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"What do you think you're doing in here?"
Gimmit spun round in terror. It was very early on May morning and he hadn't expected anyone to be up so soon, particularly not in Trixie's suite. He turned to find Vanod standing in his bedroom doorway, looking dishevelled and tired in his silk robe.
"I-I", Gimmit stammered.
"I warn you, if anything's been stolen you are in very serious trouble", Vanod began to pace around the sitting-room, giving everything a cursory glance as though conducting a mental inventory.
"B-But I've got your shoes", Gimmit held out a basket containing two pairs of highly-polished shoes "I stand in for the boot-boy on his day off you see".
"I'm surprised you can be trusted", said Vanod "I wouldn't allow you inside the building at all if this was my place, although I understand you perform an essential function, as playmate to the retarded half-wit?"
"That's enough Vanod", said Trixie. He looked as though he hadn't slept at all "You can leave the shoes and go, Gimmit".
Gimmit was only too happy to do so. After he had left Trixie sat down on the sofa and clutched a cushion for dear life. The curtains were still shut and the shaded room fitted his melancholy mood.
"I don't know what gets into you", said Vanod "What possessed you to take the Kiskev lunatic into your bed? Are you that desperate for affection?"
"Leave me alone", said Trixie "I've got a lot of things to think about, and I can't do that if you keep going on at me".
"I can't even bear being in the same room as him", Vanod went on "He has that irritating habit of watching everything we do. But what surprises me, no shocks me in fact, more than anything, is that you wanted to turn him into your second consort! It says a lot for you that out of all the men in the world you pick him!"
"Lonts is very attractive", Trixie mumbled.
"Yes, and you certainly go into overdrive when he's around. He is retarded, you idiot! A simpleton!"
"He'll get better", Trixie protested.
"No he won't! Can you put up with a consort who pisses himself in bed?"
"He was nervous. I shouldn't have spoken to him the way I did. I think I'll cope better in the future. The initials shock's gone now. It'll be easier for us both next time".
"Well perhaps it will work out as you say", Vanod sighed "It might be a very good match. After all, it takes one cretin to understand another one".
Kieran pulled back the curtains in Hillyard's room, causing the other man to sit up suddenly, blinking against the morning sunshine.
"Kieran?" he said "Have I overslept? What time is it?"
"No, it's alright, it's still early", said Kieran "But I wanted to talk to you alone. I have a favour to ask you. Will you act as my consort today, during the picnic and the festivities this evening?"
"If that's what you want", said Hillyard "But why?"
"Both Adam and Joby are giving me grief at the moment. They need a bit of time in the cooler. It's important we show the public everything's under control, and I can't do that if I'm having to put up with them sniping at me all day. I wouldn't ask you if I didn't think you could handle it".
"Yea I'll do it, although I doubt either of them'll talk to me again".
"Believe me Hillyard", said Kieran "The way they are at the moment you won't be missing anything if they don't".
The May Day picnic was held every year in the wooded park on the outskirts of the City. It officially marked the beginning of summer, and was followed in the evening by a firework display and general carousing in the streets. There was a lot of fear and excitement around, generated by rumours of Angel's return, and Kieran was anxious that this shouldn't escalate into panic. By appearing in public at the picnic he was hoping to allay some of the fears.
Horse-drawn carriages appeared in the Quadrangle at the Headquarters, garlanded with wreaths of blossom. One carriage contained the food, two more contained the drink, and these were all sent on ahead. There was a short burst of chaos as everyone milled around, trying to find where they were supposed to sit. Kieran was to sit next to Trixie with their respective consorts opposite.
"Patsy", said Adam "What the bloody hell is Hillyard doing sitting in the consort's seat?"
"Joby's refused to sit next to Vanod on the journey", said Kieran "You know how much he hates him".
"Joby isn't your only consort".
"Isn't he? I thought I wasn't allowed any more than one these days", said Kieran "You can travel in the carriage with Joby, Ransey and Lonts. I'm not asking Hillyard to move now, we're late setting off as it is".
Kieran swept away imperiously, leaving Adam dumbfounded.
"Oh dear", said Julian "Has there been a palace revolution?"
"Go and impale yourself on your shooting-stick Jules".
There was certainly no sign of imminent panic amongst the crowds as the procession wound through them that morning. In fact, a small band of priests had even rigged up a banner proclaiming "WE LOVE YOU KIERAN".
"I wish I was as popular at home", said Kieran, smiling as he waved at them.
"They'll get over it", said Hillyard, who was enjoying himself enormously.
