The drive to Cold Valley was splendidly uneventful, comparatively speaking. There were the cows, which were all clustered by the fence as we drove by and I’m sure the van shied, like a horse objecting to a field of pigs. And then there was the getting lost, which is a good trick in a countryside that mostly only has one road at a time, but I managed. The van’s elderly GPS could get you to New Iceland and then had palpitations, as I found out when I tried to program it to take me to Cold Valley, so I had to follow the paper map that had come with my copies of all the stuff from Homeric Homes. Rental agreements had changed since my days in the East Village, or maybe landlords in the boonies were more concerned about the quality of their tenants when replacements might be harder to find. My East Village lease basically said ‘pay the rent on time, peasant, or die.’ Homeric Homes’ fine print went on and on and had all kinds of dependent clauses about floods and hurricanes and polar bears and the mysterious appearance of solid-fuel stoves, the rights of Shub-Niggurath, Yog-Sothoth and Nyarlathotep to go on playing poker in the cellar and being polite to the deinonychus that lived under the front porch. Here Be Dragons. Not really very reassuring. I might almost prefer the straightforwardness of the East Village model.
Finally I saw the Cold Valley sign on the road—and got close enough to be sure it was the Cold Valley sign and didn’t say Rivendell or Equatorial Kundu. It wouldn’t be Kundu: the local geography was all wrong. Rivendell would be nice. I was sure Elrond would have a method for dealing with deinonychus. But the sign clearly said Cold Valley. My eyes skated over the ‘population’ total again. Whatever it said, it needed to be revised up by one. Two if you counted Sid. Three if you counted a rose-bush in a pot. I didn’t have time to stop and look around but I stopped anyway. I felt I needed to take a deep breath before I drove over the town line for the first time as a resident. And it’s not like I was going to hold up traffic. I’d seen exactly one other vehicle on the road since I left New Iceland: another old beat-up pick-up truck, although both smaller and younger than Merry, and blue, so it wasn’t Ron’s. I hoped that the van’s tinted windshield meant that whoever was in the truck would not recognise me next time, since chances were there would be a next time. Village life: where everyone else knew your business before you did. Back in the city only Joe the doorman knew your business first.
I rolled the window down and leaned out. Trees. Grass, or anyway wild grasslike weeds. Scrub. Big irregular boulders. I knew the lake was over that way (okay, I thought I knew the lake was over that way); I couldn’t decide if I could see a distant glitter of sun on water or not. The air smelled of green things and . . . I had no idea. I knew the smell of car exhaust and the local pizza place and the Chinese next door and the bakery over the way and a squashed orange from the fruit stall and dirty steam from the latest burst pipe and unpicked-up dog crap and mystery substances in the gutters. I had no idea what the smells in the country were. I could almost count on two hands the weeks I’d spent outside some city or other—Gelasio liked urban holidays—four years of horse camp, two weeks per summer, and some long weekends under whooshing pine trees in the Adirondacks. That was about it. And I’d come to Cold Valley, unknown even to the GPS grid, because I’d stuck a pin in a map.
I quailed. I reminded myself it was too late: I’d already signed the lease, and Sally had already accepted payment from my bank. I was doomed to the back of beyond. This back of beyond. I looked at Sid. She looked back at me, enigmatic as a menhir.
I thought about ringing Norah. She’d drop everything and take the call if I asked her secretary to put me through. She’d also tease me about it unmercifully after the crisis was over. Of course I could always remind her of that orange prom dress. . . .
I started the van again a little abruptly and it moaned a protest. “Sorry,” I said. I drove over the town line. I was in Cold Valley. I was home. My hands were clamped sweatily on the steering wheel. Even I failed to get lost the rest of the way to Rose Manor: I turned down the first street I came to and counted houses, one, two . . . three. This one was mine.
I pulled into the driveway. Rose Manor. It loomed. It was huge. If Sid was a menhir, it was Stonehenge with Avebury thrown in. What was I thinking of? I couldn’t live here.
“Oh,” I said. I sounded a little like a van being started too quickly. “Help.”
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