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Lixix was like a giant ant-hill from out of which swarmed beggars, peddlers and various other sundry inhabitants all eager to divest the cruise-ship passengers of their money and belongings. The only hotel in Lixix was a mere stone's throw from the harbour, yet it didn't prevent a fleet of carriages from appearing, eager to save everyone the hassle of walking a few metres to their accommodation.
The whole town exuded bustle, noise and dirt, and Joby yearned for the relaxing freshness of the pine woods and mountains around Marlsblad more than ever. He hated Lixix on sight and was determined to stay there no longer than absolutely necessary.
Whilst the other three were loading their bags onto a carriage Kieran hung back, distracted by the sight of Paul and Noni appearing down a different gangplank to the main one, and bundling fistfuls of money at a group of burly porters. The reasons for this became apparent when the porters went onto the boat and re-emerged a few minutes later carrying a stretcher between them. Gabriel was strapped onto the conveyance, seemingly oblivious to the heat under a blanket.
Kieran was so fascinated by the sight of the sickly-looking creature that he didn't notice a drunk beggar loitering near him, glistening cock at large in his sweaty hand.
"Patsy", Adam dragged him away towards the carriage "Be careful round him. Some people are in awe of you for the wrong reasons".
"What exactly is the matter with that Gabriel creature?" said Kieran.
"Imminent death with any luck", said Adam.
On arrival at the palatial Lixix Hotel, Gabriel was taken up in the service elevator to a suite near the top of the building. To anyone seeing him for the first time his condition looked extremely critical. Paul and Noni knew better. They had seen it all before.
Neither Gabriel nor his party appeared for dinner in the hotel's open-air restaurant that evening. This was just as well as Kieran's presence had the whole place buzzing, and it was doubtful if Gabriel would have appreicated it. Kieran wasn't too gratified himself. People had got used to seeing him about the City, and didn't tend to stare so much these days. If anything he was treated wherever he went there with friendly respect, not this awful excruciating deference. He wasn't enjoying it at all.
In his opinion the restaurant was full of poseurs, with more money and ego than sense. He had had numerous invitations to sit at different tables, but had politely declined each one. Even if he had enjoyed the attention, he somehow felt it was doubtful that he would want to spend the evening enchanting everyone with tales of how Angel had wrecked grievous bodily harm on him, let alone the charming episode of how he had masturbated over the Devil.
"It's not really so bad is it?" Adam was saying, anxiously "The food's very good".
"So it should be at these prices", said Kieran "You could get three large bottles of plum brandy for what we've paid for this shellfish, and you can eat the bloody things without tearing them limb from limb first".
"You're paying for the ambience as much as the food", said Adam.
"What ambience?" Joby exclaimed "A few strings of fairy-lights and a bunch of tossers gawping at us!"
"It's not your kind of place either Adam", said Kieran "So don't try and pretend to us that it is".
"I know. But I'm trying to make the best of it".
"If someone's taking a shower in the next room", said Hillyard "Our water goes cold".
"Well complain to the management, not me", said Adam "For God's sake this is my holiday as much as it is for you three, and I'm having to run around jollying you all along like some hysterical tour operator!"
"I bet I'm up with the trots tonight after eating this", Joby grunted.
Adam threw his fish-knife down on his plate with a loud clatter. Kieran squeezed his bare knee under the tablecloth to try and placate him.
"You have a good moan too Addy", he said "We're just an ungrateful bunch of bastards".
"There is nothing worse than a holiday you've paid a fortune for and aren't enjoying", said Adam, as he and Kieran roamed the hotel garden after dinner.
"And it's because of us you aren't enjoying it", said Kieran, sitting down on a bench in a secluded spot.
"It's not your fault. It's Joby and his bloody bowel movements! It's bad enough that I get regular bulletins on them every morning back home, I don't particularly want to hear about them when I'm in a romantic place like this".
"Why don't I get him out of your hair for a while?"
