We stopped long enough for Sid to have a pee (while I looked nervously over my shoulder toward the Friendly Campfire office) and then crossed Sir Alexander Dane Avenue to walk down Bradbury toward the Eatsmobile. Sid trotted along beside me like being on heel was her natural condition. The blue sky was disappearing behind an assortment of clouds that if you were lying on your back in a field with nothing to worry about but making it indoors again if it’s blowing into a storm would be great to watch, and if you’re shortly to be moving all your worldly goods from the back of a van up a steep flight of stairs to your new house you don’t like at all. I wasn’t looking where we were going. I was looking up at the sky.
Sid turned in front of me, stopped and growled. I yanked my attention back down to street level: oh major crapfest, I don’t need this, whatever it is. There was a tall—a very tall—man standing on the sidewalk at the end of the block, where we needed to cross Schmitz to Eats. He was apparently just standing there. Facing us. He seemed to be dressed entirely in black, including a broad-brimmed black hat that left his face in shadow: even so his skin seemed remarkably pale.
I could also see that he was smiling. It was not a hi, how are you, nice day smile. It was a breakfast has arrived and it’s so much more fun when it tries to get away smile.
Hey, it’s daylight. Couldn’t be a vampire. Ha ha ha ha ha. Evidently I’ve read too many of my own novels.
I would probably have noticed this guy even if he wasn’t doing his Black Knight at the Ford trick at the crossroads to the Eatsmobile, because he was so tall and so dramatically dressed. But having him standing there looking like he was about to challenge me to a duel while my new dog stood leaning against my legs like a Seeing Eye dog preventing her charge from walking into the bottomless ravine was seriously unsettling.
He took a step forward. The hem of his long coat swirled. Sid’s growl went from sotto voce to definitely out loud. I reached down and grabbed her harness. My scarf was certainly not up for this. I wasn’t sure my belt was either. I knew I wasn’t. I didn’t have to reach very far: Sid was at full alert and standing on her tippy toes. You know how even a small dog can get very heavy when it wants to? Fifty pounds of heavy dog and I wasn’t going anywhere.
At the same time . . . Mr Melmoth did not look like someone who was going to be very impressed by a fifty-pound dog or anything else. And this aside from the fact that any dog that bit any human was immediately in the wrong and I with less than twenty-four hours’ experience of Sid—and a harness made out of a belt? We were so not presenting as solid citizens. I took a better grip on said harness and prepared to try to drag her into the street as Mr Melmoth got closer. Part of my mind was saying frantically, What do you really think is going on? This is a normal small American town on a normal morning in the normal world. This has nothing to do with Flowerhair or Aldetruda or Ilyssa or any of your other mad heroines out of books! This was not the part of my mind that was winning. Mr Melmoth took another step toward us. He was smiling more broadly, possibly at our flusteredness. Well, my flusteredness. Sid was not flustered. Sid was focussed.
There was a noise just beside us, in the street I was dragging Sid toward. I stopped. I may have whimpered. Sid glanced toward the street, and then stood up even taller, but not in a we’re-being-outflanked way, in an oh-good-reinforcements way. Mr Melmoth had stopped. He had also stopped smiling. I risked a look to my right, into the street.
And there was another tall man. Another tall man dressed all in black.
But this one made Mr Melmoth look small and wimpy. My new champion—well, Sid’s new champion—wasn’t a lot taller than Mr Melmoth, but he was a lot broader. He was wearing a cloak, for pity’s sake, and it was folded back on this side, so I could see the shoulder the size of a well-grown watermelon and biceps bigger around than my waist. And that was not a swordbelt. That was not a swordbelt. He was dressed in black clothing, and the clouds scudding overhead were throwing a lot of very strange shadows around. That was all it was. Whatever it was. I don’t have any idea why he was holding his left arm out a little to one side so he could get his right hand under it to rest on something that seemed to hang at hip level . . . but it had nothing to do with a sword.
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