Victor stared. Ruby undulated down from the tiny stage and glided among the customers, a small mountain in a four-wheel skid. She must weigh two tons, he thought. If she sits on my knee they'll have to roll me off the floor like a carpet.
'What did she just say to that troll?' he said, as a deep wave of laughter rolled across the room.
Rock scratched his nose. 'Is play on words,' he said. 'Very hard to translate. But basically, she say “Is that the legendary Sceptre of Magma who was King of the Mountain, Smiter of Thousands, Yea, Even Tens of Thousands, Ruler of the Golden River, Master of the Bridges, Delver in Dark Places, Crusher of Many Enemies”,' he took a deep breath, “'in your pocket or are you just glad to see me?”' Victor's forehead creased. 'I don't get it,' he said.
'Perhaps I not translate properly,' said Rock. He took a pull of molten sulphur. 'I hear Untied Alchemists is casting for-'
'Rock, there's something very odd about this place,' said Victor. urgently. 'Can't you feel it?' 'What odd?'
'Everything seems to, well, fizz. No-one acts like they should. Did you know there was a great city here once? Where the sea is. A great city. And it's just gone!'
Rock rubbed his nose thoughtfully. It looked like a Neanderthal Man's first attempt at an axe.
'And there's the way everyone acts!' said Victor. 'As if who they are and what they want are the most important things in the world!' 'I'm wondering-' Rock began.
'Yes?' said Victor.
'I'm wondering, would it be worth takin' half a inch off my nose? My cousin Breccia knows this stonemason, fixed his ears a treat. What do you fink?'
Victor stared dully at him.
'I mean, on the one hand, it's too big, but on the other hand, it's definit'ly your stereotyped troll nose, right? I mean, maybe I'll look better, but in this business maybe it best to look just as troll as you can. Like, Morry's had his touched up with cement, now he got a face you wouldn't want to meet on a dark night. What you fink? I value your opinion, because you a human with ideas.'
He gave Victor a bright silicon smile.
Eventually Victor said: 'It's a great nose, Rock. With you behind it, it could go a long way.'
Rock gave a big grin, and took another pull of sulphur. He extracted a small steel swizzle stick and sucked the amethyst off it.
'You really fink-' he began, and was then aware of the small area of empty space. Victor had gone.
'I don't know nuffin about no-one,' said the horse-holder, looking shiftily at the looming presence of Detritus.
Dibbler chewed on his cigar. It had been a bumpy journey from Ankh, even in his new coach, and he'd missed lunch.
'Tall lad, bit dopey, thin moustache,' he said. 'He was working for you, right?' The horse-holder gave in.
'He'll never make a good 'oss-'older, anyway,' he said. 'Lets his work get on top of him. I think he went to get something to eat.'
Victor sat in the dark alley, his-back pressed against the wall, and tried to think.
He remembered staying out in the sun too long, once, when he was a boy. The feeling he'd got afterwards was something like this.
There was a soft flopping noise in the packed sand by his feet.
Someone had dropped a hat in front of him. He stared at it.
Then someone started playing the harmonica. They weren't very good at it. Most of the notes were wrong, and those that were right were cracked. There was a tune in there somewhere, in the same way that there's a bit of beef in a hamburger grinder.
Victor sighed and fumbled in his pocket for a couple of pennies. He tossed them into the hat.
'Yeah, yeah,' he said. 'Very good. Now go away.'
He was aware of a strange smell. It was hard to place, but could perhaps have been a very old and slightly damp nursery rug.
He looked up.
'Woof bloody woof,' said Gaspode the Wonder Dog.
Borgle's commissary had decided to experiment with salads tonight. The nearest salad growing district was thirty slow miles away.
'What dis?' demanded a troll, holding up something limp and brown.
Fruntkin the short-order chef hazarded a guess.
'Celery?' he said. He peered closer. 'Yeah, celery.'
' Wright. Wright! Ripe celery ort to be brown,' said Fruntkin, quickly. 'Shows it's ripe,' he added.
'It should be green.'
'Nah. Yore finking about the tomatoes,' said Fruntkin.
'Yeah, and what's this runny stuff?' said a man in the queue.
Fruntkin drew himself up to his full height.
'That', he said, 'is the mayonnaisey. Made it myself. Out of a book,' he added proudly.
'Yeah, I expect you did,' said the man, prodding it. 'Clearly oil, eggs and vinegar were not involved, right?'
'Specialitay de lar mayson,' said Fruntkin.
'Right, right,' said the man. 'Only it's attacking my lettuce.'
Fruntkin grasped his ladle angrily.
'Look-' he began.
'No, it's all right,' said the prospective diner. 'The slugs have formed a defensive ring.'
There was a commotion by the door. Detritus the troll waded through the diners, with Cut-me-own-Throat Dibbler strutting along behind him.
The troll shouldered the queue aside and glared at Fruntkin.
'Mr Dibbler want a word,' he said, and reached across the counter, lifted the dwarf up by his food-encrusted shirt, and dangled him in front of Throat.
'Anyone seen Victor Tugelbend?' said Throat. 'Or that girl Ginger?'
Fruntkin opened his mouth to swear, and thought better of it.
'The boy was in here half an hour ago,' he squeaked. 'Ginger works here mornings. Don't know where she goes.'
'Where'd Victor go?' said Throat. He pulled a bag out of his pocket. It jingled. Fruntkin's eyes swivelled towards it as though they were ball bearings and it was a powerful magnet.
'Dunno, Mr Throat,' he said. 'He just went out again when she wasn't here.'
