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By Sarah Hapgood

“Was your husband responsible for that woman being abducted?” said Rumble, cutting through the general gossip of ‘how did you get here? Well I really don’t know’.

“I don’t know what you mean”, said Madame de Sade “I must get home now”.

They followed her up the street and to the entrance of a courtyard surrounded by expensive apartments. She abandoned them without a word at the gateway.

“You two go back to the sloop”, Bardin ordered Farnol and Rumble “Don’t argue with me, just go!”

“You walked around the streets dressed like that, like a whore?” said Sade, meeting his wife at the foot of the wrought-iron staircase which led to their apartments. They conversed together, naturally enough, in French.

“This is nothing”, said Madame “You should see what some of the other women around here are wearing!”

“What do you mean, I should see the others?” said Sade, pausing on his way up the stairs to look down at her “Madame, may I remind you that all the sorrows we have been through make us old beyond our years? As such, you should dress and act as befits a woman more of sixty than of forty-five”.

Madame de Sade had no intention of acting or dressing like a woman of sixty. She waited for her husband to go into his room and then went into her own on the other side of the landing, muttering to herself “Where does he get those ideas from?!”

Bengo and Bardin followed her surreptitiously up the staircase and into the room.

“I am glad you’re here”, she said (in English) when she had got over her initial surprise “I have many things on my mind these days. I would like to talk with your Kieran. A person of my age often has cause to look ahead, and regard what will happen to her immortal soul after death. I fear for mine”.

“He would be fascinated to talk with you”, said Bardin, taking off his cap out of respect, and nudging Bengo to do the same.

“I have seen many bad things”, Madame continued “Sinful things”.

“Mainly to do with HIM I take it?” said Bardin.

They heard Sade open his door and come across the landing. Madame hastily conducted them behind a screen, just before he came in.

“I heard you talking to someone in here”, he said.

“My lord, your imagination is too acute”, said Madame.

“You have doubtless picked up a young blood from the streets”, said Sade “One with a big fat penis no doubt. How long will it be before you employ him as your personal steward?!”

“Donatien, my dear”, said Madame, with an exasperated tenderness for her curmudgeonly partner that Bengo would have fully sympathised with, if he could understood what they were saying.

At least her words won over the Marquis though, who kissed her hands as a sign of reconciliation, and called her his dearest friend, his soul-mate.

Behind the screen Bardin knew that this could evolve into some serious marital affection, and he didn’t want to hide in the room like a perverted voyeur whilst it was going on. He nudged Bengo and they hesitantly emerged from behind the screen.

“These are the voices you heard”, said Madame.

Sade straightened his shirt and smoothed his hair. He had constantly fretted that the prison regime might lose him his hair, but in truth he had enough that any man in his forties would envy.

“Les petit buffoons”, Sade whispered.

Bengo quailed at finding those fishy eyes on him once more.

“We’re going home”, he said, abruptly, and left the room.

“I hope you’re pleased with yourself now”, said Julian, some time later.

Rain-clouds had gathered all day, and it was now falling in torrents. Bardin and Julian in their oilskin jackets had gone up onto the poop-deck to talk in privacy.

“I had to go in there”, said Bardin “We had to find out as much as we could. Bengo has assured me he’ll be alright from now on and I believe him. It was just seeing the man face to face unexpectedly like that which unsettled him”.

“Have you any idea what he could have done to you up there?” said Julian.

“Of course I have!” said Bardin “No more than he’s done to us already!”

“Why take Bengo with you?” said Julian.

“I might have known you’d only be concerned about him!” said Bardin.

“You little …!” Julian erupted.

“I didn’t mean it”, Bardin gabbled “You know I didn’t mean it. I-I took Bengo because I knew the Missus would talk more if he was there”.

“Let’s go below”, said Julian “This is filthy weather to be out in”.

They went down the galley steps which were nearer. Bardin knew he had upset Julian with his insecure outburst, but he couldn’t think of anything to say at this moment to ease the situation. Down in the galley Joby was sweeping the floor in a sulky fashion, whilst Adam lounged with a coffee nearby.

“Joby, take their oilskins into the hold to dry”, he said.

Joby glared at him, slammed the broom against and cupboard, and followed Bardin out of the room with the dripping outdoor gear.

“It’ll teach him to abandon us two minutes before breakfast-duty”, said Adam.

“Do you know what Bardin said to me up aloft?” said Julian, who had grievances of his own “Only that I’m only concerned about Bengo’s safety, not his!”

