THE GREEN SIDE
Justin had no time to consider a plan. The son he loved was in the room below with three armed mercenaries. A father could do no other than he did. He dropped catlike down the chimney and landed on the empty hearth, gun at the ready.
He took it all in quickly. Damien was standing in a box, where perhaps he had been hiding. The lid had fallen back and he had his hands in the air as three startled mercenaries stared at him, only two of them with guns in their hands. When they heard Justin land, they abruptly shifted their aim in his direction.
‘Drop yer guns!’ he yelled, hoping they understood English.
They may have done, but they didn’t drop their weapons. It was a standoff. Justin did not want to let loose and the mercenaries were clearly irresolute in the face of his surprise appearance.
The stalemate couldn’t go on. The third thug, who had been tinkering with what Justin took to be the bomb, began deliberately reaching for his gun, which he had put down beside him.
‘Watch out, dad!’ Damien shouted. One of the mercenaries wavered in his aim between Justin and Damien.
It was as Justin was taking the decision to fire that a new factor intruded. A thutter of rotors and whine of engines announced the approach of a large helicopter, whose dark shape blocked off the sunlight in the western windows as it settled into the great court.
Damien smirked at their adversaries. ‘Time to give up, fookers!’
Just then the roaring of infantry APCs filled the castle as the Fusiliers began to arrive. With that the three men’s resolution crumbled. Dropping their weapons with a clatter, they mutely put their hands on their heads.
‘Pick up the guns, babe.’
‘Sure, dad. By the way, anyone tell yer that yer looks like Julius Caesar? What happened?’
Another joker, Justin groaned to himself. ‘Long story, sweetheart.’ Looking to change the subject, he commented, ‘That’ll be Uncle Rudi in the helicopter. And doan’ you fink for a minute of keeping them guns ter play wiv, either!’
Justin smiled down at his offspring, who was clearly enjoying himself very much. ‘You bin good, Daimey?’
‘I bin foo … great, dad. But iss better now yer back.’
‘Missed yer too, sweetheart.’
‘Dad … there’s stuff I gotta tell yer!’
But Justin’s attention was elsewhere. The castle was filling with Rothenian troops, and very soon there came a pounding of military boots on the turret stair. A squad of Fusiliers burst into the room, followed by King Rudolf and Colonel Cornish. Under Ed’s direction, the mercenaries were frisked, then had their wrists cuffed with plastic ties.
Rudi smiled. ‘I could have guessed you’d be here first, Justy.’
‘You too, Damien. There’s a story here, but we haven’t much time. Explosives experts are on their way from Glottenberg. So this is the bomb, hmm? Very Hollywood. Of course defusing it would be a lot quicker if Mr Josseran would cooperate …’
Justin had put up his weapon. ‘You got ‘im then.’
‘Yes, but he’s not being particularly helpful. Although he’s in custody in my Pave Hawk, he’s refusing to answer questions. However, he did tell us that, if we cut the wires or enter an incorrect code, this damnable thing will go off instantly. He’s the only one who knows the code, too. Other than that, it’ll go off anyway in two and a half hours. Which reminds me, Damien. Get off downstairs with Reggie and Nathan. The three of you’re being taken to a safe distance in the Chinooks that were going to fly Josseran to Belarus. They’ll be here within minutes to evacuate all non-essential personnel.’
‘But Uncle Rudi! I gotta tell yer somefink!’
Justin put his hand on his son’s shoulder. ‘Not now, babes. Uncle Rudi’s got a lot on his plate.’
‘But dad! You gotta listen …’
His father and the king stared at the boy. Rudi was not the most tolerant of men, as Justin well knew, and his impatience and annoyance were already evident. On the other hand, Justin had also come to recognise the bedrock of good sense and intelligence so precociously in evidence in his son.
‘Scuse me, Rudi.’ Justin led Damien to one side. ‘Okay, tell me what this is about, babes. But make it quick. I’d ravver you wuz outta here, and you knows why, doan’ yer?’
With a most uncharacteristic pleading look, Damien began his story.
