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"Isn't he a bit young for you?"
Adam was sitting at the bar with Hillyard, taking a cup of the treacle-black coffee for which he had acquired quite a taste.
"He's not that young", said Hillyard, defensively.
"He's barely out of nappies Hillyard", Adam looked behind him to the alcove where Joby and Lonts were sitting together in complete silence, as though indifferent to each other's presence.
"It's not what you think. And it's a bit rich coming from you, screwing a bloke eighteen years younger than you. Anyway, Lonts stayed in my room last night but nothing went on".
"I'll believe you, thousands wouldn't".
"It's true! I'd be terrified of hurting him for a start. It's just that he's very young, as you've pointed out, and he's completely alone. He's a bit frightened", Hillyard dropped his voice to a whisper "He's the Kiskev Survivor you know".
"You're joking! I thought they'd locked him up".
"They let him out, 'cos of the overcrowding problem. He spent a few days in the City, but he said it scared him, and all the people looked at him as though he was a freak. So he decided to go home. Only he got lost in the Uncharted Area, and ended up here. Poor little bastard, he's got no one in the world to turn to".
"Another lame duck for you to add to your collection?"
Hillyard glared at him and went back to the alcove.
After breakfast Adam wandered around the village square, enjoying the luxury of being the only person out and about who was not engaged in work of some kind. Frost coated the cobbled streets, and men were apparent by their breath.
He stopped outside a whitewashed single-storey building which proudly proclaimed itself as a massage centre. A small mountain village seemed a rather incongruous place for it. He went in, intrigued by a sign that offered penis massage. Half-an-hour later he was lying on a couch in a back room, being attended to by two slim, completely silent young men possessed of highly efficient hands. He groaned and tingled as they rubbed aromatic oil around his penis and his balls, firmly enough to be provocative and yet careful not to antagonise either.
Afterwards he lay for a while with a hot towel over his face, feeling as though all his bones had been removed. They certainly knew their business, he gave them that. But then the whole place was sophisticated and efficient, like a well-run private clinic, and he found himself wondering, not for the first time, why they were plying their trade out here in the back of beyond.
"Is business good?" he asked the owner, when he went out to the foyer to pay.
"Doing alright", the man was short and plump with a voice like razor-blades "Plenty of passing trade, so I can't grumble".
"What made you set up out here?"
At first the man didn't answer. He was preoccupied with trying to get a paraffin heater to work properly. He was so long in replying that Adam had almost decided to leave.
"I get a subsidy from the Ministry", he said, straightening up at long last "For running this place out here. Not that I need it really, this place practically looks after itself. This is one type of business that'll never go under. Even when the world starts coming to an end, people will still want us".
"More than ever I would have thought. Is this subsidy because a lot of your customers are Ministry men?" asked Adam, feeling reckless as he spoke.
"Men that work for the Ministry, yea. They need diversions whilst they're here, and not just them either".
"I'm new here. Can you tell me where this Ministry work all takes place, or am I not supposed to know?"
"The Winter Palace", said the man, casually "You need to go through the forest a bit, and it's slightly further into the mountains".
"It doesn't sound terribly secretive".
"Doesn't need to be. They have their own ways of keeping you at arm's length. Most passers-through have more sense than to go looking for trouble, and one of the reasons we're here is to make sure they get their attention diverted in other directions instead".
"Have you seen it, the Winter Palace I mean?"
"And yet you live here".
"I don't go into that part of the forest. It's not strictly forbidden as such, but I've never met anyone who, well put it this way, who has come out the same way he went in. So don't you go poking around over there. Leave 'em to it I say. It's not bad advice when you think about it".
"I'll bear it in mind".
When Adam left the massage centre he found Rooly sitting on the doorstep of the cottage next door, smoking a cigar. Adam looked at it wistfully. He had finished his own stock, and was beginning to sorely notice their absence from his life.
"Is that Kiskevian?" he asked, desperation driving him to speak to a man whom he had disliked on sight.
"I have plenty, if you'd care to join me", came the inevitable reply.