“Oh he has these little outbursts”, said Adam “He doesn’t really believe that, deep down, I’m sure. It’s a hangover from his childhood, when he convinced himself that the audience only wanted to see the cute one. He’ll snap out of hit, and probably a lot quicker than Joby will snap out of his”.

“Being particularly difficult is he?” said Julian.

“I think a few strokes with the birch-brush is called for”, said Adam “I have seriously neglected his spanking of late!”

“Well you’re going to have to sort that out for yourself”, said Julian.

“I think I might just about manage that, Jules!” said Adam.

“I have other fish to fry”, said Julian, going out of the room just as Joby came back in.

“So much for all this mustn’t leave me on me own nonsense”, said Joby “You’re quite happy to send me into the hold on me own!”

“Mieps is in there”, said Adam “I know for a fact that he’s grooming the horses, so now I have to add lying to your list of naughtiness. And you weren’t bothered about being alone when you walked out on us this morning. I think you’d better drop your trousers”.

“Oh that’s all I need, you feeling frisky!” said Joby.

“It won’t do you any harm”, said Adam.

“That’s a matter of opinion that is!” said Joby.

He leaned across the kitchen table and Adam gave him a few swishes of the birch brush.

“You’re evil sometimes you are”, said Joby, when he finally stood up.

“Nonsense, you silly boy, I love you”, said Adam.

“We don’t carry on like that when we play Maurice and Alec”, said Joby.

“It would be an interesting idea though wouldn’t it?” said Adam “Alec ever so headstrong and doing something naughty …”

Joby groaned.

That evening Bardin sprang it on them that they were finally going to leave town, possibly the following evening. If they left after dark it would cause less comment on the waterfront.

He went out the following morning without telling anyone where he was going. Julian had a strange inkling though that he was going to look at the old cemetery and followed him up there. He found Bardin sitting at the western end of the overgrown site, perched on a flat tomb and staring at nothing in particular. The air was damp and humid, and the rain was spattering down in a dispiriting fashion.

“Julian!” he looked up as Julian sauntered down the mossy path carrying an umbrella.

“What are you doing here?” Julian asked, looking around at the weatherbeaten statues, crumbling blocks of stone, and rampant weeds “Did you come in here to sulk?”

“Not as you think”, said Bardin “Not at all. That outburst yesterday … I keep thinking I’ve put all that sort of thing behind me, and then it all comes blurting out again, and then I get so disappointed. It’s as if I’m never gonna be free of it”.

“I was concerned about Bengo yesterday”, said Julian “I know he’s a tough little thing really, but he’s also not as tough as he likes to think he is”.

“He was shaken when he saw Sade again”, said Bardin “I know I was a bit ruthless taking him with me because I knew the Missus would talk in front of him, but I guess I’ve always used Bengo ruthlessly. It’s a lifelong habit. That doesn’t mean I don’t care!”

“I know that you silly arse!” said Julian “And so does he! Anyway, why did you come in here?”

“After what Levka said I wanted to see it for myself, before leaving town”, said Bardin “Sometimes it’s hard to get my head round all that’s happening here. The Village of Stairs has always had its wierdnesses but I’ve never known it quite like this before. Like everyone else I’m trying to figure out quite what’s going on, but it’s hopeless”.

“And sitting in here won’t clear your head at all!” said Julian.

Bardin got up to leave. Julian gave him a hard swipe on the backside that Bardin felt even through his oilskin jacket. They straggled together back up the grassy aisle, and noticed a tramp curled up in a foetal position on a tomb in the corner.

“He shouldn’t be here, not with all that’s happening”, said Julian, pulling cash out of his pocket “Put that in his hand. He’ll find it when he wakes up. With any luck he might spend it on somewhere safer to sleep tonight”.

Bardin stepped across some spilt rocks. As he got nearer he realised with a gloomy certainty that the tramp was in fact dead. He went up closer to make sure, and nearly collapsed out of shock when he saw all the masses of dark blood. The tramp’s throat had been torn out with a savagery of mindboggling intensity.

“Steady”, Julian caught him and held him firmly “Turn away now, don’t look at it”.

“Look at the flies”, Bardin gasped, as some insects gathered in the congealing mass, as though it was jam.

“I said, don’t look at it”, said Julian “Try and keep calm now, we have to go to the Town Guard”.

“They might think we did it!” Bardin whimpered.

