I trudged up the steps and met Mike scampering down. I wasn’t sure I approved of a man who might have already turned forty who still scampered. He grinned at me, misreading my expression. “Don’t worry. We’ll have you back in New Iceland in plenty of time.”
Yes, that’s exactly what I’m afraid of, I didn’t say because I was out of breath—less from the climb than from borrowing trouble. Borrowing trouble is very tiring, trouble being such a nimble and protean beast. Through the pounding in my head I couldn’t remember how long my lease was for: was it month to month, or had I agreed to three months—six—a year? What would constitute a valid reason for breaking my lease? A madwoman in the attic? Swamp water on the floor and tentacle marks on the walls? If I left where would I go? With too many book boxes and a tall black dog?
I left the kibble on the top of a pile of those book boxes and walked through the parlour to dump my plastic bags at the foot of the stairs. I was going to have to face the upstairs soon. I groped for a light switch and (miraculously) found one. The hall jumped into existence. I hadn’t noticed, yesterday with Hayley, that the stair risers had leaves and little round flowers like Tudor roses carved on them. Gelasio’s penthouse hadn’t had any Tudor roses. It hadn’t had any stairs either, except the ones to the roof garden, which either were or were pretending to be white marble. I had tried not to pay attention when some minor domestic arrangement cost more than I earned in a year.
I stared up. I was going to have to go upstairs and face down those beds some time soon. But not now. I turned the light off again. Coming back through I paused to look out through the big parlour windows. I had always loved that long low golden afternoon light, when the weather and work deadlines cooperated. The light was especially lush today—or maybe I was just acclimating to the jungle. What was out there? Could be anything. Cold lakes. Burgundy velvet and golden hounds. Big black men riding big black horses. My memory lingered on that one. The man rode so beautifully I might have thought he was a centaur—it was as likely as anything else that had been happening right then—except I didn’t think centaurs usually had their human bodies growing out of the middle of their backs. But it wouldn’t have to be cosmic horror and deinonychus in my gone-to-wild garden. There might even be more rose-bushes, tangled up in their tougher neighbours for some protection against the elements. A girl can dream.
I sighed, and turned again to face the parlour, and more boxes than I was sure had been in the van in the first place. That was another good reason to stay here: once I got the books out of their boxes I did not want to have to load them back in again. Bookshelves. Oh help. My lease undoubtedly denied me permission to screw things into the walls, free-standing bookcases cost, and those kit things were sagging in the middle before you finished loading the last shelf. And at almost-forty years old I refused to go the cement-blocks-and-planks, poverty-stricken student route. Refused. Refused. Well, maybe if I used attractive vintage bricks. . . .
I went through the kitchen on my way to the front door. Anything to delay carrying any more boxes. I wondered again about the weird jaggedy row of something at the very back of the van. Maybe my trophy dragon’s jawbone had got left on the last row of boxes. Ha ha. One of the magicians Flowerhair had worked for had had a dragon’s jawbone as a staff. It had not been a happy collaboration.
Sid was stretched out in front of Caedmon looking utterly comfortable and at ease. After the winter she had just had I couldn’t begrudge her. I even stifled uttering the threat to find panniers that would fit her. (Although it was an interesting thought. I might consult Susanna. My mother usually had a Ghastly or two who would pull a tiny cart, which was a big hit at kids’ birthday parties in our neighborhood.)
The van was rocking slightly as I reluctantly descended the stairs, refusing to admit to myself that it wasn’t box avoidance that was troubling me, it was facing that the unloading stage was over with . . . and I would shortly be forced on to the next stage. Mike emerged from the back of the van, carrying something. What? I didn’t have anything that looked like that. My eyes were involuntarily drawn to my rose-bush in her pot, attempting all by herself to be a rose-hedge lining the driveway to Rose Manor.
Mike set what he was carrying down beside her, and climbed back into the van. I got to the bottom of the stairs and was standing beside my rose-bush and her companion by the time Mike stepped gingerly down from the back of the van, carrying . . .
. . . a third rose-bush, which he set beside the first two.
