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The Doctor was summoned from the village. He examined the body, announced that death was due to heart failure, and arranged for it to be removed.
"But doesn't there have to be a report of some kind?" Kieran protested "When we first came here he was a large, healthy-looking man in the prime of life. You examined him yourself! And now suddenly he's dead, looking like an underfed ninety-year-old. He did not die of heart failure, or at least only in the sense that we all die of heart failure!"
"He's a bit upset", said Hillyard, trying to lead Kieran away.
"I understand", said the Doctor "But I advise him for his own good to get upset in private. This is not the place to start anything".
"What are you going to do with the body now, eh?" Kieran asked, belligerently.
"He will be discreetly disposed of".
"Discreetly disposed of? He's not a focking used condom!"
Hillyard hauled Kieran into their bedroom, where Joby was already helping himself to the plum brandy.
"No statements, no post-mortems, no death certificate, no coroner's report", Kieran ranted "It's obscene. Just discreetly disposed of. That's what it is, obscene".
"It's what they do", said Hillyard "You've just gotta accept it".
"Yea, or we'll all be in trouble! You're just like Stombal you are, you get worked up and you don't think about the safety of others".
"I am not like Stombal", Kieran said through gritted teeth.
Joby felt in despair. He knew that the image of the dying man, covered in bite-marks, lying in squalor in that stuffy, shit-infested little room would haunt him for years to come. He already had a depressing certainty that he would suffer from nightmares about it. When Adam finally walked through the door, Joby was nearly hysterical with relief. He at once let loose a volley of demands as to where he had been whilst the insanity had broken out.
"I heard all about it downstairs", Adam took off his snow-drenched coat and hung it over the back of the chair nearest the fire "The landlord's already anticipating a flood of departures. It's never happened on the premises before apparently. Not the done thing. Great embarrassment all round".
"How can you speak so bloody lightly of it?" said Kieran.
"It's very simple. Because I didn't see it".
"I should've realised something was up", said Joby "When I saw him on the stairs last night, Caln I mean. He had that bloated look, the one that Angel got after he'd feasted. Caln must've thought all his birthdays had come at once when he got a great heap of rump like that as a room-mate".
"True", said Adam "He wouldn't have got much change out of us for instance would he? Except perhaps Hillyard I suppose! Don't look so shocked at our levity Patsy. I'm not saying it out of bad taste, but because I think we will need our sense of the absurd even more before the day is out. You see, I've just been to see Rooly ..."
"So we leave this afternoon", said Kieran, examining the palms of his hands in a distracted manner "Why do rotten things always come too soon?"
"If we don't go we'll have to wait another six weeks", Hillyard pointed out "And who knows what they could get up to in that time. How many more dead bodies would have to accumulate before you're ready to face it!"
"That's quite enough from you Hillyard", said Adam.
"We have six hours until dusk", said Joby "What do we do until then?"
"Something thoroughly selfish and enjoyable", said Adam "Come along Patsy".
"Where are we going?"
"I'm going to show you the hidden delights of the massage centre. Joby, you can look as disgusted as you like, but you're going to have to be quicker than that with your bids for Patsy's favours, otherwise you'll always lose out to me".
After the other two had gone, Joby looked at Hillyard in a sheep-faced fashion. Hillyard tried to look sympathetic in return.
"Fancy a final drink in the bar then?" said Joby.
Adam had arranged everything immediately after leaving Rooly's cottage. Now all he had to do was collect the keys to the Love Suite, and escort Kieran through the main part of the massage centre into the courtyard beyond. The Love Suite was an old, rambling building which had once been the village inn, until demand had outgrown the size of the premises. Adam loved the design of it. With its wrought iron gates, shuttered windows and wayward staircases, it reminded him of a decayed Viennese apartment block.
"Isn't it peaceful and secluded here?" said Kieran.
He was standing next to an empty birdcage in the centre of the courtyard, which in the summertime housed exotic birds with coloured plumes and soothing trills. Even now, with the cage empty of all but a few dead leaves that had blown into it, it symbolised the relaxed, secure escapism that anyone hiring the Love Suite was looking for.
"This is really the 40th century man's version of Niagara Falls", said Adam, taking out a set of keys and selecting one to open the wrought-iron gate which led into the building "This is where they retreat for a few days of nookie. Total peace, quiet, discretion and privacy is guaranteed".
"Not exactly the Hanging Gardens of Babylon though is it?" said Kieran "In fact, in some lights it could look downright seedy".
"Ah, but I love its aura of decayed splendour. It's so wonderfully baroque. Like an ageing drag queen".
"Shame it's wasted on a load of men then", said Kieran, mischievously.
"You won't be saying that by the end of the afternoon", Adam pushed open the gate, and tugged Kieran in after him.
The central staircase seemed as though it had appeared from an Escher optical illusion. It veered off in all directions, disappearing into archways and corners, and giving an aura of total seclusion.
The rooms they had been allocated were on the first floor. A table in a small ante-room had been set with a meal. Covered dishes and plates were offset by hot-house orchids. A fire in the grate made the room feel snug and self-contained.
