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"I want to apologise", said Ransey, looking as solemn-faced as an undertaker. The four of them were sitting cramped in Kieran's tent, nursing glasses of brandy.
"There's no need for any apologies", said Kieran "You reacted in a perfectly understandable way, and it gives me some idea of what Vanod's capable of".
"I should've known better Kieran", said Ransey "When I went through my training we were given various stringent psychological tests. One involved pictures of naked women ... like her. It was a test of self-control. If that had been a test I would have been booted out on my ear".
"For God's sake Ransey", said Kieran "Me and Joby are time-crossers. We know what the sight of a naked woman can do to a man".
"Even after all this time", said Joby.
"What I'm saying is don't be so hard on yourself", said Kieran "You're only human when all's said and done".
"If you ask me to leave your employ I will", said Ransey.
"What?" Joby exclaimed "Talk to him Kiel! He's really wanking off at the mouth now".
"You're just being daft Ransey", said Kieran "Now it's happened you'll be more ready for it a second time. Vanod's lost the element of surprise in that department. And I think it's a good thing it's happened, because when we locate Vanod at the Sacred Rock, I want it to be just us four who go looking for him".
"The others won't like that", said Hillyard.
"That's just too bad", said Kieran "Ten's far too unwieldy a number to go chasing the bastard, and we've been tested and we've passed, so I have confidence I can count on you to help me sort things out".
"I can't see Adam or Julian being tempted by the sight of a naked woman", said Joby "Adam'd just want to paint her anyway!"
"Maybe", said Kieran "But it's us four as far as I'm concerned. Can I count on you?"
They all nodded and agreed.
"Do we keep what's happened tonight quiet?" said Hillyard.
"Much the best thing", said Kieran.
"I agree", said Ransey, regaining his normal composure "And I think you're right Kieran. Us four should be able to sort it out. I won't let you down again".
"At least we don't have to worry about Hillyard going to pieces over that sort of thing", said Joby, once he and Kieran were alone again "I always wondered if he was truly gay. Now I know. He was completely unmoved by the sight of her".
"You were a bit of a revelation yourself", said Kieran, upending the dregs of the brandy bottle into their glasses "You kept your cool remarkably well".
"I won't deny she didn't do things to certain parts of me", Joby smirked "Trouble was, she didn't seem entirely real".
"It was a bit like that old film 'Invasion of the Bodysnatchers', you know, when the pod-people turn out to have no fingerprints. For some daft reason it reminded me of that. A sense of her being unfinished. I just don't get turned on by holograms, either that or I've been with you for too long".
"I'm not sure how to take that", Kieran laughed.
"That's why it worked so well on Ransey you see", Joby continued "He's only ever had photographs and drawings to go by, like Vanod himself. So to them she was about as real as you could get. What about you?"
"I just saw the demon", said Kieran, sadly "Confirms what I've long suspected. I'm the Vanquisher first, and the man second. I almost envied Ransey his headstrong passion".
"You're alright where it counts", said Joby.
"I hope so", said Kieran.
"Take it from one who knows!"
In the morning preparations for the day's journey took precedent over everything else. Occasionally Kieran, Joby, Hillyard and Ransey gave each other cryptic looks, as though they had suddenly started communicating in a new and obscure language, but it went unnoticed by everyone else.
"Lonts hasn't touched any breakfast", said Kieran, when he bumped into Adam as they loaded the back of the cattle-truck "We've got a long day ahead. He's going to be ravenous, considering he didn't have any supper last night either".
"I've got some chocolate in my rucksack", said Adam "In case he starts grizzling about mid-morning. But I don't like forcing him to eat, as it's what they did to him in the hospital".
"You know best".
"What was all that to-ing and fro-ing last night?"
"You heard it?" Kieran exclaimed.
"I'm not sure what I heard exactly, apart from Ransey getting agitated at one point. But I heard your voice in the distance".
"Oh Ransey just had a bit of a nightmare".
"Sounds like the blasted Sleep Demons again", said Adam "At least he didn't get rat-arsed and make a fool of himself like I did".
"Yes, we've all been facing our inner demons one way or another", Kieran sighed "All very character-building no doubt".