"How? Sell him to Gabriel as a slave?"
"You said before dinner that you thought Lixix had great painting potential".
"I must admit that I was very taken with the view of the harbour at night, as seen from my balcony", said Adam "Trouble is, it's at times like that that I get frustrated because I'm not Van Gogh".
"I'm glad you're not. He was an ugly little bastard!" Kieran laughed "Why don't you stay on here for an extra night, or however long it takes, and do your painting of the harbour. I'll go on into the desert with Joby and set up camp at some spot convenient for us all, and then you and Hillyard can catch us up when you're ready".
"I want to get rid of Joby, not you", said Adam "And also it's you I want to be in the romantic spot with, not Hillyard!"
"Hillyard'll be here to keep an eye on you".
"I don't need keeping an eye on", Adam sighed "Sometimes Patsy, when you get everything all worked out I suddenly feel quite helpless, as though I'm going to end up going along with it, whether I like it or not".
The following morning Joby and Kieran hired a horse from a stableyard in the town, and began to kit the animal out with everything needed for a few nights bivouacking in the desert. Joby was very excited about the whole thing, and told Kieran it was the best idea he'd ever had.
"High praise coming from you", Kieran replied, rolling up tent-poles in swathes of canvas.
"Yes well", Adam was watching the packing-up with misgivings "Make the most of your freedom Joby. I intend to be joining you tomorrow".
"Tomorrow?" Joby exclaimed "Can't be much of a painting you're doing if it's only gonna take you one night".
"I made a start last night. And ..."
"You're frightened you're gonna be missing something!"
"I am only agreeing to this really because I'm not happy with Patsy being under the same roof as Gabriel".
"And you think he'll be safer out in the desert?" said Hillyard.
"From what gossip I've heard around here Gabriel isn't fit to leave his room, so if Patsy's out in the desert he'll definitely be out of reach of him. And as I've said, it's only for one night".
Nonetheless Adam felt further misgivings when it was time for the two younger men to leave, in spite of giving firm instructions to them as to exactly where they were supposed to camp and not to move any further.
"For heaven's sake Addy", said Kieran, giving him a kiss "We're not six-years-old".
"Sometimes I need convincing of that".
After they had gone the day dragged interminably. Adam didn't want to return to his painting until sunset, and Hillyard taken to loitering around the hotel foyer in the hopes of meeting Paul (so far unsuccessful). Having concluded that the hotel was incapable of making decent coffee Adam went to seek out a cafe in town. The nearest one was down a side street, and at this time of the afternoon was frequented mostly by old men playing cards and chequers on the pavements.
It was unusual for Adam to find himself in a place where he was the youngest customer, and with his fair hair and nipple-rings peeking out from under his singlet he felt conspicuous. Fortunately the old men had little interest in anything not going on at their own tables, so he was left to drink his coffee in peace. He was on his third cup when he was startled to find Noni sitting down opposite him.
"You were the last person I was expecting to see here", said Adam "I'm surprised there's not a steady line of local lads following you in here. We blondes are at a premium in this part of the world".
"I hope you don't think I'm hassling you?"
"No, sit down".
Noni looked as gorgeous as ever. His white shirt set off his newly-acquired sun-tan, and his squeaky-clean hair flopped over his shoulders like a glossy mane. In fact, he did look remarkably like a well-groomed thoroughbred racehorse.
"I'm surprised you're still around", said Noni "I hear the Vanquisher has left the hotel. All the other guests are very disappointed. Has he gone far?"
"Exploring the local countryside", said Adam warily, uncertain how much to trust this man.
"You don't feel you can tell me, huh? I guess I can't blame you there, but you have nothing to fear from me. Paul and me, we have his best interests at heart".
"Then why are you working for Gabriel? Is the money good or something?"
"There's not much else a has-been actor can do".
"Has-been? At your age?"
