Maps in a mirror, p.35

Maps in a Mirror, page 35

 

Maps in a Mirror
 



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  That was why he didn’t see his supervisor come in, discover cell 23 empty, and then aim his submachine gun at Abu as the first step to setting up the hapless guard as the official scapegoat for this fiasco. Abu did, however, hear and feel the discharge of the gun, and wondered vaguely what had happened as he died.

  Mklikluln stretched the new arms and legs (the fourness of the body, the two-sidedness, the overwhelming sexuality of it—all were amazing, all were delightful) and walked around his little spacecraft. And the fiveness and tenness of the fingers and toes! (What we could have done with fingers and toes! except that we might not have developed thoughttalk, then, and would have been tied to the vibration of air as are these people.) Inside the ship he could see his own body melting as the hot air of the Kansas farmland raised the temperature above the melting point of ice.

  He had broken the law himself, but could see no way around it. Necessary as his act had been, and careful as he had been to steal the body of a man doomed anyway to die, he knew that his own people would try him, convict him, and execute him for depriving an intelligent being of life.

  But in the meantime, it was a new body and a whole range of sensations. He moved the tongue over the teeth. He made the buzzing in his throat that was used for communication. He tried to speak.

  It was impossible. Or so it seemed, as the tongue and lips and jaw tried to make the Arabic sounds the reflex pathways were accustomed to, while Mklikluln tried to speak in the language that had dominated the airwaves.

  He kept practicing as he carefully melted down his ship (though it was transparent to most electromagnetic spectra, it might still cause comment if found) and by the time he made his way into the nearby city, he was able to communicate fairly well. Well enough, anyway, to contract with the Kansas City Development Corporation for the manufacture of the machine he had devised; with Farber, Farber, and Maynard to secure patents on every detail of the machinery; and with Sidney’s carpentry shop to manufacture the doghouses.

  He sold enough diamonds to pay for the first 2,000 finished models. And then he hit the road, humming the language he had learned from the radio. “It’s the real thing, Coke is,” he sang to himself. “Mr. Transmission will put in commission the worst transmissions in town.”

  The sun set as he checked into a motel outside Manhattan, Kansas. “How many?” asked the clerk.

  “One,” said Mklikluln.

  “Name?”

  “Robert,” he said, using a name he had randomly chosen from among the many thousands mentioned on the airwaves. “Robert Redford.”

  “Ha-ha,” said the clerk. “I bet you get teased about that a lot.”

  “Yeah. But I get in to see a lot of important people.”

  The clerk laughed. Mklikluln smiled. Speaking was fun. For one thing, you could lie. An art his people had never learned to cultivate.

  “Profession?”

  “Salesman.”

  “Really, Mr. Redford? What do you sell?”

  Mklikluln shrugged, practicing looking mildly embarrassed. “Doghouses,” he said.

  Royce Jacobsen pulled open the front door of his swelteringly hot house and sighed. A salesman.

  “We don’t want any,” he said.

  “Yes you do,” said the man, smiling.

  Royce was a little startled. Salesmen usually didn’t argue with potential customers—they usually whined. And those that did argue rarely did it with such calm self-assurance. The man was an ass, Royce decided. He looked at the sample case. On the side were the letters spelling out: “Doghouses Unlimited.”

  “We don’t got a dog,” Royce said.

  “But you do have a very warm house, I believe,” the salesman said.

  “Yeah. Hotter’n Hades, as the preachers say. Ha.” The laugh would have been bigger than one Ha, but Royce was hot and tired and it was only a salesman.

  “But you have an air conditioner.”

  “Yeah,” Royce said. “What I don’t have is a permit for more than a hundred bucks worth of power from the damnpowercompany. So if I run the air conditioner more than one day a month, I get the refrigerator shut down, or the stove, or some other such thing.”

  The salesman looked sympathetic.

  “It’s guys like me,” Royce went on, “who always get the short end of the stick. You can bet your boots that the mayor gets all the air conditioning he wants. You can bet your boots and your overalls, as the farmers say, ha ha, that the president of the damnpowercompany takes three hot showers a day and three cold showers a night and leaves his windows open in the winter, too, you can bet on it.”

  “Right,” said the salesman. “The power companies own this whole country. They own the whole world, you know? Think it’s any different in England? In Japan? They got the gas, and so they get the gold.”

