Written for "Discovered in Temptation" on the discoveredinalj livejournal community, for "hubris"
"Watch out for that one. He'll knife you, soon as look at you. Doesn't give a double damn which side you're on."
Bodie only wished to hell he knew which side he himself was on. It seemed his chief problem in life just now. He shrugged and smirked at the admonition, his cockiness intentionally apparent. Then he examined the object of the cautionary phrase.
It was a young man of very slight build. Bodie approved. A lean habitus was good in this calling. Swiftness would keep the man alive when scrambling through the brush, dodging land mines. Rushing for cover, he represented a smaller target.
But on the other hand, and much more to the point, he was too fair complected to stay healthy here. On the plateaus, destruction by the sun would be fiercely at work on him. And in the damp ravines, the flies, mosquitoes, and parasites would devour him. Those small monstrosities adored the smell and taste of tender pale flesh. "Go back where you came from," Bodie silently concluded.
"Hullo. I'm Bodie. And you are?"
"He doesn't talk," Waneright intervened. "Dumb as doorwood. But not deaf. Hears every word you're saying in any palaver you'd care to pick."
Queszado pitched in with his tuppence worth. They were all bored at their post, and they would talk now until parched tongues forced their mouths closed. "Our revered generalissimo," this said with sneering insolence, "calls him Royal Derby."
"Because of his porcelain face. Got a bit of a crack in it, though." This was from Malderk.
Malicious slime. Bodie despised him already.
"RD for short nicks," Waneright concluded, shifting onto his belly and swigging from his canteen.
Bodie studied RD, hoping for a return of his attention. There was none.
The slender man sat cross legged, back against the fissured trunk of an ancient yellowwood tree. His faded fatigues covered him completely, even to the fingerless gloves he wore. Sun bleached chestnut curls frothed from under a sweat stained slouch hat. His grubby fingernails probed the detritus, picking out desiccated grey seed pods which he popped into his mouth to munch.
"Filthy little bugger," Malderk offered. "Come too close and catch something nasty from him."
RD ignored the insult. In fact, he appeared quite oblivious to them all. But when a turaco called from a lofty branch, screaming at the interlopers to "go away," the soldier shielded his eyes, catching a glimpse.
Bodie searched the mass of shiny evergreen leaves until he found the bird on high. Viewed its glorious plumage, emerald breast, flaming vermilion crest raised in belligerence, long tail floating on a gossamer breeze. He smiled in appreciation of its punchinello motley, then returned his gaze to the man.
RD's full lips pressed together as if stifling a laugh at the clarity of the avian words. A moment only, and the expression sank again into oblivion. He shifted to pry a bit of peeling bark from the tree, scraped some sap from the underside, stuck out his pink tongue to curl about the sticky wad, and commenced chewing on it.
Bodie selected a tube of zinc oxide from his camp pack, spread a thin layer to vanish upon his nose and cheeks. Then he offered a dollop on his outstretched hand. "RD. Tend to your hooter? Not quite medium rare, but getting there."
It seemed to him the other's perceptions rose slowly from dark depths. Finally a semblance of cognizance was there.
The scarcest contact it was, a mere touch and then gone.
Malderk's snort marred the moment. "Scummy dinlo. Just watch him now."
RD carefully mixed a sprinkling of dark soil into the paste on his palm before smearing the murky stuff on his skin.
"Yeah." Bodie sliced into Malderk with a wicked glare, silently flinging it back at him. "No need for camo on your mug, is there? No question of porcelain on your dial, cracked or otherwise." Then he turned away in disparaging dismissal.
The squawk of the radio interrupted the natural progression of their conflict.
"Hello, hello, fun time. Shufti to the north and south, then return to base. Divvy up, Queszado and Malderk with me. RD with Bodie. Now then," and Waneright took off, leaving no opportunity for dispute.
When Bodie arrived, weary and footsore back at base, it didn't surprise him to find RD there ahead of him. The sleek soldier had vanished during their reconnaissance, and Bodie had felt unmotivated to track him.
Much later, the others reappeared in camp, minus Malderk.
Waneright studied Bodie with open distrust. "Found some blood, signs of a struggle. He just disappeared. No noise and no body."
"Supernatural," Queszado grinned ghoulishly while crossing himself.
It appeared Malderk hadn't been too popular with his comrades at arms. Wasn't much of a loss then.
Turning away from them, Bodie approached RD.
He was staring into the sunset. No other soul dwelt on his plane of existence.
His Colonel was invited to dine with their General. To add face to the lesser man's importance, Bodie was to serve as batman for his officer at table, strictly unofficially, of course.
Bodie was willing to go along with the servant charade. The position was good, since, unbeknownst to anyone, Bodie's secret orders were to get as close to the General as quickly as possible, and then to stick there with all his might.
Judging from the General's lubricious stare, Bodie was welcome to approach quite a bit nearer than he intended. "Not on your life, sir," he covertly reflected with a shudder, eyeing the gristly, hairy fellow with distaste. "In the event I were to opt for buggery in the bush, it'd be with someone much younger and tastier than you."
Before his imagination could stray to specific anatomic details of delight, however, he nailed his attention back onto the dinner table.
It was a lavish spread. The generalissimo apparently hadn't heard that the war torn countryside all around them was plunging into a terrible famine. Either that, or he didn't care. Bodie decided it was the latter case.
The elegantly hand scripted menus placed at each setting on the white linen tablecloth described several courses. For hors d'oeuvres, there were olives wrapped in thin strips of biltong, and smoked poisson capitain spread thinly upon injera, rolled and sliced into pretty coils. This was to be followed by corn soup, fresh lobster, melon sorbet, lamb chops with sauteed yam and plantain slices, raisin tarts settled in sour cream sauce, crisp bondue and tomato salad, newly pressed white cheese with digestive biscuits, coffee, and honey wine.
Bodie was amused to notice a mahogany box filled with Cuban cigars arrayed next to the coffee carafe. Considering that the mercenary military force here assembled was specifically aligned against invaders which included soviet-backed commandos of that island nation, it seemed a political faux pas to showcase their fancy export at a dinner party.
He shrugged his shoulders. Maybe the smokes had been pillaged from the enemy? Then again, maybe their chief commander was playing both ends against the middle. Bodie filed the idea for further consideration.
The General started his guests off with glasses of half-sweet Madeira. And utterly unconcerned with the insult to the Colonel, he kept pouring another glass for Bodie. So that the absurd scene consisted of Bodie serving the Colonel, followed by the General serving Bodie.
What with the blustery Colonel having his feathers ruffled, the General licking his lips at Bodie while trying to get the stunning young man sloshed, and the other guests grinning and nudging each other, Bodie found himself having an hellaciously hard time not to snicker audibly.
The guests were all standing around, munching appetizers and swapping old campaigner lies of outrageous magnitude, when the General slipped quietly into an anteroom.
Bodie, of course, surreptitiously edged his way over to eavesdrop on the muttering within the small office.
It wasn't what he'd thought. Not at all.
Inside were two massive bodyguards. Restrained between them was RD. The General unlocked a portable camp desk and withdrew from it a vial, a tourniquet, and a glass syringe with a reusable needle.
Bodie clenched his jaws tightly as he watched the General inject a clear fluid into the soldier's antecubital vein.
The General instructed the guards. "Give him ten minutes for the fix to take. Then go have him wash, thoroughly. I'll be in later, after my guests leave."
Hastily, Bodie stepped away from the curtained door.
The feast was a rollicking success. After stuffing themselves on the food and drink, several of the men helped themselves unabashedly to the cigars. When they raised their glasses for the traditional "loyal toast", the generalissimo proposed loudly, "Here's to victory, may it always be mine."
None of the guests choked as they swallowed the wine. If there were dissenters present, they were undemonstrative in their antagonism.
With only one successful grope to his buttocks over the entire dinner period, Bodie heaved a relieved sigh and escaped to his tent. He hoped in the General's case, it was "out of sight, out of mind."
But where did that leave RD?
Bodie hunched his shoulders into the comfort of his bedroll. He tried to sleep. Every time he closed his eyes, he was presented with an image of the slender soldier, drooping between the two brutish guards, at the untender mercy of the General.
Bodie groaned. His assignment here was on behalf of Queen and Country. It did not, by any means or manner, involve the mysterious captive. He enforced upon himself a term of rest, while he tracked the moon's progress across the clear dark sky, by its mercurial light upon the canvas of his tent.
When the night descended into its stillest shadow, he rose.
He had cased the command building over several days, and knew exactly which room he wanted, where the documents he would need to see were stored. Silently he slunk across the compound, slipped unobserved into the building, past the dozing guards. He picked the lock on the box of interest, then sorted calmly through the documents, committing various lines, phrases, maps and images to memory.
He had been at it, undisturbed, for over an hour, when suddenly there came the sound of breaking glass. A thump and an angry curse were followed by silence.
Hastily, Bodie tidied the lock box, fastened it, then sneaked out. He hesitated to exit the way he'd come. Surely the snoring guards would have awakened at the noise, brief though it had been. He retreated toward the back of the building, intending to climb out a sheltered window there.
He stopped before a barred storeroom. But when he went to pick the latch, it gave way in his hand. The jaundiced light of the hall settled upon the scene within.
Bodie faced a demonic visage of utmost wrathful vengeance. Poisonous green eyes glittered with hatred. Hands clenched with manic strength a leather belt cinched to a garrotte circle of death.
Bodie settled the door closed behind him. He crept gingerly forward, one hand outstretched in a placatory gesture, the other fingering the pommel of his blade, loose in its sheath at his back.
"Here now, he's dead already, mate. You can stand down. Crushed trachea and cervical dislocation, both by the look of him."
Bodie reached past the strangled body to gently touch the live one. It was a mistake.
Instantly they were locked in combat. Hands were at his throat, nails clawing at his eyes, teeth at his jugular, knees pounding his groin.
He curled and went limp, willing the crazed creature upon him to sense the surrender. It took a full minute before he felt the muscular tension overlying him begin to ease.
Instantly in a reflex arc he flipped his assailant, pinning him down face first, his thighs straddling the writhing lower limbs, torso pressed against the bony back, the subdued man's right arm twisted toward the scapulares until the ligaments crackled, slender throat in a desperate choke hold, head pounded repeatedly against the flimsy flooring.
Bodie leaped back, not trusting the still figure to be truly unconscious. He nudged the head with his boot, only just realizing then that the body spread out before him was utterly nude.
"It occurs to me why the guards aren't rushing back here to check on us. Likely they're expecting the sounds of an ongoing tussle from you two." He chuckled, then swiped ruefully at a trickle of blood dribbling down his cheek. He glanced around until he discovered a mound of grimy clothing discarded in a corner, and fetched it.
"Here now," he clutched the curls, cuffed the other's face a couple of easy blows. "Wake up. Time to scarper. Get dressed, hurry up. Look at me. Look at me! That's right. It's me, pretty Bodie, lovely Bodie, your bestest ever chum. You remember me, don't you? That's it. Jump into your togs, there's a sweet lad. We'll slink off, laughing at them, wont we?"
To his astonishment, RD complied, quickly and silently dressing.
It was a matter of mere moments to open the narrow window, slip through it, and disappear into the bleak pre dawn gloom.
They fled until they drooped and dropped.
Then after they'd sucked at Bodie's canteen and panted desperately awhile, they ran some more.
They scrambled through montane patches and waded past muddy wallows, bandanas shrouding their faces to avoid inhaling the insect swarms. They clambered up rocky terrain, teetered on terrifying heights, slid down crumbling slopes, sometimes on their boot soles, occasionally on their knees or rumps. When gravity took over, they tumbled and fell, tearing their sleeves and trouser legs, bloodying their extremities.
Recovering from plunges, they plucked each other out of the scrub and ran again.
They were equally hearty, both of a similar young age and very fit. But RD seemed strangely biddable, entirely open to commands. Eventually Bodie worried about the man's drugged status. If ordered to do so, would he run until he burst an artery and haemorrhaged to death?
Bodie's concern caused him to enforce a prolonged halt. The shadows were lengthening again, the sun subsiding toward their sought horizon. The escape attempt had lasted many hours that day.
"Enough!" Bodie called out. "That's it for me, I've had it. You?"
RD collapsed to his knees. Otherwise, there appeared no acknowledgment of Bodie's presence.
Testing his supremacy, Bodie decided to push commandment as far as it would go.
"Look at me." This resulted in a vague stare in his direction.
"Say something. Talk to me." Nothing. Well, maybe RD actually was incapable of speech.
"Take off your shirt." That instruction got prompt obedience. Sighing, Bodie pulled out his first aid kit. Might as well seize the opportunity to treat the other's numerous lacerations and abrasions.
"Rest your head in my lap." He did.
Inspiration struck. "Lick my crotch." Bloody hell!
"Awright, awright. Enough. Cease and desist." Bodie grabbed at the gleaming white shoulders and firmly uprighted the man. Then he shifted to ease his swelling erection.
RD's glare drew his attention. Was there really hatred in the look? Or was it the canted feline eyes, slitted against the sunset flare, which rendered the expression so wicked?
"Bodie old son," he cautioned himself, "yer trifling with death and destruction here."
He spoke up. "One thing's certain. You're not naturally subservient, not by the longest chalk. Listen, I'm sorry. I won't do it again, I swear it. Let me disinfect your cuts, would you?"
RD dropped again into ennui. Bodie eased closer to touch the translucent flesh. It was lovely stuff and seemed to go on for miles. Under his fingers, it quivered.
Bodie inched away. "Maybe you'd better do me first. Here, this one's for cleaning the damage. Then this tube's got some antibiotic stuff or other. Go easy on it. We'll need to make it last awhile." He paused to unroll his bedding, then stripped to his skivvies and dropped luxuriously down. The feel of RD's hands soothing his hurts was extreme pleasure.
"You're not stupid either, whatever Malderk said. Perhaps a tetch tapped, though. Wonder if you offed him. Did you slash Malderk's throat maybe, just for grins? But how'd you get rid of the body so fast? Found a stray leopard to feed? Ha."
RD stared down at his hands. But Bodie perceived it wasn't a display of guilt. Rather his own shift in position had rendered impractical the prior order to tend his injuries, leaving the man clueless what to do next.
Bodie shook his head. "You think I did it? Might well have done. On the short list of suspects, I am. He rated it, didn't he? Asked for it. But no, I've another pursuit just at present, can't be distracted. Or couldn't, rather. Past tense. You really cocked it all up royally. Left me holding a mess kit fulla shit."
