We crept back to the Friendly Campfire, Merry and I, but there had been no blood loss nor even any shouting (by self or others) so I counted the experience a success. I hadn’t run into anything. And I might, with time, learn where Merry’s edges were. At the moment I was relying on farther than you think. No, farther than that. It was working so far. With time. Hmm. That sounded like a long-term commitment then. Serena hadn’t said anything about the purchase price.
We stopped again outside cabin seven and I looked somewhat queasily down on the van. The shopping cart had seemed really full when we had clattered out to Merry in the parking lot, but the mere several dozen bulging plastic bags were now cowering in one tiny corner of Merry’s vast back region. I needed to find out when the chosen shambling young man was coming to reclaim the van: if it was late enough tomorrow I might manage to unload directly at the house. Merry was certainly big enough, but all the t-shirt-and-underwear bags would blow away. I had a brief vision of a field of cows wearing t shirts that said things like IF I WANTED YOUR OPINION I WOULD READ YOUR ENTRAILS and GERBILCON 2008—the latter mildly infamous in the small world of SF&F cons for the official con mascot having got loose in the convention hall during my Guest of Honor speech. It was hard for both me and the audience to keep their minds on what I was saying while we were all breathlessly attending to the little ripple of reaction marking Ozzy’s progress around the room.
Anyway. I was fond of my t shirts. I did not want them decorating cows. (And my bikini underwear . . . we wouldn’t go there.) I creaked almost as much as the driver’s door as I lowered myself gradually back to ground level. I pulled out my phone and stared at it. I didn’t think I could face both several days’ of phone messages and the gratuitous wall art inside cabin seven, so I leaned against Merry’s warm hood, nodded to my rose bush, and pressed the salient button. Uggh. Blast and damnation, there was one—two—three from Mr Wolverine, my divorce lawyer. I’d already signed the papers—it was too late for the pound of flesh paragraph to be added in. Maybe Mr Diamond-Studded Shoelaces had noticed the missing rose-bush. I looked at her. Unlike her kidnapper, she was much more in context in a Manhattan penthouse garden. Too late for that too.
There was the one I was looking for, from Mr Screaming Skull, Esq, left this morning. “Heya,” it said. “How’s it going? The van’s great, right? Ha ha. Those hicks wouldn’t dare mess with someone driving that van.” Another urbanite who had probably never been north of the Bronx. “Jojo’ll be around to pick it up tomorrow evening, like six or so. He likes driving in the dark and that means you can have it pretty much one more day. Okay? Ciao.”
“Ciao,” I murmured. Okay, thirty seconds to freak out. It wasn’t like I wanted to keep the van. But losing it—get a grip, MacFarquhar: you don’t lose a rental vehicle unless you drive it into the lake or something: you rent it and then you stop renting it—but losing it, um, coming to the end of my rental and having it go away, was breaking one more link with my old life. I’d had that life for nearly twenty years. Even if (I said to myself) it never really had been my natural context. Gerbilcon was much more my natural context. Ozzy, by the way, had obviously been stimulated and refreshed by his escape. He lived to a ripe old (gerbil) age of six and a half.
Hauling stuff around in Merry was going to get a lot easier as soon as I learned how to open the blast-and-damnation (what did Mr Wolverine want?) tailgate. Laboriously I lifted my shopping bags out of the truck bed, ferried them dismally indoors and stuffed them variously into the bottom of the empty closet and under the (empty) desk. Abruptly I sat down at the desk, got my phone out again and pressed the first Mr W message, from two days ago. “Please ring Mr Wolverine at your earliest convenience,” said the margarine-smooth voice of his secretary. She and I had not got on. I made a muted snarling noise and pressed the second message, which was from yesterday. “Mr Wolverine has asked me to remind you to ring him at your earliest convenience,” said the same voice. I was sure she and Mr W were sleeping together. If they ever had a child you could name it Damien and then get on the first spaceship off the planet. I pressed the third button, from this morning. “Call me,” said Mr W.
I was still sitting there staring at my phone (it was after office hours: I didn’t have to do anything until tomorrow) when the porch steps creaked. I looked up. I’d left the door open. A dark shadowy figure . . . tripped over the top step, swore, staggered forward and grabbed the doorframe.
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