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Adam was awake soon after dawn the following day, and hustling Hillyard out of his bed. He was in a bad mood. The painting that he had so wanted to do had turned out be a disaster, and he could blame nothing and no one but his own abysmal lack of concentration. He was now so disgusted with it that the first thing he had done on getting out of bed had been to smash it into fragments.
"I don't see why I have to get up so early", Hillyard was grumbling "It's only a few hours walk into the desert. Even if we left at lunchtime we could still be there by nightfall".
"We are going now", said Adam, storming back through the communicating door into his own room.
"How did the painting go?" said Hillyard, groping for his t-shirt.
"Bloody awful!" came the reply.
Hillyard had insisted on having breakfast, much to Adam's dismay. He was desperate to get moving. He tried telling himself that this was solely because he was missing Kieran. His less altruistic side knew differently. He had had a rotten night with Noni, and so in turn he wanted to cut short any fun Kieran might be having with Joby. Breakfast did little to cheer him up, consisting as it did of indifferent (and that was being polite) coffee, dry bread, watery butter, and slabs of fruitcake.
"You would think", Adam exclaimed "That in a place as expensive as this they would buy decent bread. This stuff must be the cheapest there is".
"Seems alright to me", said Hillyard, who had smothered his in honey.
"You have absolutely no style Hillyard".
"You can talk!" Hillyard snorted "At least I'll know how to grow old gracefully".
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"We-e-ll, wafting around in your nipple-rings picking up young tarts. It's not decent at your age".
"I am getting sick to death of people keep harping on about my age. I'm forty, not seventy! I've got years of behaving disgracefully ahead of me yet. You're like Joby you are. You won't be happy until you see Patsy wheeling me out in my bath-chair".
"I was only pulling your leg", Hillyard protested "Old age comes to us all in time".
"Yes, and I can't wait until it happens to you lot".
"Hey look, there's Paul!" Hillyard waved vigorously, and the little man scampered over to him like a fox-terrier "We're leaving this morning Paul".
"So soon?" Paul looked stricken.
"Why don't you come with us?" said Hillyard.
"I-I've got a job. Commitments".
"Of course he has", Adam snapped "Don't be absurd Hillyard".
"Be a creature of impulse", said Hillyard "You hate your job, I can tell that. So just drop it and come with me now. Think what it'll be like sleeping out under the desert sky".
Paul wore a look of absolute yearning. For a moment it really looked as though he might drop the files he was carrying onto the restaurant floor and do just that. Whilst he was hovering on the point of decision though the mousy-haired accountant reappeared, like a genie through a trapdoor.
"Don't keep him waiting this morning", he said "He's in one of his frustrated moods, and we all know what that means".
"I was just saying goodbye to Hillyard", said Paul "Hillyard, this is Ransey, Gabriel's chief accountant. Ransey, this is Hillyard".
The men nodded at each other curtly.
"And this is Adam", said Paul, with a noticeable hint of pride in his voice "He's the Vanquisher's personal friend".
"How do", said Ransey, sounding distinctly unimpressed. Adam didn't bother to answer.
"I must go now", said Paul.
"Wait!" Hillyard rose to his feet and kissed Paul on the cheek. Paul in turn blushed and turned away before he could answer.
"Come on", said Adam, draining his coffee-cup "Let's go. This is beginning to feel like 'Brief Encounter'".
"Don't you think he looks a bit like Stombal?" said Hillyard, wistfully, after Paul had left.
"Oh that is sick Hillyard! Hankering after someone because they remind you of a dead lover".
"But he does, doesn't he?"
"I don't know", Adam had only the very vaguest recollections of what Stombal had looked like "But the fact remains he isn't Stombal. He's someone completely different. It's obviously high time I got you away from here for your own good".
Joby emerged from the tent to find that the heat of the sun had already dried out the heavy rains of the night before. The fire had been tended and the horse had his head in a nosebag so Kieran had been at work recently, but worryingly he now seemed to have vanished.
"Kiel!" Joby called, dodging about the camp "Kiel, where are you?"
Eventually a movement to his extreme right caught his eye. He hastily dug a pair of binoculars out of his bag. Through them he could make out a small, slight figure standing at the top of a clump of rocks about a quarter-of-a-mile away. The figure ducked down when it saw that it was being observed, but Joby had already made up his mind as to who it was.
"Kiel, don't be pathetic", he yelled, scrambling up the rocks "I know it's you so stop playing games. What are you playing at anyway? Why didn't you wake me up?"
"You looked so peaceful, I didn't have the heart", came the familiar voice, from above him.
"You worried me like hell", Joby complained "One minute you're getting threats from strangers, the next you've disappeared. What was I supposed to think?"
"I just went for a little walk".
"Good job Adam's not here, he'd be fucking furious".
Joby reached the top of the rocks. Kieran darted in front of him like a young colt. Joby threw himself in his general direction, and grabbed one of his thin legs. Kieran fell to the ground with a satisfying thump.
