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Sandy didn't know how long he had been lying under the bed, but by now every bone in his body was stiff with cold and terror. He had spent his entire life being told what to do by everyone else, and now the rule-book had been snatched away. He was left to judge entirely by himself when it would be safe to emerge, when the dreadful danger was at last removed. It was only the sheer silence which dragged him out in the end. Surely if everyone downstairs was now dead, there wasn't any reason for the Gorgon to linger? As far as he knew she wasn't aware of his presence.
He crept out of the bedroom, hardly daring to raise his eyes from the carpet. All his deeply-repressed reserves of primitive intuition told him that the Gorgon had left the building, but where she was now was a question thrown wide open for speculation. It seemed to take a lifetime for him to get down the main staircase. Big old houses created enough noise on their own, and each sound played on Sandy's nerves to the extent that if a perfectly innocent person had walked in at that moment, Sandy may well have expired on the spot through sheer terror.
Even in his fear he had remembered to pick up Adam's sketches, although this was more to act as an impromptu face-shield than anything else. He tried not to look at the chilling scene in the atrium. Suffice it to say that never in his life had he been more disturbed than by the sight of those grim grey life-sized edifices, caught for posterity in poses of horrified revelation.
Sandy passed into the lobby where one of the dogs lay on its back, petrified in stone, its lips curled back forever in a grimace of terror. The Ministry man felt relieved when he finally stepped out of the Castle. He reasoned that as long as he kept to the wide open spaces he was relatively safe, even though he didn't know if catching sight of the Gorgon face-on from a distance could have the same effect.
Somehow he got himself down to the village, and there the horrors were truly impressive. Sandy wandered through the intense silence, looking at the extraordinary sights all around him. The Ghoomers had been turned to stone. They were petrified in doorways, on the steps of the theatre, hanging out of windows, and one was even upturned in the horse trough in the middle of the main street, where he had plunged head-first in a futile attempt to try and halt the gorgonisation process.
Everywhere Sandy walked he felt as though he was being watched. The eyes of the Gorgon seemed to be in every window, every doorway, every side-turning. Whether she was really there or not he didn't know, but her presence was almost palpable. He felt it would be in his own mind for some time to come.
That spring momentous events took place in the City. Tamaz was taken into official Ministry custody, and behind closed doors was experimented on using artificial insemination. Ghoomer hybrids such as he only menstruated four times a year, so it was some time before anyone could be really sure that he was officially pregnant, and by then his stomach was already swelling nicely. The news of this extraordinary event was issued in a terse memo from the Ministry, which was posted on the gates of the Headquarters, and also solemnly read out on the evening news. It was greeted with almost universal confusion. Instead of joyous celebrations, which the Ministry had hoped for, men questioned the ethics of what was going on. Newspapers ran editorials which savaged the Ministry for turning the human race into a freak show. Many harked back to Kieran's plea for the human race to die out with dignity.
"And this breeding of monsters behind Ministry closed doors is not the way to do it!" ran one article vehemently.
Tamaz had been kept out of public gaze all along the line. He was kept alone in a top-security wing of the Assizes, and doctors watched with acute fascination as the area around his nipples gradually swelled into breasts. That, combined with his distended stomach, made his short stump of a penis look more than ever like a physical abnormality. He had very little to say about his condition. He reverted to a sloth-like state, and consumed the wholesome food which was taken to him in vast quantities. The doctors meanwhile had to somehow prepare themselves for the birth. They trudged out to farms to witness cattle being born, in the hope of giving themselves some idea of how a natural birth would progress. This wasn't terribly helpful, as no one could imagine vigorously dragging the child out of Tamaz's womb with a rope tied round its feet! Whilst they quietly panicked amongst themselves though, Tamaz simply carried on eating.
