"What on earth is the Blood Royal Saga?" asked Laurence.
All three of them were sitting on a King Bed, their shoes off and their legs crossed. They had taken a taxi from the pub to the centre of town-- it was a town called Dunsaggart. Laurence's Monstrous Mystery Tour card worked just as well as Helen's as a credit card. In the town centre, they had found a two-star hotel called the Minstrel Inn. They had booked a room each, all together on the third floor.
"I don't know" said Helen. "But I saw people reading it".
"Loads of people", said Laurence. "Two people in the pub, and the taxi driver was listen to it on audiobook. I saw the CD case."
"And when we passed a bookshop, I saw a huge display for it in the window", said Helen. "The tenth book had just come out. Omens of Nightfall, or something like that."
"What does it matter?", asked Karla, irritably.
"Anything could matter", said Helen.
"They are written by some guy called Fergus Fortune", said Laurence. "He sounds like he could be Irish."
"Is it too much to hope that Harry Potter was never published here?", asked Karla, taking another chip from the plate they had in the middle of the bed. She dipped it in garlic sauce and began to chew it vigorously. There was nothing dainty about her manner of eating; Laurence thoroughly approved.
"What's wrong with Harry Potter?" he asked. "I like Harry Potter."
Karla grimaced. "Why doesn't that surprise me?" she asked, when she'd swallowed. "You're a dreamer. But hey, if they haven't been published here, you can try to copy them and make a fortune."
"How do we know we don't have a fortune already?", asked Laurence. "We don't know what limit is on these cards, do we?"
There was a brief, thoughtful silence.
"Or", said Karla, "they could stop working at any moment. That's another possibility."
"You're not much into positive thinking, are you?", asked Laurence. He gave a little smile to take the edge of the comment.
"Karla is right", said Helen. She wiped her lips with a napkin. "We have no reason to assume these cards will keep working indefinitely. We have no reason to assume anything. But it seems to me reasonable that we would not assume the worst, or there will be no end to it. Let's just rely on the cards for now, and if they let us down...well, then we can cross that bridge when we come to it."
"I never liked that expression" said Karla. "Shouldn't it be, we'll cross that river when we come to it? Why does it assume there's a bridge?"
Considering she had been complaining about irrelevance a moment before, this contribution seemed a little ill-timed. But Karla didn't seem at all conscious of the irony.
"OK", said Helen. "We'll look for a bridge when we come to that river. If we come to that river. But first we have to work out-- what is it we are trying to do?"
"I would have thought that was obvious" said Karla, frowning. "Work out what the hell is going on!"
"That's reasonable enough", said Helen.
"And Ferryman is the one who knows", she said. "We have to find Ferryman. I mean, that tour bus isn't too difficult to track, is it?"
"Well, perhaps not", said Helen, slowly and ruminatively. She looked tired. Laurence wondered how she could feel tired, in the circumstances. "But if he could bring us...here, wherever here is...I don't see why he couldn't go back to the world we came from."
"But isn't that assuming the worst?", asked Karla.
Helen gave a little nod. "You're right", she said. "We have to start somewhere and we may as well start there. It seems like a logical place."
Laurence took a chicken ball from the plate of fast food and popped it in his mouth. It was warm and greasy. Just the way he liked it.
"You look beat", Karla said to Helen. "We should let you get some sleep".
Helen nodded and said, "Thank you. Yes, I'm pretty exhausted. I need to find a doctor in the morning." She had told Karla about her illness. "That's our first port of call, if nobody has any objections."
Laurence, his mouth still full of chicken ball, shook his head. "Of course not", said Karla. "Now you get to sleep. Laurence, grab that food, I'm not finished with it."
Laurence took the plate from the bed as he rose, though he felt a little bit nettled by the way she had given the order. He slid his feet into his shoes, Karla putting her own runners on more deliberately.
"Be careful, both of you", said Helen, as they stepped towards the door. "And wake me up if anything happens."
"Will do" said Karla. "Sleep tight."
She clicked the door behind them, and they were alone in the corridor.
"I need a coffee" said Karla. "I saw coffee machines in the foyer. How about you?"
