*delete as applicable
Category: The Mighty Boosh
Pairing: Howard Moon/Vince Noir
Length: 30-40k words
URBAN WILDLIFE BLUES or Maybe not the Tail You Thought It Was by losttime
Vince Noir had a secret. It was exciting, important and thrilling. So thrilling, he felt like he was under some kind of spell.
He had seen Howard Moon dance.
Just thinking about it could make Vince grin to himself and skip in a way that would in itself have made him look ridiculous, had he not already been wearing stack heels and a bowler hat. The way it had happened, was happening, was this.
He had finally removed himself from some mid-week all-nighter just as the sun was rising, having drunk himself sober, and was trudging home feeling like most people do after a rough day at work; misinterpreted, taken for granted, bored. It had been a hot series of days, with sultry, humid nights that made clubbing difficult and sleeping even more so. Now, walking home sore-footed, the city fug glowing yellow and promising yet another uncomfortable day, the coolness of the early morning had put him somewhere between resigned and comfortably numb.
Then he had turned the corner into the lane at the back of the Nabootique and seen him.
It wasn’t normal dancing, or at least not Vince’s idea of dancing. Howard was moving slowly, but fluidly, his arms reaching out to thin air, twisting, describing slow arcs around his head, hands finding their own pattern. His stance was deliberate, his weight switching first one way then another with a roll of his hips or a delicately-placed foot. His eyes were closed and – judging by the huge, antediluvian headphones clamped to his ears, the wires trailing to the waistband of his trousers – he was lost in some jazzy musical dream. But no jazz trance had ever made Howard behave this way before. His body twisted and turned, beautifully balanced and controlled, with a grace and skill his normal life generally denied him. And totally preoccupied in his dance and music, he gyrated on completely relaxed, and yet, to Vince’s eyes, miraculously vibrant.
At the first sight Vince’s hand had flown to his mouth in the universally-recognised gesture of shock and surprise, his eyes goggling. In seconds he’d had enough presence of mind to duck back behind the wall, and there he stayed, leaning against the cool brick with his hand still pressed to his mouth whilst Howard completed his set, took off the headphones and, with a slightly self-conscious shake of his arms and legs, made his way back into the shop.
What at all other times in Vince’s life, and certainly of late, would have been his natural response – to laugh, to mock, to taunt – completely failed to kick in. Instead he remained rooted to the spot. The image of what he had seen was burned into his memory. Everything was clear. The twisting sinews in the strong forearms, the intense concentration in the furrowed brow, the way the loose shirt rode up as Howard raised his arms, revealing the endearing roundness of his belly.
Oh, there was more…. the jut of hipbones; the dusting of golden-brown hair below his navel; the flat slope of creamy skin descending below the waistband of his summer-weight chinos; the dimples in his lower back; the delectable – yes, delectable – curve of his arse; the long, long legs. Vince saw it all but had difficulty processing the flood of images.
This clearly was no pole dance. Vince struggled to find an analogy, but reckoned it was some relation to Tea-Chai, or Shi-Tee, or whatever it was the OAPs did in the park, this time with a jazzy flavour – this was Howard, after all.
But Howard. Howard dancing like this. Howard’s body. Something hit Vince’s gut like an express train and left him gasping. Long after Howard has disappeared – long, long after – Vince pulled himself together and slipped into the shop to commandeer the bathroom. And to try to regain enough self-control to behave as if nothing had happened.
But of course it had. Because immediately,Vince’s life started to change.
It started the very next night. Out drinking with Leroy it was relatively easy to slip away when the noise and press of people could cover his exit. He hadn’t realised before quite how easy. Then home, in his room, hardly daring to sleep in the hope that Howard would dance again. Which he did, rising in the early dawn – Vince heard his cautious footfalls down the stairs as he made his way to the yard. And Vince, upstairs, inched the window open and, crouching on the floor wrapped in his floral kimono, craned carefully out to see the dance unfold.
There were set moves, he could see. His brain cell absorbed them like flashes from a glitter ball, storing them away with perfect clarity. By the time the same thing had happened the next day, and the next, and the one after that, Vince could sit by the window, dancing in his head in time with Howard, his hands involuntarily making the same twisting, graceful moves as those of the dancer in the backyard.
After about four days, Howard Moon – Man of Action, explorer, philosopher, observer of the human condition – finally twigged something was going on. It wasn’t just the quite altered atmosphere in the shop, with Vince more helpful, more chatty, less acerbic than of late – well, for quite a long time, actually. No, most noticeable were Vince’s early nights. After so long, Howard’s sleeping brain was attuned to registering Vince’s return each night, finally relaxing and switching off when it was clear he was back safely. There had been many times in the past when Howard’s waking mind had chided him for being such a sap. But the feeling didn’t last long. The fact of the matter was that Howard slept better knowing the occupant of the room down the hall had finally staggered home. Which is why the early nights, the quiet, barefoot, completely sober tiptoeing up the stairs, rang strange. He mentally logged it, proposing to perhaps venture asking about it should things get more extreme.
Which they did, but not in a good way.
It began simply enough. On the fifth day, Vince took up his position by the window as he heard Howard descend the stairs. The back door opened, and Vince heard a muffled exclamation of disgust. He craned a little more, but could see little until suddenly there was Howard’s broad back and the splash and rush of water as he threw a bucketful over the back step. A clank as the bucket was set down and then Howard was back in the yard. And Vince relaxed as the show commenced, smiling unconsciously, his hands mirroring his friend’s movements in a small, shy dance of their own.
“You been scrubbing the yard?” Vince asked as nonchalantly as he could at breakfast, full of sunshine after the morning dance but still intrigued.
“Oh God,” Howard huffed as he poured out Vince’s cheerios. “Something threw up on our step last night. Had to sluice it away.”
“Eeew!” Vince wrinkled his nose at the thought, and then had a thought of his own.
“Who though? You don’t tend to get clubbers coming up the back way… um, I mean, going that way.” Except me, his brain-cell had reminded himself.
“Don’t think it was a person,” continued Howard, putting toast on the table and opening up the Dalston Gazette. “Didn’t seem….um… what you’d normally expect…” He rolled his eyes apologetically at Vince’s second, cheerio-muffled “Eew!” “I think it was some kind of animal. And it smelt really strange…”
“Howard, please!” came the plea, cheerios swallowed in haste. “That’s more than enough information at breakfast-time. Or any other time, for that matter.” Vince put down his spoon and held up his hands as if to ward off further grossness.
“No, really strange,” mused Howard, Vince’s pantomime failing to distract him. “Something fishy.”
“Something else too… can’t place it, but definitely mackerel.”
“Must be some mangy cat then. There’s plenty round here. Well rough. Never pass the time of day with you.”
Howard tapped his teaspoon on his mug, still thoughtful.
“Maybe…” he chewed his toast for a moment, some undefined worry creasing his brow. Vince watched him cannily as he shovelled in the cheerios.
Then Howard’s face cleared. He smiled at Vince. Vince grinned back and some cheerios fell out. Things were back to normal.
And so it was that the first sign passed unnoticed.
The next morning, full of pleasant anticipation, Vince woke to the sleepy, early chatter of cross, overheated birds and the stealthy pad of Howard’s feet down the corridor. The back door opened. By the window, Vince wriggled his shoulders in excitement, only to be greeted by silence. Puzzled, he leaned out a bit more. Howard was stooping to pick something up off the back step, a bin-bag in his hand. Straightening up, he strode over to the wheelie-bin they now kept in the yard, wrapping up the bag as he did so. He tossed it into the bin, paused for a moment looking in, then closed the lid and walked back towards the shop.
And looked up.
Started blue eyes met startled brown.
“Mornin’!” Vince attempted a cheeky smile.
“You’re awake? I mean, you’re awake! It’s six o’clock!”
“Well, early birds and all that, Howard. Besides, it’s a bit too hot to sleep, innit?” He studied his nails disingenuously, then looked up.
“What’s going on down there, Howard? I mean the bag and everything?”
Howard still stood transfixed. This was Vince as he’d never see him before. No, scratch that. He suddenly realised he was seeing Vince as he’d never seen him before.
The sleep-ruffled black hair, the cheeky quirk of the lips, the impossible spade of a nose that nevertheless made him look almost elfin, the extraordinary clarity of the blue eyes. All of it better for clubbing-free nights, but all so…. all so….
He swallowed hard and tried a smile back at the puzzled grin, illuminated in the window by early sunlight and wreathed in flowers. He wondered briefly when they’d installed a window-box, but then he realised it was Vince’s kimono framing the scene,
Vince contemplated his friend over his steaming mug. Troubled, definitely troubled. He’d forgotten what fun it was to watch each little thought flicker over Howard’s face. And it was a nice face, he remembered. Very nice indeed.
“There was something else on the back step this morning. A rat.”
Vince looked grave. “Dead?” he enquired, solemnly.
“Um… yes, dead.”
“Black, white, brown or piebald?”
“What? Oh, brown I suppose. Yes, light brown.”
“No-one I know, then.”
“Hmmmm?” Vince was nose-deep in his mug.
“It had been beheaded.”
“No, I mean something had bitten its head off. It was just lying by the body like a little… a little… “
“Yes, head. So I wrapped it all up and put it in the bin. Weird thing to be there.”
“Those mangy cats again.” said Vince. But he was feigning indifference. Howard’s brain was working overtime, and none of it looked good.
“Look,” Vince continued, “maybe it was a mob hit. These rats are into some well suspect stuff around here. Or maybe someone’s sending Naboo a warning, ‘cos of his dodgy brownies. There’ve been quite a few complaints lately.”
“Maybe.” Howard looked doubtful. “Well, we’ll ask him later.”
A pause. Vince cocked an eyebrow.
“Well, what else?”
“Er… there was this smell…”
“Oh, Howard, please! Enough of the nasal musings! Mackerel, it’s a cat. Tuna, it’s a cat…”
“No!” The sharp syllable shut Vince up in a flash. “No,” softer this time, “vaguely bathroom-y, like shampoo. As well as stinky.”
“An odd combination, Sherlock Moon. Now, you gonna make some more tea, or what?”
He waited for the next thought to twitch across Howard’s face. He was pretty good at working out what it might be.
But it took him by surprise nonetheless.
“You going out tomorrow night?”
Vince swallowed a mouthful of tea in a defensive reflex. Was Howard on to him?
“Dunno yet.” He tried for nonchalance. “Why d’you ask?”
“Oh… nothing, it’s just… No, never mind.”
Vince saw thoughts flicker and disappear, too fast to log. So he threw in a little surprise of his own.
“But tonight I’m not!” he announced on impulse. Howard raised an eyebrow. “No, tonight let’s stay in, hey Howard? Watch a movie? You can maybe show me your stamp collection again. You haven’t done that for ages…”
This is it, thought Howard. Clearly there was something seriously wrong. Vince was behaving uncharacteristically, un-Vince-ily, rationally.
“Vince… er… are you feeling okay, by the way? Not feverish or anything?”
Vince looked perplexed, stemmed in mid-flow.
“Only… you’ve not been out much recently, and then waking up before six, and now staying in… Should I get you some paracetamol?”
“Howard, don’t be a plank! I’m fine! I just thought it would be a nice change tonight. Look…” He grabbed the Gazette from the counter and pointed to the BBC 4 listings. “Look, a programme about bassoons! With that Alan Nutjob bloke you like to listen to! You watch that, and while you do, I’ll cook dinner…”
He couldn’t fail to register the flash of desperate fear on Howard’s face at the idea of Noir in the kitchen, even though the other recovered as fast as he could.
“No! No! I mean, that would be lovely, but… are you sure you don’t need a lie-down, Vince? You’re beginning to worry me a bit.”
Vince frowned. Howard changed his tack. “Look, that would be lovely, but hardly fair on you.”
“Well, that’s true, Howard…”
“So why don’t I get a takeaway – your choice – and then we’ll watch a movie. How about ‘School of Rock’?”
And so it was the second sign passed unnoticed too.
It was a pleasant evening. More than pleasant. Naboo and Bollo came home early and watched the movie with them, Naboo brushing off Vince’s queries about possible enemies, contract killings and hash cakes.
“Don’t be thtupid. As if anyone around here’th got the gumpthion…”
There was tea, a bit of crimping, relaxed laughter, a lot of smiling. Standing by his bedroom door, Howard reflected on how his face hurt from all the smiling. A nice hurt.
Vince watched him from down the corridor.
“‘Night then, Howard.”
“‘Night, little man.”
Howard’s eyes widened, albeit imperceptibly, with shock at what had slipped out. Vince just beamed. Then their eyes locked and something passed between them. Something sad, something happy. Something full of loss and longing, and yet… the hint of promise. And neither of them understood it.
“Sleep well, then.”
And Vince did, at first, despite the oppressive heat. He walked through a sunlit pasture of cheerful flowers, sensing a solid presence by his side, always there but unseen. It made him happy. And after walking and walking, he came to a house, made entirely of chewy cola bottles. Genius! You could kind of see through it, in a funny way. He turned to call to his silent friend beside him, and his friend was gone.
No longer genius.
He spun back to face the house. With a broad crack it split down one side and the cola bottles tumbled out, bouncing everywhere. He had to jump to avoid them. And with that he woke with a start, conscious even then that the sound in his dream was something related to the shop. He lay tense and motionless, ears straining. He thought he heard Howard’s door open and waited. Nothing else happened. Howard would surely call him if he were needed. Howard would…. Howard….
He woke again, no longer happy; now full of foreboding. A few hours of fitful sleep had passed. He pursed his lips and stared at the ceiling.
“Now is the time for action,” he told himself. “or something”. Tea, probably.
Down the corridor he could see Howard’s door ajar. He tiptoed along the thin carpet and peered in. Nobody. The bed was rumpled as if the covers had been thrown back suddenly and with force. Very un-Howard-like.
Vince padded downstairs, tying the kimono sash in a firm knot. He noticed he was shivering in the pre-dawn darkness. In the shop the lights were all on. Howard was sitting at the table in the back room in his vest and pants (hot weather sleeping attire) holding an object – a package? He had his back to Vince, and was staring out at the dark yard. The sudden appearance of Vince’s reflection made him jump. He twisted in his chair and attempted to conceal the object under the table.
“What’s going on, Howard?”
“I have no idea.” It was said heavily, the worry lines creasing Howard’s face deeply. “I heard a noise.”
“Me too! But… um… I went back to sleep. I thought you’d…”
“I came downstairs.” Howard was barely listening. “Someone had thrown something through the window.” He gestured to the floor and Vince finally noticed that the small pane to one side of the door was smashed. Broken glass glittered in the harsh strip lighting.
Not swept up. Very un-Howard-like as well.
“About one o’clock.”
“That was, like, three hours ago! Have you stayed down here since then, you jazzy freak?”
“I was waiting.”
“In case something else happened.”
Something else. The words hung heavy in the air between them.
“And did it?”
Vince grinned, determined to snap Howard out of his introspection. “It was probably just kids, trick or treating…”
“Vince, it was one a.m. And it’s July.”
“Or a disorientated bat, or… or….” He tailed off. Howard’s shifty look and hidden hands prompted his brain cell.
“You said ‘threw something’! Threw what, Howard? Not more shampoo?”
It was meant in jest, but Howard’s expression as he looked up made Vince start.
“Show me,” he demanded, holding out a hand.
Howard sighed and placed the object he was holding on the table.
It was a doll. Or rather two bits of dolls. The body and limbs were those of an Action Man. The head and neck rammed onto the torso had come from some Barbie lookalike. It had long black hair. Wrapped around the arms and upper body was a long, raggedy twist of dirty tinsel. From its neck to its hips ran a jagged black mark as if carved with something. A knife? Or maybe a claw? An odour, faint but entirely repellent, hung around it.
With fastidious fingers, Vince turned it over. Haphazard letters scrawled down the broad plastic back to spell a name.
V I N C Y
He considered it for a long moment, then flipped it over again. When finally he looked up, he saw his friend watching him, brown eyes full of concern. Vince’s heart missed a beat.
He looked back at the doll, pursing his lips again (a good look, he thought, well intellectual).
“If this is meant to be me,” he said, gesturing to the doll’s square chest and well-developed biceps, triceps and pectorals, “then I’ve been working out more than usual lately.”
A longer pause. Howard drew a breath and spoke.
“Vince. He’s back.”
“Naboo, he’s back.”
Howard was repeating himself. He had already had this argument with Vince. Of course he couldn’t be back, Vince had said, had kept saying, taking hold of Howard’s arm, stroking his hand in an unconscious gesture of comfort. Of course he couldn’t. He was dead. Smeared to smear-thereens in the back of a refuse truck. They’d seen it themselves. The evil mutant fox was no more. How could he be? Vince had argued and argued, but was eventually silenced by Howard’s determined gaze and his own growing sense of certainty. So he’d stopped arguing, but he still held on to Howard’s arm, and Howard did nothing to discourage him.
Now, side by side, Vince still with Howard’s upper arm in something akin to a death grip, they put their reasoning to Naboo.
“The smell, Naboo. The rubbish. This… this… thing, the doll. It’s evil, all evil, you can tell it!”
Howard was doing all the talking. He needed to, to keep his unease under control. Naboo looked as convinced and engaged as might be expected at such an early hour, which was not much, frankly. But fortified by tea and confronted by the doll, his brain kicked into gear and he started looking grave.
“I suppose… I suppose there’s a possibility that he could have survived that rubbish crusher. He’d had a bit of shaman juice, hadn’t he? Not much, but maybe enough to avoid complete destruction.”
“Why all this, Naboo? What does he want?”
Naboo regarded them both impassively.
“Vengeance, I should think. And world domination. The last one’s a given, actually. Reckon he’ll go for vengeance first, just to get warmed up.”
Two pairs of eyes widened even further than thought previously possible, which in some people’s case was fairly remarkable. Howard’s arm was pretty numb but as he was now clasping Vince’s hand in a crushing grip, he thought it hardly polite to complain.
“Do something, Naboo!” Once Vince had found his voice, it was hard to shut him up. “Surely you can do something? Call the shamen in! Your magic’s stronger than the Crack Fox’s! You’ve got to get rid of him! And it’s not our fault this time… okay, okay, my fault, but not this time, right? We never did anything! We’ve been nowhere near your cupboard. This fox is being well extreme. He can’t be allowed to wander around like this, terrifyin’ people and rippin’ up dolls! He’s got to be stopped!. And it’s not our fault….!”
“Vince!! Shut up!!!“
On Howard’s exasperated command, Vince shut his gob with a snap, looking peeved. His wide eyes roved from Howard to Naboo and then back to Howard again.
“Naboo, can you help us?” continued Howard, as gently as he could. Naboo considered them both.
“I’ll go see the Board. And I’ll put a charm on the shop to keep him out. In the meantime, stay out of trouble.”
Easier said than done.
Back in the shop, glass swept up, doll wrapped in a bag and kept out of sight, Howard and Vince sat lost in their own thoughts. Howard was drawing lines in the dust on the counter, Vince twisted and turned in the dentist’s chair. The sun was progressing nicely through the morning sky, heating everything up to an unbearable degree. Howard thought that pretty soon, he’d have to take his hat off.
Vince stared out of the window, feeling guilty. Guilty because although he knew he ought to be worrying about the Crack Fox, like Howard was doing, all he could really think about was the dancing. He hadn’t seen Howard dance for two days. Something ached inside him. He wondered vaguely if the two were connected.
He was jolted out of his reverie by a familiar question.
“You going out tonight?”
He contemplated Howard gravely.
“Why do you ask?”
Howard swiped his palm across the counter and dusted it off on his thigh. He seemed to be deliberately averting his gaze.
“If you are, please don’t go on your own? Take Bollo. Or get Leroy to stay with you all the time.” He looked up finally. “I’m serious, Vince.”
“Bollo’s gone with Naboo to see the Board. And Leroy’s a right tit at anything responsible. So that’s two of your plans out the window. Howard, relax! It’ll be all right…!”
“Then maybe… stay in?”
Vince’s eyes flicked away from Howard’s, and then back again to hold him in the sort of gaze that Howard always found hard to break.
“I didn’t intend to go out, actually,” Vince said, with a soft smile that could almost – almost – be described as flirty. “Had too much fun last night. You wanna watch ‘Star Wars’ this time? The originals, of course…”
Howard dropped his eyes finally, indecision joining the rest of the trouble on his face.
“I… have to go out.”
“Go out?“ Vince’s voice was a squeak of indignation. He flipped his legs and stood up from the chair in one swift movement. “You can’t go out!! I’m staying in! With you!”
“I could say that it doesn’t usually worry you to go out without me…”
Vince floundered, changing tack.
“I mean, yeah… but… you won’t be safe either! And anyway, why can’t I go with you?”
Puppy dog eyes, puppy dog eyes. God, what am I doing?
“Um… I’m not sure you’d enjoy it. I mean, I was thinking of asking you to come anyway, before all this happened. But you probably wouldn’t want…”
“Howard! C’mon… where’re you going?”
