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Julian turned over a new page in his log-book.
"JUNE THE 23RD. MIDSUMMER'S EVE. ALTHOUGH THE WEATHER HERE MAKES IT FEEL MORE LIKE CHRISTMAS EVE. STRONG WINDS, ENDLESS RAIN. OTHERWISE VERY LITTLE TO REPORT".
Tamaz finished laying out his set of playing-cards in the pattern that most Ghoomers used when trying to read into the immediate future. He wasn't happy with what he saw and swiped them angrily from the table in his room at the Ministry Headquarters. The cards scattered across the floor. Normally he would have ignored them and left them for his room-steward to pick up, but he was distracted by the one and only card that remained on the table. The Ace of Spades. Upside down. Death.
"Oh dear", he laughed "The Slime Man is returning. And about time too!"
Kieran and Joby stood on watch-duty on the poop-deck. Their yellow oilskin jackets were the only splash of colour in an endless vista of greyness, with very little of anything discernible through the gloom. The water was very choppy, and they were constantly having to grab each other for support.
"It makes you sick", said Joby, who could feel the rain seeping into just about every part of his body "There's that lot all tucked up below deck, snoring their heads off. How much longer have we got before we can turn in?"
"Not long at all", said Kieran "Ransey and Hillyard should be relieving us shortly".
"And not before time".
"Just think how wonderful it will be to get these oilskins off and sink into bed".
"Oh shut up, you're torturing me".
The boat gave a sudden lurch to one side, throwing them both off their balance, and making them land with hard slaps on the floor of the deck.
"Fuck, that didn't feel right", said Joby, struggling to right himself.
"How do you mean?"
"I think something's pulling on the anchor chain. It might've got caught in something, it's yanking us to one side".
"We'd better check", said Kieran, but before he could move Uddle climbed over the bulwark. Still in his grimy vest and trousers, still with his knife between his teeth. He looked no different to the evening when he had climbed out of the air-vent and threatened Kieran.
"This isn't possible", said Joby "He can't be fucking human! This isn't possible!"
Kieran reached into the inside pocket of his jacket for the spare revolver, which Julian insisted one member of the watch should carry. He released the safety-catch, aimed it at Uddle and fired twice. The barrel clicked disconsolately. Not a damn thing was happening. Uddle grinned as though he'd been expecting this.
"Kieran!" Joby cried, in despair.
"The focking thing's jammed, it's not firing".
Kieran threw it at Uddle, who caught it deftly and hurled it out into the sea. Then he tucked the knife in the waistband of his trousers, and grabbed Kieran by his long hair. He got him in a bear-hug and then, seemingly with little effort at all, turned him upside down, until Kieran's hair was gently touching the surface of the deck.
"What do you want?" Joby bellowed "Put him down!"
"Start undressing", said Uddle, still keeping a close grip on Kieran.
"You're bloody mad", said Joby "It's freezing out here".
Uddle wasn't even shivering, so he obviously didn't think so.
"Start undressing", he said, again "If you don't your little friend becomes whale-meat".
To illustrate his point he lifted Kieran over the side of the boat.
"Alright!" said Joby "I'll do whatever you say, but bring him back. Please".
Uddle lifted Kieran back onto the deck, but he still kept him upside-down. Joby peeled off his oilskin jacket, and then slowly began to untie the laces on his boots. He hoped Uddle would be satisfied with a very slow strip-tease, as the longer he took the sooner Ransey and Hillyard might appear. Uddle though was having nothing to do with such tactics.
"Hurry it!" he yelled.
In the full knowledge that it would only take Uddle a matter of seconds to toss Kieran over the side into the icy waters, Joby began to strip more hurriedly. The more layers he removed the more he shivered, until in the end he could barely keep his fingers still enough to undo any buttons. He had got down to his thermal shorts before Uddle told him to stop.
"Pull them down", he said, still holding Kieran like an upside-down mop "To your knees".
Hating Uddle with a vengeance, Joby pulled his shorts down to his knees. He suddenly had a very good idea as to why Uddle hadn't wanted him to remove the garment entirely. With it wrapped around his knees he was incapable of moving far or with much speed, not without falling flat on his face at any rate.
Uddle dropped Kieran, who landed painfully on his shoulders. Before Kieran could scramble to his feet though Uddle had grabbed his hair again and forced him into a kneeling position. He slowly drew a small wooden mallet out of his pocket.