"I've got something to show you", said Kieran, breathlessly.
"Don't bother, I've already seen it", Joby clung onto Kieran's vest and hauled himself along the length of his body "I'm going to sit on you anyway until Adam gets here. I'd never hear the end of it if anything happened to you".
"You know Adam confiscated our booze?" said Kieran.
"Don't remind me".
"Well how would you like to see him get his comeuppance?"
"I don't get you".
"I've just found a suitable revenge to have on someone who stops us having a good time, and then goes off and has one himself".
"You don't know that for certain".
"How would you like to let all your inhibitions just disappear? You and me get high ... alone together".
"Oh I get it now", Joby groaned "You come on to me, and get your own back on Laughing Boy. Thanks, but I don't like being used".
"Cobblers", Kieran exclaimed "I fancy you like hell, always have. And we haven't got much longer alone together, the others will be here tonight".
"And it'd upset Adam of course".
"That's just an added bonus", said Kieran "Come here, and see what I've found".
Kieran led him over to the shade of a large rock, under which a clump of fungi grew out of a patch of damp soil.
"Do you fancy a mushroom omelette for breakfast?" he said.
"Alright", said Joby "But I tell you this, I'm not taking the blame if Adam finds out".
"Stop panicking Jobe", Kieran placed his finger on Joby's lips "He'll blame me entirely, so you've got nothing to worry about".
Ransey sat with his back to the shuttered window and tried to fight down his bile. The man (creature?) lying on the bed in front of him looked worse than ever. He almost seemed to be melting. Sweat was coming off him in such vast quantities that he was practically evaporating.
"Are you sure you're up to this right now Gabriel?" Ransey asked, awkwardly. He should have known better than to query the man. Business was business to Gabriel, regardless of his physical condition. It came first always.
Gabriel raised a claw-like hand and pointed his finger slightly to indicate that Ransey keep turning over the spreadsheets he was holding up. Ransey answered his questions as coherently as he could, but he was frankly appalled by what he was looking at. Gabriel's naked outline was completely blurred. The man seemed to be more perspiration than flesh.
At the end of the session Ransey fell out of the room, feeling like a large peach that had been sucked dry of its juices and then spat out. Paul was waiting for him in the small kitchen with a cup of green tea.
"He's worse than ever", said Ransey, loosening his tie and wiping his face and neck with a handkerchief "Why don't you just go in there and fling the shutters open, get some air into the place? I don't think you've even got the air-conditioning switched on right".
"He likes it that way", said Paul "He believes that by sweating like that he's shedding his skin".
"Oh he thinks he's a bloody snake does he?"
"He believes we all get through several different personas as we go through life, and that we have to shed each old one before we get a new one".
"I've heard that theory myself. But someone should point out to him that 'shedding the old persona' wasn't meant to be taken literally! Anyway, I'm out of here. I've had quite enough for one day. If he screams for me later tell him I've embezzled the accounts and run off with a eunuch!"
"Better not, he might believe you".
Noni finished stacking the towels in the meticulous fashion that Gabriel demanded, colour-coded, folded sides looking outwards. He then set to tidying up the medicine chest in the bathroom, replacing stoppers on bottles, and the fiddly job of removing the dents from the squeezed tubes. When he was satisfied that all was as it should be, he walked around the room closing the doors on the different cupboards.
As he slammed the door on the cupboard above the sink he saw a reflection in the mirror that was definitely not his own. A face of quite appalling viciousness stared back at him, made all the more startling because the man was handsome with it. The eyes glared at him like shiny black buttons at the top of an aquiline nose. The lips on the mouth were curled into a smirk, as though this strange person was relishing the prospect of a hideous event that was about to unfold.
Noni gasped and backed away against the shower curtain. His subconscious willed the face to disappear but it continued to smirk at him out of the mirror for what felt like an eternity.
"Problems Noni?" came a familiar soft voice from beside him.
Noni hadn't noticed Gabriel enter the room. Sometimes though Gabriel moved with almost catlike stealth, so much so that at his main City offices staff went around warning each other when he had entered the building, as no one ever knew exactly where he would appear next.
"The face", Noni said in a strangulated whisper "The face in the mirror".
Gabriel gave a very understated laugh. He glistened with sweat from head to foot, in spite of the fact that he wore only a small loincloth. When Noni had first started working for him Gabriel had been a moderately-attractive young man, with coal-black hair, skin like brown satin and large, expressive dark eyes. There had never been the slightest hint that he had ever taken a lover which, considering his not abhorrent looks, had surprised most people and made him more of an enigma in the world of City finances than ever before. His celibate aloofness gave him a daunting aura of almost godlike infallibility, reinforced by his background as a child genius. Anyone who could predict share prices and read spreadsheets enthusiastically at the tender age of six was never likely to be normal.
