The Literary Assassin

Fiction, fashion, and hand-to-hand combat by Holly Messinger

This is a silly little thing I wrote years ago, based on my experiences at sci-fi conventions and at work. There's a nice synthesis of characters here; people I know from fandom merged with people I know from work.

When I started this I actually had a fairly affectionate view of all the freaks and geeks of fandom. My outlook has kind of soured over the past couple of years. Although I've met some lovely professionals in the field, fandom by nature is self-absorbed and self-destructive, and I decided if I couldn't say anything nice about it, then I'd better keep my mouth shut.

It's not finished, so don't get too engrossed. And yes, I know it's ripping off Connie Willis and Sharon McCrumb; that was the point. Humor does not come naturally to me.

FUNGUS

by Holly Messinger

2003-2004
all rights reserved

R.J. Cutler, Vice President of the Book Division of Shopworks Publishing, slapped his hands on the desk and favored Ashley and Caitlin with his best Have-I-Got-A-Deal-For-You! smile. "I guess you're wondering why I asked you in here," he boomed cheerfully.

Ashley squirmed in her seat. R.J. made her nervous, and not just because he was her boss. He always seemed to be hovering on the edge of a punchline--winking, nudging, looming over his audience like an affable vulture. She felt twitchy in his presense, as if his nervous energy were contagious.

Caitlin made her even more nervous: silent and scornful in the other chair, clicking her burgundy nails together like talons. Caitlin was graphics designer for the ad department, so she spent her days sequestered in the graphics bullpen, disdaining to socialize with the rest of the office. Why she worked there at all was a mystery; her clothes and car suggested she was raking in money from someplace other than Shopworks. Nevertheless, her designs were brilliant, her work was always ahead of schedule, and she had the best hair in the building. Ashley was terrified of her.

"I suppose you know," R.J. said, "the Mid-American International Promotional Business-to-Business Convention is this weekend, in Chicago."

"We shipped out the catalogues to the convention center last night," Ashley said. She and Caitlin had spent the last two months preparing the printed materials for the MAIPB2B. That should have been the extent of their involvement, but Ashley had a sudden sinking feeling that this was not the case.

"How would the two of you..." R.J. paused for dramatic effect, "like to represent Shopworks at the convention?"

Ashley stared at him in horror. She opened her mouth, trying to think of a diplomatic way to point out that she was an English major, not a salesperson.

Caitlin beat her to it. "That's not in my job description."

"Ordinarily, no. But both of you are good communicators, have good people skills--" R.J. appeared not to hear Caitlin's snort of derision-- "and both of you are familiar with the products."

"What about Angie and Melissa?" Ashley said. They were the marketing assistants. They were the ones paid to attend the conventions.

"Angela's on maternity leave," R.J. said. "And Melissa was in a tanning-bed accident. The doctor says she'll be out at least three weeks. But we'll put you up in the hotel, pay for all your meals, you just have to sit at the booth and look informed. Zelda will be there, she'll do most of the talking...."

This was an obscene understatement. Zelda Burke was the head of the marketing department, and even R.J. had been known to slip and call her "Yellda" behind her back. Zelda liked to stand in the doorway of her office and shout questions to her assistant at the other end of the hall. She made cell phone calls in the restroom and walked into other people's cubicles to commandeer their phones. She shouted down VP's in meetings and barged into private conversations in the lunchroom. Ashley had nightmares in which Zelda paced the foot of her bed, delivering monologues about her dog's antidepressants, her incompetent waxer, and her collection of Beanie dolls.

Even Caitlin's normally impassive face was lined with revulsion. "Wouldn't you be the next logical choice?" she said to R.J., who recoiled.

"I can't talk to people, I'm an administrator! Besides, I have somewhere else to be. An executive meeting. All weekend. I don't even get Memorial Day off. You two will get out of the office Thursday and Friday and home by Sunday."

Caitlin's expression tightened dangerously. Ashley fought the urge to cry.

R.J.'s professional cheer deflated into weary resignation. "I'll give you two hundred dollars each petty cash."

***

The Woncatonqua Convention Hall was the size of a small aircraft hangar and slightly more noisy. Nine aisles of blue-and-white curtained booths snaked up and down the length of the hall, like a laboratory maze for humans. Every twelve to fifteen feet, an advertiser or marketing director hovered with a toothy smile and a pin-backed button, to skewer the breast of the unwary.

"It's like an obstacle course with live ammo," Caitlin murmured when she saw it.

Ashley agreed, but silently, because she really didn't want Caitlin's attention. Caitlin was wearing solid black today, including leather pants, and Ashley would not have been surprised to learn she was armed. There was definitely something subversive about her co-worker: upon entering the hotel room the night before, Caitlin had attached a sinister-looking mechanical device to the doorframe and warned Ashley not to open the door while the red light was blinking. Then she changed into yoga shorts and a tank, drank a lumpy green concoction, meditated for a half-hour, and turned off the lights promptly at nine.