Kieran was grateful to have him next to him. Trixie and Vanod were waving at the crowds in a very desultory fashion, and obviously found the whole experience painfully tedious. Trixie was disappointed that Joby wasn't occupying the consort's place, and Vanod looked like he was starting a cold.
In the carriage behind them both Adam and Joby were scowling, whilst Lonts, encouraged by Ransey, waved enthusiastically to the crowds.
"Hillyard looks as though he was born for the job", said Ransey. It was proving to be one of those days (not uncommon) when being the celibate onlooker could be quite fun.
"Nobody asked you for your opinion Ransey", said Adam.
"Since when did I have to speak only when spoken to?" said Ransey "I don't have to take that from you".
"And don't try and get all he-man with me", said Adam "You're only a tough-guy when you've got a gun in your hands".
"The way you lot are behaving I should've brought one along with me to keep order".
"It's humiliating, that's what it is", said Adam "Everyone's going to think Hillyard's usurped us. I'll never forgive Patsy for this".
"You will", said Ransey.
"He thinks he can get away with it", said Adam.
"He can", said Ransey.
"Perhaps Lonts will get to be second consort after all", said Joby.
"Don't drag Lonts into it", said Ransey.
"He only sticks with me 'cos he feels sorry for me", Joby blurted out "He as good as said so".
"I'm sure that's not true Joby", said Adam.
"Yes it bloody well is", Joby exclaimed "And it's all your bleeding fault. Going on about him having to choose. He said he'd choose to stay with me because he felt sorry for me. And it was alright for you because you had Julian".
"If I was Kieran I'd take a vow of celibacy", said Ransey "None of it seems worth it just so you can have someone shove their cock up your arse".
"Is that what Trixie would have done to me?" said Lonts.
"Very possibly", said Adam.
"And I ent half sick of you", said Joby, pulling Lonts's hat down over his eyes "Why do you have to be so bleeding attractive!"
"A question I often ask", said Adam.
"Everybody wants to screw him", said Joby "And he hasn't got a clue what any of it's about. It makes me sick".
"So you said", Ransey remarked "Why don't we all just try being quiet for a few minutes? It'd be much less stressful".
It was cool and peaceful in the woodland clearing. The City park was huge, and it was often a marvel to first-time visitors to find a large tract of genuine countryside in the middle of a thriving metropolis. Sheep grazed there, and it was far enough away to make hearing the usual City noises difficult.
Although the picnic was supposedly a public affair, part of the woodland was roped off for security reasons, and spectators could watch from the sidelines.
By the time the carriages rolled across the mossy ground the stewards had set up two tents, ostensibly for shelter if it rained, but also to serve as a buffer of privacy if required. Wooden trestle tables groaned under platters of bread, meat and fruit. Flagons of wine and pitchers of beer were arranged on them and on the surrounding grass. Trixie immediately took up position on a padded satin chair, and sat waiting for anyone that took his fancy to come near him.
"Like little Miss Muffat waiting to trap the spider", said Julian, helping himself to red wine.
"No doubt you're delighted Adam and Kieran are at dagger's drawn", said Ransey, heaping a plate with food.
"They'll resolve it", said Julian, dismissively "I have more pressing concerns of my own. Namely, my house-boy's growing attachment to the fool Gimmit. I really don't want to have to go through all the hassle of training a new one. Still, perhaps he won't leave. After all, it's not as if I have to worry about him leaving to have a baby is it?"
"I think we're all getting too set in our ways", said Ransey "We need something to shake us up a bit".
"Oh don't go saying things like that", said Julian "I don't think my aged heart can stand it. What's wrong with the sitting back on the patio and watching the flowers grow way of life?"
"Nothing, except none of us can handle it", said Ransey "That's why we're all at each other's throats at the moment".
"That has nothing to do with the settled life", said Julian "And everything to do with the presence of Trixie and his inhuman consort. There has been endless trouble since they arrived".
"You could be right", said Ransey "Have some more wine".
Kieran walked along the row of spectators at the barrier and exchanged the obligatory few words with each of them, shaking hands as he went. The fine weather and the fact that it was the official first day of summer seemed to put everyone in good spirits, and he came away relieved that no one had mentioned Angel or the murders.
He was disconcerted when Adam grabbed his hand and pulled him into one of the tents, ordering out the attendant steward who was within.
"Words you want is it?" said Kieran "Well how about you throwing down ultimatums to me then eh? Threatening me. Telling me I had to choose between you and Joby. It'd serve you both damn well right if I dumped the pair of you and took Hillyard instead".
