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"What are you doing?" said Gimmit.
"Making up a list of everything we need before we set off tomorrow", said Joby, noting things in the back of Ransey's diary "Like how much water we're going to need, that kind of thing".
"It's the unexpected dangers in the desert you need to worry about", said Gimmit "Like I bet you didn't know that the next stretch is on sea-level?"
"So that means it's going to get a great deal hotter for one thing. And I bet you haven't noted in that about the perils of the tsetse-tsetse fly".
"They cause malaria don't they?" said Joby.
"And none of you are exactly equipped for dealing with a swarm of them. I mean, you have to make sure every part of your body is covered, and I don't suppose you can manage that".
"We'll improvise, think of something. Anyway, I don't see that having you around is going to protect us from the tsetse flies, or anything else for that matter".
"You need a professional advisor", said Gimmit "I've lived in the desert for years. I can help you. I want to help you. That's why I haven't moved on today".
"Jobe, are you busy?" said Kieran.
"Do you fancy another trip to the bar to see if the fat man's in there?"
"I don't wanna see him, thank you very much".
"Maybe not, but he might be able to give us information. I want to know more about this place".
"It's the journey ahead you need to worry about", said Gimmit.
"Come on", said Joby, shutting the notebook with a slap "I've had enough of the company in this vicinity".
Gimmit watched them move away and felt frustrated. He couldn't seem to make any impact on them at all. Suddenly he became aware that Lonts was watching him though.
"Can I help you?" said Gimmit.
"I just wondered if you were going to ... you know", said Lonts, looking around him rather dramatically "Have another of those funny cigarettes".
"Naughty boy Lonts", said Gimmit "Adam won't be pleased if he finds out".
"You're not going to tell him are you?" said Lonts.
"No, it's our secret", Gimmit moved up close to him "But I can't keep giving them away can I? They don't come cheap, and I want something in return".
"I could kiss you", said Lonts, awkwardly.
"Kisses are no bloody use to me", said Gimmit "I was thinking more that I need food. You can sneak me some out, and I mean something substantial, not just a paltry banana or two. Substantial supplies are what I need".
"I-I'm sure I could find something", said Lonts.
"See that you do".
This time when they entered the bar the barman presented two bottles of beer without any prompting at all. Because he moved away immediately afterwards it was obvious he didn't expect payment. There was absolutely no one else in the bar at all, not even fat man.
"Strange", said Joby, as they sat down at one of the rickety tables "I would've thought he was a permanent fixture in here".
"Look at this rubbish", said Kieran, angrily whisking away a bunch of garlic "Do they really believe it works? Could you see a bit of garlic keeping out the likes of Angel or Caln?"
"I spose we never tried it", said Joby "I've just remembered something I noticed about this place when we came in yesterday. No one, except fat man, was drinking. They were all sat here, but they had no glasses or bottles on the tables".
"Ah well hopefully we might find out a few things now", said Kieran, as the door opened and the fat man walked in.
"If he starts yelling insults I'm walking out", said Joby.
"Perhaps he's sober".
"Don't look it to me".
"You fucking arse bandits still here then?" the fat man yelled.
"Still as charming as ever", said Joby.
"Why don't you join us?" said Kieran "As you're so keen to know about us?"
"Look lads", the fat man waddled over. His breath stank of alcohol, but he didn't seem quite as paralytic as usual "A word of friendly advice now. Clear out of here, it's no place for you".
"Now why do you say that?" said Kieran "We survived last night unscathed".
"Apart from some wanker using our home as a public convenience", said Joby.
"Eh? ... Oh yea, I'm sorry about that", the fat man sat down at their table "You'll have to forgive my ways, I've been out here too long you see. It's not a place to get stuck in, and I think you should leave a.s.a.p".
"How did you end up here then?" said Kieran.
"I haven't a clue", the fat man laughed humourlessly "Sins in a previous life I expect".
"Why don't you leave?" said Joby.
"Can't you guess?" said the fat man "I can't leave. None of us here can. I thought you might have figured that out by now. I'm stuck here, so I get rat-arsed. There's nothing else I can do".
"But look, this beer", said Joby, picking up a bottle "It must come from somewhere. You must get deliveries in and out".
"Have you seen how old these bottles are?" said the fat man "It's not just the heat that makes the beer taste ropey you know".
"So what'll you do when the booze runs out?" said Kieran.
"Go mad I expect, except no one'd notice round here. Much less care", said the fat man "Look, I'm not just abusive because it gives me something to do, but because I'm really concerned about you being here. You should leave before he finds out you're here".