"Don't be fooled by that one", Adam laughed "It's the sort of crap they used to tell us at school, just before subjecting us to yet more brutality. You know the sort of thing, turning your backside into a hunk of rare steak may be bloody painful but at least it's character-building. I didn't believe it then, and I certainly don't believe it now".
"You should've taken them to the European Court of Human Rights", said Kieran "It's only the damn English who could cheerfully send their sons off to glorified boot-camps at a very young age, and then appease their conscience by saying it was good for them".
"I should have run away to Ireland and found you".
"Lovely thought Addy, but there's one problem with that", said Kieran "When you were at school I hadn't been born!"
"Now you're just being clever", said Adam "I'd better go and see to Lonts, bloody hypocrite that I am. I stand here ranting on about the evils of corporal punishment, and I've given him more spankings than he's had hot dinners. I keep saying after each one that it'll be the last, it'll never happen again ..."
"And then he behaves like a right little monster", said Kieran "Don't let it worry you Addy. I can't believe you ever really hurt him. At the very worst he just gets a bit sore for a while".
"It didn't stop Brinslee giving me a lecture at breakfast", said Adam "Very much a member of the anti-smacking brigade. He said any self-respecting guardian would be able to discipline Lonts without resorting to physical violence. He made me feel like a sadist".
"Well what kind of discipline did he have in mind?" said Kieran "Make Lonts do a hundred lines? 'I must not throw hot soup over Finia!'"
"Could be difficult", said Adam "I don't think Lonts's writing skills are up to it quite frankly".
Lonts had been in a subdued frame of mind since waking up. The memory of the previous night's beating was still uppermost in his mind. In an effort to appear placid and well-behaved he had refused breakfast, and had packed up his belongings long before anyone else. He now sat alone on the back of the cattle-truck, with his hat on his head and his bag at his feet, like an Edwardian spinster at the start of a charabanc outing.
"You're not still sulking Lonts?" said Adam, when Lonts blankly refused his latest offer of breakfast "Honestly, you could give Joby lessons in it!"
"Yes?" Adam sat down on the bench next to him.
"Does Julian have to move in with us when we get home?" said Lonts.
"I'm sorry I haven't discussed it more with you Lonts", said Adam "But there just hasn't been time lately. The reason we've suggested it is because it's practical more than anything. I need someone to look after me in my old age, and if Julian gives up his suite that'll mean Patsy has more space for visitors. You know how tight it can get at the Headquarters when there's a big function on".
"I understand that", said Lonts, gravely "But I can look after you when you're old Adam".
"I know baby", Adam kept his face averted by rummaging in his rucksack for the chocolate "But Julian's not too bad is he? I mean, his bark's far worse than his bite. He's just a crotchety old spinster at heart. Here, have a slab of chocolate".
"You won't let him hit me will you?" said Lonts, taking a large piece of the chocolate "He threatened to last night".
"He's all mouth and trousers", said Adam "He was trying to scare you into behaving that's all. He knows damn well that if he does raise his hand to you I'll come down on him like a ton of bricks".
"But what about Finia?"
"Ignore him as much as you can. He likes nothing better than to wind people up. When he starts on you just walk away from him".
"He said I was mad", said Lonts, tearfully.
"Tell him he is too", Adam laughed "He must be to have worked for Julian all these years".
"And fancy Gimmit", Lonts sniggered back.
"Proof positive you see".
"That boy will be travel-sick", said Julian, climbing onto the truck and pointing at Lonts with his black umbrella "Eating chocolate just before a day's journey, bouncing over rough terrain under a hot sun. I'm surprised at you giving it to him Adam".
"See Lonts", said Adam "Nothing but a crotchety old woman at heart!"
By mid-afternoon they were finally passing border fences which warned of Dangerous Animals At Large. It meant the township of Yzel and the Sacred Rock were barely an hour away. A dirt track wound relentlessly through lush terrain, and they bumped along it for some while without catching the remotest glimpse of any Dangerous Animals.