He shook his head. “It’s dead easy,” he said. “We can figure out the details later. Tonight all you need to know is this lever,” creak-creak, “this way if you want the fire to burn up more, this way if you want it to die back a little. You put the wood in here,” clunk, “and you keep an eye on it. You don’t want it burning hard—that just wastes wood”—the lever made a faint scraping noise as he moved it—“you probably want it about there, but we’ll check in a few minutes.”
He looked past me into the vast cavern of the parlour. “I suppose you do have central heating . . .”
“I can’t afford it,” I said, and hesitated, looking at my dog and reminding myself how it was I was renting a house about twelve times bigger than I needed. If I was going to stick a pin in a map, why couldn’t I have been on the Florida page? Although there were alligators in Florida. I would end up in a town with alligators. “And I don’t need an attic and six offices anyway. Hayley said they’d lean on the landlord to put in a wood stove. Another wood stove.” If wood was cheap I really did have to learn how to use the thing. Things.
“Your Guardian should keep the downstairs warm—you may need a fan, and you want to start keeping a big kettle of water on top—it depends on how good the insulation is and how bad the drafts are. And how you feel about being cold.”
I wrapped my arms around myself and tried not to shiver.
“Okay,” said Mike. “Then you’ll want the second stove. Maybe upstairs, if the floor’ll stand it.”
“And an electric blanket,” I said, concentrating on not shivering, although I was beginning to feel a little heat radiating off Caedmon. I needed to carry some book boxes and get my blood circulating again.
“An electric blanket?” said Mike. “Why? You have a perfectly good dog.”
Sid, as if on cue, walked delicately past us and lay down in front of Caedmon.
She looked up at Mike as he looked down at her. “Although she may need you to keep her warm at the moment.” He bent down to pat her. “She’s got more ribs than a Fourth of July barbeque.” She flopped over on her side and raised a leg to encourage him to rub her ski-slope tummy. “If Bridget—and Jim—hadn’t told me you’d caught the Phantom I wouldn’t believe it,” he said, rubbing. “This is not your average one-day-reclaimed wary, nervous stray dog.” Sid’s eyes were half-closed and her relaxed top lip had fallen away from her teeth, giving her a kind of mad half-smile. “They’ve been trying to get anywhere near her for months. Dad and me too, of course, and half the town,” he added. “This isn’t a successful stray-dog area: stray dogs don’t survive the winter. But your Phantom did. We figured she—now we know she’s a she—must have found shelter somewhere. But wherever it was didn’t include food.”
He stood up and Sid’s eyes instantly snapped open and she turned her head up to stare at him. “Sorry, honey,” he said. “I have boxes to carry, and it’s going to start getting dark soon.”
“And never mind tripping over the steps,” I said, “or getting the van back in time for JoJo, we have a neighbour to frighten the socks off. The hand-knitted silk socks with the tasteful lace edging.”
“You’re catching on,” said Mike.
I followed him back to the van and did another sweep for squishy lightweight plastic bags. There were also a couple of five-pound sacks of dog kibble I thought I could just about manage. Thanks to Mike we were almost done. I bore another of those disorienting and rather sick-making waves of excitement and dread: major life change, ahoy. Last week I’d still been in Manhattan, where I’d lived thirty-nine years. Last year I’d still had a husband. . . . I gritted my teeth and clutched my underwear and my dog food. What was that against the front wall of the van? It didn’t look like boxes. I’d been pretty out of my mind, that last night, packing to leave, but I had still been relatively sane when I started loading. It got worse later. I squinted, but it was too dark in the windowless van to see anything. Whatever was back there, it would be out soon enough, and then I’d take the van back for JoJo and pick up Merry and . . .
I looked up at Rose Manor. From the bottom of the driveway it looked as tall as the Chrysler Building. The sun was going down behind it at an angle so while the shadow wasn’t falling on me, the front of the house was still in darkness almost as profound as the back of the van. Anything could be hiding in the shadows on the porch. Cosmic horror was only the beginning.
Stop it, Macfarquhar. You live here now. Yes, I replied silently, I know.
