I was going to have Mike’s head on a platter, four hundred and thirty one boxes of books (and three rose-bushes, one of them in a pot made of the off cuts of a supermassive black hole) or not. Although maybe he’d done me a favor—after screaming skulls, Merry would look positively modest and cultured. Wait, I hadn’t actually bought Merry yet. I could still ask Hayley to take me to—to—whatever the name of the town was. Summer Blizzard. Freezerton. Where there was a used car dealership that wouldn’t necessarily sell me a homicidal Plymouth Fury.
I stopped at the end of the road and got out of the van. Mike pulled in behind me and leaned out his window, grinning. “That was amazing,” he said. “That was way better than I hoped for.”
“I am going to tell Serena you have loathsome habits,” I said. “I’m going to tell her that your two favorite movies are Faster Pussycat Kill Kill and Battlefield Earth.”
“Oh, hey, there’s some good dialogue in Faster Pussycat,” said Mike.
“—that you put ketchup on steak,” I went on inexorably. “That you like fake maple syrup. That you play bingo so you can cheat little old ladies out of all the best prizes, the denture cleaner and the chenille bed socks.”
“My mom plays bingo,” said Mike. “If I went near the hall she’d throw a chair at me. If you said ‘denture cleaner’ to her she’d throw a chair at you too. But that hurts, about the maple syrup. We’ve got a camp upstate, and tap our own trees.”
“In that case I hope all your trees have rose blight or rattlesnakes or moles or something,” I said, my professionally vivid imagination replaying the sight of Sheila Lanchester fainting into her husband’s arms for about the six hundredth time. At least I hope he caught her. If Sheila made a habit of this kind of behavior maybe they’d had the floors padded. You couldn’t know what unspeakable abominations might stroll up to your window when you lived in the back of beyond, and better safe than sorry. If they were drinking gin and tonics the contents of the dropped glasses shouldn’t stain either. Did anyone drink G&Ts any more? I was out of the loop. I was only interested in tea and champagne.
“Yeah, if I lived next to Sheila I’d be a little twitchy too,” said Mike.
“Hayley told me they were never here,” I said violently. My instant replay was up to 1,014.
“They aren’t here much,” Mike said judiciously. “It’s just that when Sheila is around the whole time-space thing gets weird. I think your dog is worrying about you.”
I turned around and saw as much of Sid as the cat’s-cradle would allow hanging out the driver’s side window. “Oh, honey,” I said. “I’m not going to kill him.”
“That’s a relief,” said Mike.
“They might put me in jail and you wouldn’t like jail,” I said to my dog.
“You know,” said Mike, “you were going to have to drive out past Isengard in that death metal van of yours whether I was here or not.”
“Nobody else in this area has green grass that already needs mowing, this time of year,” said Mike. “Gotta be sorcery. Also, no one I know has ever actually been inside that house.”
I resisted remarking that it might have something to do with the company he kept, but even if I never saw him again I liked Serena, and was immediately outraged on Gus’ behalf that he didn’t have this year-round grass gig. Motorcycles and class trips were expensive.
“It was as big as your pile when they bought it,” Mike went on, “and they put up a whole new wing out back. For two people? They’re breeding orcs.”
“Maybe it’s a ballroom,” I said, “For all the people you don’t know. And,” I said, returning to my theme, “I wouldn’t have been driving slowly”—except for the potholes. Sheila couldn’t possibly bear a pothole on her road, could she? Maybe she could make herself useful by fainting at the local highway department—“and I wouldn’t have been looking. I drove in here without noticing anything.”
“I think they’ve only just arrived,” said Mike. “There were suitcases on that lawn when I came.”
“I hope you waved,” I said with biting irony.
“Of course,” said Mike. “I’m a friendly kind of guy.”
Four hundred and thirty-one book boxes, I thought, and he got Caedmon going. I sighed. I shuffled back to the van. I heaved Sid back to her side of the front seat—with difficulty, but if she sat in my lap I wouldn’t be able to see over her sticky-out-hairy head—I turned the van on. For maybe the last time. I hadn’t noticed before that its engine at idle sounded kind of like manhattanmnhttnmnhttn. I put it in gear with an easy, practised gesture (CLUNK) that had developed over the few days of our brief relationship.
As I pulled back out into the road again I looked in the rear view mirror. I saw Nilesh, but no orcs.
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