Adam followed him into the one-roomed building through a beaded curtain. Rooly's taste in decor was certainly striking. The room was draped entirely in sheets of silk, all in varying shades of blue. Walking into the room felt like drowning and was curiously relaxing. Adam, who didn't feel like saying anything complimentary to Rooly if he could possibly help it, refused to comment on it. Rooly indicated for him to sit down, and Adam lowered himself gingerly onto a very low sofa covered in an antique shawl. The cigars were produced and lit. Rooly then disconcerted Adam by lolling at his feet as they smoked.
"I see you took advantage of our local services this morning", said Rooly, eventually "What did you think of it?"
"Relaxing", said Adam, tersely.
"Oh we have everything for relaxation here. Everything for the weary or inquisitive traveller. Massage, steam rooms, drugs, pretty boys. The lot".
"And all funded by the Ministry?"
"Why though? What is so special about Marlsblad?"
"It's owned entirely by the Ministry, the whole village. So they like to look after their own when they come out here. After all, let's face it, it's the only way to get them out here in the first place. And stray visitors, such as yourself, can't be simply thrown out, not when they can make money out of you instead, so they need to be distracted during the course of their visit".
"I take it that it's all to do with the work going on at the Winter Palace? Have you seen this place?"
"No, and you'll find few who live here have. We avoid the place. Only those that are specially invited there are safe to get through that part of the forest. The crowd at the Winter Palace don't take kindly to gatecrashers".
"What do they do at the Winter Palace though?"
Rooly didn't reply. He stared at Adam serenely through his cigar smoke. Adam tried a different tack.
"Alright, so what is it in that part of the forest that keeps everyone at bay? I take it you can tell me that? For my own safety at least".
"They've placed something there to keep people out. A demon I suppose is what you'd call it, although doubtless they have some fancy term for it, as demon sounds too Biblical, and we all know that's not allowed".
"You mean to tell me they've created or conjured up some demonic entity to protect themselves, to keep people out?"
"It sure does", said Adam, recalling Gurran Island.
"Don't worry. You're completely safe in the village. A lot here get nervous come twilight, but there's no reason to be. They've given this ... entity strict boundaries. It can't get beyond a small part of the forest. After all, it's not in their interests to have some creature running amok here causing chaos".
"And they control it? The Ministry uses black magic for their own ends ..."
Adam silenced himself quickly. Rooly's eyes were narrowing in suspicion. Adam suddenly felt aware of how little he knew about this bizarre new world. After all, if vampires were accepted as commonplace, then it was highly likely that government ministers practising witchcraft were as well!
"And what's your role in all this?" asked Adam "Which particular little chore do you perform for the Ministry then? Spy perhaps?"
"Occasionally", said Rooly "But then that goes with the territory. I'm a whore, and the Ministry is my pimp".
"You must have great trouble competing with the young ones", said Adam, cattily.
"Not really. Men have different needs. Some who come here are very tired and lonely, and merely want to spend a relaxing evening lying on my silk cushions, talking and sharing a smoke. Much as you're doing now really".
"The words 'money' and 'old rope' spring to mind. Nice work if you can get it".
"Oh I do my share of the physical stuff too. Although I get choosy as to how far I go. The odd blow job is about my limit nowadays. I rarely do the full bit anymore, as I never did like it that much. And if anyone starts demanding anything on the avant garde side I tell them to try elsewhere".
"How many minutes have I been charged for so far?"
"Simply the cost of the cigar. It depends if you want anything else, or does your cute little friend supply all your needs? Then again, perhaps he doesn't, as you did spend the morning paying for a cock massage".
"He's not well this morning. Too much of the jungle juice last night".
"Tut tut, falling down on the job".
"He is not my tart", said Adam, firmly "I don't pay him to do anything. He's a friend, a close friend".
"You keep him you mean", Rooly sighed "Oh well, no fool like an old fool".
"Keep him?" Adam laughed "If only that was true, he deserves a bit of luxury. Unfortunately I can't provide it at the moment. But I rather like the thought of Patsy as my kept floozy".
Rooly laughed obligingly, and nuzzled his head against Adam's knee.
"Do you normally target your customers with such enthusiasm?" asked Adam, venomously.
"When I like the look of them. It makes the job so much easier. And I don't fancy people easily anymore, seen too many bare bottoms sticking in the air I suppose, it tends to make one rather jaded. So on the rare occasion I do feel a physical attraction to a potential customer I do like to pursue it. It's the only job satisfaction I get. Something has to make up for all those endless vaccination needles I have to have rammed in my bottom every six months".
