By Sarah Hapgood

"It's an itch that I have to scratch", said Hillyard, adjusting his balls accordingly.

"I wish you'd go and see the quack", said Joby, eyeing him with distaste "It can't be right what's wrong with you. Everytime I look at you you're clutching yourself. It's enough to put me off me beer".

"Adam says you should go in case there's something seriously wrong with you", said Lonts, sombrely "Like syphilis".

"I haven't got fucking syphilis!" Hillyard roared, to the open curiosity of the other inhabitants of the bar.

"Only by a miracle", Joby grunted "Hey Persephone! Another three beers here!"

"Better make it a quick one for me", said Hillyard "I've got a bit of overtime tonight. That should keep Adam happy. Someone other than Bengo or Ransey contributing to the housekeeping".

"Doing what though?" said Joby, warily.

"Oh just a bit of extracurricular activity", said Hillyard, evasively.

Persephone, a striking dark-haired woman with the creamy oval complexion of a geisha girl, came over to refill their pint-mugs.

"I don't suppose Kieran intends to settle his tobacco bill in the near future?" she asked Joby.

"He's not exactly the only one who owes you money", said Joby.

"I know, but I would've thought he'd be more reasonable than Julian", said Persephone "His cigar bill's through the roof".

"As far as I'm concerned you can refuse to serve Kieran anymore", said Joby "I'm sick to death of being a passive smoker. If you refused to sell him anymore and the tobacconists too, he'd never be able to buy fags in this town. That would improve the quality of my life no end".

"Am I likely to get my money, that's what I wanna know", said Persephone.

"Not a hope", said Joby, mischievously "I'd refuse to sell him anymore if I was you".

"You're the one who'll suffer for it", Persephone warned.

"Nah", said Joby "He gives me any trouble and I'll smack his bony little arse".

Persephone looked askance at this. As well she might, he was referring to the Vanquisher of Evil after all.

"I'll have to get this down quick", said Hillyard, taking the pint of bitter that Persephone had poured him "Can't keep a client waiting".

"I'm not even gonna ask what this overtime is", said Joby "All I can say is it can't be bath attendant work at this hour".

"Julian says you're the perfect gigolo, Hillyard", Lonts blurted out.

"He'd know", said Joby.

"I think Toppy would make a good gigolo", said Lonts "They're supposed to have refined manners aren't they? Well, Toppy's got refined manners. He wears his slippers indoors".

"Well we can't all be big overgrown peasants like you!" said Joby, earning a scowl off Lonts.

On the clockwork t.v above the bar the single channel emblazoned the unwelcome words "THE CLAP CLINIC: A FLY-ON-THE-WALL SPECIAL".

"Oh what!" Joby exclaimed, in dismay.

"I know", said Persephone "It shouldn't be allowed at this hour. People might be eating their tea".

"Is this all part of Codlik's educational programming?" Joby sneered "Yet another programme on boring people we'd avoid like the plague in everyday life".

"I think they should put more variety shows on", said Persephone "That's what the customers keep telling me anyway".

"Right I'm off", said Hillyard, standing up and adjusting his balls once more "Can you take the baby home, Jobe?"

"I can find my own way", said Lonts, indignantly.

"No you can't", said Joby "You need a care attendant wherever you go".

Lonts picked up his cuddly soft toy, in the shape of a polar bear, and shook it at Joby.

When Julian got back to the tugboat Indigo, moored on the waterfront at Toondor Lanpin, he found Adam rubbing sun-tan lotion into the bare breasts of Glynis, their next-door neighbour. Not only that but the pair of them were singing along to a prehistoric recording of "Moon Over Dixie", which had been unearthed some time back at a flea-market. To hear the words "Louisiana" and "cabin in the cotton" were downright spooky to 21st century men who had stumbled into the 41st century by mistake nearly twenty years previously and had been unable to find their way back again. Not that Glynis and Adam seemed to be minding, they were both enjoying themselves tremendously.

"Glynis has been a terribly naughty girl", said Adam, when he noticed Julian walk into the saloon "She worked for hours on her allotment today and got terribly sun-burnt. You'd think Joby would warn her to put her shirt on wouldn't you?"

"Doubtless he was enjoying the view too much", said Julian, dryly.

"Oh no that's not true", said Glynis, in her deep rich voice "How can I compete with the Vanquisher of Evil?"

"Very easily I would've thought", said Julian, looking at Glynis's generous rolls of flesh "There's a bit more to you for a start".

"I'll send you over some spring onions in the morning", said Glynis, putting her shirt back on "They clear your blood in the spring, or thin it or thicken it, I can't remember which".

"We have to get our pleasures where we can these days", said Julian, ruefully.

After Glynis had returned to her small barge next door, Julian followed Adam into the galley.

"Anything for supper, Ada?" he asked.

"I managed to pick up some cold cuts from the butcher quite cheap", said Adam, putting a plate on the table which contained some scrapings of cooked chicken and pork "It's not very thrilling I'm afraid, but it's an improvement on scrambled eggs".

"Can't be helped", said Julian, attacking the cold meat with gusto "We have to expect this sort of thing when there are ten of us living on the wages of two people. Shame Kieran doesn't get paid. He works the hardest of any of us".

"I know, and it concerns me a bit", said Adam "I think he's getting too involved with that dreadful couple who are having all the marital difficulties. But I suppose he's the only equivalent to a parish priest that they have".

"She gives me the creeps", said Julian "The wife. Reminds me of my Mother. All cold and upright".

"And Patsy's so well-meaning", said Adam, referring to his pet-name for Kieran "He thinks it's all so noble in his Catholic way, to help people with no thought of reward".

"More fool him", said Julian, bluntly "That woman's a leech. She destroys her husband everyday, and manages to justify it simply because she's a woman".

"Oh Jules, that's a dreadfully misogynist view".

"Only where she's concerned", Julian protested "I'm not misogynist when it comes to Persephone or Dolores or Glynis or little Tracy. But no, where that woman's concerned, I most definitely am. If you spoke to me the way she does her old man I'd give you a good thrashing".

"Then it's a merciful relief you're gay", said Adam, abruptly.

"Oh rubbish!" said Julian "We're all the same under the skin. You've asserted that yourself enough times".

"Yes, but I've changed my opinion where the likes of her are concerned", said Adam.

Hillyard came in soon after and chucked a few notes of cash onto the table.

"This your celebrated overtime is it, Hillyard?" said Julian.

"Not objecting are you?" said Hillyard.

"Hilly, how did you get this?" said Adam.

"Blow-jobs", said Hillyard, candidly "One of my customers, the older kind, at the public baths, wanted a little extra. Was willing to pay over the odds for it too. The fact that I've got a spotty cock at the moment is neither here nor there. Doesn't affect 'em if I'm doing the sucking. He seemed happy with me. Said he'd like to make it a regular occurrence".

"Oh Hilly", Adam groaned, sadly "Have we really sunk to this?"

"Don't twitter, Adam", said Julian "He's only doing what he's good at. Like Ransey sorting out income tax returns".

"Even so..." Adam protested "It means we're living off immoral earnings".

"We're not in the 21st century, Ada!" said Julian "It doesn't count as immoral earnings these days".

"I don't mind", Hillyard shrugged "These old codgers are grateful for what they can get. It's a little goldmine this game, and they don't wanna do anything to me in return so it can't be so bad. And it beats being on the receiving end of custard pies like Bengo".