Key rings the size of small kitchen appliances are at least relatively hard to lose. I’ve seen toasters smaller than my ring of keys for Rose Manor. I dove for my jacket, which was hanging drunkenly off the back of one of the chairs from the weight of the keys in one pocket. Now all I had to do was figure out which marlin-sized key opened the kitchen door. . . .
Thunk. Gotcha. I opened the door.
Mike came in, looking rather the worse for wear.
“Cobwebs?” I said. “It’s true I’m a terrible housekeeper but I haven’t had the van long enough . . .”
“Not the van,” said Mike. “Under the house.” He went on past me, and dumped his filthy armful on the already-less-than-pristine floor. I winced. I was going to have to find the broom before tomorrow night. Even if Hayley managed to wear jeans I was willing to bet her sneakers would be so clean it would hurt to look at them. I doubted white-gloved, chignoned outrage at the state of the space under the porch would become me. Even if I had a pair of white gloves, or knew how to make my erratic hair lie down in a chignon.
“Logs,” said Mike. “Nobody with a Guardian is not going to use it, so I thought it was worth a look for what the last guy might have left behind. I’ve got a hatchet in Nilesh. Hang on.”
He was back before I was finished staring. Sid was only mildly interested, although sighthounds are mostly only interested in things that run away, and the logs were all lying low. Mike fumbled with his treasure trove and pulled out something that looked more like an exploded muppet than a piece of firewood. “Think something’s been chewing on this one,” he said.
“Yeah,” I said. “That’ll be deinonychus.”
“Or orcs,” he said, not missing a beat. He stood the muppet on one end and began chipping at it with his hatchet. Don’t do this at home, kids. I hoped Mr Demerara was going to be understanding about the new hole in his floor and the bloodstains. I hoped Mike had a brain-surgeon license for his hatchet. “This stove’ll also burn coal, but around here wood is cheap and easy, you have plenty of space to store it, and a stove like this, you can burn exactly as fast or slow as you want.” A little pile of shreds was building up and the blade of Mike’s hatchet hadn’t hit the floor once nor even glanced off a finger. “You got any scrap paper in any of those boxes? That I can burn?”
I turned to the nearest book box, peeled the tape off with a noise like a sensitive neighbour catching her first sight of a van emblazoned with screaming skulls, and pulled out several pages of last week’s New York Times. Wallaby found in Riverside Park, said the headline uppermost. And the giant rat of Sumatra lives in the East Village, I thought, I used to see him there often. LEATHER SALE headed the top of the second page over a photograph that was trying to look like Robert Mapplethorpe on one of his less controversial days. Gelasio had asked for my phone number at a Mapplethorpe retrospective. To my horror my eyes filled with tears. I gave a giant sniff, like I was trying to inhale my nose back into my face, crumpled the LEATHER SALE and gave it and the wallaby and several more pages I was careful to avert my eyes from, to Mike.
“It looks pretty clean,” said Mike, “but we’ll just check for birds’-nests. Or pterodactyls.” I looked at him sharply but he was twisting the New York Times into a torch. He flipped a lever on the chimney pipe, snagged the box of matches off the back of the dorm reject, lit his torch, and held it at Caedmon’s gaping maw. There was a roar, and the darkness sucked at the fire, which went streaming up into invisibility. “Great,” said Mike. I was thinking of dragons, which might very well enjoy breathing a little light refreshing fire through a chimney pipe the way the rest of us might slurp a milkshake through a straw. Or maybe Cthugha lived in my chimney.
Mike dropped the remains of his torch on a neat little pyre that he must have built while I was having my historical moment. The fire blazed into life and crackled wildly. Mike fiddled with the pipe lever and the fire settled, like a dog that’s just been reminded of the end of its lead and is thinking oh well.
“There,” said Mike. “You’ll be warm tonight.”
“Um,” I said, feeling urban and pathetic. “I don’t know what to do. You have to put logs in and stuff, right? And you have to put them in the right way so you don’t set fire to the neighborhood. Preferably. I assume.”
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.