Adam unbuttoned his trousers. They engaged in some mutual masturbation, which the tart seemed to get more pleasure from than the customer. Afterwards Adam re-buttoned his trousers, cast a handful of coins contemptuously at Rooly's recumbent crotch, and left the cottage.
By the time he got back to the inn he felt depressed. The relief was over, and replaced by a sobering reminder that he had hoped to have left such cheap little scenes in his past. His rational side told him that Rooly was just a sad character doing a job, but he still hated him. Hated him for being so functional, for seeing the world in terms of cocks and loose change. He had felt nothing for Rooly that was positive, he hadn't kissed him or touched him with any warmth. Rooly was a machine to be used and abused.
Adam tried to shake off such an overwhelming dolefulness and went to the kitchen, where he directed Jem in making a Prairie Oyster. He then took the glass upstairs, where Kieran lay sprawled naked across the bed, trying groggily to fight his way into consciousness. Adam insisted he drink the concoction, and Kieran drained the glass with some reluctance.
"You reek of sex, I can smell it", he said, coming up for air "I can smell sex like Angel can smell blood. What have you been up to?"
"Nothing you need worry about", Adam sighed "Merely a visit to a slag called Rooly in the village that was all. A necessary release. A quick jerk off by an ageing jerk".
"Because I wasn't around you mean?" said Kieran "I hope he was worth the money".
"I doubt you've ever had to pay for it have you?" said Adam, spitefully.
"No need to take it out on me! I'm not judging you".
"Sometimes I wish you would".
"Sorry but the jealousy bit isn't me. That doesn't mean I don't get hurt though. I just feel a little sad that's all".
"And do you know how completely infuriating that is? If you don't, just ask Joby".
"I can't be something I'm not", Kieran protested "Of course I'd rather you'd come to me this morning, but you didn't and that's that. I wasn't up to it, and that was my fault. Anyway, talking of Joby, perhaps you should take him to visit this Rooly. It might be the breakthrough he needs!"
"Even I couldn't be that cruel".
Adam couldn't help smiling at this thought though as he ate dinner alone with Joby that evening. Joby was disconcerted that Adam's lips kept puckering into a snigger, but decided to ignore it. He was annoyed that Kieran had wasted the whole day sleeping off his binge from the night before. He'd wanted to explore the village and the forest with him. Instead he'd spent the day sitting by the wood-burning stove in the hall, drinking endless beers and coffees in the hope that the Irishman would appear. Now, come evening, Kieran had decided he still wasn't up to food and had stayed in their bedroom. Joby felt wretchedly disappointed, as though he'd been stood up on a promising date. On top of all that he now had to contend with Adam enjoying a private joke to himself, which was undoubtedly at his expense.
His mood wasn't helped by a duo of nomadic musicians, who serenaded everyone during the meal. The music, a tearful stringed instrument accompanied by a hand-drum, was melancholy in the extreme. The whole bar seemed to be in a subdued mood, and little talking was going on as the men morosely emptied their plates and bowls.
"What are you doing here Lonts?" asked Adam, as the young boy walked towards them "And where's Hillyard?"
"He's upstairs having a rest. He said he was tired. I didn't want to disturb him so I came down. I think I'll go for a walk now".
"It's dark", said Joby, wiping his bowl vigorously with a crust of bread.
"I'm only going round the village".
"You'd be wiser to stay in here", said Adam "They're having some boxers in shortly. You'll miss the fight if you go out".
"I don't like violence", said Lonts "It makes me feel sick".
"Prissy little sod", said Joby, as Lonts walked away.
"I suppose you can't really blame him after all he's been through", said Adam "Even so, I'm not happy about him wandering off ... oh God, hark at me! I'M worrying about him now!"
"Don't. He's Hillyard's problem".
They were diverted by a cheer going up as two well-built well-endowed young men walked into the space in the middle of the bar. Everyone settled back in anticipation of a good fight.