“Don’t be absurd”, said Julian “Anyway, looking at the colour of him he’s been here quite a few days like that”.

“Then why has no one found him before?” Bardin exclaimed.

“Because most people have the sense to stay out of graveyards where there are said to be vampires!” said Julian, as they neared the rusty main gates “And to think I put you in as my successor because I thought you had oodles of commonsense! I don’t know who’s the bigger fool here, you or me!”

Bardin felt no less shaky when they finally emerged from the Town Guards’ Headquarters.

“Here, have some of this”, said Julian, offering him his hip-flask.

“I don’t know what’s shaken me more”, said Bardin “Seeing the corpse, or finding I’d been sitting near it by myself”.

“Well try and steady yourself”, said Julian “It would only cause unnecessary publicity if I had to carry you home through the streets!”

He put up his umbrella and supported Bardin back to the sloop, where Bardin ordered departure almost immediately. First Hoowie had to be rounded up though. Joby ran him to earth on the ‘Butterfly Queen’, and prodded a mop at him to hurry him along the boardwalk.

“What did you want HIM for?” Joby asked Maria, in complete astonishment.

“He’s different”, said Maria, wrapping her dressing-gown around her “We don’t have men like him back in Aspiriola”.

“Aspiriola’s gone up in my estimation then!” said Joby.

“Perhaps he’s got a rotating dick”, said Kieran, helping to peel potatoes in the galley once they were underway.

“Not that I’ve noticed he ent”, said Joby.

“Why a rotating dick, Patsy?” said Adam.

“That’s what women would want, if only we were made that way”, said Kieran “Men with rotating dicks, like a dildo does. It tickles their g-spots”.

“I’m quite shocked at you coming out with such things”, said Adam “I always think of you as having that Irish innocence about sex”.

“I’ve never heard of anyone with a rotating dick!” said Hillyard, who had come in to help himself to coffee.

“No I think Mother Nature will take a while to perfect that one”, said Adam “It’s difficult enough to get it to go up and down sometimes, let alone sideways and round in a circle!”

“It never goes up and down at the times you want it too that’s for sure!” said Joby “Goes up when you want it to stay down, and stays down when you want it to go up!”

“Women seem to like Hoowie don’t they?” said Hillyard “I wonder why”.

“God knows, got me baffled”, said Joby “Men just think he’s a jerk”.

“He’s cheeky”, said Bengo “I think that’s why they like him, he’s cheeky but not nasty to them with it like some men are. And he’s very upfront about sex”.

“Yes, too much so at times!” said Adam “I haven’t forgotten the havoc he caused up at the Big House”.

“Oh Christ, I hope he hasn’t got her up the duff”, said Joby “I thought having little Hillyards in the world was bad enough, let alone little Hoowies! Don’t bear thinking about, it really don’t”.

“The others are completely baffled”, said Bengo, the following morning “We thought you’d want to stay on the ‘Butterfly Queen’”.

“They were hoping were they?” Hoowie snarled, sitting at his washboard up on the forward deck, supposedly scrubbing all their underwear in the hot sunshine.

“No, just you’re the most flaky one of us”, said Bengo “If anyone’s gonna abscond it’ll be you, and you’ve been getting on with Maria. We thought you’d want to stay with her”.

“Maria and me have an understanding”, said Hoowie.

“That’s what they call it these days is it!” said Bengo.

“Anyway, there are things she wouldn’t let me do”, said Hoowie.

“Such as?” said Bengo “What were you trying to do to her?”

“No bum-fucking allowed”, said Hoowie “No bum-fucking on the ‘Butterfly Queen’”.

“Well of course she wouldn’t wanna do that, you dork!” said Bengo “She’s a woman, they don’t do that”.

“You child!” said Hoowie “You baby-faggot! I thought you might have learnt summat from your friend Sade’s antics!”

“But why would a woman want to do it that way?” said Bengo “When they’ve got a hole round the front?”

“They just do, o.k!” said Hoowie “Sometimes”.

“Maria doesn’t”, Bengo pointed out.

“Some women are squeamish”, said Hoowie.

“She can’t be that squeamish if she went with you!” said Bengo.

“Get on with your work, Hoowie”, Bardin snapped, on passing by. He led Bengo away with him “What were you two having such a spirited discussion about?”

“Sodomy”, said Bengo “Did you ever do that with any of your harem of chorus-girls?”

“I didn’t have a harem of chorus-girls!” said Bardin “And no, if you really must know, I didn’t”.

