"I want a suite, one night, at the best hotel near the port. That's for the day after tomorrow."
"Yes, sir. Hypersuite?"
"If you can get one." He paused. "If you can't get a suite of any kind, then the best room you can get. Call me when you've got both, but not before. I'm leaving now. I want to get out before somebody ambushes me with something. Let Mick handle it, whatever it is."
"If there are several trains...?"
"Nothing before noon - I've got to pack. The first one after that."
He was ready to go, but she whispered, "I'll miss you, Mr. Grison." Already feeling the pangs of treachery, he gave her a quick kiss.
Dianne, his secretary's assistant, greeted him with a bright smile and a cheerful hello as he left his office. Skip reflected that Susan would have work for her. As for him, he would have work for himself.
A doorman touched the bill of his cap. "Lester told me you were out early, Mr. Grison."
If he had made any reply at all, he had forgotten it by the time he reached his apartment.
ANSWERS might or might not be of help. He touched VOICE. "Gifts for returning servicewoman."
"Ten thousand and up."
Chelle's subjective age would have gone up by two years and what? A hundred-day or so. "Twenty-five."
"Designer dresses and suits, jewelry, small red car, total makeover."
"Cruise, private island, show horse..."
He telephoned Research. "Boris? What do returning servicewomen want most? Somebody must have done a survey, and there might be two or three. Let me know."
* * *
His gift met him at the station. "Are you Skip Grison?" Smile. "I'm Chelle's mother."
He studied her. She was shorter than Chelle and almost slender. Simply but stylishly dressed. "You're younger than I expected," he said.
She smiled again, a charming smile. "Thank you, Skip. You have my ticket?"
"Not yet. We can square it with the conductor."
"You'll be billed if I have to pay my own way. You understand that, I hope."
He nodded, trying to place her perfume. Apples in a garden? Sun-warmed apples? Something like that.
"There would be a surcharge of twenty percent."
"Certainly. I'll take care of it."
Another charming smile. "You look baffled, Skip."
"I am. I pride myself on my ability to think on my feet, and I was told to expect you. But I..."
"In a courtroom."
"Correct. I was going to say that even though I put in an order for you and knew you were coming, something about you took me by surprise. I need a moment to collect my thoughts. Where's your luggage?"
"A nice porter took it for me. I gave him the number of your compartment."
He raised his eyebrows. "You knew it?"
She nodded. "I found it out - it wasn't difficult. Thirty-two C."
"You're right," he said. And then, grateful for the opportunity to break off their conversation, "Let's go find it."
One side was Changeglass, switched off now for full transparency. His scuffed suitcases were on the lone chair, a red-fabric overnight bag on the lower bunk, a bed currently disguised as a couch. The door of the tiny private bath stood open; after a glance inside, Skip closed it. He stowed his briefcase under the lower bunk.
She was throwing switches. "Good reading lights," she said. "That makes all the difference."
He said, "It's only a day and a half."
"Thirty-four hours, if it's on schedule. So one day and ten hours, since these Bullet Trains always are."
"We need to talk." Removing his overnight bag, he took the chair.
"That's what I'm here for." She smiled, warm and friendly. "To talk with you and my darling Chelle."
"Can you play the part?"
"I don't play parts, Skip. Really, I don't." Now she attempted to look severe, but the smile kept getting in the way. "I am your Chelle's mother."
Excerpted from Home Fires by Gene Wolfe. Copyright © 2011 by Gene Wolfe. Excerpted by permission of Tor Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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