When he had finished, Justin stared at the boy, then heaved a deep sigh. ‘Oh bugger, here we go again.’
‘You believes me, doan’ yer, dad?’
‘Yes, babes, I do. Anyway, I remember what happened last Christmas at Grandad Andy’s place.’
‘Yuh! I saw that ghost. Elijah he said his name was. Uncle Phil saw him too, and Mattie.’
‘I saw ghosts once myself, with Uncle Henry in a wood in Shropshire. Spookiest day of me life. Nate was there with us.’
‘Yer never told me that.’
‘Not exactly a story yer could tell a kid … even one like you, babes. The point is, I does believe yer. But I doan’ fink Uncle Rudi will, not wivout proof.’
Damien dug into his pocket. ‘The Lady gave me this message!’
‘What?’ Justin stared at the folded parchment square with alarm, before taking it gingerly.
‘An’ she said ter give it to a bloke called Mendamero!’
The king spun on his heel and stared at Damien. ‘What did you say?’
Justin took his son by the shoulder. ‘Rudi, the boy’s been caught up in the weird stuff. He’s met with someone who sounds very like …’
‘Fenice! She said her name was Lady Fenice!’ When his high voice pronounced the name of the saint, the bustle and noise in the tower room died away as all eyes turned towards him. Several soldiers crossed themselves.
‘An’ I has to ask you where to find this Mendamero,’ he added in a near-whisper, somehow reluctant to speak the name again.’
Rudi gazed consideringly at the boy, then reached out for the letter. He stared at it for some time as it rested in his large hand. Eventually, biting his lip, he murmured, ‘Yes, I know the person to whom you must deliver it. That you have heard the name at all proves you have been in touch with uncanny forces, child though you are. There are powers at large in my kingdom which are very troubling. Now then, what else did she tell you?’
The boy rapidly related the gist of his story once again. Discipline notwithstanding, those soldiers who knew English craned closer to hear his words. There was a mutter as they repeated them in Rothenian to their comrades.
Standing there weighing the sealed letter, the king still looked dubious. ‘You say she told you four numbers. And on the timer here we have a counter set at 0-0-0-0. So here’s the dilemma: Do we rely on the uncorroborated vision of a nine-year-old boy or on the technical skills of our bomb disposal team? Entering a wrong code will detonate the bomb instantly.’
Justin had an idea. ‘Rudi, there’s one way we can check it out.’
The king raised an eyebrow.
‘There’s a guy here who knows whether the code’s right or wrong. Bring Josseran up. Let’s see how he takes it when we feeds the numbers in. You’ll know whether it’s right or wrong at the first try.’
‘Yes, Justy, but once the first number is in, we’re committed. It’ll be too late to go back.’
‘Sir, yer gotta have faith. This land of yours has moved before ter protect isself from the likes of Josseran. Iss doin’ it again.’
The king thought some more, then sighed. ‘Very well. But nonetheless, the boys and Nate must go. I want them well away from here before we try this.’
Giving Damien a troubled look, he handed back the parchment. ‘Young man, keep this safe for me and for Rothenia. I’m not sure why it was given to you, and I rather fear its contents. Be that as it may, though, in the name of my people I thank you for what you have done.’
The growing sound of engines in the air above them heralded the arrival of a helicopter come to take away the evacuees. Damien tucked the letter into a trouser pocket as he was escorted down the stairs by two Fusiliers.
Damien and Reggie sat on Nathan’s lap in the cabin of their Chinook. The five aircraft had landed behind a tall ridge at a prudent distance to the west of the castle.
Reggie was twittering with nerves. ‘If the bomb goes off, you see, the explosion won’t be that big. But it’ll scatter poison radiation over a wide area and it’ll drift with the wind. That’s why we’re upwind of the event. Oh, I do hope the king’s okay … and your dad.’
Damien answered gruffly, ‘Dad’ll be fine. He trusts the Lady.’
‘This Lady. What was she like?’
