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By Sarah Hapgood

Bengo quite enjoyed sleeping in the back bedroom for a change. Few things are going to make you feel safer than sleeping in a room with 17 other people, 3 of whom are actually in the same bed. Even the one deeply unnerving incident of the night didn’t terrify him as much as it would have done otherwise. He woke up in the small hours, to hear the snow and the wind rattling the shutters. For a while he lay looking at Bardin, who looked so wonderfully peaceful in his sleep. Then he heard a distant noise coming from outside. It sounded like a man wailing about something, but so far off that words were indistinct. The sound eventually died, and Bengo spent the rest of the night hoping that it was the Intruder Clown trying to get their attention, and failing miserably. In the morning it turned out that Lonts had also heard the voice in the night, and had got it into his head that it was Akim, the young man who had been turned out of Kiskev all those many years ago for stealing food, and who had been banished into the mountains. Adam spent some considerable time trying to persuade Lonts that Akim couldn’t possibly still be alive after all this time. But Lonts stubbornly persisted in pointing out that they were, and in the full bloom of youth too, so why couldn’t Akim be likewise? (There was really no way of answering this, and staying on the right side of sanity!). Ransey suggested that some of them take out the cart and explore the area to put Lonts’s mind at rest, and also that it wouldn’t be a bad idea to have a scout round anyway. So Ransey, Hillyard, Lonts, Julian, Mieps, Tamaz and Bardin went off on their little expedition. They were accompanied by the dogs, who had been barking excitedly outside the glass doors. Ordinarily, Kieran would have gone too, but he was very unwell this morning. Riddled with a deep cold, which rendered him almost hoarse.

“I really think you should go back to bed, old love”, said Adam, when the scouting-party had departed.

“No I don’t want to be up there on me own”, said Kieran.

“Then at least go and sit by the fire”, said Adam.

Kieran did as he was bid, stopping to put a record on the gramophone first. Adam instructed Bengo to make up a hot toddy. Suddenly Kieran gave a yelp and called them all over. He pulled open his shirt to reveal a red mark on his stomach.

“Have you burnt yourself in some way?” said Adam.

“I’d have known if I’d burnt meself!” said Kieran.

“Not necessarily, knowing you!” said Joby.

“It looks like a hoof-mark”, said Bengo “A cloven-hoof”.

“Go and get on with the hot toddy!” Joby snapped.

“Jaysus, I should’ve known!” said Kieran “Something round here’s got it in for me. I mean, it makes sense doesn’t it! Whatever’s going on round here they aren’t going to want me staying here and poking me nose into things, so they’re going to try and keep me out of the way”.

“You think you’ve been hexed in some way?” said Adam.

“Of course!” said Bengo “Like I was at the Town House that Christmas!”

Joby looked fiercely at him, and Bengo shuffled off to make the hot toddy.

“Finia, is there anything you can do for him?” said Adam.

“I’ve got some vitamin tablets”, said Finia “They might help”.

“Where did you get them?” said Joby.

“Down in the Village of Stairs”, said Finia “Knowing what a filthy climate it is up here I thought we might need them sooner or later, and I was right wasn’t I!”

He went off to fetch the First Aid tin.

“It’s a nuisance you being a vegetarian, Patsy”, said Adam “What would really buck you up would be a nice juicy rare steak”.

“One with the blood coming out of it”, said Joby.

“Ugh!” said Kieran.

“Failing that I shall do you some poached eggs on toast”, said Adam.

“But I’m not hungry”, Kieran protested “I haven’t long had breakfast!”

“Too bad”, said Adam “If something’s trying to drain you then we need to boost you up”.

“What do you think the red mark is?” said Finia, counting out two vitamin tablets and passing them to Kieran.

“God knows”, said Kieran “It looks like something stamped on me in me sleep!”

“It’ll go down when we get you on the mend, I expect”, said Joby “You wanna see this”.

He pulled down part of his trousers and revealed a small bruise.

“Mieps did that with her bloody knitting-needle last night!” he said.

“Don’t get your butt out whilst we’re cooking, old love”, said Adam “It’s dreadfully unhygenic”.

The scouting-party came home none the wiser for anything. All they had found in the forest were some man-traps dotted around in one area, which Hillyard had removed from the scene. He had come up with the idea of them getting a wireless set though, and said they would go into the village tomorrow to pick one up.

“Perhaps we might hear Akim on it”, said Lonts.

“What, he’s got his own radio station now has he?” said Joby “Akim FM, The Sound Of The Mountains!”

