Michael Arram










  It was a night to remember at Club Liberation in the ancient and beautiful city of Strelzen.  It would have been a good night, whatever.


  Liberation was set in the southeastern corner of the Rodolferplaz, just where Gildenfahrbswejg emptied into it.  Gildenfahrbswejg, or ‘the Wejg’ as locals called it, was always heaving.  Pink, red and green neon lights glowed down from the buildings on both sides of the narrow street, displaying messages like ‘Boogy Bar’, ‘Cabaret Olympus’, ‘Non-stop dance’, ‘Budvar 55kR the litre’.


  For three blocks south along the Wejg, sports bars and strip clubs seethed with German, Italian and British drinking gangs, and the road outside them heaved with as yet unattached groups being preyed upon by Somali and Balkan hustlers, like piranhas closing in on fat cows fallen into a jungle stream.  The tendency of the British to be overweight and bursting out of their sportswear just added to the impression.


  At the end nearest the square, next to a huge porn emporium called Erotic Dream City, was Club Liberation, the biggest gay venue in Central Europe.  The cafés and bars in that corner were marked by rainbow flags.  Gay couples and drinking parties clustered under the statue of General Voydek opposite, eyeing up the shaven-headed, stocky Rothenian bouncers who policed Liberation’s doors and discouraged gawping straight gangs who had – or claimed they had – lost their way.


  The club was packed, even though it was only a Thursday.  It had been a rare, glorious day, one of those when the very air seems to sing with happiness and nearly everyone hears it.


  Harry had not only been amenable to a night out with Terry and Ramon, but was affable when they met in the hotel foyer.  Being a lawyer, he had somehow caught the scent of big money.


  Meanwhile, Will noticed Terry’s professional and appraising glance over his lover.  Oddly, being a bit sensitive to Harry’s impact on his new friends, he was aware of the things about Harry that didn’t seem to bother him when they were on their own but which grated on him now: the bumptiousness and the insensitivity.  However, he resolutely stifled his unease, for he was a man very loyal to friends, however unworthy.


  Liberation, big and glitzy, catered to the foreign gay.  There were also quite a few local Rothenian youths, seemingly very interested in getting to know the foreigners.  Harry found a pretty one early on and disappeared with him.


  Will shot a quirky look at Terry, who just laughed.  ‘Well, no loss.  Want to dance, babe?’


  ‘You okay if I do, Ramon?’


  ‘No problem, Will.  You can have too much dancing with Terry.’


  As they walked hand in hand on to the big floor, swept by pulsing lights, Will asked, ‘What did he mean?’


  ‘I think, sweet babe, he was referring to the fact that I’m majoring in dance and theatre studies at JAC.  Don’t worry, I won’t forget you’re with me.’


  Will soon realised what Ramon meant.  Terry was not just a good dancer, he was an amazing dancer.  Fortunately, Will was not entirely without talent in that department.  He tended to lose himself in music, and the pair were very happy with each other well before the second dance.  A lot of men on and around the floor stopped to watch, including Harry, who abandoned his Rothenian pick-up in a corner to stare at them with his mouth hanging open.


  When they left the floor, Ramon smiled up at them.  ‘Tired out now, Terry?’


  ‘No way!  It’s your turn.  Mind the table and the drinks, Will.  Oh …!’


  Terry focussed on Will.  ‘We’re expecting a friend to join us in a quarter of an hour or so.  I told him on the mobile what you look like and what you’re wearing, so if a stranger comes up behind you, don’t necessarily think he’s trying to pick you up.’


  ‘Fine.  What’s his name …’  But Terry and Ramon were already on the floor and deeply into each other.  They were a gorgeous couple.  Will was envious.


  A smiling waiter brought him a drink.  He settled comfortably down, crunching the free crisps and nuts, to watch his friends dance and soak up the atmosphere.  He was catching a lot of men’s glances in his own direction, but knew better than to meet their eyes.


  He definitely liked Club Liberation.  It was completely different from Prague; he felt comfortable, secure and in the right place.  He was so lost in euphoria that he did not sense someone behind him until, close in his ear, a young and cultured English voice asked politely, ‘Hi!  Are you Will Vincent?  It’s okay, I’m not about to suggest we go into the dark room.’


  Will half turned to glimpse a shadowed figure behind him.  ‘That’s me.  Sorry, Terry didn’t tell me your name.’


  The man sat down opposite and smiled at him like the first sunrise of Creation.  ‘It’s Matthew.’


  And Will fainted


  He was only out for a few seconds, but that was enough for him to hit the floor.  When he came round, he was looking up into Terry’s concerned face.