‘Well, she wuz a bit like me nan. She wuz sorta old and nice. I fink she thought I wuz a little funny, but she wuzn’t nasty or anyfing.’
‘And she said she was the Lady Fenice?’
‘But Fenice lived way back in olden times, when people had castles and went on crusades and stuff. She’s one of the most famous saints of Rothenia. And you were there with her – I dunno – centuries ago!’
Nathan had been listening intently to the boys. ‘It’s the chapel pictures that interest me. We must get back there and look at them, babes.’
Damien squirmed. ‘Me dad said the chapel wuz in ruins when he passed it, and he saw no pictures. Maybe they won’t be there for you either. Wonder whass goin’ on at the castle now? Is it time yet?’
Nathan glanced over at a crewman and asked him the question in Rothenian. ‘Four minutes and counting,’ was the response.
The three sat in silence, each with his own thoughts, as the deadline came and passed. Rudi would be entering the numbers on the defusing mechanism now. They waited. More minutes passed, then the radio came alive and they heard a whoop from the pilot’s seat.
Damien and Reggie squirmed in Nathan’s arms and turned round to hug him close. If Nathan noticed a track of tears on Damien’s face, he never did mention it.
The pilot called back that he had orders to rendezvous with the king at the monastery in twenty minutes. The remaining four helicopters were quickly aloft, returning the other evacuees to their homes near Red Zone. Damien’s Chinook delayed a while before heading eastwards, nose down.
Soon they were settling alongside the king’s Pave Hawk. Nathan and the boys spilled out on the lawn, to be met by Justin running down from the house. He swept up both boys and kissed them, then got into a very involved hug with Nathan.
After a while, Damien coughed and complained, ‘Daaad! People are staring!’
‘They can go f…’
Nathan laughed and put his finger on his lover’s lips. ‘Remember.’
‘Come up to the house, there’s stuff going on. Rudi’s still gigglin’ over the fun he had releasing his mum-in-law. She’s in custody awaiting his attention.’
Damien tugged at his robe. ‘So why’s he laffin’, dad?’
‘Er … tell yer later … when yer sixteen.’
The boys ran ahead as Nathan and Justin strolled up to the house, hand in hand.
‘You’re still in your monk’s gear, Justy.’
‘Yeah, funny that. It actually seems to be natural wearing it now. I want yer to meet Prema, I mean Malcolm. He’s a real mate. He’s not too happy at the moment, but they’ve sent word back from the hospital at Glottenberg that Vedayah – thass Chris, his lover – is stable. Me and you’ll take him over there after, when we’ve got wheels.’
They paused on the terrace. ‘But there’s something more, isn’t there,’ Nathan observed.
‘You really enjoyed being in this place, didn’t you.’
Justin smirked to himself. ‘Yeah. Weird innit? There’s somefink about these guys, straight or gay, that appeals to me.’
‘Then come back here. You live a mad life, baby, and it’s not getting any saner. You need a place to recharge, and this may be it. I certainly wouldn’t object to your going on retreat here. I’d be quite happy to come with you, now we’ve got Moira Meyer and Matt and Andy to unload the kid on.’
They were met by Abbot Vindahayah at the French windows. He bowed, and Nathan stared as Justin bowed respectfully and gracefully back.
‘So Chavindar … I mean Mr Peacher-White … you are not only free, but I hear you have saved the day.’
Nathan choked. ‘Chavindar! Whose idea …?’
Justin snarled out of the corner of his mouth, ‘Just coincidence!’ Then he continued, ‘It wuz a team effort, yer eminence. I hope everyone’s okay here.’
‘Alas, I don’t think we’ll be getting back to normal quickly, and of course we’ve lost the patronage of Mrs Marquesa … not that we would accept any more of her money anyway. Then Dravadam took it into his head to attack the guards and rather badly beat up several of them before the soldiers got here. It will take a while to shepherd him through the purification rites.’
Nathan looked at Justin, who smiled and said, ‘I think I can promise that other Peacher funds will be coming yer way from a different direction, eminence. Besides, the king is very pleased with what Vedayah and Prema did. Don’t yer worry.’