"You wouldn't dare!"
"Oh yes I would. Hillyard would make a smashing consort, and he's very popular with the people".
"So he should be. He's screwed most of them!"
"Well at least he wouldn't go hassling me last thing at night when I least need it", Kieran exclaimed.
"Patsy, he has the attention-span of a gnat, he couldn't stay faithful for longer than half-an-hour".
"Oh that's rich coming from you".
"And at the first hint of trouble in a relationship he heads for the hills with a crate of beer!"
"Not much different to Joby", said Kieran "Except he yells at me to go to sleep".
"See. I told you that you should sleep with me", said Adam "I wouldn't carry on like that in bed. I'd find more interesting diversions for us".
He bent down and kissed Kieran on the lips, who responded in kind.
"Hm", said Kieran, eventually "And I was going to make you and Joby suffer today".
"You did that by relegating us to the two-and-six seats".
"Well you both deserved it. Joby certainly did anyway. I know I probably put my foot in it when I said I felt sorry for him, but he carried on about it as though I'd committed a far more heinous crime than being tactless. Have you ever tried to spend the night sharing a bed with someone who's sulking and got the hump with you?"
"Yes, Julian usually".
"Joby's always so damn sensitive too", said Kieran "You'd think we were both still kids sometimes. He carries on as though I was still pinching all the girls from him".
"Why don't we call Joby in here and sort him out?" said Adam, eyeing the fur-covered divan in the centre of the tent.
"Addy we can't, not here!" said Kieran "Not with my devoted public outside. It's immoral".
"I know, but it's a delicious fantasy. How about just you and me then?"
"Why not! They've already seen you dragging me in here, so we might as well give 'em their money's worth!"
Joby had grabbed a bottle of wine and walked into the woods with it. He was standing against a tree taking liberal swigs from the bottle, when Lonts appeared.
"Bog off Lonts", he exclaimed "You're always following me around. Like a bloody dog".
"Kieran said we shouldn't go anywhere on our own", said Lonts, twisting his hat in his hands nervously "You shouldn't be alone Joby".
"And you're going to protect me from vampires are you? Well I don't give fuck", said Joby "Come on Angel, you fucker. Come and get me! Save me from half-wits like Lonts".
"Joby", Lonts started to cry "Don't send me away. I want to be with you. Nobody else wants me. Adam's gone into the tent with Kieran".
"Oh he has has he?" said Joby "He never wastes much time making up".
"Gimmit's with that eunuch Finia", Lonts continued "And I just get in everybody else's way".
"Oh come here", said Joby, melting at the sight of Lonts's tears "Have a swig of this. It'll make you feel better".
Lonts took the bottle and drank from it thirstily.
"Hey steady on", said Joby, taking the bottle back from him "I can tell you're Kiskevian. You drink like a bloody fish!"
"All I do is upset people at the moment", said Lonts, as they both slid gently down to the grass.
"No you don't", said Joby "It was rotten what Trixie did to you. No one blames you for that. He took advantage of you, or tried to anyway. You've had a rotten deal in life, I forget that sometimes Lonts. I just get impatient with you and I shouldn't. I can't imagine some of the things you've seen. The mass suicide for instance. And then you having to hide out in the woods afterwards. I've been in those woods. Dead spooky. I can believe how frightening it must have been for you".
"Being caught was more frightening", said Lonts "When the Ministry turned up. They hunted me down. One man picked me up under his arm as though I was a roll of carpet and dumped me down in a circle of them. They all stood around shouting at me all at once, wanting to know what had happened. I thought they'd blame me for it all, and I tried hiding from them by pulling my hood over my head. But they just pulled it off again and carried on yelling".
"On the day it happened, the suicide. How did everyone act?"
"They were singing", said Lonts "They wanted to die. The old man I worked for said it would be the end of all life's worries. He used to spend hours looking at black market pictures of women, that's how I know what they look like. He said if he was dead he would never again be tormented by images of women he'd never kiss. But I didn't want to die. Not at all. Perhaps that's why I'm a half-wit. Because I never have thought the same as everyone else. In Kiskev they all called me the lunatic too".
"And yet you were probably the sane one from the sounds of things".
"Do you think so?"
"You sound quite sane now", said Joby "Is it just easier to be daft Lonts? Then you don't have to think too much".
"I get confused easily", said Lonts "Sometimes I just can't keep up with what people are saying, and I do try. I've always had that problem. Or I take them seriously when they're joking".