Ashley hadn't minded much. She mixed herself a rum-and-cola from the minibar and watched a BattleStar Gallactica marathon until midnight--although even her headphones couldn't drown out the occasional sounds of pounding feet and loud laughter in the hall. There was another convention in the hotel--something called "LeperCon," according to the marquee out front--and apparently the attendees were a little wild; the desk clerk had apologized profusely for putting Ashley's party on the same floor with them.

Ashley didn't know what "LeperCon" was, but even if the attendees were typhoid carriers they couldn't be much worse than the Mid-American International Promotional Business-to-Business Conventioneers. Marketing people were like some strange breed of exotic bird, with polyester feathers. Each booth was flashier than the one before; every salesperson was louder and whiter of teeth. And the queen of it all was Zelda "Yellda" Burke.

Zelda was about fifty, with a body that had probably been prime cheesecake before gravity and tanning lamps began to take their toll. Her thick frizzy hair was dyed carrot-red. She wore far too much makeup and a wardrobe that was appropriate for a much younger woman. Her voice was like a tuba on helium, and she never--stopped--talking.

"That's a great jacket, mister, do you have a motorcycle to go with it? You do! Then you need to check out Bikers Monthly, from Shopworks Publishing! Here's a coupon for a free issue. Hey, honey, I love that sweater, is that a Donna Karan? You should read Tags magazine from Shopworks Publishing, have you heard of it? Here's a button with our web address so you can check it out."

No one got by unmauled. Her strident tones cut through the wind-tunnel roar of the air conditioners and soared over the bleating of the crowd. And if there was a lull in the foot-traffic and she had no one to accost, she talked at Caitlin and Ashley. She had been complaining about her hotel room since seven a.m.

"I mean, I go up there and the shower floor is blue, not just speckled, but coated in blue fungus--Hello, thanks for stopping by, are you familiar with Shopworks? Here's a brochure that outlines some of our publications--some of those fungi stalks were so tall they actually had little heads on them, like Q-tips, and with my allergies there's no way I can stay in there--Oooohhh, look at that little one! What big eyes! Izzoo a widdle cutie guy? Izzoo? Oh, you have to check out Modern Baby Magazine, from Shopworks. Can he have a balloon? Can he? And here's a button for yooou--but the hotel says they're all filled up with the multiple conventions this weekend. So I insisted they take off the charge for my room from our bill, and they fought me about that, but I talked them into it, and then spent the whole night listening to those damn Lepercons parade up and down the hall until four this morning...."

It went on for hours: Ashley's personal version of Hell. Gushing and exclaiming and coffee fumes. Clowns and babies and salespeople in shiny coats. Plastic bags and cheap swag and stupid jokes and forced laughter. Zelda had many friends among the other boothers, from years and years of attending these functions, and they kept dropping by to chat. Ashley was awfully fascinated by these interactions of marketers among their own kind: they all knew it was fake and pointless, and yet they had been fake and pointless for so long that they'd forgotten any other way to be.

"Well, lookee there, it's my favorite broad," said one such visitor, a middle-aged jock with receding hair and a barrel chest.

"Rusty!" Zelda shrieked, and flung herself into his arms. He did an admirable job of holding his ground--possibly because he took a firm grip on her left buttock, to anchor himself.

"How you doin, darlin? Ain't you just the sweetest taste of sugar here?" Rusty did a double-take as he pretended to notice Ashley and Caitlin. "And you brought a couple of new chickadees! How come you get all the pretty girls in your booth?"

"Oh, Rusty," Zelda pouted, giving him a playful shove. "Don't waste your flattery around here. We're here to work this weekend."

"Work? I never knew a woman could do five minutes of real work. All those women in my office, the minute I turn my back they're all gabbing and giggling."

"Maybe they're talking about you," Caitlin said.

Rusty gave her a sharp look, but she only smiled, showing a lot of teeth. He leaned over Ashley, reaching to pick up her hand so he could place an oily kiss on the back of it. "I don't think I know you, darlin, what's your name?"

"Uh. Ashley," she said, because she couldn't think of a way to avoid telling him.

"And is this your first time at the MAIP's?" he asked.

"Well, yes." He wasn't releasing her hand. She pulled back, lightly, but he didn't let go and she didn't want to jerk away and make a an issue of it.

"Oh, so you're a virgin!" Rusty chortled, causing several heads to turn in their direction. Ashley's face flamed with embarrassment and anger.

Caitlin's hand thrust itself under his nose. "Whitby," she said loudly, as Rusty realized he had to let go of Ashley to acknowledge Caitlin. She pumped his hand with vigor. "Caitlin Whitby. And you are?"

A mean look was developing around Rusty's eyes but he rallied with a smirk. "Russ Wilcox, darlin, but you can call me Rusty Wilco. As in, Will-copy, as in, I'm the guy who gets it done. Got that name in the navy, back when I was a fighter pilot."

