THE HALL WAS ENORMOUS. It had the feel of a cathedral, but the art was all wrong. Perhaps the world center of some lodge or order, though that gave no sense of the sheer, mind boggling, size of it.
Ralphy stood at the edge, next to a pillar, and gazed across the bustling crowd, through the smoke and haze, past the brightly colored robes and the bonfires and the merchant stands, to the pillars on the other side, so small from here that they were hard to make out.
They supported a balcony of sorts, and above it, seated in rank upon rank, were strange and frightening figures, obviously much larger than humans—much larger.
He didn't remember arriving in this terrible place. He didn't remember any journey at all. He had been told to deliver the package to a Mr. Morris at an address near the center of town, and had been on his way to do just that when the woman had shouted at him, and pointed over his head.
He had looked up, and seen the piano.
He remembered thinking that it was silly—the kind of thing that happens in cartoons. It might as well have been a large black weight, with "2000 TONS" and "Acme Inc." stenciled on the side in white.
Then he was in this strange place, filled with stranger people.
He half expected to see Wily Coyote walk by.
What did he do now?
He looked around for another lost soul, someone to talk to, but everyone else seemed to have a definite purpose and to be going about it. He finally spotted a tiny man—about half his own size, which was not tall to begin with—standing directly behind him, in the shadow of the pillar. He looked vaguely familiar.
"Oh," Ralphy said, "Hello."
The figure squinted up at him, but made no sound.
"I'm Ralph Trenton—Ralphy, for short. Everyone calls me that."
The figure made no sign at all.
Ralphy offered a hand, but the figure didn't take it.
"You look familiar," Ralphy said. "Have we met somewhere?"
Ralphy shrugged, leaned against the pillar, and slid to the floor, where he sat, waiting, and finally drifting into sleep.
"I am a ranking emissary of the Order of Zareth, Third Echelon. I expected a better welcome than this."
Ralphy woke with a start. The speaker stood directly in front of him, decked out in layers of robes and a remarkable hat. He carried a large clay jar under one arm, decorated with ancient symbols and pictures. Everyone here seemed to look vaguely familiar. Even the short fellow in the suit, standing quietly behind the Ranking Emissary.
The other man, whom the Ranking Emissary spoke to, was not familiar. He had the look of a used car salesman or a crooked politician. He smiled even more broadly and bowed even further.
"Certainly, sir, I'm sure it was an unfortunate oversight, something that should be corrected as soon as possible. I'll see what can be done."
"That's more like it. Tell them Evan Harris has arrived, and expects a suitable welcome."
Ralphy's eyes popped wide. Judge Harris!
The used car salesman bowed and scraped some more.
"Certainly, sir. I'll tell them. I'm very sorry this has happened. Most unfortunate."
"And send me someone," Judge Harris continued, "to carry this vase."
"Yes, sir. Immediately, sir."
He bustled off.
Ralphy gathered up his courage.