This is the story called Writer’s Block. It is not actually a part of the Apocrypha, as it was written more recently. Nor is it in the Canon. It is set, in part, in a shared-world that belongs to the members of the Online Writing Workshop for Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror, (a.k.a. the OWW), called Serendip’ity City. I make no claim on the elements of the story that are common. Any resemblance between characters in this story and actual persons living or dead falls under plausible deniability. Since the story is unpublishable due to the aforementioned elements (and I’m unwilling to alter them), it is bound to forever occupy that limbo between juvenalia or the trunk and the Published Works. Nevertheless, I offer for your delectation…
Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction. The characters Gepetto, Pinocchio, and the Blue Fairy, together with their… wait. The characters of Pygmalion and Galatea… Uh, the golem… Well, there’s the viewpoint character who’s not really me. And then there’s this girl who used to be a Gabrielle action figure, but she’s not any more, and then there’s the Center for X Studies, a fictional university with a campus in Ohio and satellite campi around the world. But that doesn’t count. Rennie MacDougal, the mad Scottish instructor in Thaumaturgy is, well… derivative, but of what? The katana is a nice touch, though. Callisto Dolly–in fact, all of the Dollies were manufactured by Toy Biz, but none of the three who are in this story are dollies any more…
Content: Being as this is created by and for fans of a violent television show that had a notorious following of people who are interested in sex, (as if there is anybody who is not interested in sex), it’s a pretty safe bet that, even though this story is not about the characters in the show, there’s plenty of both. There is also some language that some may find offensive and will tut-tut about. Too bad. That’s what the off-button is for. Nobody is forcing you to read this. Exercise your freedom of choice. Everybody else: enjoy!
This story, both in its present form, and as it originally appeared on the Center for Xena Studies mailing list, is © 1999-2004 Mark Philip Alger. All rights reserved.
All works copyright © 1999-2005 Mark Philip Alger. All rights reserved.
“Dolly, stay out of my dreams!” Alger demanded.
Dolly bit her lip and turned her face away. She would be damned if she’d let him see her cry.
“We’ve been over and over this, Babe,” the grizzled writer continued. “And you agreed to doing it this way. I took a year trying to write a short story or a novelette that could launch you in the pros. It didn’t work. So now we’re doing it my way.”
“It’s not fair!” she wailed. Even to her own ears, she sounded like a spoilt teenager.
“Life’s not fair, Baby Doll,” he shot right back.
“You’re writing Drummond,” she said, all j’accuse and everything.
“It’s his story; how he came to be connected to you. Everybody around you has got one. Your Genesis was a remarkable event. It changed the lives of everyone involved, from Aphrodite and Hephaestus to Jeep, Witchlet, and Mab.”
“Yeah, but…” she sniffed, getting ready to turn on The Waterworks. Not because it was a good tactic with Alger it wasn’t but because there was this lump in her throat like a dry flour dumpling that she just couldn’t choke down.
“I can’t do good work if you keep popping into my head every time I sit down to write. I’ve got this big set-piece coming up and I haven’t even started on blocking it out. The critters are going to lose interest if I don’t keep posting new chapters. Plus: I need to refine the process of getting Jeep and Witchlet into Upothesa…”
“What?” she said, incredulous. “They’re both on the faculty of the Center.”
“Sure they are now. But back before Aphrodite brought you across, they were just a couple of teenage girls. Witchlet was fresh out of the Thaum and Jeep was a skinny little rapscallion from the slums of Glasgow.”
“What?” he demanded.
“Rapscallion. Tee hee. Sounds like a tuber or somethin’.” She wrinkled her nose and did the dimple thing.
His eyes softened and got a little moist. He gazed at her out of a puppy-dog expression.
“Dang, Dolly! You’re so cute when you do that.”
She bounced her eyebrows and stuck her tongue out the corner of her mouth while grinning evilly at him.
“Cute, huh?” she purred. “I could forgive a lot if you said that…”
“I can’t,” Alger said with a sigh. “You need to leave me alone. I have to concentrate on this book. Next year, we’ll do yours. I promise.”
She did a little half-stomp and flounced around in a circle, making a sound in her throat that was half-whimper, half-growl.
“Oo!” Alger exclaimed. “Do that again! I want to get it down!”