“I can’t understand doing that with a woman”, said Bengo.

“You can’t understand doing ANYTHING with a woman!” Hoowie shouted.

“He’ll get that wash-tub over his head if he’s not careful”, said Bengo “I’d better get back below, Bardy, or Joby’ll tell me off. It’s his turn for a break next, he must be waiting. And you’d better get on with being Captain”.

Joby decided to go and see what Tamaz was doing. He found him alone in the cabin sorting out his jewels. When Joby came in Tamaz slammed the lid of his jewellery-box and looked witheringly disdainful.

“What have I done?” said Joby.

“You’ve been shutting me out”, said Tamaz “I know you and Kieran speculated about staying behind in the town and trying to sort out Josh yourselves. And you haven’t thought of me at all, you’ve forgotten all about me”.

“How the hell could I ever forget about you!” said Joby “We never exactly got very far in these speculations, I thought you knew that, we didn’t get a s far as thinking about the whats and hows”.

“You promise you would have involved me?” said Tamaz.

“Yeah I expect we would have done”, said Joby.

“You expect?!” said Tamaz.

“Alright, we would have done”, said Joby “Definitely, absolutely … hey I think we’ve stopped moving”.

“Something’s happened”, Tamaz stood up in anticipation.

Bardin came into the room and dug a snorkel, goggles and flippers out of a wooden box.

“The propeller’s caught up in something”, he explained “I’ll have to go down there and untangle it”.

“You can’t go, I’m a better diver and swimmer than you”, said Tamaz “I’ll go”.

“I think two should go at least”, said Joby “In case there’s any difficulties. Remember the suction pool back at the harbour?”

“Thanks, I was trying not to remember that!” said Bardin.

The propeller turned out to be seriously damaged, having got itself caught in some tenacious underwater plant-life. Even after Bardin and Tamaz had worked to free it, the blades still refused to go round with the same speed and slickness as before. Instead it gave out a depressingly asthmatic whining noise and not much else.

Bardin had no choice but to order an about-turn to the Village of Stairs. It simply wasn’t worthwhile to consider going on with only the use of the sails.

“If we reach a trough up-river with no breeze at all”, said Bardin “We could be stuck there for weeks, if not months”.

Cancelling the adventure was like cancelling a holiday, and it put everyone into a foul mood. Julian had a go at Adam for wearing a sarong round his waist (even though, as Adam rightly pointed out, this had always been habitual male garb in very hot climates). “You look like an effete old pansy artist”, said Julian. “I am an effete old pansy artist!” Adam retorted.

Farnol and Hoowie had a knockabout fight, which saw them brawling all over the forward deck, until Ransey belted them both round the head, and marched them off to the hold like a couple of puppies he was about to drown.

“It’s not your fault, Bardy”, said Bengo, as his partner sat at the desk in the cabin with his head in his hands “Come out of your wet things. You shouldn’t sit around in wet underpants, you’ll soak the chair for a start, and that’ll make Julian really bad-tempered”.

“Buckled blades”, said Bardin “We surely should be able to straighten them out by ourselves”.

“You’re not going down there again”, said Bengo “My heart was in my mouth the whole time you and Tamaz were below the water”.

Bardin didn’t argue. He peeled off his wet shorts and hollered at Hoowie to come and fetch them. Hoowie sauntered out of the hold and approached him with a doped expression on his face, showing only the whites of his eyes. Bardin slapped him round the face with his pants as though they were a wet fish.

“Try and be sensible for once”, he said “Wash these, it might keep you out of mischief for a few minutes at least. What was that fight all about anyway?”

“Fat-mouthed Farnol said that now we were going back to town we could sell me to Maria”, said Hoowie “And throw in some cushions as well as a special offer in case she wasn’t tempted!”

“And you had a fight about THAT?” said Bardin, as Bengo chuckled “Was that it???”

“He’s been choppsing me all morning”, said Hoowie.

“He choppses everybody all the time!” said Bardin “It’s his stock-in trade! Go on, get aloft”.

“Not back to the hold then?” said Hoowie.

“Go where your fucking wash-tub is!” said Bardin, aiming a kick at Hoowie’s rear.

“A man could end up seriously deranged from living with him”, he said, once he and Bengo were back in the cabin “Perhaps Maria might take him in, you never know we could get lucky”.

“He won’t go”, said Bengo “He wants to live with us”.

“Aagh!” Bardin gave a heartfelt cry of acute frustration.