"If you put it like that", Adam sighed "It'll get us all something nice for dinner tomorrow".

Even so, Adam lay awake into the still watches of the night, fretting about their precarious future. Although the cost of living wasn't high in Toondor Lanpin, not when compared to the the City anyhow, the future still looked uncertain. There were ten of them on the Indigo, living solely off Ransey's part-time consultancy work as an accountant, Hillyard's very occasional work helping the elderly at the public baths, and Bengo's meagre wage as a clown at the burlesque-style Little Theatre. On top of the ten of them they still had Tamaz's upkeep to take into account. Because he was their prisoner he tended to live off scraps, but they were still fully responsible for him. The hermaphrodite Tamaz was half-demonic, and if he should ever escape and wreck havoc, the Ministry would be sure to hold them entirely responsible.

Truth to tell, Tamaz gave them little trouble these days. He was off his head for one thing. He spent most of his time in his cage, pacing up and down, ranting at no one in particular. Sometimes it was hard to believe this was the same creature who'd given birth to a litter of hermaphrodite children (now removed to the Thet Mountains for their own safety), or who'd murdered a president in cold blood. These days the monstrous Caligula-like Tamaz was reduced to being a thin, androgynous figure locked up in a gorilla cage. Tamaz had a penchant for silk underwear, as if to appease his feminine side, and the women of the waterfront happily donated old camisoles and knickers to him. They felt sorry for the "boy with breasts" as he was universally known.

Tamaz had one particularly ardent admirer, who was becoming increasingly a problem. Jonner was an artist with a speciality for the bizarre. He had made a career out of painting freaks and misfits, and Tamaz was the undisputed contemporary king (or queen, depending on how one looked at it) of this brand of human species. He had an obsession with Tamaz. He painted endless idealised portraits of Tamaz, usually exaggerating his looks until a stranger could be forgiven for thinking Tamaz was the best thing since Aphrodite. His nude full-frontal sketches of Tamaz were so stylised that in them he looked like a topless woman pasted astride a bottomless man. Never was Tamaz's hair that lustrous and long, never was his dick that big. But this was the Tamaz Jonner wanted to believe in. Poor, sad Jonner. He was so harmless really, with his wild hair, soft voice, old-fashioned hunting-jackets and endless, endless chain-smoking. Just a shame about his fixation with Tamaz.

The following evening was Tamaz's bath-night. Every Wednesday the Indigo-ites borrowed a tin-bath from Glynis and set it up in the galley, to give Tamaz a good all-over scrub. His brief transportation from the gorilla cage to the quarterdeck of the Indigo was an endless source of fascination for most of the waterfront residents, a thrill of danger would run through them. Even though, these days, Tamaz was probably only capable of shrieking and sticking his long tongue out.

Hillyard carried him below, and he and Joby bathed Tamaz in the galley. They were the only Indigo-ites to have had intimate knowledge of Tamaz, sexually. Hillyard, willingly if unwittingly, Joby, when Tamaz had taken him hostage. The demented creature they soaped now was not the same cold, calculating, malevolent person they had known. But their very experience of intimacy enabled them to treat him with a firm consideration that would have been unthinkable to others, who might perhaps be daunted by his breasts, penis and cunt.

After they had dried him off, they put him back into his silk be-ribboned drawers, only to have him slip out of their grasp and run into the saloon, shrieking like a banshee. He jumped around the sofa and chairs, revelling in the unaccustomed space. Ransey got hold of him and tossed him over his shoulder, where Tamaz kicked and screamed like a feral child being forced into captivity. He pounded on Ransey's back with his fists, and Ransey was relieved to set him down again at the foot of the quarterdeck stairs.

"Now listen to me, Tamaz", said Julian sternly, as he emerged from his cabin.

Tamaz immediately assumed a wilting posture. Julian was arguably the only person on Earth he was genuinely afraid of. Even in his current dementia he had never forgotten the first time he had ever met Julian, up at Wolf Castle. And Julian's sadistic assertion that Tamaz was someone you could exert any diabolical practice on with a clean conscience.

"If you don't behave", Julian was now saying "We will take away all those little luxuries you hold dear".

Tamaz gave a snort of derision and stuck out his long tongue in contempt.

"Such as your bedding", Julian continued "Your fancy frillies, your bath nights etc. Instead we will leave you with just an old blanket and the bucket, as before. And I will beat you twice a day with a big stick. Understood?"

Tamaz didn't say a word, but Julian took his silence as assent.

"Put him back in his cage", he ordered, and then watched as Hillyard escorted Tamaz up the steps, followed by Joby clanking the keys.

"Good grief", Julian sighed "Cleopatra and her handmaidens!"

Adam came down soon after, waving an envelope excitedly.

"You don't mean to tell me we've had some post?" said Ransey, blinking incredulously behind his spectacles.

"Yes and it's for you", said Adam, handing it over "Postmarked from the City".

"Perhaps it's one of your old treasury colleagues urging you to go back and work for them", said Julian, optimistically envisaging a Ransey-less summer, with Finia's undivided attention all to his himself.

"Oh I do hope not", said Adam "We'd miss you terribly, old love".

"Well, you might", Ransey blushed, as he always did when talking so personally to Adam.

"Get back in the galley, Ada", said Julian tersely, and he slapped Adam's bottom.

Ransey took his mail into the cabin he shared with Finia and leaned against his bunk as he opened it. Unexpected mail was very rarely anything good, and as soon as he caught the short signature at the bottom of the page he knew this was most emphatically bad. He slumped as though he'd been shot. His past was coming to get him.

For the past fortnight Bengo had talked about little else. He and the rest of the Little Theatre were putting on a Spring Spectacular, an evening of jolly yoicks, songs, striptease, and general buffoonery. Good old-fashioned burlesque and variety. Pretty women dancing, singing and stripping, comical men making complete idiots of themselves, plus a troupe of male strippers to complete the festivities. Bengo had been like a hyper-active child since the idea had first been suggested. This show was going to be like nothing anyone had seen before, and he didn't take kindly to Joby's remark that "it all sounds like the usual old stuff to me".

Bengo was certainly working very hard. He would come home at the end of a day's rehearsing, aching in just about every part of his body, from where he'd thrown himself around the stage mercilessly. Adam would sit in the galley with him, massaging his feet and legs, and warning him that Joseph Grimaldi had died at a relatively young age, his body worn out from his clownish exertions.

"Can't think of anything better than to die with my boots on, as the saying goes", Bengo had replied.

"Yes, but we don't want you to die just yet, old love", said Adam.

Bengo managed to scrape together a couple of free tickets for the show, and Joby used them to take Lonts. Kieran got in free wherever he went. Lonts was one of Bengo's biggest fans and he asked Joby if Snowy, his toy polar bear, could come too. "Yeah, as long as he behaves himself", said Joby.

Julian was determined to go too, if only to make the past few weeks worthwhile. He had put up with Bengo doing somersaults and cartwheels around his cabin, and wanted to see the fruits of his labours for himself.

Ransey earned a little on the side managing the box office at the Little Theatre. This was a job he normally enjoyed, as it took him back to the circus days of their youth. But this time he was haunted by the letter. He hadn't shown it to anyone, not even Finia. It was from a distant part of his life that held a great deal of shame for him. He had confessed long since about his assassination jobs, but this was different. It seemed he could confess that he had once killed men for no other reason than financial gain, but he couldn't confess about this.