“No Joby”, said Lonts, with a longsuffering sigh “You simply don’t understand”.

“I’ve never understood the way your mind works sometimes!” said Joby.

Bardin had demanded that a fire be lit in the front bedroom. Bengo strongly suspected this was simply to show everyone that he was still Captain, and that he could order a fire lit whenever and wherever he wanted.

“You haven’t drunk your tea, Bardy”, said Bengo, when he went upstairs to see him about half-an-hour later.

“Oh I forgot it was there”, said Bardin “Bengo, sit down a moment”.

Bengo pulled up a footstool and sat down close to him.

“Bengo”, said Bardin, looking very emotional “You know how I’ve always adored you don’t you?”

“Well I’ve always adored you too, Bardy”, said Bengo, totally perplexed.

“I was a fool when we were teenagers”, said Bardin “It was just that I wanted to keep you innocent you see”.

“Bardy, we’ve been over all this before”, said Bengo “It doesn’t matter now. Why are you saying all this, was Hegley right? Are you planning on running off?”

“Don’t be ridiculous!” said Bardin “I-I mean no that’s not it at all. I just wanted to tell you how I felt that’s all”.

“Well that’s very sweet of you”, said Bengo “Julian was saying just now downstairs that perhaps we should try and capture the Clown Intruder. That it’s no good just keep chasing him off. What do you think of that?”

“He said the same to me when we were out”, said Bardin “It seems the only way to try and get to the bottom of all this somehow”.

Everyone decided they wanted to go into the village the next day to buy the wireless set. Once there though, Lonts charged across the road to a shop that sold various articles of outdoor sporting equipment, largely to do with skiing. Tamaz and Joby followed him, Joby yelling out in consternation. Lonts was oblivious to his threats and exclamations though, and in no time at all had selected a set of ski’s in which to cruise through the forest on.

“And just how do you expect to pay for all this?” said Joby, following him into the shop.

“They can put it on our bill”, said Lonts.

“We haven’t got a bloody bill!” said Joby.

“Well we can start one, Joby”, said Lonts, as though explaining things to a halfwit “We just tell them we’re at the Old Mill-House, the place where Kieran lives, everyone must have heard of it by now”.

“You’re the bleedin’ limit you are!” said Joby.

Bardin burst into the shop, blowing his whistle frantically.

“You’re too late, mate”, Joby sighed “The Yeti has spoken!”

Tamaz was speechless with awed admiration at Lonts’s smash-and-grab shopping tactics. Bardin drifted back out into the street, and found Bengo deep in conversation with Dobley.

“What’s going on?” said Bardin.

“Nothing”, said Bengo “We’re just talking!”

“What happened to you the other night?” said Dobley, in injured tones “I thought you might have come and seen me after the show”.

“What for?” said Bardin “After your abysmal performance I couldn’t think of anything to say!”

“Well what do you expect in a backwater like this?” said Dobley “That audience would have defeated anybody!”

“Don’t blame the audience, it was entirely your own fault!” said Bardin “It’s only a bad performer who blames his audience”.

(Bengo quietly refrained from mentioning the numerous times Bardin had raged about That Miserable Bloody Audience Who Wouldn’t Know A Good Laugh If It Was Shoved Up Their Arses).

“Bardy, I think we should go and have a quiet drink”, said Bengo, firmly grabbing Bardin by his coat.

“Really I do think Bengo would have made a wonderful little diplomat”, said Adam, bringing over two glasses of beer for himself and Julian, who was sitting on the other side of the bar-room from the clowns “He has a terrific knack for smoothing over difficult situations”.

“Honed from a lifetime of practice”, said Julian “From having to cope with someone as prickly as Bardin!”

Suddenly there was a terrible commotion in the foyer. A little man, who looked scared out of his wits, was yelling for the attention of the Town Constable, who was enjoying a pint and a pipe by the wood-burning stove near the doorway.

“My wife is dead!” yelled the little man “Come at once! She’s dead!”

Bardin also got to his feet and followed them out of the pub. The little man had made such a row that people were beginning to gather in the street, anxious to know what was going on. Among them was Kieran, whom the little man immediately latched onto.

“Come at once!” he cried “Come at once!”

“An autopsy needs to be performed on the body”, said Ransey, standing in the doorway of the little man’s bathroom, talking to the Town Constable “There is no way she died of natural causes”.

The Town Constable gave another shuddering look at the body in the bath-tub.

