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He lay in bed for several days, occasionally getting visits from the others ("to see if he was still alive"), but more often than not he licked his wounds in peace like an injured animal. By the end of the week he felt sufficiently bored to go downstairs, where he found Kieran sitting on his desk in the library drinking a glass of brandy.
"Hilly!" he exclaimed "Glad to see you downstairs. You've still got time to get ready".
"Ready for what?"
"Adam and Julian are taking Joby and the baby for dinner in the village. You could join them if you like. Do you good to get out".
"Is that wise?" said Hillyard "For them to go down there I mean".
"Do you suggest we all hide away up here just 'cos there's a bunch of thugs on the loose?"
"No, but they wouldn't be able to fight them", Hillyard protested "Adam and Julian are too old, there's nothing to Joby, and I think it's irresponsible to take the baby out".
"Cobblers", Kieran snorted "I'm not turning us into fugitives because of those bastards".
"Why aren't you going then?"
"Boxes of bloody documents came by special delivery this afternoon. Ransey, to coin his favourite ominous phrase, wants to Go Through Them with me. His idea of a fun Saturday night".
"I'll stay in as well then".
"Hillyard, you are not by nature a recluse, and you'll be thoroughly miserable if you trying turning yourself into one".
"Just drop it Kieran", Hillyard snapped "You don't know what it's like".
"Oh don't I just!" said Kieran, pouring himself another brandy "I should know plenty about being beaten up by now".
"Yea you're right, I'm sorry", Hillyard mumbled "You probably think I'm a right wimp, the way I'm carrying on".
"You know damn well I could never think any such thing".
"I-I'll go out when my eye's healed up a bit more", said Hillyard "I feel a bit vulnerable going out like this, as though I'd got me underpants on over my trousers".
"Have you any idea how much longer they're going to be?" Julian bellowed, entering the room.
"Who?" said Kieran.
"Your lovely consorts", said Julian "By the time we leave it'll hardly be worth going. What are they doing anyway? If that's not a leading question".
"Adam's helping Joby to look presentable", said Kieran.
"I realise that task could take an inordinate length of time", said Julian "But I would like to get there this side of next Christmas".
"I'll go and hurry them along", said Kieran.
"He was on at me to join you", said Hillyard, after Kieran had left "But I can't face the world looking like this".
"Quite", said Julian "You'd be a shock to anyone of a nervous disposition".
"Oh take no notice of me", said Julian, kicking a log on the fire "I'm in a bad mood".
"I had noticed".
"You'd be very welcome to come if you wanted to, I could do with some stimulating conversation. It was bad enough when Adam went and invited his oversized baby along, (who will do nothing but eat and drink everything in sight and have to be carted to the lavatory on a regular basis), but then he went and invited Joby too".
"Joby's alright", said Hillyard.
"I have yet to see much evidence of that", said Julian "His looks are most kindly described as 'unusual', he lacks charm to a quite astonishing degree, and his level of conversation seems limited to the words 'bog off'".
"He takes a bit of work sometimes", said Hillyard "But he's a nice bloke deep down".
"It never ceases to amaze me how someone so blessed with looks as Kieran should choose Joby as the love of his life. I know opposites are said to attract, but that's taking it a bit far".
"We don't choose the love of our life though do we?" said Hillyard "Fate chooses 'em for us".
"I always knew fate had a weird sense of humour", said Julian.
"You have such an unusual face Joby", said Adam, smoothing gel onto Joby's hair "It makes me want to cry".
"Yea, it often has that effect on me too", said Joby, sitting slouched on the chair in front of the dressing-table in his robe.
"What are you wearing tonight?" said Adam.
"What I usually wear when I go out", said Joby "A shirt and trousers".
"Shame we can't find something else for you".
"I suppose I could ask Finia if I could borrow one of his dresses", said Joby, sarcastically.
"One thing I can't imagine you as is a transvestite Joby", Adam laughed.
"Well it doesn't matter what I wear", said Joby "I look pretty peculiar in most things. You're wasting your time tarting me up. I'm not Lonts you know".
"You have your good points too, like your smoky-grey eyes, and your hawk-like nose. You should smile more Joby. It transforms your face".
"I will when Kieran stops being president", said Joby.
"Not been easy for you has it?" said Adam "You've never enjoyed public life".
"I always felt I was all wrong for it that's why", said Joby "Not like you. You always had poise, you're what people expect a consort to be. Whereas me, I'm this ugly commoner who's usually got his hands in manure. I can't help feeling I let everyone down".
"Joby that's nonsense. You are extremely popular. Men respect your insistence on being yourself. After all, we all get tired of poseurs, and there are enough of those around. Anyway, it makes you a perfect foil for Patsy. You're a good team".
