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Over the next two days they crossed the desert towards the Husgalonghi township, as Gabriel had predicted they would. They did most of their travelling at night, as the heat of the day was too intense. This added an extra sense of adventure to the journey, and it was generally felt that if it wasn't for the presence of Noni and Paul, they could pretend they were on the holiday they had planned.
On the third day most of the party became plagued by attacks of diarrhoea, and many jokes were cracked about leaving a trail of turd-hills from the Moonbeam Rocks to Husgalonghi.
"You seem to be the only one not affected", said Joby to Ransey.
It was late morning and Joby was cooking brunch. Most of the others were either hiding under canvas or making mad dashes behind rocks and bushes.
"Got a strong stomach me", said Ransey "Had to have working for Gabriel. His personal habits weren't for the faint-hearted sometimes".
"But what made you jack the job in?" said Joby, trimming the fat off a rasher of bacon "I mean, you worked for him for fifteen years, it must have been well-paid, so what made you suddenly give it up?"
"It wasn't sudden. Call it an early mid-life crisis if you like, but I'd been restless for sometime. I suppose I felt I'd spent too long sitting in offices staring at balance sheets. And I could no longer stand working for a bloke who I was beginning to despise. It wasn't like that at all in the early years. I had the greatest admiration for him, you have to when someone's so good at what they do. And he was fairly normal in those days, for an ex-child genius anyway. He wasn't afraid to muck in. I've seen him on the stock-market floor, tearing his shirt with excitement over a deal. That's dedication that is!"
"So what went wrong?"
"Started believing his own publicity I think. I suppose when all your life people have told you you're a genius, amazing, incredible and all that, well you start to believe it. Trouble is, they thought he was all those things purely because of his talent with figures and shares. But he started thinking he was special in different ways".
"He thought he was the Vanquisher of Evil?"
"The fact that by the time he was twenty-four he was practically running the government reinforced it. He effectively controlled their purse-strings. Not only that but if they'd refused him anything, they knew he could deliberately cause a crisis on the stock-markets that would see the economy in tatters in no time at all. He had the knowledge and the capability to do that. Having only just got over sixty years of the vampires the Ministry couldn't risk a crisis like that as well. And then last year Mr President put it around that he'd nominated your Kieran as his successor. Gabriel wasn't just angry about that, he was deeply shocked. I think he felt he'd been betrayed. He was convinced that the President would nominate him. So Kieran's unwittingly usurped him on two counts".
"The joke is though Kiel doesn't want to be president", said Joby "He's got to be the most unambitious person I know".
"Maybe, but everyone else wants him, and that's what counts. Anyway it's all tipped Gabriel over the edge. He sees it now as his mission in life to destroy the upstart, as he calls Kieran. He's convinced himself he's a better person than Kieran, and that Kieran is an evil that has to be eradicated. He sees Kieran as a symbol of everything that's wrong with society today".
"Buggery, you mean?"
"Gabriel founded the Union of Honorary Virgins. The government hates them, sees them as bad for public morale, but they can't do anything about it. Gabriel believes, really believes, that Man can only achieve greatness through celibacy".
"It must reinforce the idea that all celibates are nutcases", said Joby, bitterly.
"Not all of us", said Ransey "I think of myself as quite normal actually. I'm celibate because it suits me, it's convenient more than anything. Gabriel thinks I chose it for spiritual reasons. And he's very hard on those who stray from the straight and narrow, as you've seen with Noni".
Adam suddenly appeared with a roll of toilet paper under his arm. He walked past them without a word, and disappeared into the tent.
"So does Gabriel practise voodoo or something?" said Joby "To conjure up elementals and such like?"
"That was the last straw as far as I was concerned", said Ransey "I want to work for sane men, not bloody witch-doctors! Gabriel's beyond my comprehension now. He shuts himself off from people, covers his privates with disinfected napkins, and distrusts everyone. I tell you this, after a meeting with him, I've often found myself wishing I could throw myself into the arms of the nearest eunuch!"
"But you never have?"
"Good grief, no! They're not worth removing all the petticoats for, there's nothing but a patch of wrinkled skin underneath it all. I've heard that if you feel anything with one of those people it's your imagination. Are you alright? You look a bit peaky. Do you want me to take over here?"
Joby gratefully accepted his offer and left Ransey to fry the bacon. Inside their tent he encountered the sight of Adam's bare bottom pointing towards the roof, in a way that Joby found highly disturbing. Adam straightened up but continued sorting through his kit-bag, impervious to Joby's inner turmoil.
"Are you alright?" the older man asked, eventually "You look like you could do with a lie-down in a darkened tent".
"I..." Joby began, awkwardly "Adam, I ..."
"What is it? Tell Uncle Adam".
"I can't go on like this!" Joby blurted out, desperately "I just can't. I'll go mad. I'll end up like Gabriel".
"What are you blithering on about old love?"
"I'm not meant to be celibate. I'm highly-sexed!"
