Applying nose drops and contemplating their effect. Sampling various cough lozenges. Dabbing lotion on the red, raw patches that appear on the cheeks and around the nostrils after several days of diligent nose-blowing.

Poor Michael. I could hear him cough—or was it only another vocal exercise? I made a mental note to see that he spent as much time as possible breathing on the QB. After all, thanks to her insistence that he attend, dozens of fans would probably go home with Michael’s cold.

Some of them already had it, apparently. I heard a muffled sneeze from the balcony. I got out of bed and peered out through a tiny crack in the curtains. Yes, the fans were still there. They had figured out who was in what room shortly after the celebrity guests arrived, and had learned that if they could get up enough nerve to cross the two-foot gap that separated the various balconies, they could roam at will up and down the outside of the hotel and camp on the stars’ balconies. We were only on the second floor, which meant that so far the ones who fell hadn’t badly injured themselves, and obviously neither hotel management nor the convention organizers would do anything. Despite my calls to both the previous evening, the crowd on our balcony had grown overnight. Presumably they’d disperse when the panels began and they had a legitimate chance to see their idols.

I wondered what they thought of Michael’s vocal exercises. Surely they could hear them. I also wondered, uncharitably, whether anybody was camped on the QB’s balcony, next to ours. I’d bet not, but since I didn’t dare go out to peek, I’d never know. I took a perverse pride in the fact that our balcony was brim full of bodies. I almost felt sorry for them—the weather had turned damp and uncomfortably cool in the night, and since the hotel only had two stories, the balcony had no roof to shelter them from the steady drizzle. They huddled together, wet and bedraggled, like a crowd of refugees.

Of course, my sympathy wasn’t profound enough that I felt obliged to play Lady Bountiful, and make coffee for them in the room’s minuscule coffee machine. After all, no one had forced them to sleep on our balcony, and they’d dry off quickly enough when the August sun came out.

I brewed some coffee for the two of us instead, and sat in the room’s easy chair, studying the program while I sipped and waited for the caffeine to take effect. It wasn’t working rapidly. Even the arrival of room service with breakfast didn’t rouse me from my torpor. By the time Michael finished his vocal exercises and began rummaging through his suitcases, I found myself drifting off. Maybe I should just slip back in bed for a few more winks until—

I heard another shriek. Why had Michael started his vocal exercises again?

I opened my eyes and glared at the bathroom door.

Then blinked in surprise. Michael stood in front of the dresser, looking toward the closed bathroom door with obvious alarm.

Chapter 2

We heard another ghastly shriek from the bathroom.

“What the hell is that?” Michael asked.

“Beats me,” I said. “I thought it was you, doing your exercises again.”

“I don’t sound like that,” he said.

Another shriek.

“Do I?” he asked, sounding less confident.

“Exactly like that,” I said. “So if you’re not doing it—”

“I’ll call the front desk,” Michael said, picking up the phone. “They need to—”

“Fat lot of good they’ll do,” I said. I was already stalking toward the bathroom, weapon in hand. Sword in hand, to be precise. Ever since I’d expanded my professional blacksmithing repertory to include making weapons, I’d realized how useful it was having a sword around the house. I can think of few things more satisfying to hold than a well-balanced sword when I’m investigating suspicious noises in the night, greeting persistent door-to-door salesmen, or making a point with annoying and demanding relatives.

“I wish you’d stop doing that,” Michael said, putting his hand over the mouthpiece of the phone.

“Don’t worry; I won’t hurt anyone,” I muttered. “It’s not even sharpened. What does the front desk say?”

“They haven’t answered yet,” Michael said, dropping the receiver. “Dammit, let me do that.”

We reached the bathroom, and I held the sword ready while Michael kicked the door open.

“Who’s there!” he shouted.

Our intruder yodeled in response.

Michael stepped closer.

“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” he said.

I could tell from his suddenly relaxed posture that whatever he’d seen posed no threat, so I peered into the bathroom.

A large gray parrot perched on the edge of the vanity.

“Where the hell did that thing come from?” Michael said.

As if in response, the parrot laughed maniacally and preened itself, revealing bright red tail feathers.

“Good question,” I said. The bathroom didn’t even have a window—only a ventilation grate, and Michael tested it to find it firmly bolted in place.

The parrot leaped off the vanity with a flutter of wings and walked over to the room service cart.

“We want a shrubbery,” it announced. It looked up at the cart, then ducked its head under the tablecloth and disappeared.

“Bingo,” Michael said. “It came with breakfast.”

“I don’t recall seeing fricassee of parrot on the menu,” I said. “And it looks underdone to me.”

“Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition,” the parrot said, poking its head out from under the cart.

“At least it’s a reasonably amusing parrot,” Michael said. “I mean, a parrot who can quote Monty Python —”

“—Is no more likely to be house trained than any other parrot,” I said, picking up the phone. “I’m going to call—hello?”

“Hello? This is the reception desk,” a woman’s voice said, on the phone. “Is anyone there?”

“I’ll see if I can catch him,” Michael said.

“This is room 207,” I said. “Room service brought us a parrot along with our meal.”

“Only one parrot?” the woman said.

“Only the one parrot, yes,” I said. “But we didn’t order any parrots at all. Could you please have someone come up right away to remove it?”

“I’m afraid we’re giving priority to people with multiple parrots,” the woman said. “We’ll put you on the waiting list, and I expect we’ll get to your parrot sometime later today. Is there anything else I can do for you?”

I was so taken aback that I couldn’t immediately speak. The woman at the reception desk took that for a no, wished me a good morning, and hung up.

“The nerve,” I said, slamming the phone down.

“What did they say?” Michael asked.

He’d begun to chase the parrot around the room. The parrot was enjoying this, if the maniacal laugh was anything to go by. Michael wasn’t. The parrot was either unwilling or unable to fly, but he could travel very fast on foot, his huge beak and hunched-forward posture making him look rather like Groucho Marx.

“They seemed to think I was joking,” I said.

“It is a little unbelievable,” Michael said.

“They could still be polite,” I said. I rummaged through my tote bag until I found the digital camera. I was supposed to take pictures of the convention so my nephew Kevin, who ran Michael’s official fan website, would have new material to post. Meg Langslow, girl reporter. I took several close-ups of the parrot, and several shots of Michael chasing it, which I suspected he wouldn’t let Kevin post.

“There,” I said. “I’ve got proof, in case they think we’re kidding. I think I’ll stop by the manager’s office a little

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