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By Sarah Hapgood

Kieran felt conspicuous walking back to the hotel. He was stared at constantly in the street, some people even followed him, although they shrank back when he turned to challenge them. At the hotel he slipped up to his room and changed back into his normal garb of singlet and pants, putting the crucifix away for safe keeping at the bottom of his rucksack.

There was a band in the bar when he went down. The acoustics in the bar were so awful that Kieran felt you'd have to have a tin ear to appreciate the din they were making. As there was a live music on the premises the place was packed out, and just not with the usual wealthy visitors. Most of the clientele were local, and eager for any diversion. Some were already well on their way to getting inebriated. There was even one lying amongst the peanut-shells on the floor, and the evening had barely started yet.

To reach his own group Kieran had to run the gauntlet of some raucous business-men, whose state of exhilaration could be guessed from the upturned bottles in the wine-cooler on their table. Ignoring shouts of "hey blondie", and "come and vanquish me anytime", Kieran slipped thankfully into the midst of his own people. The only one who was missing was Paul.

"In his room", said Ransey, in answer to Kieran's enquiry "A bit stressed at the thought of Noni's funeral tomorrow".

"They're having it so soon?"

"No reason not to", Ransey bellowed above the din "They've got all the clues they're going to get from his body, and they don't like keeping 'em above ground too long in this heat. The refrigeration units at the morgue aren't all they should be".

"Poor Noni", said Kieran, feeling like a hypocrite considering his feelings towards him hadn't been the most charitable, but sad for him all the same "I dread to think what the newspapers in the City are going to make of this. 'Ex-Hearthrob Murdered In Seedy Husgalonghi Brothel'. Particularly when they get the full details of it!"

"They won't", said Ransey "Gabriel'll do his damnedest to keep this hushed up. He'll have good cause to, if he organised it".

"It can't make you feel safe. Being another ex-employee of his".

"His grief is sex. Simple as that. There's nothing he can hold against me in that department, being as pure as the driven snow. Do you want a drink?"

Kieran asked for a brandy, and Ransey departed with Hillyard to collect another round from the counter.

"I like Hillyard's new orange silk shirt", said Kieran "Sets him off fine".

"His trousers are gonna do him an injury though", said Joby "They didn't have any in his size, so he's got a size too small".

"They show off his bum a treat".

Joby looked bootfaced on hearing this, and turned sulkily to watch the band. Adam slid up from the other end of the red leather couch.

"What's this about you sloping off to see witch-doctors Patsy?"

"Don't start nagging, I'm back in one piece".

"Don't be so cheeky. It seems I can't let you out of my sight for five minutes. What did he say to you anyway?"

"That Gabriel has a place on the Mundaba Heights, where he retreats to on a periodic basis, and he's due for another visit at any moment", said Kieran, and went on to explain what Ebuali had told him about Gabriel's jungle education and his subsequent powers. He felt it best not to tell Adam about the death-warning, simply for the reason that he had no wish to worry about it himself at that moment.

"I have an announcement to make", said Hillyard, when he and Ransey returned to the table with a drink-laden tray.

"You're not coming with us into the jungle?" said Joby.

"That'd suit you wouldn't it?" snapped Hillyard "No, actually. As from today I've sworn to become a celibate. In fact, when we eventually get back to the City I'm going to apply to join the Union of Honorary Virgins".

"They'd never have you!" Joby exclaimed.

"Yes, I don't think you'd be very good at it dear", said Adam.

"I mean business", said Hillyard "Me clothes getting pinched was the last straw. I want to go through life calmly like Ransey here does".

"Yea, but it's easy for me", said Ransey "What you've never had you never miss".

"Anyway", said Kieran "Joby reckons if you carry on wearing those trousers, you'll do yourself an injury, so you might not have much choice".

"These trousers are getting me noticed", said Hillyard, proudly.

"There doesn't seem much point if you're now a celibate", said Adam.

"Hadn't thought of that", said Hillyard, glumly "I suppose it takes the point out of a lot of things really".

At midnight a strange ritual occurred which was apparently the norm whenever there was a locals night at the hotel. They all whipped out large old-fashioned cumbersome pistols and fired them at the ceiling. (The management were resigned to re-plastering the ceiling on a regular basis). The party then broke up abruptly and everyone went home, obeying the unwritten curfew that seemed to be the law in Husgalonghi.

"What was all that about?" said Joby, as they staggered wearily up the stairs.

"Releasing of testosterone", said Adam "An expelling of aggression on being told to go to bed at midnight like Cinderella".

"It's a good job you don't drink anymore", said Joby "You talk enough crap when you're sober".

"I'm going to nip up and see if Paul's alright", said Kieran.

"What the hell for?" Joby snapped.

Kieran ignored him, and went on up the staircase which led to the second floor.

"Well don't be long!" Joby bellowed after him.

"It's no good pouting Jobe", said Adam, when they reached the corridor outside their own rooms "Patsy's a law unto himself. I've been trying to tame him for years".

"Not tried hard enough obviously".