There was a little pause, while he debated what to tell me. Serena liked me but I was still an outlander. So was Serena, of course, but she’d been here fifteen years. I hadn’t been here fifteen days yet. I was good for fifteen hours though.
“Sheila Lanchester is sensitive,” he said. He debated a little more. “Like she maybe hasn’t quite got the word that she has to share this planet with other people.”
“Oh,” I said.
“Things like the sound of a car starting upset her,” he went on. “And some people, you know, actually bang their car doors harder than they have to. I know. It’s hard to believe. But she swears it’s true. I know someone, in fact, that she accused of banging a door just to upset her.”
“Amazing,” I said.
“Yeah,” he said.
“I take it she comes to your garage,” I said.
“Not any more,” he said, and grinned. “You owe me, right?”
“I sure do,” I said fervently.
“Yeah. Either you carry a lot of anvils around with you or you read as much as Serena.” He looked at the book box at his feet (and its four hundred and thirty-six kindred stacked over the floor in here and the parlour). “Well, I’m gonna follow you out, when you take your van back to New Iceland. And I want you to promise to drive real slow past the Lanchesters’ house. She’ll be looking out the window because she’ll hear your engine. I want her to see your van.”
“Okay,” I said. “And you’re going to arrange for the personal protection I’m going to need after my sensitive neighbour sees the Van of the Apocalypse leaving and the Pick Up That Ate Brooklyn coming back?” This wasn’t helping my whimwhams about my first night in my new house any.
“Sure,” he said, grinning again. “I can do that.”
“And Sid —” I began.
“She’ll scream, first time she sees Sid,” said Mike. “Just warning you.”
“Oh, great,” I said. “I had less trouble with my neighbors when I lived in an apartment building with three hundred other people.”
“You only get Ryuu’s muffins if you live around here,” said Mike. “Think about it.”
“Okay, I’m thinking about it,” I said, visions of one of Joe’s minions arriving at the door with a gooey-hot pizza fading in comparison. “Hey, do you want me to roll the window down enough for Sid to stick her head out as we drive by? We’ll have to stop at the end of the road for me to roll it back up again but I’d like to get as much of the screaming as possible over with in one go.”
“It might give you a head start, but she’ll have to scream the second time too, because she’ll have had time to think about it and, you know, get more worked up.”
“This is the real reason they haven’t been able to rent Rose Manor before, right?” I said. “Neighbor from hell?” Who needs a madwoman in the attic?
“Nah. They’re really never here. Dunno why they’re here now. Maybe, they see your van and your dog, they’ll go away faster.”
“We live in hope,” I said. “I was coming to ask if you’d like a cup of tea and a sandwich.”
“That’d be great,” he said. He looked down at the van. It looked surprisingly harmless from here. “We need to hit the road before it, you know, gets too dark for your neighbor to see anything. But we’re nearly done.”
“You’re nearly done,” I said, leading the way to the kitchen. “Anything I have is yours for the asking, which at the moment is pretty much ham. And bread. And mustard. I seem to have left the butter back at the motel. There’s also high-quality dog food which I’m sure Sid would not mind sharing. And a few of Ryuu’s muffins, speaking of Ryuu’s muffins.”
“You’re on the secret take-out list already, are you? That was fast.”
“That was Sid,” I said. “Bridget is a dog person.”
“Bridget is almost as mental as my dad. When her kids were little and she was home all the time she kept adopting dogs.”
I made two ham sandwiches—it’s rude to let your guest eat by himself—while Mike wandered around the kitchen. He kept wandering as he ate his. After all that box-carrying you’d’ve thought he’d want to sit down. Maybe he didn’t like the look of the chairs any more than I did. I was half wondering if I could remember which box the pillows were in so we could both sit down and half wondering if he might know where I could get a cheap replacement stove for the thing that was listlessly attempting to boil water for more tea—when he caught sight of Caedmon.
“Oh, hey,” he said. “That’s a Guardian. I never heard that Rose Manor had a Guardian. Man, those are like the best solid-fuel stoves ever made. They’ll just about fix a flat tire and walk your dog for you.”