"Like you and Julian", said Joby "No I'm not being funny, I mean it".
"He's a great help to me with Lonts", said Adam "Julian has a tremendous amount of patience with him. But because he's such a crotchety old thing most of the time no one notices".
"I hope Lonts isn't too much of a strain for you these days", said Joby "I know Kieran gets worried that when Lonts misbehaves it puts a strain on you".
"Things are getting easier actually", said Adam "Because I get worked up too easily I've passed a lot of Lonts's reprimands, when he needs them, onto Julian. Lo-Lo's so wary of him that Julian hasn't had cause to resort to any smacks yet".
"You wouldn't let him would you?"
"Don't worry, Lonts would have to commit serious misdemeanours before I let Jules loose on him. At the moment the threat is quite sufficient, and Julian wouldn't do anything without my say-so. I can trust him".
"So", Joby sighed "All we need to do is get Hillyard and Ransey settled down now".
"With Hillyard it would be difficult", said Adam "With Ransey it's nigh-on impossible".
The pub was busy but more subdued than the theatre had been earlier in the week. Adam was grateful for this, as Lonts could sometimes get agitated by noisy crowds. Likewise he was glad that the lighting at their end was low-key, as at least it enabled them to eat in the shadows, with a modicum of privacy.
"It's quite extraordinary", said Julian, who had been drinking red wine too quickly for Adam's ease, as he recognised the particular belligerent tone that was beginning to creep into his friend's voice "Out of us four sitting here, Joby is the only one who's ever had sex with a woman".
"What brought that on?" said Joby.
"Nothing, I'm just saying", said Julian "How many women did you have in our time Joby?"
"Not nearly enough".
"Including our beloved president's wife I believe?"
"Julian", said Adam, in a warning voice.
"What's your problem?" said Julian "We're all men together, we can discuss these things without embarrassment".
"Julian, it's got nothing to do with you", Adam hissed.
"I'm interested in people", Julian protested "And you're always saying what a little go-er he is, and he has this scarlet past, and it all fits so incongruously with his looks and general attitude".
"Joby I'm sorry about this", said Adam "He was drinking before we left the house, it makes him impossible".
"S'alright", said Joby "Where sex is concerned he doesn't seem to have got past the age of fifteen".
"Adam I need to ..." Lonts trailed off in embarrassment, and stared down at his plate.
"I'll take him", said Joby "I could do with some fresh air".
"Why do you always have to ruin things Jules?" Adam snapped, after Joby had taken Lonts out to the toilets in the beer-garden "You had no right to ask him those things".
"He had no right to say such a bitchy thing to me", said Julian.
"You deserved it", said Adam "It also happens to be true. You can take the boy out of the public school, but you can't take the public school out of the boy".
"I don't notice you complaining normally".
"I wouldn't, if you didn't insist on showing yourself up", said Adam "I want everyone to see the good side to you, but you do your damnedest to suppress it all the time".
"Oh I know I shouldn't have mentioned Kieran's wife", said Julian, wearily "I know what a delicate subject she is, but I just wanted to rattle Joby's cage. I get so fed up with the longsuffering looks he gives me all the time, as though he can barely tolerate my existence on this earth".
"You could just try talking to him as though he's human", Adam sighed "Instead of bearing down on him like the school bully spotting a potential victim".
"How do you talk to Joby as though he's human?"
"Just be nice to him", said Adam "He's very sweet really".
"It's difficult", said Julian "I've never met anyone quite like him before. He has this English lower-class attitude of resolutely refusing to be impressed by anything, unless it's total tosh of course and then they go into raptures".
"Nonsense", said Adam "Your trouble is you're peeved because he isn't impressed by you, not that you've ever given him any cause to be".
The outside toilets at the pub had no roof, so Joby stood leaning against the doorway, staring up at the starlit sky. He was looking at the sky and for all he knew the people he had known back in his time could be looking at it as well, at the very same moment, even if the stars were in a different place. There could be parallel universes, and their time could be right next to the present one, like houses in a terrace, only they couldn't get at it because the walls were too impenetrable.
"I've finished Joby", said Lonts, emerging from a battered cubicle.
Joby gave him a warmer smile than he normally did, and he also gave the boy's hair a cursory pat.
"Are you alright Joby?" said Lonts "Only you look sad".
"Just remembering my time", said Joby.
"That must upset you. Do you miss it?"
"Sometimes", said Joby "Not as often as I thought I might have done though. I'd have missed what I've got here even more if I hadn't known this".
"Does that include knowing me?"