In early autumn a "birthing chamber" was set aside for Tamaz at the Headquarters, and he was moved there until the day when his offspring would emerge. Gorth meanwhile fretted about his continuing lack of popularity. Another long cold winter was just beginning, and the populace of the City were agitated about the hardships they saw everyday on their doorsteps. Since the Blast the City had been inundated with refugees and this was causing bad feeling amongst the natives, who felt themselves being sidelined. No one at this time was interested in the activities of some freak-show relic. Particularly one that wasn't even going to be giving birth to girls, but instead some hermaphrodite spawn of demons.
After being jeered on a progress through the City streets one day, Gorth decided to pay a visit to the Blast area. The newspapers mocked him for this decision, saying "some people would go anywhere just to get a bit of peace and quiet!" The special expeditionary force that had gone out in the spring had revealed that the area in and around what had once been Bandorra was now simply a mass of blackened trees and dusty craters. Gorth wasn't deterred. After one vitriolic piece of criticism from one of his own men he had been heard pacing the Ministry corridors muttering "I don't have to put up with this". Such comments appalled the rest of the Ministry staff, who assumed that was exactly what he had to do.
Gorth begged Kieran to accompany him on this trip. It was the last thing that Kieran felt like doing, but he had grown to feel very sorry for his successor. Gorth was having to be President at a very difficult time, and he needed all the support he could get. He knew that Gorth was basically a decent man, but one who simply didn't understand the subtleties and vagaries of human nature. He stayed calm in situations when he should get angry and show people he cared. And he got tense and irritable in situations when he should have stayed calm. He didn't trust his own men, whom he suspected of not respecting him enough. And at the end of each gruelling day he had no one intimate he could share his thoughts with.
Kieran agreed to go with him, and took most of his family along for the ride, with the exception of Adam and Julian. He felt Adam simply wasn't up to this trip on top of everything else, and was relieved when Julian offered to stay behind and keep an eye on him. Kieran insisted Lonts came with them though, in order to give Adam a complete rest.
Instead of staying at the Ministry Headquarters, they had rented a three-storey terraced house near the railway-station. These houses were black with grime from the steam trains, and Adam said it was like living in a Catherine Cookson novel. A feeling that was intensified as the City fogs of the winter began to press down on them. Adam found he couldn't go outside then without the benefit of a respirator mask.
It could all have been unbearably grim, what with the cold and the fog, and missing the others so much. At first he had dreaded being alone with Julian, thinking the said man might revert to his old ways and start staying out half the night, or even worse, bringing men back to the house. Julian did neither, and Adam began to feel ashamed of himself for even thinking it. He hadn't realised quite how tired he was, of how relentlessly frantic his life had been over the past few years. And now for a change someone was looking after him, so much so in fact that he began to feel like a cosseted invalid. Julian's only drawback seemed to be his occasional grouchiness, but that was mainly because he was missing Finia, who had elected to go with Kieran in order to escape the grim weather in the City for a few weeks. Adam understood Julian's feelings only too well, as he was missing Lonts, and they usually commiserated with each other on their temporary losses.
One day Julian went out and bought Adam a whole new set of clothes, most of which turned out to be highly impractical.
"It's hardly the weather for shorts old love", he said, holding up the offending garment.
"You can wear them around the house", said Julian "You'll be warm enough in here. They're wonderfully tight and high-cut, show off your gorgeous bottom a treat".
"If you say so", Adam pulled out another item from the bag "Jules, you shouldn't have bought this. It must have cost you a fortune, and what use have I got for a silk shirt these days? I don't go out anywhere".
"And I intend to rectify that", said Julian "I've booked us a table at the Satin and Velvet Eating Hall".
"That place costs an arm and a leg to eat there", said Adam "I'd much rather have liver and onions at the 'Blue Lion'".
"You are not with your cute boys now", said Julian "I intend to give you a treat you deserve. Anyway, that shirt would be wasted on the 'Blue Lion'".
After five minutes in the Satin and Velvet Eating Hall Adam knew it was all a mistake. He had been out of circulation for so long that he simply couldn't cope with the mass of people around him, or their habit of blatantly staring at him. At times he began to feel a nervousness amounting to terror, and feared the onset of a panic attack.