“What?” She was outraged. How could he be writing sketches about her when she felt this way? But she obliged, repeating when he demanded it, feeling a bit like a DVD player who’d been taken over by a bratty kid with remote-finger.
“So: are you gonna write me?” she asked. She stood at kibitzing distance behind his shoulder and tried to read what he was writing. As usual, because it was about her, she couldn’t make it out. The eye cannot see itself, he’d ‘splained to her a while back.
“No,” he murmured, distracted, his fingers flying over his keyboard. “I wanna use that little flounce-y thing for Aglaia. I’m doing a scene with her…”
“Aglaia? That insipid bint! You’re writing her?”
Alger glanced up at her, blinking, looking confused. “Well, she is Nana ‘Dite’s protégéé…”
“But she’s such a… a…”
“Dolly, she’s supposed to be an a… a… She’s the youngest Grace. She’s spent most of the last ten thousand years taking a Nap. There has to be contrast between her and Aphrodite not to mention her and Pauhlün. ‘Sides: not everybody can be a buff superhero like you.”
“I am pretty buff, ain’t I,” Dolly allowed with a sly grin.
“And buff pretty, too.” He smiled back at her. It reminded her of Drummond when Alger smiled at her like that. Which made sense, since Drummond was Alger and Alger was Drummond. Practically a Marty Stu, but nobody was allowed to say so. Which reminded her…
“So,” she said again; Dolly is nothing if not persistent. “Are you gonna write me a scene? Maybe a quiet, romantic evening with Drummond? Or how ’bout some hot monkey-love? Been awhile since you wrote one of those.”
“Probably be longer, too, if you don’t stop distracting me. No. I’m not going to write you. I’m especially not going to write you a stroke scene. I don’t need the distraction. I’m working on the novel. I won’t write you until this one is finished. The next one is about you. Now, just… go away.”
“Ooo! You!” Dolly growled. She tried to storm out, but the house was sealed so tight that air pressure kept her from getting a good slam going with the door.
“Fardles!” she spat as she pulled the door shut. She stomped down off the porch and off into the night.
Back in his little writing cubby, Alger wiped sweat from his metaphorical brow.
“Man, is she high-maintenance!” Then: “Shinola!” He bolted out of his chair and raced to the front door.
“Where are you going?” he shouted at her retreating back.
And took a moment to appreciate the flip of her hip and the sway of her copper-gold hair.
She turned and glared at him. “The Serendip.” As if it’s any of your business, by your leave.
A quick glance at the tray on the table by the door confirmed his fear…
“Wait!” he called, picking up the big, blue, laminated credential on its dog-tag chain. “You forgot your pass!”
“Firk that; fork them; fark you!” she flipped him the bird backhanded, going away. There was a flash as the warp-portal at the end of The Lane accepted her.
And she was gone. She left behind her the scent of her Wind Song and the memory of her beauty.
His heart aching, Alger nevertheless turned back indoors, hoping to finally be able to get some work done. Should have known better than to fall in love with his character.
Dolly stumbled a bit as she stepped from the quiet of The Lane to the bustle of the main street of Serendip’ity City. It was almost as if there were a difference in the rotational speed or direction of the Earth between the two places, and her body took an instant to adjust.
She had been here before, several times, with Alger (though they had never had much time to spare and had only peeked in on the way elsewhere), and expected the effect. She therefore took it in stride. As she did she told herself everything in life.
As the Disney-with-a-twist architecture of the place swam into focus, she quickly oriented herself. She thought she knew where she wanted to go, but would have to find the way. If they had what she was looking for…
Ah! They did have it. There a sign. The legend at the top read, “Welcome to Serendip’ity City.” Its appearance was kinda waver-y, constantly changing from Early Bus Stop plastic and aluminum to Theme Park Faux painted wood and polyurethane, in typefaces ranging from Gill Sands to Rocky Mountain Rococo.
“Committee design,” Dolly muttered under her breath and set off across the intervening ground. The surface underfoot kept changing, from cobblestones to asphalt and back to concrete. “Dangle!” Dolly said. “Can we settle on one thing for a half-second?”
“The rules clearly state that the appearance and layout of the City are not set in stone,” said…
Dolly whirled, seeking. Her hand went to the ivory hilt of the custom-made katana whose saya was strapped across her back. She straightened her arm, drawing the blade over her shoulder.