Howard paused, and sighed heavily.
“Vince, I have a secret.”
Blimey, this is catching, thought Vince, staring in rapt attention at his friend.
“I’ve been working on a project. A very personal project. I couldn’t tell you because… well, because I thought you might laugh.”
Vince adopted an expression of wounded concern.
“But it’s about to come to fruition,” Howard continued, staring at the floor. “Tonight, as it happens. I’m… I’m taking my project to the public. I really want it to happen. I can’t cancel.”
He looked directly at Vince, and there was a silent plea in his eyes.
A wave of sadness hit the other man, and then was gone.
How many secrets do we keep from each other?
“And you can’t tell me what it is? Me, Howard?”
Howard blushed. A flash of inspiration, and Vince felt firm ground beneath his feet.
“I know what your secret is, Howard!” He beamed with triumph. “It’s your dancing!”
Howard looked aghast.
“What? You know? You’ve seen?”
Vince’s smile seemed to radiate from his entire body.
“For ages… well, about a week, actually. I saw you accidentally at first, but then I just wanted to watch you.” He hesitated, gauging the impact of that last sentence. “Not in a creepy way. I just didn’t want to disturb you.”
He walked up to Howard, holding out his hands, and grasped Howard’s arms, squeezing lightly.
“It’s genius, Howard! Absolutely genius! I wish you’d told me, really I do! It’s the… well, it’s the…”
He looked up at the pained face.
“… the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. Dancing-wise.”
Howard drew a sharp breath. He looked down at Vince’s hands on his arms, thumbs drawing circles on his skin, gently hypnotic. Then Vince’s hands dropped away as he scooted up onto the counter, and sat there swinging his legs. Howard felt oddly bereft.
“So tell me about it!”
Howard began hesitantly, but with more vigour as he warmed to his subject. Vince, watching, found it difficult not to be captured by his enthusiasm.
“It’s inspired by Tai-Chi…” he started.
“Hah! I mean, I thought it looked like that. You know about Tai-Chi then, Howard?”
“I’ve studied it in depth, Vince.” Vince cocked an eyebrow. “All right. I read a pamphlet at the library. But it’s not proper Tai-Chi. I just got the idea from it. I call it ‘Jazz Moves’”
Vince couldn’t help but smile. Howard looked at him, debating.
“Well, I’ve based it on some raw, atonal jazz, quite visceral. Sensual, really.”
Surreptitiously, Vince rolled his eyes and raised his eyebrows at the same time. No mean feat.
“It’s a series of moves to stretch the body, exercise the muscles and cleanse the mind.”
Vince looked puzzled as a sudden thought occurred to him.
“Where was the music, then?”
Howard smiled proudly. “Had to be a bit discreet, Vince. Atonal jazz at five thirty in the morning is probably not Naboo’s cup of tea…”
Nor many other people’s, thought Vince, but the image still made him smile.
“I used my headphones. You know, the ones from my decks? And I… um… borrowed Bollo’s MP3 player. Come to think of it, I’d better delete the jazz from amongst all that House and Garden stuff…”
“House and Garage, Howard,” corrected Vince, patiently.
“Yeah, the House and Garage stuff he’s got on there.” Howard gave Vince a grin, pleased to be sharing the joke with him.
Vince smirked back.
“So, aren’t you gonna show me your Jazz Moves, then?”
Howard looked hopeful, but cautious at the same time. It didn’t do to let your guard down too much with Vince Noir.
“Would you… um… like to see them? Really?”
Vince tried to look contemplative, then his face broke into a broad grin
“Oh, go on then!” Privately, he was digging his fingernails into the counter as hard as he could, to stop himself shouting “Please! Please, Howard! Dance for me! I’m going mad here!”
“So this is…” said Howard, adopting a stance, “… the ‘Night Heron’. Then we move into ‘Awakening Dawn’. ‘Sun-ray’ – see how it stretches the arms? Then ‘Folded Corduroy’, then ‘Trumpet Solo’…” Move followed move, Howard for maybe the first time ever in Vince’s presence truly open and confiding.
As for Vince, he found he was having difficulty breathing. Something painful was constricting his chest and throat as he watched the beautiful – yes, beautiful – man in front of him; dancing for him, dancing to him.
The set wound up, Howard gracefully constricting his movements until he was curled up in a ball, almost touching the floor.
“This is ‘Throbbing Satsuma’,” he said, slightly muffled. It was enough to shake Vince from his adoring trance… throbbing?
“I’m not entirely sure about the name yet. Anyway….”
Howard started to unfurl, and then in a quite enchanting, fluid movement, his arms opened out, torso stretching, one leg rising to stride forward, his fingers flexing intricately. The movement hung on for some moments, then Howard’s limbs drew back towards his body and, suddenly and unexpectedly, he was standing straight and tall in front of Vince, his eyes directed at the floor. The set was over. Unease and bashfulness replaced the quiet certainty of dancing Howard.
“Howard…” breathed Vince, gazing at the bowed head.
“That last one’s called ‘Electro Explosion.’” Howard looked up. There was both pain and hope in his face.
“Howard… for me?“
“For you. Well, in honour of you. I never thought you’d get to see it. It reminds me of you dancing. Except in slow motion. And to atonal jazz.”
Vince hardly heard the last words. He was biting his lip, eyes shining, face troubled. With a sudden movement he leapt off the counter and with his back to Howard dashed his cuff across his eyes. Then he spun on his heel, a brave smile on his face that only just convinced.
“It’s wonderful, Howard. It’s all wonderful. You are going to be a triumph!”
And without me, he thought with a twinge of something unrecognisable, though others might have called it regret.
“Ah, where exactly will you be a triumph?”
“At the club. It’s a special meeting of the New Age section of the Stoke Newington Jazz Club. If they like it, maybe I can… well… earn something extra for us…”
Vince was so moved by the last words he barely registered the fact of the Jazz Club. Before he could though, Howard was looking anxious again.
“The trouble is, Vince… I still don’t think I’m ready. I mean, the moves are okay, the set is complete, the music works fine. But I keep thinking something’s missing. And I don’t know what.”
He hesitated. Baring his soul to Vince was not normally guaranteed to boost his self-esteem, which is why it rarely happened. But right now he felt compelled to unburden.
“And to tell you the truth, I’m a bit… a bit… concerned that I might… um… react badly in front of the audience. Again… “
Vince met his worried look with a beam of supernova proportions.
“I know exactly what the problem is, Howard. S’obvious!”
“You’re on your own! Dancing’s made for two people. The best kind of dancing, that is.”
“Oh.” A pause. “Maybe you’re right. Well, it’s too late to do anything about it now. The gig’s tonight and, I mean, where would I find a person who can learn the moves in time?”
“Me, Howard!” Vince spun round in glee, his arms outstretched.
“Me! You need me! We’re a team, remember? And anyway I know all the moves already! I watched you. I learned them good. Just look!”
He stood in the centre of the room, drawing breath in imitation of Howard’s opening stance. Then he started. Night Heron, Sun-ray, Oblivious Duck, Formative Trombone… Howard watched, spellbound, for the first time seeing his own dance properly. And danced by Vince, eyes shut, a beatific smile on his face, hair swishing, hands flexing, back arching.
He looked ethereal, fragile, young… suddenly Howard saw again the boy he once knew, the boy who took an uncomplicated delight in anything, and lit up Howard’s life as he did so. The carefully-constructed disguise of Camden clothes-horse shimmered and dissolved for a moment, and Howard felt very young again.
He began to move, unconsciously following the well-known routine. Vince opened his eyes, and Howard saw the open invitation in them. They completed the set together, twisting and turning about each other, never touching but with their eyes locked, as if in some archaic ritual. And always smiling.
Then ‘Throbbing Satsuma’… they curled down to the floor, their shoulders brushing, and as Howard unfurled he was suddenly blinded by a flurry of movement. Vince stood triumphant, his dance completed, leaving Howard behind.
Howard furrowed his brow, drew his arms back to his sides and relaxed. And raised an eyebrow.
“Picture perfect, Vince. But that last one – that’s way too fast for a Jazz Move.”
Vince grinned, unperturbed. “That’s my very own ‘Electro Explosion’!”
“Okay, just don’t it like that tonight, yeah?”
“Deal. But we can be a team, Howard? Yeah?”
“Yeah… a team…”
There was an expectant murmur at the club as they arrived – a goodly number. The matronly MC greeted Howard warmly but looked somewhat askance at the young woman by his side, trouser-suited in silver with a feather boa wafting gently. Vince had dressed down, as Howard had asked.
“This is my partner… my dancing partner, Vince Noir.”
“Ah,,ahem, welcome to the club, young… man.” Her eyes flicked nervously. “Are you all prepared, Howard?”
Howard brandished his CD.
“Lead on, Madam!”
He began to follow her but felt a hand grab his sleeve.
“Howard!” hissed Vince, “it’s the Jazz Club!”
“Yes, Vince, of course it is! What did you expect, tennis?” Howard pulled him onwards.
“No!” Vince clung to the doorframe. “Jazz, Howard! What am I going to do? We didn’t think!”
He stared at his friend, perplexed, raising a hand to check his possibly already-swelling throat. But Howard just smiled, and, reaching inside the collar of his shirt, he extricated the headphones from where they had been looped round his neck.
“Fear not, Vince! Everything is taken care of!”
He placed them over Vince’s head.
“Like ear plugs, Vince! You don’t need the music, do you? Just follow my lead!”
Vince was too relieved at first to protest but his hands automatically came up to join Howard’s as the latter made his pedantic adjustments. Then from somewhere in his sparkling jacket he produced a small mirror and craned to see the effect. He looked at Howard with doubt writ large on his face.
“I don’t look ridiculous, Howard? I mean, truly?”
Howard gravely contemplated the boa, the lego necklace, the silver wedge heels and the sequins rippling on the jacket, creating their very own strobing effect and a minor public health hazard in the process.
“Vince,” he said comfortingly, “you hardly notice them”.
And so it was that a radical departure in dancing headgear completed Vince Noir’s outfit that evening as they stood before the waiting crowd, all glitter and cotton. And Howard too stood in front of his audience feeling complete, though it had nothing to do with his dress sense. The smiling presence by his side, in the spotlight as ever, made him feel strong enough to take on the entire Jazz Cub, if not quite the world as yet.
Howard listened for the music intro. He winked at Vince and they moved into their opening stance. As the discordant notes echoed through the Jazz Club hall, Howard gave Vince his cue and together they made Jazz Moves.
And as Howard danced, his eyes never left Vince’s face.
“He’s right, so right,“ he thought. “It needs two people. Dancing should be about two people…”
As if reading his mind, Vince smiled and moved closer to Howard than the set strictly demanded. Howard could feel his breath on his own cheek.
“Lookin’ good, Mr Moon!” came the whisper. They broke, reformed, closed in again on each other.
It’s like crimping, thought Howard, with a sudden flash of revelation. Just without words. It’s all about… um… team work. Two minds working as one…
Vince’s hair suddenly swept against his arm and it was all he could do not to gasp out loud.
“Electro Explosion’ was all controlled power. They straightened up, side by side. The music had finished. The room was filled with dead silence. They exchanged a nervous glance.
Then suddenly there was an isolated clapping, then more, then more, then people on their feet, cheering. Never (well, almost never) in his wildest dreams had Howard imagined such a reception for his creation. He was filled with pride – for himself, for Vince and his extraordinary ability to come up trumps, for their partnership. He threw an arm around his friend who had been grinning delightedly at him since the applause started, and pulled him close in a tight hug. Two slim arms circled his back and gave a quick, hard squeeze. It made his head swim.
Vince gazed up, the violet of the boa somehow making his eyes look impossibly blue.
“Howard…” he whispered huskily, his lips glistening invitingly, “Howard, they’ve got tea. And fondant fancies.”
It was still intolerably hot as they walked home. But dark clouds were gathering up around the almost full Moon, who was quietly scatting to himself, and from the distance came a faint breeze and the rumble of thunder. They were fairly oblivious to the change.
They wore their blissful success in characteristic ways – Howard’s soppy, distracted smile and Vince’s incessant gabble. Gabble about the set, the headphones (“Well genius, Howard! A retro triumph!”), the cakes, the people who had bombarded Howard with offers – of classes, copyrights, franchising. He was already halfway round the world on the yacht that Howard had bought after they’d both got tired of living at the Ritz when Howard pulled him up short, whispering fiercely in his ear.
“Shut up! Be quiet, Vince! Something’s here!”
And Vince could smell something. Something vile.
In front of them was a small piece of waste ground, beyond which lay the wire netting and serried ranks of skips belonging to the municipal dump. As if attracted by the location, detritus lay all around. There were brambles and nettles spread out around a rusted old oil drum. And on that oil drum sat the Crack Fox.
With unnecessary theatricality, the first flash of lightning lit up the familiar features and both men jumped. Vince automatically retreated behind his taller friend, but pressed close, hands at Howard’s waist and his cheek pressed into his shoulder, peering round Howard’s bulk. The headband, the rotting, matted fur, the tattered coat – they were all there. But now two small crutches lay on the drum beside him. His hind legs hung uselessly over the edge of the metal. One foreleg seemed twisted up against his chest. The teeth glinted, the eyes gleamed with malevolence, and on his other hand, neon hypodermics clashed together, the needles catching the flashes of electricity in the sky.
The laugh was hoarse, high and chilling.
“Howdy doody! So we meet again, kind sirs! Ol’ Cracky Fox is real glad to see ya! I bin thinkin’ about ya!
Then the voice deepened several octaves and he muttered into his chest.
“Thinkin’ ‘bout what I’d do to ya, when I got ya!”
Vince gripped Howard’s waist even tighter. It helped to stop Howard shaking.
“Ain’t you gonna speak to ol’ Cracky Fox? Poor ol’ Cracky Fox? With his twisted limbs and painful bones? With no money, no prospects, no fewcha? Ain’t you gonna speak to him, pretty Princey Vincey? And yo’ binman fancyman?”
The growl came a split second later.
“Answer me or Ah’ll hurt ya real bad…”
Howard started backing up, falling over Vince in the process, who got the hint and started pacing backwards in step. The Fox’s gaze never left them. He flashed his needles.
“You think you can run from ol’ Cracky Fox, do ya? You are wrong, kind sirs. Ain’t no need to run from Ol’ Cracky Fox. He ain’t gonna hurt ya! Jes’ wanna say let byegones be byegones. Jes’ so’s he can die in peace, away from his life of pain….
… which you caused, you sonsabitches…!”
Howard stopped dead on the path. The Fox now looked small and isolated on his oil drum. But it wasn’t bravado that made him answer, it was pure hate.
“You get away from here, you hear me?” His voice wavered slightly. He raised one arm, pointing firmly at the hunched form, now dark and shadowy, now lit with blue light with his eyes glowing, the grin always in place. Howard’s voice grew stronger.
“You get away! You’re not welcome here!” His arm was shaking. He willed himself to be steady. “You ever, ever come near us, you ever, ever touch Vince again or hurt him…” at this, the grip around his middle felt bigger, warmer somehow, hands splaying over his chest, one over his pounding heart “… or any of my friends, you’ll wish fervently you stayed dead the first time. Because I will come at you like… like a vulture… like an electric vulture! Like a wheelie-bin of fire! Don’t you forget that! You keep away, you hear?”
Silence, and another lightning flash. The drum was unoccupied. Vince shrieked. It was all Howard could do not to shriek as well.
“Howard! Where is he? Where’s he gone?” A huge flash, and the thunder pealed directly overhead. Vince clamped his hands over his ears but even so he could hear the mad cackle.
“Gonna come visit, Princey! Gonna come over and talk ‘bout ol’ times….
… cos ah know where y’all live….”
Howard spun round and grabbed Vince’s hand.
As if Vince needed telling.
Through the dark streets they ran, the thunder pealing overhead, huge drops of rain splatting on the pavements harder and harder until they were in the middle of a downpour of insane proportions. With relief they regained familiar territory, the street lights seeming to hold the lightning at bay, cars swishing through the growing flood of water on the parched tarmac with a welcome sense of normality. It helped to calm them. Though they still ran, the abject terror had subsided, and their hearts pounded with the exercise rather than fear. By the time they had reached the shop and tumbled, wet and dishevelled, through the back door, they were giggling.
“Did that really just happen?” snorted Vince, towelling his hair briskly with one of the stock tea-towels. He chucked another at Howard so he could do the same. “Did we really just get verbally mugged by a stuffed toy that talks? What are we coming to?” He grinned at Howard, then his smile faded.
“Took the edge off the evening a bit, didn’t it?”
“Never mind, Vince. Cup of tea and get out of these wet things and we’ll both feel better. The doors are locked and bolted and the charm is on. At least we know now where he can be found. Naboo will know what to do when he gets back.”
He started to unbutton his sodden shirt. Vince did the same to the glittery top, peeling it off his arms with disgust. Then he paused, suddenly subdued.
“You were amazing tonight.”
Howard stood silent, his wet shirt in his hands. Vince suddenly gaped. There he was in all his splendour. The broad chest and long, smooth back, the tapering waist defined in the shadows between the jut of his hipbones and the soft mound of his belly. Vince involuntarily licked his lips.
Howard stared back, blood roaring in his ears. Vince had by now taken all his wet things off, save his underwear. His towel-dried hair hung in sharp points around his face and shadowed the pale chest that rose and fell as if with some powerful emotion. In time with Howard’s own, in fact. His hands rested on his hips and his legs – lean, well-muscled – were braced, but with the toes pointing slightly inwards, a touchingly familiar stance.
“He’s not fragile,” thought Howard with surprise. “He’s strong. He’s strong and… he’s beautiful.”
He cleared his throat, busied himself with his socks and belt. The wet chinos were kicked away.
“Yeah, the Jazz Moves. They went really well. Thanks, Vince. Thanks for your help and everything.” He tailed off. Vince was watching him closely.
“Yeah, we were good tonight, Howard. You and me. Together,” he said softly. “But I didn’t mean that. I meant, with the bastard mutant cat thing. You were really brave, Howard.”
Howard met his eyes.
“Thank you, Vince.” He blushed at the compliment. “All in the line of duty.”
Vince’s lip quirked.
“‘Cos you know, Howard, I was well scared. Well scared. And me almost a grown man an’ all…”
Howard’s eyes twinkled.
“Only to be expected, Vince. He’s a well scary thing. But you know, I fondly remember a time when you were the same age as me.”
He watched Vince’s face for a reaction. And it came. The look of mock petulance and then… a great peal of laughter. Vince curled over, roaring with mirth, on and on. Howard gave up trying to be deadpan. His face split open in a wide grin and in seconds he was laughing helplessly too. They clutched at furniture to steady themselves, breathless. Finally they subsided, though they were still grinning inanely. Vince straightened up, and his gaze fixed Howard’s with a dark intensity.
Howard raised an eyebrow at him.
“Coming at ya like a lightnin’ flash, little man! Pow!” he mimicked firing a sixgun “You can’t mess with the power of the Moon’s one-liners!” He turned way to reach for his towel again and was sent reeling by a wet glitter shirt smack across his cheek.
“You sparkly git!” But he was laughing, grabbing his wet tea-towel and launching it back at Vince, catching him square in the chest. The towel came firing back in an instant, swiftly followed by Vince’s own tea-towel, the glitter trousers and a stray laundry bag. Howard retaliated just as fast, his own shirt slapping Vince in the face and one of his socks getting caught in the black tresses.
“Dammit! Why are there no satsumas here?”
Vince ducked down behind the counter
“That’s where you’re wrong, you jazzy spanner! You don’t know about my secret store!”
Satsumas began to rain down on Howard, and in a hail of wet clothing and fruit they advanced on each other across the room, barely able to breathe for laughing. Finally a volley of six satsumas at once launched at close range reduced Vince to a gibbering wreck.
“Stop it! Stop it! My chest hurts!” He held out his hands to ward off the assault.
“I don’t trust you, little man!” Howard grabbed his wrists and pinned them together. “I think you’re just planning your next attack!”
Gasping and grinning they stood face to face. Vince’s eyes were shining, but suddenly his mirth subsided. He sighed, turning his head away with a wry smile.
“Howard, we’re such idiots.”
Howard suddenly sobered.
“Are we, Vince?”
“You know we are.”
Vince met his gaze, something very serious in his eyes.
“We’ve changed, haven’t we? You and me?”
“Life changes us, Vince. We can’t stop that.”
“But I feel like I’ve grown up all wrong. I want to fix this.”
Howard considered the familiar face before him. How it had changed, how it never changed. He knew two things for certain.
“Vince, you won’t ever quite grow up. And anyway, deep down you’re still… you’re still my Vince. I mean… I mean the Vince I’ve always known.”
The words were difficult to get out.
Vince smiled at him – an odd smile, part relief, part shyness.
A pause, heavy with fate.
“Vince….” began Howard.
Right on cue there was a violent crash overhead, and the lights went out. Vince literally leapt into Howard’s arms.
“Shit, Howard! What was that?”