The two men removed their clothes entirely and Adam fed Kieran from each of the dishes in turn. He squeezed mangoes so that the juice ran down the younger man's chest, and plied him with the slithery remains of a small exotic lake-creature, rumoured to have aphrodisiac qualities.
"Not that you need it", said Adam.
"I might need it today. It's no good", said Kieran, swallowing the final mollusc "I still don't feel relaxed".
"Is that so?" said Adam, rising to his feet "Well old love, I'm just going to have to do something about that then aren't I?"
Adam picked him up in his arms with little effort at all, and carried him through into the next room.
Joby was having a perfectly wretched time. He had grown bored with Hillyard's company very quickly. When alone together the other man only wished to discuss his past lovers. Joby wouldn't have minded this so much if he could have discussed his in return. But how did you tell a man about the wonders of women, when he had never even seen one in a picture let alone in the flesh! Joby also felt uneasy in the bar that afternoon. The word had got around like an infectious rash that it was they who had found the body in Room Four, and so they were now being avoided like jinxes. If it wasn't for the thought of the ordeal ahead, Joby felt he wouldn't be sorry to leave the inn.
"Anyone'd think we were the vampires", he said.
He caught sight of Rooly standing in the doorway, incongruously wearing a pair of sunglasses and carrying a bundle under his arm.
"Oh Christ", said Joby "I'd forgotten all about him".
He took great pleasure in informing Rooly as to where Adam was, and then went up to the bedchamber to pack, after settling the bill with the landlord, who looked at him rather sadly but said nothing. By now Joby was seething with resentment. He was angry that Adam and Kieran were having an enjoyably debauched time of it, whilst he had "to mind the gargoyles", as he put it. Not only that but he had seen remarkably little of Kieran during their time at the inn, and was missing their old sense of camaraderie. He felt as though he had been cut out of his company, pushed to one side.
Like a lot of healthy people Kieran needed regular doses of sex during normal times to keep his equilibrium balanced, but under times of extreme pressure such as this he craved it like a drug. And Joby simply couldn't provide it. He adored Kieran, and had in recent times actually admitted to himself that he desired him. The kisses they had exchanged had felt phenomenal, but when it came to sex a barrier came crashing down in his mind. He would fail him at the last fence, and he knew it. He couldn't give him what Adam already provided so well.
When Hillyard and Rooly followed him upstairs he at first felt close to screaming. Instead though an amusing thought occurred to him, which was that between the three of them they were probably generating enough thwarted passion and sexual frustration to knock down walls by psychokinesis alone. The thought made him laugh out loud. The other three studiously overlooked the sudden outburst, like prim spinsters ignoring a loud fart at a tea-party.
"They've taken the horses out to meet the train", said Rooly, eventually "I saw them leading 'em out of the village earlier. They use them to pull the carts through".
"Do they go through the Forest of Deception then?" asked Hillyard.
"They know how to control the quirks of the forest", said Rooly "Like they control everything around here".
"So it won't be long now then", said Hillyard, ominously.
"It'll take them a fair while to load up, and then get back again through the snow".
"Why are you wearing shades indoors Rooly?" asked Joby.
Rooly was annoyed that Joby had fed him this essential line when Adam wasn't there to appreciate its result. Still, even second-rate reaction was better than none at all, and he thought Joby would be sure to tell Adam about it. Dramatically, he removed his sunglasses to reveal eyes worn red with sobbing for his unrequited love, who at this moment was bonking Kieran in the Love Suite.
Unfortunately even this effect was ruined by Artuul strolling in and diverting all attention from him. It didn't escape anyone's notice that Artuul was carrying an overnight bag.
"Hillyard!" Joby cried "What's going on now?"
"I don't know what he's up to", Hillyard protested "I haven't invited him along if that's what you're thinking. I just happened to mention that you were considering going up to the Winter Palace that's all".
"You just happened to mention!" Joby was nearly speechless with rage "And what else have you just happened to mention and to who?"
"Nothing", said Hillyard, defensively.
"Bist told me there was to be a delivery this afternoon", said Artuul "So I guessed you might be travelling. I admire what you're doing, but you can't possibly consider going without me".
"Why not?" said Joby.
"I am essential to your plans. I am the Vanquisher of Evil".
"Oh get back to what you know best Artuul", said Joby "Rubbing cocks! If you're the Vanquisher of Evil then I'm the Prince of Darkness!"
The bedchamber achieved the unique feat of being large enough to generate an exhilarating feeling of space, but it also felt cosy at the same time. The mirrored ceiling and the gilt looking-glasses achieved the feeling of roominess, whilst the red-flock wallpaper and the fire in the grate made it feel personal and warm. The aura of faded baroque glories only added to the intoxicating atmosphere.
Adam set the coffee-pot on the fender. They still had two hours left before dusk, and he was only too aware of how menacingly close the deadline now was. Kieran was sleeping in the huge bed, which was made up of silk sheets, a torn velvet coverlet and dusty net hangings. His naked form was a deliciously-blurred shape through the gauze. Before falling asleep Kieran had murmured that he wished they could stay in the room for days and days.