"I think it's best you don't know too much. If you see him you'll know him", said the fat man "Give it up lads. You're not going to win this one".
"So, how is the supplies situation?" said Adam "And how strictly do we have to be rationed over the next three hundred miles?"
"It's not at crisis point", said Ransey, shutting one of the food baskets and placing it back on the ledge under the wagon "But you must bear in mind that there are six of us to feed. We're going to have to be very careful".
"As I thought", said Adam "Still, I'm assuming it'll take us ten days to cover the distance, so it won't be as bad as it sounds".
"Ten days?" said Ransey "You're talking of averaging thirty miles a day! That's a fair amount of walking".
"We're all in the prime of life, there's no reason why we shouldn't".
"You're obviously not taking into account any injuries".
"Ransey, anyone injured can ride in the wagon", said Adam, with forced patience "It's horse injuries we have to worry about".
"That's certainly true. Mind you, Hillyard keeps a good eye on them", said Ransey "You're right I suppose. There's no reason why we can't manage it, and we can take it in turns to rest in the wagon, so we're not walking flat out all the time".
"Exactly. Not nearly as horrific as it sounds".
"I'm just being cautious", said Ransey, prodding his spectacles back up his nose "The natural accountant you see. We do have another problem though, and quite a serious one".
"Someone's been pinching from the stores recently. I wouldn't mention it if it was just the odd biscuit or something. After all, we all get peckish. But this is serious. Several of our tins are missing, and we rely on them for back up".
"I know", Adam sighed "It seems I'm going to have to do a bit of questioning. That's going to be difficult without everyone thinking I'm accusing them of theft".
"I'm sure you'll handle it", said Ransey "I promise you it wasn't me, even though I know my appetite is legendary".
"You wouldn't have pointed it out if it was", said Adam "And it's not me. I only get tempted to raid the coffee. I can't think who would do such a thing. Perhaps it's Gimmit".
"He doesn't come near the wagon. Too scared of you I think".
"One of the villagers could've sneaked out in the night I suppose".
"We'd have heard something. I know I would have done anyway. I was awake most of last night".
"It doesn't make sense. Still, I'll pop over and ask Hillyard now. I'll question my two when they finally emerge from the bar".
"Haven't you forgotten someone?"
"Lonts isn't likely to now is he? Not unless he's been building something out of the tins. You can't be serious Ransey".
"Why not? He's got quite an appetite on him these days, and he does like picking at things, like that banana cake the last lot of villagers gave us".
"I was never told about that", said Adam "I can't believe he'd pinch food from us though".
"No fool like an old fool", Ransey sighed.
"Alright, there's no need to get offensive. Where is he at the moment?"
"Talking to Gimmit in his tent. And I'd knock that on the head too if I was you. Knowing how you feel about Gimmit I'm surprised you let him go over there".
"Gimmit's near his age", said Adam, awkwardly "I thought it'd be good for him. I worry about him spending so much time with me".
"Adam! I wouldn't trust that lad Gimmit to see me across a quiet road. You don't know what rubbish he's filling Lonts's head with".
"O.K O.K", Adam held up his hands in surrender "I'll go and get him and ask him about the tins. He's never going to get better though if none of you lot will give him the chance!"
To Lonts's relief Gimmit was pleased with the tins, and rolled a spliff straightaway. They sat huddled inside Gimmit's tent, the sweet aroma of the cigarette completely filling the claustrophobic interior.
"Don't you get afraid, travelling alone?" said Lonts.
"I have protection", said Gimmit "From the one that guards me. I don't know why you don't join me. It'll be more fun for you than being with this lot, don't you think?"
"They're alright", said Lonts, stoutly.
"Yes but you're just a burden to them Lonts", said Gimmit "Whereas we could really use you".
This triggered off a panic in Lonts's mind. The events at the Waxworks Resort were still vivid in his mind. He was getting wise as to what use some strangers might have in store for him.
"If you keep giving donations like this", said Gimmit, indicating the heap of tins at his feet "Then it won't be long before we can see the back of your lot. We'll starve them out".
"But I don't want to see the back of them".
"Don't be pathetic Lonts. All the while you stay with them you will never develop. You'll sit around for the rest of your life with your thumb in your mouth. With us you have a chance to live".
Lonts stared at Gimmit, in a desperate attempt to understand what he was saying. But as ever when he got confused he panicked. By the time Adam unzipped the tent he didn't know whether to feel afraid or relieved.
"You stole our food to give to him!" Adam cried, pouncing on the tins "I would never have thought that of you Lonts. Not ever. I am very disappointed in you".
"B-But ..." Lonts began to cry. Adam had seized the tins and left the tent immediately. Gimmit was looking smug.
