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Julian had spent the evening feeling nervous, and with good reason. Because of their mysterious stalker, he had gone out and bought two extra pistols. Whilst out, hehad overheard gossip regarding a lunatic at large, who had had a propensity for sneaking anonymously into bars and slipping LSD (probably using a syringe) into people's drinks. One man had died because of this. Five weeks after having had his drink spiked, a period during which he had acted entirely out of character, he had killed himself. The town was now buzzing with morbid speculation as to what could happen if the lunatic managed to dope the town's main water supply. The thought of the entire population out of its biscuit on LSD was too scary to contemplate.
The news was frightening, but also annoying. Julian didn't want to order the sloop away from the Stairs without discovering who their stalker was. He was so protective over those he loved, that to have someone coveting them wasn't a matter he wanted to leave unresolved. The fact that this mystery man had tried to entice Bengo was enough in itself to rile the testosterone-charged Julian considerably.
"Where have you been?" said Finia, greeting him on the gangplank when he returned "I worried about you going off alone like that".
"I've been buying extra weapons", said Julian, indicating the box under his arm "Are the others home yet?"
"No, it's only myself, Ransey, Toppy and Hillyard here", said Finia.
Julian swore under his breath and followed him onto the sloop. Hillyard trailed him into the cabin, and started going on about how the horses needed some much-needed exercise. Julian snapped that he didn't want to worry about the horses at this moment, which upset Hillyard.
They were all examining the new weapons when Mieps came home, with a long scar on his neck. Someone had cornered him down a narrow alley and had tried to "persuade" him to join his master's household. Julian had nearly exploded with rage on hearing this.
"I'm going to find this moron if it's the last thing I do!" he cried.
"Don't say it like that! Don't use those words" said Finia, who was getting more and more superstitious as he got older.
"What did your attacker look like?" said Ransey, more calmly.
"Not much", said Mieps, who was more shaken than he cared to admit "Unshaven, greasy, wild hair. He knew what he was doing though. A good predator. Otherwise I wouldn't have allowed myself to be cornered so easily".
"What were you doing out on your own?" said Julian, furiously.
"Trying to help", Mieps mumbled with embarrassment "I thought to find out who was preying on us I'd go into the shadows and see what I could shake out of the dust".
Julian was about to let rip at him when the others came home. Lonts was carrying Bengo (now unconscious) over his shoulder.
"What's he been drinking?" said Julian, sharply.
"The local beer", said Joby "It ent half rough too. No wonder he's in a bad way!"
Lonts undressed Bengo and put him to bed. Meanwhile, Julian filled them in on what he had heard regarding the phantom drink-spiker. He was no less reassured to hear in return about the "spaced-out time-traveller" who had accosted Kieran in the bar.
"I have no intention of us leaving here until we know who this idiot is", said Julian, pacing up and down the cabin "Otherwise who's to say he couldn't follow us back to the Bay and be a perfect menace? No, we're going to stay here and flush him out".
"He's obviously a coward", said Adam "Particularly if it's him, or one of his emissaries, who's been spiking people's drinks with hard drugs. That's a very cowardly thing to do".
"As you will all appreciate, certain precautions will have to be taken", said Julian "To ensure everyone's safety. I know this will come as a great shock to you all, but I'm going to get a lot stricter from now on, and I don't want any ripe comments! Shore-leave is going to become a heavily-supervised event. No one goes ashore, for whatever reason, without checking with either me or Adam first. We need to know where everyone is at all times. As certain members of us can't be trusted to behave at any time, heavy restrictions have to be imposed. For instance, Freaky is denied all shore-leave until further notice".
"No you can't do that!" said Tamaz, in dismay "Why am I singled out for punishment? It wasn't me who got drunk this evening, it was that dork, Bengo!"
"I'm hoping that I can rely on Bardin to keep an eye on Bengo", said Julian.
"Well Joby'll keep an eye on me", said Tamaz "I always do everything he says".
