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‘Hell, no, I don’t want a coffee. Well, yes I do, but not right now. Just hang loose, bubba.’
McDiarmid said with evident difficulty, ‘We want to offer you every hospitality and resource. Marge here will work as your lead technician, and –’
‘Sorry.’ Henry reached out to Mike, got hold of the shoulder of his jacket, and pulled him back. ‘Post’s taken.’
Case looked at Mike with precisely the reaction Henry had expected. ‘But I have a doctorate in –’
‘You said already. I’m sure Mike and I can find you something to do.’ Henry put his arms around their shoulders, and began to lead them to the door; McDiarmid followed, hands fluttering over his belly. ‘We’re going to be one big family,’ Henry said. ‘Just like the Waltons. Do you get the Waltons? Now, Mike. Where do we get that coffee?’
When he was done tormenting Case and McDiarmid, he relented and let Mike drive him back to the Balmoral.
Mike drove in silence, apparently confused. Henry wondered if he was being cruel to him, in some obscure way.
Am I just playing games with this guy? Or do I really think he will do a better job than Marge Case?
Well, sure he did.
But maybe he was being too smart at filling in Mike’s life story.
Henry suppressed a sigh. When the divorce from Geena was finalized – when he learned the Shoemaker was canned and he was going to have to leave Houston – it was as if his life was ending. He was glad when that crummy BA 747 left the tarmac at Houston Intercontinental, because it was like a little death.
But, unlike whatever lay beyond death, Edinburgh contained people, and choices, and already, just a few hours here, Henry had, on a whim, made two enemies and one dubious friend. And for what?
Anyhow, it was done.
Mike dropped him at the hotel, and Henry lugged his suitcase inside. Mike drove back to the King’s Buildings; he said he wanted to start work, preparing for the first samples from 86047.
Henry checked in.
The room rate was quite fantastically expensive. What was it with Brit hotels? Henry wasn’t paying, but he hated to waste money; the sooner he got out of here the better.
Still, his room wasn’t so bad. A big double bed – a duvet, not blankets – and a kettle and a whole stack of tea bags and a mini bar, and complimentary sunscreen in the bathroom. He was on the fifth floor, and he was looking east; he would get the sun in the morning.
He took off his shoes and his stinking socks, and padded to the window.
Looking north beyond the city’s roof tops he could see the Firth of Forth, a dreamy-blue arm of the sea. Calton Hill pushed out of the foreground. Calton was one of the ancient volcanic plugs that underpinned the city. It was coated with grass, and crowned by absurd-looking classical-style buildings, such as an open portico – some kind of unfinished temple, it seemed – and a telescope tower.
Mike had been right that Edinburgh was the home of geology. The old igneous structures here had been studied right from the beginning of the discipline. In fact James Hutton in the eighteenth century, based in Edinburgh, was the first to come up with modern theories of the processes that shaped Earth – the first man in history, perhaps, to understand the extent of the vast deserts of geological time that surrounded him.
Henry wondered, briefly, how that must have felt: to be the only human on the planet who knew …
I ought to sleep, he thought.
He tried the TV. There were five main channels and cable and satellite. The main channels were full of soaps and other daytime bullshit. He found a British news channel called Sky and watched that for a while, but the news meant little to him. There was a story about problems for the Government over integration into Europe, and some kind of IRA bomb threat that had caused gridlock in Birmingham, and, my God, a riot in some part of Scotland – what looked like a dire residential area called the Gorbals, in Glasgow – a spokesman who said in a thick accent, We never accepted the Union of the Parliaments, and that’s that. It turned out he wasn’t talking about the modern devolved assembly but the abolition of a Scottish Parliament in favour of a single British one, which had happened, for God’s sake, in 1707. And then commentators on the Irish stuff talked about some guy called William of Orange, who had his fifteen minutes of fame in 1688.
1707, 1688. Dates from prehistory for North America, dates as remote as 5000 BC.
There was no US news at all.
He tried to remember the last British news story he’d noticed back home. Some royal bullshit, probably.
Britain, he was coming to see, was built on a long and complex history. Shame they hadn’t got more of it right, he thought.
But then that was complacent. Britain was peaceful and prosperous and proud of itself and, hell, even pretty democratic. The US should last to be a thousand years old; then we’ll see what shape we’re in …
He flipped around until he found CNN. Lying on his bed, he studied baseball scores, one of his routines for conning himself to sleep.
But, though he was tired, he was not sleepy, and some part of him was reacting to the fact that it wasn’t even midday outside, and the day was a-wasting.