"Take no notice of them", said Julian, once they were seated in a cushioned alcove "They're only staring because for ten months they thought you were dead. We'll go somewhere else if you're really uncomfortable, I don't mind".
"I'll be fine Jules, honest".
Adam was temporarily distracted by the sight of the gaudily-dressed eunuchs penned up in the lobby. They were hookers, who could be bought as dinner companions for the evening (extra for Afters). It was like looking at a cage of exotic birds.
"Doubtless what Finia would have graduated to in time", said Julian, as the menu's were handed to them.
"I sometimes worry that's how Lonts would have gone, left to his own devices", said Adam "You often hear of pretty boys masquerading as eunuchs. The ones who claim they can play girl or boy, according to taste".
"If it all works out at the Ministry we'll have the real thing soon", said Julian.
Another guest walked over and kissed Adam's hand, enthusing about how pleased he was to see Adam looking so well. This eulogy went on for some time, but it lifted Adam's spirits, even if he was secretly relieved when the man retreated back to his own table.
"Hand-kissing!" Julian snorted in disgust "He'll be composing poetry for you next!"
"Oh shut up you old cow", said Adam "You're only jealous".
"Yes well you needn't think you're going to sit there all evening, gazing at him rapturously", said Julian "I won't tolerate that kind of flirtatious behaviour from you, Jensen. Any attempt at it and I'll have to soundly chastise you".
"Ooh wonderful", Adam drawled, suggestively "Are you going to throw me across your lap?"
"Very possibly. Have a stuffed olive", Julian picked one out of the bowl on the table and fed it to him "Now isn't this better than the 'Blue Lion'?"
"The entertainment's better there", said Adam.
"What?" Julian exclaimed "A lot of blowsy old eunuchs trying to sing sexily! I'm sure they'll do better than that here".
A man suddenly burst through the main doors and began to rant about what was happening at the Ministry concerning Tamaz.
"These men are playing God", he yelled "Breeding demons to take over the world. They'll rue the day, you mark my words. They'll rue the day!"
He was hustled out again by the doorman. The eunuchs in the pen re-adjusted their clothing in an indignant fashion, as though he'd attempted to violate them.
"The entertainment here's a bit old hat if you ask me", said Adam.
The following day an outside broadcast team showed an interview with Gorth at the Blast site. Although this had been recorded three days previously, it was still billed as "live". Adam took the small battery-powered t.v set into the kitchen so that he could watch it whilst preparing the vegetables for dinner. Occasionally he managed to get a glimpse of Kieran lurking in the background, but was disappointed he wasn't interviewed too. Even after all these months in office Gorth still looked awkward and clumsy when being interviewed, and Adam despaired for the man's future, especially if Tamaz's progeny continued to worry, confuse and disappoint the public, which was as the situation stood at present. The interview ended, and back in the studio the ballgowned weather presenter appeared to simperingly warn of"bad air quality" in the City.
"Bad?" said Adam, switching off the t.v set "Atrocious more like!"
The front door slammed, and Julian came down the passageway to the kitchen. He had been caught in a fresh flurry of snow and was sodden.
"Are you still on the vegetables?" he snapped "I expected to come home and find the house full of tantalising aromas, and you're still chopping carrots!"
"I was trying to catch a glimpse of Patsy on the television", said Adam "Complete waste of time. Gorth hogged the whole screen".
"You'll see quite enough of Tinkerbell in a few day's time when they all come home", said Julian, removing his trousers and hanging them on the clothes-horse next to the range "And then we will lose all the peace and quiet we've enjoyed these past few weeks".
"I bet you're looking forward to seeing them really", said Adam "You haven't had nearly enough to complain about lately".
"I wouldn't be so sure about that", said Julian, peering through the hatch-way into the living-room "That room is a tip, Adam".
"Well tidy it up then", said Adam "I can't do everything".
"I don't know why Finia had to go poncing off on this trip too", Julian complained.