Then suddenly they turned one bend to find their way obstructed by a large passenger buggy carrying an assortment of fat red-faced men, all dressed in khaki, with almost obligatory sweat-marks under their arms and down their chest. A rotund man in a black felt fedora hat held up his hand to stop them going any further. He gave no explanation for his abrupt stalling of their journey, but instead seemed to be riveted by something in the bushes to the immediate left of the track.
Ransey cut the engine on the truck, and they all sat and peered for the object of everyone's interest. Under a tree nearby sat the unmistakable outline of a lion, who was sitting on his haunches, returning their gaze with almost casual indifference.
"I thought as much", said Kieran, and slammed out of the truck.
"Patsy, get back in!" Adam hissed.
Kieran ignored him and walked up to the man in the black fedora.
"Caught red-handed!" Kieran shrieked "I've long suspected illegal hunting was going on out here and now I have the proof of my own eyes".
"Kieran, what the heck are you playing at?" said Ransey, leaping out of the vehicle with his revolver in his hand "It's a bloody lion, get back in the truck".
"It's imperative the beast isn't disturbed", the man in the black fedora whispered hoarsely "I would appreciate it if you'd keep your voices down. This is irresponsible behaviour when there are dangerous animals at large".
"Dangerous?" Kieran exclaimed "That animal wouldn't be roused into action if we danced a jig in front of its nose. It has been doped to high heaven".
"What are you saying?" said Ransey.
"What I'm saying", said Kieran "Is that illegal hunting is going on here. I've long suspected this sort of thing happened, but now I have my proof. Absurd, overweight businessmen, like this lot, come out to places like this, where Great White Hunters obligingly drug the beasts so that the businessmen, who are so desperate to play at being Real Men, can come and take easy pot-shots at them".
"Who the bloody hell are you?" shouted the man in the black fedora, forgetting to keep his voice lowered.
"I am the President", said Kieran.
"Yea, and I'm Father Gabriel", the man sneered "You don't look very presidential to me".
This was quite true. Kieran was hot and dusty from his day's travelling. He wore only a pair of pants, a battered straw hat, and a baggy old t-shirt of Joby's, that he had put on that morning because it was the closest thing to hand.
"I am the President", Kieran repeated, and swept off his hat "I can quote you word-for-word the Oath of Duty I had to swear at my inauguration if you like".
"That won't be necessary", said the man, who now recognised Kieran only too well. He'd had his portrait on his office wall for several years.
"And I expect the Ministry Taxation Department will be very interested to know how long this little racket's been going on", said Kieran "Heads are going to roll over this, believe me. When I get to Yzel I will be paying a call on the Chief Warden".
"I am the Chief Warden", said the man, sheepishly "Chief Warden Machin".
"Oh dear", said Kieran, sarcastically "Didn't anyone warn you I was coming? Well make the most of your ministry residence Machin, I doubt you'll be living in it for much longer".
"B-But Your Grace", Machin stammered "I would like to offer you my hospitality during the course of your visit here. It is the done thing after all, and I hope we pride ourselves on being professional men".
Kieran curtly inclined his head in acceptance and walked back to the truck. Machin forgot all about the drugged lion and returned to his own truck in a fluster, where the fat businessmen were talking amongst themselves agitatedly.
"What did you accept that slimeball's hospitality for?" said Hillyard "I'd rather sleep under the stars".
"Yes, but we've got Adam's chest to think of", said Kieran, clambering up into the passenger seat.
"What's my chest got to do with it?" Adam exclaimed.
"I mean that I'm not happy about you sleeping outside", said Kieran "It doesn't do you any good".
"Oh so suddenly I'm a liability to everyone?" Adam snapped.
"I didn't mean that".
"You wait 'til I get you to Machin's house", said Adam, crossly.
Kieran turned round and winked at him.
The township of Yzel was spread down both sides of a very wide street which ran up to the base of the Sacred Rock. This itself was an extraordinary natural edifice, too short to be called a mountain, and yet too wide to be dismissed as a hill. It crouched over the township like a huge, squat spider.
Ever since the Warming it had been reputed to have great healing powers, and people had arrived in Yzel by the cartload, to take their various ailments up onto the Rock in the hope of a cure. The entire legend had been given a huge boost in the 39th century by a female nurse, who claimed she had been supernaturally assisted when attending to a pilgrim with a broken leg, by two strange men in white surgeon's outfits who had walked out from the back of the Rock to help her. At the end they had walked back again and disappeared, never leaving a clue as to their identity.
