I casually dropped the keys in my jacket pocket (and instantly canted over 30 degrees in that direction from the weight), ambled slowly out Homeric Homes’ door, turned back toward Bradbury . . . and broke into a sprint toward Eats, holding my ballasted jacket pocket in one hand in expectation that if I didn’t the keys would rip their way out through several layers of ancient seams and plunge toward the earth at just the moment that the gremlins had readied the gaping storm drain to yawn beneath my feet. I careened around the corner, staggering wide as the centrifugal force of the keys tried to drag me back toward Manhattan (wait, was Manhattan that way? Maybe it was Cold Valley they were pulling toward) and again stopped just short of the doorway I wanted to turn into, took a deep breath, and started back down the little corridor beside Eats, staring at my feet. I steeled myself to look up casually and there was Sid, standing at full alert standing stretch, staring back at me. When she caught my eye she went up on her hind legs, pawing briefly at the air, more graceful than any three Lipizzaner stallions with Trigger thrown in for good measure, but I admit I might be prejudiced.
There was a creak of metal café chair against patio stone and Bridget stood up as I came into the courtyard. “The Phantom has been as good as gold,” said Bridget, “although I think phantoms are usually silver.”
“My Rolls-Royce dog,” I said besottedly.
“Not for another forty baths and a few truckloads of dog food, I don’t think,” said Bridget, “although she has the lines of a classic something. Your landlord’s cousin—the one that still lives in the gigantic house on the other side of the lake—he’s got an old Phantom, 1930 or so, that he brings out every summer to scare the tourists.”
Bridget’s face was not friendly as she said this. “You’re not one of his fans, then,” I said, trying to remember if I’d told her where I was moving. Although that was probably irrelevant. This was a small town, she would recognise the shape of the keys in my pocket. These were truly memorable keys.
“He’s a tick,” said Bridget. “The kind that give you Lyme’s disease. I’ll tell you stories some day you have less going on. But I don’t know anything against the cousin. And even if he’s another tick, Sally will protect you.”
I looked nervously at Sid and wished Bridget would stop saying ‘tick’. Sally’s employee was coming to dinner tomorrow. I had forty baths and a few truckloads of dog food to deploy by then, as well as moving house. I hadn’t seen any chair cushions I liked at the mall yesterday but Hayley was young, her hipbones could probably stand one of those chairs for the duration of one evening. Given her choice of business footgear she obviously had a rugged constitution.
“And while Sid ate her muffin,” Bridget continued, “I don’t think her mind was on it. I won’t tell Ryuu, his feelings would be hurt.”
“Speaking of Ryuu’s muffins,” I began, preparing to be pathetic. “I don’t suppose . . .”
“Yes,” said Bridget. “You need to keep your strength up. We do kind of fall into a habit of doing takeout for our regulars, and a few muffins in a bag, what the hey. Fortunately the staff don’t understand what Ryuu is yelling when he reverts to Japanese after there have been too many regulars wanting too many takeouts—and most of us feel we have responsibilities in the community. Gus, for example, might never eat any green veg at all if it weren’t for Ryuu’s green beans and later in the season, coleslaw. What kind do you want?”
I was not at my best and I was thinking, kinds of coleslaw? Okay, apple slaw, caraway slaw, spring onion slaw . . . oh, wait. Muffins. “Surprise me,” I said. “But nothing too challenging.”
“What, you don’t want to try the bratwurst, zucchini and saffron? You city folk. No sense of adventure.” She disappeared through the back door and reappeared almost before I had time to start worrying about the next thing, carrying a fat paper bag. There was more than one muffin in there. “Here you are,” she said. “On the house, ha ha. And these are for you, not the Phantom. The Phantom needs protein.”
“I know,” I said. “The pet store is our next stop.” I looked at Sid. Sid looked at me. There were a few crumbs on her whiskers.
“Take her in with you and tell Susanna she’s the Phantom and you’ve adopted her. She’ll take one look and suddenly remember some manufacturer’s discounts she hadn’t got out on the floor yet.”
“Thanks,” I said.
“Come back soon,” said Bridget. “If you want to keep up your takeout status.”
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