later. Recommend some remedial training in customer service for that desk clerk.”

“Good idea,” Michael said. He sounded a little breathless.

“Do you think you should tire yourself out so close to going on stage?” I asked. I had moved to the window to snap a few pictures of the fans huddled on our balcony.

“Probably not,” he said, sitting down on the bed and shaking his head. “I don’t think I can catch him, at least not without getting all sweaty just before I go on. How much time do I have, anyway?”

“Um…about fifteen minutes,” I said, as I began to throw on my clothes. “Wasn’t someone from the committee coming to escort you down?”

“They’re supposed to,” Michael said. “What if they forgot and the stupid alarm clock in this room is slow and I’m already late?”

“Or maybe it’s fast and you’re just very early. God, I hope we’re early,” I added, grabbing a comb. Humidity is not kind to my hair. Overnight, the long, dark mane of which I was usually so proud had turned into a giant tumbleweed.

“Maybe we should go on downstairs?” Michael murmured.

But we both knew better than to venture out unescorted. Apart from the problem of lurking fans, the hotel was a sprawling maze, with at least a dozen wings added at various times in different styles, though none of them were more than two stories. Apparently, management had recently begun to renumber all the rooms, but then abandoned the project in mid-stream, so in many cases there were two rooms with the same number, distinguishable only by whether the number plate was old brass or new plastic.

At least when Michael and I arrived at our room, it was empty. I’d already heard several tales of people who entered their rooms to find them already occupied by other guests.

None of the floor plans posted in the hallways approximated reality, and even the bellhops got lost from time to time. So although the meeting rooms where the convention would take place were only one floor and a few corridors away, we could easily spend an hour getting lost if we tried to find them ourselves. Better to wait for our escort than end up in the kitchens again.

Michael was tying his shoes, and looking a little wild-eyed. I’d seen him less rattled before going on stage to play the lead in Richard III. Must be the cold.

Someone knocked at the door.

“Who’s there?” the parrot called, in a surprisingly pleasant baritone.

“It’s your escort, Mr. Waterston,” a voice said through the door. “We’ve come to take you down for your spotlight.”

“I’ll get it,” I said. “You go into the bathroom, in case it’s only a group of enterprising fans.”

I slipped the camera into my pocket, opened the door, and peered out at a tall, thin teenaged boy and a tiny, plump woman.

The boy caught my attention first. From the corner of my eye, he looked like Michael—but only for a moment, and partly due to the bad light in the hallway. He wore a homemade reproduction of Michael’s Porfiria costume. In his costume, Michael really looked the part of Mephisto, the Machiavellian sorcerer. The boy looked as if he’d stolen his mother’s velvet dressing gown and decorated it hastily with clumps of glitter and too much glue. From what I’d heard, fans waited eagerly for the moments when Michael threw off his sorcerer’s robe to leap into action, revealing the black leather pants, hip boots, and red sash beneath. I hoped the hotel’s overactive air conditioning would prevent this ersatz Michael from flinging off anything—what little I could see of his chest, when the robe shifted, was as acne-covered as his face.

The woman was dressed as one of Porfiria’s Amazon guard, which meant she wore a chain mail bra, a matching miniskirt, and a pair of black spike-heeled boots. Had she failed to notice that you had to be about six feet tall and rail-thin to carry off that look? I certainly wouldn’t try. And she probably weighed about what I did, which wouldn’t be bad if she were also five ten, like me, but she was closer to five feet even. Still, I had to envy her nerve.

To my right, I could see a similarly clad though larger delegation waiting at the door of the QB’s room. Obviously they had made the mistake of waking her to ask if she wanted to attend Michael’s talk. I could hear her shrieking through the door at them. Did it never occur to the woman that these people were responsible for the show’s success? I smiled at my visitors and invited them in. Some people, at least, knew how to be gracious.

Luckily, despite their strange appearance, our visitors both wore convention volunteer badges, along with the slightly harried and anxious look we’d learned to associate with the volunteers. And for some reason, they stood under a large blue-and-white golf umbrella.

“Aren’t you worried about bad luck, opening that thing indoors?” I asked.

“Yes, but we wanted to protect Michael,” the woman said.

I could tell by the breathy way she said his name that the woman was a Michael fan. Possibly a slightly barmy one. Or was that redundant?

“Protect him from what?” I asked.

“The parrots,” the boy said, gesturing toward the ceiling.

“Parrots?” I echoed. But following his gesture, I could already see that the entire hallway was filled with fluttering, chattering parrots.

Chapter 3

“This is fabulous!” Michael exclaimed.

Not the word I’d have chosen. I’d have gone for interesting. Mother taught us that when we couldn’t say anything nice, we could always call something interesting. The hotel lobby certainly qualified.

Yesterday afternoon, when we arrived, it had looked like what it was—the lobby of a slightly run-down hotel, not a credit to the budget chain that owned it, but not an eyesore, either.

Overnight, someone had transformed it. Probably a small army of someones. Clumps of tropical plants filled every available space—a few of them real, but most fake; everything from authentic-looking silk shrubs to cheap construction paper trees. Plastic and crepe paper vines crawled across the ceiling from one light fixture to another, and the occasional papier mache snake hung down fetchingly. At least I hoped the snakes were papier mache.

Through this riotous jungle strolled several hundred people in costume. We saw the occasional Klingon, Vulcan, hobbit, or Imperial Storm Trooper, but most of the milling, babbling crowd wore costumes loosely inspired by the wardrobe they saw each week on Porfiria, Queen of the Jungle. Of course, since the show’s costume budget was as limited as the imagination of its designers, most of the cast wore hand-me- downs from other films or TV shows. If nothing else, the display had the charm of variety. I pulled my digital camera out and began snapping atmosphere shots for the website.

“It’s Amblyopia!” Michael exclaimed, flinging his arms out and accidentally knocking aside the blue-and-white golf umbrella held by his minder. Since at six feet four inches he towered over her, she wasn’t having much luck holding it over his head.

“Whose idea was it to turn all these parrots loose?” I asked.

“It wasn’t anyone’s idea,” the gawky young wizard said. “When we went to bed, they were all in cages.”

Yes, I could see cages, dotted among the fake foliage overhead. Cages whose doors now hung wide open.

“Well, I suppose you could say it was the monkeys’ idea,” the diminutive Amazon said, trying to disentangle the umbrella, which had gotten caught in a philodendron.

“Monkeys?” I echoed.

“We also have monkeys,” she said, as if this were an additional feature rather than another problem. I’d heard much the same thing said about bugs in software—perhaps she had a day job at a computer company.

Just then, a ball of fur fell from a chandelier onto a baby stroller, snatched something from the hand of the child within, and scurried back up a trailing vine.

After a moment of shocked surprise, the child burst into wails, and his mother began complaining loudly to everyone within earshot. The monkey, hanging upside down by one foot and eating a stolen tangerine, watched

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