Ransey was jolted nearly out of his skin. He looked up towards the box-office window where Julian was standing, with Adam next to him.

"You realise you have to pay to come in here?" said Ransey, getting up off his chair and walking towards them.

"We can pay", said Julian, haughtily.

"Jules has been clearing out his sock drawer", said Adam.

"Ugh", said Ransey.

"Right, pay attention", Julian tipped up a plastic bag of spare change onto the counter "I want two tickets for myself and my friend. And I think you'll find the requisite amount amongst that lot".

"Shirt buttons don't count as legal tender", said Ransey, looking at the motley collection of loose ends on the counter-top.

"The money is there", said Julian, sliding various coins across the counter to Ransey.

Ransey began to count them, but in his preoccupation with the letter, he managed to drop most of them.

"Concentrate", said Julian, sternly "You're getting like some dithery old woman".

"I'm getting worried about him", said Adam, once they were through the turnstile "Ever since he got that letter he's been acting very very strange".

"I did try bribing Finia to find out who it was from, but he wouldn't tell me", Julian sighed, as they walked into the theatre bar "What does it say in King Lear? Nothing so thoughtless as a thankless child. Something like that anyway".

"His first loyalty these days is to Ransey", said Adam.

"And all I've done for him over the years means nothing I suppose?" said Julian, tartly.

"Give something to the needy", said Kieran, appearing at their side with a collecting-tin.

"And who might the needy be?" said Julian "Explain yourself. For all we know the needy might just be a ruse to pay off your tobacco bill at Persephone's".

"I would have thought we'd count as the needy", said Adam "We haven't got anything".

"Ah now c'mon", said Kieran, in a wheedling fashion "There are people on the waterfront trying to feed families".

"I'M trying to feed a family", said Adam, jabbing him in the chest "Including you, who needs feeding most of all, but I don't see anyone raising a collection for me".

"Addy", Kieran nuzzled his head against Adam's shoulder "You're a good man, you won't let anyone starve".

"If I had it, I'd help them", said Adam "But I haven't got anything, not a single item of loot".

"Ask Joby to donate a few tomatoes", said Julian "The amount of time he spends with Glynis on her allotment, he could feed the 5000 by now".

"Don't talk to me about that", said Kieran, darkly "I'd dearly like to know what goes on between those two at times".

"Absolutely nothing", said Adam "He and Glynis are just good friends. They spend most of their time together potting plants".

"And one thing you must learn my dear little spud", said Julian "Is that if an Englishman says he's just good friends with someone he usually is".

"But Joby can't be trusted", said Kieran "I know that better than anyone".

The troupe of male strippers arrived in the bar for an intermission drink. All of them beefy and wearing nothing but sequined jock-straps.

"They laid all that on for me!" said Julian, with echoes of Jane Russell.

"Adam", Lonts walked up to them, looking as gorgeous and beautiful as ever.

Adam was pleased and proud that every single one of the strippers looked put out by Lonts's presence.

"Hello my darling boy", Adam kissed him "Where's Joby? I thought you were with him".

"He's not with Glynis is he?" said Kieran, shaking his tin in a threatening fashion.

"Glynis isn't here this evening", said Lonts "Joby says you're getting paranoid about Glynis, Kieran".

"Oh he does, does he?" Kieran exclaimed.

"Yes", said Lonts, solemnly "He says he and Glynis have a plutonic relationship".

"Platonic", said Kieran "And I don't believe there can be such a thing between a man and a woman".

"Oh of course not", said Adam, teasingly "After all, Glynis and I have been bonking each other regularly!"

"Alright", Kieran conceded "What I really mean is I don't believe Joby can have a platonic relationship with a woman".

"Well you'll just have to start getting it up him a bit more often won't you?" said Julian "Stop wasting your time crawling round the town demanding money with menaces. Otherwise you could find yourself waving goodbye to Joby as he disappears onto Glynis's boat".

"Don't say that!" Kieran snapped, and he moved away to shake his tin at a few others.

"Dear God, I sometimes think life was a lot less stressful without women", said Julian.

"Can't imagine it made much difference to you", said one of the male strippers.

"Let's go and sit down, Adam", said Julian.

"Come along Lo-Lo", said Adam, who was amused by the hooker pose Lonts had assumed, swinging Snowy in place of a handbag. It was having a remarkable effect in antagonising the strippers.

Although they were late getting back to the Indigo it was still only twilight. Glynis was on the deck of her little boat, unpegging her washing from the line.

"How was the show?" she called out, before going below "I'm going to see it tomorrow".

"Didn't see much of it", said Joby.

"That's not good", Glynis giggled "Bengo will be expecting a full critical analysis when he comes home".

She disappeared below, and Joby told Kieran he was going to water his tomato plants before turning in. Kieran left him alone on deck, and Joby began his administrations. As soon as he was alone Tamaz got up from the floor of his cage and started jabbering.

"That weird man called by earlier", he said, pressing himself up against the bars of his cage "The one who fancies me".

"Jonner must be even nuttier than I thought if he really does fancy you", said Joby.

"Why shouldn't he?" Tamaz shrugged "After all, you do".

It had been a trying day. Joby was tired, and increasingly fed up with Kieran tailing him as though he was under official observation. He jumped down onto the raft and yelled into Tamaz's smug little face.

"You think yourself damn lucky you're locked up in there!" he bellowed "Or I might wring your ugly little neck!"

"You reckon?" Tamaz smiled. He then hooked an arm round Joby'd neck and pulled him towards him, just prior to slapping a wet kiss on his lips.

"I know Kieran's getting jealous of you and Glynis", he said, when they came up for air "But he doesn't need to. Because I've spoilt you for all women".

"It was Kieran who spoilt me for women actually", said Joby, numbly.

"You sure?" Tamaz smiled, parting his lips. He didn't smile this way too often, which was just as well as his teeth weren't the most sightly thing. Small and pointed, they reminded Joby uncomfortably of bat's teeth.

"Joby! Come away at once!" Lonts yelled down from the forward deck.

Joby gave a snarl of annoyance but he climbed back up onto the Indigo.

"Why aren't you in bed?" he roared.

"I came to see where you'd got to", said Lonts, who for once was without Snowy "You should stay away from Tamaz. He's evil".

"What are you, my guardian all of a sudden?" Joby exclaimed "I can talk to who I like without asking you first".

Lonts picked him up under his armpits, as he sometimes did to Toppy when they were messing around, and carted him below. Joby kicked his feet and felt ridiculous, but Lonts was quite a bit bigger than him. He took him down to their cabin, where Kieran was lying on his bunk, nursing a hot drink.

"It's high bloody time you were in bed", Joby snapped, when Lonts set him on his feet.

"I'm saving you from yourself, Joby", Lonts protested.

"Get into bed!" Joby roared.

Lonts's bottom lip quivered, and Kieran exclaimed "Oh God, tantrum alert! Joby, speak nicely to him, at once!"

"Come on, get into bed", Joby sighed, picking up Snowy from the top bunk, who had been standing on his head "See, Snowy's missing you. He can't sleep without you".

Adam came into the room, as Joby was unbuttoning Lonts's shirt.