Adam watched as Bardin organised everyone in redirecting their course and setting up the sails. He was like an efficient director choreographing a show.

“He’s very good isn’t he?” said Adam.

“Mm”, said Julian, pulling him onto his lap, sitting as he was in a deckchair nearby “If, when, we get back to town he takes to haunting graveyards again though I shall give him the worst spanking he’s ever had”.

“You say that every time you beat him”, said Adam “You say it to me too!”

“Have you got anything on under this?” said Julian, ferreting about in Adam’s sarong.

“Mind your own business”, said Adam, slapping his hand away “I’m going below to make some tea”.

It was only after several minutes down in the galley that it occurred to Adam that he was only one below deck. He hadn’t, in spite of everything that had happened, expected to get so spooked by this fact. Until he heard the floorboards creaking in the corridor.

“Who’s there?” he called out, wishing he didn’t sound so queasily absurd.

Mieps drifted into the room, looking deep in thought.

“Mieps!” Adam exclaimed “I’m so pleased to see you”.

“You only saw me a few minutes ago”, said Mieps.

“I know, but I’m still so pleased to see you”, said Adam.

“Any tea going in here?” said Mieps.

“I’m just making it”, said Adam “I feel rather silly now”.

“It’s easily done”, said Mieps.

He had barely said this when there was a short but unmistakeable groaning noise coming from the food-hold.

“Stay with me”, said Adam “We’ll look together”.

“No it’ll be a waste of time”, said Mieps “Chances are it will have gone. It’s teasing us. Old trick. I swear the Reptile Men used to do the same to me when I lived out on the marshes”.

Bardin called everyone into a tight huddle up on the forward deck, like a rugby-scrum.

“Well this is all very cosy”, said Julian “But what’s it in aid of?”

“I feel as though I’m about to be lynched”, said Adam, who was the only one sitting down.

“It’s important that we need to show unity at this time”, said Bardin.

“I thought we always did”, said Toppy, dabbing sweat from his face with a handkerchief in a very foppish manner.

“Yes but it’s even more important now”, said Bardin “I think from now on no one should be alone at any time. If possible we should all do everything together”.

“Interesting idea”, said Julian “But I’m not sure we shall all fit in the heads at once!”

“When anyone visits the heads they leave the door open”, said Bardin.

“Oh great”, said Joby “It’s gonna be like being in the nick! Loos with doors on ‘em!”

“It’s just until we get this sorted out once and for all”, said Bardin.

“Perhaps I should do another exorcism”, said Kieran.

“ANOTHER one?” said Joby.

“More exorcisms?” Bardin thundered “I swear by doing that we’re only giving it free entertainment! If anything we need to carry on as normal as possible and try and bore it into submission”.

“That shouldn’t be hard!” said Hillyard.

“What about the food downstairs?” said Tamaz “It could be doing unspeakable things to all our food whilst we’re jabbering up here!”

“Yeah, that’d be right up Josh’s street that would!” said Joby.

“I’ll go and check it over”, said Ransey, and he selected Rumble and Farnol to escort him.

“That’s all, thanks”, said Julian, brusquely dismissing Toppy and Hoowie who had escorted him down to the cabin and back up again, simply to fetch a cigar and ash-tray.

He found Hillyard now occupying his deckchair, sitting next to Adam.

“Will you jump in my coffin as quick?” he snapped.

“Ugh! Not if you’re in it, no!” said Hillyard.

“Come away from the stairs!” Julian shouted at Bengo, who was loitering near the top of the quarterdeck steps “And bring me over another deckchair”.

Bengo fetched one from the stack leaning against the bulwark. He got into such a state setting it up though that Julian did it himself. Hillyard pulled Bengo onto his lap, an action that was bound to engage Bardin’s attention.

“You stay by my side at all times”, he said to Bengo, leading him away from Hillyard “Apart from when you’re in the galley of course”.

“Is that to protect him from Josh or you?!” said Julian to Hillyard.

As everyone else was getting out of bed the next morning Joby lay thinking about his brother.

“We need to get some kind of communication going with him”, he said “I think we should have a séance”.

“Seances are too dodgy”, said Kieran “We could end up with a bad spirit we can’t get rid of again”.

“We’ve already got a bad spirit we can’t get rid of!” said Joby.

Bardin was taken with the idea and decreed that a séance should be held at sunset. Kieran, “unblocking all his tubes” as he put it, was to act as the medium.