  ‘God!  I’m so sorry, Will.  I didn’t realise you’d take it like that.  Ramon’ll kill me!’


  Will coughed and sat up.  He seemed fine, no bumps or bruises.  But there was a blank spot in his memory at that point.  Strong hands took him under the armpits, lifting him effortlessly from the floor.  Suddenly he remembered what his mind had blocked, as the man who had picked him up smiled at him like a seraph on a good day and helped him back into his seat.


  ‘You’re Matt White!’


  ‘I certainly have his passport.’


  ‘Excuse me … er, but these sorts of occasions bring out the inner idiot in me.’


  The man laughed in the same warm and generous way as he did on TV.  ‘Call me Matt, Will.  I think I should be the one apologising, but I’ve never caused someone to faint before.  I’ll certainly remember to put it in my CV: knocked out a kid in Strelzen by smiling at him.’


  Will was beyond bewilderment.  He looked in that blindingly gorgeous face and tried to make normal conversation.  ‘Er … sorry, um … Matt.  Don’t feel too bad about it.  It’s not the first time.  It happened to me all through adolescence, that and migraines.  They used to put cushions around me in school assemblies, ready for the inevitable flake-out.  I’ve got glandular problems, my doctor said.  My mum thinks I’m fragile.  Embarrassing really, but it got me off games a lot.’


  Matt laughed again.  Will was now hopelessly under the man's spell, and conspiring in his head to murder the unfortunate Andrew Peacher.


  Off to one side, Ramon was having hard words with Terry, until Matt called them over.  They settled round the table.


  A small crowd had already gathered on the other side, watching them hungrily and quite openly, snapping off photos whenever a view could be had around intervening body parts.  Matt was oblivious – used to it, Will imagined.


  Matt looked Will over.  ‘We’ve got a friend in common, I think.’


  ‘We do?’  It occurred to Will that this was the weirdest conversation he had ever held in his entire life: talking about mutual acquaintances with an international supermodel in a Central European gay club.


  ‘Jeremy Faber.’


  ‘Oh sure, Doc Faber.  Yes.  I did all his modules; he’s a great teacher.’


  ‘He was the supervisor for my doctorate.  Oddly, he once mentioned you.’




  ‘Yes, you, Will Vincent.  I recognised the name when Terry mentioned this friend from Cranwell he’d made at the cathedral.  Jeremy told me he wanted you to go on to do research.  He’s got quite an instinct for a born academic, has Jeremy.  He was keen that you should sign up and upset when you wouldn’t.  He thought you were the best prospect he’d ever met.  I think he may have been including me.’


  ‘Yeah, Matt, but I really wanted to teach.  It was the right decision.  I didn’t get a first anyway.’  Will took a swig of his drink and decided they had talked enough about him.  ‘So what brings you to Rothenia, Matt?’


  ‘Research.  My company’s going to film a series on European monarchies: we’re going hard after the international market for the first time.  I always do my own documentation, and the Elphbergs look like a classic to me.  So here I am in Rothenia … a place I’ve been desperate to see for years.  Since I knew Terry and Ramon were coming, we agreed to meet up and do the place together.  It’s a real bit of luck that you’re here too.  I hope you’ll do us the favour of joining us for the next few days.  It’ll be easier to carry this out with the help of a knowledgeable enthusiast.’


  ‘Wow!  What can I say?  Love to.  This is utterly brilliant!’


  ‘Fantastic.  Drinks all round then, lads.’


  A hand respectfully tapped Matt on the shoulder, and he was busy signing autographs for a while on split-beer mats.  Will was impressed how he did it with a permanent smile on his handsome face.


  When Matt had satisfied the demands of his public, he turned the smile on Will, who found himself being invited on to the floor.  This was a height beyond heaven for him, as envious eyes followed him walking hand in warm hand on to the floor with his hero.




* * *




  Oskar Prinz hated Club Liberation, especially now his notoriety was getting him noticed by foreigners.  Hendrik, however, had been adamant in wanted him there that Thursday.  ‘Talent-spotting, my love.  We have to find our American, and we’ve got nowhere so far.  The only likely contact I had in Rothenia went and fell off his motorbike last week and broke his leg in three places.  Then there was that backpacker, but you nearly threw up at his picture.


  ‘Nonetheless, you’ve made your point.  I accept that whoever it is has to be someone you can work with; the chemistry makes these things come together.’


  Oskar had a friend on the security staff of Liberation, who was able to get him in through a side door, missing the queue and the lobby.  He wore shades, despite the darkness, and slipped quietly to the raised corner table where Hendrik was stationed.