"Seems to be a lot of noise in here", he said.

"Everything's alright now, Adam", said Lonts "I was just saving Joby from himself, that's all".

The following day there was a delivery of newspapers to Toondor Lanpin, something that only happened on the rare occasions when the press magnates in the City remembered that Toondor existed and so arranged for distribution there.

"I don't know why they bother printing them at all", said Julian, tossing aside a copy he had scrounged from Glynis "They rarely write about anything that doesn't go on in the City itself. Anything in the colour supplement?"

"'We are privileged to go behind the scenes at the Ministry'", Adam read out loud, sitting next to him on the sofa "'for an exclusive peek at Codlik's private quarters'".

"Oh what a little treat for us!" said Julian.

"'The presidential suite, exquisitely decorated throughout in lime green ...'" Adam continued.

"Lime green?" Julian bellowed "Has the wretched man got no taste at all?"

"Can't be my old rooms that he's got", said Kieran "They were a sort of turd colour".

"'Codlik likes to spend his meagre spare time in here, relaxing by ...'"

"Sucking toffees and scratching his balls", said Hillyard, the only other person in the room.

"Yes well I suppose there's no danger his are going to drop off", said Julian "Unlike yours".

"My problem is clearing up", said Hillyard.

"No it's not", said Kieran "Joby was saying only this morning that your cock's beginning to look like a toadstool".

"Where is Joby?" said Julian, puzzled "I haven't seen him all day. Normally he's up on deck, impressing Glynis with the size of his tomatoes".

"He's out gambling", said Adam censoriously, sounding so like his fire-and-brimstone father that Julian had to repress a smile.

"I gave him a small percentage of my earnings and sent him off to Natalie's Den", said Hillyard, referring to Toondor's little basement casino below Persephone's bar "I thought it was worth a go. He tends to be lucky at shooting craps. The only person I know who ever is".

"I'm surprised you let him, Ada", said Julian "I thought you might've locked him in his cabin".

"I didn't get a chance. He sneaked out without telling me", said Adam, glaring at Hillyard "I had to find out from Tamaz of all people!"

"Yes, it's quite useful having him out there sometimes", said Julian "He can keep an eye on everyone's comings and goings. Like a bizarre sort of hotel receptionist".

"But to add insult to injury", Adam went on "He took Lonts with him".

"Lonts insisted on going", said Kieran "Said he was going to start yelling for you if Joby didn't let him come. And we knew you'd go on about it for hours. Lonts said he'd take Snowy and he could be Joby's lucky mascot".

Ransey diverted attention by walking in and strolling round the saloon in a slightly distracted fashion. It was the first time he had emerged from his cabin that day. The others watched him curiously as he retraced his steps to the door and then turned.

"Did anyone else hear an air-buggy go over last night?" he said.

"Yes", said Adam "It was bringing a newspaper delivery".

"That one's recent?" said Ransey, picking up the copy from Julian's lap.

"Don't ask me if I've finished with it, will you?" said Julian, as Ransey turned to leave again.

"I'll give it back to you later", Ransey mumbled "Oh, did you know that artist fella's hanging round outside again?"

"You go and talk to him this time, Jules", said Adam "He doesn't take the slightest bit of notice of the rest of us".

"I really need to be in the cage with you", Jonner was saying in his wispy, laid-back voice. He was standing on the raft, gazing at Tamaz through his customary wreath of cigarette smoke.

"Not a chance", Julian thundered, jumping down onto the raft from the Indigo "We cannot possibly risk that. This creature is half-demonic for crying out loud!"

At that moment though Tamaz looked about as threatening as a three-day-old kitten, standing there in his frillies looking rather blank.

"But ideally I would like to do a series of nude studies of him", said Jonner "I feel it is the only way I can possibly capture his extraordinary beauty, and I can only do so much from imagination alone".

"Fair enough", said Julian "How much are you willing to pay?"

"Pay?" Jonner gave an incredulous snort "Just who do you think you are?"

"His agent", said Julian, bluntly "You don't think his upkeep costs us nothing do you?"

"If I pay you", said Jonner, cautiously "Can you bring him to my studio for a private session?"

"Even if I do I can't possibly leave him with you unattended", said Julian "It's far too big a risk. We have the people of this town to consider. Your own safety is of course your own concern".

"But he looks so harmless", Jonner protested.

"His mother was the Gorgon", said Julian, as patiently as he could "He is a Ghoomer by upbringing. He murdered President Gorth in cold-blood, threatened to eat his own children, and he kidnapped, imprisoned and abused Joby".

"But he's innocent now isn't he?"

Meanwhile Tamaz was staring at them both, as though they had suddenly launched into Japanese.

"He may not be wholly compos mentis at times", said Julian "But I can assure you he is entirely without any sense of moral judgement. If you wish to pay for the rather dubious privilege of doing some nude studies of him, that's fine, but you will not be left alone with him for one moment. And that is my final word on the subject".

Joby was, as Hillyard had confidently hoped, enjoying a winning streak. His small pile of counters had gradually accumulated in size until they kept falling off the table onto the floor. Lonts sat behind him on a hard-backed chair, nursing Snowy and looking awe-struck. At the end of the next round Joby decided to quit whilst he was ahead and got up to leave. He scooped the counters into the hem of his t-shirt and took them to the door where Natalie sat with her strong-box.

"Glad you don't come in here too often", she said, her face as impassive as ever. She was smoking a cigar the size of a drain-pipe and wore her bosom jacked up to phenomenal heights.

"I take it you won't be issuing me with a season ticket then?" said Joby.

Natalie gave a weary shake of her head and began to count some notes into his hand.

"Do you want to take some?" she said to Lonts. Even the flinty-hearted Natalie had a soft spot for Lonts, as all women did. His combination of unique beauty and childlike innocence was irresistible to them.

"No he can't", said Joby "Last time he handled any winnings of mine he gave it all away to a dog's home!"

There was a thundering of footsteps on the bare wooden stairs outside the room. Ransey burst in looking flustered, and clutching a copy of the newspaper.

"Natalie", he yelled "You've got to close up. The Ministry are due at any moment. It was tucked away on an inside column of this rag. A contingent of them are scheduled to arrive here at five o'clock this afternoon, an hour from now".

"So why does Natalie have to shut up shop?" said Joby, pocketing his winnings just in case.

"They've outlawed gambling dens", said Ransey, shaking the newspaper "It's all part of Codlik's cleaning-up campaign. That's why he's sending a contingent here. To clean up Toondor Lanpin. They want to make an example of us. I take it you haven't got a licence, Natalie?"

"There's never been any need", Natalie stammered, her normally icy composure shaken "I just pay Persephone a rent for the room".

"That won't be good enough for Codlik's new regime", said Ransey "Shut this place up now, that's my strong advice to you, just until they've gone again".

"O.K", Natalie rang the small brass handbell on her desk and ordered everyone to settle their accounts as speedily as they could.

"Come on home", Ransey ordered Lonts and Joby "If you lot read something other than the sports pages and the gossip columns you would have known all this hours ago".

"But what is all this about a clean up Toondor Lanpin campaign? I don't get it", said Joby, following him up the stairs.

"Codlik wants to bring in a whole new era of wholesome caring", said Ransey "His words, not mine. That means all bars, theatres, restaurants, dance-halls, and gambling dens have to be approved and vetted by the Ministry. He also wants the entire world to be operating at full employment".