“We really need a round table”, he said, as the others prepared the trestle table up on the forward deck.

“Well we haven’t got one, so you’ll have to make do with this!” said Julian.

As the sky became streaked with orange and pink the Indigo-ites sat round the table, with Adam at one end as usual, and Kieran at the other, where Julian normally sat. A boisterous piece of jazz was played on the wind-up gramophone to “attract the spirits”, who could be lured out by piercing noises. For good measure Joby walked round the table ringing the hand-bell, which they normally used to summon each other.

When these preliminaries had been performed Joby sat down and completed the circle. Hands were to be held all the time, no matter what happened. Kieran, who had prepared himself by fasting all day, sank into a relaxed posture.

Julian had jokingly asked him earlier if he had a Red Indian spirit guide, to which Kieran had loftily replied that he didn’t need a spirit guide. Even so, he said he had never actually done this before and had no idea what, if anything would happen.

After several minutes of almost unbearable silence, Kieran began to breathe very heavily. His mouth fell open and his breath became visible, as though it was a frosty day. Julian was holding his hand on one side and Joby on the other, they both felt him go icy-cold.

A disturbing noise came from his throat as though he was trying to be sick, or suffering from a bad attack of catarrh. Joby wanted to ask him if he was alright, but Kieran had warned him that whilst he was “under the influence”, it was very unlikely he would know what was going on around him.

“You’ve gotten through”, came a growl-like voice which Joby knew only too well “Took you long enough didn’t it?”

“Why are you doing this?” Joby asked.

“Gotta get yer”, said Josh “Get you somehow. Can’t create Hell on Earth if you’re all poncing around with your kinky lovin’ antics”.

“You can’t be happy”, said Joby “It doesn’t have to be like this”.

“Keep your fucking holy talk!” Josh’s voice roared.

Kieran jumped to his feet. Joby jumped with him, but Hillyard, who had hold of his other hand, anchored him.

Kieran spat at Joby. But as if exhausted by this action he fell back into his chair.

“Is it over?” said Ransey, holding Julian’s left hand.

“No I think he’s still under”, Julian whispered.

“Julian!” came a much different voice from Kieran, this one was well-spoken but weak “Julian, you have to help me, please! Look, I know you’ve always despised me, but we are brothers … and … and well blood is thicker than most things you know”.

This voice broke down into a desperate sobbing, quite upsetting to hear.

“Stop bawling Piers, you always were a bloody cry-baby”, said Julian “Where the blazes are you?”

“A terrible place”, the voice wailed “There are bodies lying around, the smell is awful. It’s so dark too. I’m so afraid, anything could happen here. It’s like a nightmare. And I can’t wake up from it”.

“Where is it?” said Julian “What’s it like? Describe it”.

“It’s so dark”, said Piers “And huge. Remember how big our grandfather’s house appeared to us when we were small children? It’s like that only much b-bigger. Nobody here has been over all of it”.

“It’s the Big House”, said Hillyard “I swear it is”.

“Hillyard”, a voice called very faintly from the distance “Hillyard, help me! Don’t leave me here. Hillyard!”

“Oh my God!” said Hillyard “Stombal!”

Kieran’s head suddenly shot back and he blinked rapidly in the flickering candlelight.

“W-what happened?” he said, as himself.

“Now I know how the Samaritans felt”, said Julian, joining Adam by the bulwark afterwards “People constantly ringing up bawling to be helped!”

“I kept expecting my mother to appear”, said Adam, staring out at the black ocean “For her sake I’m very glad she didn’t”.

“We got more than we bargained for an no mistake”, Julian sighed “Plenty to chew on”.

“What was Piers doing there?” said Adam.

“Oh it would be just like Piers to get himself caught up in Hell”, said Julian “The silly arse!”

“It could have all been a trick, bear that in mind”, said Kieran, who had been wrapped in a blanket by Joby and practically force-fed his postponed supper “Angel is very good at impersonations, don’t forget”.

“You didn’t hear any of it, Patsy”, said Adam “I would swear that it was all real. It was as if we’d established a phone line to some terrible Purgatory”.

“Yes, it’s called the Big House”, said Julian “Hillyard was right, it makes a bizarre kind of sense that it would all be about that place. Even now, I can’t explain what made me quite so desperate to get away from there, but as things turned out I’m very glad we did!”

“Do we have to go back then?” said Joby.

“I’d rather not have an answer to that one!” said Adam.