"Be true to your own self", Adam gently touched his face "The tragedy is though Joby you're not allowed to be, are you? And I'll always feel responsible for that. If I could help you I wouldn't hesitate, but there's nothing I can do for you. Anyway, you won't end up like Gabriel. Look at Ransey for instance. He's celibate, and the sanest one around here at the moment!"
"Adam I ..."
"What's the matter with you Joby?" said Kieran, coming into the tent.
"I think the dreaded lurgey's getting him down", said Adam "You don't look too good either".
"Everything goes straight through me", said Kieran.
He was disconcerted that Joby seemed upset about something, but refused to discuss it. He lay next to him all afternoon, as tense as a piece of stretched elastic. After a while, out of sheer desperation, Kieran placed a hand on Joby's stomach and stroked his skin. Joby pushed him away irritably.
"You don't understand", Joby mumbled, turning away from him "It's a gay world now".
When they all set out again at sunset Kieran didn't have a chance to worry anymore about Joby. He was weak after a severe bout of vomiting and diarrhoea, which showed no sign of letting up. It was especially hard for anyone to understand, as he had eaten very little that day. It was decided to press on into Husgalonghi. Adam and Hillyard took it in turns to sit with Kieran on the horse, holding him in place. Joby, surprisingly, refused.
"What is the matter with you?" Adam hissed, when they made their first pit-stop of the evening "Can't you see Patsy's not well? What kind of friend are you?"
"Leave me alone!" Joby roared "I wish it was me that was ill".
Shortly after midnight they found themselves within sight of Husgalonghi. They unanimously decided that it was too late to go looking for lodgings in the town, and set up camp on the roadside leading into it. The howling noise that had plagued them for several nights was much louder here, and seemed to be coming from some way further beyond the town. Even so, it was still impossible to make out what it was.
"No lights on in the town", said Ransey, standing in the middle of the dust-covered surfaceless road and gazing through a pair of binoculars "They go to bed early around here obviously".
"Probably not much to keep them up", said Adam "I've seen some remote places before, but this takes the biscuit. Desert on one side and, according to my map, jungle on the other".
"That's where the noise is coming from", said Ransey "I don't know how they can listen to that every night without going mad".
"As long as they have a doctor that's all I care about".
"Kieran no better?"
"He's getting worse. It's frightening, it seems to have come on so quick. He was alright this morning, and now he just keeps trying to retch all the time".
"I see", said Ransey, quietly.
"Is it something one of the others have done to him, Paul and Noni I mean?" said Adam.
"I don't know, I'm guessing".
"Look Adam, as you said to me before, I'm a man of facts. I'm not into voodoo or Black Magic. Whatever it is that Kieran has I'm sure a doctor can put it right. We've all had the squirts today. He's just got a more complicated form of it".
"Yes I'm sure you're right. I'll see you in the morning".
"Provided the zombies don't get me", said Ransey, dryly.
Inside the tent Kieran was lying on his side. The cushion under his head was soaking wet from where he had coughed and retched bile into it in an almost continuous stream. Adam gently removed it, turned it over and replaced it.
"When did all this start?" said Hillyard, trying to undress whilst balancing on his haunches.
"This afternoon", said Adam "It's been continuous ever since. But there's nothing for him to bring up, I don't understand it".
"He could do himself an internal injury if he keeps it up".
"Yes alright, I could do without you sounding like the Voice of Doom!"
Joby had remained silent and immobile throughout the conversation. Adam was so disgusted by his attitude that he had to severely restrain himself from kicking him sharply in a sensitive place.
"Move over Joby", he snapped "You're taking up too much room".
"I spect you'd like to be shot of me", Joby grumbled "Seeing as I'm the odd one out. I cramp your style".
"What's he on about?" said Hillyard.
"I haven't a clue", Adam replied "I'll give him the benefit of the doubt, and assume he's under the weather too. It's the only thing I can think of that accounts for his total gross lack of sensitivity. Otherwise I'll just have to assume instead that he's a monumentally selfish little git!"
Adam had expected Husgalonghi to be a small shanty-town consisting of nothing but ramshackle buildings made out of tin and wood. It was true that there were a fair amount of these around, but on the whole Husgalonghi was of a respectable size, with a wide central street, and a scattering of large substantial buildings made of white-painted timber. It was smarter than he had expected and more orderly. Instead of the shanty-town he found a place that looked like something out of an old Western, after the good guys had ridden in and cleaned it up. His spirits soared. This place had to have a doctor.
"Quieter than I expected", said Hillyard, who had anticipated a smaller version of Lixix "Not many people about".
The only hotel in the town baked in the late morning sunshine, and presented an image of complete and utter somnolence even at this hour of the day. Nonetheless the rooms they were allocated were scrupulously clean, and even had plumbing (of a sort), although no electricity. A doctor was sent for and arrived almost immediately. This also pleasantly startled Adam, as the hotel staff seemed to move constantly at a speed of Dead Slow. He could only assume the doctor's promptness was due to Kieran's presence, which had already been thoroughly noted by the locals.