Since then Yzel had become the Lourdes of the modern world. The entire industry of the town revolved around the Rock and its alleged healing properties. The three hotels in the town served water in their foyers, which they said was brought directly from a spring on the far side of the Rock. Stones were sold in the shops painted with obscure designs, said to be old nomadic healing charms. It was a lucrative industry, and judging by the preponderance of crutches, wheelchairs and mobile respirators in the vicinity, one that wasn't likely to go out of business in a hurry.
The Chief Warden's house was a large, white-painted residence set in its own grounds at the far end of the town. When their cattle-wagon rolled up, Kieran noted with dismay that Machin had gone on ahead to warn his entire staff to turn out and line up to greet him. The last thing Kieran felt like was running the gauntlet of everyone from the butler to the boot-boy, and hoped that Machin wasn't going to be too full of these "appeasement" policies.
Inside, the hallway was like a charnel-house, with stuffed heads of beasts lining the walls like some bestial Chamber of Horrors. Glass eyes winked and glared at them from all angles as they climbed the sweeping white-painted stairway to their rooms. Machin had hastily turned over his entire first-floor to the President's party, but even so they only just fitted in.
Joby finished lugging his and Kieran's bags up their room, and was put out to find Kieran sitting on Adam's lap, giggling hysterically into his neck. Adam in turn was tickling him and demanding to know why Kieran thought he was getting old.
"I'll show you who's old Patsy", he said, and then noticed Joby standing in the doorway, with Lonts immediately behind him "Oh Jobe, do you think you could take Lonts out to stretch is legs?"
"He's not a fucking golden retriever", Joby snapped.
"Oh come on Lonts", Joby sighed, and grabbed the boy's hand "We know when we're not wanted".
Joby fumed all up one side of the street and all down the other, until Lonts began to get quite concerned for him, and looked around frantically for a distraction. Yzel was remarkably short on these if you were of a sound, healthy body. There was a bar, of sorts, tucked away behind an ice-cream parlour, as though patronising it wasn't to be encouraged. The fat, pampered businessmen who came for the illegal hunting, and not for the Rock's restorative powers, tended to hold private drinking-sessions in their hotels, supplied by the Chief Warden.
"Joby, would you like some ice-cream?" said Lonts, staring wistfully into the window of the ice-cream parlour.
"Are you being funny?" said Joby, testily.
"No, I thought you might like some", Lonts wailed.
"Oh alright", Joby groaned "It's Friday evening after all, let's push the boat out".
Depressingly, the ice-cream parlour didn't seem to have any customers under the age of fifty when they walked in. Most of these weren't exactly wearing their years well. One old man lolled at the end of his bench with his head bending downwards, as though he was permanently asleep. Never had Joby seen a more soul-destroying illustration of the delights of old age.
Joby and Lonts consumed two large bowls of chocolate chip and mint ice-cream, and then Joby ordered two more. Lonts was saucer-eyed at this, as though he was being offered all the delights of Sodom and Gomorrah in one fell swoop. When they finished these Joby asked him if he'd like a drink.
"What, a real one?" said Lonts.
Joby ordered two bottles of red wine, which sent an electric current of shock and excitement around the room, akin to a scantily-clad woman suddenly walking in. He couldn't help noticing that all the other customers had jugs of iced water in front of them.
"Red wine's good for the heart", he said, defiantly.
At that moment the sleepy old man suddenly activated into life. Sort of. He clambered to his feet, but during the course of his nap he had managed to undo his trousers and these were in danger of plummeting to his ankles. His friend, who was slightly younger and more alert, rescued them in time and secured them around his waist. The old man seemed oblivious to his ministrations throughout.
"We'll have another bottle I think, to keep us going", said Joby, experiencing a strong urge to shock the entire clientele into their graves "In fact, why don't we try and drain them of their stock? I've got enough dosh on me".
"I'm not sure Adam would like it Joby", said Lonts, solemnly.