“Who said that?” she said. “Show yourself!” Sword in hand, she felt more confident, able to take on the world. She hustled over to the sign, hoping to use it for shelter. She planted herself in front of it, its solid wood a comfort at her back, and turned to face her assailant.
“It was just li’l ole me,” said a voice that Dolly recognized (from countless hours wasted in front of cable TV when she was a dolly and had yet to become a real grrl) as belonging to Ed Wynn.
It had come from behind her!
She whirled and dropped into a garde stance, her point threatening…
“Tee-hee!” the voice giggled. “You sure are a pip!”
Dolly stalked stiff-legged around the sign. The voice had to be coming from beyond it.
There was nobody there, either.
“What the fern?” she straightened a bit and turned her head slowly, listening. Watching everything shadows and light, light and shadows for signs of life.
A rat scurried from garbage heap to gutter and dived down a sewer grate.
Dolly like to jump out of her skin.
She wants me to mention how delectable her skin is, by the way. Dolly is beautiful. And vain. And…? Oh! She says, “A high-maintenance bitka.” By which she means demanding.
Are we done? Thank you.
Dolly jitterbugged her way across town. The map was quite helpful. A real nice guy, once you get to know him, even if he did have an odd sense of whimsy.
Around back, the map had said. Dragon lanterns either side of a wooden door, set back in a stone wall. The door, not the lanterns. Barred window to one side. Sign over the door a palimpsest of a thousand years’-worth of names for the place. The Happy Accident, Phule’s Pair o’ Dice, Glucklichkeit. And, most currently, The Serendip.
The handle was a heavy, strappy affair made out of wrought iron, rubbed smooth by the hands of millennia of bar patrons. Dolly tugged on it. The door was heavy. The spring-steel muscles of her biceps bulged. She planted her feet and pulled. Finally, the door opened for her.
The scents of the place wafted over her like the miasma from an ancient, fetid swamp. She wrinkled her nose. The odors weren’t entirely unpleasant, though; there was the homey smell of hot bread, fresh-tapped ale, rich tobacco, roasted meat… And a dry, flinty scent…? A dragon! They had a dragon!
Dolly loved dragons; she made a mental note to introduce herself.
She stepped inside. Despite the lateness of the hour it was full dark outside the interior of the pub was even gloomier. Though she couldn’t see very well, she could hear and smell. The interior was close-packed with humanity. Cloaks, hats, feather boas. Vests, shirts, dresses, bodices, truesilver chain mail coats, harem pajamas… Was that a merry widow? Even torn jeans and a slashed t-shirt. In her usual climbing boots, black leather jeans, and a black cabretta halter top, Dolly would fit right in.
“Gabrielle Godslayer,” a deep, rumbly voice said from somewhere near and above her left shoulder.
Dolly whirled and leapt backward to clear a space between herself and whoever it was that could get so close to her like that. She was all elbows and knees for a second there. The patrons of the place made room and blessed her with some truly ugly scowls and the like. One aimed a cuff at her that was recalled with alacrity when she got sudden with a sharp edge on him. He withdrew the hand and looked at her appraisingly.
The fellow who had snuck up on her meantime was about the most hideous monster Dolly’d ever seen. As big as a Troll frekun-ang, but green and scaly with red eyes and bat wings. His hair was a shocking pink mohawk with tufts above his pointed ears. He was grinning at her and holding up both hands, clawed fingers spread wide, palms toward her.
“Relax,” he rumbled. “I’m sorry I startled you. No, really. I should have known better. A fierce and famous warrior such as yourself would naturally have excellent reflexes. Please. My name is Grendel. I’m the bouncer and doorman here at the Serendip.”
Dolly focused on the important part. She made a moue and pressed her spidered fingers self-deprecatingly against her upper chest. “Famous? Moi?” she squeaked. She liked this guy.
“Yes,” Grendel said, and ushered her into a quiet corner next to the door, letting the patrons resume the conversations Dolly had interrupted. “We are all familiar with the Dolly Apocrypha. We’re big fans. And, considering your awesome reputation, it might be wise if I were to frisk you.”
Dolly could actually feel herself blushing.
“Oh, would you?” She did her patented Dolly shimmy, with both arms hung over her head, wrists crossed as though bound, and the rest of her body just … gimble-ing and gyre-ing in the old wabe.
“May I?” Grendel said. He had the grace to get a little hoarse when he said it.