"Probably to get a break from you".
Julian continued to grumble as he prowled restlessly from kitchen to living-room. Adam watched him admiringly. Julian was looking in pretty good shape all told. His legs were long and slim, and his torso was offset tantalisingly by his open white shirt. Sometimes, first thing in the morning, he complained about losing his hair. Adam always thought this was a particularly pointless complaint as he had enough of it to stuff a mattress. In some lights Julian only looked about thirty, and Adam knew they both still made a pretty stunning couple when they went out together.
"Oh Jules!" Adam called, invitingly "Would you really like me to make your day?"
Julian walked back into the kitchen and stood there expectantly. Adam picked up a tomato ketchup bottle and squirted it down the front of Julian's shirt.
"You arsehole Jensen!" Julian exclaimed "You're really going to get it now and no mistake!"
He unhooked the handled cheese-board from the wall, pulled Adam over his knee and spanked him with it very hard. Eventually they both collapsed on the kitchen floor in fits of hysterical laughter.
"Oh dear", Julian wept "I can just see Joby's lugubrious face if he walked in now".
"He'd look very disgusted", said Adam, equally helpless "And say it's those two public school gits up to their old tricks again".
"Doesn't know what he's missing obviously".
"I think he does since Patsy whacked him with that magazine", said Adam "It made him feel a bit raffish and naughty".
"How do you feel?"
"Well, to quote Lonts", Adam laughed "My bum hurts!"
"And I look like I've been shot", said Julian, picking at his ketchup-stained shirt "Or is that wishful thinking on your part?"
Adam rolled over until he was lying on top of him.
"No it's not, my old termagant", he said, nuzzling Julian's nose with his "And to prove it I'm going to finish cooking your dinner".
The bedrooms were all pretty gloomy in this house. They were lit by gas-lamps fitted to the walls, which left blackened stains on the nicotine-coloured wallpaper. The furniture was the cheapest the landlord had been able to find. On first moving in Joby had said it looked like the sort of house the Victorians had poisoned each other in. Now the cold weather had arrived, Julian was forced to haul buckets of coal up the stairs to light the fire in his room. This, combined with a couple of hot water bottles in the bed, made things just about bearable.
That night Adam lay on his stomach across the bed, whilst Julian massaged cream into his sore bottom.
"You're supposed to rub it in gently, Jules", Adam winced "I feel like I'm being prepared for a cross-channel swim!"
"I'm going to miss going to bed with you at night, believe it or not", said Julian.
"So am I", said Adam, sadly "I've enjoyed these past few weeks".
"I haven't been completely unbearable then?" said Julian, suddenly sounding vulnerable "I sometimes forget how awkward I am. It comes of having lived with Finia all these years, he puts up with me so uncomplainingly most of the time".
"Jules you've been wonderful", said Adam, warmly "Honestly, you have. It's been lovely to be taken care of so completely".
"You're certainly earned it".
"I think it's nice to see how well we are when we're alone together".
"We always could have been", said Julian, bitterly "If I hadn't kept lousing it up".
"Ssh", Adam sat up and placed his finger on Julian's lips "Anyone can be wise in retrospect, Jules. The important thing is to learn from it and we have. We both had a helluva lot of growing up to do first".
"Not too much though", Julian laughed, mischievously.
From below cam an imperious hammering on the front door.
"Oh for heaven's sake", said Adam "Who can that be at this time of night?"
"It's not the others back early is it?" said Julian.
"Why should they knock when they've got keys?" said Adam "In fact, I've got a bad feeling about it, don't go down Jules".
"I'll look out of the window instead".
Julian slid off the bed and padded to the window. He pulled back the curtain and peered down through the gloom at the front doorstep. The nearest street-lamp was a few doors away so it was hard to make out anything very distinctly.
"There is someone there", said Julian "But I can't make out who it is. They've got some kind of hooded garment on. Can't say I'm surprised, the way this snow's coming down".
The hammering continued, but even more insistently this time.