  Oskar sensed something odd in the atmosphere.  It couldn’t be the fact that Hendrik was there.  No one knew him for what he was; he kept out of the limelight.  Something else had stirred the club up like an anthill.


  ‘Are the scouts out there, Hendrik?’


  ‘Yes, but it won’t do any good.’


  ‘What’s going on?’


  ‘Look opposite.  Do you see that group near the dance floor?’




  ‘Take those glasses off, and concentrate on the guy on the right.’


  ‘He looks familiar.’


  ‘He should do.’


  ‘Christ, it’s the English supermodel, White.  I didn’t know he was in town.’


  ‘The man against whom even you, my sweet Oskar, look plain.  The whole club is rotating on its axis to get near him.’


  ‘I’ve got to have a closer look.  Who are the guys with him?’


  ‘No idea.  Go and have your look.’


  Oskar edged across the floor.  No one noticed him; all eyes were straining over to the right.  The floor had emptied.  In some ways this was good, Oskar thought.  He got too many knowing stares these days.


  As he reached the fringes of the crowd which was unabashedly staring at White’s table, the man himself stood up and took one of his companions by the hand.  They went out on to the empty floor.  They danced, and pretty soon a thick crowd of other dancers was right there with them.


  His shoulder was tapped.  ‘Ahoi, Oskar.  No one seems interested in you tonight.’


  ‘Felip!’  They kissed briefly.


  ‘Or in me, for that matter.’


  ‘In the sunshine,’ Oskar reflected, quoting an old Rothenian proverb, ‘the moon becomes pale.’


  ‘Who’s he with … is it his millionaire boyfriend?’


  ‘Let’s find out.  Time for some strategic dancing.’


  Oskar and Felip went out on to the now-crowded floor.  They edged nearer to Matthew White, close enough to overhear the dancing pair talking happily in native English.  As they did so, Oskar stiffened.


  ‘Is it the Peacher boyfriend?’ asked Felip.


  ‘No.  But he’s …’




  ‘Give me a moment.’  They carried on moving together, Oskar staring over Felip’s shoulder.  ‘He’s the one, if there is one.  He’s the guy we need, I’m sure of it.  I’ll tell Hendrik.’


  ‘Aw come on, Oskar, let’s finish the dance at least,’ pleaded Felip.  But Oskar was gone.


  Hendrik frowned.  ‘Couldn’t you set your sights a bit lower, Oskar?’


  ‘It’s not the American, his boyfriend.  It’s just one of his party.  He seems an ordinary western kid, but you know my instinct in these things.  The way he moved was … arousing.  The looks are good enough too.  We must try, anyway.’


  Hendrik was suspicious.  ‘How on earth do you think you can get a connection going with one of that man’s entourage?  This is a little desperate on your part, Oskar my love.’


  ‘Hendrik, look at it this way.  This kid – whoever he is – isn’t a known face, nor is he dressed and manicured to White’s standards.  He’s a wannabe.  Anyone in the modelling world is used to undressing in front of cameras.  The lower down they are, the more they’ll take off.  All he’ll need is the incentive, and I'm certain I can provide it.’


  ‘If he’s what you think he is, maybe so.’  Hendrik surveyed Oskar moodily. ‘I don’t suppose we have much to lose by the effort.  The best of luck to you.  For otherwise I’m going to have to grit my teeth, swallow my pride, and subcontract a performer from my American rivals.  And you know how I love my profits.’


  Oskar did.  The Dalmatian villa, the Slovenian health spa, the big yacht on Lake Maresku, all attested to Hendrik’s love of his profits.  There was a huge amount of money in good-quality gay porn, as the young Hendrik had discovered in the nineties, which together with his business instincts had made him a rich man very quickly.


  Oskar pondered his strategy and used his mobile, which he, being Rothenian, called a ‘handij’.




* * *




  It was beyond any question the most brilliant night of his life, Will decided, even including the bits he had yet to live.  Matt White was not just beyond gorgeous, he was friendly, interested and interesting.  Will would have been in a fair way to falling out of lust and into love, but somehow, that did not happen.  It was not so much that he knew about Andrew Peacher, just that Matt radiated a big-brotherly quality.  He was a man who made you feel safe and cared-for.


  Terry was right.  Soon you forgot the dazzling looks, while the man inside shone out just as brightly.  Terry and Ramon too were great guys.  He had never had real friends since he had left school, but now he felt he did, and they were as gay as he was.


