Past a bar crowded with people drinking lunch, and probably not there on business, was a wide glass picture window ornamented with reversed neon beer signs. Reversed to Thomas, of course. They were perfectly readable from the steaming, sun-drenched sidewalk of Twenty- Third Street.
Thomas watched people walking by, ties loosened, jackets off. Those who didn't have such dress codes wore as little as legally possible. One woman walking her dog had on a bikini top and what seemed to be a silk scarf instead of a skirt. Thomas didn't even blink, and only the tourists turned to see her as she walked by. It was Manhattan, after all.
It was a hot Friday in July and not even the lightest breeze stirred the stagnant air in the canyons of New York City. When the sun dropped behind the Flatiron Building, long, cool shadows would insinuate themselves across the sidewalks, stretching fingers into the street itself.
For now, there was only the glare.
Then, blocking the glare, a silhouette, a shape, a woman.
"I hope you haven't been waiting long."
Thomas blinked several times, forced his eyes to adjust. The silhouette resolved into his agent, Francesca Cavallaro. Attractive, yet diminutive, she was possessed of an immutable resolve and an air of confidence that gave her a much larger presence than her size would warrant.
She had fire, Thomas always thought. He'd liked that in her from the first. It had served both of them well.
"Nope, waited for you before ordering," Thomas revealed. "But I know what I want. The jambalaya is excellent here, you should try it."
"I'm in the mood for fish, actually," Francesca said. "If they have blackened catfish, I'm sold."
"You may be in luck," he told her as she picked up a menu. Then, after a moment, "I don't want to rush you, but we're going to have to be fairly quick. I've got to pick Nathan up from school."
Francesca's blue eyes rose over the top of the menu to regard him tenderly. She had long hair, dyed an almost natural red, and blue eyes that reminded Thomas of a marble he'd had as a boy; just one, and he'd lost it the spring he'd turned seven. But he never forgot.
"How's that going, anyway?" she asked.
"Seems to be working out," Thomas replied. "I get my work done during the week, and play with Nathan on the weekend. The best of both worlds, actually, considering how Emily and I get along these days. Which is to say, not at all."
This answer seemed to satisfy Francesca, for she glanced idly around in search of the waitress.
"How's the new one coming? What's it called?"
"Fly Away to Strangewood," he reminded her. "It's the one where Grumbler and Feathertop finally come home."
Francesca brightened with that.
"God, TJ," she said. "The kids have been screaming for that for about three years, right? That'll make you a mint."
"Us," Thomas reminded her, brushing his fingers through his thick scrub of short dark hair. "It'll make us a mint. And please, Frankie, don't call me TJ. You know I hate that."
"Sorry," she lied. Then the waitress came, and when he glanced at her tag, Thomas realized he'd forgotten her name. In the space of less than five minutes, it had been lost to him. He chided himself, and the failings of the human mind, and ordered his jambalaya.
"Another Voodoo?" the waitress asked.
"Just Coke this time," he requested. "With a lime."
As Francesca ordered, Thomas slid down a bit in his chair. It was as rickety as the table. He wore fresh blue jeans and new sneakers, a well-made short-sleeve shirt with three buttons at the neck. He was comfortable. Anytime he began to have misgivings about the things he felt he'd given up creatively, the spark, the heart of his work, Thomas reminded himself how fortunate he was.
It was a hell of a way to make a living. And besides, he had created Strangewood, beloved by children the world over. How bad could that be?
The question was bittersweet for him, actually. He made a lot of money, had a limited amount of notoriety, and a property that would most certainly outlive him, and possibly his children as well. But the more popular Strangewood became, the more languages it was translated into, the more merchandise produced, the less it belonged to Thomas. The less it was his vision.
Like this thing with Grumbler and Feathertop. When he'd written them out of the series in Leaving Strangewood, he'd meant for them to be gone forever. He'd wanted to spend time developing some of the other characters in more detail. But the backlash from kids and their parents — not to mention film and television executives with an interest in the series — was so severe that he was practically forced to bring them back.