He shifted to tend RD's back. "That Old Man wallop you? Took a strap to your hide, eh? There's another one got what was coming to him. Justice, righteous retribution. He had to have been a natural born bamstick to hand you a weapon like that."
Bodie grasped one lean shoulder firmly, steadying the reflexive cringe that came at each touch of stinging antiseptic. "You willing to drop trou? Can treat your own legs all right. But there's some nasty shredding back of your thighs you'd best let me clean."
The suggestion brought no return. Bodie groaned aloud. "Take off your trousers."
RD stood to shed them.
Efficiently, Bodie dressed the oozing sores, then handed the supplies back to RD, to finish his knees and calves.
Soliloquy was wearing extremely thin.
"I'm being punished, I swear. But for which sin, I wonder? Can probably name them all. Let's see here. Dopey, Grumpy, wait, no, that's the seven dwarves. Try over. Hanging Gardens, Colossus at Rhodes. Fuck, wrong again. Seven wonders and that lot. Hmmm, let's see, what can it be?"
He scratched his chin, rumpled his hair, contorted his face, glanced at his comrade.
For once RD was looking at him. Maybe the foolish buffoonery had torn through the fog a moment.
Bodie smirked. RD quirked. Ha, gotcha. Definitely something there.
"Awright, sins, yeah, s'all coming back to me now. Seven sins. Lemme see. Avarice? Naw, not that one. See, here, you can keep a secret, right? 'M not really a merc sodjer. Not any more, any rate. Just playing at it. So, not avarice, see? In Her Majesty's service, scanty paycheque, honour and duty and that sort of muck."
RD had his nether lip between his teeth.
"Hungry? Hang about." He rummaged in his pack. "What with your fleeing in the gloom of night, nearly nakey bum, nothing save your boot laces to eat, we're gonna have to share. Mere desiccated food bars and salt biltong between us. Shortly we'll be gnawing off limbs, I don't doubt."
He tossed a packet to a blank visaged RD, then retrieved and opened it before handing it to him with the succinct instruction, "Eat that."
He launched into his own rations. "I would say it'll put hair on your chest, but any more hirsute and it would start to weigh you down. Scrawny fuzzer. But you savvy what they say, right? The nearer the bone, the sweeter the meat."
He sipped out of his canteen, then helped RD to a swallow. "So, so, so. Where was I? Oh, yeah. Not gluttony. No chance of that at all." Chuckling, he patted the tense concavity of his belly.
"Lust?" He eyed the other from curls to fingers, arse to toes, over the thighs and back up again, settling at last on the chapped but full lips. "I'm resisting. Right here, right now. Right." The mutter sank to sotto voce. "Right."
"Got it." Bodie snapped his fingers, but they were too dusty to make much noise. "Hubris. Got to be it. Let me tell you, mate. Willem Handjob Pirrip Bodie, SAS sergeant supreme, at yer service. Seconded so often it'd make your head spin. Everyone wants pretty Willem on the job. And this assignment topped the lot. Change the course of the war, single-handed. The right man for the task, yeah. The Increment was guarding me like the crown jewels, MI drooling for me favours. Arrangements were made, negotiations occurred. Deals over me, yeah, me. Valuable commodity, regular resource I am. Ha. Was gonna show them all how it was done."
He leaned toward RD, low voiced and husky. "Supposed to be an assassination attempt planned against the old fart. Generalissimo Whattsahoozit. But would that event favour Our Lot or Theirs? Was supposed to find out. Study the situation. Make my determination. Prevent the assassination. Or not, my choice. Mine, alone."
He thumped his chest, a loud thud. "Weeks, I tell you. Weeks I was at it. Wonderful cover, with my merc experience and contacts. All the info you'd ever need, at me finger tips, finally. Studying it out, hard at it, night and day. And for what? Fuck all good it did me, being perfect."
He shook his head forlornly. "Huh. Don't need to tell you. Were there for the punch line, poor little rotten feisty sod. General got what he had coming to him, no lie. Arsehole attempted buggery of a tiger. "
He glanced up then.
RD's look was somewhere around Andromeda, he reckoned. "Can see you enjoyed me tragic tale. Broke yer heart, didn't it?" He dressed, then shook out his blanket and crawled under it.
"Put on all your clothes and fasten them tight. At this altitude, night will bung over baltic, trust me."
He savoured the show, every detail of the event, all the while wondering why the man's movements were so delectable to him.
The first stars were showing now, brilliant, far scattered, precious, the glittering panoply which rewarded the lonely traveller only in the darkest places on earth.
"Come here and lie down." He turned on his side and patted the narrow mat. "Or you'll turn into an ice lolly by sunrise. And then I'll eat ya. Come here."
RD came to him then.
"All the way up against me, so I can cover us both. That's it. Toasty warm."
Bodie touched the curls for comfort. It was good, was nice. He clasped the slim body.
The universe whirled and twirled, velvet and gems, all around them, just for them.
Bodie didn't give a damn for sin.
Temptation might be another matter.
He sighed, then slept.
"Fire and brimstone. Just what I need to render life ducky."
Bodie awoke feeling feverish. "Vaccinated and quinined to the gills against every ill known to modern man. And then I, like a playground babby, succumb to a human bite."
RD squirmed away from his grip and staggered to the edge of their overlook. He stood on the brink a moment, like he might be about to take the plunge.
Thoroughly alarmed, Bodie heard his pulse pounding in his facial arteries. "Careful not to fall," he croaked. Oh great, that sound would certainly soothe any suicidal tendencies.
RD ignored him anyway. His stare pinioned to the horizon, he fumbled at his flies, drew forth his prick and watered the scenery far below.
"Jay-sue-us! Scared the life out of me." Shivering miserably, Bodie crawled to the cliff side, dragged himself to sitting, and dangled his feet over the edge. He glanced up.
RD had left his hammer hanging. The man seemed capable of responding instinctually to basic animal urges, but his fragmented intellect left some of his civilised behaviour rather wanting.
With his mane of curls, aquiline profile, and innocent cock, RD seemed to be attempting a surrealist impression of Michelangelo's David. The long, drooping fingers, directionless in aim, aided the image.
"Tuck yerself in again, there's a good lad. Fasten it. That's right, all tidy. Sit down here, easy does it. Don't pitch forward. Ah. Exhilarating view, innit?"
Bodie smoothed the other's frowsy hair. "I'm all over burnt toast, got a fever this morning and it's your fault. There I was trying to help you get away from the General, and you went and bit me. Pretty deep I guess." He palpated the impression RD's teeth had left in the tight bulge of his neck muscles. It felt nasty, tender and inflamed.
"Give a tinker's damn? Nah, not you. You're a hellion in a brawl, y' know that? Furious little spitfire. Hm, how's that piece go? 'No pale gradations quench his ray, no twilight dews his wrath allay.' Huh, wha'? What's wrong now?"
RD had scrambled to his feet and hastily backed away from Bodie.
"Erm, you hate Walter Scott? Revile Rokeby? Despise poetry in general, me quoting in particular? Afraid of catching the plague? Or what? Hold still, stay, come back. I promise, I'll keep me musings to meself in future, okay?"
Bodie dragged himself back to his gear and sorted through the comestibles. "Freeze dried cereal plank. Yum in the tum, and rumpity plum. Here you go, take it. I'm safe to approach. Couldn't consummate, even with the urge, trust me. 'M wasted, rubbish, latrine dregs."
RD inched forward to crouch beside him.
Bodie unwrapped the ration before handing it to him. "Eat that," he ordered. Then he yanked him down, off his haunches to settle more comfortably. "Relax. Enjoy."
RD contentedly munched.
Bodie could order the man to be happy, and succeed? Who knew?
RD glared at him. Ah, too good to be true, that last reprieve.
"Awright. So I'm incorrigible, contemptible, unforgivable, you've got the ruddy right to resent. Acknowledged. At least let me explain?"
RD resumed eating. Bodie took it for grudging permission.
"See here. You seem like the sort of bloke that understands duty. Maybe even subscribes to it? Least you strike me that way. 'Strike me', that's brilliant. Pun, hor har." He ruefully massaged his wounded neck. "Um, strayed again. Where? Oh yar. That nasty trick yesterday, where I had you lick the gemstones. See, I get into mission mode. Locked on target. You stand in the way and get blasted. I want you to be on my side, don't I? But for all I know, I'm aiding and abetting, giving comfort to the enemy. Not the ticket at all, that."
RD had finished the food and was trying to pry the dried remnants from his parched gums with his wriggling pink tongue.
Bodie cringed. "Here, wash out yer moosh. There's likely water downhill from here." He handed over the canteen.
"Quit interrupting, I'm trying to make amends. So. Was testing you. Thought you might be faking the drug drama. Sprung something filthy on you, just to see if you'd follow through on the order. And you did. Quite. Ahem."
He felt a stirring in his loins at the recollection.
"If I'd thought about it, maybe I wouldn't have. Even though, duty wise, I should have. Had to do over again, I might not. Dunno. Kyrie-iced, I feel like great heaving volumes of shite."
He dropped his face into his hands. There was a long pause while the whole mountainside felt unstable beneath him.
Then he got a nudge in his ribs.
RD was staring at him rather solemnly. He reached a slim hand into the depths of his knee pocket and brought out a grimy handkerchief. Carefully he unfolded it, revealing several grubby chunks that looked like petrified potatoes. Extracting one from the trove, he popped it into his mouth and started chewing. Then he elbowed Bodie again.
Bodie examined the stash. "Hullo. Been consorting with the natives? Got you some rabassma root there. Hear it's good for what ails you. What the hell." He shrugged, picked out a bit and started grinding it with his molars. It had a faint flavour of curry, with an underlying essence of laundry lint.
Meanwhile, RD poured a small splash of bug repellent into his palm. Then he spat the macerated pulp of rabassma root into it and stirred the mess with his fingertip.
Before Bodie knew enough to dodge, RD slapped his mucky palm against the bite mark and massaged it.
Bodie's eyes slammed shut and he shuddered. "Eck."
RD continued to rub. And wonder of wonders, after several minutes, the wound felt better.
"Damn. Who'd have thought it? My mate the witch doctor. Dunno which is worse, the complaint or the cure."
He collapsed back on the bedroll and drifted into a strange almost-waking dream state. In it, the morning sun rose, along with a black-shouldered kite who soared an hour or more on a thermal without once stroking his widespread wings. Confused with the image of the grand raptor's flight was a view of RD, the brilliant light beams stroking his zephyr-stirred curls. And then it was the man's slender fingers, stroking softly over Bodie's face, stirring a nameless yearning in his gut that was a hurtful stinging stab.
Eventually Bodie drifted back to some version of reality. He sat up with his senses reeling. "RD? I should be sweating but I'm not. We've got to climb down, find water." All very well to say it, but his feet seemed to have taken root in the rocks.
RD picked up the canteen, and stood as if to depart.
"Nah, tha's no good. Not safe to split up. Pack the gear. We'll walk together. Together or not at all."
RD nodded his head. The whole time he was rolling the bedding and settling the gear in Bodie's pack, his head continued to nod.
The monotonous swaying rhythm became painful to Bodie, until with a grimace, he pressed RD's cheeks between his hands to stop the tedious motion.
Bodie laughed at the comical appearance of the face squished by his pressing paws. When he released the captive, he patted the features.
"Aren't the two of us a grand pair?"
They took off with a certain earnest energy. Between stumbling and sliding, they made it down the scree slopes faster than they'd intended.
At the base, they were rewarded with the sound of rushing water.
"Is that not a beautiful sight?"
The silver thread materialised out of nowhere, veiled in a thin glittering mist, danced over smooth stones with a charming gurgle and the world's smallest rainbow, only to sink back into the dank underworld a few paces away.
"Would love to sip it sweet. But safer to kill the grange grunge first." Bodie filled the canteen and treated it with a sprinkle of bitter crystals. "We can drink our fill. And then have a lovely dhoby. What do you say? Shall we get nekkid and squeaky?" And he splashed RD playfully.
The dripping face that stared back at him was suddenly afire with rage.
Before Bodie could even contemplate defence, the furious soul flung itself upon him with lunatic strength. They fell hard upon the rocks and sprawled painfully.
With a feral snarl, RD reached beyond Bodie, grabbed up a flaming branch, which with arcane possession transmogrified into a fiery, hissing serpent, writhing and coiling in the man's fist.
He stood clutching it in some sort of hypnotised fascination before rearing back and flinging it as far as his strength could carry.
So astonished was Bodie that he could only blink and stare.
RD sank down to the dirt, clutching his fists in his hair, chin cradled on his knees, rocking his knotted body in a turmoil of unspent anger.
Bodie bided his time. Then he risked a closer proximity. He touched the muscular back cautiously. "You're mad at the snake, right? Not your pretty chum, Bodie. Never, ever at your lovely, sweet Bodie?"
RD took no notice of him yet.
Bodie crept his hand up the sleek shoulders, sneaked under the curls to soothe the tender flesh on the back of his neck. Nosed nearer to mutter in his ear. "You looking out after your mate, Bodie? Didn't want the snake to bite me? Scared it might have hurt me? Well, I should have kept better watch for meself. Call myself an expert. Ha. But she was only a smallish Cape Coral snake. Not so fiercesome as facing an adder or their family and friends. Tales I could tell you, would curl your hair. But maybe by the look of you, you've heard them all already?"
Bodie carefully extracted the man's fists from his hair. "Your head ache, maybe? Wonder if there's any withdrawal from the drugs going on. Lemme feel here." His fingertips settled over the pounding carotid pulse. "Not the happy camper just now, huh? Well, you come and get some cool water on you. And me too. And we'll start to feel better, soon, won't we just?"
RD flopped face down.
Bodie rolled him over, gave him a once over. Adrenaline overdose, he reckoned. He fetched both bandanas, drenched in cool water, folded one over RD's forehead. Bathed his own florid face with the other.
"Not going to stop washing til I'm soggy down to me toes."
RD's eyelashes fluttered in a ridiculously girlish expression.
"And welcome back." Bodie gave him a hand up.
Suddenly, licking his lips, RD leaned forward and nuzzled Bodie, a quick, humorous touch, just in front of his left ear lobe.
It tickled. Bodie chuckled.
RD pushed his sleeve up to his elbow and studied the pale surface of his forearm.