“An autopsy?” he said “Up here? The next train arrival isn’t due until the beginning of January. Even if we can get someone to come up here that quickly … look, there’s a chance she died of heart-failure, I mean ...”

“What?!” Ransey exclaimed “Go back to the old days you mean? When all the Gorgon’s victims were registered as ‘heart-failure’! I thought we’d moved on from then!”

“Oh come now”, the Town Constable gulped “She hasn’t been gorgonised!”

“No, but something’s attacked her!” said Ransey “Look at her face, something’s taken bites out of it for God’s sake!”

The Town Constable had no wish to look at the face of the victim yet again, and putting a handkerchief to his mouth moved into the bedroom adjoining the bathroom.

“What a place”, he said, when he had recovered himself “How could they live like this?”

The little house was remarkable for an almost entire absence of furniture, apart from some necessary cooking equipment, and two chairs by the fireplace downstairs. Going by the blackened ceiling of the living-room it was clear a fire had broken out in the room at some time.

“From what I can gather”, said Ransey “He had to sell a lot of their stuff because he couldn’t work anymore. His wife was so insane she needed constant looking after. He used to put her in the bath and lock the door, whilst he went out to do the shopping. What a life!”

“She was a good-looking woman once”, said the Town Constable, reflectively “To end up like this …”

“Well we can’t leave the body in there”, said Ransey “It has to be removed. I take it you do have morgue facilities in this town? Right, well get it transferred there. She should be buried as soon as possible. If by some miracle we manage to get an official inquest at a later date, she’ll have to be exhumed. But DON’T go asking the doctor to put ‘death by natural causes’ on her death certificate! We all know those tricks from the bad old days under the vampires, everything swept under the carpet, that is NOT going to happen now! She died by foul means, and I want that known!”

“But in God’s name what could have done that?” said the Town Constable “She hadn’t just been bitten, something had been SUCKING her innards out of her!”

“The poor woman may have been a catalyst”, said Kieran, sitting by the fire at the Old Mill-House early that evening with Ransey. The others were grouped solemnly round the new wireless set on the other side of the room, getting it tuned in. “Or perhaps I should say some sort of human generator. Her husband was telling me that she suddenly went completely insane over a period of a few days last winter, and never recovered her senses again. I believe something was preying on her, using her own energies to feed off”.

“By all accounts she remained, physically I mean, a very healthy woman”, said Ransey “Strong as an ox. She must have been quite a handful to take care of, considering he’s not exactly a body-builder!”

“That’s what I don’t understand”, said Kieran “The vampires wanted people’s bodies to feed on. A victim of a sustained vampire-attack would become more and more ill and frail, those that weren’t killed outright I mean. Yet as you say, she remained physically fit and strong. It was her MIND that collapsed and became feeble. Whatever this was that was using her for the past year was sucking the life out of her mind, not her body”.

“But her body to me looked like the victim of a classic vampire-attack”, said Ransey, as confused as Kieran was “The bite-marks, the inner veins and arteries sucked out …”

“Perhaps it had finally finished with her mind”, said Kieran “And decided to finish off, as it were, with her body, like rounding off a meal! And that is what we now have to be most concerned about. This THING, whatever it is, now considers itself able enough to manage without her mind. It’s got what it wanted, it feels it can function alone. If this is a vampire then it’s successfully re-generated itself”.

“The vampires came out of the slime originally”, said Ransey “I think we need to get inside that house and examine it carefully”.

“Quite”, said Kieran “That lady perhaps just had the chronic misfortune to be living in the wrong house at the wrong time”.

The others had managed to get the wireless re-tuned, and it was now picking up the climate conditions for people climbing in the Thet Mountains. Other than one report that the group in one area – some distance from Marlsblad - should return to base immediately because of a drastic downturn in conditions, there was very little to report.

The night likewise passed, somewhat mercifully considering the events of the day, uneventfully.

The next morning Adam had a chaotic time (even more than usual it seemed) getting the breakfasts served and eaten. At one point he said he felt as though he was in charge of the school refectory. Afterwards everyone departed to their various chores, except Julian who went upstairs to have a bath in front of the fire in the back bedroom. Farnol went into the little scullery to wash up, most inconveniently followed by Mieps, who wanted to measure him up for a new jumper she was knitting.

“Freaky, could you give the stairs a brush down?” said Adam “They’re looking rather messy”.

“Me?” said Tamaz “Why can’t Toppy do it? It sounds like his kind of job”.

“Toppy is very busy with other things”, said Adam “Now get on with it, or I shall administer some suitable chastisement”.