"No kidding!" Caitlin said. "Bet you shot down a lot of them slant-eyes, huh?"

"Uh.... Yeah." Rusty seemed to be having a hard time extracting his hand from her grip. He jerked free, and nearly struck Zelda with his elbow.

She tugged on his arm. "Come on, you old coot, you owe me a drink from last year. You girls don't mind, do you? We'll just be gone ten minutes. Can you handle things for that long?"

"Uh...," Ashley said.

Caitlin kicked her under the table. "Sure thing, lamb-chop," she cooed.

"Come on, grumpy, I haven't seen you since April." Zelda and Rusty marched away, arm in arm. "Have you noticed the fungus in this hotel? I swear this whole place is infested, they ought to burn it down...."

"About time," Caitlin muttered, shoving her chair back.

"Where are you going?" Ashley asked.

"Elsewhere."

"You can't just leave the booth!"

"Why? Is somebody going to steal the giveaway buttons?" Caitlin looked down her nose. "I'm starving, and there's no reason we should sit here while that silly cow gets soused. We'll just go to the restaurant on the other side of the convention center."

Ashley felt a little better to know that Caitlin didn't intend to leave her alone. "What if she beats us back?"

"She won't. Melissa told me Zelda likes to the spend the whole convention in the bar. It'll be a miracle if we see her again this weekend. Now are you coming or not?"

Ashley didn't need more convincing. She collected her purse and hurried to catch up.

Caitlin only looked back once and then plunged ahead, a slim black-clad figure who moved with the precision of a SWAT gunman. She cut efficiently through the incoming waves of people, while Ashley ducked and dodged to keep up, hobbled as she was in a slim skirt and pumps.

The hotel was part of a massive convention center, built to hold multiple exhibitions in the same weekend. Caitlin paused at an intersection to get her bearings, then headed decisively toward the lobby. People straggled in from the registration desk dragging suitcases and jackets, cardboard boxes, mysterious crates, and unruly rolled-up banners. They resembled refugees, packing along everything they owned with a haunted look in their eyes.

Ashley found she could tell at a glance which guests belonged to the ad convention. They had a certain look: big eyes, big hair and big teeth, like the Wolf in Red Riding Hood. They also dressed better than the general population.... however upon closer observation, Ashley realized that the non-advertisers had a certain sameness, too; they made up the drab background against which the salespeople glowed like neon. The background people were either tall or short, mostly overweight except for those who were sickly thin; all of them had bad posture. Their hair was overly long and the men were unshaven-- some of the women, too. Many of them wore glasses, but even those who didn't had a myopic look, as if they were peering at the world from inside a fishbowl.

"Is it just me," Caitlin said, slowing her pace, "or did we cross over into the land of the inbred?"

Everybody did look alike. Rather like Ashley imagined gnomes would look, the pallor and the doughy quality.

One of the gnomes, a thin one wearing fringed suede boots, gave a thumbs-up signal to Caitlin as he passed. "Great costume," he said.

Caitlin lifted an eyebrow and looked at Ashley for explanation. She shrugged, but now they were nearing the other side of the convention center and there was a definite shift in fashion, away from business-standard and toward the outré. Goth and punk. Paramilitary and tie-dyed hippie fringe. Peasant blouses and corsets. And a lot of blue t-shirts.

"What the hell is LeperCon?" Caitlin said, reading the shirts.

Ashley could only shake her head. She was beginning to wonder if it was some kind of tour group for a mental hospital, because the young man rushing toward them had a wild-eyed, unkempt look, and seemed to be wearing hospital scrubs under his silk smoking jacket. He darted from group to group across the lobby, not so much handing out pamphlets as tossing them at people. Then he spotted Caitlin and Ashley and stopped dead in the middle of the corridor.

"That's it!" he screeched. "You're perfect!"

He ran at Caitlin as if he meant to tackle her. Caitlin fell back into a serious-looking defensive stance and Ashley hastily stepped aside. The man stopped at arm's length and held out one of his orange quarter-cut pieces of paper. "Excuse me," he said politely. "You really must enter the masquerade tonight. Molly Millions, right?"

"Say what?" said Caitlin.

"I mean, she was kind of the precursor to Trinity, and since you've got the mirrored glasses instead of the black ones--"

"He thinks you're dressed as a character from a book," Ashley said, as understanding began to dawn. "Neuromancer, by William Gibson. You do kind of look like Molly."

"You don't have the razor blade fingernails--do you?" the little man asked.

"Care to find out?" Caitlin asked, curling her fingers.

"Perfect!" the little man beamed, and darted away.

Caitlin held up the square of orange paper between two fingers. "Masquerade?"

TWENTY-FIFTH annual MASQUERADE at LEPERCON XXV! shrieked the flyer. SATURDAY NITE AT 10 P.M. TIL ????. (See Jimmy Dean for registration.)

"Uh-huh, " Caitlin said, and looked sideways at Ashley. "And just who am I supposed to be?"