"Yea, that includes knowing you", said Joby "Come on, let's get back inside. It's freezing out here".
Suddenly a loud moan came from the locked cubicle next to the one Lonts had just vacated. The moan degenerated into a helpless sobbing noise. Joby and Lonts exchanged puzzled glances.
"Are you alright mate?" said Joby, pressing himself up against the cubicle door "Do you want me to fetch someone for you?"
"Joby", the voice came out as an agonised growl.
"He knows your name Joby", said Lonts, excitedly.
"He probably heard you calling it me", said Joby.
"Joby, help me", the growl came again.
"Alright", said Joby "But you'll have to unlock the door first".
There was a scratching and fumbling on the other side of the door, and then it swung open awkwardly. Angel stood there. He had been crying heavily.
"Look at the state of you", said Joby "Haven't you got any self-respect?"
"Don't leave me alone Joby", Angel cried "I'm scared".
"The Slime Man".
"The Slime Man", said Joby, in disbelief "Strewth, now I've heard everything".
"I'm telling the truth", Angel exclaimed "He was coming at me in the garden. I had to run in here and lock the door. I thought he was going to kill me. I'm telling you, he exists".
"The only place he exists Angel, is in your smack-crazed head", said Joby.
"He was real!" Angel bellowed "He had a green glow to him, and he ran so fast, took such great steps. I've never seen anybody move like that before. Like a demon he was. A demon all covered in slime. His skin looked like it was melting".
"Melting?" said Joby, faintly.
"Yea, like a candle all burnt down", Angel sniffed.
Joby remembered his last sighting of Gabriel. A revolting, melted mess. The Incredible Melting Man was how Kieran had described him soon after his inauguration.
"You're not going to leave me to walk home alone", Angel was now blubbing "I know you hate me, and you'd be glad if he killed me. But if it wasn't for me Kieran would be dead by now, and then where would you be? I've heard you say yourself, that you couldn't live without him".
"Alright", Joby sighed "You can stick with us until we get home".
Angel was noticeably nervous as they walked back across the garden to the bar, constantly looking behind him and jumping at the slightest noise. Once they were safely inside the back door of the pub though, and the warmth and the voices of the men enveloped him, Joby convinced himself that Angel really had been hallucinating. A feeling reinforced by Adam's reaction, as he was distinctly unimpressed by Angel's story.
"Amazing what the human brain can do when it's pumped full of crap", he said, cynically "Once, during my boozing days, I nearly convinced myself there was a demonic black hound under my kitchen table. I kept seeing him there. It was only when he crept out and up to my bedroom door that I decided I really needed to try and kick the habit".
"This wasn't no hallucination", said Angel, stubbornly "He was fucking real".
"I think it's time we went home", said Julian.
"Bollocks", said Joby, who was enjoying Julian's disgruntlement at having Angel sitting next to him "I haven't finished my dinner yet".
"I haven't finished mine either", said Lonts.
"Looks like you're out-numbered Julian", said Angel, raiding the bread basket.
"It must feel strange for you", said Julian "Eating food these days".
"After eating people you mean?" said Angel.
"I draw the line at having a discussion about cannibalism at the dinner-table", Adam snapped.
"You'd be surprised how many people want to know all the gory details", said Angel. He picked up Julian's wine-glass and drained the contents in one go. Julian was so incensed by this that he slapped Angel across the face, so hard that the younger man nearly fell off the bench.
"You don't intimidate me", Julian hissed "So you can forget even trying".
Adam was mightily relieved to get home, and he took Lonts up to bed immediately.
"Lonts isn't in disgrace is he?" said Ransey, encountering them on the main stairs with a wad of papers under his arm.
"Lonts's behaviour has been exemplary", said Adam "It's certain other people who shouldn't be allowed out without a minder".
"Julian I take it?" said Ransey "He only does it to wind you up".
"I know", said Adam "He always did. Goodnight".
The little room that adjoined the library was Kieran's favourite in the whole house. The walls were painted in a warm orange which, combined with the soft lighting from the lamps, gave it a very snug feel. But after the latest confrontation with Angel he felt he would have been glad never to set eyes on it again. Angel had demanded to tell him all about his encounter with the Slime Man as soon as he had got home. Kieran was deeply disturbed by what he heard.
"You know it's true don't you?" said Angel, following him around the room like an aggressive sales assistant "It's not like what that pillock Joby said, I didn't imagine it. It wasn't an hallucination. I know what I saw and you know it too".
"Yes alright Angel!" Kieran exclaimed, spinning round to face him "I don't know what the hell it was you saw but ..."
"You've seen it yourself haven't you?" said Angel, triumphantly.