The books had changed in other ways, too. The central figure of the entire Strangewood series, The Boy, had always been a cypher, a six- or seven-year-old boy exploring a small wood behind his home which, to him, contained fantastic otherworlds and extraordinary creatures, both friendly and not-so-friendly. But more than anything else, The Boy was merely the reader's window into Strangewood.
Once upon a time, The Boy had been Thomas. But several years earlier, while Thomas was writing At the Heart of Strangewood, that had changed. The Boy had walked out his back door, his mother, as always, calling for him not to stray too far. He had followed the Scratchy Path, lined with pricker bushes, deep into Strangewood's heart, where Grumbler's little cottage always had a fire burning in the hearth.
As usual, trouble was already brewing. Brownie the Grizzly had promised to help the scarecrow, Gourdon Squashhead, implement the latest in his never-ending series of schemes to keep the Crow Brothers out of the cornfield. But Brownie was lazy, always yawning, and had nodded off midmorning. Gourdon's corn had gone undefended, and the Crow Brothers had made off with dozens of ears.
When The Boy arrived, everyone was out behind Grumbler's cottage, not far from the cornfield, arguing about Brownie's responsibility, or lack thereof. Well, everyone but Fiddlestick — who was still in his cave — and some of the nastier residents of Strangewood.
Feathertop and Grumbler were firmly on Gourdon's side. The hyena, whom everybody called Laughing Boy and who always spoke of himself in the third person, thought it was all very funny. But he felt bad for Brownie, who, he said, "couldn't help his sleepiness any more than Laughing Boy can help laughing." Mr. Tinklebum wasn't the smartest bell-bottom in Strangewood, but he also thought it was an honest mistake.
They all looked to The Boy for judgment, of course.
While he was making up his mind, Bob Longtooth and Cragskull, a nasty pair who were thieves and scoundrels and just generally made life in Strangewood unpleasant whenever possible, moved into Grumbler's home and claimed it as their own.
After The Boy had decided that Brownie should try to be more conscientious and should help Gourdon out in the field for the next few days by way of apology, they were all to retire to Grumbler's for tea. Grumbler, made excellent tea, despite his grumpy disposition.
But Grumbler's cottage was "gone." In its place, though it looked precisely the same, was an apparently brand new dwelling owned by Bob Longtooth and Cragskull. There followed a series of amusingly failed attempts to find Grumbler's old house or take over this "new" one. After which, of course, The Boy inspired the others to prevail by using their wits and convincing the villains that they'd actually taken the wrong house.
That was when it happened.
During the writing of this scene, Thomas had realized, for the first time in more than ten years, that he didn't know what The Boy was going to say next. Hence, The Boy was no longer Thomas Randall. And Thomas didn't know who he was. Maybe Nathan? Maybe nobody anymore.
Nobody. That was the thing that disturbed him the most. If The Boy was a nobody, a noncharacter, how could Thomas even begin to understand the rest of Strangewood? He'd gone on, continuing to write adventure after adventure, to fulfill contracts and expectations. But something was missing. Even if no one else could tell, Thomas could tell. Something vital seemed gone forever from Strangewood.
In his more somber moods, Thomas wondered if this distance from his creation was caused by his age. Had he finally done what he'd vowed he would never do? Had he grown up, forgotten what it was like to be a child?
He'd always known his way in Strangewood before, as well as anyone who truly lived there. But now he was just a visitor. Like going back to your hometown after twenty years away, and discovering that everything has changed.
It made his heart ache.
But life went on.
"Well?" Francesca asked, and Thomas looked up to see her staring at him expectantly.
"I'm sorry?" he replied, then shook his head. "Wow. Sorry, Frankie. I've just got a lot on my mind these days. Being a divorced father is even more complicated than being a married father."
"You're doing a great job, Thomas," Francesca assured him. But it didn't really help. She only knew what he told her and couldn't possibly be in any position to really judge whether or not he was being a good father. But he was trying, and that had to count for something.
"What were you saying before?" he asked her.
"I was just curious when you were going to ask me about the negotiations with Disney," she explained. "That was the reason for lunch today to begin with, wasn't it?"
Thomas grimaced. "I'm afraid to ask."