"Um. Molly Millions. She's a, uh, punk samurai. She has these biomedical implants in her brain, and, um, razorblade fingernails."

"Science fiction, huh?"

"Well... yeah."

"You read that stuff?"

Ashley felt her face beginning to heat. "I did. When I was younger. I mean, my dad did, and I used to borrow his books. When I had nothing else to read."

The truth was, Ashley had loved all things otherworldly since grade school, but she'd gone into the closet upon starting college and was careful to keep her proclivities hidden from her co-workers. The slightest taint of genre fiction could destroy an English major's reputation.

Caitlin surveyed the lobby over her sunglasses. "This must be one of those Trekkie conventions, then."

"Well... I don't think all of these people are into Star Trek. There are people who are into other aspects of science fiction."

Caitlin grinned at her, ferociously. "Uh-huh. So what is there to do at these things?"

"I don't know. I've never been to one. You don't want to stay here, do you?"

"Hell, after the ad floor, these people look downright normal--Hey!"

She threw out a hand as if to hold Ashley back, and Ashley jumped, looking around nervously for the new attack. But Caitlin's attention was drawn by a pair of aliens across the commons. One was tall and doughy, the other was short and doughy. They both wore leather armour that constrained and supported the paunch beneath. Their hair was long and wild, their beards were longer and waxed, and their foreheads were covered by latex prostheses meant to look like bony-plated skulls. Exotic and expensive-looking weapons were strapped to their shoulders and thighs. Caitlin let out a long thoughtful hmmm, almost a purr.

"What--?" Ashley said. "Not--not those guys?"

"No, dumbass. The blades. Come on."

Ashley followed her across the commons floor, but as they drew near the two leather-clad aliens, the aliens turned and went through a doorway.

The sign on the door read, "Dealer's Room," and there was a totally different breed of alien standing just inside. This one had bright blue skin, white hair and antenna on his head.

He held out a hand to halt them. "Badges?"

"Excuse me?" Ashley said.

"Where are your badges?" the blue alien asked. He pointed to his belt, to which was affixed a plastic name badge with a slip of blue paper in it. "To show your membership."

Ashley felt her face getting hot. "Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't realize--"

"I have them," Caitlin said, showing her left hand to the alien. Two blue cards were cupped in her palm. She handed one to Ashley.

"Oh," she said. Caitlin took her by the elbow and steered her into the room.

"Where did you get these?" Ashley hissed, once they were away from the alien.

"Don't ask questions," Caitlin said.

Ashley obeyed, beause she had just realized she was standing in reader nirvana: shelf upon makeshift shelf of yellowing paperbacks and dust-jacketed hardbacks; piled on tables, filed in cardboard boxes, stacked on precarious monuments of cinderblocks and lumber planks. She breathed deep the aroma of book glue and dusty paper, her head already buzzing with the high. "I'm, uh, just going to look around...."

She was vaguely aware of Caitlin saying something and drifting away before the book haze enveloped her senses. She dropped to a squat before the nearest shelf, reaching out to brush the crumbling spines of old Heinleins, LeGuins, Asimovs... here was a hardcover Dune, there was a signed McCafferey... Oooh! A compilation of two Diana Wynn Jones novels--she hadn't known there were any more Chrestomanci novels!

Ashley pulled the book out and turned it over to read the back, then recoiled as her fingers encountered something sticky. The edges of the pages and the front cover were smeared with something blue-green and viscous, with an iridescent sheen to it, like slug trails.

"Eeeww." Ashley fumbled one-handed in her purse for a Kleenex.

"Here ya go, little lady." A paper towel appeared under her nose.

"Thanks." Ashley stood up and found herself facing a rather large, lumpy elf in a western shirt. His blue badge said "DEALER" on it. "Did you know there's some kind of mold on that bottom row of books?"

"Figures. This whole hotel is infested. Can't keep it out of the stock." The dealer cocked the brim of his straw cowboy hat. "This your first Con?"

"Uh... yeah." Ashley was having to crane her neck to look up at him, and his body odor was rather aggressive. She took a step back and the book table bumped her in the butt.

"Didn't think I recognized you," he said. "I'm Bob. Danger Bob to my friends."

"Oh." Ashley gathered this must be some kind of joke. The man was doughy and slumped, with a neat little pot belly straining the waistband of his powder-blue jeans. "Are you the dealer?"

"Yeah, but I'm also a writer. I just sold my first role-playing book to Iron Cross Publications. Are you a gamer?"

"Er, no. I'm just looking for my friend." Ashley had dated a gamer once, in high school. She'd heard he had recently moved out of his parents' basement, into the basement of his best friend's house.

"Ashley, huh?" Bob said, reading her name tag. Too late, she clapped her hand over it. "Oh, you're with that other convention. Are you from the Chicago area?"

Ashley made an ambiguous motion with her head. "Are you?"