Dolly really liked this guy.
Having Grendel’s hands on her made her feel more real than she had in a long time. She hadn’t minded at all that he was most diligent in his search for weapons. He made very, very sure that she hadn’t any concealed in… unusual places. She was tingling from her hairline to her toenails by the time he was done, with all the right erectile responses going full roar.
“Author neglecting you?” he asked with genuine sympathy as he racked her collection of blades and sudden death and wrote her out a claim check.
“Yeah. He’s doing a prequel. Is it a prequel if the book it comes before hasn’t been published yet?”
“Not sure. I wouldn’t think so, but things were different in my day.”
“Mm,” Dolly said. “So who’s a girl have to swive to get a drink around here?”
“Oh, nobody. Just ask the bartender. You name it, we have it.”
“Oh, come on! Everybody says that!”
“Here it’s literally true. Or, should I say, literarily true?” He smiled again. Dolly couldn’t help wondering… That smile.
She shook herself. Down girl! She accepted the claim check with her own patented smile the one everybody told her was mega-lumens bright. She tucked the little ticket into the cunningly concealed pocket in her top, just under her left breast.
Grendel took note of that. “Something I missed?” he murmured.
“Hardly,” Dolly rasped with a throaty chuckle.
“Are you familiar with the custom of the house?” he asked more formally.
“Um… probably not?”
“We ask that you raise your glass to Mr. Redley, the gentleman in the corner.”
“Yes. Exactly. Enjoy your stay with us. Mind the dragon’s tail.”
Dolly leaned back against the bar on her elbows and enjoyed the attention garnered by her upthrust secondary sexual characteristics. Virtually every pair of eyes and quite a few singletons had swiveled to check out her mammaries.
Oh to be young, rich, and the hottest babe in the place. Nothing else in this life could touch it.
“Character, author, editor, or agent?” came the bored query from behind her.
That voice! Dark, gravid with mystery, undeniably female!
“Character,” Dolly was already turning before she realized she recognized the voice. Then she was facing the speaker her sister dolly and former lover. Her heart skipped about sixteen bars of back beats. Xe! Well, that explained how the bouncer had known who Dolly was.
“Xe!” she blurted. Those tyndall blue eyes, the perfect face, the suck-cheeked expression of boredom.
“Well,” said the other dryly. “As I live and breathe if it isn’t Gabrielle Francesca Dolly.”
“Xe Doll, you old harridan! What are you doing here?”
“Filling in for Charlie until he gets back from Worldcon. He’s Campbell Award eligible, you know. Bastitch is a week late getting back, too. Something about cleaning up after his exploding dog? So: what brings you to our neck of the woods?”
“Well, you know,” Dolly said. “Loose ends. Out and about. Looking for trouble.” She fought to keep the stress tremolo from her voice.
Xe nodded. She heard Dolly’s quaver, but being Xe was politic enough to pretend she hadn’t.
Awkward silence. Patrons down the way were starting to thump the bar. Dolly saw out of the corner of her eye Grendel shifting his weight and looking in their direction.
“You’re looking good,” Dolly assayed. She was, too. As good as Dolly’d ever seen Xe look in her life. Her blue-black hair was clean and well-trimmed. She had it pulled back into a pony tail. Her jeans the usual tight 501’s and vest made of a denim jacket were clean and wash-faded and looked like a matched set. A red bandana was tied-and-tucked around her right biceps. Which was looking more biceppy than it ever had. “You been working out?”
“Yeah,” Xe said with that way she had of foreclosing a particular direction of conversational drift. Something uncomfortable, no doubt. Having to do with Sappho?
“Listen,” Xe said. “It’s kinda… busy right now.” She waved a hand, indicating the press of customers, who were becoming more restive by the second. “So, what are ya havin’?”
“Well, um…” Dolly began. “Nothing you know alcoholic.”
“Uh, yeah,” Xe said with a dry chuckle. That period of their common history was seared seared into both their brains. “Right.”
“How about a tall club soda with a splash of Rose’s Lime?”
“Hey!” objected a wiry, ratty-looking fellow two down the bar. He was no doubt trying to get Xe’s attention for a drink order. “There are some people around her who are actually thirsty?”
Xe leaned over and grabbed a fistful of his vest, lifting him off his feet as she pulled him halfway across the bar.