"When all this is over", Adam had said "We'll come back here and book the room for a week or a fortnight or a month. I'll sketch and sketch in the City until I have enough money for us to do so. I'll be the busiest pavement artist they've ever seen".
Kieran had been sitting between his legs, both of them fitting together like a naked puzzle. Adam had combed Kieran's yellow hair, relishing the silky feel of it as it trailed through his fingers.
The room's magic may have been faded but it had had the desired effect on them both. It had all lived up to Adam's expectations and more. All the sensations he experienced there were sweet, none more so than the feel of Kieran's body, glistening with perspiration, sliding over his. To relax and yet stimulate him at the same time Adam had pulled Kieran over his lap and softly spanked his buttocks. Kieran had adored it. With each gentle smack he felt an easing of the loathsome feeling of responsibility, an exorcising of the dark shade of destiny, which had dogged him ever since he had been told about his illustrious fate. In return Kieran had titillated and tormented Adam's penis as he oiled it ready for use, until Adam felt as though his body would burst under the pressure.
Now as the coffee bubbled, Adam walked silently over to the bed and peered through the netting. If life could be perfect, he thought, he would stand there until dusk and beyond. He wanted to be here with Kieran in the dark, warmed by the firelight, safe from the outside world. He fantasised about waking in the night and seeing the moonlight falling across Kieran's smooth slightly pink buttocks. He crept under the netting and gently nudged him. It was distressing to hear Kieran whimpering at being pulled out of his deep sleep.
"It's not time is it?" he said, plaintively, sounding like a condemned man on hearing that the dreaded hour was nigh.
"Very soon", said Adam "I feel like saying to hell with it and locking us both in here in a state of siege, or I keep hoping that this building's an illusion, like the trees in the Forest of Deception. That once inside it we're safe, and can't be seen by those out there".
"We will do this again sometime won't we?"
"Undoubtedly. As often as we can".
Joby climbed up and down the main staircase several times. Each time he reached the top he counted to ten slowly before beginning his pointless game once more. There was a rowdy session going on in the bar. In order to focus his customers' attentions away from the latest grisly death, the landlord had brought out his best troupe of "exotic dancers" a few hours earlier. These men were by no mean eunuchs. Instead they were strapping, well-endowed lads with muscles in all the right places. They all wore minor variations on the skimpy underpants, and sunglasses or masks costume. A trio of them had appeared in the lobby for a beer-break, and Joby found himself being watched by them with some amusement. But he was beyond caring what anybody thought of him.
On walking back up to the inn through the village streets Kieran and Adam had noticed that they were the only ones now out and about. The shops had closed early, and nobody seemed to be working.
"They're all waiting until the cargo's gone through", said Kieran, uncomfortably aware of the gathering twilight.
"The pub's still going a storm at any rate", said Adam, as they drew nearer to the muffled whoops and whistles within.
"Where the fucking hell have you been?" Joby shouted, standing halfway up the main staircase.
"You know where we've been", said Adam "Don't play coy".
"I was beginning to wonder if you'd ever return".
"Joby, it's nearly time", said Adam, quietly, as he and Kieran drew level with him "Are the others ready?"
"Yea. We've been joined by Artuul though".
"Oh well, the more Vanquishers of Evil the better!" said Kieran.
"Look, whilst we're alone like this, just the three of us", Adam began "I just wanted to say that we will survive all this. Like we survived Henang, and the Loud House, and all the rest of it".
"I wish it was just us three again", said Joby.
"It always will be in spirit", said Kieran "Like the Three Muskateers, or the Three Stooges, depending on how you look at it".
Adam grabbed Joby's wrist and then Kieran's, and held onto them for a moment, as though drawing strength from them.
"And don't go abandoning me in the forest", said Joby "Or at the Winter Palace. No sneaking off for a quick rogering again, and leaving me on me own with the gargoyles like you did this afternoon".
"We won't", said Adam "Or at least not until we're entirely safe again anyway".
"Hark, I can hear something", said Kieran.
There was a rumbling sound in the distance, getting closer by the second, as though a thunderstorm had been accelerated on tape.
"I think this is it", said Adam.
"This is it", Hillyard announced, like an echo, as he appeared in the doorway of the bedroom.
"We'd better hurry then", Kieran sighed.
Downstairs the foyer was empty. Everyone had retreated into the bar, and were watching a dancer teasing them with his underpants. He kept turning his back on his audience, and coyly slipping the garment down over his bum cleavage, before hurriedly hauling them back up again. It was tantalising, but whether the audience genuinely thought this was erotic or not was irrelevant. Whilst the rumbling noise grew louder and louder outside, he had their undivided attention.
The party of six slipped out of the inn, and had gone some way into the village by the time the cargo had successfully crossed the Forest of Deception. When they realised that it would soon be upon them they retreated down a side alley next to the massage centre, and waited for it to pass.
The horse-drawn wagons made a tremendous din on the cobbles. They were going at such a furious speed that anyone standing in their way wouldn't have had a chance of survival. On the back of the wagons, like overgrown slugs, the bolted black caskets jostled and thumped against one another, as though the dead inside them were making a last futile attempt to escape.
"They've certainly got a healthy appetite up at the Winter Palace", said Kieran, ominously.
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