"Hey, did she get you?" Bodie grasped the wrist and quickly assessed the exposed limb, finding the twin puncture marks just below the area where healing needle tracks showed.
He cursed aloud, a long steady stream. "It's forgivable. I'm cursing for two, here," he explained after his mouth ran dry of spittle. "If that isn't a case of the biter, bitten. The bad news is there's no anti-venom for a Cape Coral. But that's lucky if you think about it, because we wouldn't have any out here. And the good news is, the reason there's no anti-venom for a Cape Coral is it's not generally a lethal bite. Just painful. Don't you love that phrase? Just. Ha. Well, now we can be utterly wretched together. Come on. Let's find us a site for a lie down, and then pass out."
He wrapped his arm around the slender waist and grabbed the belt there. Leaning upon each other, they made their way to the shadowed shelter of a nearby cliff. Then they lay upon the bedroll, waiting for the day to turn again into night.
The ancient hulk of mountain at their backs, a vast stretch of grassland whispering before them, the creatures, rare and striving there, were so far distant as to fade into non-entity.
Which left them alone together, taking what comfort they could in rest and company.
RD woke with Bodie's palm plastered over his mouth.
"Shh. Quick and quiet now. Jump up and scramble over. I'll be right there in that knot of scrub."
Sleek and silent, Bodie disappeared.
When RD arrived, Bodie shoved miniature field glasses at him. "Over there," he whispered. "About one o'clock on our circle. See them?"
RD scanned the perimeter until he fixed on the spot. He stopped and stared. Gradually a smile formed.
"How's that for a wonder? Worth being harassed from yer hammock early, eh? Look at her, and she's got a foal too. I'd say she was a Cape mountain zebra, but she's so far from home, it seems impossible. Way off course. And they're rarer than rare, nearly all gone. Farmers in the south destroyed them for spoiling the forage and crops. Such a figure on her. Shaped just like Eyore, isn't she? Like she ought to have her tail fastened on with a thumb tack. Little queeny. Well met, m' lady."
When RD offered, Bodie eagerly seized the glasses again. "Makes you wonder if maybe they're getting covered by the Hartmann stallions. Never heard whether that's possible. Any port in a storm, as they say. Where are the egghead experts when you need them? Just think of all the university desk jockeys would love to be in our boots right now."
As they packed to leave, Bodie's eyes continued a dreamy gleam, reflecting the clearest blue of the firmament, far flung to distant realms.
But then at decamping, his visage took on a harder edge. He grasped RD's shoulder firmly and about-faced him west. "We've got all that to cross on our way to the coast." He gestured at the uniform ocean of tall grass. "And once we're in it up to the crotch, it's no good turning left or right, but just carry on from puddle to muddle until it's done. Got it?"
RD's mouth scrunched, as if he were trying hard to fix his mind onto Bodie's words.
"But that's not all. I'm in charge, here on out, savvy? I say 'down' and you sink like a stone. I say 'up', you try for high as the sky. You've signed on with Pretty Willem for the duration, and from my point of view, nothing's fair in love or war. You need to tie down that temper of yours, well and snug. Let it loose, and I'll leave you alone with it."
RD bit his lip on a frown.
"You can do it, I know you can if you try. Now, if we cut the trail of whites, we drop down and hide. Just at present we're allies with no one, and you remember why as well as I do. We meet any of the blacks, you let me judge if they're friendly. If I run, you'll know to follow hard. And if I stop and smile, you goggle and drool. The locals have a way of coddling crazies. It's not good Darwinian sense, but they take care of their idiots, so do that dazed bit you're so stellar at."
Now RD favoured him with a scowl.
Bodie tapped him on the cheek. "Temper, temper. No you don't." Then he took off his belt and fastened it loosely over RD's neck. "Rest your gammy arm in this loop. Looks like Eve's apple at the end of a limb, complete with five stubby red worms." He gingerly touched RD's swollen hand. "In ambulance class, they call that dependent edema. You need to keep it up higher than your heart, whenever you can."
Bodie hauled on his own settling trousers. "I can't really spare that belt. But you're in even a worse case, flat-arsed, angular, with no spare pat of butter left on you anywhere."
They trudged toward an infinitely distant horizon.
Hours were tailed by days as they pursued their shadows, distorted by wavering forage into fractured silhouettes of their bodies. Shadows short, long, short again. Left, right, left again. Down on the grass, and up on their boots. From wallow to well spring, and often enough, a dry wash that was disappointingly dusty.
Sometimes they strode past herd animals, disturbing their grazing. Eland and wildebeest seemed well able to survive the beginnings of the local famine at least.
And much to Bodie's delight, they even encountered a few black palanca. "Giant sable antelope," he informed RD, who stood so in awe of their magnificent profiles, he could not be budged to continue marching until the swift, graceful forms were long lost visions.
They didn't travel at large, which would have been too conspicuous. Rather, they grubbed off the land in the lowest way possible. It was something Bodie knew well. Living on his skills, the two men sunk into sinew until they were nearly one with their shadows, but they endured.
After a great long while of evolution, they stopped slinking and walked upright. The assassination was a thing of the past, old news. Bodie reckoned the commandos in the latest version of the war gave a mole-rat's arse over dead and buried generals.
The whole country was being torn to bloody shreds followed by burning on the heap, and if the two of them looked enough the part of scoundrels, people knew to leave them well alone.
One day they walked along a bit of a trail, and Bodie stopped stock still.
RD was humming.
He paused to turn.
They stood looking at each other. They were two gaunt figures, sun bleached and tattered, desiccated to tough leather straps.
Bodie had to push his own fringe away in order to see.
RD's curls hung coppery, right down on his lean shoulders, tied away with the rag remains of bandana. His face was still, but his eyes glittered, green and bright.
"You would talk to me if you could, wouldn't you?"
RD tilted his head a moment, considering this. He swallowed repeatedly, and a clicking noise sounded deep in his throat. He nodded, then shrugged.
"But you used to be able to talk before this, right?" Bodie wondered aloud.
"Did someone throttle you? No. Was it the drugs then? Huh? I thought at one point, it was scopolamine, you were so compliant to order, open to suggestion. Except when you were trying to tear people's heads off, that is. But truth serum would never last this long. Should be right out of your system by now, surely. Something else, longer lasting then? You think so? Yeah, maybe."
Later, at the sun's zenith, they found a scrap of shade and settled. Bodie laughed. He drew a line in the soil and stepped over it. "That's our door," he declared. "Now we're in the parlour and up for some games. Charades, Twenty Questions." He took a swig from the canteen before handing it to his companion. "Here, have some sherry."
"Now, the only Mid-Easters as pale as you are the North Aff-gees. But you don't have the proper mug for it, so I say no to that. I would say you're a West Europer, certainly, but neither Dutch nor Portu-gazey."
RD grinned and nodded.
"Knew that. Knew you knew I knew that. I'm just showing off. Now. The only piece of you to look Norse is the bit of red in yer curls. And you've a Celtish face, so I vote for Irish, at least in ancestry. But born there? No. And you have the roamin' Roman nose. Which narrows the home turf to merry olde England, right? Moving along. Now comes some cleverness on my part. That bastard General was a mean maggot. I've been wondering. Called you 'Royal Derby', maybe for a reason. Maybe because you're from that part of the country? Hey, score."
RD nodded but scowled horribly at the mention of his old enemy.
Hastily Bodie adjusted the topic of conversation. "English, and yet you hate Walter Scott. You intimated as much a while ago."
RD chuckled and shook his head emphatically.
"Well, it was something I said had you aggravated, back then. But what? Hmm, a mystery, is it?"
"'Rokeby', wasn't it? But which line? Can't quite recollect."
RD folded his arms across his chest, shaking his head teasingly at Bodie.
"Can recite most of it, yards and yards of spouting. Comes from bobbing afloat over long spans of me misspent youth. Nothing like sea-going stints of boredom for memorisation of literary tracts, I may tell you. Now wait, I do recall. We were on about sins. It was the topic of wrath that inspired me to burble versefully. Ah ha. Eureka. 'No pale gradations quench his ray, No twilight dews his wrath allay.' I'm right, eh?"
Eyes sparkling with mischief, RD wiped a small swatch of earth clear, then wrote in the dirt.
"'RAY'? You dislike the sun, hate getting burned? No. Hmm. You wish you had Flash Gordon's RAY gun, so you could shoot me for an annoying git. Wrong again? Ray-what?"
RD pointed at the word written in the soil, then pointed to himself. Repeating the gesture, over and again, the ground, his chest, the ground, his chest.
Bodie wound up chanting simultaneously. "You-ray, you-ray, you-ray. Are we cheering from afar for your favourite rugger team?"
RD tumbled over, shaking with silent laughter. He had a good long giggle-fit.
Bodie had to laugh along with him, just from enjoying the appearance of great glee.
Finally RD righted himself, rubbing his aching belly. He smoothed his hand over the patch of dust and wrote again.
"'MY NAME'. Oh, crikey, I get it. Yer name's Ray. R is for Ray. And the D?"
Tediously, RD wiped the space again and printed.
"'DOYLE'. Got the Irish spot on, dint I? So, you're Ray Doyle." He stood up then with a great show of solemnity, and bowed so elegantly it seemed to fit him despite his ragged attire. "Honoured to make your acquaintance, sir."
Immediately and in bright contrast, he offered a rapscallion grin, grabbing RD in a bear hug, slapping him on the back, and then heartily shaking his hand. "Pleased to meetcha, Ray. My friends, and they know who they are, call me Bodie. Just-Bodie, if you please. The rest call me nothing at all, if they know what's good for them."
He still had RD's hand clutched in his. "You, mate? You can call me anything you like." And then, muttered softly to himself, "and I only wish you could, too."
With tectonic force, RD was slammed to the ground.
"Still as death. Don't even breathe," came the toxic hiss in his ear.
He obeyed, left off breathing for eons, until acidic asphyxiation burned in his chest. When at last he couldn't bear it further, he gasped. The weight pressing upon his back wouldn't allow sufficient intake of air. A miserable moan welled in his chest, grappling with a choking cough for supremacy. He pressed down into the earth as if seeking the oblivion of his own burial.
"Shh." The crushing weight shifted, grinding muscle mass into the marrow of his bones.
Commandos marched past, boots mangling the tender life out of the earth. Scowling faces scarcely masked their underlying death's heads. Weaponry was at the ready for instant devastation and slaughter.
Frantically RD willed his concentration away from his misery. Deeply he delved, gathering the fragments of his identity, bringing them in to shelter.
He was himself, at a distance, lying under the sun. But it was a gentle beam that broke through a mist, sequined over water. The lyrical voice of an ephemeral brook caressed his awareness, and he crept a hand out, seeking that comfort to wash away his despair. His reach fell short of desire, and gradually all perception was gone.
"RD! Hey, are you in there, mate?"
Not likely. It had been a gruelling long haul since he'd been 'in' anywhere.
"Didn't knock you over that hard, did I really?"
There was an annoying tap upon the blank surface that had once been his face. He tried to mutter before recalling the futility of the effort. Mute, he was. Dumb, speechless.
Next there came a petting sensation, but perhaps it was more a practical effort by someone to clear the dusty mess of his hair away from his eyes. They used to function, the last he recalled. But he didn't want to open them, in case this memory was inaccurate. He didn't think he could bear the disappointment at this point.
And next came the feel of a kiss, so tender he felt he might cry from the pleasure. But before he could respond in kind, returning it with deepest affection, it shifted to merely fingers pressing stale drops of water from a damp rag between his lax lips.
He groaned and sat up.
"Low profile, sport, keep close to terra firma," Bodie quietly admonished, lying in the scrub, raised only so far as his elbows, and still glaring after the armed squadron that disappeared into the distance.
"Them's me own lot," he admitted after a longish pause. "Do you mind that one wicked gent, the one with the bullet head and no neck, looked like he'd breakfasted on carpentry nails? Him in particular. He's SAS Increment. Has plenty of business here, and possibly nothing to do with Pretty Willem. But on the other hand, maybe too much pertaining to yours truly. Righteously, I should have bounded up, greeted him chummishly, stood me ground, looked him in the eyes, swatting flies and telling no lies."
RD fluttered his lashes, blinking repeatedly to clear away the lingering distortion.
"Damnation, but yer distracting when you do that. Can't remember me own name."
RD froze, his stare intent on the tongue licking at that mouth.
Bodie took a slug of water, swished it through his teeth thoroughly before swallowing it, squeezing every last benefit from the precious ration.
"When we arrive at the sea, I'm going to plunge in, lie on the bottom and wallow in the waves. Maybe after a week or so, I'll emerge."
Since Bodie was now sitting up, RD did too.
"Listen. I don't see my next step at all clearly just now. Dunno if maybe I'm wanted for treasonous offences. Or if it's merely that the higher ups wonder how long to tolerate me jaunty walkabout before hauling me arse back to home and hearth. But certainly, if they are doubtful of my intent or recent actions, they're less likely to slit me throat and dispose of the corpse back there than in this place. So I don't want to report in 'til long after I wave a merry ta-ra to this here. In plain language, I intend to play the private citizen straight back to me own domestic doorstep. Hence giving those blokes and any more of theirs' a righteous dodge."
Bodie placed his great paws firmly on RD's shoulders. "You want to go back to England?"
RD tried to sort through confusion and unsettling feelings of formless fears. He nodded.
Bodie shook his head at the other's vague expression. "Can't leave you, can I? Yer all to pot still. And maybe forever too. Kinder to shoot you in your sleep than abandon you."
At the suggestion of violence, RD started to struggle.
Bodie flung himself on top.
"Hey. No. It was a figure of speech, tha's all. Not gonna shoot you. Swear I didn't mean it. Come on, you know me. I'm yer mate, sweet, sweet Willem."
And suddenly, because he wanted to reassure, but more because it was so close and warm, he pressed his mouth into RD's tender throat, suckling at the pulse point.
It transported RD back to the banks of that ephemeral brook, to the elusive desire, the comfort just beyond his reach. He melted into the warmth of that distant summer gleam, listening to the music in his memory.
"I swear I crave you more than oxygen."
RD reached the fingers of both his hands into Bodie's hair, rubbing the scalp, tugging at the soft tangles. He pressed his hips up into the overlying strength.
"Yeah, that's grand and I want it. But can't be sure you're really lurking inside somewhere, able to make the offer, can I? And how on the great green Earth will you convince me that you know what it is I want from you?"
