Neville rushed through the central hall and into the foyer even as Hughes was opening the door. A gust of wet air bellied in and ruffled the mummy’s lapels as he peered out into the gloomy day.
A rather ordinary-looking man stood there, water dripping from the brim of his hat. He wore a cheap suit and carried a large black leather case. Neville felt a bit let down, of course. He’d hoped the new visitor would be a monster of some description or other, perhaps a death-visaged gorgon or at least a goblin with a pointy hat. Not this perfectly common fellow who had the look of nothing more exotic than a door-to-door salesman.
“Hello,” he said. “May I help you?”
“Good evening, sir or madam,” the man said. There were two things wrong there, though it took a second for Neville to note them. “I wonder if I might speak for a moment with whoever buys books in this household?”
Right, yes, the two things. Well, for one, it was barely lunchtime. Not evening. The other odd thing was that the man’s mouth didn’t move as he spoke. Though his hat did. It wiggled in a frankly discomfiting manner. As if the man’s hair was trying to escape.
“I promise I’ll only take a moment, and I believe you will be very interested in the product I have to offer. Do you ever wish you had access to all the world’s information, right there at your fingertips?” The voice was perhaps a trifle off, as well. It lacked much in the way of inflection, and the timbre was a bit too tinny for the man’s admittedly average frame, as if the voice belonged to a much smaller person who was standing directly behind him. There wasn’t anyone there, however. Neville checked. “How often have you needed to know something in a hurry, only to have to travel to your nearest library to find it out?”
The mouth still wasn’t moving. That was definitely confusing. Until Neville noticed that the skin of the man’s face was too opaque, too smooth. Aha! Yes, that was it. The man’s face was made of plaster. In fact, when Neville paid it a tad more attention, he was certain he was looking at a department store mannequin, not a human being. Although the eyes—
“What if I were to tell you that for very little cost, you could own a set of reference works that would solve that very problem? One hears the word ‘encyclopedia’ thrown about a lot these days, but—”
“No I don’t,” Neville said, recovering a bit of his composure. “I can’t actually remember the last time I heard anyone use the word ‘encyclopedia’.” The eyes. They were mostly human-looking, they were distinctly wet, and they were a rather pleasant shade of blue. That much could be said for them, yes. Which made them odd only in the fact they were set into that plaster head. The eyes—
One of them, the left to be precise, looked like it was falling out of the head. As Neville watched in growing astonishment, it emerged from its plaster socket and moved about independently on a long green stalk. The man slowly and carefully lifted his free hand and pushed the eye back into place.
“I can see you are a customer of discernment and/or quality,” the man said. “Would you like to review some samples of my product?”
“Perhaps,” Neville said, one hand on his chin, “you should come inside. I rather think you’re in the right place, whether you know it or not.”
The man stepped inside and dripped all over the marble floor of the foyer. He did not put down his case, nor did he look as if he would take another step forward until he was told it was alright.
A ghostly hand reached through the wall and grasped the man’s hat by its crown. That got a reaction, definitely. Dozens of green tendrils, the same shade as the eyestalk, writhed out around the edges of the hat and gripped it tightly, pulling back against the butler’s spectral strength.
“I think our guest would prefer to keep his hat, Hughes,” Neville said. “I’m sorry, friend, I didn’t catch your name…?”
The tendrils slithered back under the hat once the butler released it, but the man didn’t answer. It took Neville a moment to realize that his question could have been interpreted as a mere statement.
He tried again.
“What is your name?” he asked, in that overly loud and obnoxious voice Americans use when they meet someone who refuses to understand English.
The mannequin head swiveled around a little to face Neville. “I am Qornok.” The plaster head drooped forward a few degrees, and it looked almost exactly like the mannequin were thinking hard. “Qornok Jones.”
“A pleasure to meet you, Mr. Jones. I’m Neville Imsety. Ah, and this is Reggie, my chauffeur. Reggie, we have another guest.”
“I can see that,” Reggie replied. The werewolf’s face went through a series of contortions, then, as he performed the same mental calculations Neville had just a few moments earlier. Mouth not moving. Plaster head. Eyes—something about the eyes—
“Perhaps you’d be so kind,” Neville told Reggie, “to find Mr. Jones some dry clothes, then set him up by the fire in the library. See if he’d like a drink, or something to eat.”
“I’d like to discuss an amazing opportunity for you and your household,” Qornok Jones said, in that same flat tone.
“Yeah, okay, boss,” Reggie said. He started to move away, gesturing at his charge, but then he turned back when he saw that his employer hadn’t moved.
“I’ll be right here, in case you need me,” Neville said, in a tone that was not dismissive at all yet managed to convey the sense that Reggie should get on with it and leave him be. As if Neville had some very important business to attend to, there by the front door, and didn’t want to be disturbed.
“You, uh, expecting something?” Reggie asked.
“Another guest,” Neville said, perhaps a little peremptorily. Just a little.
“You got some reason to expect that?” Reggie tried.
“Things always come in threes, don’t they? That’s what they say.” He made a little shooing motion with one hand.
Reggie had always prided himself on being able to take a hint, especially when it was repeated multiple times and accompanied with hand gestures. He put an arm around Jones’ shoulders, which he could feel were also made of plaster, and ushered the new guest deeper into the house.
“Do you ever wish you knew more facts and figures, so you could bring them up in conversation at cocktail parties or quilting bees?” Jones asked.
“All the time,” Reggie told him.
It is a fact that things do come in threes, one proved time and again by observation and experiment. That doesn’t preclude the equally unassailable fact that things sometimes also come in twos, or fours, or seventeens.
Neville waited quite a while by the door. Perhaps as much as five minutes, which astute readers of these episodes might recognize as the upper limit of his attention span. When a third guest failed with maddening persistence to arrive, eventually he turned away and headed to the library. The rule of threes apparently having been downgraded to a theory of threes.
Though perhaps we rush ahead to conclusions that should not be drawn quite yet. For there was in veritable fact a third guest coming to Grimbly Hall.
She just wouldn’t arrive until well after supper. And so we shall get to her in a moment.