Tamaz hissed and snatched the dustpan-and-brush from him. There came an impertinent-sounding rap at the front door.

“Is it HIM?” Bengo gasped “Is he coming round in daylight now?”

“Bengo, we are allowed to have normal people come to the door you know, not just nutcases!” said Adam.

“That’ll be the day!” Joby growled.

Adam opened the door and was dismayed to find Piers and Josh standing there.

“Oh what on earth do you two want?” he sighed.

“We are not after anything”, said Piers “Simply paying a neighbourly call”.

“Then I suppose that means we have to let you in”, said Adam, standing back to let them pass.

Tamaz watched through the banisters with some trepidation as Joby let out a sound that distinctly resembled a demonic growl.

“Have you had breakfast then?” said Piers, surveying the kitchen table which Bengo was in the middle of clearing.

“I knew it!” said Joby “I knew they’d be bloody after summat, it never fails! Neighbourly call my arse!”

“I can’t remember the last time we had a decent meal”, said Josh.

“Oh for God’s sake!” said Adam “Surely even you two can manage to knock up some eggs and bacon between you?!”

“We can’t afford to always be eating at the pub”, Josh went on.

Adam reached a book down from one of the shelves.

“A little Christmas present for you”, he said, handing it to Josh “It’s a sort of cookery book for complete idiots”.

“You must have taught Bengo using that one!” Hoowie chortled.

“Does he have to be indoors during the daytime, Adam?” Bengo wailed.

“Hoowie, why don’t you go outside and collect some more logs?” said Adam.

“I collected some earlier”, Hoowie protested.

“Well collect some more!” said Adam “And Joby, perhaps you could do with a little break. Put your coat on and go and see Patsy in the stables”.

Joby pulled off his apron whilst glaring viciously at Josh, and then grabbed his coat before slamming out of the glass doors at the back of the house.

“I’m going upstairs to break the joyful news to Julian that you’re here”, said Adam “Bengo, you’d better put the kettle on”.

“I always knew Piers could be somewhat obtuse at the best of times”, said Adam, as Julian towelled himself dry upstairs “But it really doesn’t matter how rude we are to him, he still keeps coming back”.

“Punch his lights out, that might work!” said Julian.

“Really Jules, I do think we might try and find a more civilised solution than that!” said Adam.

“That’s the only thing that does work on Piers!” said Julian “When we were tots, my grandfather gave us both a set of boxing-gloves, you know, to try and make men of us”.

“Oh yes”, said Adam “The sort of thing my father would have done!”

“They had to be taken away again soon after”, said Julian “Because I thrashed the living daylights out of the little squirt!”

“Yes well I have enough to worry about with making sure that Joby and Josh don’t come to blows again!” said Adam “Without you and Piers starting as well!”

“Perhaps we should leave it to you”, Julian chuckled “You’re the GBH veteran around here!”

“Well if that’s the only constructive thing you have to say”, said Adam “I shall go back downstairs”.

“Now come back in here”, said Julian, taking his hand and gently pulling him back into the room “Come and tell Uncle Julian all about it”.

“Not if Uncle Julian’s going to behave like a complete prat I won’t!” said Adam, sitting down on the nearest bed.

“You have to give me time, old dear”, said Julian, starting to get dressed “After all, for years all I kept hearing from you was what an absolute sweetie Piers is, and now …”

“Alright, go on, crow!” said Adam “Well Piers isn’t the Piers that I remember that’s all, although I guess what we’re seeing now has always been there, it’s just got more apparent as he’s got older. But really, I can’t have them turning up like this, they upset everybody in the house!”

“Oh they’re just on the scrounge that’s all”, said Julian “They’re two professional scroungers, I don’t know why they don’t go the whole hog and sit in the street rattling a begging-bowl!”

“But we can’t have them coming out here every time they want a meal!” said Adam.

“They won’t”, said Julian “It’s not as if we live right next door to them is it! Can you really see those two trudging through the forest every time they’re hungry?”

“Yes quite frankly I can!” said Adam “It’s only a quarter-of-a-mile, nothing to two professional scroungers as you put it. But they poison the whole atmosphere here with their negativity. Anyway, I really must get back downstairs. I can’t leave poor little Bengo to do everything”.

“Where’s Joby then?” said Julian.

“I sent him out to the stables”, said Adam “He’s likely to do himself a serious damage if he spends longer than 30 seconds in the same room with Josh! That’s how bad it is!”

“O.K O.K”, said Julian “I’ll come down as well, and tell Piers to sling his hook, in no uncertain terms!”