"Doesn't want much does he?" Joby exclaimed.

In the bar above Persephone was sobbing and draping towels over her beer-pumps.

"It's the thin end of the wedge", she said, on seeing them "It'll be baby farms for us women next, you'll see".

"Kieran won't let them do that to you", said Joby.

"If he was president we'd all be safe", Persephone retorted, angrily "We wouldn't have to watch ourselves like this".

"Take no notice", said Ransey, once they got outside "She was upset".

"No it's alright, she's just given me an idea", said Joby, brightening up considerably.

They got back to the Indigo to find the place in turmoil, as was the whole town by all accounts. Mr Tearful was standing in the middle of the saloon, leaning even more heavily than usual on his walking-stick.

"How can he expect me to work?" he was saying, emotionally "With my leg being the way it is?"

"It was your back last week", said Joby, bluntly.

"Yes, you really had better start keeping notes, old love", said Adam "The Ministry will probably have all us employed working down salt mines if we're not careful".

"One hundred per cent employment's a crazy ideal", said Kieran "It'll never work. It doesn't take any account of human frailty, such as sickness or disability, or even just the fact that some people don't want to work. Codlik will end up pushing the wrong people into jobs just so that his figures will square up. I predict nothing but misery will come out of this".

"Not necessarily", said Joby "I have a solution. Passport to Pimlico".

"What have old back-and-white films got to do with this?" Adam sighed.

"We do what those people did in the film", said Joby "We declare ourselves to be a neutral province. After all, we don't need the Ministry for anything, we all get by off our own bat, so we'll make it official. And then they can't come here telling us what to do".

"It's never been done before", said Hillyard.

"And we haven't got time to build a proper siege situation", said Kieran.

"We don't have to", said Joby "We let 'em come here. But we put 'em straight when they start lecturing us. Only you've gotta front it, Kieran. Otherwise they'll go around picking on anyone. You take responsibility. They wouldn't dare get at you".

"I hope you're right", said Kieran.

"You could be our king", said Lonts.

"Terrific", said Kieran, unenthusiastically "And I get all the rap".

"Oh nonsense", said Julian "There's no way they'd dare arrest you. There would be a revolution. Joby might just have a point with this little scheme".

An hour later and Kieran was nearly ready to go out and do battle with Minister Smun, who was due to fly in at five o'clock as Codlik's representative. Julian and Hillyard had taken Tamaz out of his cage and over the river to Jonner's apartment. That way they could keep him from Smun's gaze.

"Where the blazes is Joby?" said Kieran, as Adam gave his hair a vigorous brush "He's supposed to be at my side on occasions like this".

"He and Lo-Lo have gone for a walk", said Adam "Don't worry, I'll resume consort duties for the afternoon".

"Those two are just like Laurel and Hardy sometimes", said Kieran.

"Are you nearly ready?" said Ransey, walking into the cabin. He was wearing his revolver in a holster under his shoulder.

"About as presentable as I'll ever be", said Kieran, following him up the stairs to the forward deck.

"Now remember, stick by me at all times", said Ransey "You never know who gets themselves smuggled along on these Ministry trips".

Toondor Lanpin had a small landing strip for air-buggies on the western outskirts of the town. Normally it was used for unloading cargo, but very occasionally passenger freight turned up, and this had to go through a makeshift customs section at a pre-fab.

The air-buggy landed on schedule, and Minister Smun decanted, along with a dreary-looking posse of men in dark suits, most of which only required a bolt through their necks to complete the image. Minister Smun looked like an ageing baby, overweight and curly-haired with a deceptively-innocent look on his face. Smun wasn't a bad man, far from it in fact, but he shared Codlik's missionary zeal to bring "wholesomeness" to the unsuspecting world. He was also desperately lacking any kind of sense of humour.

Kieran greeted him, in the absence of an official governor, and said he would take him to the main square and introduce him to the townspeople, just as soon as he'd been through customs. Privately he felt it was completely unnecessary for anyone to go through customs, as usually the Toondories couldn't give a damn what visitors arrived with, short of rabies, but he knew Smun would be expecting all the correct procedures to be followed. So much so that it would be more trouble than it was worth to ignore them.

Inside the custom's shed Persephone was performing her infrequent second job as custom's officer. Although at the moment she was having a heated discussion with the cleaner about baby farms. When she saw the posse of men come in, she picked up her clipboard and enjoyed summoning Smun over to the custom's table.

"Have you any expensive items on you?" she asked aggressively, sounding like a mugger.

"Just a gold signet ring", said Smun, holding up a chubby finger.

"Are you carrying any alcohol or narcotic substances?" said Persephone.

"Certainly not", said Smun.

"Are you carrying any plants, livestock, pornographic material, foodstuffs or corpses?" said Persephone.

Smun assured her he wasn't. It took an age to process everyone in this way, and as Smun moved away he could be heard saying "now we can get on with what we came here to do".

"That's what you think", Persephone muttered.

Julian and Hillyard walked into Jonner's first-floor studio, flanking Tamaz, who wore an oilskin jacket over his frillies. Julian was carrying his horse-whip, and Hillyard had a tight grip on Tamaz's arm. Jonner greeted them as rapturously as his wispy voice would allow and motioned for Tamaz to sit on a carved throne-like chair in the middle of the room. Hillyard helped Tamaz off with his jacket as though he was a small child. Tamaz had been mildly doped for the occasion, just in case he felt like trashing the studio in excitement.

"Are you going to get started then?" said Julian, who had expected Jonner to pick up his sketch-pad straightaway.

"I wish to talk to him first", said Jonner "I like to get to know my subjects before I make the preliminary sketches".

Julian sighed and resigned himself to a longer session than he'd previously anticipated. He sat down on an upturned packing-case and lit a cigar.

"I doubt you'll get much sense out of him", said Hillyard "He's having one of his quiet days".

"Tamaz", Jonner leaned forward like a police officer quizzing a rape victim "I want to get inside your mind".

Julian gave a snort of derision and glanced around at the canvasses near him. None of the pictures seemed to be finished, and now he was witnessing Jonner's methods of working he could understand why!

"You are an extraordinary person", said Jonner "Being an hermphrodite isn't just a physical state though. How does your mind operate? Do you think predominantly as male or female?"

Tamaz was now reclining leisurely in the chair, and he gazed at Jonner with a face completely devoid of expression.

"Tell me about your pregnancy and the birth of your children", said Jonner.

"It hurt", said Tamaz, his amber eyes still expressionless "They kept telling me to push until I thought my insides would all drop out. When the little lumps came out, they took them all away, and left me alone for hours. I lay in that room for an age, covered in blood and crap".

"Sounds rather typical of the Ministry", said Julian "Not exactly au fait with the importance of mother-baby bonding".

"The little lumps were your babies?" said Jonner "Weren't you allowed to hold them?"

"I've never held them", said Tamaz. There was no emotion in how he said it, as far as he was concerned he was merely stating a fact "Never touched them".

"But didn't you suckle them?"

"They used a little pump to extract milk from my breasts", said Tamaz.

Jonner looked so stricken on hearing all this that Julian considered drawing the session to a close, but Jonner collected himself quickly.

"Could I see him nude now?" he asked.

