I left Homeric Homes in a daze and—despite the weight of my iPad-and-laptop-containing knapsack—decided to have a stroll around New Iceland before I went back to the Friendly Campfire and, you know, faced anything. If I worked up an appetite (which still didn’t seem very likely unless Extreme Sport was rapidly introduced: bench-pressing Hayley’s car, perhaps, or jogging around town by leaping from one parking meter to the next. No, that would be boring, there were only about three parking meters in this town) I could put off the contents of my inboxes till after lunch. Or I could get lost. That was the easy option. Even if New Iceland was only about five blocks square I could probably fail to find my way to anywhere for at least an hour. Unfortunately all my tech had toggles that would pull in things like the contents of inboxes from the insubstantial air of anywhere. I could sit on the curb in a sad, hopeless, mislaid way and still read my agent wanting to know yesterday what I thought about the cover for the first Aldetruda omnibus or whether I liked this other unknown but ambitious artist enough to accept $1.79 for the rights to do a graphic novel of FLOWERHAIR THE RECKLESS. (Answer: Aldetruda was not a seven foot tall size two with a rubber fetish, and no. $2.79 at least.)
. . . I found myself involuntarily remembering how, when I went to conventions and things, Gelasio used to send me little silly email notes. Sometimes they just said things like ‘Miss you. Can’t you cut the panel on Shaping Your Stake for Maximum Penetration (!!!) and come home sooner?’ Sometimes they said things like: ‘Watch out! There’s a minotaur behind the chair, and he’s in a bad mood!’ and I’d look behind some chair or other in my hotel room and there’d be a vase of roses standing on the floor, or a package from Godiva. I wasn’t thinking about Gelasio, who was in San Diego with a floozie. A floozie with six PhDs from UCLA in various aspects of computer science I didn’t even know the names of. Maybe she was a size two and had a rubber fetish. Gelasio had always had a soft spot for Aldetruda.
I wasn’t thinking about Gelasio.
I hitched my knapsack farther up on my shoulders and rolled forward, letting the weight of it decide my direction (this method, frequently employed, might have something to do with my propensity for getting lost). I did the running-ahead-of-falling-over thing to the corner, swung right onto Chapel Road and stumbled to a halt. I didn’t want to get out of town—not only did I dislike the prospect of walking on ordinary lumpy ground rather than (relatively) flat pavement carrying seventy-two tons of knapsack, there were cows out there beyond the town limits. I was pretty sure I was even more afraid of cows than I was of crickets. No, I was safe. There were still shops on this street: a hairdresser, a florist, office supplies with optional kitschy greeting cards . . . oh. And a used bookstore. A used bookstore with a storefront and everything, where (presumably) you could go in and fondle the merchandise, and breathe the indescribable perfume of paper, silverfish and damp. MacFarquhar, make a note. Either New Iceland was the secret omphalos of old-fashioned booksters or the proprietor was mad and had an independent income. I’d check the possibilities later, preferably when I was not carrying seventy-two tons and four foot square of swingeing, bookshelf-destroying knapsack.
I did pause, however, resting The Knapsack on the sturdy metal top of a public trash bin, eyeing the storefront. USED BOOKS, the banner over the door said briefly. There was a sign on the door that was probably opening hours, unreadable at this distance. Probably ten to noon on alternate Tuesdays and 7 pm to 7 am every full moon. The still luridly bright paperbacks behind the sunny glass suggested at least regular front-window turnover.
I couldn’t be sure from here but I was trying to decide if I recognised a particularly unfortunate reissue of PRINCESS OF MARS which involved a lot of pink and orange, and (if I was right) a hero with well-defined musculature clearly indicating non-human genes, and a babe wearing some truly remarkable nipple protectors and not much else, when something else caught my eye. I turned my head. It was mostly houses on the other side of Chapel, punctuated by the occasional drugstore and a Thai take out. A low, but not all that low, trotting shadow was just disappearing down an alley, turning off behind a row of houses. I recognised that shadow. No I didn’t. MacFarquhar, don’t be any sillier than you have to be. I told myself this very firmly, to squash the absurd sense of disappointment: she lived in one of those houses. Nothing to do with me.
I hoisted up The Knapsack and went on.
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