He’d done a lot of travelling in the course of his career. But he’d never yet got used to this planet-hopping.
He considered raiding the room’s mini-bar. Or maybe he should go back to the institute and rattle McDiarmid’s cage a little more. Or maybe he should just go find a USA Today.
Bored, sour, he got up, pulled on a fresh T-shirt, and walked out of the room.
He found himself on Princes Street, a broad, straight road that ran east to west. It seemed to be the spine of the shopping area, and it was crowded with traffic and shoppers. The pedestrians were all in big floppy hats and baggy white clothes with their faces smeared with cream.
The street’s north side was lined with plastic shop frontages, and on its south side there was a park called Princes Street Gardens: set in a valley, crammed with monuments and features. Pretty. But, Jesus, it was cold, a breeze gusting down the street like it was a wind tunnel. Henry, with just his T-shirt, wrapped his arms around his chest. Maybe he’d get more tolerant to this when he got over the loss of Houston’s muggy, comfortable warmth.
Anyhow, if he was lucky he’d be out of here before winter came.
He got his orientation quickly.
He could see the asymmetrical profiles of Calton Hill and Castle Rock from here, with the heart of the city stretching between them, and Arthur’s Seat on the outskirts of the city, a blocky, uncompromising mound. The glaciers had flowed east over this place, scraping off the younger sedimentary rocks and leaving these three igneous plugs exposed. All three plugs had been left with a sharp western face and a long, shallow eastern debris scarp. To Henry, musing, it looked as if some gigantic explosion had overwhelmed the area from the west, leaving these tails of debris, sheltered by the plugs.
He walked to the west along Princes Street. The shops were full of the new radiation-proofed clothing lines, heavily advertised. Here was a realtor – no, an estate agent – with a lot of properties price-hiked because they had cellars, or room for underground development.
He passed the train station entrance and the roof of an underground mall, decorated with obscure statues of what looked like abseilers. He came to a steep road called the Mound, which twisted up the glacial tail to the Castle, a brooding pile on top of its own basaltic plug. The Castle looked as out of place, viewed from this glitzy plastic shopping area, as a bubo in the armpit of a supermodel.
He thought about climbing up there, taking a look around.
Or, he could go back to that little mall by the station, get under cover, and have a coffee.
He went back to the mall.
It turned out to be a complex of staircases and escalators and glass-walled elevators. It was brightly lit and crowded, though muzak pumped out from too many places. There were fountains, with more of those bizarre stainless steel abseilers.
At least it was warmer here. But he couldn’t find anything that looked right. What he’d really like to find, he thought, was a big out-of-town-style Barnes and Noble, lined with books, with a fat Starbucks coffee shop on the end of it. You’re getting parochial, Henry.
He came to a shop called The World Store. It was just the kind of place you’d expect to find in a mall like this: full of bead necklaces, wooden carvings, bamboo curtains. At the back there were shelves full of rocks: sparse metal frames lit by spot lamps, the merchandise glowing.
There was a girl behind a counter at the back, blonde and slim, sorting through some kind of box of samples.
On impulse, Henry walked in. The girl looked up, took him in at a glance – so it seemed – and went back to her rocks.
On her desk, there was a card. THE WORLD STORE. S Kapur & J Dundas, props. Telephone, fax and e-mail.
Dundas. He remembered the rocks in the car, Mike’s crystal-gazing sister.
Henry drifted past the wooden elephants and pan pipes and other New Age crap, and made for the racks of minerals. It was mostly the usual eyecatching commercial stuff, sliced geodes and quartz crystals and pyrite clumps. Some of it looked native, but most of it was polished, even dyed and carved. Here was a necklace of bottle-green beads, for instance. And he found a tiger carved from a shining black rock, covered in pale grey blotches.
He looked sideways at the girl.
She was older than Mike, maybe as old as thirty, but she had the same Nordic colouring. Blonde hair tied back, revealing a composed, thoughtful face. Strong hands. Blue eyes you could swim in. One hell of a set of cheekbones, the essence of beauty. No body parts pierced that he could see, which was a good thing. She was eating something. A rice cake, maybe.
She glanced up and caught him looking at her. She put down the rice cake.
He was holding the tiger; he fumbled and nearly dropped it.
‘You pay for breakages,’ she said. Her accent was the same as Mike’s – soft Scottish – but her tone was cold.
‘Sorry.’ He put the tiger back. ‘I was just thinking.’
‘You ought to put a best-before date on that tiger. Ultimately it’s going to turn grey all over –’
‘I know. In sixty million years. It’s snowflake obsidian.’
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