"Only too true", said Noni, ruefully "Thirty-year-old starlets are pretty sad specimens, however well-preserved. Eight-to-ten years ago I was everybody's favourite cute-boy. I got parts in all the best shows and plays in the City, just because of how I looked. And then a short while back it all began to change. In the good old days I got reviews saying I was 'splendidly sexy' and, even better, 'not just a pretty face'. But the last thing I was in - my own fault for choosing a serious piece I guess - I was branded 'unwatchable'".
"Even the best actors get bad reviews from time to time. It goes with the territory", Adam shrugged.
"No. He was right. I'd had my day. I had nothing else to offer".
"Even so, going to work for Gabriel was a bit drastic surely? And what exactly is it that he does anyway?"
"Makes money basically, and he's very good at it. He was considered a child prodigee. In his younger days he was reading interest rates and flotation figures when he was still in the camp. He buys and sells commodities, and uses his vast wealth occasionally to bail out the Ministry when they get short of funds, which is frequently. Through them he wields a lot of power. When the Vanquisher defeated the vampires there was a lot of talk of a wind of change blowing through the corridors of power, weeding out corruption. Fortunately, for Gabriel that is, the current president may not be evil but he is weak. If it was left to the people the Vanquisher would get put into power tomorrow. Gabriel knows that".
"And I take it that is why Gabriel has the knives out for him, the Vanquisher?"
"One of the reasons", Noni mumbled.
"And you're not going to tell me what the others are? Seems you've been getting lessons in evasions off Paul".
"It's too complicated to go into here".
"And what exactly do you do for this fabulous tycoon?"
"Personal valet, nurse when he's ill, which is often. I just take care of him I guess, and Paul does the more secretarial side of things. And in case you're wondering my duties don't extend to carnal matters. Gabriel isn't interested in any of that".
"This all seems a bit peculiar to me", said Adam "You are Gabriel's personal assistant, let's call it that for want of anything better, and yet here you are sitting with me, one of the enemy camp! Not only that, but Paul keeps popping up and giving us dire warnings. I mean, what is it with you two?"
"We don't believe Gabriel is a bad person at heart, just very misguided. And particularly so on this matter, to the point of insanity I would say. And neither of us wants to see any harm come to the Vanquisher".
"Neither do I. And I'll do my damnedest to make sure he stays unharmed, so if you want something to tell Gabriel, tell him that!"
Adam had walked out of the cafe soon after that. He had prowled the streets, not really taking in where he was going. After a while he realised that Noni was following him.
"Do you fancy me or something?" Adam snapped.
"I guess so", Noni replied.
"Well at this moment I'm more tempted to go bursting into Gabriel's bedroom. I'd dearly like to shake him warmly by his scrawny neck".
Noni stepped closer to Adam. They were standing in a quiet, residential part of the town, surrounded on both sides by balconies festooned with washing and bird-cages. The windows were all shuttered, and everybody seemed to be sleeping in the blistering heat of the afternoon.
"The whole town's having a siesta", Noni drawled. He reached out as though to touch Adam's face, but then withdrew his hand sharply, almost as though he was frightened of being burnt.
"Very sensible of them. Won't this rather upset Gabriel if he finds out, or did he put you up to it?"
"If that's how you feel ..." Noni looked even more mournful than ever, and turned away.
"Alright", Adam caught his hand and pulled him back gently "But you can't blame me for being cautious in the circumstances".
"I guess not", Noni inclined his head as though to kiss Adam on the lips, and then changed his mind on that one too.
"Why do you keep shying away?" asked Adam.
"Nervous I guess. You always look so self-assured, and I've never had much confidence that way".
"You really are an extraordinary person Noni. Your looks should be all the confidence you need. Why do men as supernaturally good-looking as you always believe there has to be something wrong with them? You're constantly searching for the serpent in the Garden of Eden".
"D-do you want to bed me then?"
"Yes", said Adam.
"I always thought it was supposed to be hot in the desert?" said Joby "Hot and sultry".
"Not at night. It goes cold then", said Kieran.
