“I beg your pardon,” Neville said. “Good afternoon.”
Reggie had been a soldier, once. He’d learned a few things in the trenches—mostly that he wanted to get out of them, which was how he’d become a fighter pilot. When the fellow in the outlandish hat stood up, however, Reggie didn’t need a pilot’s enhanced senses—nor indeed those of a werewolf—to see that he’d been right about the man. That he was going to be trouble.
He wore a long black duster, too broad through the shoulders. The voluminous coat should have hidden any number of sins, but in fact obtrusive lumps stuck out from beneath it here and there. He was carrying more gear than a doughboy on patrol.
Other signs presented themselves. He had a bad scar running from chin to cheek, white and cruel where it crossed his lips. He wore a scrubby little goatee of a beard that was clearly trimmed not to hide any of the old injury.
His eyes were very, very wide as he stared up at Neville. As one of his hands moved toward his belt.
Neville grabbed the hand before it could get there and shook it heartily. “I understand you have some questions about me,” the mummy said.
“You’re Neville Imsety. Late of New York, if I don’t miss my guess,” the man said, in the kind of voice you might imagine a matinee idol would use right before he stormed a pirate ship (this being 1926, the year before the first talkie was released, one used a lot of imagination when one went to the pictures).
“Why, yes, I am,” Neville said. He turned to look at the farmer at the far side of the table. “Sir,” he said, “I do hate to be rude. But I wonder if I might steal your drinking companion for just a mo.”
The farmer nodded and rose from the table. None too steadily. Left without a word.
Neville moved around the table to take the now vacant seat. “You don’t mind if I sit, do you?”
The air in the barroom had changed. It had taken on that tense, anticipatory quality one associates with the moment in a Western just before the shooting commences. Drinks were held halfway between table and mouth. Conversations had paused in mid-sentence. Even the barman had stopped wiping the glass in his hand.
Slowly the man in the outlandish put his hands on the table, where they could be seen.
Which, the occupants of the bar all seemed to agree at once and without any great deliberation, was alright, then. The tricky business of alcohol consumption started up once again, as if it had never stopped.
“I’m afraid you have me at a bit of a disadvantage,” Neville pointed out.
“Is that right? I got the drop on you, do I?”
“In that you know my name, but I don’t know yours.”
The man in the outlandish hat nodded just once. He managed to make a bit of a performance out of it. “Arnold,” he said. “Arnold Van Hels—” He stiffened a bit. “Van Heusen, that is.”
“Oh, like the shirt manufacturers!” Neville said.
“That’s… right. No relation, though,” Van Heusen replied.
“A shame. I do enjoy their folding collars. Now, Mr. Van Heusen, I hope you won’t find me terribly rude. I am however led to believe that you were asking questions about me and my business. If it isn’t too forward I thought I’d come over and answer them in person. Save us both a great deal of time, you see?”
“Questions,” Van Heusen said, and his eyes narrowed. “I have some of those.”
Neville nodded happily. “May I ask one of my own first? May I ask your profession?”
Van Heusen’s eyes narrowed further. They were not yet completely shut, though the distinction was growing more academic by the moment. He glanced down at his massive coat and his rough, callused hands.
“Reporter,” he said. “Journalist, whatever. You know. With the… uh. Pinemont Gazette.”
The game might have been given away there and then, except for the fact that there was indubitably a Pinemont Gazette. A single sheet paper, typically folded in half, which was brought out once a week except during planting and harvest, when the editor in chief was too busy. The typical headline of this organ of record might read FENCES DOWN IN STORM: SIX COWS STILL MISSING, and such gripping reportage would be followed by long columns of farm reports. It was not completely outside the realm of possibility, no matter how unlikely in retrospect, that the gazette employed an actual reporter.
“Wonderful,” Neville said. “I’ve always enjoyed rubbing elbows with the boys of the press. Such great stories they always have, once they loosen up a bit. Well, now, Mr. Van Heusen, I am quite happy to be interviewed, if that’s what you’d like. I’m afraid I need to be getting back to Grimbly Hall, though. I’m probably already late for supper.”
“Another time then,” Van Heusen sneered. “Maybe our paths will cross. By accident, or the like.”
“No, no, it wasn’t my intention to foist you off. I wondered instead if you might break bread with me at the Hall?”