“And would you want to be drinking that Asturian Brandy, was it or wearing it?” she said with palpable menace.
“Um…” he stammered. “D-d-drinking?”
“Right answer. Now, I’m going to take care of my friend. When I’m finished…” she stressed the word and paused for effect “…I’ll get your order.”
She stared him in the eye until he looked away.
“Is that OK with you?” Xe asked. Her voice was almost a whisper, but Dolly suspected you could hear her by the jukebox at the back of the room. The whole room was like an oil painting and everybody in it was looking over his shoulder wide-eyed at Xe.
The guy nodded.
“Good,” Xe said, and let him go. She grabbed a tall tumbler with practiced flair and, in less than a second, Dolly’s drink was on the teak in front of her.
Grendel, who had suddenly appeared by the bar sometime in the last fifteen seconds, subsided silently back to his place by the door. Gradually the baruba-ruba of conversation ramped back up to its normal level.
Dolly stuck her fingers into her cleavage, going for her bankroll. Xe put out a preventative hand.
“On the house,” she said. “Just be sure to toast Mr. Redley.”
Dolly nodded, then stripped a bill out of the clip and tucked it in the tip jar anyway. Xe carefully affected not to see. Dolly even did a credible sleight-of-hand getting the wad tucked back in under her right breast with nobody looking.
That was a major accomplishment.
Dolly turned to face the room. She located the mysterious Mr. Redley in his corner and raised her glass in salute. There was no response, but she hadn’t expected one.
She took a sip from her drink and settled in to enjoy the attention she was getting. It was quite a game. Everybody there was past-master at looking while pretending not to. Dolly got a small thrill catching them at it.
In a few minutes maybe a half-hour Xe had worked her way around the bar and was pulling a pitcher of Dwarven Ale from the tap.
“By the way,” she said, low and confidential, “Guess who else is working here?”
Dolly turned around to face the tall, dark dolly.
“Who?” she asked in reply.
Just then a slender young woman emerged from the kitchen lugging four stacked trays of clean glassware. She was two or so inches taller than Dolly, with cottony white hair and a Venice Beach tan.
“Gabrielle!” she shrieked on recognizing Dolly and dropped the trays with a shattering crash.
“Her,” Xe said dryly.
Dolly braced herself for the onslaught as Callisto Dolly the youngest dolly of Drummond’s six-pack of dollies, youngest by almost a month rounded the outside of the bar and headed down the stretch at as much of a run as she could manage through the crowd.
Alger had described Cally in one of those dozen-score stories he kept tucked away in his drawer and was afraid to send out as tatterdemalion. It fit her. Cally was tatterdemalion and tatterdemalion was Cally.
The first thing you noticed about her was the contrast between her cotton-white mop of hair and her nut-brown skin. Being as she was a natural blonde, you wouldn’t think she could develop and keep that smooth, even, deep tan, but she did.
The second thing you noticed about her was just how much of that tan skin you could see. Like now. She was wearing a gray sweat shirt with the sleeves hacked off and the bottom cropped up to her ribs. The front and back hung free, with no attachment at the sides. She was built like a boy almost, quite small-breasted, and could get away without wearing a bra.
The thing about Cally was what she could get away with, she would do. She always took advantage to and beyond the outside edge of the envelope. Not content with the exposure achieved by de-sleeving and cropping the sweat shirt, Cally had taken a razor blade to what was left of the poor thing and made a series of horizontal slits across it, front and back. They left very little to the imagination. Then there were the jeans, which had been similarly attacked with a razor.
All-in-all, the amount of flesh exposed left Dolly wondering, “Why bother?” Why not just go naked? Not that Cally wouldn’t strip to the buff at the drop of a hint. She liked being naked and didn’t mind sharing. And she had the cutest little butt…
Cally caromed into Dolly going about warp five and wrapped her arms around the redhead.
“Gabrielle!” she enthused. “I am so glad you came! I mean that you found this place.” She giggled. “You know what I mean.”
“Sure I do,” Dolly said dryly. She managed to get a hand free and tousle her sister’s hair.
Well, they thought of each other as sisters, even though they really weren’t any relation. They had all been dollies together and they had all made The Leap to become Real Grrls at more-or-less the same time.