"I don't know about seen exactly. I've certainly dreamt about it", said Kieran "But the dreams are so strong I can't always separate them from reality. Sometimes he's actually sitting there on the end of me bed, but I don't know if I've dreamt him sitting there, or he really is. I've had that dream twice since we came here to Wolf Castle, but I couldn't begin to say what it was".
"We think alike you and me", said Angel.
"We do not".
"You can't deny it. There's a closeness between us that you'll never have with anyone else, no matter how much you screw 'em. Our relationship goes beyond that. You know it. That's why you've never told your beloved boyfriends about what passed between us at the Loud House that time, when you sat through the night with me".
"You're a monster", said Kieran.
"Good and evil intertwined. They always were", Angel whispered, standing close to him "I need you and you need me. And when I go again you'll come with me. There's no way I'm going to go back to grubbing around eternity on my own. It's scary out there alone. So next time I face it you'll be with me".
"Leave me alone!" Kieran cried, and ran into the library, slamming the door shut behind him.
"From the anguished cry and the appalled expression I gather you've just been in Angel's delightful company", said Julian, who was sitting next to the fire, nursing a glass of brandy.
"There's never any privacy in this house", said Kieran, picking up the brandy bottle from the floor "And the way you drink it's no wonder our booze bill has to be seen to be believed".
"I haven't noticed you being too abstemious either", said Julian "You shouldn't let Angel rile you. He's not worth it".
"Do you remember the Siamese Twins that were at the circus?" said Kieran.
"The World's Last Brothers", Julian recalled "They hated each other".
"I know exactly what they went through", said Kieran "Sometimes I feel like Angel is my Siamese Twin, and that I'm doomed to be tied to him forever. I can't get away from him, he's always there. Haunting me".
"What you really should do is throw him out on his ear", said Julian "Refuse to have anything more to do with him".
"I can't", Kieran sighed "He saved my life once. I don't know why but he did and for that I owe him everything".
"As far as I see it at the moment", said Julian "He saved your life just so that he could make it a misery".
Kieran sat down behind his desk and rested his head in his hands. Julian crossed over to him and touched his head gently. Kieran seemed to sag visibly under his touch, as though Julian was absorbing his negative energy.
"I have really had enough of you this evening!" Joby bellowed, from a few feet away.
"Are you referring to me?" said Julian, jumping away from Kieran as though he'd been stung.
"Who else!" Joby exclaimed.
Julian left the room silently, and Kieran only dared look up when he had finally gone.
"I think you and me need a holiday alone together sometime", he said, smiling weakly "Away from all these distractions".
"Perhaps", Joby sighed "I don't know what to do with you at the moment. Whether to kiss you or tan your backside. Except, as Adam always says, you'd only enjoy it".
"Not the way I feel at the moment", said Kieran "I'd probably burst into tears".
"Then I'll make you a hot drink instead", said Joby.
"You missed your vocation Joby", said Kieran a short while later, as his friend wrapped a blanket around him "You'd have made a wonderful mother".
"That'd solve the world's problems wouldn't it?" said Joby, handing Kieran a mug of cocoa, and then stoking up the library fire.
"You didn't see Angel on your travels through the house?" said Kieran, leaning back against the sofa cushions.
"No. Can't say I wanted to either. He gets me so mad, the way he keeps plaguing us, that sometimes I think I'd be quite happy to put a gun to his head".
"Vanod o.d'd so perhaps Angel will do likewise eventually".
"He can't do it soon enough for me".
"Oh we shouldn't be saying these things Joby", said Kieran "There must be a way of reaching him without all this ridiculous nonsense we're engaged in. God, I find it so draining".
"That's why he does it", said Joby.
"We should be befriending him somehow", Kieran yawned, sleepily.
"No chance", said Joby "I'd rather kiss Julian, and that's saying something!"
They spent the next few hours asleep on the sofa, curled up together under the blanket. Kieran woke up suddenly during the wintry five a.m blackness. He felt so uneasy that he wondered if Angel had come into the room. He sat up and looked around him. The edges of the library had disappeared into the blackness.
The curtains had been left undrawn and the night was pressing on the glass of the windows aggressively, as though taunting those within that it would never go away. Something else was out there too. A face up against the glass. Thin, haggard and drawn. Skin like a dried-up peach, wrinkled and harsh. The eyes were buried beneath the blackness of the sockets. Its body tapered off into a black coat which seemed to meld with the night, making the head appear disembodied, floating at will.
"Shit, who is that?" said Joby, who had now woken up too. As he spoke the figure turned and ran off. By the time they reached the window the intruder had been swallowed completely by the darkness.
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