"He's not here", said Joby.
"But I'll get again into trouble again Joby", Lonts protested.
"If you're completely pissed you won't care", said Joby "Don't worry, I'll take care of you".
"I think it's starting to rain", said one of the elderly customers, returning from a lengthy sojourn at the window "I wouldn't be surprised if we were in for a real humdinger of a storm tonight".
"There you are then Lonts", said Joby "We might as well stop in here. Or would you rather go back to that glorified abattoir we're staying at?"
"There was a picture of a shot pheasant in our room", said Lonts "There was blood pouring from its neck. Why would anyone want to draw a picture of that?"
Dinner was eaten without them at the Chief Warden's house. Due to the sudden torrential downpour the windows had had to be shut, and the heat inside was stifling. Eunuchs in plain black outfits circulated with the dishes, giving secret signals to one another concerning their duties throughout the meal. Kieran had to concede that, much as he disapproved of Machin's hunting activities, he had his house running like a well-oiled machine. Although Kieran did feel there was something de-humanising about the whole set-up. It was as if Machin's staff were clockwork toys that he wound up at sunrise and sent on their way.
"I don't know what Joby's thinking of, staying out in this", said Kieran, as thunder rumbled in the distance and the candles on the tables danced in the draught from the windows.
"He can't get into any trouble round here", said Machin, rubbing his short-trimmed beard with a satisfied air "There's a lot of nonsense talked about the Sacred Rock, but it's a harmless enough place. I've lived here for years and I've learnt to take all the stories with a pinch of salt".
"What stories in particular?" said Kieran, sharply.
"Oh the current trend is for sighting blue and white lights above the Rock itself. Bloodcurdling screams in the night are also quite popular, so I believe".
"What about animal mutilations?" said Brinslee.
"Not uncommon anywhere", said Machin.
"But you've had some here?" said Brinslee.
"There are some sick-minded people in the world", said Machin, without a trace of self-irony.
Adam was in such a state by this time that Kieran felt it prudent not to mention the murders Adam had told him about.
The storm crept stealthily nearer. Adam fidgeted restlessly through the eel soup, and the stuffed swan (neither of which went down well with Kieran), but by the time the orange tart came out he made his excuses to leave the table.
Oblivious to the driving rain he walked bare-headed out into the garden and stood at the edge of the lawn, looking out for any sign of Joby and Lonts in the street ahead. He heard a movement behind him, and looked round to see Julian ambling casually across the sodden grass. He held up his customary black umbrella, and looked thoroughly at ease.
"Coffee's being served", he said, changing the umbrella into his left hand so that it sheltered Adam too.
"I am going to kill Joby with my bare hands when I get hold of him", said Adam.
"I knew it was going to rain this evening", said Julian "I got quite a nose for predicting rain when I lived in the jungle".
"Did you hear what I just said?" Adam yelled.
"Yes, you're going to kill Joby", said Julian "For keeping Baby Brown Eyes out after dark I presume. Now here's your big chance. Is it them I see falling down the street?"
"We'll wait inside the house", said Adam, as the whoops and shouts got closer.
"Yes, you might as well have the comfort of killing him in the dry", said Julian "Little tykes, aren't they?"
"What the hell have you been doing Joby?" Kieran shrieked, as Joby and Lonts fell onto the marble floor of the hall in a sodden heap.
"Isn't it obvious?" said Joby, sliding towards the stairs, and then collapsing onto his stomach on the bottom step "Me and Lonts wanted to let our hair down, and nobody has any right to condemn us for it".
"Do you want me to get them upstairs?" said Hillyard.
"Yes, get them both out of my sight", said Kieran.
Hillyard deftly hooked an arm round Joby and Lonts, and forcefully hauled them up the steps. Adam was practically spitting feathers.
"Don't men make such utter fools of themselves when drunk?" Julian sighed.
"I don't need your contribution Jules", Adam roared, and slapped him hard round the face. Julian responded immediately by socking him in the eye, causing Adam to fall back against the hall-table.
"Stop it!" Kieran yelled, diving between them like a slice of ham jumping into a sandwich "Why can't any of you just show a bit of dignity? You've all let me down!"
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