Hillyard indicated for Tamaz to stand up, and then gently removed his camisole and knickers. Jonner stared at Tamaz in amazement. He circled him like a prospective buyer examining a horse. The fact that Tamaz's breasts weren't as full and firm as in his pictures, or that his dick was a little on the small side, didn't faze him in the slightest. These only seemed, in his eyes, to confirm Tamaz's beauty as a real human being. He was entranced by the stretch-marks on Tamaz's flesh, and the way his bottom wasn't as tight and flawless as perhaps a man's would be.

"Amazing", he said "Apart from his penis he seems so female. And yet you refer to him as 'he' all the time and not 'she'. I can see why though. His essence is male and yet he has had children".

"It's really very simple", said Julian, wearily "In my time sex-change operations were often referred to as gender re-alignment, because it was believed one sex was trapped in the body of another. And that's the way it is with Tamaz. He is a boy with physical female attributes. Tamaz is like a Siamese twin version of a trans-sexual. Rather like the old Greek myth legend of how hermaphrodites were created, when the son of Hermes joined together with the nymph Salmacis to form one body".

"So there is no conflict of interest in his mind", said Jonner "Because in his mind he only has one sex, that of a boy. But how does that explain his love of female undergarments?"

"He has transvestite tendencies", Julian shrugged "There doesn't have to be a conflict of gender for that to happen. Many transvestite men aren't even gay. They just like the feel of the softer materials perhaps, or they feel freer in women's clothes, less restricted or repressed".

"Men's clothes can be so drab sometimes", said Hillyard "I've always thought Finia was lucky having more choice of colours".

Julian had to repress a smile at this, as Hillyard's love of gawdy outfits had been notorious at times over the years.

"Are you going to get started on this drawing now, Jonner?" he said "Because we'll be here all night otherwise".

"Might not be such a bad thing", said Hillyard "It'll keep Tamaz away from the Ministry, and the others know where we are, so they won't worry".

"I'll put some coffee on", said Jonner "We might as well relax now, mightn't we?"

Joby and Lonts were walking along the causeway which stretched out across the vast areas of marshland to the east of Toondor Lanpin. Clouds were massing on the horizon, and Lonts was looking at them fearfully.

"I think it's going to rain later, Joby", he said, trailing Snowy along by his foot "Perhaps we should think about getting back".

"I spose so", said Joby, who was in no rush to return and see Smun and his merry men "Let's have a breather for a few minutes".

They both sat down on the side of the causeway. Lonts put his thumb in his mouth and leaned against Joby's shoulder. He began to giggle.

"What's funny?" said Joby.

"Us", said Lonts, removing his thumb "We're like a couple of tramps, sitting here like this".

"We were at one time, weren't we", said Joby "Hang about, someone's approaching on a bike, from the direction of the town".

It turned out to be Glynis, the strands of her fair hair getting stuck together with perspiration.

"Where are you off in such a hurry?" said Joby, getting to his feet.

"To find you", she panted, dismounting "I think Kieran would like you with him. I offered to come and find you".

"Bet he loved that", Joby grunted.

"Has Smun been told about us becoming a free state yet?" asked Lonts.

"Yes, Kieran's broken it to him", said Glynis "He looks quite shattered by it all, I almost felt sorry for him. Keeps muttering on about how it is all so unprecedented, and he doesn't know how he's going to break it to the President. Otherwise I don't think there's much he can do about it. Not really. Except cut off all trade with us I suppose, but I don't see why we can't be self-sufficient anyway".

She turned her bicycle round, and all three of them slowly retraced their way back to the town.

"And something weird happened whilst you were all out", said Glynis.

"Weird?" said Joby.

"After Kieran and the others had gone to meet the air-buggy", said Glynis "I was having a cup of coffee on deck, when this strange woman appeared, asking if I knew where Ransey was".

"A woman?" said Joby "Looking for Ransey?"

"Yes, I told her he was with Kieran. But when I went to the square a short while later, to hear Kieran announce our plan, she was nowhere in sight. I thought she might be, as I told her Ransey would be there too".

"What was strange about her?" said Lonts.

"I'm not entirely sure, just an impression she gave", said Glynis "I couldn't really say what she looked like even. She had dark glasses on and a scarf over her hair. Except she had a rather horsey face I thought, long and thin", she gave a nervous shudder "It's giving me the creeps now, when I stop and think about it. There was definitely something out-of-kilter there. Almost as though she wasn't quite real, but I expect that sounds foolish".

"Are you sure it wasn't a fella in disguise?" said Joby.

"I had no reason to think that at the time", said Glynis "But then I suppose if he was careful about it I wouldn't necessarily guess, and I didn't get very close to her. She spoke to me from the jetty".

"Was she carrying anything?" said Joby.

"Just a purse", said Glynis.

"Perhaps she's something to do with that mysterious letter he got", said Lonts.

"He certainly hasn't been himself since it arrived", said Joby "And he won't tell any of us what it was all about, not even Finia".

"I hope she doesn't mean him any harm", said Glynis "I wish I hadn't told her where he was now".

"It doesn't matter", said Joby "She obviously knows where he lives, to have addressed the letter there, and come looking for him. As soon as we get back, I'm gonna have it out with him. If she or he, whoever it is, means harm, we've all got a right to hear about it. I've had enough of him jumping out of his skin every five minutes lately. We'll all be nervous wrecks if we're not careful".

Back in town everyone had crammed into the Little Theatre for refreshments, as it was the only building big enough to house them all at once. Smun was getting well stuck into some brandy, as if hoping it would clear the hideous confusion and panic in his head and instil some bright ideas instead.

"Where the blazes have you been, Joby?" Kieran barked, as he leant against the bar.

"Never mind all that, you're not important", said Joby "I wanna know where Ransey is".


"Yeah, you know, tall guy with glasses. I need to find him".

"Why do you need to find Ransey?" asked Adam.

"For fuck's sake!" Joby exploded "Can't you jerks give a straight answer? Where's Ransey?"

"He's round the back with Finia", said Adam, perplexed.

Joby instantly bolted in the direction of the dressing-rooms.

"What was all that about?" said Kieran.

"You'll have to ask Glynis", said Lonts "She knows".

Joby found Ransey and Finia sitting in one of the empty dressing-rooms. Finia was perched on a trunk, whilst Ransey held the eunuch's tiny hands in his. He looked very annoyed by Joby's abrupt entrance.

"You've gotta tell us what was in that letter", said Joby "Someone's after you and we need to know who and why".

"You have no right to demand secrets from me", said Ransey, as he left the room "It all has to stay buried".

"But it's not going to though is it?" Joby bellowed at Ransey's retreating back "RANSEY!"

Joby stood and flapped his arms helplessly at Finia.

"He hasn't told me anything if that's what you're thinking", said Finia.

"There's some sinister creep after him who means him harm. Glynis saw this person earlier", said Joby "If he won't show us that letter, we've got to get it ourselves".

"But for all I know he could've flushed it down the loo or something", said Finia.

"Then again he might not have done. Come on, let's go back to the Indigo and search it. Tear it apart if necessary".

They both ran home and were relieved that Ransey hadn't headed there too. Once inside his cabin they pulled out bedding and closet drawers, only to find nothing of any significance.

"I've got an idea", said Finia "An old trick I remember from my brothel days. Some of the tarts used to hide dope in the soles of their slippers. I must've told him about it, so let's see if he's done the same".