It was certainly a long one, and a tribute to both men's stamina if nothing else. They rained down punches on each other ceaselessly, and the water in the buckets on the sidelines practically turned into blood, but still they kept fighting. Joby watched enthralled, growing more and more impressed by their resilience. By the time the fight was halted (on compassionate grounds, Adam felt) both men had faces like raw meat.
Far sadder sights were to come. The floor was then thrown open for members of the public to fight each other. Unfortunately the ones most eager were usually well advanced in years, anxious to prove their testosterone levels one last time. The fight became less of a boxing match, and more a parade of the living dead.
Upstairs, Hillyard was sitting in the small bedroom, dozing by the light of an oil-lamp. He was struggling to remain conscious, and was beginning to have the nasty suspicion that Lonts had doctored his coffee with knock-out powder. Hillyard couldn't imagine why he should have gone to this trouble. To keep him out of the way perhaps? But the way of what?
Hillyard splashed cold water onto his face from the washstand but the darkness continued to creep closer. He sat back in the chair and thankfully closed his eyes. He was more hurt by Lonts's action than anything. He thought the boy had trusted him. It was disappointing to realise otherwise.
He vaguely heard the door scrape open, but there was no one there. It must have been caused by a draught on the landing. Wearily he tried to eject himself from the chair to go and close it. Suddenly it slammed shut. By doing so it managed to rocket Hillyard into full consciousness. Something very odd was going on here. The room had gone icy-cold, and a shape seemed to be forming out of some kind of watery vapour.
The figure stepped out of the vapour as calmly and easily as stepping out of a shower. The figure was young, attractive, stark-naked, and blatantly out for blood. It moved nearer to him, silently, almost imperceptibly. The chill grew more intense with each forward movement the creature made. When it was near enough to be touched Hillyard felt a wave of revulsion come over him. The creature's breath was fetid, and its fingernails long and grimy as though it had just clawed its way out of its own grave.
"Leave me alone", said Hillyard, hoarsely.
Angel reached out and touched the bruise on Hillyard's shoulder. The man winced in pain and tried to pull away, but the creature's grip held firm. He was trapped.
"Hillyard!" Lonts cried from the open doorway "He's a vampire. Don't touch him!"
Angel turned round swiftly. When he saw the young boy he let out a squeal of rage and flew across the room towards him as though he was on castors. Lonts screamed and backed out of the doorway.
Alerted by the uearthly noises next door Kieran ran out onto the landing. He was in time to see Lonts grappling with a dark shape. The sight was so extraordinary that he could only watch, appalled, as the shape hurled Lonts backwards down the stairs.
Without thinking, mindful only of a rage at what he had just seen, Kieran advanced quickly on the shape. As he got closer it seemed as though a fog cleared in his vision, and he could see Angel once more.
"You little bastard, Angel!" he screamed "Why don't you get back in your grave and stay there, where we put you!"
Angel looked so terrified that Kieran was almost fooled into thinking that the past few weeks since their stay at the Loud House hadn't happened. Suddenly the boy didn't look dead, or a monstrous creature, but the lonely, confused young lad he had seemed when they had first met him at Henang. There was almost a yearning in the boy's eyes, a yearning for something other than blood and flesh.
"Angel", Kieran whispered, softly.
Then the invisible barrier that divided them was back in place once more.
"Let me alone!" Angel's voice came out as a half-squeal, more animal than human "Let me alone!"
The last word lingered in the air after the boy's presence had gone. Kieran felt shaken, and he clung to the newel post at the top of the stairs for support. He vaguely noticed Hillyard go down to collect Lonts, as though the boy was a bundle of dropped washing, and then return with him.
"Did you see that?" Hillyard shouted, through the open door of his bedroom a few minutes later "He threw Lonts down the stairs!"
"You're lucky that's all he did", said Kieran, walking into the room "Is he alright?"
"Yea, no bones broken, just a bit stunned".
Lonts, who had been sitting in Hillyard's chair, looked up and saw Kieran for the first time. His eyes widened in horror and disbelief, until Kieran began to wonder if he had accidentally sprouted another head. The boy opened his mouth and let out an inhuman squawk that escalated violently like an extreme asthma attack.
"What's the matter with him?" Kieran shouted, above the unholy din.
"He seems to be having some kind of attack", said Hillyard "You've upset him somehow. You'd better leave".
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