"It never ceases to amaze me how people always recognise him, even in a backwater like this", said Adam, as he and Ransey waited outside Kieran's door whilst the doctor conducted his examination in peace "Little short of a miracle really".
"With his looks he's bound to stand out anyway", said Ransey "Particularly round here where blonde blue-eyed boys are at a premium. Same applies to you".
The door opened and a dark hand waved them inside in a rather imperious manner. In the room Kieran lay in the middle of a large bed with old-fashioned brass rails, a patchwork quilt and a mosquito net. He was barely conscious, and seemed smaller than ever.
"It is nothing at all serious", the doctor said, briskly "An affliction we often find in travellers out this way. His biggest problem is that all the continuous vomiting has weakened him quite drastically. With your permission I would like to give him a heavy sedative. It will knock him out for twenty-four hours".
"Twenty-four hours!" Adam exclaimed.
"It will give his body a chance to rest and regroup its energy. He needs a respite from all the vomiting. I've seen this countless times. I can assure you that when he wakes tomorrow he will be his old self again".
Adam agreed and the dose was administered. He then sat by Kieran's bed for the rest of the afternoon whilst the boy slept. Joby didn't put in an appearance, and Adam had no idea where he was. By late afternoon he was so disgusted by his attitude of indifference towards his closest friend that Adam almost hoped he'd gone off and got lost in the jungle.
"You can't sit here until tomorrow night", said Ransey, entering the room "It's a lot cooler now, why don't you go out and stretch your legs for a while? I'll sit with him. In fact, I don't mind sitting here for the night".
"I can't ask you to do that".
"Yes you can. I've got a lot of reading I'd like to catch up on. I'd quite enjoy the peace and quiet actually. You'd be doing me a favour. Go on, he isn't going to know anything until tomorrow".
A balmy evening breeze was wafting through the lace curtains at the open window, and the temptation to go outside was great. Adam knew instinctively that he could trust Ransey (unlike Ransey's colleagues), and left the room feeling reassured. He went downstairs but avoided the hotel bar which, from the sounds of things, was already starting to fill up. He found Hillyard sitting on the verandah steps outside the main doors. Adam touched his shoulder gently, and the other man nearly leapt out of his skin.
"Steady on", Adam laughed "Who did you think I was?"
"Paul", Hillyard mumbled, sulkily.
"Oh dear. Pursuing you is he?"
"Like an over-enthusiastic private eye", Hillyard spat "He won't let me out of his sight".
"Where is he now then?"
"Gone for a stroll with Noni. It was only by practically making out I was at death's door that I could get out of going with them".
"Do you want to come for a walk with me instead?"
"No, it's alright. At least here I can keep an eye out for 'em and leg it if I see them coming. You watch out you don't bump into them".
"If I do rest assured I shall take great pleasure in being rude", Adam walked on past him down the steps "And if you see that toad Joby anywhere, tell him he and I are no longer friends!"
Husgalonghi came alive briefly for a few hours in the early evening, and then it was a very fascinating place indeed. Adam walked around as the dusk deepened into darkness, marvelling at the different sights. The edges of the streets were lit by flaming torches which added a carnival atmosphere to the place, helped enormously by the variety of gaudily-dressed eunuchs who paraded up and down. Adam found himself to be immensely popular with these, or rather his hair was. They couldn't get enough of its fairness and constantly reached out to touch it and jabber in delight.
Adam couldn't understand how they managed to earn a living in such a backwater of a place, until he realised that Husgalonghi was popular with plenty of trappers and traders (legal and otherwise), who plied various different trades within the jungle, from trapping exotic animals, to procuring dodgy medicines and drugs. It accounted for why the place was deserted during daylight hours, as all the visitors fanned out into the jungle then to pursue their various lines.
Aside from the hotel, the town had a few rather seedy-looking bars, a casino, and a theatre which claimed to specialise in "exotic dancers". Adam chose to look around the casino instead, mainly on the off-chance that Joby might be in there, as he was known to have a keenness for gambling at times.
Adam found it a depressing place, full of humourless faces watching various dice and cards like birds of prey. Joby was nowhere in sight, although he was surprised to find Noni and Paul there. Noni was engaged in an intense two-hand card-game, whilst Paul stood behind his chair looking concerned. Adam got out of the building before they had a chance to notice him.
On his way out he collided with a half-dressed man in the doorway. The man was naked from the waist up, and exhibited a powerful, athletic physique. In fact he gave off such a raw physical energy that Adam almost felt dizzy standing so close to him. Adam apologised for bumping into him and went to move on, although the gorgeous specimen seemed reluctant to let him pass. The stranger neither spoke nor smiled, and afterwards Adam could only remember his powerful physique and a pair of burning black eyes.
Back in the street once more he decided to continue his informal tour of the nightlife. What had been a fascinating peepshow now felt out of kilter though. Something had gone awry, and he felt ridiculously vulnerable. He tried reminding himself that he was a grown man, who had been alone in far dodgier places than this, but an atmosphere of evil had wrapped itself around him like a chilly damp cloak. He did not want to be here anymore.
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