“Everybody!” Lonts thundered across the deck, followed by Tamaz, who was looking very anxious “Some strange writing’s appeared on the wall downstairs”.

“The writing on the wall”, said Kieran “Now we’re really getting Biblical”.

Lopsided capitals were scrawled in chalk on the wall outside the hold, along the corridor leading to the galley:


“And what the hell’s that supposed to mean!” Ransey exclaimed.

Back in the Village of Stairs once more, they did look into staying in the town for a few days, just to give them a break from the haunted sloop. Tamaz tartly pointed out that Josh would probably only follow them anyway. After looking into it they abandoned the idea, as finding somewhere that would accommodate all of them, and have outside space for all the animals as well was impossible.

Adam, Ransey and Hillyard did go to look at a duplex, but were unanimously unimpressed with it.

“It’s got a kitchen though”, said Hillyard.

“Then I hope you’ll be very happy in it!” said Adam “Oh this is no good at all I’m afraid. There are really only two rooms as living-space, we’d have to sleep seven in each, there would be no room for any other furniture!”

“I think you’ll find it’s very difficult to get spacious accommodation in this town that will sleep 16 people”, said the house-agent “Have you considered splitting up for the duration?”

Ransey gave him a look at the in the past he had normally bestowed on incompetent assistants, and left.

“It was a lousy idea anyway”, said Julian to Adam, back at the sloop. Julian was lounging on the forward deck in his silk pyjama bottoms “I’d rather put up with a haunted sloop than live in some dismal replica of Cockroach Mansions!”

“Have you been alright today, Jules?” said Adam, helping himself from the keg of drinking water nearby.

“Absolutely fine”, Julian shrugged “Why shouldn’t I be?”

“Oh I was just a bit concerned in case you’d been thinking about Piers”, said Adam.

“I have always tried NEVER to think about Piers, it’s too depressing!” said Julian “I’m rather more concerned about Hillyard suddenly hearing Stombal’s voice like that”.

“He’s a bit more subdued than normal, but otherwise he seems fine”, said Adam “He’s said that he’d be far more anxious if a living person was caught up in that situation, like Glynis for instance”.

“He can be quite awesomely level-headed at times”, said Julian.

“Of course we don’t actually know for sure that Piers is … is …”, Adam faltered.

“Dead?” said Julian “How would anyone be able to tell!”

“Oh Jules”, said Adam.

“Don’t start going all pious on me”, said Julian “You’ve always got totally silly where Piers is concerned. I suppose I’m supposed to be getting my knickers in a twist about him being trapped in Purgatory or the Big House or wherever it is. Now listen to me once and for all. I have always found Piers to be quite spectacularly irritating. I have never in my entire life met anyone quite so wet as him, not even Codlik! I don’t expect you to agree, not after all those furtive little meetings you had with him behind my back”.

“I met him once, ONCE!” said Adam “When he called in at my mother’s castle. He’d heard I’d gone there, and was concerned that I was upset over something you’d done. He knew as well as I what a beastly little whatsit you could be”.

“And you both had a high old time tearing me to pieces I expect?” said Julian.

“He was remarkably restrained about you”, said Adam “Considering. All he said was that you always acted as though you were still at school, lording it over everyone. He also said he knew your parents must be very disappointed that he was the first-born, not you, who is, and I quote ‘so dynamic’, unquote”.

“News to me if they did!” said Julian “They kept that under wraps! If anything my father once told me it was a good job I wouldn’t cop the lot as I’d spend all my time travelling and neglect the estate. Between you and me I think he was afraid I would have thrown wild drug-filled Roman-esque orgies of queerdom on the estate!”

“Piers was a lot safer bet than you that’s for sure”, said Adam.

“That’s about the kindest word anyone can use about Piers”, said Julian “Safe! Apart from any harm he might cause to himself of course!”

“But he was a good man at heart, Jules”, said Adam “That’s why it does pain me to think of him in that dreadful place. I-I must get down to the galley and see what the others are doing”.

He found Joby and Bengo giggling over a porn magazine in the corner of the galley.

“I take it you haven’t finished all the chores I gave you to do?” said Adam.

“Leave it out!” said Joby “We couldn’t have got all that done if you’d been gone for three weeks! You left us a list as long as your arm!”

“I’m surprised at you, Joby”, said Adam, taking the magazine and flicking through it “These are all men, not your cup of tea I would’ve thought”.

“Oh no, I mean I wouldn’t dream of doing anything like that would I!” said Joby.