"Eh?" said Joby, in disbelief.
Tamaz flung his arms round Julian's waist and cried bitterly.
"Alright", said Julian, testily "Much against my better judgement you can go ashore. But only, ONLY, if accompanied by me or Joby".
"What about me?" said Mieps "You know you can rely on me to keep him in line".
"I can't trust you to keep yourself in line!" said Julian "You are only allowed ashore if accompanied by me!"
Mieps looked mutinous. His Ghoomer pride rebelled at being treated like a child or a criminal, but he knew he had no choice. He could refuse to comply. He could pack his bags and leave, but he knew he wouldn't. It wasn't just love of Tamaz that kept him here, but everyone else too.
First thing in the morning, after a restless night's sleep, Julian armed himself and went with Hillyard to exercise the horses along the waterfront whilst it was all still relatively quiet out there. When they got back to the sloop he was pleasently surprised to find everyone else engaged in different, fairly peaceful pursuits. No one was hankering to go ashore.
Julian went down to the cabin, where he found Bengo staggering around naked, having just got up, and feeling fragile from the night before.
"Did the others fill you in on my pep-talk last night?" said Julian, sitting down in a chair and stretching out his legs, so that Bengo could remove his boots for him.
"Yes", said Bengo, humbly, standing astride Julian's leg and hauling at the leather footwear "I-I didn't mean to get drunk last night. You must be mad at me".
Like Toppy, Bengo idolised Julian. To them (and to Finia) he was the closest to a father they had ever had. Bengo needed a strong personality to guide his own. Being so amiable himself, he was apt to be too trusting of the world. He knew this, and he wanted to be looked after. Because he adored Julian he had put up with some rough treatment from him over the years. Willingly sleeping on the floor of the old Indigo by Julian's bunk, having his clowning skills insulted, and being given occasional swishes of the strap when he misbehaved.
Julian gazed into his nut-brown face, and was shaken by how much he loved this adorable young man. Of how devastated he would have been if the idiot-stalker had managed to take him away.
"I don't want another moment's worry from you whilst we're here", he said, fiercely.
"I'll try so hard", said Bengo, beginning to cry.
Julian was tormented by the pain his love caused him inside, and he decided to give some back in return. He put his hand roughly on the back of Bengo's neck and tipped him over his knee, giving him the second spanking he had had in 24 hours. This one was even more severe than when he'd attacked him with the paddle the day before. Using only his hand, Julian walloped him so soundly that Bengo was both excited and terrified. It hurt, but at the same time he didn't want it to stop. It was the most exquisite humiliation. He felt his whole body flooding with the sensation, and to compound the shame, he knew he'd ejaculate.
"Julian", he gasped "I can't help it. I'm coming! I'm coming!"
"I won't let a prize like you be taken away from us", said Julian, cradling him on his lap afterwards "Not to belong to some unspeakable pervert".
"I belong to you and Bardy and the others", said Bengo, helplessly.
"Mm, you're our pet", said Julian, stroking his hair "You always were".
He set him on his feet, and Bengo stood there placidly, like an obedient slave waiting for further instructions, whilst Julian took off his soiled trousers.
"Stay in here", said Julian "I'll chase up Bardin, and send him in to rub some cream on for you".
He found Bardin walking along the corridor from the galley, with Lonts and Adam.
"Bengo needs your services", he said to Bardin "He's got backside like a beacon at the moment. You'd better massage some of the blister cream into it".
"He was still sore from yesterday!" said Bardin "We both are!"
"Then he can rub some into yours too", said Julian "Chop to it".
Bardin ran excitedly towards the cabin.
"What are you both looking at me like that for?" said Julian "Adam, I can't believe you're going to tell me you don't approve!"
"No but ..." said Adam "I mean, Bengo makes a delicious little slave, but I know what you're like. Two hard thrashings in 2 days might be more than he can take".