"I've had that problem from time to time", said Joby "Sometimes I think people are joking when they're being serious!"
"Adam won't admit it", said Lonts "But I know I'm getting worse".
"You do alright really. You could be a lot worse than you are".
"Do you think so?"
"Yea. Back in my own time I had a bloke come to my door, begging for money. He was ill, in the way you are. God, he was all over the place. Twitching like mad, like you used to do in the old Winter Palace days. Everytime he spoke he shook his head. And he was on medication too. Mind you, that was probably why he was shaking".
"That could've been me", said Lonts "How I'd have ended up I mean. Begging from door to door. If you lot hadn't taken me in. Except no, it wouldn't have been like that. I'd have gone down on that convict ship wouldn't I?"
"Don't think about it", Joby tucked his arm around him "You'll only upset yourself if you do. Let's finish the booze off".
"One of the reasons I got upset last night", said Adam, stroking Kieran's spine with his fingertips "Is that I was worried I was losing touch with you. You seemed to have become some elusive fantasy in my life, and Julian was the reality".
"What can I do about it then?" said Kieran, rolling onto his back and feeling the warmth of the fur on the divan against him "To put things right I mean".
"You don't have to do anything Patsy", said Adam "It's just me getting niggly because I've been away from you for three months. All that time I was in Lixix I kept thinking 'oh Joby must be enjoying the feeling of being part of a proper couple at last'. The perils of a threesome Patsy, that's all. I was worried I'd come home to find everyone had coped damn well without me".
"And now you know that's not true. What makes you think Joby wants to put up with me all the time anyway?" said Kieran "Oh, this life! There are too many worries in it".
"Then let's just enjoy ourselves whilst we can", Adam kissed him tenderly "Come on Patsy, you'd better go and see how your lovely Ministry are enjoying their day of fun".
"I know damn well how", said Kieran "I made sure I'd ordered plenty of beer, so I should think they're alright".
By the time they had dressed and got back outside the crowd of spectators had disappeared, and the laughter amongst the Ministry workers and invited guests was getting steadily louder. Trixie still sat alone on the silk chair under a parasol, looking more and more desperate.
"I suppose I'd better go and sit with him for a while", said Kieran.
"The essence is to enjoy yourself Pats", said Adam.
"Oh I'll be alright", said Kieran "I can keep an eye on the rest of you whilst I'm at it. Where's Joby anyway?"
"Went for a walk", said Hillyard, who was drinking from a tankard of ale "Taken Lonts with him too".
"Lonts'll be alright with Joby", said Kieran "At least neither of them are alone".
A fresh barrel of beer was unkegged. Some of the Ministry men started up a ball game. Gimmit was trying on Finia's stockings.
"I wish you'd knock that little relationship on the head", said Julian, sitting down next to Adam.
"I can't tell Gimmit who he can sleep with", said Adam "I wouldn't worry so much if I was you. I can't see it lasting. And even if it did you mustn't be a bitch in the manger Jules. You can't expect Finia's undying devotion forever".
"Yes I can. I've given him a roof over his head for the past ten years. The least he can do is look after me in my old age".
"If anyone else'd said that I would think they were joking", said Adam "But not you".
"One gets set in one's ways at our time of life", said Julian "I don't like change anymore. It disconcerts me. Perhaps if you'd do the decent thing and move in with me it'd be a load off my mind".
"Oh shut up Jules, you sound like my father. You'll be whining that you just want to see me settled next", said Adam "I'm staying with Patsy. He keeps me young, and he won't have me embroidering cushion covers by my fiftieth birthday".
"You've changed your tune since last night".
"Perhaps you should get out more Julian, make new friends. You never used to be such a recluse when you were younger. I wish you had been, then my life might have been much easier".
"I lived too long in the jungle Adam", said Julian "And since living at the Headquarters, well I suppose with you around I didn't feel the need for getting out and about. Anyway, who are these new friends? Rent boys? They always did scare the hell out of me. Whoever it was who said mixing with rent boys was like supping with panthers knew what he was talking about".
"Was it Oscar Wilde?"
Kieran had hired some entertainment to while away the sleepy hours of the afternoon. On a platform rigged up for the purpose a troupe of eunuch dancers did their stuff, followed by a young comedian who was packing them in at some of the clubs in the City. He based his act on being as rude and brash as possible, but Kieran found it hard to take offence at anything he said, not since he'd read a report from one of his camp elders, which had stated that Tivaney had a desperate yearning to be liked by everyone he met.
"If you know that about him", said Kieran to Trixie, hoping to divert him from his glum thoughts "It makes his whole act quite fascinating".