"Sure", said Laurence, as casually as he could.
"I'm not a bit tired", she said. It was a little past midnight.
"OK, then, let's go."
They made their way to the stairs and walked down in silence. The hotel, Laurence thought, was pleasant enough; the walls of the corridor were painted a sky blue, and there were occasional landscape and animal paintings on the walls. Laurence had always preferred budget hotels to fancy ones, anyway. The thick carpet muffled their footsteps.
"How old are you?" asked Karla.
"Twenty-eighth on the fifth of August", said Laurence. "How about you?"
"I can't believe you'd ask a lady her age", said Karla.
They had reached the foyer. A large copy of a Mattisse painting there, and a bookshelf sat in the corner. A girl was sitting by herself at one of its tables, reading a hefty novel. Laurence wasn't surprised when he saw it was Omens of Nightfall.
"Hot chocolate", said Karla, examining the drinks machine. "Nice."
"I'll have one of those too", said Laurence. "Large."
"My, my, you do live it up", said Karla.
Laurence looked at the girl. She was a real cutie, he thought. She looked a bit like Kirsten Dunst, but with darker hair and large glasses. She was wearing a Snoopy t-shirt and pink pyjama bottoms. Her feet were bare.
He looked at the book. Some kind of barbarian warrior was screaming on the cover. It was an impressively accomplished painting.
The girl looked up at him, and gave him a bewitching smile. He was surprised at its warmth.
"Omens of Nightfall" said Laurence, not knowing what else to say, and pointing at the book.
"OMG!" said the girl. "It's so awesome! Tonight is going to be an all-nighter! Are you a fan?"
"I've never read a single one of them", said Laurence.
"OMG!" the girl said again. "A Blood Royal virgin! You have to read them! Seriously, I didn't read them for ages because I'm not really into the sword and sorcery thing and I think I was put off by all the hype and I heard they were kind of gory but then I just read the first and, my God, it kept me up for nights!"
"I might give it a go", said Laurence. "What's the first one called again?"
"The Edge of Everything" replied the girl-- except she half-sang it, rather than saying it.
"Here's your large hot chocolate, sir?", said Karla, joining them and handing Laurence a styrofoam cup. "Hey", she asked the girl, "what do you think about Harry Potter?"
"Harry Potter is cool", said the girl. "But nothing like The Blood Royal."
"My brother is a massive Harry Potter fan", said Karla, slapping Laurence on her shoulder.
"Oh yeah?" the girl asked, with an approving smile. Her eyes widened.
"Maybe not massive", said Laurence, taken aback at the eagerness of the question. "I mean, I don't know the rules of Quidditch or anything."
It was a fair enough joke, Laurence thought, but hardly worthy of the belly laugh that it drew from the girl. "You're too funny", she said. "What's your favourite Harry Potter book?"
"Um....the one where Dumbledore died", said Laurence.
"Half-Blood Prince", said the girl. "You know, that might be my favourite too."
There was a silence, the girl smiling at Laurence expectantly. Karla had wandered back to the drinks machine and was flicking through some magazines.
"Well", said Laurence, "I'm sorry to interrupt your reading. I'll let you get back to it."
"Read The Edge of Everything!" said the girl, pointing at him. "Promise me!"
He raised his hand, palm open. "I promise, I promise", he said. "Enjoy!".
Laurence walked back towards where Karla was sitting, and sat beside her.
"The Pope is the same", she said. "The President of America is the same. The British Prime Minister is different. Liverpool are the champions in British soccer."
"European champions, too."
"Huh. Hey, why did you say I was your brother?"
Karla looked up, surprised. "Because she was all over you, that's why."
"Oh, come on", said Karla, returning to the magazine. "What's the matter with you?"
Laurence looked back at the girl. She was absorbed in her book once more. He wondered if Karla could possibly be right. She seemed way out of his league. He knew he was no Cary Grant.
"I'm not sure I want to be your brother", said Laurence.
"Yeah, deal with it", muttered Karla, turning the page. "You should be so lucky. Hey, Metallica called it a day!".
Laurence sipped his hot chocolate, wondering at this response, and whether Karla meant anything by it. The hot chocolate was creamy and sweet, milky rather than watery. It filled him with warmth.