Cally leaned in and planted a kiss on Dolly’s mouth. Dolly expected a rather dry peck of greeting, but Cally had other ideas. Ideas that meant open mouths and darting tongues and steadily rising pulse rates. Cally’s hands began wandering to places on Dolly’s body where Dolly…
…found she really didn’t mind Cally’s touching. She returned the favor while turning to kissing her sister back. With feeling, so to speak.
“Get these two a room!” someone shouted in a rough voice, but not without sympathy. With as much attention as she could spare from kissing Cally, Dolly heard various, several, and sundry whistles, hoots, and stomps from around the room.
“Um, Callisto,” Xe said in her best Mommy tone of voice. “You have work to do.”
“Mm!” Cally grunted, pulling away from kissing Dolly. She grinned and gave a half-wipe at her mouth with the back of one hand. “Sorry,” she said.
Then: “But oo! I am so glad you found this place it’s so neat there’s a dragon here he’s busy heating water for the dishwasher right now but you can meet him later and there’s a library here with like two zillion books and they have a pool table with built-in relativistic…” she had to slow down to get that one out, but she managed “…special effects and Grendel is so cool but I guess you met Grendel at the door…”
Dolly nodded, her eyes widening as Cally nattered on, giving no sign of running out of steam. Ordinarily, Dolly and Cally would both be running on together, simultaneously, in full-duplex mode, but that was when Alger was writing their dialog for them.
“…when you came in did Grendel frisk you I always want to ask him to do it again even though I don’t really have to get frisked anymore since I work here the place is just full of characters from all sorts of fictons some of them have been around for positively centuries like Grendel who goes back to like Ancient England or someplace and there’s a valkyrie softball team and the brothel (that’s across the back alley from us) has amateur night every Tuesday I love that I bet you would too some of the characters here are real hotties oh and Xe and me have this darling little apartment over the bookstore which is like the biggest business in town after this place and the brothel I mean you know writers right? I mean of course they write but… correct?”
“Um, excuse me?” someone said in a very loud voice, speaking from over at the end of the bar, by the door to the kitchen. “Did somebody get a sudden call to go on a quest or something? ‘Cause I distinctly do not remember asking for a pile of broken glassware in the middle of the passageway, here.”
“Um, Cally…” Xe said sotto voce in passing as she hustled in the opposite direction down the stretch of the bar carrying eight full pitchers of ale in her big, rawboned hands.
Dolly looked over that way. A slim woman in cords and a flannel shirt was standing by Cally’s pile of glassware with her hand in the air. She had the shortest hair Dolly could remember ever seeing on a woman. Well, there was that bald elf that one time…
“Oh, ship biscuit!” Cally said. “Ellen!”
“Who?” Dolly said.
“Ellen the boss. She’s real nice laid back, even, most of the time but I think she’s mad at me right now.”
“Now, whatever might give you that idea?” Dolly drawled.
“Well, there’s…” Cally began. Then she caught sight of Dolly’s broadening grin and smacked her sister on the shoulder with an open hand. “You bad!”
Dolly just chuckled.
Just then, the door of the Serendip flew open and banged against the wall outside. The entry quickly filled with big, broad-shouldered types wearing black leather knee boots and carrying conspicuous truncheons. They spread out among the crowd. The patrons looked nervous, annoyed, or bored, each according to his or her nature. The blacklegs spoke to each patron in turn, asking a single question of each and inspecting proffered papers.
“Ha!” Cally said. “Saved by the raid.”
“What the futon is going on?” Dolly said, suddenly apprehensive.
“No big,” Cally said. She reached under the neckline of her sweatshirt and pulled out a ball-chain necklace bearing a large, blue, laminated card. Dolly goggled at her sister; she would have sworn there was no there there to conceal something in. “It’s just a loose-character check. Every character in town has to either be accompanied by her author or have a pass proving she has permission to be running around outside of a story. If they catch you without one, they throw you in the dungeon: bread and water and all that. You gotta wait until your author comes in person to get you out.”
Cally looked at Dolly, who realized that Alger probably wouldn’t mind having her locked up while he worked on the novel. “You’ve got yours, right?” Cally said.
Dolly, getting big-eyed and lip-trembly, said, “No?”
“Oh, firkin merkins, Gabrielle! What are we gonna do with you?”
“Lemme borrow yours? I mean, you work here. They know you’re cool. Would they even check yours?”