Due to some persistent heckling from drunken members of the Ministry staff, Tivaney decided to expose himself. He then had great trouble trying not to look hurt when Finia wriggled his little finger suggestively, as a sign of how unimpressed he was by Tivaney's organ.
"Bit upsetting when a eunuch thinks you don't cut the mustard", said Adam.
"A lesser man would weep", said Julian.
"I saw him perform in a bar in town", said Vanod, who was standing nearby "I rather got the impression the audience were humouring him. I have no wish to sit through it all again, I'm going for a walk".
"No great loss to the party", said Ransey, tucking into a meat pie liberally dolloped with sour cream "Although I think you do have to be drunk to appreciate this act".
"On in one's second childhood", said Julian "Like the Kiskev Fruitcake".
"That's a point", said Adam "Where have Joby and Lonts got to?"
"I think we're lost", said Joby, holding onto Lonts's hand as they turned onto yet another mossy path which led through the woods "Don't worry though, we can't have far to go. The park's only five miles all round".
"We should be able to hear them all shouldn't we Joby?" said Lonts.
"We will. Eventually".
Joby knew he had to stay calm for Lonts's sake, but the fact remained that he felt scared. He kept seeing strange shapes out of the corner of his eye. Shapes that quickly darted behind trees and bushes. What was even more unnerving was that they reminded him of the Reptile Men. He knew that if they encountered one of these they stood a good chance of having their necks broken. Added to that he had to make sure he kept a firm grip on Lonts, who might try bolting at any moment.
"There's some smoke coming through the trees over there Joby", said the boy, pointing directly ahead.
Joby tugged him onto the next path which led to a small cottage set in its own compact vegetable garden. Somebody was in, as the door was open and a fire had been left burning in a brazier by the side of the garden path. Placed carefully on the fire was a pan of sizzling sausages.
"Now that's the kind of place I'd like to live in", said Joby, forgetting his fears for a moment "He's got everything he needs here".
"Whose place is it?"
"I expect it's the park-keeper's cottage. Whoever it is he'll be able to give us directions".
Joby hollered from the gateway that they were lost and needed help. He dimly noticed an eye peering out at them through the gap in the door. Suddenly the door was slammed shut. Communications were most definitely down.
"That wasn't very nice", said Lonts.
"Well I expect you can get a bit anti-social living out here", said Joby "I like it here though. Shame I'm never going to get a place like this".
"With Kieran as President for life? It doesn't look likely".
"You could live out here, and he could visit you".
"No thanks, it wouldn't be the same", said Joby "We'd better move on. He won't come out unless we do, and I don't wanna be responsible for his tea getting burnt".
As they retraced their steps, Joby waxed lyrical about the cottage, as though he'd had a religious experience. It at least kept Lonts diverted, for a while anyway.
"It wouldn't be very nice living with all these strange things around us Joby", he said "I'd be afraid to go out of doors".
"Let's try running for a bit shall we Lonts?" said Joby, trying not to sound nervous.
They trotted for a while, with Joby only too aware that it was getting cloudier. Storms had been promised for later that night, and he didn't want to be left in the woods after dark if he could help it. He could easily imagine seeing Reptile Men briefly illuminated by flashes of lightening.
"Out for a jog?" said Vanod, who seemed to appear out of nowhere and was now blocking their path.
"We've been for a walk", said Joby "And now we're going back".
"You've been gone a long time".
"So? What's it got to do with you?" said Joby, aggressively "Now get out of our way. You're frightening Lonts".
"Yes, and we can't have that can we? The little darling might piss his pants again".
Something snapped inside Joby. Perhaps it was Vanod's supercilious tone, perhaps it was the way the woods had so thoroughly unnerved him, he didn't know. All he did know was that he was suddenly filled with such an intense loathing of Vanod that to kill him was now his dearest ambition. He flew at him and grasped his neck in his hands, intending to wring it like a chicken.
"Joby no!" Lonts screamed, and tried to drag him away "You'll get into trouble Joby. No, stop!"
He finally managed to release Joby's hands from Vanod's neck, and then held him by his wrists until he had calmed down.
"Vicious bastards, all of you", said Vanod, rubbing his neck.
"Get away from us!" Joby shrieked "Get away!"
Vanod turned without saying another word and walked back along the path.
"You sounded just like you did in the rose garden the other day", said Lonts.
"Did I?" said Joby "The shit! He really got to me. There's something about him ... oh never mind".