Nowadays Gabriel's looks seemed to have exaggerated themselves. The coal-black hair went uncut, and the expressive eyes loomed uncomfortably large, like dark headlamps, in an increasingly gaunt face. There were times when Gabriel reminded Noni of a cartoon character. He certainly never looked entirely real.
"So you saw it then", said Gabriel, in his wispy, girlish voice.
"Y-you know about it?" Noni stammered "But how could it ... who was it?"
"He's not a person Noni. He's an elemental I've sent to haunt you".
"I think you know why. You need medical help Noni. It is a sickness that you have. A sickness and a weakness. It needs to be stamped out before it can possess you completely. I've sent the elemental to you for your own good. If you can't conquer these dark thoughts of yours Noni, it will destroy you. You have a choice. There are two avenues facing you. If you choose one you will rise above these weaknesses of the flesh, these mental derangements, and be the kind of man that I need about me. If you cannot, if you give in to your body, the elemental will grow stronger with each single dark thought and deed. It will feast on your carnal desires, and it will eventually become so strong that it will destroy you".
"That's not fair Gabriel", Noni whimpered.
"You brought it here Noni. Only you. And only you can get rid of it. As I said, you have a choice".
"Take it away Gabriel, please! It hates me! I could see it in its eyes".
"But of course it does Noni. It wants nothing more than to see you destroyed".
"But I've done nothing wrong!"
Gabriel breathed in sharply, as though he had been insulted in the worst way he could imagine.
"You cursed yourself Noni", he said "The moment you gave into your own lustful thoughts. You will now never be free of the elemental until you are free of them".
"I can feel it with me all the time. I can't see it, but I know it's there. It hasn't left me, not once, over the past few hours".
Noni stood at Paul's bedroom window, gazing out at the chaotic city streets. He had calmed down considerably since being with Paul, and now spoke with his usual slow drawl, instead of the almost inhuman whimper with which he had communicated when Paul had found him sitting on the floor, clutching the table-leg in the kitchen.
"The power of suggestion is an amazing thing", said Paul, briskly "I once brought a lucky crystal, and for about a month afterwards I attributed everything that went right to its powers. All the things that went wrong I just ignored. The human mind believes what it wants to most of the time, regardless of the facts".
"This is real", said Noni "I can't show it to you, at least not yet, but I know it's there".
"Alright. So it's real", said Paul "All you have to do is keep your mind off sex for a little while and its powers will recede, if what Gabriel said is true ..."
"How did he know about last night?"
"I haven't a clue. I didn't tell him if that's what you're thinking. After all, it could just as easily have been me being cursed now, couldn't it?"
"No. You didn't commit fornication", Noni turned from the window, and stood facing his colleague "And that's what he hates. Not only that but I committed it with the Vanquisher's lover".
"Adam left the hotel earlier today. He's not an active temptation anymore. As I said just now all you have to do is keep busy, and try not to think about sex".
"I think I'm in love with him", said Noni "Oh no! It didn't like that admission at all! It's crowding me!"
"You have to force such thoughts from your mind", said Paul "Not just because of the elemental, but because nothing can come of that relationship".
"I'm going to follow him".
"You don't know where he went".
"It'll be the Moonbeam Rocks, I'm sure. It's the first convenient stopover point in the desert. If he isn't there, then I'll just keep looking until I find him".
"With the elemental on your back, and Gabriel's wrath at your heels?"
"I can't believe I'll be any safer by staying here".
"No, neither can I", Paul sighed "And somehow it might just work out for you".
"Do you think I have a chance?"
"Yes I do. Take the elemental to the Vanquisher Noni. Let him sort it out. Earlier I said to you that we were going to have to sort it ourselves, and now we will".
"You'll come with me?"
"Yes. You're not the only one who's weak and human".
Two naked figures clambered over the rocks, wincing as their bare skin touched the baked surfaces. In their eagerness to reach the small oasis on the other side they were prepared to endure such discomforts. They slid down the steep sandy incline and landed with a splash in the shallow, gritty water.
Kieran lay on his back in the water, and scooped up handfuls of soggy sand, letting them drip over his bare flesh. Joby crawled clumsily over to him, and traced the outline of his friend's ribs with his fingers.
"Don't you want it then Joby?" said Kieran, opening one eye and squinting at him against the sun "Not even now?"
"I always have wanted you. I can't believe it's going to happen, after all this time".
"So what's holding you back?"
"Because", Joby giggled "You're doing this to upset Adam. He'll ... he'll cite me as co-respondent! Funny really, because if we were still back in our own time, YOU would probably have cited me as co-respondent. You have to laugh at that don't you Kiel?"
"Perhaps you're really pretending I'm Amy then".
"I'm not that far gone!" Joby kissed him "What a right kettles of fishes. Sometimes I just didn't know who I wanted the most, you or her ... Oh God, my eyes!"
"They look fine to me".
"I can't seem to see right", Joby began to panic "They're all blurred. I can't ..."
"You have to relax Joby. You're making it worse by getting upset".
"Kiel, help me. I can't see you. Help me!"
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