With a gut-twisting groan, Bodie tore himself away, and rolled off the slim body.
Bodie grabbed him up and dragged him closer. Gripping him by the scruff of his neck, he shook him, then confronted him eye to eye.
"Convince me I'm not a fool. Convince me you're not a paid assassin. Assure me I haven't tumbled to the talents of a tart. What the fuck am I supposed to do next?"
RD hauled off and belted him in the jaw with his hard right fist. Then he landed on the sprawled body, pressed mouth into mouth, devouring all. He rutted, groin to groin, generating an exothermic reaction of magnificent chemistry. Hands all over, searching, claiming.
Bodie writhed under the sinuous form, clutched at it with energetic elation. Before he could appreciate the extremity of his pleasure, it blasted into explosive shrapnel, sizzling in a molten cloud of burning fallout.
He gasped, burying his face into the smothering hot form, kicked the ground, tumbling the lithe body to reverse positions, and at length pressed it hard into the soil.
He sucked at RD's round lips, before drawing back. "Scrummy." Shaking his head to clear it, he separated himself from the other, rolled over onto his back, staring up into stratospheric wisps. Then he laughed. "Surprised I had enough aitch-two-oh to offer up any spunk. Consider that a major tribute to your excellence."
He glanced aside.
RD was up on one elbow, resting his imperfect cheek on his knuckles. A satisfied smirk slightly twitched at the corners of his mouth.
"Properly proud of that performance, aren't you? Prat." He rubbed at his bruised mandible. "Mind, you may live to regret cruelty to your loyal protector."
RD nodded his head in agreement, but he was grinning by then, so it was hard to take the assent as contrition for his transgression.
When it was safe to resume walking, they left.
They crossed the tracks of many more soldiers as the two wended their way again toward the sunset horizon. But though they saw abundant evidence of enemies on the move, they were lucky enough not to encounter the actual danger of armed squads again that day or the next. Bodie knew where the violence was heating up, and had directed their steps as hastily away from it as humanly possible. It had left them slogging through the most arid stretch of pre coastal scrub, nearly perishing from desiccation on the way.
Finally, one morning, Bodie awoke twitching. With the tatters of his bandana, he wiped the dust from the tip of his nose and twitched again. He sought the face buried close to the muscular curve of his thorax, teased at the snuggled head of curls,
RD emerged from under their shared blanket, sleepily blinking.
"Hey, what about that? Wind tumbling in off the coast. Smell the salt? Taste it fresh upon your tongue? Cheer up, old son. We're close. And about to transition from never enough stinking water, to that very finest of all ponds, the Atlantic. Plenty of water. And a way home, to boot. So stir yourself and let's be onward."
They marched forward with hearty anticipation.
At last Bodie called out joyfully. "Look at that. Just feast your eyes, my fine friend. See that great flock of birds? Course you see them. And a more glorious view you may never see again."
RD stood to watch, delighted by the lovely creatures in the distance. Gliding on high, swooping, diving, rising effortlessly, they were indeed a brilliant image. Perfectly pristine icy white fronts. On their neat heads and backs, the glossiest ebony plumage spreading to reveal intricate snowflake patterns upon their arrowed wings. They seemed to have been born to dance upon polar air in elegance.
"Those are Cape petrels. Just think, they nest in Antarctica! Journey all this way northward, such a long hard migration. And arrive here, just to gladden our hearts with a welcome to the coast. Never seen Antarctica. Heard grand stories about it though. I'd like to go visit there some time. Stand on ice so thick it's older than mastodon herds. Think of the adventure."
The freshening aroma of water on wind hastened their steps, gave them new energy. And lucky it was, else the last miles of dry wasteland ultimately might have destroyed their will to continue. When finally they could hear the crash and tumble of waves upon beach, Bodie lost all caution.
He began eagerly running. He shed the tearing worry, the sense of exhausted privation, and arrived at the water's edge with an urge to fling himself into the waves, shouting jubilantly. He could not get enough of the view. It fulfilled his yearning expectation as the clean damp air filled his lungs.
He drank in oxygen, his eyes soaked up the colour of the ocean.
The soft thud of footsteps on clinging sand, the sound of desperate exertion, called his attention away from his triumphal return to the ocean.
RD dragged up beside him, then bent over, hands on knees, gasping to catch his breath.
Bodie grabbed him up and spun him around in a circle, celebrating their achievement. "We're here. We've arrived. We can rest. Drink gallons. Eat, yeah, we are going to feast. I'll spoon feed you with hourly puddings 'til you form dimples in your cheeks and elbows and knees."
He slapped RD heartily on the back and then ruffled his curls.
RD desperately held on to Bodie, staring first at the far flung glitter of cerulean sea, and then at the nearer mirrored image.
Looking into the reflection of Bodie's eyes, RD whispered, "So blue..."
"You're never leaving me like this?"
They lay on the dusty old blanket, spread luxuriously upon the sand, bare toes wriggling decadently. RD had one hand resting upon his companion's thigh, just below the delectable curve of buttocks, as if it were sheltering in the warmth for comfort.
Bodie stared earnestly into RD's eyes. Such intricacies of colouration there were. Centred on the pupils were sunflower bursts of pale golden brown, streaking artistically to intermingle with three dimensional beams of silver and emerald, all rimmed in an emphatic outline of aquamarine. Da Vinci or Rembrandt could get lost in there, exploring the highlights for days.
Bodie ruffled his curls for him. "I heard you. 'So blue...' you said, clear as a BBC announcer. I mean for a conversational starter, 'twas lovely. But, erm, maybe you could elaborate. Comment on the waves, the foam. The fish. Seaweed. Mine fields on the beach. I'm majorly dischuffed about that. Bastards. Like they were expecting fucking assault teams of manatee or some such shite. Well the bad news is, 's'not safe to frolic on the sand anymore. The good news is, we've got miles of privacy as a result."
And with that saying, he leaned forward to suck a soft earlobe into his mouth.
Bodie drew back to study the emotion. "Don't be sad. Or frustrated neither. It's a good start. 'Blue' is good. 'So blue', even better. We'll work on the details as we move along. Bound to be progress now. We'll start with conjunctions and verbs, modifying phrases, gradually work up to haiku. Soon have you spouting sonnets, and so eventually to 'War and Peace'. With heavy emphasis on the peace, heh?"
"How do you like my new shirt?"
RD whistled and winked.
"Okay so it's old and faded. But the fit is pretty good, methinks. Shows off me pecs and abs. Not Savile Row. But the chief thing is, I look like a civilian, right?"
RD ran his hands over the cloth on Bodie's belly, to show his appreciation for the garment.
"I'm trying to remember at which point in me chequered past I was at my thinnest. Got small stashes of useful items, dotted all about the countryside. We need to get you some mufti too. Then we'll be a matched set, and folks won't stare, except to admire us, heh. Trouble is, I was never that fleshless." He poked a finger into RD's taut tum for emphasis. "Muscular bulges are me personal specialty."
RD nodded his agreement.
"Oh, hey. Now that I've thought on it, have something to show you, if it's still there. Yer gonna love this. Come along now. Into your dancing pumps, and walk some more alongside of Pretty Willem."
The sudden eagerness which Bodie displayed was contagious, and RD made haste to lace up his boots and follow.
Avoiding the points along the beach where the locals had indicated landmines, they made their way to a pocket of forest with an edge of dry scrub.
It was too reminiscent of their recent parched journey. RD shuddered.
"Stay with me a bit. I promise you'll like it. Over here a ways more. And careful you don't step into someone's bed chamber. Here now, duck into cover."
They hit the dirt suddenly and peered over the shrubs.
RD's delight shone on his face, with Bodie muttering in his ear. "See. Told you you'd like it."
The ground ahead, like a transplanted moonscape, was cratered with holes. Glancing at an opening in the soil invoked a pair of dark eyes staring back. The earth seemed full of glittering eyes.
Bodie nudged RD. "Sentry duty. Ha. That bloke's even leaner than you."
There stood upon a mound of dirt, the faithful guard. The little fellow wore a grizzled tan fur coat that was marked with mottled cocoa stripes running from rump to shoulders. His arms drooped comfortably along his body. His face had dark markings rimming alert brown eyes, giving the whimsical appearance of sunglasses. With his velvet ears flattened on his domed skull, his expression was one of disdain. Glistening whiskers twitched attentively.
Near him sat a young coquette, prettily perched on her dainty derriere, legs neatly crossed in front of her to show her delicate feet to best advantage. She had her paws folded politely in her lap as she seemed to admire the scenery, but quite often she glanced aside at the young soldier, to be assured she was successful at the fine art of distraction. If her beau seemed too hard at work, she huffed wistful little sighs.
Suddenly her sister slipped out their front door. Sneaking up on her sibling with a solid headbutt, the newcomer sent the other tumbling ungracefully. Shrieking insults, they rolled in the dirt, grappling together, until they remembered the handsome young guard.
Hastily they resumed courteous behaviour, petted and smoothed each other's ruffled fur. Then one stuck out a long tongue, and holding sturdily onto the other's silvery bosom, commenced licking a tidy ear, occasionally pausing to whisper into it and wait for her sister's amusing retort. The semblance of ignoring the sentry was positively painful to see.
Bodie's attention was divided between the animals, and enjoyment of RD's patent amusement.
"Better than any pantomime, innit? Suricates. Some people call them meerkats, but that translates to monkey. So I don't like the name, makes a bloke sound ignorant to use it. That young male there. Not so long ago he left his hometown to go out, see the world. Came across this place, fancied it a bit, felt it had prospects. The local females looked him over, liked his appearance, let him in, but only just so far. They gave him to understand he was on probation. Wouldn't be allowed fully into the establishment 'til he'd proved his worth. So there he stands day after day, the poor little blighter. Doesn't savvy yet, he's already made the grade. Ha. Such is a soldier's life, eh?"
Bodie started edging his way around the perimeter of burrows. "Now over here is a hole I dug. Kind of camouflage to set it next to a mongoose colony. Hidden in plain sight as it were." He paused to shine a torch beam into the narrow excavation. "And how nice. Still tucked away where I left it. Bit of a risk for scorpions and spiders. Eck."
Shivering slightly, he reached into the dark depths and drew out a box. "Old silver haired local traded me this chest for my butterfly knife, which he liked the look of. He swore the box was mongoose-proof."
Bodie dusted away the clinging dirt, stuck his knife blade into a hidden crevice and pried open the container. Inside were a few pieces of clothing and some documents wrapped in old plastic bags. He drew out a Henley t-shirt, shook it unfolded and sniffed at the fabric. "Mostly evergreen resin. Not too much eau de earthworm. Hard to credit I was ever this narrow. Tan, not your best colour, sport. But at least it doesn't shout 'army'. Try these on."
He handed the shirt and jeans to RD, then watched avidly as he stripped to change attire.
RD smirked as he dropped his trousers provocatively. But then he grimaced when he was able to pull up the denims without having to unfasten them.
"Mate, I promise I'm going to feed you excessively, just as soon as opportunity presents. In the interim, you'll just have to cinch your belt up tight. The jeans don't look bad when you wear the shirt untucked. And there's always those curls, and your, erm, winning personality to distract from the lesser aspects of your appearance."
RD threw his army trousers at Bodie's face, laughing at the subsequent wrinkling of his nose.
"We ought to burn this lot. But that might attract too much attention. So we'll bung them down the hole. Let the mongooses cut them up to make little sentry uniforms from, eh? Now for something else. Who do you want to be?"
He was riffling through a stack of much abused identification documents. "Leslie Hutchworth, geologist? George Worley, able bodied seaman. Oh now, here we are. Bartholomew Chasborne, student. And I'll be, hmm, Joseph Vandevendar, farmer. You've been here working on your zoology thesis. And I've been serving as your knowledgeable guide. You were attempting to determine the life cycle and eating habits of the elusive lesser hairy bat, but the war has disrupted your research. And so you are returning home, somewhat disgruntled, and you just don't want to talk about it. At all. I've been hosting you, and in a gentlemanly return of the favour, you've invited me home to meet the family. We've become great chums, slogging through the bat caves and all."
RD scrunched his face whimsically and shrugged.
"Only thing is, we'll need to change the picture from my mug to yours. Which means a documents expert is required. I happen to know a certain person of great talent and questionable virtue. He'll assist us, if he hasn't been executed since my last visit, that is. So here we go then."
Bodie slung his arm cosily over RD's shoulder, snugging him closer.
As they walked away, RD glanced wistfully back for a last glimpse of the small sentry, left all alone, standing faithfully at his duty still.
It had been a small town of antique beauty.
Now it was a bizarre hybrid, the quaint old houses, shops and fountains maimed by explosive destruction, the new buildings temporary, ugly and utilitarian, designed for defensibility.
Survivors went about their daily lives with stoic determination.
The petroleum companies' crews appeared blatantly aware of their supreme station at the top of the food chain.
Villains of all varieties wore their weapons openly in the daylight.
The place was very much the worse for war wear, having deteriorated even over the span of mere weeks.
Bodie grimaced. He was plagued by doubts. Getting out of the country, then away from the continent would have been comparatively easy for him, travelling solo. Safely decamping with RD wouldn't be so simple.
The place was crowded and chaotic. People from remote areas, uprooted by the turmoil, had gathered near the ports, seeking shelter, solace, supplies. Many wished to flee the place altogether.
It was a jostling, antagonistic setting. RD responded with a tense posture and a toxic visage. Bodie would have confiscated his weapons for his own benefit, but the proximate danger was far too great for that.
"Easy, mate. Stand down," Bodie repeatedly muttered in his ear. Occasionally he slung an arm over his shoulder, massaging the bunched muscles. "You and me, we can take on any of this lot, anytime. They're not likely to tangle with us. Much easier pickings about, see?"
The martial stance was all very well, out in the roadway. But eventually they'd have to act the part of tame, civilised young gentlemen. If that had ever been a part of RD's repertoire, likely the persona was pulverized to irreconcilable fragments in his current consciousness.
"Hmm. Tell you what. Think of that little bloke we just met. The mongoose sentry, remember him? He's trying to impress the ladies that he's parlour material. Playing with the toddlers, jouncing of infants on his knee, taking an interest in knitting socks and crocheted doilies, that sort of image. Think mongooses."
A small smile tugged at the corner of RD's lips.
"Tha's it. Now you won't mind a bit if I nudge you in the ribs to remind you, time to time, right?"