"I've never seen you that angry before Joby", said Lonts "I mean, I've seen you angry, but not violent".
"It's a new one on me too", said Joby "Normally I'd be too yellow to go picking on someone taller than me. It must be old age coming on, making me aggressive. I'll be standing in shops next and yelling about the moral decline in society".
"Will you?" said Lonts.
"I'm hoping it won't come to that Lonts", said Joby "Let's get out of here".
The picnic was breaking up by the time they got back. Several of the carriages containing ministers and their invited friends had been sent on ahead. Kieran and Adam were pacing restlessly when Joby and Lonts finally emerged from the woods.
"Where the bloody hell have you been?" Kieran roared, jabbing Joby in the chest "If I'm late starting off the firework display because of you then you are in trouble".
"We got lost", said Joby.
"Joby sorted everything out", said Lonts.
"I'll hear about it later", said Kieran, impatiently "In the meantime Joby, you're coming back in the carriage with me. Hillyard won't mind. Adam'll take care of Lonts. In the meantime I'm going to give you a piece of my mind".
"Can you spare it?" said Joby.
"Get in the focking carriage".
The journey back was a hairy one, as Joby and Kieran looked close to coming to blows at several stages. Fortunately this distracted Joby from the intolerable situation of having to sit next to Vanod.
"Stop bickering with me Joby", Kieran snapped at one point "And just smile and wave. That applies to you too Trixie".
"I don't see the need", said Trixie, sulkily.
"I'll tell you the need. Because if you don't I'll query every official expense you have when you get back to Pepuaah".
"Pulling rank are you?" said Trixie.
"He does that when it suits him", said Joby.
To Kieran's relief he got back to the Headquarters bridge in time to officially announce the start of the evening's festivities. As soon as the first fireworks went up it signalled the end of his duties for the day, and they retreated to a first-floor stateroom for drinks and card-playing.
"The President looks tired", said Quinp to Hillyard. Quinp was considerably sozzled after consuming two bottles of red wine "You should put him to bed Hillyard".
"Joby usually puts him to bed", said Hillyard, who had been getting more and more exasperated by Quinp's nudge-nudge tone all day "Although no doubt you perform such a duty for His Lordship".
"Oh only in the line of service you understand", said Quinp "I can usually find other distractions".
"Yea I'm sure. Excuse me".
"Is he getting you down?" said Adam, catching up with Hillyard afterwards.
"I get fed up with all the smutty innuendoes", said Hillyard "You'd think sex had only just been invented to listen to him".
"Perhaps it has, for him", said Adam "I know how you feel. His sort get me down too. Far too fond of the sound of their own voice. Pretty unpleasant lot all round, the Grand Lord's party".
Adam and Hillyard sat down on a sofa next to Joby, who was staring at his hands in bewilderment.
"Are you alright old love?" said Adam.
"In the woods today", said Joby "I tried to throttle Vanod".
"An urge we all get from time to time".
"No I did Adam. Really! I don't know what came over me. I've never tried to kill anyone before. I've never wanted to. It was only Lonts being there that stopped me. He pulled me off. I don't know what possessed me".
"I wouldn't worry about it", said Hillyard "Even if you'd succeeded he wouldn't be any great loss".
Kieran and Joby wandered out into the rose garden after all the festivities had ended. It was very late and the long-awaited storm could be heard rumbling in the distance.
"I'm glad you're here with me Kiel", said Joby "I just remembered that I hadn't sorted out the greenhouses for the night. I'd have been petrified coming out here alone".
"I don't mind", said Kieran "I have to make up for the way I blew up at you earlier. My only excuse is that I was worried. You and Lonts had been missing all afternoon".
"It doesn't matter", said Joby "Adam said just now that he got quite jealous. He thinks you're very sexy when you're telling people off. He wishes it was him getting scolded".
"Adam would", Kieran laughed "He's completely incorrigible".
"That's one word for it".
"Vanod gave you quite a scare didn't he?"
"I'll be glad when he's gone home, him and Trixie", said Joby "I caught him letting those mutts of his crap all over my flowerbeds earlier. I didn't half yell at him. Told him to take them down to the scrubland at the bottom of the garden. Said the walk would help get some fat off him".
"Him and the dogs", said Kieran "All of 'em could do with losing a few pounds. He has the same trouble all the Pepuaahan lot have. They haven't got enough to fill their days. That's why they're forever causing trouble. I don't think I can forgive Trixie for what he tried to do to wee Lonts. But, because of diplomatic relations, I have to smile and be nice. But by God it doesn't half wear thin at times".