"What's all this 'hard thrashings' nonsense?" said Julian "I lovingly chastised him, and he relished every minute of it".
Lonts was having none of that.
"You fiend!" he said, nostrils flaring "You think I don't know what your spankings are like! I do. I had enough of them myself!"
"Yes, until you became too bloody enormous!" said Julian "More's the pity. And I am not a fiend! I've just been kissing and cuddling him for pity's sake!"
"That's not what you used to do to me afterwards", said Lonts.
"Because you were a violent savage that's why!" said Julian.
"Let's have a little less of the name-calling shall we?" said Adam.
"I bet Bengo is severely traumatised", said Lonts.
"Oh yes", said Julian "So much so he sprayed spunk all over my trousers! How do you explain that, Yogi?"
Julian turned and went up the quarterdeck steps.
"You don't have to worry about Bengo, I'm sure he's fine", said Adam, linking arms with Lonts "Jules would never cause him serious harm. We've all done it to each other. I've even managed to arouse you that way. Remember back in our cabin on the Indigo at Zilligot Bay?"
"I suppose so", said Lonts, grudgingly "But Julian can get carried away bullying, you've said so yourself".
"And if he does I'll use the paddle on him!" said Adam.
Lonts gave a hearty roar of laughter.
"I think there's just been a volcanic eruption below us", Toppy quipped, playing dominoes with Tamaz up on deck.
Tamaz, who looked bewitching in a matching camisole and drawers, wasn't giving the game his full attention. He kept glancing behind to look at Mieps, who was sulkily playing cat's cradle with a piece of wool round his fingers.
"Stop gloating at Mieps", said Toppy.
"I'm allowed to", said Tamaz "He's such a bossy old snake. Thinks no one can tell him what to do, and then Julian puts him under close supervision! Well now he knows what it's like. He's got a taste of his own medicine at last!"
Hillyard went and sat down next to Mieps.
"Cheer up", he asid "You can't tell me you wish you were back all alone in that tin-shed, with Reptile Men in your garden!"
"Of course not!" said Mieps "But I'm not used to having my movements restricted".
"No one's restricted them", said Hillyard "Julian doesn't possess a pair of handcuffs, he can't tie you up".
"I wouldn't bank on that!" said Mieps.
"No, neither would I, come to think of it!" said Hillyard, laughing "He's only trying to look out for you. What happened with you and that jerk in the alley last night could've been a lot worse".
"I don't need lecturing!" Mieps snapped.
"Alright, I'll squeeze your tit instead".
Hillyard put his arm round Mieps's shoulders, and slipped a hand in the side of his vest, groping a small, warm breast. Mieps nuzzled up close to him like a cat scratching itself against a fence.
Julian announced soon after that he would take everyone out for lunch. En-masse, they were a formidable bunch, he said. They couldn't hide away on the sloop for the rest of the trip, he said. He would carry a pistol, so would Ransey, so would Adam, and so would Kieran, he said.
"I can't walk through the town armed", Kieran protested "It'll be bad for me image! What if Levka sees me?"
"Why should you give a hoot what he thinks?" said Adam.
"Anyway, he won't see you", said Joby "I expect he'll be down at the soup kitchen, terrorising the poor and needy".
"He might see me", said Kieran "He likes to stand at the door of his lodgings and preach at people in the street".
"I bet his neighbours love him!" said Joby.
"I don't give a damn what Levka thinks", said Julian "You will go armed. Ransey taught you how to shoot at the Ministry so I know you can defend yourself with it".
"He's a crack shot actually", said Ransey.
The laundry-tub was got out and hasty shower-baths were improvised. Bengo scrubbed Tamaz, and succeeded in getting himself highly excited for the third time that morning. Being spanked by Julian had been the first, having cream rubbed into him by Bardin had been the second, and now roughly scrubbing Tamaz was the third. He was frustrated though when Joby came along and whisked Tamaz into the cabin for a quick bout of pre-lunch fornication.