"No, I'm from Oklahoma. I'm actually on my way back from the Jeopary auditions. I made it to the semi-finals. I should've won that last round, but the judges were biased to the Edison-centric history of the development of the electrical industry."

"This must be out of your way then." Ashley said, trying to edge along the book table.

Danger Bob sidled into her escape route. "Oh, I go to all the major conventions: Chicago, St. Louis, Detroit, Milwaukee--that's the big one for me, that's where all the gamers meet--Kansas City, Okee City.... Did you know this hat is an exact replica of Wolverine's?" Danger Bob tipped his hat. "I made it myself."

"Caitlin!" Ashley said with relief.

"Well, hi there!" Caitlin slid between Ashley and Danger Bob like a shoehorn. She took Bob's right hand in her own and gripped his elbow with her left, and propelled him three feet backwards. "Great to meet you," she said, while Bob's mouth slacked open in pain. "You'll have to forgive us, we don't know the local customs around here. Maybe you'll just give my friend some space to figure things out, huh?"

"Sure thing," Bob said, red-faced and knees buckling.

Caitlin let him go and turned to Ashley. "Find what you were looking for?"

Ashley waved her books around helplessly. "Where did you go?"

"Doing some shopping." She jerked her chin toward the corner of the room, where a burly man in a leather vest stood before a display of swords. He returned her salute with a head-jerk of his own. "Stan's going to make some custom blades for me."

"For what?" Ashley said.

"A project," Caitlin said. "You hungry?"

***

They had lunch in one of the hotel's restaurants--which Caitlin cased out, first, to make sure Zelda was not inside. She wasn't, but a number of blue shirts were, so Caitlin and Ashley helped themselves to the soup and salad bar, flanked by aliens, barbarians, an elf, and an assortment of blue tee-shirts.

"I think Zelda was right about this place being infested," Ashley said, poking at a quivering green blob on the buffet cart. It was definitely not Jell-O.

"It was worse at Contraception last year," a little man at her elbow said. He was short, and thin, with sparse hair and a pale mustache. "The swimming pool had scum on it."

"Remember the wood fungus growing in the lobby?" said another little man on her other side. This one was Chinese, but aside from his epicanthic folds and black hair, he was a carbon copy of the first man.

"And the mildew under the podium?"

"And the brown slime in the bathroom?"

"And the rat in the Goh's room?"

"You guys must go to a lot of these things," Ashley ventured.

"Oh, every year," said the Chinese man. He licked barbecue sauce from his thumb and held out his hand to Ashley. "I'm Tom Wong. You can call me W for short."

Ashley shook his index finger. "Nice to meet you."

"And I'm Tim Billings," said the pale man, holding out a hand.

"Are you twins?" Caitlin asked.

"No, we're collaborators," said Tim.

"I like your costume," said a grandmotherly woman to Caitlin across the sneeze guard. "It's subtle. Where did you get the leather pants?"

"Berlin," Caitlin said.

"Is this your first Con?"

"Well, yes," Ashley admitted. "Actually we're here with the advertising convention, on the other side of the hotel."

"Not by choice," Caitlin said.

Tim and Tom and the woman, whose name was Louise, were very nice. They invited the girls to join their table, and over lunch Ashley learned that a science fiction convention was called a "Con," and the gnome people referred to themselves as fans, or "fen" in the plural. Ashley was rather shocked to learn that all three of their new friends were writers. Tim and Tom, it seemed, had each published several books, but nothing she had heard of.

"Well, let's see," Louise said, "Tim's best-known work is probably Acid in the Blood, wouldn't you say? What year was that published?"

"Oh, it would have been around '73 or '74," Tim said. "About the time that Dick in the white house was pulling us out of Vietnam."

Ashley, who had been born in 1974, said to Louise, "What have you published?"

"Oh, my first novel came out a couple of years ago." Louise had finished her lunch and was knitting, clicking her needles together cheerfully over a skein of bright yellow yarn. "It's called Avenging Angel. It's an alternate-history religious-dystopia sociological suspense story."

"I read that," Caitlin said. "It was funny."

Everyone stared at her for a moment until Tom said, "It wasn't supposed to be a comedy."

Caitlin lifted an eyebrow. "What, with that government agent calling his gun Mary Sue and talking to it all the time? I thought it was a joke."

"I'll have you know, I did quite a lot of research for that book," Louise said, brandishing the knitting needles and inadvertently dropping several stitches. "Oh, drat, now look what you made me do.... One of the men in my husband's gun club used to be a government agent and he gave me plenty of information about how real assassins operate."

Caitlin's nostrils flared in contemptous amusement. "And you'd believe anybody who told you he was a government assassin?"

Louise clutched her knitting needles as though she might lunge across the table, but the conversation was interrupted by a high, breathy female voice, coming close over Ashley and Caitlin's heads.

"Hhhhhigh, guys," it said, a mere sigh of greeting.