He picked up one of Ransey's slippers and was gratified to find a small, folded piece of paper tucked in a torn piece of the undersole. Joby whooped with delight and kissed Finia on the lips.

"Calm down", said Finia "I don't wanna add adultery to my list of treacheries this evening".

"Hurry up and read it then".


Finia handed the letter to Joby to read for himself. His usual cool composure was shaken, and for a moment Joby thought he'd have to catch him if he fainted.

"What does he mean by experiments?" said Finia, eventually.

"I don't know", said Joby "Ransey must've known immediately though, even though the signature doesn't exactly tell us much. 'C' could be anyone. Codlik even!"

"It all ties in with the way he's been behaving lately", said Finia "He's not just afraid, Joby. He's ashamed of something".

"We've always known his past had a pretty dodgy side to it", said Joby "But whatever he did then he's still Ransey, isn't he? We've known him for nearly twenty years. Lived with him all that time. Don't read too much into this until we've heard his side of it".

"I guess so", Finia rubbed his bare arms "Is it me or is it getting cold in here?"

"There's a storm brewing. It's clouding over outside", said Joby "We've got to find Ransey now and confront him with this. He's got to tell us exactly what's going on, whether he likes it or not".

They got back to the theatre to find the evening's entertainment had started. Finia was required backstage to assist the various acts getting dressed. Joby told him not to worry (even though he knew he would), and went out front. On the way he met Bengo and asked him if he'd seen Ransey. He was irritated by Bengo's assertion that he had more important things to think about at that moment.

Joby pushed him out of the way and went in search of Kieran, whom he found in the foyer. Both Kieran and Minister Smun were sitting on the bottom step of the stairs leading up to the circle. Smun was drunk. Kieran was not just drunk, but smoking a joint as well. When Joby tried to drag him away to talk to him in private, Kieran started giggling and pawing at his clothes.

"You're fucking hopeless", said Joby, feeling as though he was about to cry at any moment.

"I'm just trying to comfort Minister Crum", said Kieran.

"Smun", said Smun "Minister Smun. I think".

"He's worried he's going to lose his job", said Kieran.

"I couldn't care less", said Joby "He's almost as big a brainless idiot as you!"

Joby pushed him away and ran into the bar, where he found Adam having his palm read by the barman.

"Adam", Joby flung himself on the said man "It's like a bad dream. I keep trying to talk to people and they won't make any sense".

"Well I always have that problem", said Adam.

"Listen to me, you've got to", said Joby "There's a psycho at large after Ransey. He might even be here in this theatre for all we know, and Ransey's disappeared! I can't find him anywhere. Finia's worried sick".

"Alright, alright", said Adam, soothingly "We'll start by looking round the theatre. Do you know what this mad man looks like?"

"I think he's wearing women's clothes", said Joby "A real psycho, if you get my drift".

"Good grief", said Adam "Does that mean we have to go round sticking our hands up skirts to check they're authentic?"


"Just my little joke".

Backstage they found Bengo now being lectured by a drag singer, who was complaining that no one wanted cross-dressing entertainers now that real women were here. In the auditorium Lonts was sitting with Toppy, and wanting to show Adam a set of postcards that someone had given him of brown bears standing by the side of a river.

"These two are standing on their hind legs", said Lonts, proudly "They look just like people don't they?"

In the gents toilets they found Kieran ducking his head in a basin of cold water.

"Drowning yourself?" said Joby "Jolly good idea".

"Don't start fighting you two", said Adam, sternly "You can both carry on searching for Ransey. I'm not happy about leaving Lonts and Toppy alone with a mad man at large. I'm relying on you both to behave with a certain amount of maturity until all this is over, if that's not too much to ask!"

"I don't know why I bother with you", said Joby, after Adam had gone "When I think of all the gorgeous, juicy women there are in this town, and I stick with a cretinous scarecrow like you".

"And would one of those gorgeous, juicy women be Glynis by any chance?" said Kieran, pulling a threadbare towel from a hook on the wall and drying his hair vigorously "Love on the allotments! Passion in a potting-shed! She's like a bitch on heat when she's around you".

"Don't talk like that, Kieran. It doesn't suit you".

"I can't help it. I'm angry, and I'm not going to let you go off with her", said Kieran "I was stupid enough to be longsuffering when Amy was carrying on with all and sundry, and but I'm not going to do that with you".

"But there's nothing going on between me and Amy".

"O-ho, that was a Freudian slip if ever there was one!"

"I meant Glynis, it just came out as Amy".

They were silenced by one of the stall doors opening and Ransey emerging.

"We've been looking for you", said Joby.

"No you haven't, you've been arguing, as usual", said Ransey.

"Why didn't you come out when you heard us talking about you just now?" said Joby.

"Because I was trying to collect my thoughts", said Ransey, pulling a white handkerchief out of his trouser pocket and polishing his spectacles with it "Although fat chance of that with you two around! I take it HE'S in the building?"

"Your mysterious C?" said Joby "We don't know. We're assuming he might've tracked you here".

"Adam has no reason to worry", said Ransey "This person's after me and me alone. He won't be interested in getting anyone else".

"Who is he, Ransey?" said Kieran.

"Not a sex offender like Tomce say", said Ransey "Not children. Eunuchs. It was a compulsion with him, to attack eunuchs. It was my job to track him down, but not to kill him. The Ministry wanted him, you see. For the experiments that he referred to in the note".

And so it all came out. The mysterious C's life was spared, on condition the Ministry could make use of him. As they had when they lobotomised Retz and made him door-keeper to the vampires. They wanted a guinea-pig, someone on whom they could experiment on turning into a real woman, one that could conceive and give birth naturally. C was perfect, just retribution. Make the man who attacked eunuchs into a eunuch himself. Emasculate him. Rob him of his manhood. Make him a woman!

"It was all done in Marlsblad", said Ransey "In underground rooms below the massage centre. We knew it was no trouble to entice him there, as the eunuch dancers at the 'Moon and Stars' were world-famous".

"Hang about", said Joby "You've never let on to us that you've ever been to Marlsblad".

"No, I said I'd never been to the Winter Palace", said Ransey "Which is quite true. But the Marlsblad incident is one I don't like to recall, so I don't. Simple as that. My accountant's mentality coming out. When I make a mistake I erase it from my mind as though I was erasing an imperfection in a ledger. To cut a long story short I lured him to the massage centre and the Ministry took over from there".

"You say you had nothing to do with these experiments yourself", said Kieran "And yet this person obviously blames you for them".

"I was invited to stay and watch", said Ransey "And I did for a while. But it was all too sickening. I ran out of the building ... and into the forest".

"But the Gorgon was there then", said Joby.

"I know that, but to be honest I didn't care", said Ransey "I was so disgusted by what the Ministry was doing ... you wouldn't believe some of the things they were doing to that person ... and I was disgusted by my part in it. I ran blindly into the forest. I was so tired of my life at that point that I wanted it to end. The thought of living another thirty or forty years was just intolerable. I didn't have the energy for it. You know what the world was like then, in those days. It was ugly, sick. Suddenly the Gorgon didn't seem so monstrous. I wanted to see her".

"Obviously you didn't though", Joby blustered "I mean, you couldn't have done ... Ransey?"