Joby wondered briefly where the lunatic could possibly have laid his hands on that in the middle of the ocean, but was primarily more concerned with what he was going to do with it. His first thought was that he was going to attack Kieran with it. Shivering madly he begged Uddle to reconsider. Uddle shook his head as if to say "you really don't get it do you?"
"Grab your wang", he said, brusquely.
"No!" Kieran cried "Joby, run for it. Get the others".
"I can't", said Joby "He'll chuck you over".
"Clever boy", said Uddle "Hold out your wang".
Joby put his hand on his limp penis, which had retreated about as far as it could get from the cold air. He had a fair idea what Uddle was planning to do, and he wondered how the hell you were supposed to prepare yourself for such torture ... where were the others? They were right over Julian's cabin. Couldn't he hear anything?
"It's not gonna work like that", said Uddle "Drop it again".
Joby did so, but instinctively he crossed his hands in front of his penis for protection.
"To the sides!" Uddle barked.
Reluctantly Joby dropped his hands to his sides. Uddle screamed like some unearthly creature and rushed at Joby. He hammered Joby in the balls with the mallet. Joby crumpled to his knees, whimpering. Kieran slid across the deck to catch him in his arms.
Meanwhile Ransey appeared on the steps and blasted a sizeable chunk out of the side of Uddle's head. Uddle staggered but astonishingly didn't drop to the floor. Ransey lowered the revolver and shot Uddle in the pelvis. Blood spurted from Uddle's balls and stained the front of his trousers. This did make Uddle drop. He sat on his knees groaning, much in the same way Joby was doing.
"I'll shove him over the side", said Hillyard, appearing on the poop-deck.
"No, that wasn't enough last time", said Kieran, who had removed his oilskin jacket and was now wrapping Joby in it.
"He's quite right", said Ransey "Tie him up with some hemp, Hillyard. We'll lash him to the stern of the boat and drag him along behind us. The sharks'll get him eventually".
Joby looked up as Finia came back into the cabin, carrying a handful of objects.
"There's not much in the First Aid tin that can help you", he said "Except some cream to try and alleviate the soreness perhaps. It might help to calm down the throbbing".
"Yeah well, when you set off on a tugboat you don't expect to get your nuts crushed by a lunatic, do you?" Joby croaked, feeling that for two pins he would howl like a dog and never stop.
"This might help though", said Finia, holding up an item of underwear.
"A jock-strap?" said Joby, in disgust "Old men wear those! Old men and poofter body-builders".
"It's Julian's actually", Finia giggled "I just thought if you wore it for a little while it'd give you some support, take the weight off them, then they won't ache so much".
"How come you know so much about it?" said Joby, leaning back against the wall wearily "Your balls must be a distant memory by now".
"Maybe, but there's not much you can tell me about that part of the human anatomy. Do you want me to put some cream on for you, or would you rather I got Kieran to do it?"
"You're a pretty tempting offer in that nightie", Joby managed a weak chuckle "but I'll wait til Kieran's finished giving His Lordship his report".
"Glad you're keeping your spirits up".
"The brandy helps", said Joby, nudging the empty glass which lolled on the bunk against his thigh "I can't help feeling angry though. Angry and humiliated".
"Well take comfort in one thing at least", said Finia "Hillyard told me just now that the sharks have already had a pretty good go at the creep. He's like a huge lump of gristle on the end of a rope. I'd like to see the bastard come back from that one".
"Oh I don't wanna take it in", Joby rubbed his eyes wearily "It's too much for me brain to absorb".
Finia helped him into the jock-strap as gently as he could, and was patting his shoulder reassuringly when Adam walked in.
"Patsy won't be long", he said "And Lonts is just making us all a hot drink".
"Brilliant", said Joby, sarcastically "All the problems in the world can be solved over a mug of cocoa, including having your prick hammered".
"I'll go and give Lonts a hand", Finia sighed, and left the room.
"It's been quite a night hasn't it?" said Adam, sitting down beside him on the bunk.
"What the hell was he, Adam?" Joby sobbed "He can't have been human, I mean, how could he be? We put him ashore at the Brimstone Peninsula. How did he get from there to here so quickly, and then swim out here without freezing to death? I just don't understand".
"Haven't you guessed who he was?" said Adam, quietly.