RD patted Bodie comfortingly on his forearm, just above a clenched fist.
Startled, Bodie consciously relaxed his own defensive posture. He chuckled. "Time for a change of pace. Been watching each other's backs. This while, we'll have to watch each other's fronts as well."
He winked, and RD nodded acknowledgment.
Bodie was pleasantly surprised to discover near the centre of town, a steamer line with its booking office open for business. It was hunkered down in the sole remaining corner of a warehouse. A couple of thin walls of iron plate had been added to form a sort of room with a mostly intact patchwork roof. A painted sign, rescued from the ruins of the former office and nailed in place over a gaping hole in the front of the establishment, served double duty, keeping out most of the windblown sand, and identifying the proprietor.
He was a mousy, balding, middle-aged man. Dressed like an accountant, he nevertheless had a pistol butt visible under the edge of his waistcoat.
"There's no currency kept on the premises, nor fuel, nor food," he declared prosaically as they entered the place. "No valuables at all."
"Good afternoon," Bodie nodded politely. "We'd like to purchase passage for two."
"Ultimately, England. But we'll settle for anywhere your ship's bound, if there's a likely connection home at the other end."
"Company policy is, women and children have priority. Even if you've paid for passage, you may be displaced at the last minute in favour of late arrivals."
Bodie contemplated this additional insecurity before nodding agreement. "Understood."
"All transactions are on a cash-only basis. European or American currency is acceptable. Domestic is not."
"That shouldn't prove a problem."
The proprietor licked his lips as if suddenly coming in view of a grand meal.
"Valid passports to be presented at time of ticket purchase."
"Ah." Bodie patted his pockets doubtfully. "We haven't got them on us at the moment. Fearing highway robbery, you understand, sir."
"Oh, what a pity. I have exactly two tickets left, with the ferry leaving for the ship this very evening. And the next departure occurring who-knows-when?"
The mousy man squinted avariciously at Bodie.
Bodie reached into the riveted jeans pocket snugged over his hip and drew out a coin between two fingers. He dropped it onto the desk top with a bell-like ringing clink.
It twirled symmetrically before it settled. The golden glitter of the Krugerrand shone seductively.
"Sir," Bodie continued in melted toffee tones. "In honour of your bravery for remaining at this dangerous last outpost of civilisation, a small token. We would take it most kindly if you would sell us our tickets now. And we'll certainly have our documents about us when we embark this evening."
The bit of tawny gold disappeared in a twinkling.
Contrary to reasonable expectation, the clerk, having accepted the bribe, now became more difficult. His suddenly harsh tones were all business as he mentioned classes of berths, the cost thereof. It seemed as if the witnesses of his sin were now held at arms length with just a hint of loathing, as if they alone were responsible for his immorality.
Bodie could tell by the man's shifting eyes that he was formulating the ticket costs as he went along in the negotiation, gauging to the nicest degree just how desperate the younger men were, how much he could squeeze from his customers and skim off the top to keep for himself. In this setting, it was to be expected. Disaster situations brought out the worst in some basically opportunistic people. On this fellow, the glossy veneer of civilisation had rubbed away fairly easily, leaving a core of dross revealed.
They concluded the deal. The tickets Bodie accepted were no more than receipts with the man's signature, jotted on a water stained sheet of company letterhead in a strangely precise script, the last vestige, perhaps, of the man's prior proper personage.
"Mind you have current legal passports ready at embarkation. Be forewarned, it's nothing to do with our Company. The local authorities will arrest you in the act of fraudulent identification, and our Captain will cooperate fully. Bribery won't work, since they have only to take you into custody and confiscate your possessions before effecting your permanent disappearance."
Bodie resisted sneering at the man, who appeared to be grasping at a mere comparative virtue, the triviality of his personal vice, in contrast to the monstrous evil of others he'd mentioned.
RD, however, appeared to be contemplating seizure and sound cudgelling of the clerk.
Bodie grabbed his mate by the arm and dragged him out into the cleansing beams of sunshine.
He shook his head affectionately, gazing into RD's fiery countenance. "Lord love us, what an avenging angel of doom you look. Just like one of the Thrones, attacking injustice, tearing at it with both hands."
RD bit his lip apologetically and hung his head.
Bodie patted him on his imperfect cheek. "Makes me wonder what you were before this. Maybe not a soldier, hey?"
RD swallowed convulsively, the spasms of his throat generating a rasp and a click. "K-, k-, k-," he sounded out a papery dry noise. "Cop."
Bodie's eyes popped open wide at the revelation. His head canted in assessment. "Adds up. Skilled fighter, wicked sense of righteous indignation, possessed of a soft centre, hidden in the depths."
He left his hand clenched around a tense triceps, though the grip had taken on an aspect of encouragement and support.
As they resumed walking, Bodie muttered in an undertone. "If such a vermiform turd as that last feller has developed canine teeth, I hate to think what our next one'll be like. The documents expert I mentioned, remember? Since he's always been a nasty wad of snot, since his natal day. Well, we shall just brace ourselves for the worst, eh? Clearly, we can't proceed without our exit papers in order."
RD stopped suddenly to confront him. He tapped Bodie on the chest, repeatedly, emphatically.
"What, what? Me alone do you mean? Leave without you? Naw. Where'd be the fun in that?'
RD pouted while petting Bodie's shoulders solicitously.
"It'll sort out okay. Just take events in turn, and we'll deal with them, you and me."
Bodie directed their steps away from the town and into a remote patch of forest that grew denser and darker as they proceeded into it. The building, when they came across it, was an odd sight.
It had been, in its distant past, a church.
The structure itself seemed mysteriously well preserved, as if enshrouded in a field of invulnerability. The only evidence of conflict was a fallen crucifix, tumbled to rest head down in the soil. It was one of those garishly painted primitive symbols that depicted an abundance of thorn-pierced bloody flesh and agonized anatomical contortions. And some mocking human hand had planted lilies around the crown-turned-base, as if to imply the intentional posture of the piece.
As the two men approached cautiously, the solid door to the edifice was flung open with a loud clash.
An exceedingly tall, narrow being emerged, like a trail of smoke issuing off a funeral pyre.
"Beauteous Bodie, darling!" It exclaimed in an ill-mated alto tremolo, before leaning down to insinuate its syrupy tongue into Bodie's ear.
Before a reply could be formed, the entity exclaimed further. "And what lovely tidbit have you brought me? Gifts upon the altar, in exchange for unimaginable favours to be rendered. I can scarcely contain myself already."
Bodie cast a corner-eyed glimpse aside. RD's murderous glare was all he'd anticipated, with rapid escalation to imminent explosive force.
Bodie murmured to himself. "The Angel of the Throne encounters Mammon over Tea. All of us, mere mortals, should seek cover at once."
Alas, he thought it unlikely he'd have the opportunity to follow his own sound advice.
The documents expert retreated to the threshold of the edifice. There he drooped artfully against the doorframe and fluttered his lashes at Bodie. "You've been away for ages, only to reappear with demands. Say it isn't so, sweetness. Whisper in my ear that it's mere longing for my company that has drawn you hither. Lie to me rather than crush my poor wounded heart."
Bodie groaned loudly. "Are you or aren't you a professional photographer? My friend here, RD, requires a passport photo as soon as possible."
"Oh, I see. So this is to be a simple business transaction. And I'm to deal with this other personage." The expert extended his middle finger and touched RD's chest with a lingering stroke. "In that case, Bodie, what's your excuse for remaining? Go away."
The command was accompanied by an extravagantly dismissive gesture.
Bodie clenched his fists. "Due to an accident, my friend is unable to speak."
"Poor soul. And therefore you've accepted the menial task of interpreter. How noble. In that case, you may join us, but only so far. My contractual negotiations are to be with RD, and you will not intrude your opinions. If my terms are unacceptable, feel free to leave at once."
Bodie sighed in exasperation, rolled his eyes, but grabbed RD's elbow and escorted him into the building. The main room wasn't particularly large, but mostly empty, it echoed their movements eerily.
The expert followed them. He indicated a single, gothically carved wooden chair, upholstered in crimson velvet, very charred and stained.
RD eyed the chair dubiously a minute before resting on the edge of it.
"Now my dearest fellow, how am I to interpret your proposition? You wish for me to capture your likeness in glittering silver crystals, to create a portrait of your delectable physiognomy? Yes. Well that's lovely. And quite an innocent undertaking, isn't it?"
RD nodded cautiously.
The expert's voice developed a breathless hiss.
"But then you wish for me to place this photographic likeness of your face into a passport? Shall we, for mere convenience, call it a previously owned document? Your desire is for me to place your image in such a manner that the passport will appear to be unaltered from its original state. In fact, it should deceptively appear that it was issued to you, rather than to its prior owner. Which is a far less innocent proposal indeed, far less innocent. Correct me if I misstate your intentions."
Soberly, RD shook his head.
"Very well. Having thoroughly addressed the nature of our undertaking, its more subtle nuances, we must now consider my fee."
"I've got cash," Bodie hastily intervened.
"Silence! You are here as interpreter only. That was the agreement. Shut up or leave," the expert shrieked.
Bodie shut up.
He felt he had no choice. They had shown their faces in town, the both of them together, he and RD. Had flashed his gold, told a certain tale. It was too late to change strategies, much too late to start over again. The mercenaries might still be after RD for assassination. Bodie too might be a wanted man, sought by his own people for treason. The two of them needed to be onboard that ship tonight. This opportunity was too good to lose, might in fact be their last chance at escape.
So Bodie shut up and clenched his teeth until his jaws ached.
The expert finished glaring, and turned his attention again to RD. "Do you have any money? No. Possess any valuables at all? Also, no. Which leaves us in the position of bartering for services, doesn't it? My talents to be joined in contract with yours."
Bodie stirred restlessly. RD simply shrugged.
"Well then, love, nothing simpler. I am an artist. You have the face and figure to interest me for a prospective model. You will pose for me. In exchange, I shall produce for you an impeccable passport. Have we a deal?"
RD frowned, but then nodded again.
Against his very determined effort, Bodie's mouth opened on a howl of protest.
But now the expert merely giggled. He slunk toward RD, insinuated his fingers underneath the luxurious tangle of curls to touch the hidden flesh there. "Make haste, deary. You're the one with the deadline. Time and tide, and all that rot."
RD hesitated, gathering his thoughts and emotions, which whirled about his mind in a turmoil of confusion and failed memories. Hard as he searched, he couldn't find in himself any disapproval of being an artist's model. The undertaking didn't seem to him in the least reprehensible.
Rather it was Bodie's patent disapproval that unsettled him. But it was this selfsame friend whose steadfast loyalty resulted in the man's continued precarious position at his side. RD found that he could not reward his mate's generous constancy with a falsely fastidious front.
RD plumbed the depths of his own soul and discovered a very solid sense of self. Here was a person who revelled in righteousness. But his perception of good and evil was of his own creation. He refused the commands of all those who posed behind a semblance of virtue, whose thoughts and acts were contrarily weak and ugly.
This self he cherished, the one that considered art a glorious undertaking, the pursuit of beauty a justification unto itself. Upon this knowledge he made his decision. He would have to explain, perhaps even defend his actions to Bodie at a later time.
Calmly he stood, gathering the hem of his shirt, drew it over his head and dropped it on the floor.
All at once, the fight went out of Bodie. Held at a distance by some emphatic force, he silently watched the scene progress.
Rather perversely in response, the photographer sought to reengage his conversation.
"Such luscious features your mate possesses. I don't believe I've ever before seen a face so contradictory unto itself. Angelic attributes denounce, then delight in the demonic. Wrath pursues peaceful intent, with neither dominant. The scarred evidence of war is layered atop the innocent yearning of youth. Intricate, mysterious."
"You'll never get the passport done in time if you don't make a start. Stop drooling and fetch your equipment, damn it."
The expert ran his eyes, then his fingers appreciatively down RD's bared back. "Visual evidence of pronounced privation, and yet the warrior's physique survives, surmounts somehow. Quite eloquently his body communicates its history. Don't try to teach me my trade, Bodie love."
"I just want you to get the bloody fuck on with it."
"You've forgotten, old friend. My expertise is art, whereas yours is artifice."
Bodie's growl welled from deep in his chest. "My expertise is destruction, and don't you dare forget it."
"Ha. You imagine you've sunk to the level of the seven princes? Such pretension. And permit me to express my grave doubts. You've been stumbling along a different path entirely. And it ascends, or else I'm very much mistaken."
Shaking his head in a provoking manner, the photographer disappeared into an inner sanctum, emerging in moments with his camera, pedestal lights and tripod.
"I should adore to capture some daguerreotypes. But the antique process is too prolonged for your impatience, no doubt. I've heard it said that the natives hereabouts used to refuse to be photographed, for fear of losing their souls, trapped within the portraits. Can't say I've ever encountered that sort of resistance though. Perhaps their compliance is attributable to the prevalence of starvation. Food is such a motivating force after all."
He slithered to where RD stood barefoot, and tapped his belt buckle with a manicured claw. "Shed the rest, there's my sweet lad."
Bodie swallowed an ample portion of spittle as RD stepped out of his jeans and underpants.
The photographer hissed his approval. Hastily snapping up his camera, he plunged into documenting the view. "Sit. Now stand straight. Bend at the waist. A profile. Turn with your back to me. Glance over your shoulder. Scowl. Ouch. Now think pleasanter thoughts. Dream of kissing Bodie. Stop that, who told you to grimace? Put one knee on the chair. Here, I'll place you."
"Hell, who agreed to groping?" Bodie snarled, hastening to intervene.
The expert purred, running his fingers over lean, lithe quadriceps. "Hands have a memory of their own. The mind's perception is flat. In contrast, the sensory nerves of the flesh feel in four dimensions. Lustful longing persists over many lifetimes."
"Yeah? Well, back off or I'll strangle you, and my bloody mitts will be the ones with the sensory memories, understand?"
"Oh, how savage. Do that bit again. Your friend comes all alive in response."
Spitting venom, Bodie dragged the documents from his pocket. "You've got your damnable pictures. Now go alter the paperwork and have done."
"Nude passports? What a naughty notion. But don't you think it might raise an official eyebrow or two at the port authority?"
"Piss on this. RD, get dressed."
Under Bodie's scowling inspection, RD resumed his t-shirt and jeans.