Brightening, the abbot exchanged bows again with Justin.
Justin and Nathan encountered Mrs Marquesa, dressed in just a bathrobe, descending the stairs under military guard. She glared at Justin as she approached, then stopped and stared. ‘You!’ she screamed, finally recognising him.
Justin gave her a bland smile and a bow. ‘The wicked stepmother, I believe. Get stuffed, yer fuckin’ cow!’
Her further expostulations were muffled as two Fusiliers bundled her outside.
Nathan observed, ‘I wonder what the king’ll do with her?’
‘Not a lot. What can he do? His kid’s gonna be born in a couple of months, and it won’t help if the new prince’s grandma is in prison, will it? No, it’ll get swept under the carpet. She always gets away wiv her crap.’
They stood in the dormitory looking around. Prema bustled in at that point with an armful of clothing. ‘Chavindar!’
Justin grabbed the man and kissed him. ‘Yer me mate, babe. Chris’s gonna be fine.’
Prema looked shaky. ‘You think?’
‘I know. We’re gonna take yer straight down to the hospital at Glottenberg as soon as we’re finished here.’
Prema gave a pale smile. ‘I’ve got some gear here, which I think’s your size. Your suit’ll need cleaning, though, after what it went through in the monastery’s van.’
‘Ta, Prema. I’ll just go take a shower and freshen up. I’m disgusting. Wait for me, babe.’ Justin grabbed a pair of jeans and a tee shirt. Before disappearing into the shower room, he made sure to drop his robe so Nathan could get a clear view of his delectable rear in motion. He suddenly had an overmastering need to feel what sex was like in his current depilated state.
Danny Hackness couldn’t resist it.
‘Will yer fuckin’ stop that!’
‘Aww come on, Justy, it’s fun rubbing your scalp. It’s just like warm sandpaper. Why don’t you keep it shaved?’
‘Cos I likes me hair, thass why. Over the past six years I’ve spent enough on having it styled ter float a stock market. Anyway, who knows but I might get naturally bald one day. Gotta enjoy the hair while yer have it. Yer might remember that.’
Danny and Justin were sitting with teacups in the Grand Salle of the palace at Strelzen. It had been three days now since the sensational events near the village of Vwyzberh. Danny was in his one and only suit, wearing a new pair of shoes he had decided he’d better buy. They were too tight and pinched.
Gus and Pavel were with them. The king had assembled a summit of all the parties involved in the recent events in Glottenberg.
The world’s press was still in full cry over what they were calling perhaps the biggest incident of thwarted terrorism in recent history. Papers and news channels around the globe featured only the face of Rudolf Elphberg, called by Time magazine ‘the greatest hero-king in modern times.’ Five Hollywood studios were already locked in a desperate battle to get out the first screenplay of what was being called ‘the Green Side Incident’.
But in the old palace at Strelzen, the sense of jubilation was subdued, despite all the satisfaction at the happy result.
Ed Cornish entered the Grand Salle, showing off his new rank insignia as Colonel of the Guard. He announced that the gathering should come through to the small dining room, where everyone was assigned a place around the table. Gus sat next to Danny, squeezing his hand. Damien and Reggie tumbled into their own chairs, Reggie looking as though he were at school, sitting upright with pencil poised over a writing pad. Nathan and Justin were directed to either side of the boys. The monk Prema, who had been brought down from the monastery, came in quietly, trying not to attract attention. A grinning Peter Peacher, accompanied by his lover Oskar von Tarlenheim, kissed the top of Justin’s head in passing.
When all were settled, the doors rolled back, and they stood for the entrance of the king and queen. She was leaning heavily on his arm as he seated her solicitously.
A discrete tap came at the other door of the dining room. The king smiled. ‘Now, I think we have some more visitors to welcome.’
A footman ushered in three men. Danny knew Matt White and Sir Andrew Peacher from his Haddesley days. Andy went over to kiss his brother and his sister, to whom he murmured an enquiry about the progress of his nephew-to-be. Matt laughed at Justy’s predicament and offered him a fright-wig he’d brought.