"Yea, but it's fucking raining!"
"We're in the middle of an electric storm, of course it's raining!" Kieran exclaimed "You are so thick sometimes Joby".
The tent, although comfortably large and substantial, still felt vulnerable under the relentless onslaught of the storm, and the noise outside was deafening. Kieran and Joby had watched the storm approaching from some distance off whilst they set up camp and ate supper. The darkness of night had then come on with customary abruptness, and they had retreated under canvas as soon as the rains came.
"I hope the horse is alright", said Kieran.
"We rigged up that makeshift shelter for him so he should be dry at least", said Joby.
"Perhaps I should go and check?"
"Not again! He's only a few feet away, we'll hear if he's in any distress", Joby selected a clean towel from his rucksack and passed it over to Kieran "Come on, get your clothes off and dry yourself. You'll catch pneumonia sitting there in those wet things".
Joby had stripped himself, and vigorously rubbed his body dry before he realised that Kieran still hadn't made any attempt to sort himself out.
"Flannery!" Joby bellowed "Didn't you hear what I said?"
"I wonder what Adam's up to", said Kieran.
"Keeping dry if he's got any sense. Anyway, you can ask him tomorrow", Joby raised Kieran's arms and pulled his vest off "I spose I'm going to have to do everything for you as usual".
"I think he's having an affair".
"Who with? Hillyard?" Joby snorted "You do get some daft ideas".
"It's a one-off", said Kieran, rubbing his forehead tiredly "I'm picking it up. He's with someone else. He did warn me. He said he might want flings".
"Well it can't be serious. He's too potty about you for that", Joby towelled him dry "You and your bleeding telepathy! I don't know why you started doing all that. No one likes having their mind read. And you're bound to pick up things that upset you. So, what am I thinking about at the moment then?"
"That I'm an idiot".
"You don't need to be psychic to guess that! Do you want something to drink?"
"What have we got?"
"Nothing exciting. I did put a bottle of brandy in my bag, but Adam went through our luggage like a custom's officer before we left, and so I suspect Hillyard's enjoying it now".
"What was that sound just then, in the distance?"
"Don't know", said Joby, nervously "There are no wolves in the desert are there?"
"There might be wild dogs, coyotes, or something like that".
"Makes me wish we had a gun".
"It sounded a long way off", said Kieran "I'll be glad when it's morning. Shall we try and get some kip now?"
"Yea, if you promise not to suddenly go running out to look at the horse. I don't want to find your half-eaten remains outside the tent when the sun comes up?"
"There it goes again", said Kieran, as a distant howling could just be heard above the violence of the storm "Talk about 'The Hound of the Baskervilles'".
"Some fucking holiday this is".
"Oh don't start complaining again Joby", said Kieran, climbing under his blanket "I've got too much else to worry about".
Hillyard's persistence paid off, but only briefly. He had been hanging round the hotel foyer all afternoon and for most of the evening, listening to everyone talking about the oncoming storm as though there had never been one before. At last Paul had appeared, looking very tired. He had purchased a cup of coffee and was staring at it glumly when Hillyard approached him.
"It's you", Paul looked pleased to see him, which gratified Hillyard enormously "I remember, you're one of the Vanquisher's party aren't you?"
"That's right", Hillyard sat down opposite him.
"Two of you have stayed behind then?"
"Adam had a painting to finish, and I ... well I suppose I'm meant to be chaperoning him, except I'm not brave enough".
"He is rather brusque isn't he?"
"He's a bloke that you give his own space to".
"So where has the Vanquisher gone?"
"Out into the desert with Joby".
"I don't envy him that on a night like this", said Paul "He hasn't gone because of us has he?"
"Perhaps. You can't blame him really. I'd be nervous if someone had been threatening me".
"Warning", Paul corrected him "Not threatening. It's not easy for me being on two sides at once".
"I suppose we don't really understand what Gabriel's grief is concerning Kieran".