The effect on Caitlin was remarkable. She leapt to her feet as if an alarm had gone off, whipping around to stare in amazement at the fairy-creature behind her. The new arrival was dressed in layers of wispy, drapy shawls and skirts and blouses and vests, with a big slouchy bag slung crosswise over her chest. She stood on matchstick ankles inside frail granny boots. Her hair was a cloud of red-gold frizz all around her head, her smile sweet and rather vague.

"Hello, Patchouli!" Tim--or perhaps Tom, Ashley had forgotten which was which--said merrily. "Glad you could make it."

"Hello, hello!" said Tom/Tim.

"Hhhiii," Patchouli said, her head hanging to one side. She beamed at Caitlin, who had recovered her composure and stood back from the table, a curious tension in her stance. "Don't I know you?"

"That depends," Caitlin said.

"This is Caitlin," said Tim.

"And this is Ashley," Tom added. "This is their first Con."

"Oh, hhhi!" Patchouli said, beaming gently. "Sorry I'm late... the quarks were running behind."

"That's okay, honey," Louise said, sweeping her knitting bag off the seat beside her. "We saved you a seat. Now you just sit right down here and tell us what you've been doing with yourself."

"Oh, okay." Patchouli sat and looked at Caitlin and Ashley. "Do you guys like rats?"

"Rats?" Ashley said. "I, uh, don't know any personally."

"Oh. Okay." Patchouli lifted a sleek black rat out of her bag and set him on the table. "This is Euripides."

The rat's whiskers fluttered as he sniffed the air. Then he dropped to all fours and started unerringly toward Ashley. She steeled herself not to recoil. Euripides ran to the edge of the table and rose on his hind legs, rocking back and forth slightly as he examined her by scent. "Aren't you afraid he'll run away in here?" Ashley said.

"Oh, no. Euripides is shy. He doesn't like to get far from me. Besides, I can always call him back. Have you guys seen Rollie yet?"

Euripides stretched to put his front paws on her shoulder, and whiffled his tiny rat breath all along her cheek and neck. It felt ticklish and weird, and although Ashley wasn't really afraid, something primal in her wanted to fling the rat across the room. It seemed rude to fling a rat named Euripides. "Who's Rollie?" she asked, hoping it wasn't another rodent.

"C.J. Rolland," Tim explained. "He's the writer Goh this year--"

"Go?" Ashley repeated.

"Gee-oh-aitche. Guest of Honor. He used to be in our writer's group, but since he sold his Gray Matter trilogy he hasn't had much time for us."

"Plus he got that promotion at work," Louise added. "And with his traveling all the time, you can't expect him to come to our meetings every month."

"Wait a minute," Caitlin said. "Are you saying the writer guest of honor--some writer who's important enough to be the guest of honor, is still working a day job?"

"Unfortunately, that's often the case," Louise said.

"Maybe one fiction writer in two hundred makes enough money to live on," Tim said.

"Like Robert Jordan," Tom added.

The fen shuddered.

"Or L. Ron Hubbard," Tim said.

More shuddering.

"Isn't he dead?" Ashley asked.

"Yes, but he goes on publishing," Tim said.

Shudder.

"Rollie's wearing the cow suit," Patchouli said cheerfully.

"Oh, good," Louise said, as if this were pleasant news.

Ashley and Caitlin glanced at each other. Caitlin gave Patchouli a long thoughtful stare, but Patchouli was busy mixing honey into her peas and didn't notice.

Suddenly there was a crash and a scream. The whole of the restaurant turned to see a man lying prone before the salad bar, a small knot of people gathered around him.

"Oh my goddess, oh my goddess!" screamed a fat girl in a blue tee-shirt, dropping to her knees over the fallen man. "Ralph! Ralph! Somebody call a doctor!"

A flurry made up of Caitlin and Louise rushed around Ashley. "I'm a nurse," Louise said, over the bawling of the fat girl. "Honey, step back so I can examine him. Is he choking? Honey, you have to let me see him--I can't help him if you don't let me see him--"

Caitlin took hold of the big girl's hair and lifted straight up. The girl rose to her feet with a startled squawk, and Caitlin pushed her back against the salad bar. "Phone," she said into the girl's face. "Cell phone. You have one?"

The fat girl fumbled in her purse. Caitlin snatched the phone from her hands and tossed it to Ashley. "Call 911," Caitlin said.

Ashley dialed. "Nine-one-one dispatch," said a voice at the other end. "Please hold."

"He's not breathing," Louise said. "No pulse, either."

"Airway's clear," Caitlin said. "No convulsions. Can't be cyanide."

"He didn't eat anything, did he?" the restaurant manager asked nervously, at Ashley's elbow. "Nobody saw him eat anything, did they?"

The emergency dispatch hold music was a Casio version of "Help," by The Beatles.

"Do you know CPR?" Louise asked.

"I'm not putting my mouth on that," Caitlin said. "What the hell is that stuff?"

"Looks like some kind of mutagen," Tim said.

