"You should not go wandering off the path if you are not ready to step out of the world you think you know best. Stay to the path, Birdie. You hear me? Stay to the path."
Birdie began, "The world I think--?"
But the stranger, the friend, the whatever-he-was had begun to shimmer and dissolve before her eyes: opaque, then translucent, then rippling air, then all of him gone for a moment except his smile and eyes hanging suspended before her. Finally the golden-eyed man (Goldeye, she thought, that's his name isn't it?) was gone, and Birdie was alone in the center of the garden.
Stay to the path. But which path? The flagstones, or the lily pads? The known, comfortable, indeed stolid? or wobbling uncertainty?
The first pad seemed to flutter the instant before she set her right foot upon it. By the time she reached the fifth pad, though, her footsteps were more sure. When she reached the tenth she considered how strangely solid these broad leaves felt; she wondered why the water was no longer shimmering around their edges.
But she did not look back.
So it was that she missed the gathering of the dark gray mist, now closing up behind her. She missed the garden's disappearance. She failed to notice that the water was already far below her feet, and that she was ascending ever higher with each confident footstep.
In the center of an otherwise darkened warehouse in an ugly part of an ugly city was a pool of light. In that pool of light was a small table, and around that table sat three men and an empty chair. The only sound for a few moments was the snap... snap... of cards being dealt and then laid down, face up.
Finally, one of the men -- the skinny, dark-haired one, known for obvious reasons as Weasel -- broke the silence. He threw his remaining three cards on the table; one skittered across the surface, off the table's edge, and landed face-up in the empty chair. Jack of Hearts.
"Shit," said Weasel. "How much longer we gotta stay here playing cards? I don't even know the goddam rules of this game for crissake. I'm bored. Can't we at least call out for sandwiches---"
"Shut up." This came from the man on Weasel's left, the greaser: Max. "You don't know the rules of the game? Forget the game. you don't know the rules of nothin', pally, and that's why we're here in the first place."
To Weasel's right, the third man, heavyset -- no, fat -- looked up from the cards in his hand. "'Call out for sandwiches,' he says," said the fat man (whose name was Dundee) in a constricted and phlegmy voice. "Don't suppose you actually tried getting a signal in here recently?"
Weasel got up from his chair, walked around the table, retrieved the Jack of Hearts, and sat down right there. Leaning forward, he scooped up all the cards on the table and shoved them into something like an orderly rectangle. He riffled the edge of the deck with his thumb. "Okay," he said, "so we're stuck here, until he gets back and unblocks us. But Jesus do we have to play the same stupid goddam game the whole time?"
Before Max or Dundee could stop him, Weasel held up the deck flexed between thumb and fingers and shot it into the air. Cards whirred crazily in the light, face up and face down and face up and left to right, raining down in a blizzard of white and black and red.
From off in the darkness came a voice: "Untidy. Very untidy. I think someone...