“It’s the storm – just a power cut. It’ll be on again in a mo.”
But Howard spoke rather distractedly. Because for the first time, he had his arms full of Vince.
He stood there with his face full of black hair and Vince’s rather panic-stricken breath warm at his throat. And his friend’s words came back to him.
Two people, thought Howard. The dance is for two people.
But there were standards to be upheld.
“Um… Vince? You’re holding on a bit tight, actually…”
“Yeah, well, it’s usually the other way round, innit? You’re usually the one strangling me in moments of fear and terror…”
“Well, do you think you could just…”
“Well, I might if you could stop crushing my ribcage…”
“Merely a natural reflex, Vince, to stop us falling over because of your…”
“Yeah, well, I’m bruised for life!”
“I’m amazed I’m still able to breathe…”
“Look, just stop whingeing and let go of my….”
“Hang on, hang on! My necklace’s caught in your hair. I’m just…”
With a yelp Vince sprang away from Howard, his hand scrabbling at his neck.
“Vince? Did I hurt you?”
“No! No! Something bit me! Stuck into my neck… what is it, Howard? Help me!” Panic filled his voice.
Howard tipped Vince’s head over, and ran his fingers up the long neck. They caught on a spine of metal just as a particularly long flash of lightning filled the room.
And then he saw everything at once. Vince’s wide, desperate eyes, the long needle stuck in his skin, and, as the thunder rumbled overhead, he heard the rasping cackle of the Crack Fox, leering through the broken pane, rattling his hypodermics. One of his needles was missing.
“Got you now, Vincey!”
“Hurt you REAL bad!”
Howard seized the needle and plucked it out. A small bead of blood came with it. He threw it down on the table, rage filling him. He pulled away from Vince.
“Get away!” he screamed. “Fuck off! Fuck off back to whatever hellhole you crawled out of! You come any closer and I’ll tear your evil little face to bits. You won’t ever come alive again! I’ll… “
“Howard!” Vince’s voice wavered across the room.
Howard spun on his heel. In the flickering light he could see Vince swaying, his arms outstretched. His pupils were wide open, his eyes glassy.
“Howard…?” It was a whisper.
In two strides, Howard was across the room, just catching Vince in time as his knees buckled and he fell. Clutching him close, he lowered him down to the floor. Vince was twitching and shaking. His eyes, though open, registered nothing. He was trying to speak. His hands reached out, grasping at the air until they found Howard, and then they held on like a vice.
Howard stroked back Vince’s hair, terrified, panicked, completely lost. He had no idea what to do. He hugged him closer, calling, pleading.
“Vince, stay with me! Vince, hold on, hold on! Naboo will fix it! Breathe, Vince! Just breathe! I’m here, I won’t let you go…”
The twitching suddenly reached a pitch, and Vince’s body spasmed violently, his spine arching in Howard’s embrace. Then he went limp, eyes shut, mouth slack. And Howard’s heart died within him.
“No,” he breathed. “No, this isn’t the way… No, Vince, come on – please! Come back! Please come back!”
Shaking him now, shouting; Vince’s head lolled backwards like a ragdoll’s.
Like a doll with long black hair.
Howard screamed. He screamed his rage and pain and grief. He rocked the body in his arms, howling and howling Vince’s name, pleading for mercy, pleading for hope.
The lightning flashed again, and the hated voice grated at the window.
“Binman! Sorry I hurt Vincey bad, binman! Didn’t mean to. Was jes’ a joke! A funny, funny joke, binman! You wanna antidote, binman? Cracky Fox got antidotes for all his mothafuckin’ needles!”
Howard looked up, dashing away tears from his cheeks to see the abnormality grinning through the broken pane.
“I got the antidote! I can heal Princey Vincey!”
Howard gently lay Vince down, his eyes never leaving the Crack Fox. He rose and, despite himself, reached out in supplication.
“Catch me if you can, sucker!”
Anger and hate exploded over his grief, and the need for revenge completely overwhelmed his common sense. He twisted the bolt and lock on the back door and wrenched it open, toppling out into a yard filled with rain and the boom of thunder. The Crack Fox stood in the middle, leaning on his crutches. And all around him huge, hulking misshapes lurched grotesquely from side to side, bin-bags come to life with Crack Fox magic, their black plastic skins shining in the rain and lightning.
He spun round. They were behind him, too. A rush of colour and a sickening stench and Crack Fox had flown towards him. Something slimy grabbed his arms and held him tight. The old familiar words came into his throat.
“Don’t kill me! I’ve got…”
… I’ve got to save Vince…
He felt the scratch of needles on his neck. Then he felt nothing else.
The carpet touched down again at early light, a hung-over Bollo having to navigate carefully to avoid the large puddles left after the storm. There was a chill to the back yard, but it was more than could be shifted by the early sunshine. Naboo stepped gingerly off the floating rug and paused, nostrils flaring. It was not only the faint, unpleasant smell that brought him to an abrupt halt. A sense of something else hung in the air – a shifting mix of despair, pain, hate, evil. Involuntarily he clutched the robe at his throat.
“I gotta bad feelin’…”
“Damn straight, Bollo. So have I. Just go easy for a…”
Bollo wasn’t listening. He suddenly started shambling in haste towards the back door of the shop. Now Naboo saw what Bollo had noticed; the door was wide open.
He picked up his skirts and ran.
But even before he got to the door he saw Bollo pull up short and make a sound that Naboo hadn’t heard for many years. A sound like a wild animal in pain.
He pushed past and saw what the whimpering ape was staring at. There on the floor, stretched out like a marble figure on an ancient tomb, lay Vince, unclothed but for his underwear. His head was turned away from them; his arms half encircled his own body as if he had been clutching hold of something that had been torn away.
Naboo fell to his knees beside the prone figure. Gently he turned Vince’s face towards him. No bruises; no marks save for a fine line of dried blood on the neck. The skin was deathly white – paler than Naboo had ever seen him. He wore no expression, but there was no life either. He lifted Vince’s eyelids, and looked into dark emptiness. He lowered Vince’s head to the floor and tried to straighten his arms so they looked more restful – a pointless gesture. He closed his own eyes, controlling his emotion as best he could.
“Howard do this?”
Naboo turned in sudden exasperation to his familiar.
“Of course he didn’t, you jerk-off!”
And then he saw the awful grief in the gorilla’s eyes. His voice softened.
“Of course he didn’t. Howard could never…. Even if he is a pointless ballbag, Howard would never….”
“So where Howard gone?”
“Good question, Bollo” Naboo got up, his gaze fixed on the back yard. Bollo’s eyes had never left the figure on the floor.
“Naboo? Precious Vince….?”
When the shaman didn’t answer, Bollo made that sound again. Naboo could bear it no longer. He pushed past him and walked out of the shop, his fists clenching and unclenching. He knew who was responsible. He also knew that the trip to see the Board had been unnecessarily prolonged for recreational reasons. He would have found it difficult to refuse to participate, but even so… if he had been here….
He paused part-way across the yard, sniffing again, his shaman’s senses working overtime despite the stress of holding his grief in check. He could smell something else now.
There had been blood here, just where he stood. Washed away now, of course, but it had been there on the ground.
“It’s the Fox, Bollo. They said it was him and they were right.”
“I’m sorry, Bollo. Vince… Vince is….” He still couldn’t say it. “And Howard may be, too. He’s been taken, I’m sure of it.”
“What, Bollo?” Naboo finally looked up at the gorilla looming over him.
“Bollo found this, Naboo, by door.”
Another doll. Naboo stared at it, numb, unwilling to make the effort to comprehend.
“And Bollo find this bloody needle.”
“Swearing about it won’t bring Vince back, Bollo.” Naboo sighed wearily, then focused on the long needle lying in Bollo’s leathery palm.
“Where did you find that?”
“Doll was by door. Needle on table.”
Naboo took the needle, still staring, feeling something… something….
He raised it to his nose and sniffed delicately.
“Oh my fuckin’ god. Oh shit. Bollo! Come on!”
He raced back towards the shop.
“Oi! Naboo tell Bollo no swear…”
Then Bollo started running too.
Howard Moon was, sadly, quite accustomed to being abducted by unwholesome creatures of one type or another and left in peril of his life. So waking to find himself tied up again with little prospect of kinky enjoyment and every expectation of imminent death was by no means an unfamiliar feeling. It was, however, unusual to find he was wrapped from chin to toes in black bin-bags.
It took him a while to work all this out, though. First he had to recall why he was there. That took some effort. His head pounded, his neck felt sore. He was ragingly thirsty. But more than that, he woke with the sudden absolute conviction of disaster; of his world gone wrong. Physically he ached all over, but his heart ached most of all.
And then he remembered. And then he couldn’t forget. Blue lightning, thunder, a maniac’s laugh, and Vince’s uncontrolled flailing, his deathly, tortured face and the final moments when he lay limp and lifeless in Howard’s helpless arms. A flood of nightmare images – suddenly the last thing Howard was ready to do was lie there in his plastic cocoon and feel sorry for himself.
He had saving to do.
Easier said than done, like most times in his life.
He seemed to be in a dark cavern. A strange diffused light flowed weakly from high above and gave the scene a bit of definition. And there were odd patches of light on the walls. Focusing on them he could see they were light bulbs attached to torch batteries, all glowing very dimly. Rubbish – old magazines (of the top shelf variety), cartons, bits of plastic packaging – lay all around. Some calendar pictures were affixed to the walls – wildlife calendars, but with dubious additions to the images made in black marker pen. The floor was damp and cold and slimy. Two dark openings in the black walls looked like corridors leading away. At the mouth of each a jumble of stuffed bin-bags lay awkwardly piled.
Howard Moon, Man of Action, could not move.
The best he could manage was a kind of awkward wriggle, like a caterpillar.
No good, he thought. This is no good. I need to cut this thing open. And fast.
He had no idea how long he had been incarcerated, but clearly every moment longer was a moment Vince was deprived of the antidote.
Wriggle, shuffle, wriggle, across the damp floor. Looking for something – anything – that was sharp. Surely amongst all this crap….
Something was glinting in the dim light, jutting out of a patch of deep shadow.
Wriggle, shuffle, wriggle.
If only he could get a hand free – even a finger….
Almost there, he thought. Maybe if he could get it to rip the plastic… maybe if…
The gleaming bit of metal moved, and Howard flinched back in his plastic cocoon as it reached out and prodded his chest. A crutch.
The accompanying high-pitched giggle did not come as a surprise.
“Yo’ goin’ somewheres, binman?”
The pointed teeth were bared. Twisted forepaws began to pluck at a banjo, a slow tune emerging from the harsh notes. The glowing eyes never left Howard’s face.
“How does it feel, binman, to be left all helpless? All useless? Like a crushed piece of garbage? Like a bit of roadkill left out in the rain?”
Might as well start with the obvious, thought Howard
“Will you set me free? Please?”
More notes, the tune building in pace.
“Yo’ have to listen to ma song first.”
A harsh chord.
“Once upon a time there was a poor, poor little foxy…..
Howard gritted his teeth. There was little else of him he could grit, in fact.
“….. who only wanted to dance and have fun with all the beautiful human-folk, with all the funky humanoids…”
“Look, can we go through this later? ‘Cos I really do have somewhere to be…”
“…. and make his little poor little mark upon the world…
“… and hurt you REAL bad….!”
The music stopped abruptly, and Howard couldn’t stifle his yelp as the ragged, rotting nose and glinting teeth loomed over him again, close to his own face.
The Fox giggled.
“Yo’ like ma house, bin man?” He pulled back suddenly and gestured around. Howard took a deep breath and squinted at the dark walls – anything to calm himself down….
Finally the black cavern made sense. It was all bin-bags, mountains of bin-bags squashed and solid. In some places the massed bags were hard and compacted; in others, the plastic had split so that contents dribbled down the sides like macabre paper decorations.
“It ain’t a house, really. It’s a castle. Lots of foxes have castles. But ma castle’s the only one that’s underground!”
“Where are we?” ventured Howard, craning his neck again.
“We’re in the pit, binman! We are where the city folks put their garbage. In the pit where all the bags go, tha’s where ma castle is. Everythin’s different in ma world!”
He gestured to the dim bulbs on the walls.
“You like ma chandeliers? You see ma grand staircase?” A hole in the wall of bags gaped. “You see ma trays of finger food for all ma famous visitors?”
Howard looked and quickly averted his eyes from the scraps of wood dotted with small unpleasant objects that really did look like……
The Fox put down his banjo and gathered the crutches under his forelegs, shuffling to his feet.
You are a’ honoured guest in Crack Fox’s castle, kind sir binman. You, the kind gentleman who murdered poor ol’ Cracky Fox…
“You and your pretty, pretty, pretty friend….
“Shows Crack Fox don’t hold no grudges… he just holds crutches!”
The fox burst out in manic, piercing giggles – Howard’s ears hurt.
“Hey, I made a joke! I’m a funny funny fox…
“No I ain’t…”
Helpless in his bin-bag straitjacket, Howard watched with anxiety as the fox edged around his body. The crutches were perilously close to his face. The teeth were gleaming with spittle.
“Look, what exactly do you want?” Howard heard himself say it, surprised at how calm his voice sounded. And how far away.
The Fox grinned wider.
“Ah’m gonna get me some shaman juice, binman! Then see what Cracky Fox does…”
The Fox started shuffling away.
“You can’t,” said Howard quickly. “There ain’t none… I mean, there isn’t any…”
“Sure there is, binman! Yo’ magician friend’s gonna get me some. He’s gonna give me some shaman juice for you, binman! In a trade!”
“He said that?”
“I tol’ him…”
At that, Howard knew he was screwed. No way would Naboo be prepared to trade him for such powerful, dangerous magic – not Howard. Playing with it before had almost got the shaman executed. Howard simply wouldn’t be worth the risk. And that’s always supposing he and Bollo were sober enough to consider the question sensibly in the first place.
He needed Vince. But was Vince even conscious to hear the question? Was Vince even….?
No! Don’t even think that!
Vince was his only hope.
Vince was his…..
“The antidote..” he began. The Fox turned back to him, head cocked to one side.
“You said… “ Howard’s courage started to fail him “You said there was an antidote. For what you did to Vince… Look, please, give Naboo the antidote. Then he’ll get you the shaman juice! I promise… please, just get the antidote… please?”
Some small part of Howard’s brain registered a departure. He knew this was all the wrong way round. By rights, he should be howling and pleading for his life by now. That was how it usually worked. However much a hero he always tried to be, that grandeur usually eluded him, by several miles. But right now the image of a lifeless body on the floor of the shop outweighed the thought of self-preservation.
He put it down to his noble nature shining through on this occasion. This was truly what a hero of ancient times would do – put friends before self. Plus he grudgingly recognized that rescue by a conscious if scatter-brained Vince had a higher chance of success than that by stoned shaman and gorilla. It was all relative.
So there you were – perfectly understandable reasoning. He needed Vince in action. He needed to see him walking and talking – complete shit, of course, like always – but ah god, how he needed to see it….
The best plan that Howard Moon could come up with in the circumstances shattered at the next cackle of laughter.
“Antidote? Ain’t got no antidote, binman!”
Howard’s heart stopped. He craned his neck to see the Fox’s expression.
“Don’ need no antidote for what ah gave Vincey Princey, binman! Was just ma funny funny joke!”
Howard almost moaned with relief.
“You mean… a joke?”
You little shit…
“You mean you didn’t…? He wasn’t…?” Hope started to glow within him, out of all proportion to the situation. Vince was still in action, Vince was okay!
If the Fox was even listening, he didn’t show it.
“Vincey Princey don’t need no antidote.
Dead things don’t need no antidote….”
Howard’s fake grin froze.
“What?” The word was a gasp for breath.
“Ah said…” the Fox loomed over him again, pausing as if for emphasis.
“Ah said…. dead things don’t need no antidote…
“They just dead.”
The rollercoaster that was Howard’s life dropped away again, plunging him once more towards a gorge of oblivion. He was made of ice.
“No!” It was a plea.
“No!” It was a denial.
“No! NO!” It was a refusal.
Now he struggled inside the cocoon. Now his heart almost burst with the mad effort to get free; his breaking heart….
“Tha’s what I do, binman. I make things dead…
“Then ah take them to the woods and bum them and bury them and dig ‘em up and bum them again…
“Not this time, though…
“Cos he’s too dead…”
The Fox shuffled off into the darkness, still muttering his litany of horror, the random bags on the floor trailing after him like an entourage.
The cavern was silent, but Howard was overwhelmed by the blood thundering in his ears, echoing his heart that hammered away, trying to get out of his chest.
It was a howl, in the darkness.
Vince couldn’t have been out for long, because he could hear Howard’s voice.
“Come on, Vince! Come on!”
He opened his eyes. The storm had passed. It was all quiet in the shop. The air hung deadened around him, like he had cotton wool in his ears, and the bare boards and collected ephemera littering the walls and counters were bathed in a glow that alternated pink and blue. A nice combination, he thought vaguely. Good for stage lighting. He should remember it for their gigs at the Velvet Onion.
And he wasn’t hurt, he realised. Whatever had happened – and he had no idea what – he wasn’t hurt. He sat up, propping himself up on his elbows, looking round. He was lying on the floor. All down his torso and legs something shimmered and gleamed. He was wearing the cape.
That cape. The cape that Naboo had given him for running the shop. The one with the beautiful hem and the electric blue panels. It was an unexpected delight. He’d loved that cape – how it had looked, how it had swirled around him.
Genius that it was back. Genius.
“Vince! Come on!”
Howard. Howard wanted him. He stood up, the room seeming slightly distorted in his vision, his eyes drawn to the back door which stood ajar. He clearly needed to go out of that door.
He drew the cape around him, relishing the feel of the material. He wanted to show it to Howard. He ran to the door, toppling out into the yard. It seemed empty.
“Howard! Where are you?”
A sound. He turned on his heel to see Howard’s tall shape in the darkness, hurrying away from him down one of the back streets.
“Howard? Wait for me!”
But Howard made no attempt to stop or turn round. Vince started running, but it was difficult. He couldn’t go as fast as Howard. His heels were clattering, twisting his ankles on the paving stones. The cape was catching round his legs, tripping him up, slowing him down.
The cape he had given to Donny the tramp. The cape with the beautiful hem.
But Howard’s figure was receding into the shadows. He tore the cape from his neck and without another thought threw it away into the darkness, rushing on into the orange glow of the sodium light in the alley ahead. His brain was still woozy. He had no idea why he ran, only that he had to find Howard.
And then suddenly, in front of him in a pool of light, lay a man. And over the man was stretched the beautiful cape Vince had traded for his friendship.
He fell to his knees beside the prone figure.
“Howard? Howard! What’s wrong with you?
No answer. He pulled at the cape, but it wouldn’t unfurl. It just seemed to wrap itself tighter round his friend’s body. This was wrong, very wrong.
And Howard wouldn’t move. He shook Howard’s shoulders, but his face was blank, empty, eyes black in the light.
No fear, just deep sadness overwhelmed Vince.
“Howard! Howard! Come on you spanner! What’s…”
All at once the cape came away in his hands and Howard rolled on top of him, a dead weight. He struggled to support them both, pushing against Howard’s chest. But suddenly his hands were sinking in. He cried out in horror, only to realise that it was black plastic he was being smothered by, sucked into something shapeless, all soft decay and sharp edges.
There was no Howard.
Only mountains and mountains of black plastic rubbish bags burying him and burying him and….
“Vince! Vince! Come on!
Bright light. He was gasping for air, his chest heaving, his hands grasping at his throat, still fighting suffocation by the plastic bags. Strong arms held him. There was the familiar earthy smell and soft touch of fur.
“Vince, stop it! Calm down, it’s all right!”
Naboo’s voice. The solemn, chiselled features swam into view. Vince stopped struggling, still panting heavily.
“Let him go, Bollo. Vince, you can sit up, but take it easy. Bollo, help him up.”
He was lying on the sofa in the flat. Muted sunlight shone through the windows. Vince put a hand to his head, running it through his hair.
“Oh my god, I gotta blinder…”
“Drink this.” Naboo pressed a glass of something green and nauseous-looking into his hand and kept frowning until he downed it, retching at the dregs.
“That’ll deal with most of the side effects you have now.”
Vince frowned up at him.
“What going on, Naboo? What time is it? Did I have a nightmare? Was I drunk?”
He looked out at the low sunshine – morning? evening? – his brain desperately trying to recall something important which nevertheless eluded him.
“It’s six o’clock. You’ve been out all day. We found you in the shop passed out when we got back this morning. You’d been attacked – drugged. Bollo found a needle on the table.”
Vince automatically put his hand to his neck, eyes wide with the shock of recovering memories.
“It was in my neck! And I hate needles!”
Something else… what was it that he’d forgotten?
“We analysed it in the basement lab,” continued Naboo. “A very serious hallucinogen allied with a potentially fatal neural suppressant…”
“Oi, Gil Grissom! Wanna speak English to me?”