Ashley craned her neck. There was a strange greenish stuff, like opaque Jell-O, around the guy's mouth.

"It's on his hands, too," Caitlin said.

"Don't touch it," Louise said. "It could be toxic."

"That's not anything we serve," said the manager.

Ashley grabbed his sleeve. "Is there a hotel physician?"

"I don't know of any poison that's that instantaneous," Caitlin said.

Somebody fetched the fitness trainer from the hotel's spa, who took one look at the dead man's bluing face and threw up in a bus tray. Ashley got through to emergency dispatch, but by then all Louise could do was tell them that a man was dead and they had better send a coroner instead of paramedics. Ashley and Tom tried to comfort the fat girl. Patchouli knelt beside the dead man for several minutes, holding Euripides close to the man's face while the rat's whiskers fluttered. At length she put the rat on her shoulder, removed her shawl and spread it over the man's head.

Caitlin watched this little ceremony, her burgundy mouth folded into a tight line and her face unusually solemn. When she looked up and caught Ashley looking at her, she only shook her head.

"You never get used to it," Caitlin said with a sigh.

***

Caitlin and Ashley hastened back to their booth, not even waiting for the paramedics to arrive ("Better we're not around when people start asking questions," Caitlin said), but of course Zelda was nowhere in sight. Without her, tending the booth wasn't bad at all. Ashley read one of the books she'd bought, and Caitlin pulled out a nail file the length of a bayonet and sawed at her burgundy claws. Very few people stopped by the booth, although one pair of visitors were the two armed-and-armoured aliens from the lobby.

One was tall and fat, the other was short and fat, and they both smelled sour.

"Hi," the short one said. "Can we have a button?"

"Sure," Ashley said, trying to gape--or breathe.

"What is all this?" asked the tall one, waving a hand to encompass the show floor.

"The Mid-American International Promotional Business-to-Business Convention," Ashley said.

The two aliens stood there for a moment, trying to digest this. At length the short one said, "So what are you promoting?"

There was another pause, while Ashley and Caitlin looked at each other. "Business," Ashley said tentatively.

"Promotional business," Caitlin amended.

"It's to promote advertising companies," Ashley explained.

The short alien gave himself a shake as if the concept creeped him out. "Weird."

"Totally," said the tall one. He nodded at Caitlin. "Nice costume."

Zelda and Rusty showed up around five o'clock, closing time for the ad floor. They were both drunk.

"There's those two gorgeous babes!" Rusty said. "Hey, you two gotta come have dinner with us. I'll have my own harem!"

"And that would make you the eunuch!" Caitlin said with a big bright grin.

"Yeah!" Rusty guffawed.

They had dinner in the bar, of course. The smoke was so thick that Ashley's eyelids began to stick to her eyeballs. Rusty roared at the waitresses, roared at the bartender, and roared jokes back and forth with friends at other tables.

"Hey Jake! Jake! You see that sombitch in the cow suit down the hall from us? Didja? All these faggots runnin round in tights and shit... Hey, Catie, have another drink, toots, you're not keeping up with the rest of us."

Caitlin smiled an arctic smile. Ashley rubbed her temples.

"Smile, Ashley, sweetie," Zelda said. "You'd be so pretty if you'd smile once in a while. What is this green crap on the table--? Caitlin, honey, can you flag down that waiter? Now Ashley, I got a compliment on you this afternoon... you know Sonic Sound DJ's, in the booth right across from us? That young Tommy Tunes wanted to know all about you. He said, 'That girl's got class,' and I told him you were single, so if he comes around tomorrow you just feel free to go have a drink with him."

"And if he gives you any trouble, you just tell 'em you're a friend of Rusty Wilco," Rusty said. "Some these sombitches'll take advantage of a young lady like yourself, but don't take any b.s., hear?"

Caitlin looked at her watch. "We have to go." She stood, hauling on Ashley's arm. Ashley hopped up without hesitation, not knowing and not caring what the reason was.

"Go?" Rusty boomed. "It's still early! I was going to get a few more drinks in you girls and then start the bidding!"

"I have to call my grandmother," Caitlin said. "She's dying. She could go at any minute. In fact the doctor said she'd probably go before eight o'clock and I promised to call by then. And Ashley needs her medication."

Ashley nodded vehemently. Caitlin grabbed her by the wrist and began dragging, although she needed little encouragement to get moving. Zelda and Rusty were too soused to move quickly and didn't seem to find it important enough to try.

"Thank God," Ashley gasped, in the relatively fresh air of the lobby. "Thank you, Catie-honey."

Caitlin allowed a semi-amused twitch of the lips and punched the call button for the elevator.

"Where are we going?"

"Room eleven-sixteen," Caitlin said. "Stan said he had some more stock to show me in his room."

"Who's Stan?"

"The weapons dealer."

"Uh... I don't mean to tell you your business, but that doesn't sound very safe--"

"It's all right. Louise said everybody in geekdom has room parties at these things. We'll check it out, grab some free snacks, and if it looks hairy, leave."