  “Yeah,” Royce agreed. “You’re my kind of guy. You come right in. House is hot as Hades, as the preachers say, ha ha ha, but it sure beats standing in the sun.”

  They sat on a beat-up looking couch and Royce explained exactly what was wrong with the damnpowercompany and what he thought of the damnpowercompany’s executives and in what part of their anatomy they should shove their quotas, bills, rates, and periods of maximum and minimum use. “I’m sick to death of having to take a shower at 2:00 A.M!” Royce shouted.

  “Then do something about it!” the salesman rejoindered.

  “Sure. Like what?”

  “Like buy a doghouse from me.”

  Royce thought that was funny. He laughed for a good long while.

  But then the salesman started talking very quietly, showing him pictures and diagrams and cost analysis papers that proved—what?

  “That the solar energy utilizer built into this doghouse can power your entire house, all day every day, with four times as much power as you could use if you turned on all your home appliances all day every day, for exactly zero once you pay me this simple one-time fee.”

  Royce shook his head, though he coveted the doghouse. “Can’t. Illegal. I think they passed a law against solar energy thingies back in ’85 or ’86, to protect the power companies.”

  The salesman laughed. “How much protection do the power companies need?”

  “Sure,” Royce answered, “it’s me that needs protection. But the meter reader—if I stop using power, he’ll report me, they’ll investigate—”

  “That’s why we don’t put your whole house on it. We just put the big power users on it, and gradually take more off the regular current until you’re paying what, maybe fifteen dollars a month. Right? Only instead of fifteen dollars a month and cooking over a fire and sweating to death in a hot house, you’ve got the air conditioner running all day, the heater running all day in the winter, showers whenever you want them, and you can open the refrigerator as often as you like.”

  Royce still wasn’t sure.

  “What’ve you got to lose?” the salesman asked.

  “My sweat,” Royce answered. “You hear that? My sweat. Ha ha ha ha.”

  “That’s why we build them into doghouses—so that nobody’ll suspect anything.”

  “Sure, why not?” Royce asked. “Do it. I’m game. I didn’t vote for the damncon-gressman who voted in that stupid law anyway.”

  The air conditioner hummed as the guests came in. Royce and his wife, Junie, ushered them into the living room. The television was on in the family room and the osterizer was running in the kitchen. Royce carelessly flipped on a light. One of the women gasped. A man whispered to his wife. Royce and Junie carelessly began their conversation—as Royce left the door open.

  A guest noticed it—Mr. Detweiler from the bowling team. He said, “Hey!” and leaped from the chair toward the door.

  Royce stopped him, saying, “Never mind, never mind, I’ll get it in a minute. Here, have some peanuts.” And the guests all watched the door in agony as Royce passed the peanuts around, then (finally!) went to the door to close it.

  “Beautiful day outside,” Royce said, holding
the door open a few minutes longer.

  Somebody in the living room mentioned a name of the deity. Somebody else countered with a one word discussion of defecation. Royce was satisfied that the point had been made. He shut the door.

  “Oh, by the way,” he said. “I’d like you to meet a friend to mine. His name is Robert Redford.”

  Gasp, gasp, of course you’re joking, Robert Redford, what a laugh, sure.

  “Actually, his name is Robert Redford, but he isn’t, of course, the all time greatest star of stage, screen, and the Friday Night Movie, as the disc jockeys say, ha ha. He is, in short, my friends, a doghouse salesman.”

  Mklikluln came in then, and shook hands all around.

  “He looks like an Arab,” a woman whispered.

  “Or a Jew,” her husband whispered back. “Who can tell?”

  Royce beamed at Mklikluln and patted him on the back. “Redford here is the best salesman I ever met.”

  “Must be, if he sold you a doghouse, and you not even got a dog,” said Mr. Detweiler of the bowling league, who could sound patronizing because he was the only one in the bowling league who had ever had a perfect game.

  “Neverthemore, as the raven said, ha ha ha, I want you all to see my doghouse.” And so Royce led the way past a kitchen where all the lights were on, where the refrigerator was standing open (“Royce, the fridge is open!” “Oh, I guess one of the kids left it that way.” “I’d kill one of my kids that did something like that!”), where the stove and microwave and osterizer and hot water were all running at once. Some of the women looked faint.