“Basically, something in that needle made your body shut down. We managed to reverse the process, but it took us quite a while. The rest of the drugs in the mix would have sent you on a pretty weird trip. Once your system started to wake up again you were screaming.”
Vince looked from one to the other, registering the concern in Bollo’s blue eyes. And the fact that Naboo had rarely said so many words all at once. And the fact that there was no….
He sat bolt upright.
“Howard! Where’s Howard, Naboo?”
“Vince, look, calm down.”
Now everything was starting to flood back.
“It was the Crack Fox, Naboo! He must have followed us back here. And something happened….”
He tried to stand up, shaking off Naboo’s attempts to stop him.
“Howard!” He was shouting now. He started to move towards the stairs but a wave of nausea caught him and he staggered back, clutching at the edge of the sofa to steady himself.
He waved his arm at them in exasperated dismissal.
“Howard Moon, where the hell are you! Come here!”
Silence in the shop, in the flat.
A pause. He turned back to face them, the heavy sadness of his dream now his real life.
“What’s happened to him, Naboo?” His tone was suddenly matter-of-fact, calm. “You know, don’t you?”
He looked from one to the other
Naboo and Bollo eyed each other uneasily. The transformation of Vince’s behaviour from crazed panic to cool inquiry had been unsettling in its speed and ferocity. The overall impact, though, was offset somewhat by the fact that their inquisitor was clad only in electric-blue Y-fronts and silver boots.
Bollo held out the doll. Naboo raised a restraining hand.
“Vince, remember the doll that was supposed to be you? Well, this morning we found this in the yard.” He gestured to Bollo to hand it over. Vince took it with a look of wary distaste.
It was another Action Man – possessing its own Action Man head this time. The doll was naked, with dirt and… something else… smeared across its torso. Black marker pen had drawn a crude moustache across the upper lip.
Naboo watched as Vince took a breath to steady himself, and armour himself with flippancy.
“That’s quite like Howard, actually. Look, he really is an action man!” His tone was affectedly light, but a little smile quirked at the side of his mouth for a moment. “His chest is all nice and broad like that…”
Naboo rolled his eyes at Bollo.
“… but there’s a bit more tum…”
Before Naboo could interrupt a train of thought the shaman felt was not actually too helpful at that particular moment, Vince suddenly stiffened.
“Naboo!” he breathed. “Is that… is that… blood?”
Naboo thought Vince looked like he couldn’t decide between puking and crying. He hoped very much that if anything it would be the latter.
“Bollo’s analysed it. There is a trace of Howard’s blood there…
“Oh god…” The voice was very small.
“But mainly it’s tomato ketchup from a Big Mac wrapper.”
Vince’s head snapped up.
“You takin’ the piss, Naboo?” His voice was a snarl. “‘ Cos I’m really not in the mood…”
The shaman held up a conciliatory hand.
“Vince, that’s what it is. Honest. The main thing is… well, turn it over.”
Vince gave the shaman another look and warily turned the doll over in his hands. This time, down the broad back, there were different letters scrawled in black.
JOOS 4 BNMN MDNYT
Vince squinted at them.
“Try saying it phonetically, Vince.”
“How it sounds.”
Vince mouthed the words and looked up again, his eyes wide.
“Juice? Like, shaman juice?”
He considered the doll again, brow furrowed.
Naboo tried not to look too desperate.
“Oh! I get it! Bin Man! Who do we….” Realisation hit him and he reeled, grabbing hold of the sofa once more to steady himself.
“Howard? Howard’s been kidnapped for shaman juice?”
“Looks like it.”
Vince stared at the doll, re-reading the words, silently mouthing them. The confusion in his eyes turned to bleakness. He turned it over again. His face softened as he registered the plastic features, and he lightly touched its brow, its nose. Then, seeming to recollect himself, he quickly put it down on the coffee table and dusted his hands off.
“Right. Well, that’s easy then. Let’s get the shaman juice out and go corner the little titbox. At midnight, yeah?” He cocked his head at Naboo, waiting for a response.
“Well, come on then, let’s get going!”
“Vince, it’s not as simple as that…”
Vince put his hands on his hips and squared up to the shaman. Naboo looked uncomfortable. It might have been the gimlet glare of irritation, but could also have been the extreme proximity of the Y-fronts.
“What’s the problem, Naboo? Look, it’s Howard we’re talking about. Get your arse in gear and let’s move!”
Naboo shrugged. “I don’t have any shaman juice, and I was banned from procuring any more. On pain of death. Again.”
Vince’s face was darkening with anger. “And this is what the all-knowing Board told you last night, was it? To stand by and let your friends get… your friends…” He kicked the coffee table to prevent himself saying the word.
“No, actually, they told me that ages ago. Yesterday they said they couldn’t take any specific measures against the Crack Fox because he hadn’t done anything wrong yet. They’re very hung up on probable cause and due process at the moment…”
“Well, they can just piss right off, can’t they? Watch my lips, Naboo. This is Howard! The bastard mutant cat took my… my friend. Your friend. He has done something wrong. Sod the Board. They do sod all of any use anyway. Now, let’s get going…”
“No, I can’t.”
Vince spun round, all defiance and fury, and dizzy with the sudden movement he stumbled against the sofa. Bollo caught him, but Vince struggled out of his grasp, like a toddler in a tantrum. He was still glowering at Naboo.
“What’s your problem with Howard, Naboo? He used to be your friend, didn’t he? Lately you go out of your way to put him down, and now you won’t even lift a finger to save his life. His life, Naboo!”
The last words were a squeak.
Naboo stood square to him, facing him down. Or rather up. It was difficult not to be cowed by his stony impassivity
“You’re a great one to talk about that, Vince. Taken a look at yourself the last year or two, have you? I mean, really looked? I doubt if Howard’s liked what he’s seen. Or the way you’ve behaved towards him.”
Vince looked indignant.
“What me and Howard think, or do, it’s nothing to do with you, Naboo!”
“Just as well. Which reminds me, why exactly are you in just your underwear right now, Vince? Why did we find you like that this morning? Was that something to do with Howard, maybe? No, on second thoughts, I don’t need to know that…”
“What?” The shocked expression suddenly became icy. “Piss off, Naboo. None of your business. An’ stop gettin’ at Howard. He works for you, really hard…”
“He’s a waste of space…”
“Don’t you dare, dare talk about him like that! You! Stoned out of your brain most of the time…”
Bollo, who had been watching the scene aghast, sparked into life.
“Vince no say such things! Naboo turn his back on you!”
“You’re right there, Bollo,” said Naboo coldly. “And it’s just about to happen. Because I’m sick of these tantrums and sick of these double standards…”
“Christy! Just go ahead and do it, will you? What difference will it make, Naboo? What can you possibly do to me right now that could make things any worse than they are? Or better? You’re a… a…” Vince searched wildly for something vaguely appropriate “… a ballbag!”
“Eh, Vince not say such things!”
Vince turned on Bollo with something like a snarl, eyes flashing.
“What’s it got to do with you, you hairy retard? You’re worse than he is, a great hopeless lump of…”
And stopped short, his hand clamped to his mouth, frozen by the sudden realisation of what he had said and the flash of pain in the gorilla’s eyes. Bollo looked away.
There was a terrible silence.
“Oh god! Oh Bollo, I’m sorry…. Oh Bollo….”
Vince reached out to the ape with one hand, brushing at his fur. Bollo shrugged his arm away.
“Oh Bollo… I’m so sorry… “ Vince’s voice was low and wavering, close to tears. “Please forgive me. I don’t know why I said that…”
Eyes still averted, Bollo turned and shambled hurriedly out of the room.
“You pleased now?” Naboo asked waspishly. “Anything else in your life you want to ruin?” Vince looked down at him, bewildered.
“You know what, Vince? If it weren’t for Bollo, you wouldn’t be here right now. He saved your life. I’d given you up for dead, but Bollo found the needle. If he hadn’t, we couldn’t have brought you back. That’s a sobering thought, isn’t it?”
A sob came, then another, and another. Vince pressed his hands to his face, sat down heavily on the sofa, and gave way to his grief.
A little while later, Vince knocked on Bollo’s door. There was no answer but Vince pushed it open anyway. The gorilla lay curled up on his bed, facing the wall.
“Bollo, can I come in, please?”
No answer, not even a grunt.
Vince tiptoed across the room and stood at the foot of the bed. Bollo was just staring at the wall.
“Bollo…. I’m so sorry. I don’t know why I said what I said ‘cos it’s not true. And I don’t think that about you, really I don’t. Of course I don’t! Can you forgive me? Please? Bollo?”
“Please, Bollo? I know I can seem a heartless bitch sometimes, but I didn’t mean it. Please don’t leave me, Bollo…”
He paused, biting his lip, struggling to continue.
“… I’m so frightened I’ve lost Howard. Don’t leave me too.”
A day or two ago, there would have been enough manipulation evident in Vince’s words that even Bollo wouldn’t have been fooled. But right now the voice was cracked with emotion and exhaustion and sadness. Bollo turned his head, and man and gorilla looked at each other for a long moment. But Vince was the first to break the gaze, and he shrugged heavily, and turned back to the door.
Bollo watched him leave.
“Go safely, Vince.”
Vince paused, without turning round. Then he left the room, quietly closing the door behind him.
Naboo was waiting for him in the lounge. The anger in the room was all gone.
“Me and Bollo will go and see the Board again now. But I can’t promise anything.”
“We’ll be back as soon as we can.”
“We’ve only got until midnight!” Vince tried to keep his voice calm.
Naboo considered him.
“You’ll be all right on your own? The charm’s still on…”
Vince laughed bitterly.
“Bollo’s fixed the window now. Look, Vince. There’s something I need to tell you. I’d sort of forgotten about it in all the drama. What with you being drugged and then… But it’s important.”
He gestured to Vince to sit down, and joined him on the sofa.
“Dennis got talking last night, when he was high.” Naboo tried to ignore Vince’s glittering look. “I think he’d only been eating Twiglets, actually, but anyway… he sometimes makes more sense when he’s wasted….
“He said – roughly translated – the Crack Fox’s magic is unusual because it works its way into things, rather than creating things for itself. It needs a way in, but when it’s found it, it can take up home. And the magic is all about the Crack Fox; unhappiness, bitterness, anger. He finds a situation where there is a gap – a chink, if you like – a fissure in something that’s otherwise okay, and his magic eats away at it and turns it bitter and unhappy and unfulfilled.”
“Why are you telling me this, Naboo?”
“Because I think the Crack Fox got in here. Not just now, I mean a good while ago. A few things weren’t quite right, or weren’t going the right way, or were a bit unstable ‘cos they were changing…” Naboo looked flustered for a moment “… and on its own that wouldn’t have mattered. But the Crack Fox was prowling around and he saw a way in and a way to turn things to his advantage. And even though you thought you’d got rid of him the first time, and even though he’s only just come back, his influence has been here ever since, turning things sour….”
Vince frowned; a deep frown of real concentration on Naboo’s words.
The shaman was still speaking.
“… and when he got that taste of shaman juice before I think he realised how much power it gave him, how much misery he could create. So that’s why he’s after more.”
Slow realization began to dawn on Vince’s face.
“So, what I said to Bollo…?”
“That’s what made me realise. I think the combination of the Fox’s drugs in you and the presence of that doll – I’ve destroyed it, by the way – made you react the way you did. Not like you. Me too, to be honest.”
Vince was clearly making mental leaps. “you know, sometimes, everything is genius and you think like, this can’t last, and then two days later, everything goes tits up…?”
“Yeah, I think that’s the sort of thing. Little bits of self-doubt, mistrust. And maybe little moments of carelessness. They all start small but get bigger very easily. I think he revels in that. Needs it, almost….”
“So maybe…. sometimes, with me an’ Howard…?”
“Vince, it’s not all the Crack Fox’s doing. We make our own fate. But if the chinks are wide enough, if no-one fixes them, then maybe he’s made it worse.”
“They can be fixed, these chinks?”
Vince’s intensity and his shining eyes surprised the shaman.
“I said there was something needed fixing! I told Howard!” The eyes kept getting brighter.
Naboo could think of nothing useful to say. He got up.
“Vince, we’re going to go now, okay? Wait here till we’re back. I’ll explain things to Bollo…”
“Will you? Please? Oh thanks, Naboo. Thanks…” Vince’s voice trailed off. He didn’t move, still staring into space, lost in thought.
The shaman turned to go and then hesitated.
“Vince, you never did tell me why you’re only in your pants…”
Vince broke his trance and gave him a pained look.
“Ummm…..okay. None of my business….”
Vince didn’t move until he heard the carpet leave.
Wait here till we’re back.
Yeah, like that’s gonna happen…
Vinces Plan to Find the Crak Fox and get Howard bak
One: Get outfit rite
Two: Find Crak Fox
Three: Get Howard bak
Christy, that’s worthy of Tony Harrison! Scratch that….
One: Get outfit rite
Two: Find shayman joose
No! Concentrate, Vince!
Two: Find munney for jooce
Three: Then find shayman joose
Vince scrunched up that piece of paper as well, and stared round his room. Being up against the clock wasn’t helping in the plan formulation stakes. Okay, first things first. He was going to be an urban vigilante, up against urban wildlife in its most terrifying form. So, something cool but understated, and capable of blending into the darkness, should he so wish to blend.
Black. The colour of night, the colour of camouflage. The only colour for a night-time mission. He’d heard that somewhere before……
That was easy enough to sort, in fact (black overshirt with self embroidery, black skinnies – not the grey ones where the zip was always slipping). He kept the silver boots on – a cheeky addition. He liked the effect. And he thought Howard would be pleased with his attention to detail. The process of raiding the lounge, the kitchen and his room for money and other things of value didn’t take long and sadly didn’t reveal much, but had been helpful in the discovery of some useful props, and furthermore his most expensive possession – his amber ring – now sat on his finger. From what he could remember, it ought to be enough to buy some shaman juice, at least.
One last possibility – Howard’s room. He had been avoiding it, in fact. Howard’s room without Howard on the scene was just plain wrong, plain creepy.
He walked softly into the tidy, ordered domain. He knew what it looked like, of course, but now he felt he was looking at it with new eyes. Nothing of monetary value, but he knew how precious to Howard some of these things were – the jazz posters, the catalogued music collection. Then there was the sparse wardrobe, the spartan bed (we need to sort that, Howard, he thought, randomly, and found himself inexplicably blushing) – all this would have told him things about the man who was his friend, if he could have been bothered to look.
He sat down on the bed, wincing at its hardness, and looked again at the walls. Small pictures of the two of them – their old life, the flat, the shop, holidays – were there as well. They were unobtrusive, but seemed to be displayed alongside the jazz trophies with equal pride. It was if as they were intended to give happy reminders at every point in the room. Vince felt his heart clench. There were similar examples in his room, too, but not on such open display. This was Howard’s own gallery of moments.
On the bedside table a photograph frame lay face down, an alarm clock sitting on top of it as if for disguise. Vince picked it up and turned it over.
Another picture of the two of them. A windy day, near water – a canal or somewhere, Oh yes! He remembered! They were both looking so happy, grinning fit to bust. Howard with that lovely sheepskin jacket – why did he never wear that now? Why had he condemned himself to a lifetime of the wrong cardigans?
And Vince himself. Glittery tee, trilby, big flirty smile for the camera. And look at Howard’s wide, beautiful grin! So rare of late. But Vince had seen it again in recent days – as they had danced in the shop; at the moment of their triumph; as Howard had destroyed Vince with satsumas and had held his wrists tight and close to him…
Oh, but most of all, the dancing.
One hand was holding on to his hat against the strong breeze, but Vince’s other arm was tight around Howard and Howard’s arm was around Vince’s neck. Just looking at the picture brought back the memory of its touch on his skin, and he felt again the warmth of Howard’s embrace – at the Club, in the storm, and – like it was a dream – the feeling of being held, protected, cherished, even as the poison had pulled him under.
He felt his throat tighten treacherously. This was life before the Crack Fox got in. Before they let the chinks get too wide.
But things could be fixed.
He gazed at that smile, and without thinking, his fingers lightly stroked the face that was Howard’s.
“Oh, love”, he said softly.
And he froze in shock at what he had just said.
What Vince Noir had just said.
And then smiled. He placed the picture frame back on the table, upright now, in pride of place.
“Oh, love,” he repeated, consciously this time. “Look what a team we make!”
He stood up and took a last look round, then strode to the door, as only a man in silver stack-heel boots could stride.
Right, he said to himself, picking up his waiting bag. Let’s sort this mess out.
“Howard Moon, I’m comin’ to get ya!”
Down under the road bridge, it was cool and surprisingly quiet. But no-one ventured there much. Too remote for most drug-dealers and vagrants, too creepy and unattractive for anyone else. The whole area around the dump seemed the same. An uncomfortable atmosphere hung around the place, turning even simple, honest things like waste-ground wildflowers into plants with a latent malevolence about them. The water in the canal alongside was the same. Calm, but not peaceful; just dark and deep. And under the bridge, these dark depths were most menacing of all.
But all this made it a prime location for some people to do business – particularly those on the edge between the worlds of magic and reality. The extravagantly-dressed man with the golden skin and silver teeth fitted into that category. This was his turf. This was where he did his business and where he was in control.
Except, right now, he felt a bit wrong-footed.
He eyed the man standing in front of him, trying to match up the details of the text message he’d received with the individual that had shown up. It wasn’t just the fact that the red turban on the long black hair was clearly several sizes too small for that outsized head. Nor even that the satiny cloak barely came down to his knees. No, there was something vaguely familiar about this man’s face, and it unsettled him. He narrowed his eyes and asked his most searching question.
“Wot iz you?”
The other man shifted his silver boots uncomfortably.
“Told you, I’m a shaman.”
“You izn’t Na-boo!”
“No. No, I’m his… brother. Ummm… Agadoo?”
The golden man cocked his head on one side.
“You don’t look like him, man.”
“Yeah,” said the other vaguely, adjusting his turban. “It’s like that in our family. You’d never know…”
“And you iz sha-man?”
“Ummm… trainee, like?”
The golden man took a look round the area again, ducking his head at all angles. Finally he seemed satisfied that they were still alone.
“Sha-man joose ain’ the sorta thin’ you just give out, ‘know? I gotta be sure you iz the real thing, man.”
Finally he seemed convinced.
“Okay, I got sha-man joose. Seven hundred euro.”
“What?” The turban almost fell off. “Seven hundred? That’s way more than you charged Naboo before!”
The golden man looked askance.
“This dodgy shit now, man. Risk requires reward, ‘know what am sayin’?”
“Do you take cards?”
The dealer in magics huffed, and turned his back.
“No, wait! Please, wait!”
He turned back again.
“You serious, or what? Don’ be jerkin’ me ‘round, man!”
“Look, I don’t have the readies, right now.” The look in the unsettlingly large blue eyes was pleading. “But I got this ring. It’s worth at least twelve hundred.” The man held out his hand to show a large piece of amber on his finger. “It’s got an insect in it and everything!”
The golden man narrowed his eyes further.
“You know you can’t work this joose? You need to be shay-man for that.”
“Or someone else, right? Maybe someone else magic? Like, say, a Crack Fox?”
The dealer ducked and weaved again, alarm clearly written on his face.
“Crack Fox? You know about Crack Fox? He better not be here, tha’s one evil mothafucka, man.”
“Oh yes, he’s here” said the other man, bleakly. “He came back a few days ago.”
“Ah. I been at me mum’s for da weekend..”
“Anyway,” the other was twitchy with impatience again. “I need it for Naboo, okay? So, you want the ring?”
The dealer’s eyes slid around the scenery again, and came back to rest on the red turban.
“Crack Fox is wantin’ da joose, you thinkin’?”
“I have no idea. I need it for Naboo. So, do we have a deal?”
The dealer nodded to himself, and with exaggerated care drew a flask from inside his coat.
The turban man handed it over, and took the flask.
“Hang on, this is yellow! It was green last time!”
The dealer was inspecting the ring in the last glow of light penetrating under the bridge.
“Oh yeah. New formu-lay-sun. Is the tip-top…”
His eyes flicked over to where the other was gawping at the liquid, holding it up to the bright sky outside.
“But there’s bubbles in it already! It’s been activated!”
“What you sayin’? That I sell you some dodgy shit? To Na – boo’s brother?”
The dealer’s voice was indignant.
“Tha’s the new formu-lay-shun. Partial acti-vay-shun. All part of the improvements….”
“Well, let’s try it, shall we?” The turban man started to uncork the flask.
The dealer threw up his hand.
“You crazy? You know only shay-mans can do that, man! Leave it for Na-boo!”
“We done here.”
The turban man still eyed the flask with suspicion.
“Look, I’m not too sure…”
The golden dealer was already gone.
It was late evening by now; a long summer evening, quite fine after the mad storms of the previous night. A few clouds were high in a pinkish sky. From somewhere around the eastern horizon some haphazard and very amateur rapping indicated that the Moon had switched musical genres and was preparing for his night’s journey through the darkness.
