Go Caedmon, I thought. The kettle was making a tired little squeaking noise. I poured almost-boiling water in the pot, swished it around, and then twiddled with the gas fire, trying to make it burn a little more enthusiastically. Mike was clanking heavy cast-iron doors and muttering to himself.
“I’d ask you to show me how to use it only I don’t have anything for it to burn,” I said. “Hayley’s coming out tomorrow night with—logs and stuff—whatever—and she’ll get me—it—the stove—started. Tonight, eh. I hope I find the blankets.” And the pillows.
“From Homeric Homes. Who rented this monst—I mean, this house to me.” This dementedly way too dratblasted large house. Complete with neighbor from the darkness beyond the stars. What was I thinking of? My eyes fell on Sid, who had finished her second helping of dog food and was thoughtfully contemplating the remaining fragments of the loaf of bread. If I hadn’t stuck a pin in a map Sid might still be living rough. I offered her the last half-slice of bread. She took it daintily, swallowed it in a single savage gulp, and then started examining the corners of the kitchen.
Mike looked amused. “Yes, I know Hayley. My little sister went to school with her. She was famous for ironing her gym uniform. You’re supposed to, but she’s the only one who ever did.”
That sounded like the Hayley I had been dazzled by.
“She’s from around here so she has to know how to run a wood-burner but I wouldn’t have guessed she’d admit it, you know, to teach someone—er—from not around here.”
I wondered briefly what the local term for outlander was. “Hidden depths, our Hayley,” I said blandly. “Besides, I’m sure it would be bad for Homeric’s reputation if one of their tenants died of exposure.” I wondered what Mike read in his spare time. Car magazines. Or Proust. And Tolkien, of course. Sid didn’t like any of the available corners and was making another circuit. I’d better let her out. What had I done with her leash? I did not want her making unscheduled acquaintance with the neighbor.
“Hidden jump shots,” said Mike. “Hayley was top scorer on the girls’ basketball team, junior year. Really pissed my sister off, who is nearly a foot taller and only came second.”
I laughed. Flowerhair now and again rescued one of those magical Keeper of Great Power objects stolen by the other team. This kind of commission happens rather often in a serial-fantasy mercenary’s life. She’d succeeded once by passing the (mummified) Heart of the Possum That Carried The World in Her Pouch among herself and her three confederates, as they ran like sixty down the long cavern where the thieves were celebrating their success by being off their heads with the local hallucinogen, which is why Flowerhair and her friends got away with it. I’d been writing that one year when the Knicks were doing really well and every time I went over to Norah’s I had to listen to her husband, Jephthah, go on about it. Jeph was mostly a really good guy but he had his blind spots. I’d named the dumbest of Flowerhair’s accomplices Hpej.
Sid lay down, stiffly and bolt upright, looking like a cranky Anubis on a really bad hair day. Okay. Got it. Someone else voting for blankets and pillows. I hadn’t thought to buy a dog bed. If I had we could both have slept in it.
“Do you have a flashlight?” said Mike suddenly.
“Huh?” I said, dragged out of remembering the walls of that cavern, decorated with extremely detailed illustrations of what the locals did to people who annoyed them. Flowerhair, who hadn’t planned to grow up to be a mercenary, had had nightmares for a week, but at least that time she’d got paid. “Not that I can—oh. There’s one in the van. Has something died in there?” Mike was still standing in front of Caedmon. He had one of the doors open and seemed to be staring into it disapprovingly.
“Hope not,” he said, grinned at me, chunked the iron door closed and left at some speed. I heard the house door bang. The ham sandwich must have been either really good or really bad. I was thinking: he carries book boxes without complaint and he has a great smile. Serena, what’s not to like?
A few minutes went by and no more book boxes appeared at the top of the outside stairs. Uh oh. The ham sandwich had been really bad and he’d run away. What was that noise? A sort of thumping, scraping noise. Oh, heartburn and dung beetles, here we go with the funny noises again. Bang. Squeak. Thud.
Sid went and stood at the kitchen door, looking interested. This was okay as far as it went, but we hadn’t actually met any cosmic horror yet (unless Mr Melmoth counted, which he might), so I couldn’t be sure I was reading my dog’s reactions correctly.
And then Mike appeared at the kitchen window. He was carrying something. It was definitely not a book box.
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