"Doesn't look like they want you now", said Gimmit.
Lonts bolted out of the tent, and caught Adam up.
"He said he wanted paying Adam", Lonts blubbed "For the funny cigarette. I had to think of something".
"You took food from us to pay for a lousy rotten joint?" Adam roared "It's the worst thing you could have done. Out here we need everything we can get if we're going to survive. You'll never know how disappointed I am in you Lonts. That's it, I'm finished with you. Go with him if that's what you want. You're made for each other".
When they reached the wagon Ransey was wearing an "I-told-you-so" expression. Adam piled the tins in his arms.
"Don't send me away!" Lonts wailed "I didn't know what else to do".
"This is food you stupid little ..." Ransey exclaimed "Oh I can't trust myself to speak to him".
"You won't have to for much longer, he's going with Gimmit from now on".
"No!" Lonts cried.
"That's a bit harsh Adam", said Ransey, calming down immediately "What he did was wrong but there's no need to send him into exile".
"You've changed your tune".
"I never wanted him sent away", Ransey protested "If you do that you'll regret it for the rest of your life".
"God help me I know", Adam sighed "Alright Lonts, you're not going anywhere".
Lonts tried to stop crying and gulped frenziedly. He silently obeyed when Adam ordered him into the wagon.
Adam found Joby and Kieran sitting mournfully in the bar, with an astonishingly subdued fat man next to them. The fat man looked askance at Adam's nipple-rings.
"Take the lads away from here", he said, passing Adam on his way out of the bar "This isn't the place for any of you".
"One more night won't do any harm surely?" said Adam.
"On your head be it", said the fat man, and left the room.
"What are you doing here Adam?" said Joby.
"I've come to find you", said Adam "I suddenly wanted to make sure you were alright".
"You don't seem too good yourself", said Kieran.
"Oh just a bit of trouble with Lonts", Adam dusted a chair before sitting down "The little horror has been trading some of our supplies in for a joint from Gimmit".
"You what?" Joby exclaimed.
"It's alright I've got them back, and Lonts is confined to the wagon for the rest of the day".
"I hope you gave him what-for".
"Yes Joby, you sadistic fiend, I did", said Adam "He's had his butt soundly spanked, and I don't think he'll forget it in a hurry either".
"Sounds like he got off too lightly to me", said Joby.
"Well I don't think so", said Adam "There's no malice in Lonts, he's just easily tempted that's all. Weren't you at his age? You're very lucky I didn't wallop you for every time you got roaring pissed on me or you'd still be standing up now".
"I didn't nick your food to get booze", said Joby.
"Give it a rest! I can understand this place has made you nervous, but there's no need to lay all the evils of it at Lonts's door. Now come on back to the wagon, I don't know what you want to sit in this dreary place for anyway".
Lonts was lying face-down on his bed-roll, sobbing into his pillow, when Joby and Kieran entered the wagon.
"Well well if it isn't the bloke who steals food from his friends", said Joby.
"He's been punished Joby, just leave it at that", said Kieran.
"I hope he has", Joby yanked down the back of Lonts's shorts "Only slightly pink! I would've thought it'd been a ruler job myself. Adam must be getting soft in his old age".
"It was bad enough!" Lonts sobbed.
"Wimp", said Joby, climbing wearily into his bunk.
Lonts continued to cry. The spanking had been quite severe in fact, but far worse than that was that Adam hadn't been in to see him since. Normally he hugged him afterwards, but this time he had simply tipped Lonts off his knee and ordered him into bed, before leaving the wagon.
"Oh pack that in Lonts!" said Joby "You keep snivelling all the time, it does me head in".
"It's all over now Lonts", said Kieran, stroking the boy's hair gently "Take no notice of Joby, he always gets like this when he's been on the warm beer".
"Adam was so angry", said Lonts "He wanted to send me away".
"He should've done", said Joby.
"Joby!" said Kieran "You have to brush over what Adam says when he's angry Lonts. You have to learn to take it with a pinch of salt. He would never have made you leave, it's the last thing he would have done".
"Joby wants me gone though".
"No he doesn't", said Kieran, and then growled at Joby aggressively "Do you?"
"No, not really", said Joby, sleepily "It's just the heat getting to me. We're not used to it this hot where we come from. I don't suppose you are either. I mean, did you ever have anything but snow in Kiskev?"
"We had nice summers", said Lonts, wiping away his tears with the back of his hand "The White Nights we called them, because it never went dark".
"It's going to get even fucking hotter for us", Joby went on "According to Gormless Gimmit anyway".