"I know what you could do with", said Joby.
"So do I".
"That as well. But I was thinking of a certain bottle of whisky I've got stashed away in my shed. Fancy breaking it open with me when we've shut the greenhouses up?"
"I was very proud of you today", said Adam, as he put the final pin in Lonts's nappy "You looked out for Joby, and I'm grateful for that. He's had quite a hard time from Vanod over the years, one way and another. Well both Vand and Trixie really".
"He was very angry", said Lonts, lying patiently on his bed whilst Adam secured his nappy in place "I've seen Joby angry before, but not like that".
"Vanod's enough to try the patience of a saint. Look at that time I clouted him with a piece of apple pie!" said Adam "On second thoughts don't. It was me doing that that caused him to beat up on poor Joby at Quipignon".
"Adam", said Lonts "I don't really understand what happened with Trixie the other day".
"Ssh. You go to sleep now. That's all over and done with", said Adam, as a much louder rumble of thunder was heard.
"Adam", said Lonts, drowsily "Will you sleep in with me tonight? That's if you haven't got anyone staying? Only I'm nervous. I don't want to be alone".
"Gimmit's in here", said Adam, gesturing towards the pallet where Gimmit lay sleeping.
"Alright, but the storm won't harm you. Not when you're safe indoors".
Nevertheless Adam stepped gingerly past Gimmit's pallet and removed his clothes. As he went to pull the window in on its latch he saw Vanod crossing the Quadrangle. He looked dazed but euphoric, and clutched a brown paper parcel under his arm, like a prisoner on his day of release. Adam watched as he walked out under the clock arch, and across the bridge into the City. Adam suddenly had a great urge to tell someone what he had seen, but he reasoned with himself that he was being paranoid. Vanod may be an unpleasant character, but he was a free adult, and could come and go as he pleased. Even so, he still wasn't reassured.
"Are you coming to bed Adam?" said Lonts.
"Yes alright, you bossy little thing", said Adam, as a flash of lightning lit up the room in eerie detail "And I want you to go to sleep straightaway. No lying awake jabbering half the night, as you sometimes do".
Adam climbed into bed, and Lonts curled up next to him, obviously making a concerted effort to sleep. As the image of Vanod leaving the premises haunted him more and more into the night, Adam was increasingly grateful for the comfort of the boy's presence.
"Did I tell you about that house I saw today?" said Joby, nudging Kieran's bare foot with his own. They were both sitting in the shed, with the storm raging directly overhead, and the luxury of two mugs of whisky in their laps.
"Your dream palace, wasn't it?" said Kieran.
"Dream's the word. I know it'll never happen for real".
"How can it? As I said to Lonts, you're president for life".
"Who says? I might abdicate one day. They can't force me to do the bloody job", said Kieran, taking a sip of the burning liquid "I rather like the idea of living in a little cottage in the woods. All back to basics. Like it was on the island. Adam'd like it too. Him and his frontiersman fantasies".
"Sometimes I wish it was just us three again", said Joby "As it was in the very early days".
"It was horrible", said Kieran "At each other's throats all the time. No one impartial to referee us".
"It wouldn't be like that now", Joby protested "Not now we've got all our sexual differences resolved".
"That's true. We could all curl up together".
"Who'd have thought it then eh? Us like this now. You President. All of us screwing each other. We could never have predicted any of it when we first crossed over".
"How the hell could we cope if we suddenly crossed back now?"
"We'd carry on as we were", said Joby, slapping Kieran's knee "I'm damned if I'm giving you up".
"Bizarre situation. You fighting Amy for me!"
"That's the first time you've mentioned her in ages".
"It was another life Joby. It's hard to relate to something that happened over 2000 years ago! I'm a different person to the one I was then. After all, in essence I've been married to you a helluva lot longer than I was married to her".
"I hadn't thought of it like that".
"You'd better believe it".
"I can hear something outside", said Joby, sitting up nervously.
"Yea, there's a ruddy great storm going on".
"No, there's someone out there".
"Good luck to him!"
"Kiel, for God's sake", Joby snatched the mug from him "Unblock your airwaves".
"It might be Angel, that's why!"
"Typical of Angel to be awkward enough to turn out on a filthy night like this".
There was a scuffling noise directly outside the door, and in the dim light from the oil-lamp they could just make out the shadow of someone in the gap below the door. Kieran dropped his mug in shock.
"Is it Angel, Kiel?" said Joby, anxiously "Is it?"
"Yes it is", said Kieran "I'd be able to sense him anywhere".