"They're not going to go away", Julian sighed, reaching for his trousers "I'd better go down and sort them out".
"No Jules please, there's something weird about it", Adam placed himself against the door to bar Julian's departure.
"Stop carrying on, Adam", said Julian "You sound like an old woman with the vapours. It's probably just some idiot who wants directions to the tram-station".
Julian hooked him out of the way and opened the bedroom door. They had left the gas burning low on the stairs, and it lit up the hallway in a depressingly beige glow. The shape of their caller could only be vaguely discerned through the stained-glass panel in the front door.
"Julian, for God's sake", Adam exclaimed, trying to pull on his robe and grab at his friend's arm at the same time.
"I'm going to lose my temper with you in a minute", Julian disentangled himself from Adam's grasp and carried on down the stairs.
As he got nearer the door he could see the sheer white blur of the other person's face through the glass.
"Julian, it's the Gorgon!" Adam screamed.
"Are you completely deranged, how can it be?" said Julian "She's walled up in the pantry at the Castle".
"Then she's got out".
"Even if she had how would she know how to find us here?" said Julian "It's not as if she could pop in and ask at the public information office is it!"
"Julian, I'll knock you flat before I let you open that door".
"Calm down, you're not doing your chest any favours", said Julian "Alright, for your sake I won't open it".
The hammering came again. It was obvious by now that their visitor wasn't anyone ordinary. Whoever it was could easily have heard them yelling at each other and would have probably called out to them through the letterbox. Instead it just stood there, silent and threatening.
"Come on, I'll make us some tea", said Julian, after checking that the door-chain was firmly in place.
"Is the blind down in the kitchen?" said Adam, halting him once more.
"Yes dear heart, and the curtains are drawn in the living-room", said Julian, with forced patience "We are going to feel a right pair of Charlies when we find out it was only one of the neighbours!"
"At least we'll be alive", Adam mumbled.
It snowed heavily during the night, and by morning all sounds from the street were muffled. Julian had gone downstairs whilst Adam was still sleeping to start on the breakfast, and Adam woke up alone, racked with worry. He wished the others were back, and safely under one roof.
When he got down to the hall he found the newspaper wedged in the letterbox. He yanked it out and then sat down at the foot of the stairs to scan it thoroughly. The chief news appeared to be that Tamaz was now so full "with babies" that he couldn't walk, and so spent all his time propped up against a mound of cushions on his bed. Speculation was rife that he had up to nine foetuses secreted in his womb, and the Ministry-approved doctors were trying their best not to show they were panicking at the thought of delivering them all safely. This story ran for several pages, as numerous talking-heads debated at great length whether it was morally right or not, seemingly oblivious to the stark fact that the birth was going to take place whatever their opinion.
Impatiently he turned the pages, desperate for any indication at all that the Gorgon had got away from Wolf Castle. There was a diverting piece on a lengthy lunch-break that Gorth and Joby had enjoyed at a hotel in Yzel, stopping there on their long journey home. It had lasted until seven p.m apparently, and Adam wondered why Kieran wasn't mentioned as being part of the lunch-party. He had an awful feeling that it meant the said man wasn't eating properly again. Hidden away at the back of the newspaper was a tiny Stop Press item which said only that "MINISTRY MAN SPEAKS OF GORGON ATROCITIES IN THETISLOG. STORY UNCONFIRMED AS YET. SEE EVENING EDITION FOR FURTHER DETAILS".
"I'll tell you what you reminded me of last night", said Julian, who was frying bacon in the kitchen when Adam walked in "That ghost story, 'The Monkey's Paw'".
"Read that", said Adam, thrusting the newspaper at him.
"So she did get out", said Julian, scanning the brief paragraph "I remember saying to Hillyard at the time that those concrete blocks probably wouldn't be enough".
"But she's out, Jules!"
"Alright, so she's out", said Julian "But funnily I don't hear cries of anguish from all over the City as men are being slowly gorgonised".