"I don't fully understand it myself", said Paul "Gabriel is a man of eccentric ideas sometimes. But he's so good at what he does and so successful that people tend to indulge him the odd little wackiness. I sometimes think he feels put out by Kieran, because he likes to believe that he was meant to be the Vanquisher of Evil".
"Yes. And this isn't just a whim. I started working for him in the year 3999, the same year that everyone - rightly as it turned out - predicted the Vanquisher would appear. Gabriel was certain that this was meant to be himself. He even had the numbers 3999 tattooed on his chest as a kind of confirmation".
"No. It's still there for all to see. Well, as we all know now, the year 3999 brought along a different Vanquisher of Evil. Gabriel should've realised. The Vanquisher had been predicted long ago as being a blonde blue-eyed boy. Gabriel is dark with dark eyes. About as different as you can get. But he insisted that any talk of appearances was all trivial nonsense".
"So all this is just some kind of spiteful vendetta against Kieran?"
"It's not that simple I'm afraid", said Paul "He believes that Kieran is an imposter".
"But Kieran did defeat the Devil", Hillyard protested.
"Gabriel believes he only temporarily put him out of action".
"The vampires are gone though".
"There you are!" a thin, bespectacled man with mousy hair seemed to appear out of nowhere "I've been looking for you everywhere".
Hillyard looked the stranger over with a critical eye. This man was anaemic-looking, and wearing a very cheap black suit that shouted the message that it was only being worn for duty not pleasure.
"I was just taking a short break", said Paul.
"Yea, and he's shouting for you. There's a mess in his bed".
"Oh no not again".
"Not that kind of mess. Crumbs from his dinner. He wants the sheets changing".
"That's not really supposed to be my job".
"Well it certainly isn't mine", said the mousy-haired stranger "I'm an accountant, not a room steward".
"Haven't seen him. Looks like it's up to you doesn't it? Sorry to disappoint your friend".
"You don't have to go now do you?" said Hillyard.
"Seems best", said Paul "I expect I'll see you about the hotel".
"I think we're leaving tomorrow".
"Oh I see", Paul looked gratifyingly downcast.
"Cheer up. You never know", said the accountant "You might get lucky and manage to escape for about ten seconds tomorrow".
Paul took the stairs up to the top floor, using them as a delaying tactic to postpone seeing Gabriel again. He was increasingly finding himself using these ploys of late. When he reached the third floor he immediately recognised Noni's drawl in the corridor ahead. He hid himself in the shadows and watched as his colleague walked past with the Vanquisher's friend Adam. He couldn't make out what they were saying, but as they reached Adam's door he noticed Noni tentatively slip an arm round the other man's waist. Noni normally shied away from physical affection of any kind, so this opened up a whole new can of worms. Paul tried to guess if Gabriel would be delighted by this new development or appalled, as he was by any remote mention of sex. It made no odds, thought Paul, he wasn't going to tell him in any case. This new information was for himself alone.
Adam dozed for a couple of hours and woke up to hear the ten p.m passenger boat docking in the harbour. He remembered that he had a painting to work on and slipped out of bed quietly, without disturbing Noni. His room afforded a magnificent view of the bay, and Adam was very taken with the artistic potential of the various lights glistening like orange and silver ribbons on the black water.
He had been working for some time before he remembered that Noni was still in the room, and then only because he started thrashing about on the bed like a fish on dry land. Noni shot out an arm and sent a packet of condoms flying from the bedside table. The rustle of the silver paper seemed to wake him up, and he started guiltily on regaining consciousness.
"I'm still here", he said, in bewilderment "You didn't send me away".
"No reason why I should", said Adam, pausing to place a pot of coffee on a portable stove that he had demanded from room-service "You weren't bothering anyone".
Noni pulled his shirt on over his naked body and went to sit on the cushioned windowseat, which aggravated Adam as he was now in the way.
"You'll cause a riot", said Adam "Sitting there like that. You can probably be seen by the whole harbour".