Vince sat on a mound of earth amongst the brambles and nettles of the waste ground, near to the oil drum. It was the only place he could think to go, that might logically lead him to where the Crack Fox was now. Or at least would be at midnight. He had the flask of yellow, slightly gassy, liquid in his hands, still staring at it intently, and dubiously.
The dusk gradually surrounded him. One moment the jagged horizon with its outline of old factories and tower blocks was sharp and clear, the next everything was obscure. Even the bushes and ragbag rubbish around him were becoming indistinct.
The turban and cape (Naboo’s second best) had been dumped back in the carrier bag which now lay at his feet. He blended almost perfectly into the gathering darkness. From the faint gleam of the silver boots and the glow of his pale skin you might have thought he was the moon made human for the night. He was motionless, waiting.
The euphoria from having scored the shaman juice had worn off quickly. He was far from convinced that the liquid was what the golden dealer had claimed it to be. To his eye, only the flask looked anything like kosher. He worried his bottom lip. Inactivity rarely suited him, and the relentless approach of midnight and the possibility of failure weighed heavily, and forced his mind to stay fixed on that subject, for a whole twenty minutes even.
On edge as he was, it still took him a moment or two to register movement in his peripheral vision. Dark shapes were slinking casually through the landscape, pausing here and there, by rubbish or by vegetation, but not paying much attention to the seated figure. He watched more closely.
Foxes! Real foxes. Jack Cooper foxes, not a perverted mess of a wild animal. He saw them amble about their evening business. There were three as far as he could make out…
“Might I ask, are you waiting for someone?”
Vince almost dropped the flask. A big dog fox was sitting less than five yards away, near a patch of brambles. In the low moonlight his eyes gleamed, his ears were sharp and mobile and his fur rippled on his sides as he breathed, slow and easy.
“Whoa, you startled me there! All right?” The cheeky chappie routine was a good default setting whilst he recovered his wits. Vince’s confidence in his rapport with animals had taken a bit of a beating since the Crack Fox had returned.
“Very well, thank you. And are you waiting for someone? I hope I don’t seem forward, but it isn’t a particularly nice area for a young woman to be wandering around alone.”
Vince frowned. The fox did a double-take.
“Oh, I do apologise, my dear chap. Thought you were a lovely lady…. the moonlight on your hair, and so on and so forth.… quite the fashion, I take it?”
“Yeah, well, I am waiting, as it happens. I have to deliver something.”
“To whom, may I ask?”
“Look, mate, nice to pass the time of night with you but I have a lot on my mind, all right…?”
“So sorry to appear rude, but there are some unsavoury characters around here. You really should keep out of their way.”
The fox rose to go, giving a little shake that rippled all down his back. Vince watched thoughtfully.
“Here, mate, you know the Crack Fox?”
The dog fox looked back over his shoulder, disgust on his face.
“That lowlife! You’re waiting for him?”
“Do you know him?”
“I know everyone around here, but that’s not to say I would wish to associate with them.” The fox sniffed loudly.
“And we certainly have nothing to do with him. He’s ruined the reputation of the urban fox, and we’ve fought hard to establish ourselves in cute’n’cuddly territory. We were in talks about film contracts, the lot. He’s set our PR back ten years. It’s time somebody did something about him….”
The fox examined his claws for a moment and then idly scratched behind one ear.
“You don’t look the type to have business with something like the Crack Fox. What’s your name?”
“Vince. Vince Noir? Rock and roll…”
“Ah yes, we’ve seen the posters. Very droll. I’m Terence. That’s Alistair over there by the oil drum. And Edward, and the one bringing back the takeway is Jonathan. Vince nodded in turn to the other foxes, who flicked their ears back at him. Terence retraced his steps and sat down again.
“You live here?” asked Vince.
“Not here, dear boy. Wouldn’t be seen dead. We just commute in. We’re more towards Hackney. Much better area, though can’t say its market potential has ever lived up to what everyone was predicting when we all moved in during the nineties. Still, it’s engagingly multicultural, and convenient for the City.”
The dog fox’s eyes never left Vince, who was back to staring blankly out into the darkness.
“So, why are you after the Crack Fox?”
“Mate, thanks an’ all, but I don’t really….” Vince stopped short. Oh, what the hell.
“Okay, since you’re not gonna give up. Basically, it’s like this. The Crack Fox hates us. That’s me and my mate, Howard. And he’s kidnapped Howard and the ransom is shaman juice. So that’s what I got here. He wants to use it to take over the world.”
“Yes, of course he does, megalomaniac little wanker. Someone should do something about him, they really should. That’s what a life of drugs does to one, you know. Addles the brain.”
“He can do what he likes, as far as I care. I just want Howard back. And safe.” Vince surreptitiously crossed his fingers. He went back to staring at the flask.
“Well, you won’t get far with that.”
The fox rose languidly and stretched.
“Right ho, must be off.”
It took a moment for Vince to register the remark.
“What do you mean ‘Won’t get far’?”
“That’s not shaman juice, is it? It’s Lucozade. Pretty obvious, I’d have thought, considering it’s yellow and fizzy.”
Vince was on his feet in a second.
“What?” Vince stared at the flask in horror “Lucozade?”
“Don’t believe me then,” drawled the fox. “Just taste it.”
“I’m not supposed to open it…” Vince began, then recklessly pulled out the stopper and sniffed. A wholly familiar scent hit his nostrils. He really didn’t have to sample the liquid to be sure but even so he sipped, and was convinced.
“That ballbag! Wait till I…” He looked at the sky, the full moon drifting into place. His heart dropped like a stone.
“Oh Christy, it’s almost midnight! What am I gonna do?”
“My dear child, calm down. The gold man is long gone. He’s been flogging that dodgy stuff quite a lot recently. I thought most people would have been wary by now.”
“But I need it! It’s my only way in! My only way to get Howard back!”
Vince kicked at the carrier bag in frustration.
“That’s why you’re waiting here? In case he comes to you?”
The tone of the questioning was just this side of taunting. Vince started to bridle.
“You got a better idea?”
The dog fox flicked his tail and gave Vince a sly glance.
“Why don’t you go to him?”
“And how is that possible?”
“Well, we could show you the way into his den….”
“You know the way? To get in?”
“Naturally, dear boy. We know the whole area intimately.”
Hope started beating again.
“So, will you show me? Please?”
The fox considered.
“What are you going to do when you meet the Crack Fox?”
Vince frowned at the question.
“I’m going to get Howard. I don’t care if I never meet the Crack Fox again. But if I do, I want… I want to make sure he never harms anyone else…”
Terence started to trot down the bank towards the perimeter wire of the dump.
“Good answer. Come on then. I’ll show you the way. It’s about time someone took action.”
Vince still didn’t move.
“So why don’t you?”
Terence stopped short and looked over his shoulder.
“Us? My dear chap, what could we do?”
“Plenty! You’re foxes too, you live and work around here. You keep whingeing on about ‘oh, someone should do something.’ Why don’t you? Don’t you want to make this area safe?”
The fox looked peeved.
“Good heavens! Community action? Simply not our bag. Now, chop chop! We haven’t got all night….”
Vince picked up his bag with a sigh of exasperation and followed him down the slope.
Terence led him across the waste ground right up to the bank of earth that backed onto the wire netting surrounding the dump. He shouldered aside some nettles. There in the sandy earth was a hole, about two feet across, its edges worn smooth and the ground around it scuffed and bare. Vince peered cautiously in. Only darkness.
“In there”, said Terence. “Go on.”
“In there?” squeaked Vince. “I’m gonna get filthy! And anyway, where does it even go?”
“Through the bank, under the wire and then down into the rubbish dump, near the bottom. It’s quite a slide.”
“You’ve been in?”
“Once or twice. But for us it’s not really worth the effort of climbing out again. You get a better class of rubbish just hanging around the kebab shop on the High Street. Why make life difficult for yourself…”
He flicked his claws again.
“Besides, now he’s back, we wouldn’t choose to go in there.”
“Oh right, but it’s okay for me to?”
The fox looked at him disdainfully.
“I thought you wanted to find something in there. Or someone, was it? This is the best way in.”
Vince screwed up his face “I’m gonna regret this…”
The fox had already slipped away.
Vince tipped himself up and slid into the hole. The first few feet he pulled himself along by the fingertips and pushed with his toes, trying to restrain the growing claustrophobia and panic rising in his chest. Then, just as he was about to find an excuse for not going any further, the words “there must be a better way than this” forming on his lips, the ground suddenly gave way and he was hurtling through smooth tunnels of earth like he was on the Cresta Run.
Down and down, his ears popping, until suddenly the tunnel swooped upwards and widened out. And Vince found himself propelled out into darkness, rolling over and over with the momentum of his fall.
He took a few moments to catch his breath. Gradually his eyes grew accustomed to the dimness. He wrinkled his nose at the smell of rotting garbage. He was in some kind of room, with a partly open roof high above. As he lay on his back, winded, he could see stars and pale moonlight. The structure became clear. Bin-bags everywhere, stuffed and squashed.
He got up and dusted himself down, only to drop to his knees again immediately behind some loose bags. He heard movement; a swishing, scratching sound. And the weak light revealed he was not alone. The Crack Fox was dragging himself through the open space, bin-bags surrounding him as he moved. His face looked set and menacing.
He stopped in the centre of the room and stared at the place where Vince had dropped to the ground.
“Come to Crack Fox, all ma bin-bag bitches!”
And the bin-bags that had concealed Vince started to move….
The hours were taking their toll on Howard. Wrapped from head to foot in plastic, he found breathing difficult. He felt he had sweated out his very soul. The light in the cavern had changed. Now it was the eerie glow of growing moonlight that sifted in. But Howard saw little of his surroundings. Now drifting in and out of consciousness, a whole pageant of light and colours paraded in front of him.
Blue sea and palm trees from long ago; the turquoise gleam of a glacier and a bevy of polar bears wandering through. At one point the bin-bag cavern transformed itself with neon signs in red, blue and green, and a bit of funky music piped in – Howard was even glad to be back in Black Lake. Except he wasn’t.
He was beyond movement and trying to escape. He had no strength left. In his lucid periods he reflected on his end – not the one Howard Moon, Man of Ages, would have chosen; left to rot under a pile of rubbish, undiscovered, unmourned.
He couldn’t even summon up the strength to panic anymore. There was no point. Whatever dreams he had still harboured about his life, the loss of Vince cancelled them out completely. He had never consciously registered the necessity of Vince. But it was absolute. The moment the Crack Fox had told him what he’d done, Howard Moon had stopped caring.
It wasn’t that he didn’t believe in an afterlife. Sadly he’d been there, done that, and knew that it was likely to be just as incapable as this earthly life in living up to expectations. He only hoped that somewhere between Monkey Hell and Wannabee Rock-star Heaven there would be an astral plane where he might meet Vince again; see him dance, see him smile.
His visions were as real as any of his fantastical life with Vince had been. Vibrant colours, bright lights, like a party for the end, except that he’d had no choice in the guest list (another familiar feeling). Naboo and Bollo were wandering around the back of the cavern, arm in arm, singing out of tune. At times there were flying carpets in the air, circling in a holding pattern. Zoo animals trotted past, gazing at him with quiet curiosity, as if he were an exhibit.
Periodically, Bob Fossil would appear, in various guises – the hideous blue suit, in even more hideous nipple tassels, as a fisherman, as a psychiatrist with a clipboard – looking like he was rapping fit to burst, but Howard could hear nothing but a buzzing of blood in his ears. He would gyrate through the cavern, stopping to speak soundlessly to Howard, or dance a bit. And then suddenly he’d be gone, the cavern seeming bigger for his loss.
But most of all, most of all, there was one person drifting in and out of Howard’s vision. Sometimes in the glitter suit he’d worn at the Jazz Club; sometimes in that diaphanous kaftan that had swirled about Howard and along with so much else had captivated him on the night of his birthday party. And sometimes it was Vince, unclothed, his skin glowing in the harsh shop lights or in the blue flash of lightning.
He saw his arms outstretched, dancing, or pulling his beloved shapes, or gesturing madly to illustrate some wild story or elaborate excuse. And always smiling, the blue eyes wide and warm and engulfing Howard. Sometimes he’d speak to Howard, looking sad when Howard didn’t respond. Howard in his dream state could neither speak nor hear Vince’s voice – but he never took his eyes off his friend as he illuminated Howard’s personal darkness.
An old song, long loved but almost forgotten, now gently filled Howard’s head, as if someone were slowly turning up the volume. He heard the warm growl of a great poet’s voice, and the glorious words flowed into him as he watched Vince’s silent dancing in his mind’s eye.
Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin
Dance me through the panic till I’m gathered safely in
Lift me like an olive branch and be my homeward dove
Dance me to the end of love
Dance me to the end of love
On and on, to the lovely song. Vince drifting closer, his hands reaching out to Howard’s face, and Howard could almost feel his friend’s fingers running through his hair, across his brow, his nose, his cheek…..
Let me see your beauty when the witnesses are gone
Let me feel you’re moving like they do in Babylon
Show me slowly what I only know the limits of
Dance me to the end of love
Dance me to the end of love
He was overwhelmed with the memory of the night on the roof. Vince’s lips on his mouth, along his jaw, his hands gently stroking, holding.
Anything, he thought, anything to know that feeling again. If he were ever lucky enough to see Vince Noir one more time, he knew what would be the first thing he’d do….
Vince filled his mind. Vince in the kaftan; Vince in a skin-tight red jumpsuit; Vince at his most debonair in a velvet jacket embroidered with moons and stars. Vince in a blue silk shirt that matched the colour of his eyes, draped languorously over cushions, looking sultry.
And Vince as only he could pose in underwear and boots, the delight of a crimp showing in his face. No pretence, no fashion disguise; just the man, his hands out to Howard, his face lit by the soft smile from years ago that Howard had seen once more in the dancing.
Vince, Vince, Vince…..
The image wavered and dissolved, Howard making an involuntary gasp of pain at the loss. Colours faded, the cavern was back and there was noise and movement. His consciousness returned unbidden, unwanted. The Crack Fox – reality not hallucination – was shuffling back on his crutches, followed by a small group of stuffed bin-bag acolytes, some of which dragged themselves across the floor, some of which floated a little above its surface.
The Fox loomed over him, the twisted grin in evidence. He poked Howard with a crutch.
“Jes’ come to say goodbye, binman sir. Jes’ come to tell yo’ your friends don’t wan’ you back. They don’t bring Crack Fox no Shaman Juice, binman. Ain’t that a doggone shame? Ain’t you sad, binman?”
Howard moved his dry lips. At first there was only a hoarse croak but he forced out the sounds. The Fox, grinning all the while, seemed to delight in each painfully enunciated word.
“You got it… wrong, Fox. Me? I’m… nothing, no-one. You could… you could have had the world… for Vince Noir. You killed the wrong man….”
The Fox giggled.
“Ain’t no problem for me, binman! I got me a new supplier! Crack Fox’s rule’s about to begin! “
He stepped back, raising his crutches in a gesture of triumph.
“You will behold ma power! You humans got a treat in store, yessir!
“Gonna tear you all apart, and you won’t even notice!
“Gonna tear you all apart!”
“No!”shouted Howard, defiantly helpless to the last. “We’ll stop you!”
The Fox cackled delightedly at his distress, shaking his head, spittle flying from the mangey fur.
“Don’ you worry, binman sir! Ain’t gonna matter to you…
“You here for ever!”
He turned and started to shuffle away. Howard summoned up his final ounce of strength.
“We would have stopped you! Me and Vince! Together!“
The words had a mocking echo now.
The Fox had reached the corridor opening. He looked back over his shoulder.
“You can’t stop nuthin’, binman! You jes’ on ya own. There ain’t no pretty Princey Vincey anymore to come for ya!
“Tore you apart, binman, like you tore ol’ Cracky Fox to pieces…
“Tore your heart out!
“Crack Fox wins! Behold ma power!”
And as he left the cavern he flicked out a paw in a gesture of dismissal and disdain, a signal for his bin-bag entourage to rise up and throw themselves onto Howard, burying him for good and all.
First there was no air to breathe. Slimy black plastic smothered his mouth and nose, a huge weight of rubbish crushed his chest. On his legs, for some strange reason, the greatest weight of all pressed down. He struggled, but he was slipping away now… his mind was all darkness and pain.
And suddenly the suffocating blackness was gone. Bin-bags were flying in all directions, hurled off his body. All but one. One that crouched now over his hips and thighs.
A taller bin-bag than most. One that wore silver boots…
There was the sound of muffled cursing. The tall bin-bag tore from top to bottom, and a familiar face emerged, far from happy, still effing and blinding, with the stink of rotting rubbish all around it like a swarm of bluebottles. No vision this, with its sweaty locks, profanity and, bizarrely, a Cost Cutter carrier bag attached to its wrist. It made a final struggle, a ragged butterfly emerging from a garbage chrysalis, and toppled out to fall onto Howard’s chest, driving the last remaining air from his lungs.
Vince rolled off him and Howard drew breath, a great ragged gasp. And squeaked the only thing possible in that situation.
“Vince! You’re alive!“
Vince was on his knees now, rid of the bag, leaning over him and plucking at the plastic bonds.
“Bloody hell, Howard! What did I tell you about solo missions?”
The huge grin on his face faded quickly as he felt the brow of his gob-smacked, soppily-smiling, gift-wrapped friend beneath him.
“Howard! You all right? You’re a bit hot and sweaty!”
“Being… wrapped in plastic… a bit… exhausting,” rasped Howard.
He felt Vince’s hands gently touching his face, his neck.
“Ooh, there’s blood here! You’ve had the needles too…”
Memories. The panic began to surge back.
“Vince!” he began. “The… Fox…!”
“S’okay, Howard! He’s long gone.”
“No! Antidote….” he struggled with the words. The distress was evident on his face.
Vince still stroked his cheek lightly. All Howard could do was move his face against the touch, craving more.
One last time….
“Antidote… He said… there was an antidote. For what he…. he did to you.”
Vince smiled happily.
“Yeah, I was a goner, Naboo said. But he worked it out. So I’m all right now. Genius, eh?”
Vince’s smile faded as Howard shook his head distractedly.
“ I came… to find it… The antidote…..”
“Yeah, but I’m all right, Howard, honest!”
But his hand stilled as Howard’s feverish words sank in. He gazed down, his brow now troubled.
“You….?” He tried again. “You….? To find…?”
Then saw the parched lips, the dry tongue.
“Hang on, Howard! I’ve got something that’ll help!”
He delved into the Cost Cutter bag and produced a flask of yellow liquid, uncorked it and smiled delightedly at his brainwave and Howard’s good fortune.
Even in his bin-bags, Howard recoiled.
“Vince!” he rasped. “Are you insane? Whose wee is that?”
“It’s Lucozade, you fruit loop! Here….”
He lifted Howard’s head gently and placed the flask to his lips. Howard gulped it down in ecstasy. Vince supported him as he drank, watching carefully.
“Here, that’s enough for now.”
The liquid was a god-send.
“How the hell,” gasped Howard, “did you arrive with Lucozade?”
“Lucky swap.” Vince was still grinning, but there was worry in his eyes.
“Come on, Howard, let’s get you out of this thing, and we can hightail it out of here.”
He started to rip the plastic at Howard’s neck, cursing again as it resisted his grasp. Howard gazed with wonder and disbelief at the black hair swishing across his face, the intense expression in the blue eyes that spoke of the huge mental activity involved in working out how to rip plastic. Wonder, and a kind of resigned amusement.
“Vince, only you could come on a rescue mission armed with Lucozade and without a weapon of any kind. Now you know why I always carry my Swiss Army Knife…”
Vince looked up, cocking an eyebrow.
“Except now,” Howard confessed, “as I think I’ve still only got my underpants on…”
Vince grinned, wrestled a hand down into the front pocket of the skinnies and extracted a pair of miniature nail scissors. He brandished them in triumph in front of Howard’s eyes.
“I’m always prepared, Howard. Though they were a bit uncomfortable in there…”
He began to snip carefully at the layers of plastic, frowning with the effort of concentration.
Snip, snip, snip. The pace would have had snails doubled up with laughter.
“Vince, you think there’s a chance this might be over before Christmas?”
“Shaddup, you.” The voice was muffled. “It’s a delicate procedure. I just got your skin under here to guide me. Don’t forget that…”
Howard’s eyes crossed slightly as he tried to look down.
“Okay, be careful then, little man…”
The face looked up again, a wicked grin still in place.
“Just remember that, you jazzy freak! You’re in my power!”
As if I didn’t know that already, thought Howard, as he watched the slow progress resume, feeling a welcome coolness as Vince peeled back the enveloping plastic with the snipping away of each inch, exposing Howard’s torso.
In his strange state between collapse and elation, there was no room for ‘Don’t touch me!’ interdictions. He had never in his life so much wanted this touch – this touching. The ebbing of terror, the welling-up of immense relief at his rescue by the man he thought had been lost forever, made him drunk with joy.
