“I could use a drink,” Otis said in the elevator. “How about you?”
He took Kim across the street to an old-fashioned bar with a courtyard out back.
“How did I do?” Kim asked as Otis poured from a pitcher of beer.
“You did great. Guess you’ve read Eloise’s books more than once or twice, huh?”
“Oh, yes. I know every one almost by heart.”
“She said you were pretty au fait, but I had my doubts.” He raised his glass. “Good job, ma’am.”
“So tell me about her,” Kim said. “What does she look like? How does she cope with her agoraphobia? What’s she working on now?”
Otis was about to reply when a shadow fell across the table.
“Hey, bud – mind if I sit here?”
A large, unshaven man in his fifties was standing there with a stein of beer in one huge hand and the World Weekly News in the other. A silver-dagger earring dangled from his right lobe and he wore a faded blue t-shirt on which the words The Pope Smokes Dope were almost illegible.
“Only free seat in the place,” he explained. “Just wanna slurp suds and read some crap. Won’t be no trouble.”
“Sure,” Otis said.
The guy put his drink on the table, lowered himself into one of the two free chairs and opened the paper over his beer-gut.
Kim looked back to Otis. “You were saying?”
“I’m expecting a manuscript any day now. A new Ptarmigan novel. I’ve seen some excerpts and I think it’s her best yet.”
“Oh, I love Lorelei Ptarmigan. I remember exactly where I was when I bought Ptarmigan Pie. It was the summer of…”
“Hey,” said the big guy. “You writers?”
Kim bit her lip.
“I’m a publisher,” Otis said.
“Great. Listen – I have this idea for a book. All about when I was a Hell’s Angel. Oughta be a book or a movie or somethin’. Wild times, man.”
“I can imagine,” Otis said.
Kim looked at the pitcher of beer. She wasn’t a quick drinker and even with Otis’s help she reckoned it would be half-an-hour at least before they could escape.
“Randy McCready,” the big guy said, offering a hand to Otis. He turned to Kim. “So you’re the writer, yeah?”
“No,” Kim said.
“Yes,” Otis put in. He glanced at Kim sternly. “She’s being modest. This is Eloise Callum.”
And this, Kim realized, was how it would be. If she were to take on the role, she’d have to learn to handle people like Randy McCready. That was the job.
“Pleased to meet you, Randy,” she said.
“Never heard of you,” he said, shrugging. “But I don’t read much myself.”
Liam had time to kill before dinner and he was too unnerved to pass the hours with Kirsty, whom he found exhausting. He left the Convention Center and looked around. Across the street he spotted a friendly-looking place that advertised a courtyard out back.
Liam bought a glass of wine from the bar and made his way to the courtyard. He spotted Eloise immediately, sitting at a table with Otis from the publishing house and another guy who looked like a trucker. There was a spare seat too. He walked over.
“Ptarmigan? I mean – Eloise?” He smiled. “What should I call you?”
He indicated his badge.
“Larkspur!” She seemed delighted to see him. “Join us! You can call me Eloise if I can call you Liam.”
“I’d be honored,” Liam said. He introduced himself to Otis and offered his hand to the big guy with the earring.
“You a writer too?” Randy asked.
“Liam and I are members of the same fan club,” Kim said.
“Your fan club,” Liam said.
Eloise laughed. “Right. I’m a member of my own fan club.”
Liam picked up a feeling of nervousness from Eloise. A sort of trying-hard cheerfulness that grated a little. He was disappointed. He’d expected her to be calm and slightly mysterious.
The conversation turned to early careers. What, Liam asked, had Eloise done before she became a writer? Oh – this and that. You know. Nothing much. Otis cut in, saying that he’d been a bass player when he was younger. He mentioned his band, and Randy said he recalled seeing them in Buffalo. He told a story about riding up from New York in the snow, stoned. It was a simple anecdote but very funny. Eloise – to Liam’s surprise – wasn’t amused by it at all. She didn’t appear even to understand it.
“Hey – let’s get some more drinks,” Randy said. “My round.” He turned to Liam. “A glass of faggot wine for you?”
“Yes, please.” Somehow the offer wasn’t at all offensive. It was friendly and almost teasing. “The faggier the better.”
“We have to be going,” Eloise said. “Don’t we, Otis?”
Otis nodded and got to his feet. “Nice to have met you, Randy. See you at dinner, Liam.”
“Liam, my man – you’ll stick around for a drink though, eh?” Randy said.
Liam did. He stuck around for a few.
“I can’t do it, Otis. I’m sorry.”
They were in Kim’s hotel room. Her dress for the evening was hanging on a hook behind the door and her elegant shoes were still in their box.