“Can’t. It has my picture on it.” Cally held her pass up to show. The picture was rather racy, but it was undeniably Cally and nobody else. “I know Alger made ’em up for all of us dollies. Why don’t you have yours?”
“Firetruck! I was piffled off tonight when I left his place and didn’t stop to take it with me.”
“Oh, schist, Gabrielle. You’re in deep kimchee.”
Dolly stood there, vibrating the way she always did when she was under stress, chewing the inside of her cheek, contemplating her options.
Run? Fight? Lie? Scam?
None of them appealed. Running would mean she could never come back. Ditto fighting, and she still wanted to meet that dragon. Not to mention screwing things up for Xe and Cally, who seemed to be in good here. Lying was probably also out, since she was known to at least one member of the management team the swamp-hottie Grendel. Running a scam of some kind seemed to be the only option open to her, but time was short. The blacklegs were working the room like Democrat ward heelers on election eve.
She thought she had a plan just about worked out, when everything changed. The door flew open startling Grendel, who, no doubt, wasn’t expecting any new patrons for the duration of the raid.
In walked the most beautiful chinoise Dolly was sure whom anyone in the place had ever seen: Dolly Lah Ma.
Ma was dressed in a royal blue cheongsam, slit up the sides to her waist, with matching silk pantaloons underneath. A golden dragon printed on the silk of her garment entwined himself around her body. The cheongsam’s collar was tall and stiff. Ma’s head was held regally erect, her jet-black hair perfectly coifed and fastened with a lacquered wooden pin carved in the shape of a crane. The point that protruded on the other side looked like it might have a cutting edge. Her gait was the result of endless hours of walking up and down, balancing a heavy book atop her head, under the supervision of a hard taskmaster of a governess.
Accompanying her, properly subservient, a step or two behind each shoulder, were two of her countrymen: very large, very bad-attitude-looking, very don’t-futz-with-me. One of them was carrying a donkey-load of shopping bags. The other swaggered along with his unencumbered hands on his belt and a scowl on his face.
Ma waved a dismissive hand in their direction. “Find a table. Sit. Stay.” Her voice was like running water over smooth granite. She spoke without noticeable accent. Her diction was perfect, as was everything about her demeanor.
Her black eyes took in everything in the bar. Her expression revealed nothing. Her walk demanded respect. Whereas Cally had had to swim through the crowd by the bar, it parted for Ma like the Red Sea did for Moses. The heels of her stylish mules clicked on the flagged floor of the Serendip as she marched across the room toward where Dolly sat her bar stool, still embracing Callisto.
Scattered calls of “Hey, Mama-san!” could be heard from the mouths of insensitive drunken louts.
Ma paid them no mind.
“Ma!” Dolly blurted.
Ma glared at her. Though Gabrielle was the senior dolly, Ma acted older. She considered Dolly a callow youth, much given to bumptious behavior which she was.
“There you are,” Ma said when she came to within not-shouting distance of Dolly and Cally. “You two stop acting like you’re in a John Norman novel.”
“A what?” said Cally, who had never heard of John Norman.
“Gor?” Ma tried to issue a hint. “Counter Earth? Tarl Cabot?”
Cally shook her head. Not a clue.
Ma shook hers in disgust.
“Why not?” Dolly wanted to know. “I mean, I am a fantasy character.”
“Shh!” Ma said, pointedly not looking around to see where the blacklegs were. In a low tone, she berated the redhead. “I realize you’re some guy’s idea of a walking wet dream, but show some restraint, girl!” Then more loudly: “I’ve been looking for you all over the place. I see you’ve found the rest of your characters.” She put the slightest stress on the “your characters.”
Say this for Dolly, she was quick on the uptake. It took her from the instant her lips met to form the “M” in My until she got out the “-y” to change the sentence from a “What-in-the-world-are-you-talking-about?” question to an “I-get-your-drift” statement.
“My characters,” she said. “Yes. Callisto Dolly and Xe Doll. And I am…”
“Our author, Markie Philipa Alger.” The scrawled signature on the passes, on the line that was labeled, “authorizing author,” read more or less MP Alger. Being as he was unpublished, Ma probably figured the blacklegs wouldn’t know him from Adam. Or Eve.
A pair of blacklegs reached them just at that moment. “Your passes,” one of them said.
Dolly turned back to the bar and picked up her glass, nonchalantly taking a sip.