"The Slime Man", said Joby "I only guessed after it was all over. A shape-shifter. Not human. But he's had umpteen chances to destroy us over the past six months, why wait til now?"
"I think he was enjoying himself too much", said Adam "Was biding his time, building up to the grand finale, which was what he had in mind when he threatened Patsy that time. I've only worked it out this evening. There was something about him that always rang a bell with me. It was his obsession with punishment. He was the one who was terrorising the eunuch whores in the City the winter before last".
"Have we seen the last of him?" said Joby "'Cos I sure hope so. Once he made me go blind in one eye, and now he's tried to emasculate me. I don't wanna meet him again in a hurry!"
"I don't think he can return this time. He hasn't got a shape left to change anymore. What I think is more worrying is that he was obviously in league with the Ghoomers all along".
"Tamaz arranged it?"
"I wouldn't like to say, but I wouldn't be surprised by any means".
Late the following morning Joby hobbled into Julian's cabin. His whole pelvic region ached intolerably, and throbbed and burned in a way so agonising he could never have imagined.
"You wanted to see me, Julian?" he said, breathless with the exertion of moving about.
"Er ... no, not really", Julian finished rolling up a map, whilst looking strangely embarrassed.
"Suit yourself", Joby shrugged "But Adam said you did".
"This is all rather embarrassing", Julian sighed, indicating for him to sit down "It's entirely Adam's idea. He's always wanting to help people and interfere, saving the world. He's got more of his father in him than he would probably care to admit".
"What's this gotta do with you not really wanting to see me?" said Joby, adjusting his robe so that the jock-strap, which he was embarrassed about, couldn't be seen.
"I do want to see you, but Adam, in his foolishness, thinks I may be able to help you with your current problem".
"Oh yeah?" said Joby, suspiciously "How?"
"Because I was impotent once", Julian sighed "After Gabriel had cursed me, all those years ago".
"But I'm not impotent!" Joby exclaimed "Just temporarily out of action that's all".
"That is exactly what I think. But Adam wouldn't cease from nagging me until I agreed to see you, what he rather touchingly calls a 'little counselling session'".
"And I'm not off me fucking head either!"
"No. But Adam is. Has been for years in fact. It's rather sad really. He showed such promise as a boy".
Joby burst out laughing, which at least had the effect of relaxing Julian.
"Care to join me in a little tipple?" said Julian, taking a bottle of brandy from the drawer of his desk.
Whilst he poured two generous measures into two glasses, Joby could hear Lonts singing wordlessly in the galley next door.
"How are your meat and two veg, or is that a silly question under the circumstances?" asked Julian, as he passed Joby a glass.
"I keep telling meself that the throbbing should ease off eventually", said Joby "I have to be concerned more with stopping Kieran from blaming himself for it all".
"He and Adam are so alike", Julian sat down in his chair and stretched out his long legs "With any luck you won't have suffered any permanent damage though".
"Only time will tell on that one", said Joby "Other thoughts keep haunting me instead. Such as Uddle being towed alone behind us, being eaten by the sharks. Or him really being the Slime Man, and us harbouring him all these months, against our knowledge".
"He's gone now", said Julian, simply "It'll be interesting to see if you hang straight after this?"
"Is that all you're concerned about?" Joby snorted with laughter.
"One must get one's priorities right", Julian topped up Joby's glass and then re-filled his own "I'm sure you'd rather talk about such mundane facts of life, than listen to Adam bleating over you as though you're about to give birth to kittens".
"I'm more likely to get pneumonia", said Joby "The poop-deck during an Antarctic winter is not the ideal place to begin my stripping career".
"You are taking it very well", said Julian "Probably a lot better than I would be".
"Not really. There's a lot of crap still to come out of me system. But the more upset I get about it the more Kieran looks like he wants to shoot himself, and I can't have that. Particularly as none of it was his fault. But I know how he feels. You do feel helpless at such times. I remember at Mundaba Heights, when Gabriel humiliated him at that horrible lunch-party, there was nothing I could do to stop it, and yet I felt I'd let him down. I hadn't been able to prevent it happening to him".
"Love hurts, as the old saying goes".
"Yeah, and I think it hurts us more when something happens to them, than to us".
"That's certainly true", said Julian, sombrely "Do you get much sleep in that cabin with Adam coughing continuously the way he does?"
"We're not allowed to mention it. We know it's more trouble than it's worth if we do".