It was the third person whom Danny did not know until Gus nudged him. ‘That’s Henry Atwood.’ Danny stared at the journalist, who was much smaller in the flesh than he had expected. Henry caught his eye, and Danny’s heart gave an extra thump. There was something very seductive and unsettling about the older man.
When the room had quieted, Rudolf introduced the newcomers, then surveyed the group. ‘Dear friends,’ he began, giving an unaccustomed smile round the table, ‘I have a number of things to say. To begin with, you have been assembled so I can convey to you my special thanks on behalf of my people and nation for all you have done for us.
‘Justy, this morocco case contains your first-class upgrade to the Order of Henry the Lion. And don’t mutter that you deserve the Order of the Rose; it’ll give you something to aim for.’ The table laughed.
‘I can’t do much for you two brave little lads, Damien and Reggie, but I have arranged for you to drive a real tank round the range at Luchau and fire a few rounds at NATO’s expense.’
‘For Gus and Danny, you have the Order of Henry the Lion in the second class.
‘Pavel, I had a chat with the Russian defence minister in the recent crisis talks, and he’s so impressed with you he’s returning his son to Strelzen. As things turned out, it wasn’t homesickness for Moscow that made Yuri leave Rothenia, it was his father’s refusal to accept his having an affair with another boy. I made the minister see the error of his ways about that. He was in a very receptive state, what with the embarrassment Josseran had caused his government.’
The Russian boy beamed and Gus hugged him.
The king’s face straightened. ‘But this is not entirely about happy endings. There have been casualties, not least the monk Vedayah, whose recovery will be slow. I have been in touch with the Grand Abbot of his order to tell him precisely how much our country owes to his monks, and how poor his judgement was on the matter of Mrs Marquesa. I think he got the message, for Abbot Vindahayah has been summoned back to Bangkok to supervise the aftermath of the Grand Abbot’s resignation. Our friend Prema here is to be acting abbot for the time being.’
Prema blushed. ‘Only till Vedayah is well enough to take over,’ he murmured.
The king continued, ‘For the future, I have decisions to make with the chancellor about Amir Josseran. We cannot allow him to go to The Hague for trial; too much would come out. The CIA wants to hustle him away to some private location to extract all it can from him. It would be nice to know precisely how he came by a nuclear warhead. But there must be a trial, although we will try to delay it as long as possible. In the meantime, he stays in the high security wing of the Arsenal prison here in Strelzen.
‘At this moment, however, let’s not dwell on the problems we face. Rather, we should celebrate the fact that all of us are still alive, and that our country has been spared both humiliation and the horrors of a nuclear bomb. And celebrating is exactly what I propose.’
Oskar rose and opened the farther doors, to reveal several footmen carrying flutes and bottles of champagne. Sparkling cider was discretely offered for the queen, Prema and the two young boys.
The table rose and all began mingling and chatting. Damien and Reggie gravitated to the queen, who alone had kept her seat.
‘How yer doin’, Auntie Harry?’
The queen cuddled both boys into her lap. ‘My feet are killing me, thanks for asking. But it’s only two more months to go. He’ll be a big baby. So Daimey, tell me everything about your meeting with Lady Fenice.’
Damien obliged cheerfully, despite this being the tenth or eleventh time he had recounted the story.
When he ended, Harriet smiled. ‘She seemed nice.’
‘Yuh, I fink she wuz. Harry? Whass happening ‘bout yer mum?’
‘I had a furious row with her, though of course she denied everything. “It was all a misunderstanding,” and when I explained it couldn’t have been, she maintained it was a conspiracy your granddad Matt had set up against her. Rudi and I finally persuaded her to go into a private hospital facility in her native California. Since the White House has at last got to hear about some of her doings, she found she really had no choice. Maybe the doctors can help her.’
The room was filling further. Chancellor Trachtenberg and his aides had arrived from parliament. The cardinal archbishop was with him. Damien soon noticed his Uncle Henry closely engaged in conversation with the cleric.