Cally held hers out, the chain still around her neck.
Ma extended one hand, imperiously snapped her fingers, and presented that hand flat, palm up, at shoulder level. Instantly, the uglier of her two attendants was at her side, gently placing her pass on her palm.
The proffered passes were inspected.
“And yours, girly?” one of the blacklegs nudged Dolly in the ribs with his truncheon.
Dolly drew herself up to her full five feet, three-and-three-quarters inches, chin up, nose angled for looking-down. “I. Am an author.”
The two blacklegs exchanged glances. This was not according to plan. “Name?” the senior-looking of the pair asked.
“That’s the name on these character passes,” the junior volunteered.
“ID?” the senior blackleg asked Dolly.
Dolly spocked one eyebrow and said nothing. The law was unaccompanied characters were subject to arrest. It said nothing about authors, editors, or agents. And anyway, Dolly wasn’t exactly unaccompanied, was she?
“Right, sorry. Carry on.”
Dolly tugged open the heavy pocket panel door between the living room and study of Number Four The Lane, one of the several residences she shared upon occasion with her literal partner, Mitchell Cary Drummond. She and Drummond had converted the entire back of the house and the patio beyond into one big party room and were entertaining, it seemed, the entire population of Serendip’ity City.
Including, it seemed, their beloved author. For what must have been the first time ever, Alger had stooped to join his characters in a little celebration. Nothing to celebrate, but the lack of a milestone was no excuse.
Dolly slipped through the opening and closed the door behind her. Drummond was deeply involved with studying his lines for the novel Alger was writing. It had to be. Dolly could see that now. It was the plot. The plot might fall flat and need to be rewritten, but until it did, it was the plot, and they were obliged to follow it.
It didn’t mean she had to like it.
But she perched on the arm of a big old couch and vibrated as the other dollies put it like a whanged tuning fork, her eyes filled with the joy of the moment, the glory of being once again the Center of the Universe.
Later, without a segue, she found herself in a nook lined with bookshelves and a window seat, in a familiar place, standing in front of a seated Alger, snuggled up between his knees, head bowed, tugging at the front of his shirt. Not trying to undress him, just playing with the garment for something to do.
He pushed her away, made her sit on a chair nearby. She pouted a little.
“I can’t,” he said. “Drummond…”
“But it doesn’t matter. I mean, he’s you, right?”
“Well, yeah. He’s a better version of me: what I wish I could be, in a way.”
“So what’s the diff?” she wanted to know.
“I don’t know,” he said, sounding like he was feeling his way. “I just… He is different from me. And I don’t think it would be right for me to be messing with his girlfriend.”
“Isn’t that kinda fer me to decide?” She stood up and started to slink over to him again.
“Yeah, but. Please, Dolly. Just…”
She sighed and flounced back down in the chair. “I don’t get you, Alger. I’m your wet dream, but you want to keep hands-off.”
“Do you want to get pro publication?”
“It’s just like being naked in Playboy doesn’t do an actress’s career much good. Authors getting jiggy with their characters gives editors the willies. If you’re gonna go pro, you and I have to be all business.”
Dolly pouted her prettiest pout. It failed to soften his heart.
“So,” Alger said after a long period of semi-awkward silence. “D’ya understand a little better what I’m saying?”
She nodded, not trusting her voice. Being this close to her author, she felt a little overwhelmed, like Pooh must have the first time he ever saw Christopher Robin’s red suspenders.
“I can’t concentrate when you come at me like that all the time. I understand that you find it hard to live an independent existence.” He sighed. “I’d love for it to happen, but… Don’t think it’s a flaw in you. I’m convinced it’s my failure. I haven’t written you right.”
“Oh, no,” she wailed her voice low just the same. “Don’t say that!”
“It’s OK, Dolly. We’ll have plenty of time together. You and me are going to make lots and lots of books. And they’re gonna be big, big bestsellers worldwide, with seventy-eleven different translations. And there’ll be Gregg Press editions, and Locus will do cover stories about you, and all of your book covers will be Michael Whelan originals… Or Boris. Boris will want you to model for him.”
“Hey! You can’t blame a guy for tryin’.” He grinned at her.
She lifted her eyes to meet his and bestowed upon him her megawatt smile. His eyes told her he forgave her all the grief she caused him. In the moments like these, it was all worth while. For both of them.