With the mid-day sun at its highest, the 13 of them walked through the town like a motley collection of monks. The restaurant they chose was a large glass and brown leather affair overlooking the harbour. Once inside they caused mayhem. Three tables had to be pushed together to accommodate them all, which disgruntled some of the other diners. Particularly when Ransey refused to let them sit in the window. With the town seemingly over-run with nutters, he didn't want Kieran eating in full view of the steps outside. It would be too easy for someone to fire through the window at him and then vanish anonymously into the labyrinths of stairs and alleyways.
"We'll sit down, eventually", said Adam, apologetically.
Julian then decreed that all the wine, beer and rum had to be brought to the table not only still corked, but with the seals intact.
"What do you think we do to it?" said the Manager, indignantly.
Adam went over to soothe the ruffled feathers here too, and was distracted by a basket of peaches sitting on the counter-top. He suddenly had an urge to surreptitiously pocket a couple of them. He realised in time that this was a hangover from their penniless days, when he had often done this in shops and bars, slipping fruit and biscuits into his pockets by sleight of hand. He laughed to himself at the craziness of it all. These days they could order baskets and baskets of peaches to be delivered to the sloop if they so wished.
Back at the table, Julian had ordered Tamaz and Bengo to sit on either side of him.
"I expect Bengo needs a cushion", said Tamaz, caustically.
"That's it, tell everyone!" said Joby "Embarrass the poor sod!"
"When we get back to the sloop I'm gonna fuck the arse off you!" said Bengo, jabbing his finger at Tamaz.
"Huh, you've been saying that for days", said Tamaz "I'm still waiting".
"Not for much longer", said Bengo "That's a promise!"
Mieps suddenly got up and excused himself from the table. Kieran followed him, but first he unbuckled his holster and threw it onto the table. He caught up with Mieps outside the restaurant.
"I'm leaving", said Mieps "I can't stand it anymore".
"Leaving us?" said Kieran "What have we done?"
"It's not the rest of you", said Mieps "It's Tamaz. I can't live with him anymore. It doesn't get any easier".
"But you can have him anytime you want!" said Kieran.
"It's not that", said Mieps "I can't live with getting jealous all the time, and I do! I get jealous of Julian, of you, of Joby, of everyone! I want him all to myself!"
"Leaving us won't make it any easier", said Kieran "Oh on a superficial day-to-day level it might. You'll be spared the daily torment of his presence, and so in time it'll get easier. But that's like cutting off your foot 'cos you've got a blister on your toe! You're one of us now, whether you like it or not. Can't you stay for our sake? Tamaz doesn't have many finer feelings. To survive you're going to have to think of your own pleasures more than his. But you care about him. You can't remove yourself from him".
"I suppose you're going to tell me you know exactly how I feel", said Mieps "I've heard the tales about your wife".
"Amy must be a factor somewhere", said Kieran "But I was thinking more of the 2 years before Joby and me became lovers. I wasn't just living with him, I was sharing a bed with him! Me whole body craved him, it was agony, but he wasn't having it! That's far worse than what you're going through".
"Really", Mieps snapped.
"Look, none of us are under any illusions about Tamaz", said Kieran "If we all walked around denying his faults and telling you to pull yourself together, then you'd have a right to be fed up with us. But we don't. Tamaz is spoilt, mischievous, and manipulative, but we don't all say 'ah Mieps, you've got to be patient and saintly and devoted to him'. You can do what you like, as long as you're not too brutal with him".
"But don't you understand?" said Mieps "To even look at him, to hear his name, torments me. Why doesn't it get any easier?"
"It will, it will", said Kieran "But there's no magic formula with these things. With passion comes pain, acute pain sometimes, but eventually it gives way to simple caring, love and affection. Sometimes though it takes years. For years I couldn't bear the thought of Adam being remotely intimate with anyone else, I wanted his love all to myself".
"And yet at the same time Joby was in the picture too", said Mieps.