'Right,' said Throat. 'Well, if you see him again, tell him I'm looking for him and I'm going to make him a star, right?'
'Star. Right,' said the dwarf.
Throat reached into his moneybag and produced a tendollar piece.
'And I want to order dinner for later on,' he added.
'Dinner. Right,' quavered Fruntkin.
'Steak and prawns, I think,' said Throat. 'With a choice of sunkissed vegetables in season, and then strawberries and cream.'
Fruntkin stared at him.
'Er-,' he began.
Detritus poked the dwarf so that he swung backwards and forwards.
'An' I', he said, 'will 'ave . . . er . . . a well-weathered basalt with a aggregate of fresh-hewn sandstone conglomerates. Right?'
'Er. Yes,' said Fruntkin.
'Put him down, Detritus. He doesn't want to be hanging around,' said Throat. 'And gently.' He looked around at the fascinated faces.
'Remember,' he said, 'I'm looking for Victor Tugelbend and I'm going to make him a star. If anyone sees him, you must tell him. Oh, and I'll have the steak rare, Fruntkin.'
He strode back to the door.
After he had gone the chattering flowed back like a tide.
'Make him a star? What'd he want a star for?'
'I didn't know you could make stars . . . I thought they were like, you know, stuck to the sky . . . '
'I think he meant make him a star. You know, him himself. Turn him into a star.'
'How can you make. anyone into a star?'
'I dunno. I suppose you compress them right up small and they burst into this mass of flaming hydrogen?'
'Yeah! Is that troll mean, or what?'
Victor looked at the dog carefully.
It couldn't have spoken to him. It must have been his imagination. But he'd said that last time, hadn't he?
'I wonder what your name is?' said Victor, patting it on the head.
'Gaspode,' said Gaspode.
Victor's hand froze in mid-tousle.
'Tuppence,' said the dog, wearily. 'World's only bloody harmonica-playing dog. Tuppence.'
It is the sun, Victor thought. I haven't been wearing a hat. In a minute I'll wake up and there'll be cool sheets.
'Well, you didn't play very well. I couldn't recognize the tune,' he said, stretching his mouth into a terrible grin.
'You're not supposed to recognize the bloody tune,' said Gaspode, sitting down heavily and industriously scratching one ear with his hind leg. 'I'm a dog. You're supposed to be bloody amazed I can bloody well get a squeak out of the bloody thing.'
How shall I put it? Victor thought. Do I just say: excuse me, you appear to be tad . . . No, probably not.
'Er,' he said. Hey, you're quire chatty for . . . no.
'Fleas,' said Gaspode, changing ears and legs. 'Giving me gyp. I
'And all these trolls. Can't stand 'em. They smell all wrong. Bloody walking stones. You try and bite 'em, next minute you're spittin' teef. It's not natural.'
Talking of natural, I can't help noticing that-
'Bloody desert, this place,' said Gaspode.
You're a talking dog.
'I expect you're wondering,' said Gaspode, turning his penetrating stare on Victor once again, 'how come I'm talking.'
'Hadn't given it a thought,' said Victor.
'Me neither,' said Gaspode. 'Until a couple of weeks ago. All my life, never said a bloody word. Worked for a bloke back in the big city. Tricks and that. Balancing a ball on my nose. Walkin' on me 'rod legs. Jumpin' through a 'oop. Carried the hat round in my mouf afterwards. You know. Show business. Then this woman pats me on me 'ead, says “Eow, wot a dear little doggy, he looks like he understands every word we say,” and I thinks, “Ho, ho, I don't even bother to make the effort any more, missus,” and then I realizes I can hear the words, and they're coming out of me own mouf. So I grabbed the 'at and had it away on my paws pretty damn quick, while they were still starin'.'
'Why?' said Victor.
Gaspode rolled his eyes. 'Exactly wot life do you fink a genuine talking dog is going to have?' he said. 'Shouldn't have opened my stupid mouth.'
'But you're talking to me,' said Victor.
Gaspode gave him a sly look.
'Yeah, but jus' you try tellin' anyone,' he said. 'Anyway, you're all right. You've got the look. I could tell it a mile orf.'
'What on earth do you mean?' said Victor.
'You don't fink you really belong to yourself, right?' said the dog. 'You've 'ad the feeling that something else is doin' your thinking for you?'
'Give you a kind of hunted look,' said Gaspode. He picked up the cap in his mouth. 'Tuppence,' he said indistinctly. 'I mean, it's not as if I've got any way of spending it, but . . . tuppence.' He gave a canine shrug.
'What do you mean by a hunted look?' said Victor.
'You've all got the look. Many are called and few are chosen, style of fing.'
'Like you've been called here and you don't know why.' Gaspode tried to scratch his ear again. 'Saw you acting Cohen the Barbarian,' he said.
'Er . . . what did you think of it?' said Victor.
'I reckon, so long as ode Cohen never gets to hear about it, you should be OK.'
'I said, how long ago was he in here?' shouted Dibbler. On the tiny stage, Ruby was crooning something in a voice like a ship in thick fog and bad trouble.
'He only just went out!' bellowed Rock. 'I'm trying to listen to this song, all right?'
Cut-me-own-Throat nudged Detritus, who was taking the weight off his knuckles and watching the floor show with his mouth open.
The old troll's life had, up to now, been very straightforward; people paid you money, and you hit other people.
Now it was beginning to get complicated. Ruby had winked at him.
Strange and unfamiliar emotions were rampaging through Detritus' battered heart.