"I roamed the forest for hours, getting soaked to the skin. It was spring, like now, and raining hard. Sheer exhaustion drove me back to the village eventually. And there the Ministry showed me the 'progress' they had made. Only of course it hadn't worked", Ransey sighed "I expect he blames me because I was the one who'd trapped him. Without me the Ministry wouldn't have got their hands on him so easily".

"And now he's here", said Kieran "Possibly in this theatre. All these years you've protected me, Ransey, kept me from harm. Now it's our turn to do it for you. No arguments now. This is your Vanquisher speaking. Let's go and make sure the others are o.k first".

All three of them moved towards the door.

"It's all done with mirrors you know", Ransey suddenly muttered "Or looking at it abstractedly ... anything but looking at it directly".

"What are you on about, Ransey?" asked Joby.

"I'll tell you at the close of the day", said Ransey.

Julian was watching the black sunset from Jonner's window. The storm was getting ever closer, and making the sky over Toondor Lanpin look like Armageddon. Behind him Jonner was making more coffee, and Hillyard was idly turning over his canvasses.

Tamaz was wandering around with a Victorian smoking-jacket, loaned from Jonner, on over his frillies.

"Sit down, Tamaz", said Julian.

Tamaz fixed him with his amber gaze, and Julian stared back. It wasn't a comfortable experience.

"I hope you never get her power", he said, quietly.

Bengo and his stage partner Bardin were waiting to go on. Meanwhile the stage was occupied by a young fair-haired girl who posed as a street-urchin in a ragged dress and sang comic songs about life on the breadline, frequently pausing to wipe her nose on the hem of her frock for effect.

"This isn't a good time to change the act", said Bardin "I don't know what's come over you lately. At this rate we're only going to be tolerated until the chorus-girls go on".

"What makes you think we aren't anyway?" said Bengo, with uncharacteristic moroseness.

"Because your legs are famous", said Bardin "As long as they're on display no one cares what we get up to. What made you suddenly decide to cover them up? It's lunacy!"

At the last minute Bengo had appeared in the wings wearing a pair of tight red-and-white checked trousers. As far as Bardin was concerned, this was calamitous. The audience wanted to see Bengo prancing around in his leather jock-strap. The act was sure to go down a storm as long as he did that.

"Look I'm uneasy, alright?" Bengo snapped "There's something strange about the house tonight".

"That's just 'cos the Ministry are in", said Bardin, wearily "It's no big deal".

The singer came off to a hearty round of applause and a fair sprinkling of flowers. As she passed them she gave Bengo's concealed legs a surprised look.

Five minutes into their act and it was obvious to Bardin that they were dying a death. The audience's confusion over Bengo's trousers was registering itself in loud whispers and exclamations.

"We're losing them, we're getting the bird", Bardin hissed at one point "Drastic measures are called for".

He yanked down Bengo's trousers, much to the audience's delight. Bengo was furious. Disentangling himself from the garment, he kicked it aside and picked up one of the props, a wooden bat which gave a satisfying thwack when it made contact with someone. Bengo and Bardin then did an impromptu chase around the stage, with a teeth-gritting Bengo taking vicious swings at Bardin.

Bengo pursued him all around the stage, and down the steps into the front of the audience. By now the act had become more a question of revenge and Bengo was more concerned with getting at Bardin than satisfying his audience. He was dimly aware of Ransey having an earnest-looking conversation with Kieran and Joby as they emerged from the direction of the lavatories.

Bardin was now hamming it up for all it was worth, dodging in and out of punters and taunting Bengo like a tiresome child. Bengo though was no longer aware of him. Instead he felt there was something strange about the woman standing about a foot away from Ransey. He couldn't see her eyes for one thing, concealed as they were by dark glasses, and Bengo had the typical human's distrust of other humans he couldn't get eye contact with. Then he saw her pull something out of her purse. Quick-wittedly he swung the bat in her direction and hit her squarely in the face. Stunned, she fell backwards, and the knife fell to the floor.

The audience closest to the incident rose to their feet en-masse and looked across at the woman in the headscarf, who was now sprawled ungainly across the stage steps, "her" mutilated body partly exposed to their horrified gaze.

"Bring on the dancing girls!" yelled the stage manager, and the chubby women came thundering onto the stage, their bare breasts smacking against their rib-cages in a very satisfying manner.

"What is that God-awful noise?" said Julian, walking into the theatre bar an hour later "Sounds like someone murdering a bagpipe".

"It's a crumhorn apparently", said Jonner, digging into the pocket of his baggy cardigan for yet another cigarette "A very old musical instrument that someone's reinvented".

"I wish they'd disinvent it again", said Julian.

"Would you like a beer to cement our new agreement?" said Jonner "As regards Tamaz and my sketches of him".

"Yes, if you can make yourself heard above the thunder ... and the crumhorns", said Julian.

Whilst Jonner fought his way through the excitable crush at the bar, Julian flopped down onto one of the tatty red velvet chairs nearby. Suddenly Bengo appeared, in his ordinary garb of singlet and shorts.

"Have you heard about all that happened here this evening?" he said, excitedly.

"Yes I did", said Julian "Quite the hero of the hour aren't you?"

Bengo jumped onto his lap with his customary agility.

"You took a big risk there", said Julian "However brave. Try not to do it again".

"You must be pretty shaken still", said Joby, when he got back to the Indigo to find Ransey standing in the spring rain, staring into Tamaz's cage "That was a close-call back there. Good thing for once the Ministry were on hand to put him straight under arrest".

"Yes, another door closes", said Ransey, distantly "I expect you wish we could dispose of Tamaz that easily".

"Nah, he doesn't bother me too much these days", said Joby, looking at the hermaphrodite who was curled up asleep at the bottom of his cage "Shooting people's not always the answer you know, whatever they've done".

"It was for your sake that I originally wanted to shoot Tamaz", said Ransey "I couldn't bear to think of the hurt he'd done to you".

"All in the past", said Joby "Anyway, it's hardly your fault what Tamaz gets up to, is it?"

"I fathered that ... THAT", said Ransey, unable to think of a word that would adequately cover his own self-disgust.

"You and the Gorgon ...?"

"In a moonlit clearing. Makes it all sound so romantic doesn't it?"

"It was a helluva risk you took", said Joby.

"It was the most terrifying moment of my entire life, and I've known a few", said Ransey, ruefully "And yet it was also the most exquisite".

"And how many other men have felt the same as you?" said Joby "You don't know that you fathered Tamaz, it could've been any number of men who were around Marlsblad at the time. It's only in recent years that we've found out that there were times when her power wasn't that strong. It must've been weak at the time she gave birth to him for a start. What I'm saying is it wasn't necessarily you".

"You're a good friend, Joby", Ransey sighed "One like I never thought I would have anyway. Time to turn in I think".

"Sure", said Joby, and he went below to be with Kieran.

Meanwhile, back at the Little Theatre, Minister Smun, still feeling decidedly emotional, was looking at Lonts's collection of bear postcards.

"They all look so ... so un-evil", he said, choking back the alcohol-flavoured tears.

"Oh bears aren't evil at all", said Lonts, earnestly "They just want to live their lives you see".

"Not treacherous like humans", said Smun "Not conniving. They are so utterly ... utterly simple and straightforward ..."

Lonts nodded and squelched noisily on his thumb.


Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 England & Wales License.

Return to Sarah Hapgood's Strange Tales and Strange Places web site