To Adam’s great consternation Hegley announced that he would go back to the village with Piers and Josh, and work (as Julian described it) as “a sort of au pair for them”.

“But they’ll treat you like an unpaid skivvy!” Adam protested to Hegley, after drawing him to one side to speak to him confidentially “Both of them are completely bone-idle!”

“Oh I can handle that”, said Hegley “You’ve all been very kind to me and everything, but I guess I lived on my own too long. I can’t handle being around so many people all the time”.

“Yes I can see it’s a bit much for you at times”, said Adam “It’ll be easier in the summer I believe, as we can use the forest a lot more, but in this weather we’re all cooped up”.

Whilst Hegley was getting his few meagre possessions together, Josh demanded the opportunity to speak to Joby alone. Surprisingly, Joby agreed to this, but only because he believed that it would get rid of Josh quicker. They went out onto the terrace at the back of the house.

“There are things about that village that give me the creeps”, said Josh “Particularly after what happened to that woman”.

“Look”, said Joby “If you’re angling to get invited to live here …”

“Why the hell should I wanna live here?” said Josh “Out here in the sticks with you lot?! You must be joking!”

“Well what’s all this about then?” said Joby.

“I just thought you’d like to know that there are things going on in that village that are really weird”, said Josh.

Ransey had instructed each of them to be on the ‘ear-out’ for any gossip, however trivial it might seem, so Joby agreed to listen.

“At night”, said Josh “I can hear things, noise travels more at night”.

“What sort of things?” said Joby.

“There’s this bloke I hear screaming”, said Josh “It does my head in. Real horrible screams I mean, like he’s in complete agony, as though he’s being tortured”.

“Where’s it coming from?” said Joby.

“I don’t know”, said Josh “Those houses are all so packed together, it could be coming from any one of ‘em. But what’s really getting to me is that nobody else seems to hear it, sometimes I’m starting to think I’m going mad!”

“Don’t Piers hear it then?” said Joby.

“No, I sometimes think he’s as deaf as a bleedin’ post”, said Josh “He don’t hear anything! Somebody was having some work done on their pipes next door, right bloody racket, and he couldn’t hear that!”

“O.K”, said Joby “It might be useful Hegley coming to join you then”.

“I keep wondering if it’s anything to do with that Frenchman”, said Josh.

“Frenchman?” said Joby “Oh bloody hell, you mean Sade? I’d forgotten all about him!”

“I met him out in the street this morning”, said Josh “Didn’t speak to him or anything, he just gave me a funny look. God, those eyes of his!”

“I know”, said Joby “Cold, nothing behind ‘em. And you think he’s making the screaming noises?”

“I dunno about making ‘em”, said Josh “More like causing ‘em!”

“I’ll tell Kieran anyway”, said Joby “He might be able to make summat of it all”.

“Kindred spirits if you ask me”, said Josh “Him and Sade”.

“Look Josh, for the last fucking time, I won’t say this to you again!” said Joby “Number one rule with me, you don’t slag off Kieran, alright? I know you don’t like him, but I don’t expect he likes you very much!”

“Yeah well he’s weird ent he!” said Josh.

“You can talk!” said Joby.

“It’s his voice more ‘en anything”, said Josh.

“He can’t help being Irish!” said Joby.

“No I mean it’s all sort of soft and shifty”, said Josh.

“Just ‘cos he don’t grunt like some brain-dead trog like you do”, said Joby “Doesn’t mean he’s shifty!”

“Oh boys!” Adam had opened one of the glass doors “Piers wants to go home, are you ready to leave, Josh?”

Joby sniggered, with some satisfaction it must be said.

After the visitors had left, taking Hegley with them, Adam decided to scold all the ones he held responsible for making Hegley unwelcome, namely Julian, Kieran, Joby and Bardin.

“As far as you were concerned Jules, he didn’t even have a name!” said Adam “You addressed him as ‘The Poacher’ all the time”.

“Well he is!” said Julian “And he’ll be up to his old tricks again in no time, believe me! Piers and Josh will be sending him out into the forest to catch their dinner for them”.

“And if they do”, said Adam “I don’t want anybody giving him a hard time, particularly firing a gun at him!” he glared at Kieran.

Bengo also felt Bardin had been unfair on Hegley, and stared forbiddingly at his partner during the telling-off. Eventually Bardin slammed across to the commode and pulled the door shut behind him. He immediately shot out of it again like a cuckoo clock.

“No toilet-paper!” he yelled “TOPPY!”

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