"Very clear," I returned, thankful I would not have to do any love scenes.
"Good. Did they supply you with all the necessary paperwork, IDs, that sort of thing?"
I patted my pocket and she handed me a scrap of paper and a bunch of keys.
"Good. This is my footnoterphone number in case of emergencies, these are the keys to the flying boat and my BMW. If a loser named Arnold calls, tell him I hope he rots in hell. Any questions?"
"I don't think so."
She smiled as a yellow cab with TransGenre Taxis painted on the side materialized in front of us. The cabbie looked bored and Mary opened the passenger door.
"Then we're done. You'll like it here. I'll see you in about a year. So long!"
She turned to the cabbie, muttered, "Get me out of this book," and she and the car faded out, leaving me alone on the dusty track.
I sat upon a rickety wooden seat next to a tub of long-dead flowers and let Pickwick out of her bag. She ruffled her feathers indignantly and blinked in the sunlight. I looked across the lake at the sailing dinghies that were little more than brightly colored triangles that tacked backwards and forwards in the distance. Nearer to shore a pair of swans beat their wings furiously and pedaled the water in an attempt to take off, landing almost as soon as they were airborne, throwing up a long streak of spray on the calm waters. It seemed a lot of effort to go a few hundred yards.
I turned my attention to the flying boat. The layers of paint that covered and protected the riveted hull had partly peeled off to reveal the colorful livery of long-forgotten airlines beneath. The Perspex windows had clouded with age, and high in the massive wing untidy cables hung lazily from the oil-stained cowlings of the three empty engine bays, their safe inaccessibility now a haven for nesting birds. Goliath, Aornis, and SpecOps seemed a million miles awaybut then, so did Landen. Landen. Memories of my husband were never far away. I thought of all the times we had spent together that hadn't actually happened. All the places we hadn't visited, all the things we hadn't done. He might have been eradicated at the age of two, but I still had our memoriesjust no one to share them with.
I was interrupted from my thoughts by the sound of a motorcycle approaching. The rider didn't have much control of the vehicle; I was glad that he stopped short of the jettyhis erratic riding might well have led him straight into the lake.
"Hullo!" he said cheerfully, removing his helmet to reveal a youngish man with a dark Mediterranean complexion and deep sunken eyes. "My name's Arnold. I haven't seen you around here before, have I?" I got up and shook his hand.
"The name's Next. Thursday Next. Character Exchange Program."
"Oh, blast!" he muttered. "Blast and double blast! I suppose that means I've missed her?"
I nodded and he shook his head sadly.
"Did she leave a message for me?"
"Y-es," I said uncertainly. "She said she would, um, see you when she gets back."
"She did?" replied Arnold, brightening up. "That's a good sign. Normally she calls me a loser and tells me to go rot in hell."
"She probably won't be back for a while," I added, trying to make up for not passing on Mary's message properly, "maybe a yearmaybe more."
"I see," he murmured, sighing deeply and staring off across the lake. He caught sight of Pickwick, who was attempting to outstare a strange aquatic bird with a rounded bill.
"What's that?" he asked suddenly.
"I think it's a duck, although I can't be surewe don't have any where I come from."
"No, the other thing."
." "... This is WOLP-12 on the Well of Lost Plots' own footnoterphone station, transmitting live on the hour every hour to keep you up-to-date with news in the Fiction Factory..."
Copyright Jasper Fforde 2003. All rights reserved.
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