“And what would Bardin say if he caught you with such a thing, Bengo?” said Adam.

“Oh he’d probably give me a lecture about how that’s how I’d have ended up if it wasn’t for him!” said Bengo “Are we moving then?”

“No, nothing suitable to be found”, said Adam “Not even an invitation to stay at the Governor’s House”.

“Good”, said Joby “I hate living in houses. It feels unnatural after all this”.

“That apartment would have been too depressing for words”, said Adam “The house-agent suggested we all split up. Ransey gave him such a look!”

“They just don’t understand do they?” said Bengo “Outsiders”.

“Why on earth does so much homo-erotica involve prisons?” said Adam, looking at a picture of a hunky young man in a convict’s outfit being vigorously searched up against a fence by a lecherous-looking guard “Going to prison is not remotely erotic!”

“All-male institution innit?” said Joby “Like the army or public-school, plus lots of excuses for discipline and punishment. I didn’t think you’d need to be told that!”

Adam rolled up the magazine and clouted Joby round the ear with it, and then putting it away in the drawer.

“Right, work work work!” said Adam.

Maria appeared in the doorway like a showgirl making a rather tentative entrance. She was dressed in a sky-blue sequinned dress. She wore a gardenia in her piled-up hair. To the others, who had spent several days at sea under extremely strained conditions, she was almost too much to take in.

“You look nice, dear”, said Adam “Are you looking for Hoowie?”

“Good grief”, said Joby “You’re gonna waste all that on Hoowie?!”

“No, Bardin”, said Maria.

“He’s gone out to buy some bottled beer with the other clowns”, said Bengo “He won’t be long”.

“I’ll wait around for him”, said Maria “If you don’t mind”.

“Not in here, old love”, said Adam “You don’t want to ruin that dress”.

Maria went up to the forward deck, where Julian had been dozing over a book. Tamaz got it into his head that Maria had come to steal his jewellery, and went below to hide the jewellery box in the hold.

A couple of minutes later the other clowns returned, carrying a couple of crates of bottled beer between them.

“Round everybody up”, said Bardin “Get it all consumed now whilst it’s still a bit cold”.

“The glamorous vision in the blue wishes to speak to you”, said Julian to Bardin.

It turned out that Maria was hoping Bardin could get her a letter of recommendation to the Cabaret of Horrors.

“I don’t even know who the management is these days”, said Bardin “And Hal’s probably seen to it that my word counts for nothing anyway! Why don’t you just go along when they next throw an audition session? Better still, why don’t you go to Toondor Lanpin and apply at the Little Theatre? You won’t have any trouble getting in there. Hawkefish is always on the lookout for more shapely women to add to his collection”.

“The casting couch?” said Maria.

“No, not at all”, said Bardin “He doesn’t do that. Hortense wouldn’t let him! Bengo, come over here. Talk sense to Maria”.

“Me?!” Bengo exclaimed.

“She wants to work at the Cabaret of Horrors”, said Bardin.

“Fucking hell, why!” said Bengo.

“It’s the biggest show in town”, said Maria.

“It’s the only show in town”, said Bengo “But that doesn’t make it any good! No one would work at the Cabaret of Horrors unless they really had to”.

“You worked there for years”, said Maria.

“We didn’t know any better”, said Bengo “It was the only life we knew”.

“The Cabaret is the theatre from Hell!” said Bardin “In fact I’m amazed it wasn’t the one in Hell!”

“It’s a stepping-stone, it’ll get me noticed by all the right people”, said Maria.

“By all the wrong people more like”, said Rumble “Most of the audience are usually perverts!”

“Bengo and Bardin recently got honoured with an award because of their work there”, said Maria.

“Did we?” said Bardin “Oh that thing! Yeah I remember now”.

“You threw it away”, said Bengo.

“I know!” Bardin gripped Maria’s arms and shook her “Talk sense woman, you can’t work at that den of iniquity. You’d be safer plying the streets!”

“Watch my hair!” said Maria, trying to stop her carefully-arranged coiffure from collapsing.

“Bardin”, said Adam “Don’t manhandle Maria like that, old love”.

“You never know what might fall out!” said Julian.

“There’s an audition at 5 o’clock today for the Christmas show”, said Maria “Will you at least walk to that?”

“Do I have a choice?” said Bardin, stamping away angrily.

“Bardin!” said Adam.

“God spare me from people with more ambition than sense!” Bardin hollered, before disappearing below down the quarterdeck steps.

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