Meanwhile, the photographer disappeared and returned, waving an odd scrap in the air. "False front. Old style dicky. If he arrives at the boat in the same shirt that appears in the passport image, it's a dead giveaway."
Chuckling, the expert fastened around RD's neck a paper collar and front, complete with black silk tie. He lingered to toy with the curls as he draped them artistically. Then he stepped back to admire his handiwork.
"Oh yes-s-s." He mounted the camera onto the tripod and snapped a series of formal stills. "Most elegant, sir. Proper gentleman and all."
Snatching from Bodie's grip the documents intended for alteration, he leaned over to nuzzle his furious face. "Step into the darkroom with me, and see what develops, darling?"
And in reply to Bodie's barked, "Rather see you in hell," he pouted.
"How tedious your current pursuit of contrary virtue. Don't you find it so? Whatever possessed you to assume the undertaking, when you used to be so wondrously wicked? To turn onto such a dry, dusty path? Can't say I envy you at all. Except, perhaps, for the company."
And he offered a single sultry simper in RD's direction.
When presented with the finished passport, Bodie whistled his approval. "Looks authentic. You do good work. Said you were talented. Always said so."
The photographer preened. "Wouldn't you like to purchase some nude shots as well? The first prints are positively delectable."
"Suit yourself. Here, this is for you." He handed a bright biscuit tin to RD. "Sweets for the sweet. Clearly Bodie doesn't feed you well enough."
RD chuckled, nodding his thanks.
"We've got to go now."
"Don't see how you can bear to leave it again."
"You know they mined the bloody beach, don't you?"
"Fools. Well, marred and mangled, it's still a fallen fragment of Eden. Mankind will destroy itself and other creatures devolve to fill the niche. But still the beach will meet the ocean there, eons away, long after you and I are faded fancies. Adieu."
Half an hour's hike brought them to the end of the woods. Bodie glanced back to the surreal view of RD, still shaded by the dark primal forest, clutching the bright metal box to his chest. Crunching contentedly, a few biscuit crumbs were clinging to his moist lips.
Bodie couldn't resist taking him into his arms and licking the sugary leftovers clean.
RD squirmed with pleasure. Then wearing an expression of extreme mischief, he popped the lid off the tin.
Carefully fastened there, under a pristine layer of transparent polymer, was a photograph. A nude portrait of RD, the display of his tender flesh delightfully sweet and tantalizing.
It seemed ages, Bodie stood dumbfounded, gazing at the perfect image of his desire.
Lingering was dangerous.
They turned their steps toward the coast and their escape.
The glaring moonlight confronted them like an accusation.
It was a gibbous moon, just short of full, the pocked face, warped and menacing. Such light shed upon their covert operation was far too abundant for comfort.
They had reconnoitred the vicinity for any hostile forces and then lingered in the shadows, biding their time at a strategic position with a clear view of the jetty. So far there appeared no official or military interest in the group of assembled travellers.
That could change in an instant.
Bodie glanced aside at RD. He was pleased to note the appearance of calm and alert focus in his companion. Likely he could be relied upon if there were a sudden call for defence.
Bodie considered the people waiting there at the landing. Some seemed eager, others sad or frightened at the prospect of departure. Overall there was a pervasive feeling of agitation that did not bode well for his own prospects. Since he and RD were to act the part of callow students, they could wish for their audience to be of a sympathetic, civilised sort.
If their fellow passengers were running scared, the attitude well might be "every man for himself, and the devil take the hindmost".
Again Bodie's assessment was drawn to his companion. "Cop" he had declared himself, and tonight it was a claim easily believed. RD was sleek and poised, deliberate and dedicated to the impending action, utterly unconcerned with self-preservation.
That last gave Bodie pause. "You take care tonight, mate."
The crisp nod he received in response was a surprise. This man crouching in the gloom seemed almost a different species of creature than the one of his prior knowledge.
With a stab of visceral pain that might have been regret, Bodie wondered if the RD of his journey was a being of his own device. Had he imagined the lonely soul who clasped him in the chill of the night? Who chuckled at his clowning jokes, smiled tolerantly at his tendency to quote poetry, stood in innocent awe of the natural beauty surrounding them?
Had that vulnerable person who needed Bodie to defend him ever existed? Or was it a wistful creation of his own desire, ephemeral, imagined then and now vanished?
He found the possibility of such weakness in himself disturbing.
However, these weren't advisable reflections for a soldier about to see action. Angrily he thrust all such considerations aside. He drew out of himself an equally cool and capable mien.
"Guess we'd better make our presence known, eh?"
They stuffed their camp packs into an old canvas rucksack left over from Bodie's merchant navy days, then hiked a short distance away from their place of concealment. Assuming an air of nonchalance, they entered the coastal path and strolled up to the jetty.
Amongst the confusion of passengers and luggage, they sought the steamer company's representatives.
One brittlely polite and harried individual appeared marginally in charge of the operation.
Bodie approached him with more aggressive assertion than he wanted to show for the sake of his assumed identity. But otherwise, he despaired of ever getting the man's attention. When he did at last receive notice, the response wasn't comforting.
"More passengers? How many, just the two of you I hope? Oh dear, I just don't know about this. The ferry may be crowded to the point of foundering as it is. And the Zodiac's motor is being difficult again. I really don't know." The man ploughed his fingers into his bushy eyebrows in a nervous gesture.
Great. Just what they needed, makeshift arrangements falling apart around them. And judging by the prevalence of women, children, and elderly fogies in the crowd, he and RD would be first on the list of healthy adult males to be left behind on the landing.
With a tolerant smile just touching his lips, he slung his arm casually over RD's shoulder and sauntered toward the support boat. It was a trim enough little craft. But judging by the pathetic coughing noises issuing from its dripping engine, it would be going nowhere fast tonight.
For a brief interlude, they watched two crew members attempt to persuade the engine into performance.
RD first showed signs of unrest, then overt irritation. He inched ever closer to the unsuccessful operation. Finally he stood in a manner that inflicted his moon-cast shadow over the field of endeavour.
The sailors glared up at him. "Step aside twit. Tough enough without trying to fix it by bloody Braille."
RD shook his head and gestured meaningfully toward the motor.
Before the crew could grab him and toss him head first into the drink, Bodie intervened. "Me mate here's a mechanic. Wants you to give him a shot at it."
Hell, he hoped he'd got RD's meaning straight. And that the man wasn't delusional to boot.
But RD was nodding vigorously at this assertion, patting his own chest emphatically.
"'S matter? Cat got his tongue?"
"Tha's right, 'twas a leopard. So what?" Bodie grinned, challenging them instantly. It seemed clear, his planned persona was already useless. Might as well assert himself fully, large and in charge. Allowing no pause for rejection of his perfunctory "permission to come over," he slung his rucksack on board, followed it with experienced sea going grace, and efficiently turned to hand RD into the unstable Zodiac.
He'd be damned if they ever forced them back onto the jetty without a fight.
RD pounced on the mechanical problem. One of the sailors held a torch, the other a propane lantern, shifting to best illuminate the effort.
Bodie, interpretting his friend's gestures, handed him tools, made encouraging suggestions, and attempted to assuage the crew's continued vocal doubts over allowing a passenger such a free hand.
A minute's observation persuaded Bodie of his mate's adept expertise. It also became apparent that the engine was seriously lacking fully functional components, that RD was desperately jury rigging the repair, and that the entire enterprise might backfire on them, both literally and figuratively.
What did they have to lose in the attempt, though?
RD eventually wiped his begrimed hands on a rag, and gestured for their united attention.
"Is it fixed?"
RD waffled with a gesture, indicating a chancy proposition. He nodded, then holding his hands high and low, shook his head in a vigorous dissent.
"Well, which is it, yes or no?" the gruffer of the two sailors demanded.
"I think he means, it'll run in the middle RPMs, but you shouldn't rev it too hard or let it idle too low," Bodie explained, and RD nodded enthusiastically.
"You got all that from him flapping of his wings there?"
But the other sailor elbowed in at this point. "Who cares so long as it'll turn over? Go ahead, let's see what you've got."
Pursing his lips in intense concentration, RD adjusted the machinery and started it up. The engine popped explosively, coughed, sputtered, then whirred into continuous cycling.
"Run and tell Mr Britches," the mocking sailor indicated their frazzled superior's inelegantly lumpy posterior aspect, which was particularly prominent as the portly man bent over to examine some luggage on the landing. "Tell him best not to overload the Zodiac with bags, but we can take on a few passengers. Better make it sharpish before the poor old girl gives up the ghost again. And bring some extra oars, just in case, eh?"
As his mate ran to comply, the crew member turned to Bodie in a confidential aside. "Into your life jackets and get low in the bow. Maybe his royal pain-in-the-arse won't notice I've given you lot the aff until it's too late to say nay."
Gratefully, Bodie complied, dragging RD away from the roughly idling machinery.
Together they crouched in the shadows of the high riding prow, sitting directly on the bottom of the boat, feeling the surf end slapping the flexible polymer underside. As an added bit of camouflage, they held the navy blue rucksack across their knees, burying the highlights of their faces behind it.
"Tha's right. Pretend that we're someone's valise," Bodie whispered with a delighted chuckle. He snugged himself closer to RD. Excitement was pumping him up, the thrill of the undertaking giving him a jubilant high.
The gruff sailor obligingly directed the blinding light of his lantern toward the viewers on the landing.
His crew mate leaped lightly aboard, and started handing-in the passengers. "Easy, there. Just one long step down, mum. Wait for the next rise. That's it. Well done. Keep the kiddies coming. Next. Mind that bag. Keep sliding forward, everyone, right toward the bow. Fasten your life jackets all the way. Criminy, mate. Tell that ginormous bloke to wait for the ferry. That much tonnage and we'll capsize for sure. Well, his missus can disembark if she wants, and go along with him so they don't split. There, there. No problem. They'll let you on the ferry boat, mum, promise. Tha's all, can't take a single 'nother body. Cast off. See you lot back onboard."
The engine sounded deeper, their swift acceleration lifted the craft's prow higher, a livening fine spray misted their faces, and they had to lean hard back against the inflated curves of the boat to keep from being roughly tumbled. Bodie glimpsed the hard edge in the gleam of RD's grin. He hadn't noticed the broken tooth before this. It suited the harsh new image of his friend he was forming.
To their relief, the Zodiac made it to the ship without having to resort to plying the oars. This fact earned RD a friendly slap of congratulations on his shoulder from the crew, who then put in a good word for the two passengers to the purser. That worthy promised to find them berths come hell or hurricane.
The gruff sailor placed them in an obscure corner of the lower deck. "You'll be out of the way during all the hurly burly, getting that barge load of whingers stowed when the ferry arrives."
Bodie raised his eyebrows askance.
"Look. I dunno when the Company turned into such a cowboy outfit, taking on more passengers than they can properly berth, all the while raking in the geld hand over fist. But me and Rallby were looking to be marooned at the landing, left guarding the Zodiac with nothing better than oars for defence. And you lot were dead certs for stranding 'til the next run of the ship and then the next after that, days, maybe even weeks. In my book, that int right."
"We don't want no trouble with the management," Bodie began, chameleon-like, settling comfortably into the cadence of the sailor's speech.
"Fully 'preciate that. But you two paid yer passage, Company took your fare, and yer've a right to be onboard. Purser's an officer, knows yer about, so no question of stowaway-ness. Just think it'd be best to stay out from underfoot, low profile, 'til we're fully underway. Captain won't bung you overboard. Fairly sure we haven't sunk that low." And he chuckled at the image.
Bodie felt less secure in the assumption, but he let the matter ride.
It was a scant perch a few yards up from the water line, measurable by half a dozen paces, neatly crammed with maintenance supplies and a small rubber raft.
Bodie and RD soon left off standing on their weary feet, clambered into the raft, and stretched full length along its bottom, snuggled together for comfort. Alternately they stared up into the jewel bedecked firmament and out over the glossy black waves to the dark shaded shoreline.
The ship weighed anchor and got underway with an absolute minimum of noise, by Bodie's expert nautical assessment. The perception of stealth was difficult to avoid, and he wondered how much of this was precautionary versus absolutely necessary. This consideration ratcheted his unease several notches tighter.
The intense smell of diesel fumes combined with the rough cross-cut wave action near the anchorage rendered RD acutely ill. He lay flat on his back with his arm folded over his face, his pale grey lips open upon puffing exhalations.
Instantly in his marine element, Bodie spoke comfortingly. "She'll ride easier once we're well away from land."
After the fuel fumes cleared on a rising breeze of speed, and the ship's action settled into a smoother way, he pulled RD to sit upright. Supporting him in a hug, he held him looking out at the vast dark view. "Stare at the horizon. That way your eyes will agree with your inner ear and settle the argy-bargy for you."
He smoothed the ruffled curls, then continued petting them for his own pleasure. Feeling his mate ease into the caress reminded Bodie of his prior reflections upon the illusory nature of his friend's vulnerability. Maybe both images of RD were true, the strength and competence of the man, but also the need for an ally in defence.
When he thought about it, perhaps Bodie had arrived at the same juncture. Maybe this want of his, this craving he felt for RD, wasn't inconsistent with perpetuating his own power.
Pretty Willem's prowess allied with the Royal Derby's tempered steel edge. The immovable object joined with the irresistible force. They seemed a thoroughly lethal combination against their enemies.
As if to remind him of the contrast, of the sweet vitality of the universe, the water came suddenly alive, glittering quicksilver, rippling the surface, swift forms gliding, barely submerged in the element.
"Tuna, a whole great school. Bluefins. Crikey, just look at the size of them. There must be dozens."
Intense with exhilaration, RD leaped to the rail, leaning far over the side as if he might himself dive into the gem faceted waters to join the race.
And surmounting glory with grandeur, a larger form broke the surface, fully eight feet of arching length which paused midair to defy gravity, shimmering midnight blue and lightning white, then plunged into the depths, lofting the frothing foam sky high.
"Dolphins. Atlantic humpbacks. Magnificent things, see them, there and there? And more beyond. Look at them, just look at that!"
Temporal, transient, glorious.
They watched the jubilant crowd as it was left astern, the speed of the ship returning them soon to their own proper realm.
"What do you think of that, heh? Quite a performance."
"G- grand." Heartfelt, painful.
This halting tribute, too, was carried away, all over, scattered upon the wind and ocean's waves.
Bodie buried his face in RD's curls and laughed aloud into the silken chaos.
Theirs was a match made in hell, perhaps.
