt.  ‘Shut it down, Mal.  Let’s get back to bed.  I’ve got some thinking to do, and a bit of research if we can get into the library tomorrow.’


  ‘Research about what?’


  ‘A family called Peacher, babe.’