And drunk like that, his inhibitions were cast aside. He felt he could lie there forever with Vince straddling him, the welcome pressure of his body against Howard’s thighs, his hair trailing down ever more of Howard’s bare chest as the plastic was stripped away, his breath cool on Howard’s sweating skin, his hands exploring, stroking, tentatively feeling….
Vince’s cry of triumph brought Howard back to earth with a start. The scissors had just cut through a particularly difficult section of plastic and suddenly Vince was pulling back the black folds and dragging them away from Howard’s shoulders. He reached inside and helped Howard’s cramped arms out of their bonds, his hands stroking down Howard’s upper arms in an unconscious gesture of comfort and reassurance which could have been for either or both of them, it wasn’t clear.
And Vince was taken completely by surprise as those arms folded around him, hands on his shoulders, pulling him close. By the time their faces had met and Howard’s mouth was over his, Vince’s surprise had turned to delight. He allowed himself to melt into the kiss, his own arms slipping around Howard’s back, fingers splaying over the broad shoulder-blades, and submit to the hard, desperate press of lips and the scratch of Howard’s moustache and stubble.
Wasn’t it all he’d ever wanted, after all?
They broke apart simultaneously, both panting, staring at each other with not a little wonder and quite a lot of uncertainty, for all the sudden conviction of the kiss.
Vince broke the silence.
“What was all that for, then?” he asked, as lightly as he could.
Howard gave an awkward little smile.
“Ummmm… thanks… for rescuing me…?”
“I’ve done that plenty of times, you ‘nana. You’ve never thanked me like that before. Come to think of it, you’ve never thanked me…”
The words were meant to sound joshing; in fact they came over as hesitant and questioning.
“Well, that was the… er… first time I’ve… been in plastic bags,” Howard tried gamely.
“Oh, all right then…” Vince opened the scissors again and bent his head to the task. There was the merest hint of disappointment in his voice. The scissors snipped away.
Without thinking, Howard reached down and ran his hand over Vince’s hair. The other man stilled, as if waiting for something.
“I promised myself, if I ever got to see you again, that it would be the first thing I’d do.”
Vince still didn’t move. His head was bowed. When he spoke his voice was studiedly neutral.
“What you said… you’re wrong, you know. You’re not nothing. Not to me, not never.”
“What?” Howard gazed at the hunched form. Vince struggled to continue, his words still muffled, the attempt at nonchalance painfully obvious in the strained voice.
“You aren’t nothing. Not to me. You’re as far away from nothing as something that’s everything can be far away…” He stopped and suddenly looked up, puzzled.
“I think that’s what I mean. Only I haven’t had much time to think about the words….”
Howard couldn’t speak. Could only stroke the black head again. He realized his hand was shaking. Vince still didn’t smile. It was difficult to see properly in the cavern, but his eyes seemed to be gleaming, and his expression now was quite open, unguarded even.
“I thought you were dead.” Howard could only whisper it. “I thought I’d lost you.”
Vince stared at him solemnly for a moment, and then his face broke into a wide grin.
“As if that’s even possible? Haven’t you worked it out, Howard? We’re a team! You can’t break up a winning combination!”
“Yeah,” said Howard, still stroking, suddenly able to breathe again. “That’s right, a team…”
“A team that better get a bloody move on, if it wants to get out of here alive….”
And Vince was back on the job, so to speak – snip, snip, snip – muttering imprecations to himself.
Howard shifted in the remains of the cocoon, trying to loosen it from inside. The plastic slid obscenely across his skin, the inner surfaces of the bags full of his sweat. He felt drowsiness envelop him. The soothing hands on his exhausted body, the gentle murmur of muffled expletives – they lulled him into a reverie where danger was far away, where it was only him and Vince… him and Vince….
Vince’s audible inner monologue chose that moment to pick up in volume.
“… and I tell you what, Howard. If there’s any justice in this world, then the next time you’re this hot and sweaty and slippery we’ll be in my bed – not yours, mind, it’s way too uncomfortable – and you’ll be on top of me… “
Both men gasped, Howard’s intake of breath sounding like a little yelp.
A heavy pause.
“Ummmm..… did I just say that out loud, or was it in my head?”
“Well, I wouldn’t actuallyknow, sir, as I’ve… ummm… been hallucinating quite a lot today. But, ah, I would ask if you’d be… umm… extra careful where you put those scissors at the moment…”
Vince pulled back in clear embarrassment.
“You should… er… have the rest of the Lucozade.”
Howard gratefully took advantage of the distraction, and drank.
“You still haven’t told me properly how you got this. Or how you got in here.”
He gave the flask to Vince to gulp at, too. It was hot work, all this… debagging.
Vince smiled around a mouthful of fizzy drink.
“I tried to get some shaman juice. Naboo… well, he couldn’t get any, apparently. But I got conned and ended up with Lucozade.” He shrugged, happily dismissing it all.
Howard looked stunned.
“You tried to get… for me…?”
Then he frowned.
“How much did you lose?”
“What? Oh, my amber ring.”
“But you loved that ring!” Howard sounded genuinely moved, though by what, it wasn’t clear. Vince grinned again.
“Nah, Howard. I didn’t, not really. And anyway, I got the Lucozade, which was a lot more use to you in your baggy state.”
“That really was fortuitous, Vince,” Howard agreed.
“Bloody lucky, you mean. Looked like you were about to peg it from thirst when I got here.”
“And how exactly did you get here?” Howard was relaxing again in the heady delight of banter with his friend. The horrors of the night seemed to fall away.
“Oh, some foxes showed me the way.”
“Yeah, real ones, normal ones. They don’t like the Crack Fox. But they were a bit snooty, like. Thought they were a cut above me, they did.” He pouted; Howard couldn’t suppress a smile.
“But they showed me where the tunnel entrance was. We’re in the Council dump, underneath great piles of stuff. Imagine that! Yuk! How good is that for my image? Frankly, I’m amazed we’re not suffocated by stink. What I’ve been through…”
He shook his head, reflecting.
“… And when I got in, the first thing I saw was the mangey mutant cat, so I had to leap into a bin-bag for disguise.” He looked sternly at Howard. “I don’t think I’m ever, ever gonna get rid of the smell…
“Anyway, long story short, I can get us out again, as soon as you get your northern pins in action.”
Howard frowned, realising two things. One was that he could, in fact, now remove the rest of the plastic without undue embarrassment. Which he did, Vince helping him to wriggle free and supporting him carefully as he took some tentative steps. And with uncharacteristic tact making no reference to his friend’s almost complete lack of clothing. Howard himself might have been more embarrassed by the situation – there, in his underwear, weak and helpless, being propped up by Vince’s wiry frame – had he not been concentrating so hard on walking without falling over, after such a long period of confinement.
But his other realisation had a wider impact.
“Vince, we can’t just leave. Crack Fox says he’s got some more shaman juice. We have to stop him.”
“Howard,” Vince raised his hands, palms outward in protest. “Howard, it’s not our job. Let’s just go home, safe, and call the Board. Please?”
“But Vince, no-one else knows what he’s done. The Board may be too late. We have to stop him! We have to save the world! Or at least Dalston…”
Vince looked doubtful.
“So the world’s gonna be saved by two men – one in his underpants and the other in dire need of some hair product – armed only with a mainly-empty bottle of Lucozade and a pair of nail scissors. Okay, explain to me how that works…”
“Vince ! This could be our moment!”
Vince looked pained.
“Our moment? I got a better idea for that…”
But Howard was wearing that broad, broad grin. It was hard not to be enticed.
“Okay, so we save the world. After that, home? Maybe Jazz Moves? Please?”
The tone was hopeful.
“That’s right, Vince. We just need an order of priority, then everything falls into place. World salvation, cup of tea, Jazz Moves, and by then it’ll be time for bed…”
His smile froze as he realised yet another double entendre had clattered to the ground, to join the many others that littered the floor of the cavern.
Vince grinned widely.
“All right, Howard! You’ve won me over with that!”
It turned out that even Howard baulked at saving the world wearing only his underpants. The second-best satin cloak barely covered his modesty. By happy coincidence one of the conquered bin-bags thrown aside by Vince had split to reveal a bundle of old material, and they tiptoed out of the cavern with Howard draped in a length of sacking.
By unspoken consent they retraced Vince’s steps as a bin-bag, heading back to the other cavern where the Crack Fox had gathered his court together. It was, after all, the tunnel down which he had last shuffled away.
They edged apprehensively between the crazily-angled walls, Howard leading with a bravado that was paper-thin, once they’d actually started on ‘Phase 2 – Save the World’. Vince as ever was at his back, but with his hands lightly pressed to Howard’s waist, comforting, encouraging.
It wasn’t long before they could hear voices and music, of sorts – harsh and discordant. The sounds got louder, and they shrank to the tunnel sides. The tunnel was widening out into the other cavern. It was lit by pale blue-white light, the glow of the full Moon getting stronger even though the Moon himself wasn’t yet visible. Crack Fox sat on a battered chair in the centre of the cavern, and, in front of him, on a kind of pedestal made of breeze-blocks, stood a flask of greenish liquid.
And there was another figure on the scene.
The golden dealer stood facing the Crack Fox. He was clearly nervous and edgy, shuffling from foot to foot, trying to keep an eye on all corners of the cavern, as if expecting attack, whilst still focusing on the Fox. His voice was high and reedy against the harsh background of the banjo, which the Fox was plucking idly. The Fox’s gaze on the flask never wavered. Lazy bubbles were starting to rise from the base of the liquid. But the moon’s light was still too weak to achieve much.
The dealer was repeating his case.
“Look, we had a’ agreement, right? I need payin’ for this, man. You agreed payment…”
The Fox flicked a paw idly at him.
“Ah said you get your reward, golden shinin’ man. What Cracky Fox says, Cracky Fox means…”
“Well, c’mon then, man. Need my payment.”
“Oh, you gonna get what’s comin’…”
The dealer seemed oblivious to the growled threat. He waved his hand in front of the Fox, who slowly put down the banjo, eyes now fixed on the dealer.
“See, last guy tried to buy dis joose, he give me dis. See, shaman joose is da tip-top, high cost shit, man. You gotta pay me what I iz owed….”
In the shadows at the back of the cavern, Howard pressed closer to Vince, if that was indeed possible considering the way Vince had now enveloped him, his arms now tight around Howard’s waist. Howard leaned his head back.
“Your ring!” he whispered hoarsely in Vince’s ear. “That’s your ring, Vince!”
He could feel Vince’s grin against his cheek.
“Sod the ring! Look at that bottle!”
Vince was now completely absorbed in the excitement of the chase.
“We need a distraction, so we can grab it and run…” continued Howard in a whisper, plan-making coming to him as easily as that, sir.
“Okay, you’re distractin’, and I’m grabbin’”
“No! No!” hissed Howard. “You’ll trip in those boots! I’m grabbing and you’re distracting…”
“You’re too slow, Howard! I’m nimble on me feet…”
“Slow? Slow? I could beat you any day, sir! My legs are powerful and sleek…”
“Give over, Howard! And don’t argue! You’re too old for this! You’re distractin’ and…”
“No! You distract for a living! Bloody distract now, will you?”
As it happened (and just as well, perhaps) the distraction came along on cue to disrupt the whispered conference in the shadows.
The dealer just wasn’t going to shut up, was he?
“Okay, man, but I need payin’. Now, man! Like, now! I got places I gotta be!”
The Fox drew himself upright.
“That right, oh pretty shiny man? You goin’ places?
“You going nowhere…!”
Even as he growled, the Crack Fox rose up in the air, his forelegs outstretched, and flew at the dealer, knocking him flying. They tussled on the floor, the dealer screaming obscenities, flailing with his arms against the onslaught of filthy fur, claws and needles.
The Fox was dominant though.
“Needly dee, needly dee….”
Howard, watching aghast at the horror that could have only one outcome, was suddenly conscious of a lack of arms pressed around his middle. And an absence of….
“Vince? Vince!“ he hissed, looking around distractedly, only to see a dark shape and the blur of silver. Vince was on the move in the centre of the cavern, one eye on the fight, the other on the flask, now bubbling in earnest as the moon’s rays crawled over the lip of the roof and started to pour in.
Howard wanted to shout “Be careful!” or “Come back, you idiot!” Or even “Okay, I’m the idiot! Let’s run – now!” But all he could manage was a whispered word of panic.
The dark figure turned back towards Howard. A moonbeam hit him full on, catching the broad planes of his face, the angles of his cheekbones, the quirky grin of absolute delight.
Howard saw him mouth the words.
“Just watch me!”
Vince, tongue poking at the corner of his mouth with the effort of concentration and balance, reached out and plucked the flask from its pedestal. Given the tussle on the floor, he might have been forgiven for thinking that he, the perennial getter-away-with-things, was going to get away with it one more time.
But he was wrong.
To Howard’s horror, the Moon slipped into full view at the opening of the roof. The cavern lit up, and Vince was caught in the spotlight, on his tiptoes in the middle of it all, the flask of agitated liquid in his hands. The Fox gave an angry cry and leapt off his prey, flying instead straight at him.
“Vince! Look out!”
Howard leapt out of the shadows, yelling with all his might, running too. Towards what, he had no idea. Vince wheeled, dropped the flask to the ground, and ducked.
His timing was perfect. The Fox sailed right over his head to land, a bundle of fur and bones, on the hard floor, and roll over and over into the shadows.
“Good call, Howard!”
Vince was on his feet in an instant, grabbing the flask by its neck and brandishing it aloft.
“Got it! Now let’s… oooff!!!“
The dealer had launched himself from the floor, arms outstretched for the flask. He caught Vince in the small of the back, sending him flying, and his hand came up to grasp Vince’s on the flask, pulling it away. The two men rolled, but the dealer was no match for Vince. A cunningly rammed knee had the dealer yelping in pain, and he let go of the flask, doubled up.
Vince leapt to his feet.
“Howard! I got it!”
But the Crack Fox was already dragging himself out of the shadows.
“Ol’ Cracky Fox needs his juice…
Howard saw the foreleg with the hypodermics rise. He didn’t have time to think it through. If he had, he might have been tempted to write a philosophical treatise entitled ‘Self or non-self: the abnegation of the ego in the face of overwhelming odds’ just to avoid doing anything. But indecision had been left behind in the Nabootique. It didn’t currently form part of Howard Moon’s all-round package, no sir.
Out of the corner of his eye he saw the Fox’s paw flex and the sudden flash as a needle shot out, flying across the room, heading straight for Vince. And he saw Vince’s confused expression as he stood holding the flask, rooted to the spot.
Howard threw himself forward.
“Move, Vince! Move!”
Something grabbed at his back, checking his flight and ripping the sacking toga from his shoulders. But even so his hands connected with Vince’s breastbone and he shoved his friend bodily backwards, registering only blue eyes wide with shock and a dropped jaw. And Howard himself was still falling forward.
Something flashed into his line of vision.
Something exploded in his head.
Vince had hardly had time to process any of this. So much had been happening all at once – the dealer kicking and clawing at him, Howard shouting, the flask spinning away, Howard flying through the air like a demented rugby player to shove him clear, the flash of gold as the dealer hurled himself forward in his own attempt to regain the flask, colliding with Howard in mid-air. And through it all, he heard the Crack Fox’s voice – no longer giggling, just jagged with hate and anger.
He sprawled on the floor, gasping for breath after the impact of Howard’s blow to his chest and the fall. Suddenly, he saw the flask, still miraculously intact, rolling towards him. Once more it was in his grasp. He scrambled up.
“Howard! Come on! Run!”
And froze at the sight before him.
There was a huddle of forms over the breeze-block altar. Crack Fox sat on top of it all, panting hard, his eyes glowing red.
“I won! I won! Funny funny game!
“I got him bad!”
He splayed his hypodermic hand out, rattling the needles, leering at Vince, who stood in shock, his eyes never leaving the jumble of limbs on the ground.
The needle… Oh god, no.
There was blood on the breeze-blocks.
Howard lay there, stretched out on the ground. His forehead was red. Blood trickled along the line of his brow and ran past his eye to drip onto the floor. Shining material was spread out over his long body. His face was blank, empty.
This was all wrong….
But Howard didn’t move.
For a long moment, nobody moved. The only sound in the cavern was the harsh, rapid breathing of the Fox. Two men lay crumpled on the ground, the skin of one gleaming in the moonlight. Vince was frozen to the spot, mesmerized by the slow drip of blood to the ground.
Once upon a time there were two boys called Howard and Vince. And they were always together. They were the best of best friends. And even when they became men, they were never apart for more than a week their entire lives. Until one day…
No! Not like this! Never like this!
Vince suddenly snapped back into life, his body lunging towards Howard in a reflex action, only to flinch back from the array of needles rattled in his face.
“You step back now, kind sir, pretty ladyman…
Still with his deadly arm outstretched, the Fox slid off the huddle of bodies and gave the topmost a nudge with his crutch. The golden dealer rolled limply off Howard to lie stretched out, as if in sleep, one arm slumping backwards to rest above his head. And as it did so, an amber ring slipped from the hand and rolled across the ground, finishing up within inches of Howard’s blank face. The dealer’s eyes, wide and staring, had a lifeless sheen in the moonlight. A long needle protruded from his jugular.
“Got me a dead one,” mused the Fox, his eyes still flicking between the dealer and Vince.
“Got me a good and dead one. Maybe two…”
He reached out and, with his gaze locked on Vince, dragged his claws lightly down Howard’s chest, leaving a thin, raw trail.
Vince made a sound, an involuntary whimper.
“Get off him,” he hissed. The Fox giggled.
“You wan’ him fo’ you, pretty ladyboy?”
“Get… off… him…” Vince could feel himself begin to shake with pent-up rage.
“Why, what you gonna do?
“Know what ah’m gonna do?
“Gonna put him in a li’l dress and hurt him…”
The words shook Vince out of his stupor. He brushed them aside and squared his shoulders.
“And you know what I’m gonna do?
“Gonna do this…”
He uncorked the flask of shaman juice, letting the stopper fall to the side on its cord, and held it out. And started to tip it slowly, the liquid creeping up the sides to cling tantalizingly to the lip of the flask.
The Fox froze, his paw now motionless on Howard’s body. Then the needle hand reached out in entreaty, the voice wheedling.
“No! No, kind sir, no! Foxy want that shaman juice. You give Cracky Fox that juice, all yo’ dreams…”
He stopped suddenly, staring at Vince.
In all this, Vince wasn’t quite sure how he managed to keep his feet, let alone keep the flask steady. His brain was swirling. It wasn’t just the absolute, god-awful, heart-stopping shock of seeing Howard stretched out like that. It was as if the whole chamber was pulsating with fear and hate. Great black waves seemed to surround him, pressing in on every side. The innocent, nay, completely vacant, charm of the Moon’s light, a blue-white glow surrounding him and Howard, was the only thing that held them back. But even that was now retreating as the Moon passed overhead, completely oblivious to the drama beneath. And it left more room for the black waves to take over.
He gazed in pure longing at Howard’s face; the broad brow, the strong nose, the generous mouth. Features as familiar as his own; as beloved, even.
Come on, Howard! Come on!
The black waves retreated a little, regrouped, hung back. And the Fox’s everyday hysteria appeared to be taking on a new form. His gibbering and giggling was higher pitched, more rapid, nervous. He shrank back, leaving his prey unguarded in his anxiety.
“No! You’s dead!”
Vince stared back at the Fox, narrowing his eyes and tipping the flask a little further.
“Who you talkin’ to?”
“You!” You’s dead! I killed ya, Vincey Princey, I killed ya…!”
“Nah.” Vince swirled the flask a little more and chanced a step closer to Howard. “Nah, you killed no-one, mate. I’m invincible…” He stopped for a moment, and broke into a broad grin.
“In-Vince-ible!” he repeated. Wait till I tell Howard that one!
“Yeah, I’m like that other bloke. You know, beard, sandals, funky robe? The one who invented Easter eggs. You can’t kill me.
“So innit time you showed me some respect?”
He tipped the flask again and this time deliberately allowed a drop of liquid to make it over the lip and fall. It hit the ground with a fizz and a spark, evaporating immediately on impact. The Fox was in a frenzy of frustration and indecision, shuffling and bouncing, his forepaws still held out longingly.
“No, no, kind sir! Kind Princey! Don’t you throw away good juice like that! No ma’am! Let Ol’ Cracky Fox have that juice!”
But as he spoke, he swung his arms in an expansive gesture, his eyes casting furtively from one side of the cavern to the other. Vince followed his gaze. At the corners of the room, bin-bags were shifting, as if being summoned. But they weren’t shifting far, dragging themselves a few feet forward and then slumping down again. The Fox was still grinning but his eyes were flicking nervously around. The forepaws gestured again to his minions. But now there was barely a movement from the dark corners.
The laughter continued, but the desperation in it was easy to hear now. Vince’s shoulders relaxed, he was no longer shaking. He smiled nastily back at the Fox, his own teeth showing bright and feral, and swirled the flask with increasing confidence.
“Move away, Foxy!”