"But we should probably still tell someone", said Adam, waving his hands helplessly.
"I'll pop along to the City Guards Office later this morning, if it'll keep the bane of my life happy", said Julian "Although I shall probably feel an idiot doing so".
Whilst Julian was out Adam paced the living-room restlessly. It was still three days before Kieran and the others were due home, and at the rate this the bad weather might delay their arrival even longer. With the Gorgon loose God-knows-where this meant a worrying time ahead. Meanwhile the snow continued to fall relentlessly. Adam stood at the glass doors which opened out into the narrow strip of back garden. At first he thought he was seeing things, but it appeared that someone was standing in the middle of the white mass that was now the lawn.
It was the beautiful yellow-haired woman, still barefoot and clad only in a pink shift. She was staring at him inscrutably, oblivious to the flakes that whirled down around her. Adam flung open the doors and ran into the garden, barely noticing the cold as he ran bare-legged through the snow. When he got to the spot where she had been standing though, there was no one there. Even as he watched the fresh snow covered the small imprints in the ground where her feet had been.
"Adam, what the fucking hell are you doing?" Julian roared from the doorway "Get back in here!"
Adam returned to the house, feeling as though he'd lost his mind. He barely noticed Julian's fury as he settled him by the fire and wrapped him in a jersey that had been left hanging from the door-handle.
"You must be completely insane", said Julian, as he knelt on the floor and massaged some life back into Adam's bare legs "I had an aged relative who went like you. She started roaming about the streets in her nightdress. She was always escaping from nursing-homes and being picked up on traffic islands. Perhaps you've got Alzheimers like she had".
"The woman was in the garden, Jules", Adam whimpered.
"What are you burbling about, Adam?"
"The woman. The one who spoke to me when Lonts was sick. She was a Ghoomer, exiled by them. She's the ghost of a Ghoomer".
"Yes, and obviously determined to make you one too", said Julian.
"No, she means no harm. Not now".
"Do you think you could possibly stay out of trouble whilst I make us a hot drink?" said Julian "Ghostly women, gorgons ... I don't know whether I'm coming or going anymore!"
By the time Julian had made the tea and carried it back into the living-room Adam was in a much calmer frame of mind.
"Did the Guards have anything to say?" he asked.
"Well they didn't laugh me out of the room, which was what I was fully expecting", said Julian "They took me quite seriously in fact. They're doubling the Watch Patrol tonight apparently".
"Good grief, they must be taking you seriously".
"Gratifying though it would be to think it was entirely on my say-so, I don't believe it is", said Julian "There were a few, what they described as 'strange incidents', last night".
"Oh a sentry on duty outside the Ministry Headquarters said he was approached by a weird-looking old man who slapped his face several times before he could do anything about it".
"Probably just a drunk".
"That's what I thought. The sentry's in a bad way though. A colleague found that he was quite hysterical when he went to relieve him. He had to be sedated. Needless to say the weird old man has disappeared and they haven't been able to trace him".
"Oh some rather peculiar stuff about men claiming to be followed late last night in the City Park".
"That could mean anything!"
"Shook them up though. One witness actually begged to be kept in custody overnight, said he didn't want to go home alone. Don't breed men with backbone anymore obviously".
"Did they get a look at this mysterious stranger?"
"No ... um ... just a vague description of a hooded figure".
"You'd better not be having me on, Jules".
"I'm not. To prove it I'll pop out again this afternoon and buy you an evening paper. There's bound to be a lot of hysterical blurb in there about it", said Julian "That's if I can trust you to behave yourself for five minutes".
"I shall be goodness and sobriety personified for the rest of the day".
"You'll never manage it dear heart. You're bound to slip up somewhere".
"Wouldn't you like me to?" Adam sidled up close to Julian "After all, if I was too good there'd be no spanky-poo's at bedtime".
"You've already earnt yourself several paddles today", Julian cupped his hand round one of Adam's nipples and fondled the ring "In fact you've earned so many I may have to chastise you in instalments".
