"And so I said to him, we'll just have to go over the top!"
Jack loved having an audience, especially such an appreciative one. It more than made up for the stony glare he was receiving from the other end of the table. If the old lady in front of him was putty in his hands, her companion was as hard as a Trellian diamond.
Grinning over his glass, Jack watched his newest fan munch her way through the last of the olives. It was quite the education, particularly when she got to the stone. Her companion made a small, huffing noise and Jack turned to her with his brightest smile. Its wattage was usually sufficient to dazzle the most cynical soul. This time, it had all the effect of shining a torch into a black hole.
"Don't try anything on with me, young man," she warned, looking down her nose at him. "Gytha's the easy one."
"Too true," the olive-eater put in, grinning happily.
"Nothing further from my mind," Jack assured her, not turning down the wattage, even a little. "In fact, I'm going to have to love you and leave you, just for a while."
"Promises, promises." The last of the olives finished, the enthusiastic muncher grinned up at him, baring her tooth. "They're starting the karaoke soon, and I know this great song about…"
"I'll hurry back for it," Jack said, slipping out of the booth quickly and collecting two glasses of water from the barman before making his way into one of the darkest corners of the room. In this bar, that meant that you needed either echolocation or a good memory not to bump into the furniture.
Jack's head thumped against a low beam.
"Careful." The woman at the corner table was wearing a dark cloak and, when she pushed it back, her hair shone white in the gloom, all but a single black streak. From somewhere on the other side of the bar, the first notes of an introduction could be heard as the karaoke got started.
"Why do people always say that after you've hurt yourself?" Jack asked, putting the glasses down on the table.
"To feel smug," Susan said, taking the water and sipping it experimentally.
"It's just water," Jack assured her, wrapping his fingers round his own glass. "Although I wasn't expecting you."
"He wouldn't come." Susan sighed. "He finds your company…"
Jack shivered. "Do you have to do that?"
"It was a direct quote. Sorry." Her expression suggesting a distinct lack of apology, Susan took another sip of water. "He doesn't appreciate all the trouble you put him to, you know. And I don't appreciate playing messenger."
"You have somewhere better to be?"
"Actually, yes. The class are just mastering gerunds. It's a very important skill."
Jack frowned. "Isn't that a kind of small penguin?"
"Yes, Jack," Susan said wearily. "Alongside grammar and geometry, I also teach ornithology and animal husbandry. It makes a terrible mess in the classroom but they get extra stars for helping clean up. And now that I've used up this year's sarcasm allowance, can we get down to business?"
Holding up his hands in surrender, Jack said, "You're the ones who wanted to see me, remember?"
"Only after the mess you made."
"You want an apology?" Jack shook his head. "I had no idea. You know that."
"These things have consequences, Jack. As if having you pop in and out every five minutes like you've got a season ticket wasn't enough, do you have to encourage your staff to do the same?"
"Okay, number one, it's not my fault that someone installed a revolving door into…" he waved a hand vaguely, "…wherever. You find a way to shut it and I'll personally throw away the key. Number two, I think you'll find I did everything possible to stop her coming back. It's not like I put an "in case of death" instruction in the training manual."
They glared silently at each other for a long moment. The karaoke played on regardless and the high, cackling notes carried throughout the small room.
…the sheep is a classic, as well you may find, the llama's all right…
Finally, Susan said,
"It can't keep happening, Jack."
"Me or her?"
He blinked. "I don't…"
"Eventually, that revolving door of yours is going to stick"
"I know." He shrugged. "You're the ones with the timers. When it sticks, it sticks."
Susan looked away at last, reaching into her cloak and pulling out a small, white object which she put on the table between their glasses.
"He sent you this, and said not to let it happen again."
Carefully, Jack moved his glass to see the object better, then looked up at Susan. "Tell him thanks. I'll do my best."
Susan got to her feet as though to leave, then she hesitated, turning back to the table. The karaoke singer was still belting out verses with great enthusiasm.
…the dog's man's best friend if you don't mind the fleas…
When Jack looked up, Susan reached inside her cloak again, taking out a larger object and holding it out so that he could see. It was an hourglass, the frame polished to a deep black and the bottom bulb full of black sand. The sand was moving, a continual trickle of black onto black. It was more or less what he had expected. Then Susan moved closer, and Jack saw that there was nothing in the top bulb; it was completely empty. The sand simply appeared at the join between the two and ran down into the bottom, never filling it and never running out.
He gave her a curious look.
"What does it mean?"
"If you find out, please let us know. Take care." She put the hourglass away again then paused as Jack took her hand and lightly kissed her fingers.
"I won't tell him about that part," she said, her face reddening and showing three white marks across her cheek. "He gets protective."
"I don't blame him."
Jack sat for a while longer, staring at the small white object on the table. The white queen seemed to glow in the darkness, and when he picked it up, it was cold despite the warmth of the pub. He smiled to himself, put the chess piece in his jacket pocket and headed back towards the bar.
"Jack!" The singer waved to him with the microphone. "Come on, join in with the chorus." She began to sing again. "The hedgehog can never…"
Jack waved back, shaking his head and sitting at one of the bar stools.
"Is she always like this?" he asked his neighbour.
"That's what I thought. Oh, and I'm sorry about the other night."
"Ook. Ook ook."
"Well, it's good of you to say so. If it's any comfort, he had to scale his extra-curricular activities right back for a few days."
"You're right about that." Taking the glass of water the barman had brought him, Jack raised it to the singer, who was just reaching the good part.
Roll them all over and turn them around,
The hedgehog can never…