He took a careful step towards Howard, then another…
“Please, pretty Vincey, all-powerful Vincey… give poor ol’ Cracky Fox some of that lovely juice? Ease his achin’ bones…”
Another step; his mind, his heart on Howard, his eyes on the Fox.
“Naboo was right, wasn’t he? You need this juice. Need it to keep going. Need it to have power over people. Without it, you’re just… ordinary. An ordinary fox with an ordinary drugs problem. Just like anyone in the city…”
“Gimme it, kind Vincey, gimme it… Ah can give you all kinds of power when I’s got the juice inside me…”
“Piss off, mate. And keep movin’ back, that’s a good Foxy…”
One more cautious step. Foot up to take another… What? Oh, fuck….
Silver boot collided with heavy obstacle. Vince, his weight already well over his left foot, found his right snagged on the black folds of the dealer’s jacket. It was not going to obey him. He flailed helplessly for a millisecond, leg jerking, and then toppled gracelessly to the floor, his arms instinctively outstretched and hands lifted, protecting the flask as if he were a test cricketer making a vital catch at the boundary. He landed with an “Ooof!” on his stomach, his legs over the dealer’s body, his head butting Howard’s bare chest. And there he lay for what seemed an eternity, tangled in material, the flask uplifted like a sacrament, his face flat against his friend’s damp, soft skin. Damp, soft, warm… warm!
He snapped his head back. Two small brown eyes were gazing at him in a kindly, if vacant, manner.
“Well hello, Vince. Nice to see you…”
“Howard? Howard! “ Absolute delight, absolute joy. Fuck the flask, fuck the Fox… Howard!
The moustache on the face beneath him lifted in a carefree smile. He grinned back, gob-smacked.
And then it all kicked off again.
What temporary advantage, physical and psychological, he’d had over the Fox disappeared the moment he tripped. In the few seconds of confusion and distraction, albeit joyous, the Fox regained his lost ground. With a strangled cry he launched himself at the two men in their involuntary clinch.
Vince sensed rather than saw him coming. And with a natural talent for self-preservation which the few hours in the garbage cavern had honed to a high degree, and which at that moment overwhelmed even his concern for Howard, he jackknifed his body away from his friend and, still with the flask upright, rolled over and over out of the Fox’s reach.
But the Fox wasn’t to be deprived.
Vince leapt up again, flask intact, only to be confronted by what now seemed a recurring nightmare. The Fox was back, crouched over Howard, whom he now cradled against his chest. One foreleg was across Howard’s torso, the other was brushing against Howard’s neck. The needles dragged on his throat. Howard was half sitting, half lying, against his captor, a slightly bemused look on his bloody face, but by no means discontent, it appeared.
“Hey, Vince! You’re over there now! How did you do that?”
“Howard… Howard, don’t move! Whatever you do, don’t move…”
Vince’s brain cell was crying out in an agony of confusion and nothing was getting through. Only a buzzing in his ears like radio static, which was now being drowned out by the jubilant cackle of the Fox.
“Well now, Princey Vincey, see what I got here? I got what you want, Princey… What we gonna do about that?”
He stroked the needles across Howard’s windpipe, round to his jugular. Howard’s eyes rolled, attempting to focus on what was happening. The carefree expression on his face barely altered, however.
The Fox grinned again, saliva glinting on his canines. Then he shifted slightly, moving his rump around to the side. Vince saw the ratty brush start to rise. He flung out his arm again and tipped the flask recklessly. There was a glittering splash on the floor of the cavern.
“None of that arsey stuff, Fox! The moment I get one whiff, this bottle’s hitting the floor, all right? What good would that do ya, eh?”
The Fox’s grin subsided with his tail. His eyes were red slits now, glowing with hate.
“No arse, no needles!” continued Vince. “You make one false move and the juice is gone, you mangey ball-bag!”
Vince was startled out of his concentration again by the familiar voice, with its unfamiliarly happy inflection.
“Hey, Vince, how’re you doing up there? Coming back here?” Howard’s eyes shifted confusedly again. “Only I seem to be a bit stuck. Could do with some help, little man…”
Vince didn’t dare break his stare with the Fox.
“Howard, just relax. You’ve had a knock on the head. You’ve got percussion. Don’t move, all right? I’ll be there in a mo…”
The Fox was giggling again, and underneath the giggling, a growl was building, too.
“Yeah, ladyman? Yo’ coming here? Got a needle for you, too…
“Gonna hurt you real bad…”
Vince stood stock still, breathing heavily, thoughts racing. He willed his voice to be calm.
“You want to trade?”
The Fox tipped his head, still stroking the needles back and forth.
“Could do, ladyman. Could do… What you got for me?”
“You give me Howard. Alive, okay? Unhurt, okay? You give me him, I’ll give you the juice.”
The Fox shuffled excitedly, his giggles now interspersed equally with growls.
“Yeah, maybe we can…”
Maybe ‘cos I want a li’l bit mo’ now, pretty ladyboy, pretty Vincey…”
They stared at each other defiantly.
“Shaddup, Howard! I’m busy!”
“Ah, Vince… I think you should know. I think the Crack Fox….
“Yeah, Howard, I know that…”
“I think the Crack Fox is here somewhere….”
Vince sighed in exasperation.
Howard shifted a little. And looked upwards to see the Fox’s teeth grinning down at him.
“Ah. Oh. Vince….!“
“Howard! Just be quiet! Don’t panic!”
“Vince! I think he’s here with me!“
“Yes, Howard! I know that! Now let me think!”
Vince’s exasperated confusion, endlessly entertaining for the Fox, started to register in Howard’s consciousness.
“Vince, are you all right?”
“Howard! Please! You are being held hostage. Again. You move and the Fox will kill you. Just stay still. I’m gonna get you back. Just… just let me think…”
A pause. Howard’s eyes, the only part of his body he could safely move, swivelled nervously, trying to get a bead on the Fox.
Vince looked at him hopelessly. Poor, addled Howard, with his earnest, alarmed face, and his brown eyes unusually large and dark in the weak light.
Suddenly, those eyes held his gaze.
“Vince, there’s something I need to tell you.”
“C’mon, Princey! We makin’ a deal or am I jes’ gonna needle him to death right now?”
“Howard, this has to wait!” He dragged his eyes back to the Fox.
“Whaddaya want, then?”
The Fox’s leer was even more repulsive than before. He bundled Howard closer to him, needles ready to strike. Howard looked flustered for a moment, but allowed himself to be manhandled. His awareness of his own peril seemed to be increasing. Vince saw his hand reach out hesitantly for something, and then fall back again.
The Fox giggled triumphantly from his new vantage point.
“See that pile in the corner yonder?” He gestured with one paw. “Go get what’s on top.”
Vince looked quickly towards the pile, then brought his eyes back to the Fox and without breaking his gaze, walked slowly backwards towards the pile of rubbish, the flask still outstretched before him like a talisman.
“Vince, this is difficult for me…” continued Howard, daring to wriggle upright a little more. Vince wished desperately he would just keep quiet. Did Howard think he was helping calm the situation? It was as distracting as hell….
The Fox, eyes fixed on Vince, didn’t seem to notice.
Vince groped at the top of the rubbish pile, and lifted a piece of fabric.
“Tha’s right, Vincey! Tha’s the one. You bring it back here…”
“… but I feel I need to say it.” Howard was still talking, his voice strained with the effort of keeping calm. He now seemed to be fully focused on the drama playing out in the cavern.
Vince walked slowly back towards them. In the patch of moonlight, the swathe of material in his hand showed red, and it sparkled a little.
“Been savin’ this for a real important guest…” The Fox’s voice was breathless with pent-up excitement.
Vince let the fabric slip to the ground.
It was a dress. A little red dress.
Vince glanced at it, and his breath caught in his throat. He looked up again, direct at Howard.
Friend looked at friend. A lifetime flashed between them; a lifetime past, maybe a lifetime to come.
Now all Vince wanted was to hear what Howard had been trying to tell him.
“Yeah? So what was it you were going say, y’jazzy freak?” His voice was unnaturally calm.
Howard, suddenly put on the spot, found his words elusive. He chased them round his brain. They were the ones he’d first said to Vince in similar peril in the tundra years ago. He’d stored them up for another desperate time when saying them would be excusable, acceptable – not a reason for laughter. Surely this moment fell into that category?
But even as he opened his mouth he was filled with the dreadful knowledge that the wrong things were going to come out. The crack on the skull was playing a part, surely, but some other part of Howard’s psyche was going to get in first, and he couldn’t have retracted even if he’d tried.
“Just that… I mean… what I wanted to say, to tell you, is… well…. er….”
Come on, Howard, concentrate! Deep breath…
“You have a really gorgeous arse.”
Oh no. Those were definitely not the words he’d intended to say. Where the hell did they come from?
It was difficult to tell who out of the three looked the most surprised by that statement. Vince’s eyes widened to maximum aperture. Knock on the head or no, this was an unexpected, if in truth completely welcome, departure for Howard. The man himself looked shocked to the core. The Fox just looked bemused.
Then Vince’s mouth began to twitch. And Howard’s eyes started to crinkle.
“Actually, er, your arse is… ah… not the only gorgeous thing about you, you know.” He hesitated, perhaps losing the confidence to continue, now this strangely liberating banter was underway, but Vince’s broadening smile pulled him through.
“There’s quite a lot of you that’s… er… exceptionally nice, Vince Noir.” He looked sheepish again. “I just thought that, in the circumstances, I’d better say it. Just in case. You know…” He tailed off.
Vince shook his head slowly, still grinning, “Howard Moon, you pick your times, you really do. But yeah, thanks.”
A pause. A flirty wink.
“And you’re not bad yourself, y’know.”
Now Howard was smiling, too.
The Fox raised his needle paw and slammed it down hard on Howard’s chest. Both men jumped and yelped, though Howard with probably more justification.
“Yo’ listenin’ to me, ladyboy? That dress is fo’ you. You put on that dress…”
The same word, the same appalled voice, from both Howard and Vince.
“Or Ah’m a’keepin’ your binman…
“Gonna keep him here for me!”
Whatever debonair bravado their little private fantasy had lent Howard in the past moments, it crumpled in an instant. Clear panic was in his face as he looked from Vince to the dress and then squinted at the Fox, and then back to Vince again.
In contrast, his friend coolly picked up the dress and held it aloft, appraising it with exaggerated care.
“Not really my style. Colour’s not me, neither…”
“Yo’ put it on or I’ll… I’ll…”
His breathing erratic, the Fox was having difficulty with his words.
“And then what?”
Saliva was starting to drip from the Fox’s muzzle onto Howard’s chest, this clearly not improving the latter’s state of mind.
“Cracky Fox’ll do what he promise. Give him back if you give me juice.
“But you gotta please me first.”
“‘Please you’?” The cool demeanour faltered. Vince’s eyes flashed nervously to Howard, silently begging for a plan. Howard’s aghast expression did not fill him with confidence that any kind of plan was likely to be brewing soon.
“Yo’ put on that dress, ah’ll tell you how t’please me…”
But then the knots in Howard’s tongue unravelled. Past experience told him that it was time to beg for his life, whilst weeping pathetically. But once again, on that same night, he found himself saying clearly what was in his heart.
“Vince. Go. Now. Put that thing down. Take the juice and go…”
The Fox jabbed at him with the needles, threatening. Vince held up his hand in entreaty.
“No! Don’t hurt him! Howard, you don’t know what you’re saying… you know I got to rescue you. You got to panic, I got to rescue you. That’s way it works…”
Howard cut across him. His own words still surprised him, but he wasn’t going to stop.
“Take the juice and go! Find Naboo. Find the Board. Just get out of here!”
He was clearly struggling to keep his voice even.
“You can get away… Please! Go!”
It’s that percussion again, thought Vince. This isn’t normal Howard. He peered at his friend. He could see sheer self-interested terror, predictably, if fleetingly, in Howard’s face. But there was something else, too. And it wasn’t that stubborn, slightly constipated look he’d usually get when giving rein to his Spartacus complex. No, this was different, this was something akin to nobility, and the unusual conviction in his friend’s voice was shaking Vince’s resolve. He braced himself.
“I’m not gonna go and leave you, Howard. No way. Don’t be an idiot.”
“We got a deal, ladyboy?”
Vince bit his lip and turned his gaze from Howard to the Fox.
“Yeah, we got a deal.”
Howard gave a small, smothered cry of pain and frustration.
Vince placed the flask carefully on the ground, to one side but close enough for him to kick at with his boot should the situation change. He could see the Fox register that point. He stood in the centre of the cavern, facing his adversary. But his eyes were on Howard now.
Slowly, slowly, he began to undo the buttons on the black shirt.
The Moon was close to disappearing from view, but beams were still striking the floor obliquely. Vince stood as if on a floodlit stage, disrobing for his audience of two, both of whom were trembling; Howard with anxiety, the Fox for a different reason.
The moonlight caught Vince’s face in an eerie glow, the shadows on his face dark and defining, his pale skin all the more ethereal as he peeled the shirt off his shoulders and dropped it to the ground. He could see the Fox shaking and drooling now, and he raised an eyebrow sardonically (a trick, and a word, he’d learned from Howard).
“That pleasing you, Foxy?”
“Vince, please… don’t do this…” Howard’s voice sounded faint and far away.
The Fox just growled.
“Crack Fox wan’ more!”
How he removed the black skinnies with such elegance was to remain one of the mysteries of that night and one of the legends that might well have arisen in time. He crouched to unzip his boots, and then straightened up again, teasing his fly button. The Fox’s panting was hoarse and uncontrolled. Vince’s gaze never left Howard, who stared back transfixed, the Fox’s embrace forgotten.
Vince slid the jeans down his legs, long white thighs glowing in the moonlight. First one well-shaped leg, then the other emerged from the denim. He tossed the garment aside and deliberately slipped on the boots again. His wardrobe had come full circle; he stood before Howard once again in blue Y-fronts and silver stack heels, and smiled at him. The old smile – warm, genuine – for the friend who now stared back in bewildered fascination.
And then Howard spoke again. It would have been unthinkable only a day before, but so many fears and cautions seemed to have been left behind in his plastic cocoon. He breathed the words, really. They were the same words that had filled his head the previous night.
Vince looked at him for a long moment, breathing deeply, but he didn’t reply. He just bent to retrieve the dress and slipped it quickly on over his head. It was a filthy travesty of a garment. Vince’s skin was as evident through its gauzy fabric as it was through the many rents and tears. It hung loose from his shoulders down across his chest and barely reached mid-thigh. A long stripe of dirty tinsel ran diagonally from one shoulder towards the hem.
Vince, like this, stirred Howard in ways he couldn’t, didn’t dare contemplate. His heart bled for the vulnerability of his friend, in this perverted freak-show, playing out whatever god-awful, useless plan his untried brain-cell had provided him, all because Howard Moon had failed him, yet again. And it swelled with pride at the strength and resolve he saw in Vince at that same moment; at the defiance that now took the place of the habitual flippancy on that crazily-angled, uniquely engaging face.
And that heart of his was filled with wonder at the beauty, undoubtedly masculine despite the attire, that stood before him – undeniably disturbing; undeniably desirable.
But most of all it stirred him to make his last attempt at self-sacrifice.
“Vince, please, stop this! Please! Just go… Go now while you can…”
The man in the dress simply smiled; a gentle, knowing smile.
“Nah, Howard. Don’t you worry. He’s nothing to be afraid of, that Fox.”
The Fox hissed in reply, jerked out of his burlesque-induced trance. Vince carried on speaking, calmly, patiently, as if to a child.
“You gotta realise, Howard. He’s nothing. He’s just something that gets in the way. Always gets in the way and stops you doing what’s right, doing what you really want. He’s got in the way of us. Time for that to change, for things to be fixed.”
Howard just looked perplexed.
“Don’t worry, I’ll explain it all later. The main thing is, don’t be frightened of him. He doesn’t matter to us.” The smile broadened again. “Not anymore. ‘Cos we’re a team, you an’ me.”
Howard opened his mouth and shut it again. By rights, he should have been feeling way out of his depth, abject terror running a close second. But when Vince talked to him like that, it felt like things could never go wrong ever again.
“So, Foxy,” said the man in the dress. “Am I pleasing you? Whaddaya want now?” And before the Fox could answer, he was speaking again.
“How about I dance for you?”
And he looked straight at Howard.
Oh. Yes. Right.
The Fox didn’t appear to notice the glance. He barely seemed to register the flask of shaman juice anymore. Though the needle hand kept a decided focus on his captive.
“Oh yeah, you can dance fo’ ol’ Cracky Fox…” The eyes were glazed, the words sibilant, the tongue emerging and lapping at foul lips.
“You can dance. Nice and slow. Slow an’…”
And Vince started to dance. He started to make Jazz Moves.
The graceful steps, the fluid gestures, the lovely shapes that Vince drew in the fetid air of the cavern – they captivated Howard once again, despite his predicament. The Fox was captivated in an entirely different way. Tongue now lolling, he made no effort to control his drooling as he watched Vince approach sinuously across the cavern floor. Howard squirmed in disgust as the Fox pressed and rubbed against him in his growing excitement. And his heart faltered as he dared to think what the Fox’s own plans might be.
But one thought began to overwhelm even that horror.
It’s like my dream, my hallucination. He danced for me in my dream…
Night Heron, Sunray, Trumpet Solo…..
Vince, his face a picture of fierce concentration, locked eyes with Howard and danced on through the familiar moves, his gaze never leaving his friend.
Savage Meerkat, Augmented Fourth, Artistic Squid……
Closer and closer. He could hear the rasp of the gauzy fabric against Vince’s skin, despite the hideous panting of the Fox. He could see Vince’s body moving within the red tatters; the rise of his chest, the pattern of his ribcage, the curve of his arse and the sudden sharpness that was his pelvis. The sight filled him with an unbearable longing to reach out and touch, and hold, and feel. And Vince looked at him as if he understood every single one of Howard’s thoughts; understood and reciprocated.
Formative Trombone, Oblivious Duck, Northern Kestrel…..
Vince was running out of space and the Moves were almost over. The Fox was pulling himself upright against Howard, the needles still a first line of both defence and attack.
“You never seen Vince Noir dance, Foxy… You don’t know how lucky you are…”
Vince shimmied, and let the scrap of material at his neck slip off one shoulder. He breathed deliberately at the Fox, a long, sultry sigh.
“This is my special dance…”
The Fox was now growling and whimpering at the same time, completely distracted. Vince batted his eyelashes at him, his eyes flicking quickly towards Howard. And then he was curling, down, down towards the floor, curving his spine. It was Throbbing Satsuma. Howard braced himself.
The force and dexterity of Vince’s very own version of Electro Explosion astounded Howard, let alone the Fox. It was a moonlit blur of legs and arms. Howard could hardly begrudge the fact that one of those legs caught him painfully on the hip when he saw the obvious backhand that smacked the Fox hard across the muzzle and, in the next instant, the silver boot that skillfully (or maybe luckily, he wasn’t going to over-analyse) caught the needle hand and knocked it wide, away from Howard’s neck. The next boot caught the stunned Fox in the midriff, and sent him flying through the air, his screams and curses cut short as he hit the bin-bag wall of the cavern and slithered to the floor.
“C’mon, Howard! Let’s go!”
Vince grabbed Howard’s upper arm with both hands and hauled him bodily to his feet. Then seized his hand, a look of complete delight in his eyes.
As a plan, it had started well, but went downhill very rapidly. The first problem was, which way to run?
Hand in hand, one man in his underwear, the other in a dress, they bolted from the cavern into a black corridor, only to find it a bin-bag cul de sac. Back, back and down another, only to realise it led to Howard’s former prison. Another frantic dash in a much more promising direction and suddenly Vince was careering in reverse again, dragging on Howard’s arm.
“The juice! The juice! I’ve forgotten the juice!
As he grabbed it from the floor of the cavern, ramming in the stopper, they could already hear snuffling and cursing and shuffling from the shadows. Somehow, not being able to see the Fox, but knowing he was only feet away and ready to move again, terrified Howard more than all the previous encounters.
And with good reason. The Fox was chanting, calling; summoning up the last of his powers with the last of his strength. And his bin-bag bitches were heeding him. In ones, two, and then in increasing numbers, the bags started to collapse inwards, falling from the walls, filling the cavern, filling the passageways. The dump was imploding; a final show of power, a final chance to prevent their escape.
With bags raining on them from every side, blocking them, dragging at their arms and legs, they ran on into total blackness, hearing only the slap of Howard’s bare feet and the thud of Vince’s boots, their pounding hearts and panicked breathing.
“C’mon! C’mon! C’mon…!”
Howard didn’t really need encouragement, but Vince’s constant muttering and the pressure of his hand were welcome comfort. His heart was filled with dread – was this another dead end? Were they too late, the rubbish already blocking their route and about to crush them forever?
But Vince was calling excitedly from in front.
“Light, Howard! I can see light!”
They forced their way between the collapsing walls, now on their knees. Howard lost his grip on Vince’s hand and flailed to find it again.