"Selfish idiot", Julian rasped "He doesn't seem to care that we all worry about him".
"It's more a case of he doesn't want to worry about himself", said Joby "It is hard for the rest of us, knowing that one day one of us has got to be the first one to die. And if Adam goes, that's it. The end of the three. Me and Kieran'll be on our own".
Two days further on and they were slowly leaving the icy waters behind. The sun got warm enough for Joby to sit out on deck for a while, and the water, which hitherto had been choppy and grey, actually began to sparkle again.
Ransey improvised a shower-unit by knocking a few holes in the bottom of a bucket and attaching it to a hose on the forward deck. Showering in sea-water wasn't ideal, but it was the first proper wash they'd had in some time.
Uddle's bloody carcass, which had been trailing along behind them on a length of rope, was now considered to be sufficiently harmless to be turned loose. Hillyard severed the roe, and waved goodbye facetiously as the lump of chewed gristle sank to the bottom of the ocean.
"We should soon be in Zilligot Bay", said Julian, lying face-down on his bunk later, whilst Hillyard gave him a massage "It'll be our first brush with civilisation since ... good grief, since leaving Lixix. I bet you can't wait to get ashore and paint the town red".
"Not really", said Hillyard, kneading the stiff joints in Julian's shoulders.
"You surprise me. I thought no man would be safe from you after all these months at sea".
"I've hardly been going without have I! Anyway, by all accounts Zilligot Bay is hardly a thriving metropolis".
"That's certainly true", Julian stretched luxuriously "It must feel very strange massaging me after all those years of attending to Tinkerbell".
"There's more of you", Hillyard paused to apply some lotion to Julian's back.
"I can never understand why a strapping boy like you has never found the right person".
"I'm hardly a boy, Julian. I'm nearly forty! Almost as old as you".
"Do you miss the scene in the City? For someone who likes haunting bars and clubs like you do, you never seem to miss them very much when you're away from them".
"They're just something to do that's all", Hillyard shrugged "A way of passing the evening. I don't think I'll be doing it so much when we get back though".
"Doesn't seem any point. I used to get fed up with 'em pretty quick anyway. The people seem so false, all over you like prickly heat, but it don't mean nothing. I think I'm getting too old for it".
"You certainly seem to have got quieter these past few months. Almost hard-working and conscientious".
"I spose I've just realised I want more out of life than wandering from bar to bar, looking for something vaguely interesting. And perhaps I'm just grateful to still be alive".
"Not a bad feeling. There are plenty that aren't".
"Quite, and it's gonna come for us all soon enough. Illness and death. I hope we get the Castle back one day, if not I think we should look for another desert island".
"And you won't have to be celibate this time".
"No, getting quite self-contained aren't we!"
On the morning they sailed into Zilligot Bay, Adam found blood on his pillowcase again. This wasn't unusual. He coughed a lot in the night these days, and blood was often found mixed in with the saliva the following morning. He was both afraid and embarrassed by it, and he tore the slip off the pillow and bundled it to the bottom of his bunk. He could keep it concealed there for some time, as no bedlinen was being laundered these days, and he hoped no one would remark on his pillow being naked.
The weather had turned much warmer, quite tropical in fact, and Adam hoped this would ease his discomfort at nights. It was certainly nice not to have to worry about the freezing cold air causing his lungs to constrict and make him breathless.
"We're getting ready to go ashore, Ada", said Julian, walking into the cabin so suddenly that Adam jumped "Hey steady on. You're acting like a man with a guilty conscience".
"Don't talk nonsense", said Adam, trying to sound playful.
"Finia's going to stay here with you", said Julian "Which I'm quite relieved about. I always get nervous where he's concerned in strange places, particularly after what happened in Lixix".
"You know how I feel about Lo-Lo then too".
"Don't worry, I won't let him out of my sight".
"I really don't want him going into bars with the others", said Adam "I know it makes me sound like a kill-joy but ..."
"I don't think they're planning on getting legless, for a change", said Julian "Mainly picking up supplies. I'm going to hire a buggy for the afternoon and drive up to the fruit farm in the hills, pick up some fresh stuff".
"We could certainly all do with it".
"I'll take Lonts with me. As I said, he won't leave my sight for an instant. I'll put him on a leash if necessary", said Julian "And considering he's going to be wearing his white outfit, that wouldn't be such a bad idea!"
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