Francesca sipped at an iced tea that the waitress had somehow slipped onto the table while Thomas wasn't paying attention. She paused, inhaled, as if constructing her next few sentences with care and well in advance. He'd never known if it was genuine, or simply a tactic to make her seem contemplative. It worked, though. He supposed that was what mattered.
"They want to greenlight Strangewood as a Saturday morning show for two years on ABC, then strip it weekday afternoons starting the third season," she answered. "I told them you weren't interested if you couldn't get Nelson DeCastro as the voice of Grumbler."
Thomas waited and widened his eyes as a signal for her to continue. Finally, he was forced to ask.
"And they said . . . ?"
"They said they can't afford Nelson for this show," she confessed. "I argued with them, told them our demographics again, the surveys, and testing numbers. They wouldn't budge. They want Billy Carroll, from that new Fox sitcom, what's it called?"
Thomas sighed, scratched the back of his head, sighed again. He took a sip of his Coke.
"Thomas?" Francesca prodded.
"'Crap' is what it's called, Frankie!" he said vehemently, his voice loud enough to draw attention from several tables. "That guy isn't funny enough, isn't cranky enough, isn't old enough . . . shit, the guy's never even done voice-over before!"
Francesca said nothing. Their lunch came, Thomas picked at it idly. Finally he looked up at Francesca, apology in his brown eyes. Again he ran a hand through his short scrub of dark hair, the first gray beginning to creep in at his temples.
"Sorry," he said sheepishly. "It's just, you know I didn't want to use Grumbler in the first place. Hell, I don't even like the little shit. But when I hear him in my head, it's Nelson DeCastro, you know? God, I don't even know why I do this anymore. I should finish that mystery."
"The one you've been writing for eleven years," Francesca said in a mildly sarcastic voice. "I thought you loved Strangewood?"
Thomas ignored her, sipped his Coke again. He looked at the crowd surfing the bar, chatting, flirting, drinking. When they came here, they left their work behind. Most of them, anyway. But some jobs couldn't be left behind. Thoughts and ideas lingered, plots begged to be fleshed out and followed wherever you went. The bar patrons were fortunate from a certain perspective. But he wouldn't have traded places with them for the world. They didn't even know what they were missing, what it was like to tell stories. To entertain.
That was all he ever wanted: to entertain. In particular, to entertain children with tales of Strangewood, a place he'd dreamt of all his life.
His gaze drifted out the window, where the shadows had finally overtaken the sidewalk.
"Did they give us everything else we asked for?" Thomas asked.
"They didn't even blink," Francesca assured him.
"Not a problem," she confirmed.
Thomas watched the people passing on the street, hurrying back now from late lunches, or going to meetings across the street or across town. He didn't even glance at Francesca as he said, "Do the deal." Thomas reached for his Coke, looked down a moment at the caramel liquid, the ice cubes, and pulped slice of lime. He faced his disappointment, reminded himself of his good fortune, and moved on.
As he lifted the glass to his lips, Thomas looked back toward the front of the restaurant, past the bar, and out the window, where he could see several people passing by.
One of them was a dwarf in a green felt fedora.
The glass clinked against his teeth and stopped there, frozen. He put it down slowly.
"Thomas, what is it?" Francesca asked with concern.
He was already standing, pushing his chair back.
"Give me a second, will you?" Thomas mumbled, feeling rather ridiculous but unable to restrain himself. "Be right back."
As he strode past the bar, his gait quickened. He shoved through the glass door and stood staring west, head darting left and right as he tried to see past the people flowing along the sidewalk. His lack of motion disturbed the human tides all around him, and so he started off in the same direction he'd seen . . . the direction his quarry had been walking.
Thomas sped up, moving around people now, and stopped again at the corner of Broadway. Self-conscious, feeling more than a little bit foolish, he glanced north and south, then peered west one last time. Of a smart-mouth dwarf with a penchant for green felt fedoras, there was no sign.
Not that he'd actually believed he'd seen Grumbler. He'd been in therapy before, but that was de rigeur for creative types, not because he was psychotic. But still, even from the glimpse he'd gotten of the man who'd walked past the restaurant, the resemblance was intriguing. In that flash, and wearing a green felt fedora which implied that others had made the comparison, he'd looked more like the Grumbler in Thomas's head than any artist's rendition ever had.