He looked at the girl again, and couldn't help doubting Karla's judgement. Girls like that didn't go for guys like him. But her smile had been awfully friendly.
"Dammit", said Karla. "Dammit, dammit, dammit!" She had raised her hand to her forehead.
"What is it?", asked Laurence, wondering what catastrophe she was reading about.
"Migraine", she said. "I get them. Do you have any Paracetomol?"
"No", said Laurence. "Let me check with reception."
"Thanks", said Karla. "You're a honey."
Laurence stole another glance at the cute girl as he passed her, but she didn't look up. Her mouth was a little agape, and her head was bent over the book.
The guy on the reception desk looked as though he might be Pakistani or Indian. He was reading a book, too. Laurence fully expected it to be Omens of Nightfall, but it was a driving test theory book.
The receptionist looked up. "Alright mate?". He had an English accent-- Birmingham, Laurence thought.
"Do you have any Paracetomol? My friend has a migraine."
"Sorry mate", said the receptionist, shaking his head. "But there's a 24 Hour Pharmacy just a little bit away. Out the exit, turn left, walk to the bank, turn left down the alley-way, you'll see it to your right."
Outside, the air was pleasantly crisp but not cold. It was mild for an Irish November, and Laurence didn't miss the coat that he'd left in his own room. He took his hot chocolate with him, sipping it as he went.
The town was dead. Cars still moved along the roads, but there were no people to be seen. He couldn't see any shops open, though most of them still had their lights on. Laurence had always found something strangely eerie about lit-up shops with nobody in them.
Laurence surveyed the street around him, remembering again how much he disliked Irish towns. They always seemed to him grey, and narrow, and crumbling, and stagnant, and full of the memories of poverty and deprivation. No amount of neon and superficial glitz drowned that out. Not that there was much of that here, anyway.
He looked about him for things that were different. Nothing stood out. It looked exactly like the world that the tour bus had left.
Walking with only his hot chocolate for his companion, the strangeness of the situation struck him afresh. Mere hours ago he had been about to end his life. To end everything. He'd wondered, when he was a child, how anybody could deliberately give up life, since even the worst life was better than nothing.
Somehow, though, he hadn't really been thinking of it in such existential terms. He hadn't made a decision against life in favour of death. He was just sick and tired of his life. He felt he'd peaked at twenty-seven; he felt he'd overachieved at twenty-seven, to be honest. What other job was there for him, except teaching? And what other hope of love was there for him, when he'd given up everything in his soul once and been utterly rejected? Wasn't it better just to fold, than to keep playing a losing hand?
The thing is, Laurence wasn't so sure of the value of his own soul. He was achingly average at everything-- average, or below average. He'd often tried to think of something that he did exceptionally well, but he'd always come up blank. Karla had called him a dreamer. He was a dreamer. But what was the point of being a dreamer, when nobody else found your dreams interesting, or exciting, or worthwhile? He was no artist, or entrepreneur, or visionary. All his dreams ever did were rattle around his skull, adding to his loneliness.
Now, though...now, something was happening. Something different. Something special. And now he had...not friends, perhaps, but companions. And surely they would become more than companions? Surely an experience like this guaranteed a deeper bond than any he had known before?
He passed the bank-- a glowing electronic advertisement boasted about its new eight a.m. opening-- and turned into the alley beyond it.
There were no shops here. Just a short stretch of grey walls, and wheelie bins piled up against one side of them.
And graffiti. Mostly just names and slogans, but one image had been daubed in red paint just above the wheelie bins. The sight of it made Laurence go cold.
It was a figure in a cloak. The face was hidden in shadow, but two curved eyes looked out from the shadow. The drawing was very stylized, but very effective. One arm was reaching out to the onlooker, one finger pointing towards him.
Laurence stood staring in the alley-way, staring at the hooded figure, marvelling that a crude painting on the side of a wall could have such a horrible sense of reality.
Then a hand clamped over his mouth, dragging him backwards, and something sharp jabbed against his neck. The smell of aftershave filled his nostrils.
"Wallet", said an East European accent. "Now."