"Oh I have", Adam sighed "But unfortunately I have one huge handicap. I can never stay angry with him long enough. You being one of life's natural marathon sulkers might have more effect".

"I'm not am I?" said Joby, looking distraught.

"What did I say to you the other night?" said Adam, kissing him lightly on the forehead "You are adorable".

"Do you know anyone that can play the guitar?" said Paul "Only this was Noni's. I've had to take charge of his things, and I don't really know what to do with it".

"None of us play", said Kieran "Is there much of his stuff?"

"No. Just a few clothes and some odds-and-ends", Paul absently touched the stack of neatly-folded clothing placed on a chair in his room. The guitar lay on top. "Not much to show for a life is it?"

"It's what we all come to in the end", said Kieran "We're born. We fart around a bit. We die. That's it really. Eventually each and everyone of us is just a heap of old clothes and a few possessions".

"That's a depressing thought".

"No it's not", Kieran lay back on the bed and played with the edge of the mosquito net "It's an improvement on leaving millions, and having everyone coming to blows at your funeral over who gets what. I couldn't stand the thought of that".

"But Noni was a big star once", said Paul "It doesn't seem fair that he should be buried all the way out here, with just us at the funeral. The pleasure he gave to so many people in his younger days! I can't help feeling he should be having a state funeral".

"We'll do our best by him", said Kieran, getting irritated at all this constant harping on about funerals "Come down to the hotel florists with me first thing tomorrow and we'll pick out a decent posy for his grave. Joby was waxing lyrical about the orchids earlier. They'd be appropriate for the funeral of a big star wouldn't they?"

Paul nodded. He was about to speak when a slight rippling movement on the bed caught his eye. For a moment he was paralysed with fear, and a certain disbelief at what he was actually seeing. A death adder was edging across the bedclothes. About a foot away Kieran lay impervious to it, staring up at the mosquito netting in a dream. Somehow Paul knew he had to get him to move, but yet again a sudden movement would cause the venomous reptile to strike immediately. If it did Kieran would dead within seconds.

Paul edged towards the bed. He stood by the side of it, debating with himself whether he would be fast enough and agile enough to whisk Kieran off the bed with one swift movement. He knew that was impossible. Kieran had got himself tangled up in the mosquito net. They'd probably both end up being killed. And he was the expendable one. A fact of which he was very much aware.

Without giving himself another moment to think Paul flung himself directly down upon the snake, and felt the sting of its fangs pierce his stomach. It took Kieran a precious few seconds to fully realise what had happened. When he did he pulled Paul onto the floor, leaving the crushed reptile on the bedclothes. Paul was now making horrific gargling sounds. Kieran noticed a penknife amongst Noni's belongings, and tried to cut out the wound on Paul's stomach. But other than knowing that he had to dig deep, he didn't know what else he was supposed to do.

For a long while, even after the others had come into the room, he continued to alternately dig, and then suck at the wound, until his lips were as red with Paul's blood as that of a vampire. He only stopped when Joby gently took him by the shoulders and pulled him away.

"He's dead Kiery", he said "There's nothing you can do".

At the hospital in Lixix Gabriel had had the place spinning like a top for days. He had complained constantly that his room wasn't warm enough, which was simply absurd to everyone else as the daytime temperatures averaged forty degrees centigrade. There had been enough cause for concern when Gabriel had ordered the fans to be switched off, but now he had actually ordered portable heaters to be put in. These had had to be dug out from the backs of store cupboards and dusted down. They were kept purely as a back-up in case of the very occasional freak cold winter day Lixix had.

Gabriel's personal physician, Doctor Badlu, concluded that the man was deranged, there could be no other explanation for it. Gabriel was sweating so much that his sheets were constantly wringing wet, and yet he refused to have them changed, as he didn't believe the hospital laundry kept them clean enough.

"I will admit", said Doctor Badlu, as another long session of duty drew to a close "That I will be glad when our illustrious charge has left us".

He had very little longer to wait. When the orderly took Gabriel's breakfast into him the morning after Paul's death, he found the man being dressed in a cool white linen suit by his new valet.

"I'm leaving", said Gabriel, simply.

"B-but you should see Dr Badlu first", the orderly protested.

"No need. I am well", said Gabriel, adjusting a panama hat, and studying the effect critically in a hand-mirror held up by Noni's replacement "You have all served your purpose, and I am grateful. But I am better now. Do I not look well?"

The orderly had to admit that Gabriel looked far better than he had when he'd first been admitted. He was still gaunt and emaciated, but his skin was soft and clear, not flaking off everywhere like a lizard's. He also seemed to have regained all his lost energy and vitality.

"I have my strength back", said Gabriel "Look".

Suddenly he shot out a hand and grasped the orderly around the throat, pulling him clean off his feet. The orderly felt as though his windpipe had been caught in a vice, and he had started seeing exploding red lights before Gabriel released him.

"B-but Dr Badlu will wish to know where you have gone", the orderly spluttered "It is hospital procedure".

"It's very simple", said Gabriel "I'm going to my place at Mundaba Heights. If he wishes he may follow me out there. But somehow I don't think he will want to, do you?"

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