“But you did so well at the meeting.”
Kim shook her head. “That was with Eloise’s fans. People like me. Literate people. Intelligent people who understand writing. That was easy.”
Otis went to the mini-bar and took out two sodas. He offered one to Kim but she waved it away.
“So where’s the problem?”
“That awful Randy guy. If I’m Eloise, I’ll have to meet people like that, won’t I? I’ll have to be nice to them and sit there smiling while they talk trash and scratch their bellies.”
“Oh – he wasn’t so bad.”
“He was!” Kim slapped her hand down on the bed. “He was vulgar and loud. He belched! Did you hear him belch? Right there in public! And when he was reading his newspaper I swear to God his lips were moving.”
“You don’t think you’re being a little…” Otis shrugged apologetically. “…snobby?”
Kim stood up and paced, arms folded. “Snobby? Is it snobby to prefer good manners? Is it snobby to like things nice?” She stopped and stared out of the window. “I’ll tell you what I love about Eloise’s books. They take me away from the real world. I live in a dirty, run-down neighbourhood. The only color is the graffiti on the walls and the police sirens wail all night. I raised a kid there on my own because it’s the best I could afford.”
“That’s to your credit,” Otis said, swigging his Coke.
“Yes, it sure is. But what got me through was being able to escape to Eloise’s world – the castles, the magic davenports, the elfin folk, Lorelei’s kaleidoscopic cloak. That world is real to me, and it’s a lot more pleasant than the one I live in.” She looked over her shoulder at Otis. “There are plenty of Randy McCreadys where I come from, and I do my best to avoid them.”
Otis dropped the soda can into the trash. “You do know, don’t you, that the elves and the magic are all satire? Eloise’s world is a complex and brilliant joke. The books are actually about – well – the real world.”
Kim clucked her tongue. “Now you sound like Larkspur, reading too much into it, trying to be clever.” She walked back to the bed and sat down. “All I know is that the world I have to live in was created by low-lifes like Randy McCready, and I want no part of it. I’m not going to be Eloise if it means I have to be around that type of crude, uneducated scum.”
“Well, I’m not going to argue with you,” Otis said. “I’ll go to the dinner and tell them that Eloise was taken ill. I can’t see what else there is to do.”
He turned at the door.
“What will you do about Algie’s Perch? I mean, when you go back on-line?”
Kim shrugged. “I don’t know. Join again under a different name, I guess. In cyberspace you can be whoever you want.”
In the lobby of the hotel Otis made a call on his cellphone.
“She bailed out. Yeah, totally. And we only get one shot at that idea, right? Look, I have to go to L’Alouette for a while at least. I’ll meet you at the Plough and Stars around eight and we’ll think again. Yeah. Later.”
Otis slipped the phone into his jacket pocket and went out onto the street to find a cab. He had bad news to deliver to the members of Algie’s Perch and he wasn’t looking forward to it.
Liam checked his watch.
“Christ – it’s nearly seven-thirty. I have to rush.”
“Where you going?” Randy asked. “Hot date?”
They were on their fourth bottle of faggot wine, Randy having admitted to a taste for the stuff.
“I wish. No, it’s a dinner for Eloise – the writer who was here earlier.”
“So you like her books, huh?” Randy said.
“Personally I thought she was an uptight asshole.”
“So did I. She wasn’t anything like I expected.”
“So why do you want to have dinner with her?”
“I don’t – not now.” He sipped his wine. “I guess it’s dumb to have expectations about writers. Especially about Eloise – just because she’s so mysterious.” He knew he was burbling drunkenly, and he was probably boring Randy to death. “I’m sorry. Kinda talking through my sense of anti-climax,” he said.
Randy poured out the last of the wine and knocked it back. “They say you should never meet your heroes, right?”
There was a pause during which Liam searched for the next sentence. He wanted to suggest that he and Randy might get together some other time to hang out, without it coming across like a desperate proposition.
“Listen, I know this is kind of a weird thing to say, but I’ve had a really good time this afternoon. I mean – that sounds so queer, but…just wanted to say it.”
“Me too. And don’t worry about sounding queer. You are queer.”
“True,” Liam said with a smile. “And you’re not.”
“Also true.” Randy got to his feet, hitching his jeans up under his belly. “I’m going to meet a buddy of mine. Why not come along?”
“You wouldn’t mind?” Liam said. He stood up a little shakily. “That’d be great.”
“We’ll have to drop by my place to collect some stuff, okay?”
“Sure. Whatever you want.”
Randy grinned. “And while we’re there, I’ll introduce you to my parrot.”