Though surely it was to be affirmed for them in heaven.
"Shades of me misspent youth."
Bodie chuckled as he glanced around at the stacked dry goods in the small storage space off the galley. Here two hammocks had been slung to accommodate them, almost as if the passengers were shelved supplies.
Still they were grateful for the privacy and peace.
He pulled up a wooden crate and sat on it.
RD did likewise.
"Now then, we've a bit of free time, and you've quite a story to tell me."
RD coughed and grimaced, ruefully shaking his head.
"'S all right. I'll provide the sound effects, you'll do the gestures, and we'll go forward like mod improv theatre."
In his mind, Bodie could almost hear the replies that went with RD's eloquent hands.
"You were a cop, working in England."
"Locale. Hmm, a big city?"
"London? Got it. A plod? Or plainclothes man?"
Pounding the pavement at first, then promoted, moved up in the world.
Or down, depending on your perspective, Bodie reflected grimly. "Detective constable? Good at what you did, weren't you? Can tell that, without asking. And your specialty?"
RD mimicked mainlining.
"Drugs Squad. See, told you we'd rip right along. So, Detective Constable Ray Doyle was on a case one day, investigating something, all in the merry month of, hm, when? How long ago was it?"
The forlorn shrug set Bodie back a peg.
"Don't know? Can't remember. Ah, too bad. Got some memory problems?"
"Sort of hazy on the details? Yeah, thought so. Though it seems like your memory's getting sharper, better focused lately. Uh huh. Well, we'll muddle along, won't we? So, you don't remember when exactly, but can you remember what? That last case of yours bought you a world of trouble, didn't it? Got in over your head somehow, and no one to bail you out of it."
Too bloody right. RD mimicked a large explosion, with intense heat.
"Things blew up on you, got hot. Figuratively? No? Literally, an explosion." Bodie was rather pleased. He thought he might have a knack for detective work, previously unsuspected. Or maybe RD was rubbing off on him.
He mistook his quickening pulse for eagerness.
RD scrunched his face in intense concentration. That familiar, painful clicking noise sounded in his throat. "Lab," he croaked.
"Lab, laboratory? Illegal, of course. A chem lab making street drugs? Dangerous place, no safeguards, puts the whole damned neighbourhood in jeopardy. Dare say you hated the villains, wanted to nail them hard."
The scowl of agreement was a menacing sight.
"So you were investigating a drugs lab. Before or after the explosion? What, during? Hell, mate, you were right into the flaming brimstone, weren't you?"
RD indicated choking, then a blow to the head.
"Smoke inhalation. You were injured, knocked unconscious. Let me guess. When you came to, you found you weren't in Casualty."
Not by a damn long shot.
"Dropped down for the count. Woke in the hands of scoundrels." Bodie felt the first acidic twinge of discomfort in the pit of his gut. He ignored it, turned straight back to pursuing the tale.
Again came the gesture for mainlining. RD indicated the place on his inner arm that bore scarred needle tracks.
Bodie felt a sudden unexplained sweat break out on his forehead. Impatiently he wiped it away, clearing the tangled hair out of his vision. "They were shooting you up with something vile. Yeah, I saw them at it, the slimy cruds. Seemed to me the effects were like scopolamine, but longer lasting. Some kind of truth serum, maybe something new I've never heard of? Were they sweating you for information?"
A simple negative. "Ex- exp- eh-" RD gasped to a rasping halt.
Bodie felt sick. "Fuck, no." His head ached, his pulse throbbed. "The bastards. Experimenting on humans? On you?" He felt the urge to attack surge up in him, an irrational impulse to assault, directed against some unseen enemy. There was an intense need to bite, scratch, maim.
Anger evolved rapidly to rage. Too late, it came to him. All in the effort to discover and aid, he had gotten close, then closer, merged, joined wholly. It had gone beyond empathy, he was inextricably entangled, couldn't escape.
He was trapped.
He tried to stand. Shook his head. "Damn the bastards to hell." The soldier's response to imminent threat, a classic berserker rage was upon him, but with no enemy in sight.
His heart pounded ruthlessly in his ribcage, the resultant pulse painful against his skull. He staggered a step, worried he might fall.
Then there were strong hands gripping his arms, steadying him. A sort of crooning, humming sound came to him, an effort to soothe.
Bodie sucked in a deep breath, then another, deeper. When his voice returned he muttered, "'S okay. I'm all right." He sank down again. "We can carry on."
"I tell you, I'm all right now. Just got caught up in the moment."
RD's next head shake was more emphatic, accompanied by a gentling rub along Bodie's arm.
"Sorry, I'm sorry. Seen too little action lately. Sometimes, I've just got to strike at something, take down some target that needs it. I get so's I crave an act of carefully calculated, erm, destruction."
He laughed at his own conclusion.
RD tilted his head, nodded, quirked a small smile. He reached forward and patted the back of Bodie's hand.
"But seriously, mate," Bodie massaged his pounding head, rubbed at his eyes. "I really need to know the rest. The closer we get to zero hour, the more details I've got to have. We are going to hit the home turf running. The villains won't see the strike coming 'til it's too late for retaliation."
RD bit his lower lip, contemplating the probability of that scenario. It was an expression of grave doubt.
But having arrived at this point, Bodie wouldn't call a halt. "Come on. You've got to tell me the rest. You never came to Africa willingly? No, of course not. They had to take you out of the picture, one way or another. Transported against your will. It was an old-fashioned spot of shanghai, wasn't it?"
RD pulled an illusory wallet from his pocket, counting out invisible cash.
Bodie clenched his jaw against another stream of expletives. "Kidnapped, bought and sold. Went from bad to worse, with no hope of escape here. Our generalissimo must have made that London lot seem like piddling amateurs by contrast."
Green eyes glinted, arctic, furious.
"What did he want with you?" Bodie thought he knew already, and shuddered away from the knowledge.
The answer, when it came, knocked him sideways with surprise.
RD used his fingers to indicate a tedious marching motion, clicking repetitively on the wooden slat of the crate. A stilted salute was followed by a belittling gesture.
"A soldier, small. Mechanical, a robot. Little mechanical soldier. Toy, a toy soldier?"
RD agreed, thumping his fist on his own chest.
"You were a toy soldier?" Bodie tried to make sense of the strange claim.
Incensed with the memory, RD rose to his full height. He crossed his wrists before him, indicating shackles.
"Restraint. Rape?" He finally named his fear.
No, not that, no.
"You're not lying to me?"
No, repeatedly, emphatic, insistent. The wrists were crossed again. Hands gestured to his belt, then palm slapped a stinging blow against fist. And again the mocking salute.
"Restraint, punishment, obedience. More restraint, punishment."
The oxygen went all out of Bodie suddenly. He listened to a strange buzzing in his ears. Exhaustion was upon him, like a physical weight borne across his shoulders. He forgot to breathe, it seemed.
When next he became aware, he was lying flat out, dimly sensing distant waves bearing him relentlessly forward. Desperately hoping for escape from something, he knew not what, he forced his eyes open.
Glinting ice, green faceted, upon which he had run aground. He stared into the freezing zone. How could something that glacially cold and hard be a comfort to him? But it was that, and he acknowledged the existence of some sort of strange safety.
Reality returned fully when RD reached his hand down to pat his face. The odd cooing noises he made seemed to set him in the realm of the wild animals rather than with mankind, a placement Bodie welcomed at the moment. Creature comfort indeed.
In his present predicament, he considered his own species with a certain distinct abhorrence.
RD helped him to sit up, to lean against the wooden crate.
Bodie shook his head. "How could they send me to save him, that general? What were they thinking, my superiors? Ordering me to do my all, risk everything to preserve the life of something despicable like that?"
Then RD's arms were around him, holding him in an unbreakable grasp.
Bodie's head sunk wearily onto a slender, sturdy shoulder. "It's all wrong. Whatever I'd have done would have been foul, you know? No convenient 'path of righteousness' there for me to take, none."
RD drew back with a stern look, fist to chest. The message, unspoken, still rang out loud.
My deed, my responsibility.
"It was self defence, you'd every right."
The dissent to this was adamant. RD throttled the throat of an invisible enemy, his face a mask of remembered wrath. By his reckoning, it had been a crime of extreme passion.
Bodie wanted to argue against the cruelty of this judgment. It wasn't reasonable, wasn't fair. But the energy for the fight had fled, leaving him feeling spent and ill.
In a wrung out voice, he spoke again. "I've never apologised for what I've been, what I've done before this. It would be confession just for the sake of comfort. I think it would be false of me. I don't have that sort of regret, I never have had, doubt I ever will. I made my decisions at the time, and so I'll stand by them now. But maybe my chum Mammon back there was right. Maybe I have been seeking some kind of contrary virtue, balancing what has been with something I can believe just now. I've placed my loyalties right on the line. And for my reward, my commanders have put me in an impossible position."
RD stroked down his arm, lingered on the surface of his wilted fist a moment, before withdrawing.
"In order to be faithful to a cause, loyal to my command, I was meant to back the play of a megalomaniac. They set me in aid of a sadistic bastard, utterly untrue to his own side. But worse than all that, he was chief destroyer of a grand vast piece of paradise. All the while knowing full well, it was mostly to the profit of the oil companies, the moneyed interests, the politicians and power brokers. And for them, I was to aid in the destruction of maybe the only thing in the universe I care about, right down to oblivion."
RD's assent was calm, measured.
"Maybe this dilemma of mine could be seen as punishment for past sins. But I don't believe that, not for a moment, not even in some dim, childish corner of my mind. This is just the way of things, no black and white, no right and wrong, all cloudy, murkish grey. I'm the perpetual soldier, 's truth, and what I can do well is march. I'll put one foot in front of the other, all right enough, I will. But now I'm damned if I'll walk anyone's road but my own."
Maybe RD would have agreed with him then.
But suddenly the thunderous sound of backing engines struck them, while the turmoil of crashing waves rendered their position tenuous.
The ship had come to a tumultuous, mysterious halt.
They found themselves dead in the water.
"Devil take him."
In the fading light of sunset, they found themselves clinging to the starboard guardrail, leaning over for a clear view of the sinister looking boats that had overtaken the ship, enforcing the current halt. The delay had all the hallmarks of some government squadron wielding coastal authority to search and seize.
Well, they couldn't say they hadn't been warned.
"I know that bastard, standing there in the middle, the wicked looking one holding the Dragunov SVD like it's his bloody lover. Met him a while ago around Kinshasa Prison. He's a damned long shot from his former hunting grounds. But what's more to the point and far worse, he knows me bloody well, knows my real name. And here I stand bearing a fiddled passport. Hurry, now, every second counts."
He dragged RD away and they ran, straight back to the storage space for their gear.
In the comparative quiet of that corner, Bodie confronted his mate. He grabbed him by both shoulders and clutched with a vise-like grip.
"Listen to me and listen well. I've got no choice in this, which makes things simple for me. I've got to run for me life now. It'll be a dangerous stunt, but staying would be lethal."
RD gulped convulsively, then nodded.
"Now you, love, are another matter. You have a choice to make, and I'm truly sorry to say, it'll be a damned difficult one. Staying for you may be less dangerous than running, a calculated risk, savvy? Those SOBs may be after you, me, both of us, or neither, and who's to say which it is? If they aren't after you, staying here, biding your time onboard will be your best bet by far. But if they are after you, or at least have heard your description, your life in their hands int worth shite. So now you've to choose."
There was absolutely no hesitation as RD placed his palm squarely over Bodie's pounding heart.
Bodie couldn't suppress his grin, but it instantly fled. He examined his mate sternly.
"Ray Doyle, look me in the eyes. Are you a strong swimmer?"
"Do you remember clearly? Are you certain? I don't mean triathlon quality, but you can do serial laps without having to stop?"
Again, no hesitation.
"Right then, we're off. And the only thing we've got going for us is our bloody balls, and the time of day."
They fled before the approach of their enemies, away from the boarding party, the nervously gathering crew and passengers, to the opposite side of the ship, down to the lowest level, to their tiny perch overlooking the water line.
Back to the small rubber raft.
Twilight was settling, with the last beams of sun burning the evening clouds in a conflagration of vermilion and gold.
They fastened their boots and packs to the raft, and dropped it over the side on a tow line, swiftly but silently.
"Mind what I say now. I'll lower you on this rope a goodish distance, and you've only to keep your balance and hold hard onto the slip end for that. Then you're to start swinging, and I'll aid it by guiding the rope. Now when you reach as far as you're able to arc away from ship's side, let loose of the slip end, slide free and drop into the water. Understand?"
RD was clear eyed in acknowledgment.
"When you hit, it'll be hard, painful like wet cement, and comparatively cold. You've got to steel yourself for it, and the instant you hit, kick straight up for the surface like something bad is biting at your toes. Soon as you break, stroke for the raft, get a good grip on it, but don't climb aboard yet."
He looked for hesitation in the other's eyes but detected nothing save resolve.
"And whatever else, don't let yourself get dragged under the ship."
He got him rigged on the lowering rope and helped him over, clinging to the wrong side of the rail, when on an impulse, Bodie leaned close and kissed RD hard on the mouth. "Don't even imagine screwing this up, clear?"
Then RD was away, hanging precariously, disappearing fast in the evening gloom, as Bodie payed out the line. He felt the impetus, the pendulum swing of the suspended body, counted the seconds of a breathless pause, and then heard the sound of the splash.
Without allowing a single moment to acknowledge his worry for his mate's success, Bodie grabbed his own lines and rappelled hastily down the vessel's side. There was scarcely enough light left to judge his distance, so he took his best guess, swung out in a wide sweep, kicked hard away and plummeted.
The shock of the impact was everything he'd anticipated, but he was working on instinct now, responding to a do-or-die command. The instant he could straighten, he pulled for the surface. Breaking into the atmosphere, he sucked in enough oxygen, feeling the intense sting of salt in his eyes and nose. Three seconds to orient, there was the black bulk of the ship, there was the lighter shadow of the dinghy, and he swam for safety with all his strength.
The wave action around the stalled ship was rough. Slamming into the raft's side was much easier than getting a hold on the tow line. Even after he'd gotten a slippery grip, he nearly lost it again when the lower half of his body was pulled abruptly away by the water's wash.
And then, despite his resolve, he panicked when he couldn't see RD.
Torn between fear of detection and fear of losing his mate, he made his decision and called out. Then he started hand over hand, around the port edge of the boat. He made it to the end, and clinging there with his legs washed forcefully beneath, he twisted his head around to catch a look abaft.