  Sitting there in the club, knowing that every eye was on him, that half the room was envying him, that he had danced with the Matthew White, did wonders for his self-esteem.  He was bright, confident and amusing as he had never been before, and he had only had two drinks.  He felt emboldened to ask the great man some personal questions.  ‘Tell me, Matt, how did you go from postgraduate student to supermodel?’


  ‘Uh, well, what you’d expect.  Desperate for money, really, or rather my own money.  Andy and I were already going strong at the time, and he was buying me fashion gear … so much of it, it was getting embarrassing.  It also gave me the impression he thought I was a scruff.  But it paid off accidentally.  An Italian fashion house saw me in the celeb mags with him, wearing their stuff.  They liked my face … as well as the rest, and contracted me.  The shoot was a success, although the ads were totally embarrassing.  I had to get naked with this woman … imagine!  I kept thinking what my mum would say.’


 ‘What did she say?’


  ‘As it happens, “Nice bum”.’  Will laughed.  ‘After that first contract, more came rolling in one after another, and so did the cash.  That was the important thing.  I was independent then of Andy’s money, and our relationship is all the stronger for it, although there was a while when it could have gone the opposite way.’


  ‘You’re not doing so much of it nowadays.’


  ‘The other stuff is taking over.  A few years ago Channel 4 signed me up to present a documentary on the strength that I was doing history in university and had a recognisable face.  It went off pretty well …’


  ‘Pretty well!  Come on, it was a classic.  I use it with my Year 9 class.  If the girls aren’t interested in the seventeenth century, they just stare at the screen daydreaming about you.  You can’t lose.’


  ‘Ha ha.  Odd that my biggest fans are women, isn’t it?  But that was when I found out my real talent.  I can research, write and present.  So now I do consultancy, the odd presenting job for other firms and networks, but mostly I produce documentaries and features.  While a lot of them are historical, we do other stuff too at Marlowe Productions.  I set up the firm with some of my own money and a loan from PeacherCorp.  Their media arm pushed business our way, allowing me to pay back the loan in short order.  We’re now one of the larger independents, with affiliates of our own.  We don’t make a huge amount of money because I plough everything back into the business, but we do more than OK.  Anyway, profit’s not the point.  It’s my life’s work.’


  ‘And you finished your doctorate?’


  ‘Yup.  It’ll be published next year, finally.’


  ‘You’re an amazing man, you know that?’


  ‘So they say, and it’s nice of you to repeat it, but get to know Terry O’Brien a bit better before you make judgements about what amazing is.’


  ‘What d’you mean?’


  Matt looked enigmatic, something he did very well, ‘You may find out one day, although I hope not.  It’s a scary thing, getting to know the real Terry.’


  Will looked across at a happy Terry, convulsed with laughter at one of Ramon’s comments: a relaxed and joyous twenty-something absorbed in his boyfriend.  He wondered what on earth Matt was hinting at.


  When they left the club, there was no sign of Harry, and by that time Will could not have cared less.  A big car and driver were waiting outside under the watchful eyes of General Voydek, who stared down disapprovingly at the gay couples sitting on his steps, some of them kissing.  The car drove southeast and deposited them at a large and extremely expensive restaurant high up in the Old City, with a panoramic view over Strelzen.


  Between the courses of a sumptuous late dinner, Matt discussed his strategy and the places he wanted to see.  He sketched out the plan of a documentary with obvious deep knowledge of the media, abetted by real enthusiasm.  Will had no doubt it would be great television, although he was willing to admit that the spell Matt had cast over him might have been colouring his judgement.


  At the end of the meal, the conversation drifted off into areas known to Terry and Ramon, but not Will, although he picked up a few interesting details concerning the inner life of the Peacher dynasty.  Will stole a sideways glance at Terry, who was on this evidence rather higher in PeacherCorp’s inner circle than he had let on.


  Eventually Matt rose and the meal was over.  ‘Can we give you a lift?’ he asked.


  ‘No thanks, guys, I’d just like to walk back down the hill.  It’s a glorious night, and a fantastic one to boot.  I want to stroll back in the cool air and take it all in.  How can I thank you?’


  ‘You just have,’ smiled Terry.  ‘See you at nine-thirty tomorrow at your hotel, then.’


  ‘It’s a date.’




* * *




  As the red tail lights of Matt’s car disappeared along the cobbled street, Will got his bearings.  Between the buildings of the Old City, he could see the lights of the New City of Strelzen spread out below him.  A crescent moon was sailing above it.  He struck off in the direction of what he thought was the Flavienplaz and his hotel, but somehow he missed his way in the narrow downhill lanes, and failed to emerge on Domstrasse.