"We live in a very tangled web!" said Kieran, ruefully "And the only way we can cope with it is by living like this as a true commune, by not forcing anyone to choose or prioritise. You mustn't go off alone. Not now. It would be as hard for you as it would be for me".
"You always talk about love as some great be-all and end-all", said Mieps "The solution to everything. Well it fucking hurts! And it keeps hurting and hurting! And I don't want it to hurt anymore!"
"So stop beating yourself up", said Kieran.
"How?" Mieps barked.
"Demand respect from the one you love", said Kieran.
"From Tamaz?" said Mieps, dubiously.
"Joby got it", said Kieran "And he went through a lot more pain than you in the process. You have to be strong. Don't let him take an inch. Joby has a great inner strength these days, but I know what he had to go through to get it. Tamaz did his worst to him, but he still failed to destroy him. I'm so proud of Joby for that. He went through everything at his hands, but still ended up loving him, and he didn't try to make him into a different person in the process. That's an exceptional thing. A lot of people make the mistake of trying to change the character of the person they love to suit themselves. If you go now you'll miss the best part, I can promise you that".
Joby and Tamaz walked towards them, hand-in-hand. Both looked wary.
"Julian sent us out to get you", said Tamaz "Just as the food was coming round too!"
"Jaysus, that must've been a helluva sacrifice to tear yourself away from that!" said Kieran.
"Well we're not all food-hating bone-bags like you", said Tamaz.
Kieran grabbed his arm and pulled him down the steps.
"Where are you taking me?" Tamaz yelped.
"Kieran!" Joby shouted "Come back! Ransey'll have a fit if you go off like that!"
"Shame", said Kieran, pausing and squinting up at them through his hair "I was going to drown Tamaz in the ocean!"
"Why?" Tamaz exclaimed.
"Because it'd make Mieps's life a lot easier!" said Kieran.
He pulled Tamaz down a further couple of steps and had a heated discussion with him out of earshot of the others, the sparkling blue sea of the harbour forming a magnificent backdrop. At one point Tamaz was seen to visibly preen and cast a furtive look up at Mieps.
"It's hopeless you know", said Joby, quietly "He'll never change. But he's alright, in his own way".
One of the performers from the Cabaret elbowed his way past them, decked out in his silver stage-costume. At first glance he looked like a stunning and exotic girl, with lustrous jet-black hair hanging down his back and a pretty, well made-up face. But male he most certainly was, as anyone who took the trouble to remove his costume soon found out. Many years ago, when they had first stumbled into this world, Joby would have been disturbed and then angered by such a vision. Now he simply found it amusing.
The silver-clad ingenue gave Kieran a joyous greeting and then carried on down the steps. Tamaz looked miffed by his beauty and stamped back up to Joby and Mieps.
"Spare me from pseudo-hermaphrodites", Tamaz snapped "It's all bloody window-dressing!"
"Quite effective though", said Tamaz, teasingly "He'd have fooled me in the old life".
"And me", said Kieran.
"Look, what's going on out here?" said Hillyard, coming out of the restaurant "Julian's getting narked".
"Not our fault", said Joby.
"Mieps wants to run away", said Kieran "We've got to try and stop him".
"Why?" said Hillyard "I mean, why does he want to run away?"
"Tamaz is driving him up the wall", said Joby.
"Well he's been doing that ever since Mieps first joined us!" said Hillyard.
"He finds me unbearably sexy", said Tamaz.
"Oh Mieps, I don't know what's got into you lately", said Hillyard, talking to him as though he was a temperamental horse "Tamaz can't help the way he is. He's an offspring of the Gorgon. She used to stomp round the woods at Marlsblad luring men to their doom!"
"I am not like her!" said Tamaz, indignant at the comparison.
He stamped into the restaurant.
"Are you joining us again or what?" said Joby to Mieps.
"Of course he is", said Hillyard, taking Mieps's arm and guiding him towards the restaurant, as though manoeuvring a racehorse into a stall at the start of a race.