There, clutching at a trailing frayed end of line secured to who-knew-what, was RD, sporting a bloody nose and hand, but grinning at Bodie for all he was worth.
Now Bodie had two considerations. He didn't want to discover which denizens of the deep would be attracted soonest to blood in the water. But he wanted to wait for more intense darkness to cover their departure. And sitting upright in the boat might be an invitation to shoot at their profiles first and ask questions later.
"Hang on. Don't try any moves, awright?"
There was a gunwale line meant for clambering swimmers to grasp. Bodie reached as high over the side as he could slap, gave a hard kick to rise out of the water, pushing up with steel coiled muscles, caught the rope in one fist and powered his way onboard.
Instantly he flattened against the bottom, snaked a sinuous path astern, and peered over the aft end to where RD clung obediently.
"I'm pulling you in. Don't let go until I've a good grip on you and I tip you the nod."
Risking a tumble back into the drink, Bodie leaned far over the side and hauled on the line, gradually drawing the body closer to the boat. When RD was finally within a hard reach, Bodie pulled first on the long sodden curls, then the collar and back of the shirt, and finally the belt around his waist. With more splashing noise than was strictly safe, Bodie managed to land RD flopping onboard, like a grand catch of the day.
They collapsed on the bottom, curled up together in a tangle of salted limbs and sopping garments, gratefully sucking in huge chests-worth of fresh evening air.
The darkness dropped thicker now, and remaining seemed riskier to Bodie than chancing their luck adrift.
Fortunately for them, the ship was making a scant way, to keep off the shore's shelf. They only had to cut the line and wash silently astern.
With a frantically beating heart, Bodie wielded his glittering blade, reaching for the line that should represent the safety of their ship, but which now only bound them to a threat of torture and death.
He severed the cord.
Then he folded himself back down breathlessly to await their fate. There were so many different ways this move could kill them. They could capsize in the roughness of the ship's wake. They could drift clear, but directly into the midst of their enemy's boats. They could deem themselves at last safe from detection, only to sit up later and then be shot. They could be caught up in the flood's current, but be flung ashore into crushing rocks. Or they could drift clear of all difficulties, catch an unfavourable current, surf out to sea and be swallowed alive by the Atlantic.
At the moment, they couldn't do a thing to mend any of that, so Bodie hugged as close as molecularly possible to RD without actually crawling inside of him. Lying there, they rose and fell over the rhythmic, dangerous caress of the vast water. They stared into a firmament that alternately featured the dark shadows of swirling torn storm clouds and the brilliant light of eons-distant, already-extinct stars.
Then they slept.
When they abruptly woke, the sky was uniformly shrouded in clouds.
Bodie risked a peek over the gunwale, to discover they were surrounded.
Surrounded by waves, no view of the ship, no glimpse of their enemy. Well, at least it was safe to sit up.
Which they both did.
"You okay? Crashed into the dinghy's side, trying to climb aboard?" His mate's bloody nose had washed clean during their earlier struggle to safety. Bodie examined RD's hand, where, grabbing for purchase on the slippery polymer surface, he had torn off a fingernail. "Bet the salt in that stings like hell. But at least there's no need to clean it."
They grinned ruefully at each other.
"Maybe I didn't sufficiently emphasise the hazards of that latest enterprise of ours. But we didn't have a spare second for debate. And regardless of that, I rather got the impression you were sticking like barnacles to me."
RD's nod was cheerful.
Chuckling, Bodie buried his face in the soggy mess that curled on the join of neck and shoulder. "You really are something else, you know that?"
After a comfortable pause, he spoke again.
"This is a bit of a strange position for us. We were between a Rock and a Soft Place. That vicious lot of rabid scavengers we've just escaped were denizens of the Rock. But our leaping-out was much closer to the Soft Place. Those awl-arses were well outside their own waters, rendering their assault nothing better than government-sponsored piracy. Though doubtless the topic of claimed national waters is hotly argued hereabouts. The Rock slime are hard at their own dirty civil war. Trust me, winding up at their mercy would have been far worse for us than slitting our throats to be cleanly done."
All the while, Bodie was running his hands over his mate. Somewhere in his logic, he told himself he was surveying for injuries. And it was too dark to see them, hence the physical approach.
Every once in a while, RD shivered transiently away from his touch. But Bodie sensed it was a ticklish reflex rather than any wish for avoidance, since each bit of shying was inevitably followed by relaxation back deeper into his caress.
Bodie unbuttoned the placket at RD's throat. "We should get out of these soggy togs." He helped his mate out of the clinging shirt.
"See, what I'm hoping is that the bight's current is in our favour, that it'll wash us ashore at the Soft Place, which is a fairly broad target of coastline and easily hit. When visibility is better, we can help ourselves by dint of striving, plying the oars a stint. And a lovely place to arrive it will be, too, if we manage it. A land dripping with milk and honey, as gathered and proffered by sweet, doe eyed girls in cocoa butter and bikinis."
Bodie stripped his own shirt over his head and dropped it carelessly. In the dark, he and RD were eyeing the mysterious hints of each other's anatomy. Bodie reached to do battle with his mate's flies, which wet, were stubbornly resistant, and succumbed to unfastening only after a struggle.
"Mind you, if we miss that target, we're into a Hard Place again, the mainland of the aforementioned Rock slime. And the other, and only slightly less grim possibility is our being swept fully out to sea. So now it behooves us to make merry, for tomorrow will drop upon us in due and potentially deadly course."
Bodie grinned, showing the beautiful gleam of his teeth.
RD rose up on his knees to shed his jeans and pants. His damp skin was an enticing gloss of vague highlights, blending with the close glimpse of wave crests which served as backdrop.
Bodie discarded the remainder of his own clothes.
RD seemed a fragmented half of Bodie. They were two broken shards of flotsam, cast adrift only to crash again together hard.
Bodie extended his hand to stroke salty flesh.
The newly thrashing texture of the nearest waves joined the rhythm of his heart slamming against his thorax.
Fascinated, RD watched the watery turmoil. There was an enormous life force rising all around them. His own erection seemed a continuation of vast, effortless creature striving.
"Heaven and hell!" Bodie grappled RD's body securely against his own, willing that any further life would be together, that even death couldn't pry his fingers loose from the harbour of his soul.
Staring over each other's shoulders, they were enthralled with the surrounding view, menacingly close, looming, encircling them with power that could capsize them with a mere careless tail flick.
Bodie fisted RD's solid cock against his own, pummelling them fiercely together. As the torment of this delight caught at him, he counted the dorsal fins visible on his side of the raft.
RD gasped roughly at a similar view opposite.
"Basking sharks," Bodie muttered into a delectable ear, immediately before thrusting his tongue into it. "A whole fucking school of the monsters."
RD struggled to enter his entire being into Bodie's body with fiery passion.
"You'll never come closer to Leviathan and all its spawn than this. Biblical doesn't begin to touch it, mate."
His hard hand lavished strokes on their combined sensory overload.
"Ten or so to port, the same again to starboard, with a few more fore and aft, at about twenty feet length per beast. I reckon tha's about a full tenth of a mile of solid muscle surrounding us. Damn, yes, oh fuck us both to the sweet bitter end."
He crested, they both did, rising over the surfeit of vast pleasure which consumed them.
Meanwhile the huge creatures of their shared night opened wide their jaws, the better to devour the ocean.
"Oh. Crikey, mate!" Bodie blushed.
He and RD staggered, gracelessly exhausted, through the pummeling surf. They had abandoned the stolen dinghy in the swell, immediately after Bodie had deemed their current landfall a swimable distance. Fastening their few salvageable possessions atop a life preserver, they had flung themselves into the breakers. Swimming hard, then walking when they could touch bottom, they finally arrived.
"Should have stayed starkers, wrapped some artistic strands of seaweed across our goolies and stood nonchalantly admiring the scenery. Might have been less conspicuous," Bodie muttered with considerable chagrin.
They had been too tired to struggle back into their wet clothes. And battling the undertow, fully attired, might have proven overwhelming. So now they stood, bedraggled and dripping in a ridiculously matched set of filthy vests and torn army drab boxers.
Forms faded to wraith status, lean and gristly, piebald with overexposed patches burned beyond bloody steak colour, the majority of dead white integument swollen from prolonged immersion in salt water. Hair hung, long unshorn, ragged and tangled. Faces sported three days worth of bristles.
Bruised, scraped, a bit bloody, and utterly wild from scalp to soles, they stood stock still with their toes squirming in the sand.
It was a lovely resort beach, fully populated with stylish sun bathers.
Utterly unabashed, RD smirked and posed before the onlookers' astonished stares.
Maybe that was the right attitude to cop, Bodie reflected, bemused. Most of the witnesses to their arrival seemed at least sympathetic. And some of the young lovelies appeared overtly interested.
Suddenly chuckling, Bodie winked at a particularly luscious redhead.
Peaceful civilisation. Utterly unfamiliar, remote and rather disorienting. Bodie felt slightly dizzy.
"Come on, Mr Universe, let's get us undercover, shall we?"
They thrust their wet feet into their boots and plodded away from their audience.
The boardwalk was lined with small, fashionable shops, offering a wide variety of goods and services. They started with a clothier.
Bodie stifled his urge to apologize to the proprietor. Borrowing a bit of RD's brass-balls poise, he strode carelessly down the aisles, choosing garments he hoped might do for size. In their current state of grime, it would be unconscionable to make use of the fitting room.
RD stood, shaking his head, holding a crisp pair of beige trousers before his bony pelvis.
Bodie's sudden smile was pure sunshine. "Eh! Finally have the opportunity to feed you, haven't I?"
But the culture shock returned full force when they went to make payment for their selections, drawing a motley variety of soggy European bills from a wet wallet, and supplementing this with a few golden Krugerrands from a money belt. Bodie felt the only things lacking to complete the transaction were some pirate doubloons.
The store owner must have agreed. He raised an eyebrow at the two apparitions purporting to be customers. "Had a spot of bother?" he asked in polite tones.
"Ah, nothing to write home about," Bodie shrugged casually. "Is there a nearby shower available anywhere?"
Courteously offering directions, the proprietor seemed torn between concern and amusement.
Their stop at a chemist's for toiletries evoked a more insistent inquiry into their welfare. Bodie quite firmly refused an offer to contact the authorities for assistance. Concluding a pharmacist might be far more experienced in judging their physical condition than a tailor, he forgave the man his well-intentioned interference.
They hastily retreated, clutching their purchases as treasures, and made their unfortunately conspicuous way to the public bath facilities.
They showered and shampooed and shaved. Then, having forgotten to buy a towel, they crammed their damp bodies into uncomfortably starchy new attire. Fearing that some form of police or other might arrive at any moment, they fled the facility, disposing of tell tale rags in various rubbish receptacles along the path of their retreat.
They found a smaller, secluded stretch of beach to rest. Here, squinting from the sun glinting painfully off the brilliant azure water, they took turns using newly acquired manicure scissors, trimming rats' nests from each other's long locks, wielding a plastic pocket comb until they grew tired of the effort.
Then they turned to the first aid supplies and doctored each other's multiple hurts.
Bodie reflected philosophically on their upended priorities, tonsorial considerations having replaced medical concerns rather abruptly at the head of their list of essential activities.
Eventually, still feeling they scarcely passed muster, but wouldn't instantly evoke arrest for public indecency or vagrancy, Bodie started them toward the much anticipated mess line.
Food and drinks. Sweets and savouries. All manner of munchies. They ate gleefully, chaotically at a dozen different establishments, with ice cream for appetizers and sausages for dessert.
Bodie was dismayed to discover how soon RD ran out of room.
"Fear not. Lots of little noshies, and we'll work up to seven course dinners in no time." His comment reminded him of a similar prior assessment he had made about RD's speech ability.
Grabbing both shoulders, he turned his mate to examine him, face to face. Softly smiling, he prodded him. "Well, what do you think of it all now?"
A cheerful grin joined a small, contradictory tear trickling down RD's misshapen cheek. "We made it," he rasped.
"By gawd, we did at that." Bodie bear-hugged him in the middle of the boardwalk.
At a kiosk, they picked up a bright brochure advertising charter flights, because Bodie thought he recognized the rapscallion pilot in the photo. With another damp pound note, he bought the privilege of using the management's phone.
The remembered name resulted in an easy contact. The pilot recalled Bodie as well, and a rendezvous with a sturdy Land Rover soon lead them down a dusty road to a private runway.
Bodie and his pilot chum stood sipping cold drinks and reminiscing, while an ecstatic RD joined a proud mechanic in examining every inch of the Ford Trimotor perched in pristine splendor, ready for takeoff.
The airplane was a perfectly restored antique, well worthy of RD's admiration. Bodie chuckled as his mate bounced on the plush red velvet upholstery of a passenger seat.
When RD settled down, Bodie shifted somberly to look at him. "I've been thinking," he vouchsafed. "It's none too soon to be planning for England. We've still got troubles ahead of us there, I'm mortally certain."
RD frowned and nodded.
"There's this feller I know, name of George Cowley. Runs a smart operation on the domestic side of things. Crime and such matters, you know? You've heard of CI5, of course. But never met their controller?"
RD's face perked with interest as he shook his head. He had never met Cowley, although he knew his reputation.
"I was in on a joint operation with his lads awhile back. Impressive organization. I'm thinking we should stay secret, low profile, until we can contact Cowley. If anyone can set us straight again, it's himself. Yeah, he'll know what to do with us, I reckon." The outrageous thunder of the startup engines rendered further speech impossible.
They stole brief last glances of the beautiful land and sea, trying hard to disperse a sense of disloyal abandonment.
Departure stirred relief and regret equally, emotions mingling in an unsettling tangle. Bodie ruffled his mate's curls affectionately. Then he placed his hand on RD's arm, and left it there for mutual comfort.
Even if there was a feeling of loss in Bodie, his sense of gain was immeasurably greater.
In his journey he had stumbled across a find that surpassed all prior remembrance of joy.
RD glanced at him, the brilliance of his gaze a reassurance of more good things, still to come. Bodie contemplated a hazy future.
His path ascended. Of a sudden, Bodie felt strangely certain of the fact.
As if in confirmation, the airship rose with angelic grace. Together, he and RD left the land of their strife.
The gleaming heavens at last beckoned the two weary travellers toward their way home.
-- THE END --