"You're painting with nothing on", said Noni.
"Yes, but I haven't got a body like yours".
"It looks pretty good from here".
"Do you shave your chest Noni?" said Adam, trying to stifle a laugh "I have to ask because it felt like sandpaper when I rubbed against it".
"A trick from my acting days. Hairy chests weren't considered must of a turn-on when I trod the boards. You with your nipple-rings would have made them sit up though".
Noni didn't look like moving in a hurry, so Adam sat down beside him on the satin cushions.
"D-did you enjoy it?" Noni asked, after a few minutes silence, during which they both just stared uneasily out of the window.
"Enjoy it?" Adam was momentarily confused, at a loss as to what he was referring to "Oh yes!" he groped desperately for an appropriate adjective "It was most ... diverting".
It had in truth at times been almost unbearable. There was no faulting Noni's physical attributes, Adam could get a boner just by looking at him, clothed or unclothed, but he was as wooden as a rocking-horse to ride. Sheer bloody-mindedness had driven Adam onwards, although at times he felt as though he was trying to break his way through steel sheeting. It had in turn made him feel clumsy as a lover, constantly anticipating Noni to scream in agony. In the end Noni's body had presented him with a challenge, although not at all the one he would have chosen. He had rolled off him eventually, feeling like a rapist.
Adam was now starting to feel angry, and that was definitely a bad sign. He resented Kieran for being miles away out in the desert, and resented Noni for having the kind of body that promised far more than it delivered. It was only Noni's perpetually concerned expression that stopped him from being verbally cruel.
"I disappointed you didn't I?" Noni startled him by saying "And you're too kind a person to say so".
"You were nervous that's all", said Adam "It's difficult sometimes going at it cold. I should've got you some hash".
"Yes perhaps", Noni began to comb his hair with his fingers. It was a very sensual gesture, and ordinarily one that Adam would have found hard to resist, but he was too distracted by what Noni was saying "We might be able to try again sometime, mightn't we?"
Adam was at a loss as to how to answer this. He had overheard two men talking in the City some time ago, and confirming what he had always felt. That if you had sex with the same person more than once you were in a relationship of some kind with them, whether you liked it or not.
"I-I'd like to see you again", said Noni "I know it'll be difficult, as you're leaving tomorrow. But perhaps I could look you up when we all get back to the City".
"It's a nice thought", said Adam "But ... well it's like this. I'm in a relationship".
"So I gathered. And I can't compete with the Vanquisher of Evil".
"Oh hell!" Adam got up and aggressively began to squeeze fat worms of paint onto his palette "I wish everyone would stop referring to him as that, it makes me feel I'm committing sacrilege just by being with him. To me ... to me he is simply Patsy, and always will be. And it's Patsy you or anyone else can't compete with, not the Vanquisher of Evil".
Noni was surprised to find Paul waiting up for him when he returned to the top-floor suite. Normally they each carried out their duties on parallel tracks, occasionally overlapping, and at such times they showed concern for each other, as employees of Gabriel's were wont to do.
"He doesn't know does he?" said Noni, anxiously.
"What you've been up to?" said Paul "No he doesn't. Although what our private lives are to do with him I have never been able to imagine".
"It's part of the contract of employment we signed when we joined, remember?"
"How could I forget! No sodomy or fornication of any kind. It didn't seem to matter much to me then".
"Something's happened to you? You've met someone?" Noni sat down opposite him at the white-painted table in the suite's kitchen. The harsh overhead lighting seemed to pick out his worried expression and exaggerate it until he looked like a caricature of himself.
"I-I'm not sure. I didn't fancy him at first", said Paul "Personality-wise we've got very little in common I suspect. I don't think he's very mature, and yet ... you might as well know, he's one of the Vanquisher's party. Hillyard".
"It seems we've both been busy", Noni sighed "Gabriel won't like it when he finds out".
"No he won't", said Paul "So we're going to have to do something about it, before he does".
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