Hairy was exactly what it looked like. Also pale, gaunt, paunchy, unkempt, and loud. In fact, aside from basic grooming habits, the eleventh-floor hallway strongly resembled the bar they had just left.

And yet it was nothing like the same. All the blueshirts smiled and hailed the girls as if they were long-lost friends--or at least welcome new friends. In nothing flat Ashley had a Pepsi in one hand and a brownie in the other, and Caitlin was testing out throwing knives on a makeshift target on the fire escape door.

"Hey, nice form!" Stan said. He looked like he had driven non-stop from a bunker in the Idaho wilderness, but his voice was high-pitched and sweet, like a child's. "Dang, girl, you got that one clean through into the door." He pulled the knife free with a screech of metal and handed it back to Caitlin hilt-first. "I can give you a good deal on those, five for a hundred."

"They're nice," Caitlin said, "but I wanted some with the matte-black finish."

"Hhiiigh, Ashley," said a breathy voice. Ashley turned to see Patchouli standing nearby, all drapes and frizz, beaming vaguely while Euripides groomed her left ear. "How was your day at the convention?"

"It could have been worse," Ashley admitted. "But I'm glad it's over. How was yours?"

"Oh, nice. Nice. I met some friends, did my panels. Had a good audience."

"Panels?"

"Yeah. They're like... you know... people come and sit? And you talk? About a topic?"

"Any topic?"

"Yeah!... No. Like, they pick the topic in advance. I think Rollie picked this one... or maybe Dave...." Patchouli frowned gently into the mid-distance.

"You mean the convention organizers pick topics and you guys volunteer to discuss them?" Ashley said.

"Yeah!" Pride replaced the befuddlement on Patchouli's face.

"...And what did you talk about at your panel?" Ashley asked.

"String theory." Patchouli conjured a brazil nut from somewhere within her drapes and offered it to Euripides.

"String... theory? As in the best way to make it?"

"No! No, no." Patchouli's giggle was sweet and innocent, like a nun being tickled. "It's a theory to connect everything together. The whole universe. A unified theorum to explain how elementary particles behave together with the laws of nature. Like gravity and stuff."

"Oh." This rang a distant bell. Very distant. "Are you a physicist?"

"Oh no. I'm an herbalist. I just read physics books as a hobby. Hey, there's Rollie!"

Patchouli sailed away. Ashley watched her go, floating through the crowd like a bit of thistledown on a breeze, heading toward a very tall man against the wall who... Ashley stared. The man was wearing a white suit, pants and sport jacket, that had been painted all over with black spots to resemble a Holstein's hide. But that wasn't what made her stare. There was something weirdly familiar about him....

"Hello again, little lady," said Danger Bob, oozing into Ashley's visual frame.

Ashley gave a little yelp and stepped backwards, but Danger Bob was more spry than he looked--or perhaps he'd had practice at cornering cagey females. He pivoted expertly, and Ashley found herself backed against a wall of the noisy hallway, trapped between Bob and an enormous woman in a leather corset.

"So I hear you're in publishing," Danger Bob said.

"Yeah," Ashley said, wondering how he'd found that out in the few hours since he'd first seen her, and creeped out by the fact that he had been asking about her, and only too late realizing that he probably meant fiction publishing. "But I'm not--"

"My latest novel is a coming-of-age story set in a small Oklahoma military town in the forties," Bob said, falling into the rushed monotone of a memorized pitch. "Five best friends--Tom, Jack, Rob, Billy and Chubs--are all the sons of officers living at Fort Sill military base. But what they don't know is their fathers are all part of a classified government experiment to breed vampire troops to fight Hitler's Nazi troops. Then one day Jack, Rob, and Chubs' fathers are all mysteriously killed in a tragic accident--but soon thereafter the boys think they see their fathers outside their windows at night. The five friends must band together to prove that their fathers have been the victims of a government cover-up, but will they be able to save their fathers before they themselves are turned into members of The Night Fighters?"

Danger Bob stopped, panting slightly, looking both relieved and expectant.

"Wow," Ashley said, in sincere awe.

"I think it'll be big," Danger Bob said. "I self-published the first two thousand copies, but now I want to sell it to one of the big New York publishers."

Ashley was now too fascinated to think about escape. "Have you had any interest?"

"Oh yes. So far all the editors I've pitched to have requested a manuscript. Luckily I brought plenty of copies so I can hand them out at the panels tomorrow. I've got some copies in my room--why don't you come down with me and I'll give you one?"

"Uh--"

"I even give a money-back guarantee on my website. If you don't think it's as good as Stephen King, I'll refund your money. They're only twenty-nine ninety-five, but for you I'll knock the price down to twenty-seven fifty."

...Sorry folks, but that's all I got so far. I kind of ran out of interest, and it was getting way too long, and I figured this ground had been fairly well-trodden anyway. Maybe another time.

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