Tamaz settled back into his place at the table, looking tearful and upset. He kept muttering to himself that he wasn't like his mother, until Toppy ran round the table and enfolded him in his arms, consoling him that all would be well when they got back to the sloop.
"I take everyone out for lunch", said Julian, testily "And you lot spend all your time running in and out of the restaurant having relationship-counselling!"
He was annoyed because he ws trying to eavesdrop on a conversation on the other side of the glass and wooden partition behind him. Two men, obviously just arrived in the town, were speculating about where they could and couldn't go.
"I keep being told not to walk around at night on my own", said one "And when I mentioned going out into the countryside, I was told not to walk around in rural areas even in daytime on my own!"
"There's a lot about this area that's wrapped in mystery", said the other "Some of it's never been properly charted or censussed. Anything could be out there".
Bengo, who was sitting right next to Julian, had also overheard all this. He knew Julian was trying to gather information, however obscure and minimal. So it was with dismay that he noticed Rumble and Farnol had suddenly appeared on the other side of the window, and were going to greath lengths to try and get his and Bardin's attention. Bengo frantically tried to wave them away, knowing Julian would get very annoyed by another distraction at this crucial moment.
"Oh cl-o-o-wns!" said Adam "I think your little friends are trying to get your attention".
"Just ignore 'em, they'll go away", said Bengo, glancing nervously at Julian.
"They seem very persistent", said Adam.
"Watch out, they've found the door", said Joby "It took long enough".
Finia gave a tut of annoyance and lifted his plate off the table in order to carry on eating, as though he was expecting one of them to crash-land amongst the crockery.
"Bardin", said Farnol, always the garrulous one "I won't take no for an answer. You have to come and take over the Cabaret of Horrors. Ully's upset just about everyone now".
"I'm surprised he's conscious long enough!" Bardin muttered.
"He's sacked the Cockroach-Eater", said Rumble, gravely.
"Just because he wasn't feeling too good last night, and so he couldn't swallow them properly", said Farnol.
"That's it", said Finia, getting to his feet "If we can't finish this meal in peace I'm going home".
"I've said again and again we're not coming back", Bardin growled.
"Sit down, Finia", said Adam, gently.
"And he upset the Tattooed Man by saying his tats weren't works of art", Farnol continued.
"He gets sensitive about comments like that", said Rumble.
The two strangers emerged from behind the screen, carrying glasses of absinthe. One of them was built like a brick out-house, and had the kind of relentlessly "characterful" personality that often goes with very fat men. When he saw Kieran he gave a three-point gesticulation of reverence, something Kieran hadn't seen since leaving Ireland.
"Are you a time-crosser?" Kieran asked.
"No, I've just read a lot about religion", said the big man "What do you make of those white crosses that have been appearing around here?"
"What white crosses?" said Kieran.
"Someone's been painting white crosses on the walls down some of the alleys", said the big man.
"I hadn't heard that before", said Kieran.
"This is a crazy town and crazy things happen in it", said Finia, irritably.
Farnol and Rumble were still both trying to cadge proper attention from Bardin, until Julian roared at them to sit down and be silent. Both were taken aback by the full force of his voice, and sank onto a hard wooden bench nearby.
"What are you here for exactly?" said Julian, turning his attention to the two absinthe-drinkers.
"I suppose you could say we're on a witch-hunt", said the big man, calmly "We've heard the Devil is at large in this area, and we want to find out if it's true".
"And if he is", said his friend "Kieran, are you going to confront him?"
"If the Devil is here", said Kieran "He's been remarkably well-behaved so far! A touch of evil mischief-making here and there doesn't mean it's the work of the Devil himself. I believe there's someone here who's up to no good, and we all have to be alert to his ways, but the Devil? He's something else entirely, believe me!"
"I think you'll find he's here", said the big man "And he's got a whole host of demons working for him!"
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