  Will crossed the river by an unfamiliar bridge.  In the distance, along a wide and straight boulevard, he could see the floodlit palace, so he knew if he carried on in that direction he would end up back on the Rodolferplaz.  He felt he could navigate from there.


  It was a long but leisurely stroll through the empty streets.  Most Strelzeners seemed to go to bed early.  The odd car and taxi rattled past over the cobbles.  It was too late for trams, even if he had known how to use them.  He reached the Rodolferplaz a little tired and chilly, but ready for the next stage.  Which way?


  He struck off along another wide boulevard with tram lines down the middle.  It looked familiar, but he had only walked about five minutes when he realised he had made a wrong turn.  He shrugged and stopped beneath a spreading tree to ponder his next move.  Suddenly a hand took him round the throat from behind and he felt cold, sharp steel at his neck.  A distinctive male odour, spicy and sharp, filled his nostrils.


  ‘Don’t move, American,’ growled a hoarse voice.  ‘You have wallet?  I want.’


  Oh God no, thought Will, not this night of all nights.  The guidebooks he had consulted said violent crime in Rothenia was rare.


  ‘Inside pocket on the right,’ he gasped, resigned that all his cards and cash were about to go down the drain.  How many fucking phone calls was he going to have to make tomorrow?  At least his passport was in the hotel-room safe.


  A hand found the pocket and extracted his worldly goods.  ‘Thanks.  Do not look around.’


  As the knife was withdrawn, a sudden shout came from across the boulevard and two dark figures dashed towards him.  The mugger promptly took off, pursued by the strangers calling out loudly in Rothenian.  Will turned and walked out from under the tree.  Running footsteps still echoed down the road, but the two had given up the pursuit, and were walking back towards him.


  One of them let loose an incomprehensible stream of anxious questions.


  ‘I’m okay,’ Will answered.


  ‘Oh, English,’ the other stranger said.  ‘Are you unhurt?’  The words were a little precise but the accent and fluency were good.  Strangely, Will thought he caught a familiar resonance to the voice.  Stress perhaps?


  ‘I’m just a bit shook up.’


  ‘It is these foreigners,’ the man explained, ‘an Albanian perhaps.  They are turning this city into the Balkans.  You will be glad to see this.’  He presented Will’s wallet.  ‘He dropped it as he ran.’


  ‘Oh my God!  How can I thank you?’


  ‘Not necessary.’


  ‘Please let me give you some cash for your trouble.’  Suddenly he realised he’d said the wrong thing.  Might Rothenian honour have been involved?


  In a slightly cooler tone, the man replied, ‘It was no trouble, and that you are fine is thanks enough.’


  ‘Do I need to tell the police?’


  The mood immediately lightened.  The man made some remarks in Rothenian to his friend, after which they both chuckled.  ‘If you want, go talk to the police, but only if you have a spare morning to fill in twenty forms.  Our police are very good with forms.  Not too good with detection.’


  The quieter man said something in Rothenian to his companion.  The two men shook hands and the other left.


  ‘Look, my friend.  You seem shaken to me.  I live just across the road.  I can give you a brandy, it will help.’


  ‘No I couldn’t, really.’


  ‘It is good brandy.’  The voice was young, pleasant and amused.


  Will laughed.  It was an oddly enchanted hour in this enchanting city, and something was telling him he should not hide from life tonight.  ‘Okay then, my name’s Will.  What’s yours?’


  ‘It’s Oskar.’


  ‘Lead on, Oskar.’


  He followed the shadowy figure of the young man across the boulevard, which Oskar explained was the Lindenstrasse.  They entered a tall, ornate apartment building, with railings at the windows glittering in the moonlight.  Everything was dark.  Oskar hit the minutière, but the light didn’t come on.  He cursed.  ‘Nothing works in this place.  The concierge is lazy.  Sorry, Will.  Just follow me up the stairs and hold the rails.’


  They trudged up five flights before coming to Oskar’s door.  The stairwell reeked with the stubborn odour of boiled cabbage and garlic.  The moon shining through a skylight was bright enough for Oskar to find the lock with his key.  ‘Now I have to warn you about Marietta.  She is very enthusiastic.  My dog, you understand.’


  He pushed open the door and Marietta lived up to the warning, dancing frantically round her master.  ‘Come in, Will.’


  Oskar snapped on the light inside the door. Will glanced down and patted Marietta, who licked him.  He was grinning as he looked up to see his saviour.


  His grin froze.  Once again, he fainted.