Ransey climbed into the wagon. There was a trickle of blood coming from a small gash on his face, and he was considerably shaken.
"A fucking bird just attacked me", he cried "It just swooped down out of nowhere and went for me".
"Not a raven was it?" said Kieran.
"Yes it was. Huge, ugly bastard with an evil-looking beak", said Ransey "I'll be glad when we're out of here. Nothing's normal, not a thing".
Hillyard had been sitting staring at the corpse for some time. He had seen dead bodies before, including his closest friend, but never one like this, except perhaps Tomce after Angel had finished with him. It was fresh and yet the insects had already got to it, packing themselves under the skin so tightly that it had burst in some places. There was a sharp twig rammed firmly into one of the eyes, the blood from the burst orb had ran down the coal-black cheek and had since stained dry.
Adam walked round the side of the ruined chapel, and brought himself up short on seeing the body as well. What was almost as big a shock was the sight of the dead snake coiled around Hillyard's neck. The whole scene had a grotesque dreamlike quality, and he wondered if when he touched Hillyard the other man would fall heavily to one side, to add to the trio of corpses.
"That wasn't there yesterday", said Adam, pulling a dirty handkerchief out of his pocket and holding it up to his nose "Come away Hillyard. Nothing's going to be achieved by you gazing at it".
"What happened to him?" said Hillyard, turning to stare at Adam helplessly.
"Come away", Adam repeated, more firmly.
Hillyard got to his feet, and followed Adam until they had rounded a corner and were out of sight of the body.
"Why is there a dead snake around your neck Hilly?" said Adam.
"I shot it", Hillyard replied, still sounding shocked and numb "You said you wanted me to find something, anything, to eat so I shot this. I heard someone say once that rattlesnake tasted like chicken".
"I think I've lost my appetite after seeing our friend there", said Adam "But I expect the others will feel adventurous enough to try it ... the snake I mean".
"We're not going to tell them about the body?"
"Only if one of them says he's going to come down here, and I'll try and actively discourage them if they do. We'll be gone from here tomorrow, there's no reason for them to know".
"He wasn't there yesterday, you said so", said Hillyard "He's been killed whilst we've been here. We heard nothing, saw nothing".
"Hillyard, pull yourself together", Adam shook him "Come on now".
"I'll be alright".
"I'm glad to hear it. Now let's get back to the wagon".
The others found the process of cooking the snake over the fire completely fascinating. Hillyard though had retreated to his bed-roll, and lay shivering like a malaria victim. Adam watched him and felt increasingly like a victim of some sort himself. The entire day's events left him stunned and bewildered, from Lonts's deception (although he was more horrified now that he had nearly sent the boy away than any act on Lonts's part), to fat man's warning, to the bird attacking Ransey, and now the discovery of the anonymous corpse.
He emerged from the wagon as the others were taking dainty nibbles at the snake, and declaring their critical verdicts on it like the judges in a gourmet cooking competition. As soon as the meal was over Adam sent Lonts back to bed, and then announced that he was going to the bar to see if he could coax some brandy or rum out of the barman. The others looked completely scandalised at this.
"Not for me!" he said, testily "Although God knows I feel like it after another day in this place. Hillyard's not well, I thought it might do him good".
"What's the matter with him?" said Ransey, whose cheek had been patched up by Kieran.
"Nothing serious, I don't think. Perhaps he just picked up a chill when he was out hunting today".
"In this weather?" Joby exclaimed.
"Don't argue with me Joby".
"I'll come with you", said Kieran.
Adam was relieved by this, and they walked in comfortable silence to the depressing shack. There was no one inside but the barman, who had been sitting facing the door as though he was an automaton, ready to spring into action at the first sight of a customer. Once again, he didn't argue or demand payment when Kieran asked if he could spare some rum.
"He'll never make a profit at this rate", Kieran whispered "Empty bar, and all the booze on credit".
The barman presented him with a whole bottle of rum, and merely looked bored when Kieran protested that they didn't need so much.
""What is it with this place?" Adam suddenly exploded "What are you people? Are you dead from the neck up, what is it here?"
"We're a useful stopping-off point", said the barman, addressing them for the first time.
"A stopping-off point? For what? How?"
"You should leave as soon as possible. You have no place here".
"He never said a truer word I suspect", said Adam, when they returned outside into the sultry darkness "Patsy? Are you alright? You're not going into a trance on me are you?"
Kieran handed him the bottle of rum, and then proceeded to duck his head under the pump. He wetted his hair, and sluiced his neck. When he re-surfaced he looked like a man emerging from a long bout of pain.
"Adam", he said, quietly "They're all dead".
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