"Is that so?" Adam whispered, rubbing against him "You'd better get started then hadn't you?"
"Oh God Adam, I adore you", Julian kissed him hungrily "You gorgeous creature ... what the...?!"
"Jules, what is it?" Adam drew back in bewilderment.
Standing at the window were the two men from next door. Both were grinning moronically and holding up a baking-dish.
"Can't a man get privacy in his own living-room?" Julian bellowed, furiously.
"I think they've made us something by the looks of things", said Adam, trying not to laugh.
"They'll be lucky if they don't end up wearing it!" said Julian "If we were still up at the Castle I'd set the dogs on them".
"Jules, I think they're very sweet really, the little I've seen of them".
"Sweet? All the more reason to have them torn limb from limb I would've thought!"
Adam let the two men in through the glass doors. One of the neighbours was as garrulous as his partner was silent.
"Pyetr and I have been wanting to call on you since you moved in", said the garrulous, bearded one "But we thought that after all your trials and tribulations you'd want to be alone for a while".
"Would you like some tea?" said Adam, fully expecting Julian to start grinding his teeth at any moment.
More cups were produced and the four of them sat round the table. The contents of the baking-dish (an upside-down pudding) were inspected, and Julian snarled his gratitude.
"I understand from the papers that the others are due home on Thursday", said Alon "Pyetr and I just wanted to say how nice it's been just to have you two here. Things got quite noisy back in the summer when they were all here too. I suppose it'll to back to that now".
"I don't see what else you can expect when there are eight men in the house", said Julian "Particularly a house this size".
"If you have a specific complaint, Alon ..." Adam sighed.
"Mainly the stair thumping".
"The stair thumping?"
"One of them makes rather a lot of noise when he's running up and down stairs. It makes our walls vibrate".
"Nasty", said Julian.
"That would be Lonts", said Adam.
"Will you tell him about it when he comes home?"
"I'll try and remember, but I might be too relieved to see him alive and well to bother with such a momentous issue", said Adam "I expect you'll come round and remind me if I forget though".
"Oh no hard feelings", said Alon, placatingly "It's only a little matter I know, but these things can irritate on a daily basis".
"Can't they just!" said Julian.
"As I said before Pyetr and I have enjoyed you two being here so much. We hardly hear a thing out of you".
"That surprises me, considering the amount of yelling that sometimes goes on", said Adam.
"Oh that's understandable. Last thing at night, when tiredness sets in, it's very easy to lose patience with one another. It's not unknown for Pyetr and I to get pretty vocal at times".
As Pyetr hadn't said a single word so far, this was quite hard to believe.
"Jules gets grouchy all day don't you old love?" said Adam, giving his friend a sly look.
"I can usually find some way of getting it out of my system", said Julian, huskily.
"There's one thing I'd like to ask you and Pyetr", said Adam, feeling that all questions concerning Pyetr too had to be addressed via Alon "Did you have anyone come to your door late last night? Anyone at all?"
"No, but then we never answer the door after ten p.m", said Alon "There are some funny people about".
"You can say that again", said Julian.
"Did anyone knock on your door then?" said Adam.
"No", said Alon, shaking his head "But we often find we fall asleep as soon as we hit the mattress".
"That must be inconvenient at times", said Julian.
"Shut up Jules", said Adam "Have you noticed anyone strange loitering about nearby?"
"No", came the predictable response.
"The dustbin", said Pyetr suddenly, much to everyone's surprise. Julian couldn't have looked more askance if the table had suddenly spoken.
"Oh yes, that was rather strange wasn't it?" said Alon "Pyetr noticed it this morning when he went out to empty the sink-tidy. There were footprints in the snow around our dustbin, which we keep outside the front door. They appeared to be bare footprints. It astonished us I can tell you, the thought of anyone walking barefoot in this weather".
Adam barely heard the rest of the conversation and tried very hard not to show his relief when Alon and Pyetr left.
"You won't forget what I said about the stair thumping will you?" said Alon, when he was halfway out of the door.