When all had their glasses, the king called for silence. ‘Dear friends, our country has come through a very severe trial, and the blessing is that so few people were hurt by it. I dread to think of what might have happened had the man Josseran succeeded in his schemes. But yet again the courage of Rothenia’s friends and the dauntlessness of her troops have carried the day.
Rudolf looked down at his glass for a moment. When he raised his head once more a certain stern coolness had taken possession of his face. ‘Let’s not fool ourselves that our troubles are resolved as yet. But we must have faith, and commend our future to the God in whom our realm has for so long trusted, and who has never failed us. Please kneel, my friends.’
The room kneeled for the cardinal to pray and the king to give the people his blessing.
The reception continued for an hour or so. Danny and Gus tried on their decorations, much to Pavel’s delight. They were the first to disappear, deciding they all three had pressing business in the Wejg.
Soon the rest of the group began to disperse. Rudi whispered to Nathan, asking him to take Reggie home. Then he gestured to Justin, Damien and Henry to accompany him.
Oskar had been briefed. He ushered them into the king’s private study, after which he stood guard in the outer office. Ed Cornish shut the door behind them and took a stance which showed he was there to preclude any interruption.
The others occupied the conversational grouping of sofas around the fireplace. Turning to Henry, the king told him, ‘Now we come to a great question that the Josseran affair has left us with. For Damien has experienced one of those occasional supernatural visitations which my realm springs upon us. Damien, I’d like you to explain exactly what happen to you in the tower of Belvoir castle.’
The boy looked around with a little grimace, but piped up and related his story clearly.
When he had finished, the king continued, ‘We may be sure this is a true vision because we have a relic of it that Damien brought back with him.’
Rudolf then asked the boy to produce the sealed parchment square. Damien took from under his shirt a linen bag Nathan had hung around his neck to keep the letter safe.
‘Damien was given this and it seemed best for him to keep it. But now is the time for him to deliver it up. This is the letter Fenice of Tarlenheim gave to Damien in their encounter, and here is Mendamero to whom she addressed it.’
All looked at Henry Atwood. He sat silent and reflective for a moment before turning to Damien with a small smile. ‘Babes, did you see only the Lady in your trip to the fifteenth century?’
‘Yuh, Uncle Henry.’
‘And she said her missive was to be given to Mendamero?’
‘And I’ll bet you’ve had the letter checked out by the National Museum, haven’t you, sire?’
‘Yes, Outfield, I have. Damien lent it to us for a couple of hours so conservators and scholars could examine it in conditions of high security. Although they did not break the seal, to open the letter, they were able to establish with certainty that both are of mid-fifteenth-century origin. It is no fake. What is Mendamero going to do?’
Henry took the letter from Damien’s hand. ‘I need to give this some thought, sir. Then I suppose I’d better open it. I won’t wait too long. When the spirit of this land awakens, it tends to be impatient. Shall we meet here again, just you and I, sir, in a week’s time after some of the fuss will have died down?’
‘If that’s your decision.’
‘It is, and you know why I have to be cautious. If Mendamero’s name is being spoken again, then there are other names we will soon be hearing.’
The king nodded. ‘Elijah and Enoch?’
‘Yes, sir. We must gather our friends. I will need Will Vincent to help me read this if it turns out to be written in Latin. Phil Maddox knows Elijah better than anyone, but getting him out from behind his university desk won’t be easy. And Eddie Peacher knows … him … nearly as well as I do.’
At the door, Ed Cornish’s face clouded as he pondered Henry’s words. Henry had avoided the name that was rarely spoken between them: Gavin Price. Ed wondered at the reticence.
For the first time in all this affair, he felt a coldness in his heart.
That concludes the current thriller, but obviously it ends with a trailer for a new Henry adventure. In ending, I need to thank my loyal readers and editors, Rob and Terry, Eldon and James. As usual, they’ve worked for Rothenia over and above the call of duty. Order of Henry the Lion, chaps (second class).