“A talented African Grey can repeat something after one hearing,” the keeper said. “Doesn’t become a permanent part of its repertoire without some kind of reinforcement. Usually repetition…”

He frowned down at Spike, who was still growling repetitively.

“Come on, Dad,” I said. “We’ll miss Michael’s spotlight,”

“Oh, right,” Dad said. “I’ll come back later,” he told the keeper.

Yes and for that matter I planned to come back later myself, and find out why the convention organizers had arranged to have a live tiger as part of the proceedings, and why the tiger’s keeper had agreed to this demented idea.

But for now, we left, with Dad dragging Spike, who continued to growl until we succeeded in pulling him out the door. Then he finally shut up and began prancing along behind us with a jaunty air, as if his barking and not our change of location had caused the tiger to disappear.

The organizers had scheduled Michael’s spotlight in the convention’s main event room—the hotel ballroom, which contained a small stage and several hundred chairs, set up auditorium-style. Mother, of course, had snagged a chair on the aisle, to accommodate her train. Dad and Spike joined her, but I turned down the seat she had saved for me. I preferred standing in the back, where I could escape quickly at the end of the hour.

And where I could survey the crowd, about ninety percent of them in costume. Of course, I was looking at the backs of their heads but, still, I could see a great many purple ostrich plumes and pointed wizard’s hats, along with an astonishing variety of headgear—hennins, wimples, plumed knight’s helms, musketeer’s hats, space suit helmets, and even the odd set of antlers or insect antennae. This meant that as the crowd settled in, debates raged up and down the rows over whether or not people should take off their hats for the benefit of the fans behind them. The fans toward the back of the room also protested the umbrellas and parasols that some people wanted to use as protection from the monkeys and parrots—large numbers of whom, sensing something important afoot, had followed the human crowds into the ballroom and were squabbling noisily overhead for the available space on the crystal chandeliers.

By 8:57, the ballroom was packed. I was close enough to hear the convention security staff—all of them female, and dressed as Amazon guards—turning away latecomers.

“I’m sorry. Due to the fire marshal’s regulations, we can’t allow any more people in,” they kept repeating. “You can watch the closed circuit broadcast in the Rivendell Room.”

Closed circuit broadcast? I glanced up and saw that the ballroom boasted a small balcony that doubled as a lighting booth. At the moment, it held not only the lighting techs but also a camera crew, composed of a Klingon in full battle dress and a flying monkey from The Wizard of Oz. The cameras panned across the audience, setting the scene for the fans exiled to the Rivendell Room.

The cameras reminded me to pull out my own little camera and put in a fresh memory card so I could get plenty of photos when Michael took the stage.

I spotted familiar faces, but refrained from waving, since I couldn’t figure out why most of them looked familiar. Were they people I’d met, however briefly? Or after half a dozen of these fan gatherings, had I started to recognize the die-hards?

I was almost relieved to spot one face I definitely knew. Francis, Michael’s agent, stood off to one side, wearing the anxious look that no longer worried me, now that I knew it was his habitual expression. A pity because, as I’d told Michael, on those rare occasions when Francis relaxed enough to smile, he was reasonably attractive in a lanky, aristocratic fashion.

“Is it the long horsy face or the threadbare tweeds?” Michael had countered.

Obviously this wasn’t one of Francis’s relaxed days. I saw him reach into his right jacket pocket and then glance around to see if anyone was watching before slipping something into his mouth.

I sighed and shook my head. Francis had relapsed. Not that it was any of my business, but still. If it was humanly possible to OD on TUMS, one of these days Francis would do it. Should I sic Dad on him?

The crowd began shushing each other when a six-woman contingent of the Amazon security guards marched in and arrayed themselves in front of the stage.

“What the hell is this?” muttered someone to my right.

Chapter 5

I glanced over and saw a small, round-faced man in a business suit standing, like me, against the wall. He stared at the crowd with—no, fascination wasn’t the word. Horror. In college, I’d briefly dated a man who kept a snake. Briefly, because he’d made the mistake of letting me watch him feed his pet. The expression on the small man’s face mirrored what I’d seen when the mouse spotted the snake at the other end of the glass enclosure.

We weren’t the only people in the room in civilian clothes, but the man’s conservative business suit, combined with the expression on his face, made me wonder if he’d strayed into the wrong convention. Possibly the wrong universe. He wore a convention badge, but turned around, so I couldn’t tell if it was a Jungles of Amblyopia badge like mine.

“It’s the opening session of the Porfiria convention,” I said.

“Yes, I see,” he said, holding up what I now recognized as a convention program identical to the one I’d studied earlier. “But just what is a Porfiria convention? I know I probably should have asked that question much earlier, but it never occurred to me.”

“It’s a television show,” I began. “Called—”

“I only watch CNN,” he said, with a slightly haughty air. “And sometimes The History Channel.”

Heaven preserve us from TV snobs, I thought. Aloud, I explained.

“That could be why you find this so…different. You’re at a convention for fans of a TV show called Porfiria, Queen of the Jungle.”

“Ah,” he said, still sounding puzzled. “And what are they all supposed to do at this convention?”

“They attend panels and presentations by the actors,” I said. “Also the scriptwriters and the costume designers and anyone else the organizers can round up. And they stand in line for the stars’ autographs, and they buy and sell Porfiria merchandise. Have a Porfiria costume contest. Things like that. Typical con. Convention, that is,” I added, realizing that for someone who’d never been to one, con might have other more sinister meanings.

“They really spend the whole weekend doing this?” he asked.

“And pay handsomely for the privilege.”

“Insane,” he muttered. “No offense meant,” he added, looking at me.

“None taken,” I said. “I’m not a Porfiria fan.”

“Then why are you…ah…”

He gestured weakly at the surrounding crowd.

“My boyfriend’s on the show,” I said, pointing to the stage, where Michael had just stepped out, accompanied by the diminutive Amazon, who walked to the microphone and began unsuccessfully trying to make herself heard over the cheering.

“Before I introduce Michael—” she began, but the cheers drowned out her words. She had to try again several times before the crowd finally let her finish.

“I wanted to remind you about our very special guest!” she said.

A murmur of anticipation swept through the crowd.

“Thanks to the diligent detective work of our organizing committee,” the Amazon continued, “for the first time ever at a Porfiria convention, we will be presenting…Ichabod Dilley!”

For a few moments, the auditorium remained silent. I could see people looking at each other with puzzled expressions, and shrugging their shoulders.

“What’s an Ichabod Dilley?” someone said, from the back of the room, and scattered titters followed.

Then Michael stepped forward and began applauding vigorously. I followed suit, as did the Amazon, and after a moment, so did the rest of the crowd. Still applauding, Michael took a step toward the tiny Amazon, bent down, and said something into her ear. She nodded.

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