"Where are you going?"
"To answer the door to him. Find out what he wants".
"Kieran, you can't!" Joby stood firmly in front of him "We know what we wants. He's a vampire, it's obvious!"
"Maybe, but I'm sick of his games, and I want him to know that".
Kieran pulled open the shed-door. Angel was standing a few feet from him, oblivious to the rain which was drenching his naked body.
"Nice of you to have the nerve to show yourself to me at long last", said Kieran, stepping out into the rain.
"Don't come any closer", said Angel, raising a furry paw to stop Kieran in his tracks. His voice was squeaky and unused.
"Eh?" said Kieran, trying to understand, which was difficult after the amount of alcohol he'd consumed in one day.
"I said don't come any closer", said Angel "I'm carrying the plague".
Kieran had unlocked the meat-store and retrieved a substantial supply of steak, already cut and piled on large plates. He took it all to the summerhouse where Angel was waiting for him. The vampire stood on the other side of the room, and Kieran pushed the meat across the floor to him. He and Joby then watched in appalled fascination as Angel tore into the meat like a pack of hounds savaging a stag. He ate voraciously, tearing the meat apart in his bare hands, and then sucking on it before swallowing it. His face, chest and hands were covered in blood.
"So, why did you appear to me tonight?" said Kieran, as Angel eventually began to calm his frenzy as he became satiated "I take it, it wasn't just to cadge a free meal?"
"I wanted you to know", said Angel, by now breathless and bloated "I kept my promise to you as much as I could. I didn't come back out of choice. I was brought back. And I'm not the one who has been doing those murders in the City".
"You've been killing though, haven't you?"
"Yea, but not in the City".
"That doesn't make it alright Angel!" Kieran cried in exasperation.
"Look ...", Angel suddenly giggled "I almost called you shitface then".
"Charm was never your strong point", said Kieran.
"You know what it's like for me", said Angel "I need blood. I need flesh. It rules me, not the other way round. I can't help myself".
"Who brought you back? Was it Vanod?"
"He's a Satanist", said Angel "He's been working on bringing me back for years, and he's finally managed it. The joke is, he thinks I'm still possessed by the Devil. I'm not. The Devil left me at the Loud House. I'm no bloody use to Vanod at all now. I'm just a fucking vampire. All I want is flesh, not plans for world domination. If I still was the Devil I wouldn't be able to sit here facing you now".
"Who is doing these killings in the City?" said Kieran.
"Caln!" Joby exclaimed "He was destroyed. The Virus got him. What's he doing back?"
"When Vanod realised he wasn't going to get much luck out of me", said Angel "He decided to have a go at Caln instead. Caln doesn't have my sense of allegiance to you, quite the opposite in fact".
"So he's Vanod's faithful servant is he?" said Kieran.
"Take it from me, Caln isn't anyone's faithful servant", said Angel "He had enough of kow-towing to Mullawa for sixty years. He's determined to be on his own this time. Vanod may have resurrected him, but Caln does what he damn well pleases now. Vanod can't control him. He realises it, only now it's too late. And Caln does want power, believe me. He wants the old days back, with the vampires in charge. And to do that he needs to release the Devil. Don't ask me how he intends me do this, but that's what he wants".
"Why are you carrying the plague?"
"Sheer bloody carelessness. I went to Pepuaah looking for meat. To cut a long story short I miscalculated. The victim I took was infected. So now I'm carrying it".
"You never were very bright Angel", said Kieran "And why are you helping me now?"
"Because you helped me. And you're in for a bumpy ride. The forces of darkness are massing against you, and I think you need one of us on your side. I steer clear of Caln, although I know he keeps trying to track me down. He wants to form an alliance with me. I won't do it, not whilst I can help it. I can't tell you much more, being so near you drains me. But I'll come back to you, in forty days time. By then I should have the strength to face you again".
"Forty days!" Kieran cried "But anything could happen in that time. Caln might strike again".
"Very likely he will. But there's nothing you can do about it. Not for the moment. I can help you though, but I need to amass some power and strength of my own".
"And in the meantime you'll just keep on killing?" said Kieran.
"I'll try my best to limit it to sheep and pigs, but I can't promise anything. Human flesh is the best there is, and I need it. I'll see you forty days from now".
"Angel!" Kieran cried, as the vampire slowly dissolved into green mist and then evaporated into nothing "Dammit, he's always doing that".
"What do we do now?" said Joby.
"We seal this place up and get it fumigated", said Kieran "And then I need to speak to the Chief Constable. Urgently".
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