Vince was gone. Alone in the darkness, more and more bin-bags now collapsing onto him, Howard felt the claustrophobia of his imprisonment rise up in his chest. He couldn’t suppress a whimper. This was it, he was going under…
Then something grabbed his wrist, making him yelp, and he was pulled bodily through the wall of bags to tumble out onto hard-packed earth, the night sky above him, the Moon scatting absently, air fresh and cool (comparatively, anyway) on his cheek. And Vince lay spread-eagled on the ground next to him, wide-eyed and whooping, his hand still holding fast to Howard’s.
He was the first to rise too, pulling Howard to his feet.
They stood still, eyes fixed on the garbage from whence they had just scrambled. There was a distant rumble from far beneath the black plastic mound, and then the hill of bags collapsed inwards, as if sucked in to fill a sudden vacuum. And then silence, with just the soft patter of shifting pebbles and earth as the rearranged landscape settled down into its new order.
And the Fox was underneath it all.
“Howard! We’re free! Genius!”
Howard was pulled into a tight hug, and he did nothing to protest. But after a warm, happy moment basking in the sensation of being in Vince’s arms, he felt obliged to bring them back to reality, or a version of it, at least.
“Ah, well, we’re not exactly free, Vince…”
Vince looked around him. They were in a large canyon with steep, sloping walls of rubbish-bags, masonry, hard-core and twisted metal. It was about twenty yards across. The dry earth underfoot was rutted with the tracks of heavy machinery. It must have been where waste was piled and sorted before further disposal. But it seemed endless. They looked around them at the towering moonlit walls, topped off with the deep velvet of the Moon’s stamping ground, and then right and left at the canyon floor stretching out into darkness in each direction. They looked back at the place where they had emerged, now completely blocked with fallen bags.
And they looked at each other.
“Okay, not free, maybe, but at least someone will find us now? Yeah? Tomorrow, when they come to work?”
Howard gazed benevolently at the vision in front of him, one silver boot crossed over the other, tattered dress, eyes wide, hopeful, enthusiastic. He considered the ignominy of discovery in their current state of deshabille by his ex-colleagues, the burly binmen running the site, and he realized that he didn’t give a damn.
“Yeah, that’s right, Vince. Tomorrow….”
Vince squinted at him.
“Let me look at your head…”
Howard had forgotten his wound. He ducked down and let Vince’s gentle fingers explore his scalp. And couldn’t help flinching as they touched raw and bruised skin.
“Can’t quite see, but it’s not like your brains are coming out or anything…”
“Well, thanks for that, Vince…”
“… you just look a bit… odd, with that stuff on your face.”
“I think it’s called blood….”
“Well, it’s too dark for anyone but me to see, so don’t worry about it, yeah?”
“And that’s your considered medical opinion…?” Howard felt his mouth twitch as a smile tried to get out.
Irony was lost on Vince. He held out his hand.
“Shall we walk someplace?”
Howard looked up and down the canyon.
“Toss a coin?” he grinned, relaxed now and full of contentment, despite their current situation.
“Let’s go this way.” He hauled on Howard’s arm again, like a child tugging its parent to the fairground, his body leaning to indicate the proposed direction.
“There’s more sky this way.”
Not a bad way to decide, mused Howard. And without really thinking about it, he threaded his fingers through Vince’s and they walked down the moonlit canyon, with darkly-shadowed gothic arches of twisted steel and rubble looming over them, the massed bags in the lower reaches gleaming dully. It was a curiously dream-like sensation, walking towards nowhere in this strange, silent environment, and with this companion. But, he reflected, his dreams weren’t that much more unusual than his waking life – though perhaps to date with one notable exception….
And it all suddenly became clear. Wherever he was, wherever he was going, he needed to be with Vince. All these last days, these last hours, all his intense feelings of loss and grief, all his joy and delight, all his sense of who he was in the world – they all had Vince at their core. If he had never before tried to imagine life without Vince, the hours of fear and despair in the cavern had shown him what the reality would be like. His heart had always counted on Vince being there. But now he knew he could never survive Vince not being there.
And what was the other side of the coin? What had he contributed whilst tied up in his plastic cocoon, or allowing himself to lie helpless at the feet of a talking animal with anger management issues? What had he offered Vince? What could he offer? He was appalled at his own inadequacy.
Lost in familiar Howard Moon self-flagellation, insecurities and fears, mentally applying Chinese burns, his body tensed up. Vince could detect the change of mood. He pulled in closer, linking arms, squeezing.
“All right, Howard?”
Howard Moon, you’re a Man of Action! Bloody act now! For once in your life…
Howard stopped dead, pulled his arm away and grabbed Vince by the shoulders, spinning him round so they faced each other. Vince gaped at him, eyes wide. But after that sudden flurry of decisiveness, Howard seemed at a loss for what to do next. Biting his lip, he absently rubbed Vince’s shoulders with his thumbs, little circles on the skin, feeling the hard muscle underneath.
It came out all in a rush.
“You saved me, Vince. You saved my life. Thank you.”
“‘S’all right, Howard! Goes with the territory….”
Howard shook him gently, resolve building.
“No, listen to me. You save me. Every single moment of every single day…”
“Howard, not even you get into trouble that much…”
“You save me from me. You make me… whole. Better. Better than I am. I’ve always known it, and at the same time I’ve never known it, until now. Do you understand?”
There was a desperation to his tone. Vince knew instinctively that this was important stuff here – for Howard, for himself – and gave him a confident smile. And then an apologetic grimace.
“You want to run that by me again, maybe?”
Howard was on that ridiculous cusp between laughing and crying. His chest and throat hurt. The heat from his friend’s skin beneath his fingertips was searing into his heart. He wanted to pull him closer and hold him again, like in the cavern.
He wanted… he wanted…
Vince was frowning at him, clearly perturbed. And Howard felt all the words that were crowding around waiting to be said fall back in a hopeless jumble. He tried to make sense.
“You. I don’t want to be without you. I can’t be without you. And I don’t know what to do.”
Vince’s perplexed face broke into a glorious smile.
“Oh, Howard…” He looped his arms around Howard’s neck in a tight, reassuring hug. Howard felt the incongruous chill of the flask on his bare shoulder. Then Vince pulled back with a grin, all the mysteries of life clearly solved as far as he was concerned.
“Howard, don’t you realise it works both ways? You save me and I save you. It happens all the time, and it isn’t gonna stop now!”
It was a pretty basic statement of their normal lives, to be honest, but nonetheless Howard felt relief and a sense of security at the words. He closed his eyes, felt the warmth of Vince’s breath on his cheek, and tried to ignore the aroma of cleaning materials and Indian takeaway that seemed to linger around the other man. He allowed his arms to circle Vince’s back, returning the gesture of reassurance, feeling his friend’s strong, resilient frame, the rough, gauzy shreds of the dress, the slimy touch of rotten lace and tinsel…
He jumped back, pushing Vince away. Vince almost dropped the flask.
“Howard, what the fuck…?”
Howard raised his hands, palms out.
“Take it off, Vince! Take it off! Why are you still wearing it? It’s evil! Can’t you feel it? Take it off!”
Vince looked down at his clothing, and then made a pained face. He put down the flask and pulled at the hem of the dress, shaking it lightly.
“C’mon, Howard! It’s an old dress! What’re you on about?”
With more hate and fear than he’d thought he’d ever feel again, Howard dragged Vince towards him, grabbed the material at the shoulders and wrenched it off his friend. Vince almost toppled over, stumbling against him as the material was ripped from his body. It seemed to cling…. it stung. He yelped in pain.
And suddenly it was gone, thrown into the shadows. Vince was staring in fright. Howard was in front of him again, breathing hard.
“Just evil,” he repeated.
Vince rubbed at the weals on his arms and shoulders. His shocked face slowly relaxed into a grin, albeit a bit shaky still.
“See?” he said. “See, you save me and I save you. Team work! That’s not gonna change, Howard.” He put out a hand and squeezed Howard’s forearm. Howard froze, his eyes suddenly staring out into the darkness.
Vince’s grin widened encouragingly.
“Oh, come on, you spanner! You’re not gonna say ‘Don’t touch me!’ now, are you? Not after all we’ve been through tonight?”
He tugged on Howard’s arm. But Howard’s face was turned away, his whole body tense.
“Relax, Howard! It’s all okay! I told you things needed fixing and we’ve fixed them now. Everything’s….”
He tailed off, following Howard’s frightened stare. From way down the canyon, there was the revving of an engine, and headlights suddenly pierced the darkness. Howard looked at Vince with such open dismay that the other felt obliged to try for a positive spin.
There was the squealing of tyres as a vehicle leapt into life and powered down the canyon towards them.
Neither of them bothered to say the word this time.
They ran. Nightmare or reality, it was all one to Howard now. He was exhausted, but he still ran on, towards Vince’s chosen direction of ‘more sky’, inaccessible walls on each side. It was now his turn to lead, dragging Vince along, his friend obsessed with turning back to check the progress of the headlights. Howard didn’t need to turn round. The lights were getting brighter and brighter, and the engine louder. He had no doubts as to who would be in the driving seat.
The end of the canyon was in sight, headlights illuminating their goal – a chain-link fence, tall and unscaleable, topped off with razor-wire, to deter all those with a predilection for stealing rubbish, presumably.
And to stop the trapped from climbing out….
Lacking any alternatives, they ran directly into the fence until it stopped them bodily. They bounced back into each other’s arms, eyes fixed on the vehicle bearing down on them. Howard raised a hand to shield his eyes from the glare; Vince simply buried his face in Howard’s chest. They were trapped in the circle of light as the vehicle sped towards them. The noise was overwhelming. Howard clutched Vince to him and held on tight, placing himself in front of his friend as if that would somehow make a difference. A small, otherwise unpanicked part of his brain registered relief that his final thought would be one of nobility, not “now I know how rabbits feel.”
There was a screech of brakes and they were showered with dust and earth as the vehicle – it was a dumper truck – slewed to a halt yards away from them. The motor still throbbed menacingly.
The headlights dipped. Howard looked up, hoping against hope that a late-working binman would be gazing down at him.
Of course not.
It was the Fox.
There was a crutch wedged on the brake, another teasing the throttle. The Fox himself was balanced on the steering wheel. Difficult to see against the strong light, nevertheless he looked dirtier, bloodier, even more tattered than before. And more full of hate. His voice was pure growl.
“Can’t stop me now, got you now, you roadkill now….”
Howard drew himself up to face the Fox. His arms were still protecting Vince, but he felt Vince shift round, too, facing off their adversary. And in a hopeless situation, there really was nothing for it but pointless bravado. The time for panic was over. This might be the end of things for Howard Moon, but Vince was there with him, twined around him like an exotic plant around an English oak – a strange and thrilling biodiversity. What more did he need?
“You’ve got no-one, Fox! And we’ve got each other! So who wins, eh? Eh?”
The Fox, panting, considered for a moment.
“Cracky Fox wins, dickbrain…”
But Howard wasn’t to be deflected.
“Vince said you destroy things, pervert them, ruin them. Well, we’ve had enough of that. We’re stronger than you…”
He turned and looked down to see Vince staring at him with a mixture of wonder, reverence and just plain bewilderment. He cupped his hands around his friend’s jaw and pressed their lips together, opening his mouth, feeling Vince’s open in turn. Everything he felt, everything he had wanted to say to Vince that he’d never had time for, and now never would have time for, was poured into that kiss. He heard Vince whimper into his mouth, felt hands tangle in his hair, and the flask hit him yet again, this time on the ear.
The headlights blazed full on again and the motor revved. Howard broke the kiss, but dragged his friend into an even tighter embrace, one armed looped around his neck. Vince’s eyes were shining.
He yelled defiantly at the roaring engine.
“See? See what we’ve got? What’s more powerful than that?”
The growl was audible even above the engine noise.
“Crack Fox’s truck…”
Howard shut his eyes, squeezing the lids tight, holding onto his friend, hearing Vince repeat his name again and again and again and again, as if it were a protective charm. He heard the throttle kick in.
Something came past them like a rush of woodland air. Bracken and leaf-mould and musk; the brush of warm fur, the scuffling of claws. Something knocked them both sideways and they were suddenly sprawling on the ground as the dumper truck lunged forward and hit the fence just where they had been standing. The motor died immediately.
Howard struggled up from where he had effectively been flattening Vince, who was rubbing his head and checking his flask with concern. And he jumped with shock as he saw a long red muzzle and amber eyes looking down at him
“Vince…!” The old terrified inflection was back in his voice.
Vince looked up and grinned with delight.
“Terence! Genius! Cheers, mate, we owe you one…”
Howard looked from fox to friend in amazement. And then at the other foxes gathered around – one in control of the dumper truck, the others holding tightly on to the Crack Fox, who was now encased in a bin-bag up to his neck.
“Basic procedure,” explained Terence. “Saves problems with the… you know…”
He made a pained face.
“… flatulence, and all that.”
Vince was still greeting the other foxes. “Alistair! All right, mate? Jonathan… Edward, good to see ya!”
Howard stared at the elegant dog fox before him, and then at his team.
“You’ve got… headbands on…” He tailed off uncertainly.
Terence bared brilliant white canines. Howard hoped fervently it was a friendly smile.
“Well, Vince suggested – very sensibly, I might add – that we undertake some community action against lowlife like this Crack Fox individual here…” He gestured dismissively at the new captive, who was still wriggling and spitting, but helpless in his bag. Howard felt his eyes cross slightly with the effort of keeping a grip on what passed for reality around here. It wasn’t just the talking foxes – but Vince’s sensible ideas…
“So we thought,” continued Terence “ that a little branding might go down well. Ninja foxes, y’see? Could catch on. We’re very hopeful. Aiming for an interview with the Gazette next week.”
He flicked his claws.
“Now, must be off. Got to dispose of this miscreant, etcetera, etcetera. Simply loads of paperwork…”
Vince shouldered back into Howard’s orbit, arms snaking around his waist.
“What’s gonna happen to him – that Fox?” There seemed to be a note of concern in his voice. Howard couldn’t quite work out whether it was for them or for their old enemy.
“Oh, rehab, I should think…”
“Rehab?” spluttered Howard.
“Oh, certainly at first. That Crack Fox has serious problems to sort out. Good heavens, we aren’t humans, we do have standards….”
“But… will he… come back..?” Vince’s voice was now getting smaller. If there had been any charitable concern there for the Crack Fox, it had quickly disappeared.
Terence gave a toothy, but not entirely convincing, grin.
“Well, after rehab, it’s the secure wing of the appropriate correctional facility, if we’re following Government guidelines….” He saw their expressions. “Don’t worry, chaps! The Prison for Animal Offenders is much better run than it used to be” He looked around at the dump. “Which is more than I can say for this place. Honestly, have you people never heard of recycling?”
Then he flipped one paw in a casual gesture which was nevertheless loaded with disapproval.
“Oh, and whilst we’re talking about standards, might I suggest perhaps a modicum of clothing? And the tiniest bit of self-restraint in public, you chaps? No need to be quite so blatant about it all, you know…”
His voice tailed off, musing more to himself than addressing Howard and Vince.
“Really, I don’t know, everywhere we look nowadays… young people, and…” His eyes flicked back to give them a hard look, “… those old enough to know better…”
He gave an exasperated sigh.
“No wonder the country’s going to pot…”
Vince glanced at Howard in quiet amusement, rolling his eyes.
“That Terence!” he muttered. “Bet he reads the Telegraph!”
But Howard was just looking perplexed.
“Vince,” he whispered out of the corner of his mouth, “What does he mean, ‘blatant’?”
Then Terence shook himself out of his somewhat reactionary reverie. His fur rippled.
“Now, must fly. Catch you later. Toodleloo. All right, team? Off we trot…”
And in a flurry of red-gold fur and white-tipped tails they were gone.
Leaving Howard and Vince still on the wrong side of the fence.
“So…” said Vince.
“So…” said Howard.
Vince twisted a lock of black hair around his finger.
“So, it’s finally over…”
“Yep, everything’s back to normal, little man.”
They looked at each other, eyes catching eyes. Vince reached out and brushed a hand down Howard’s forearm.
“Maybe not quite the same as before, though?”
The hand continued to stroke over Howard’s arm, absently. Howard blushed a little, averting his gaze. Vince pressed on, regardless.
“You okay with that, Howard?”
It was so very tempting to duck away from the question, but Howard made himself think for a moment. He looked at his friend, seeing that familiar smile of reassuring, boundless confidence in life, and was pretty sure he knew what the other was thinking, too.
Quietly, unconsciously, each was registering how they had changed over their life together, and yet had not changed. Had remained the same, despite those carefully constructed identities they had each adopted for protection but which in the end had served only to conceal and confuse. Those disguises were gone. They stood as themselves; skin with skin, friend with friend, heart with heart. No longer boys, but men. And they were young again.
And Howard knew what his answer was.
“Yes. Okay. Very okay…”
Vince’s answering smile told him everything.
“Oh, I forgot…”
Howard was fumbling, then took hold of Vince’s hand. Vince felt something slip onto his finger. He held his hand up to the moonlight. And blinked.
“A ring? A ring? Howard… you got me a ring…?”
“But how could you… I mean, we never… I mean, we haven’t…”
He looked at Howard in amazement.
“I mean, we haven’t even kissed, not properly…”
“And I didn’t… I mean, I did, I do… but I didn’t expect…”
Vince stopped short, still open-mouthed.
“Vince, it’s your own ring! I just found it back in the bin-bag place…”
Vince’s face visibly fell. He looked down at the amber ring and twisted it on his finger, blushing at his own foolishness.
“Yeah, ‘course. Thanks, Howard….” A pause. “Where were you even keeping it?”
Howard coughed lightly and looked away.
“You don’t really want to know that, Vince.”
Then he turned back, frowning.
“Hang on, what exactly do you mean – ‘we haven’t kissed properly’? What was that, sir?” He gestured wildly to the air, a proxy for their last clinch. “And underground? And… er… that time on the roof…? Are you implying Howard Moon is substandard in the kissing department, sir?”
Vince was bouncing up and down now, hands on Howard’s shoulders.
“Don’t be a plum! I mean kisses like we have time! Like we’re not in fear for our lives, like it’s not some “thank god it’s all right” sort of moment, like when you realized your Auntie Margery hadn’t been crushed by that giant bakewell tart after all…”
“I can assure you, Vince, I never kissed my Auntie Margery like that!”
“I should hope not,” Vince winked, grinning, “otherwise I should have to have words with her!”
Howard tutted and deliberately removed Vince’s hands from his shoulders, but Vince just kept on grinning. It was a special grin of triumph.
Somewhere above the Moon was wittering quietly.
“And I telephone they… them Council and I say… ‘Ah’m the Moooon. When you comin’ to take ma bin?’ and them, the Council, they say ‘Your bin in outaspace, we don’ collect no bins in outaspace,’ and I say ‘Ah’m the Mooooon, and tha’s why I don’ pay no freakin’ Council Tax….’”
“We need to go home. Finish fixing this,” said Vince softly.
“I’m not too sure what needed fixing, really. A little readjustment, if anything. But I’ll play along…”
Vince sighed happily.
“After all,” continued Howard, “Naboo’s been on about that kitchen lino for ages…”
A snort of mock indignation, and Vince was about to launch himself at the grinning Howard when a blanket hit him in the back of the neck, sending him reeling into his friend anyway. He turned to see a carpet hovering, Bollo the pilot and Naboo cross-legged on it, holding a flask of shaman juice.
“Oh, great,” said the shaman flatly, gesturing to Vince’s flask on the ground. “So you didn’t need me to get this anyway, yeah…?”
“Vince put on blanket. Bollo no want Vince arrested for indecency…”
Vince and the gorilla exchanged a long look.
“… or get a chill. Put on blanket.”
Vince’s smile was like Christmas Day.
“Don’t I get one, then?” came a plaintive voice beside him.
“You can share mine, Howard…”
“Come on, you ball-bags! We haven’t got all night!”
“‘S’ all right, Naboo, we’re coming!” He started dragging the still grinning Howard.
“Naboo… me and Howard, we’ve fixed things!”
“Not that bloody kitchen lino, you haven’t…”
Two steps further, and Vince stopped again to retrieve his flask, and presented it to Howard. Then he draped the blanket around his friend’s shoulders, looking up – a bit playfully, a bit shyly – as he fussed with its folds.
“Sorry it’s not a poncho, Howard…”
Howard took hold of one of his hands, stilling him for a moment.
“Oh, I’m happy enough, Vince…”
Blue eyes held brown.
“Oh, yes. Really.”
And it was.
End Notes: This story started as my own jokey little homage to the second Boosh live show, in that there are a few things slipped in that have relevance. In particular: in the earlier performances of the show, there was a Hitcher/Crack Fox interchange, where the Fox talked about a diet of “johnnies and mackerel”; the Fox’s spot has influenced some of his dialogue here; and the shop lighting in Vince’s dream is that of the show.
Beta’d by the amazing Themogwai.