"I'll bear it in mind", said Adam, absently.
"God, they were depressing", said Julian, once the door was shut on them "I'm surprised they didn't want us to join a Neighbourhood Watch committee, they looked the sort. All grey cardigans and clipboards probably. Or I'll tell you who else they reminded me of, that tomato juice bunch at the hotel in Bandorra, except thankfully they weren't as touchy-feely as them. Doubtless they'll be coming round again to collect their dish, or even worse one of us will have to brave going into their house to return it".
"Why are you putting your coat back on?"
"I'm popping out to pick up the evening paper, the first editions should be out now, and I don't want to be trudging through the snow when it gets dark", said Julian "Don't look so distraught, Adam. It means once I'm back I won't have to go out again".
"Don't be long Jules, please!"
Julian certainly had no intention of being gone a long while. The possibility of the Gorgon lurking in the neighbourhood disturbed him too. The mention of the naked footprints by Alon's dustbin reminded him of the ones he and Lonts had seen on the edge of the forest. He hurried to the station and bought an evening paper at the kiosk there. By now the December twilight, which fell in the middle of the afternoon, was deepening fast. There seemed to be a mood of apprehension everywhere. Men scurried past him furtively.
He turned back into their road, and for a moment he felt as though all life had been suspended. The noise of a train pulling into the station sounded distant and unreal, and for the very briefest of moments the whole scene in front of him seemed to distort like a warped movie-reel. He suddenly had the very real fear that he was about to fall into a time-slip, and the thought of it terrified him so much that he ran back to the house, barely keeping his balance on the slippery ground.
"I-I thought I was about to cross a time-cusp", he said to Adam breathlessly, once he was safely in the same room with him "I couldn't bear the thought of that, never seeing you again".
"Come on old love, sit by the fire", Adam got him into the chair next to the kitchen range.
"It all went awry, everything. Just like it did when I crossed before. Perhaps the cusps are opening up again".
"Oh God, I wish the others would come home", said Adam "What if they fall into one?"
"It's not long now, just a couple more days, that's all", said Julian, squeezing his friend's hand.
They ate a quiet supper together in the kitchen a short while later, and scanned the evening paper. Astonishingly, there was no news of the Gorgon at all. But the editorial said "we had hoped to bring you the full story of the extraordinary events in Thetislog, but reporting restrictions have been imposed".
"A Ministry cover-up in other words", said Julian "If they say too much about Thetislog at the moment, it might come out that some of their own men defected to the Ghoomers, with the full intention of annihilating the President and the Vanquisher, et al".
"Yes, I'd forgotten about that. How much embarrassment that would cause them!" said Adam "Is there anything about the so-called Strange Events of last night?"
"Only about the sentry being attacked", said Julian, turning over the pages "They're trying to tie it in with some tales of a weird old man who's been recently frightening eunuch tarts in the park".
"In what way has he been frightening them?"
"Walking up to them and accusing them of misbehaving, and how they'll be punished, that sort of thing. And before you say anything, it wasn't me!"
"I wouldn't have thought the whores would spook that easily", said Adam "They must be used to that kind of talk, I would've thought".
"Apparently it's more the way he said it, very threatening", said Julian "They've started parading in pairs for safety's sake. Can't say I blame them. I keep thinking of how vulnerable little Finia would be".
"Nevertheless if this nutter's old, he can't be that much of a threat".
"Enough to scare some pretty touch cookies obviously. Oh God, here's some disturbing news".
"Governor Brinslee has arrived in the City from Port West. He is one of several provincial governors who have been invited to witness the birth of Tamaz's brood".
"Oh lor", Adam groaned "I hope he doesn't decide to pay us a call. I like Brinslee, but I could do without his jovial bonhomie at the moment".
"Quite", said Julian "Never mind, if he comes knocking we'll just shout through the letterbox that we've got the plague or something".
"Better not", said Adam "The way things are in the City at the moment you might start a riot!"
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