  And as the guests tried to rush through the back door all at once, to conserve energy, Royce said, “Slow down, slow down, what’s the panic, the house on fire? Ha ha ha.” But the guests still hurried through.

  On the way out to the doghouse, which was located in the dead center of the backyard, Detweiler took Royce aside.

  “Hey, Royce, old buddy. Who’s your touch with the damnpowercompany? How’d you get your quota upped?”

  Royce only smiled, shaking his head. “Quota’s the same as ever, Detweiler.” And then, raising his voice just a bit so that everybody in the backyard could hear, he said, “I only pay fifteen bucks a month for power as it is.”

  “Woof woof,” said a small dog chained to the hook on the doghouse.

  “Where’d the dog come from?” Royce whispered to Mklikluln.

  “Neighbor was going to drown ’im,” Mklikluln answered. “Besides, if you don’t have a dog the power company’s going to get suspicious. It’s cover.”

  Royce nodded wisely. “Good idea, Redford. I just hope this party’s a good idea. What if somebody talks?”

  “Nobody will,” Mklikluln said confidently.

  And then Mklikluln began showing the guests the finer points of the doghouse.

  When they finally left, Mklikluln had twenty-three appointments during the next two weeks, checks made out to Doghouses Unlimited for $221.23, including taxes, and many new friends. Even Mr. Detweiler left smiling, his check in Mklikluln’s hand, even though the puppy had pooped on his shoe.

  “Here’s your commission,” Mklikluln said as he wrote out a check for three hundred dollars to Royce Jacobsen. “It’s more than we agreed, but you earned it,” he said.

  “I feel a little funny about this,” Royce said. “Like I’m conspiring to break the law or something.”

  “Nonsense,” Mklikluln said. “Think of it as a Tupperware party.”

  “Sure,” Royce said after a moment’s thought. “It’s not as if I actually did any selling myself, right?”

  Within a week, however, Detweiler, Royce, and four other citizens of Manhattan, Kansas, were on their way to various distant cities of the United States, Doghouses Unlimited briefcases in their hands.

  And within a month, Mklikluln had a staff of three hundred in seven cities, building doghouses and installing them. And into every doghouse went a frisky little puppy. Mklikluln did some figuring. In about a year, he decided. One year and I can call my people.

  “What’s happened to power consumption in Manhattan, Kansas?” asked Bill Wilson, up-and-coming young executive in the statistical analysis section of Central Kansas Power, otherwise known as the damnpowercompany.

  “It’s gotten lower,” answered Kay Block, relic of outdated affirmative action programs in Central Kansas Power, who had reached the level of records examiner before the ERA was repealed to make our bathrooms safe for mankind.

  Bill Wilson sneered, as if to say, “That much I knew, woman.” And Kay Block simpered, as if to say, “Ah, the boy has an IQ after all, eh?”

  But they got along well enough, and within an hour they had the alarming statistic that power consumption in the city of Manhattan, Kansas, was down by forty percent.

  “What was consumption in the previous trimester?”

  Normal. Everything normal.

  “Forty percent is ridiculous,” Bill fulminated.

  “Don’t fulminate at me,” Kay said, irritated at her boss for raising his voice. “Go yell at the people who unplugged their refrigerators!”

  “No,” Bill said. ”You go yell at people who unplugged their refrigerators. Something’s gone wrong there, and if it isn’t crooked meter readers, it’s people who’ve figured out a way to jimmy the billing system.”

  After two weeks of investigation, Kay Block sat in the administration building of Kansas State University (9—2 last football season, coming that close to copping the Plains Conference pennant for ’98) refusing to admit that her investigation had turned up a big fat zero. A random inspection of thirty-eight meters showed no tampering at all. A complete audit of the local branch office’s books showed no doctoring at all. And a complete examination of KSU’s power consumption figures showed absolutely nothing. No change in consumption—no change in billing system—and yet a sharp drop in electricity use.

  “The drop in power use may be localized,” Kay suggested to the white-haired woman from the school who was babysitting her through the process. “The stadium surely uses as much light as ever—so the drop must be somewhere else, like in the science labs.”

  The white-haired woman shook her head. “That may be so, but the figures you see are the figures we’ve got.”

  Kay sighed and looked out the window. Down from the window was the roof of the new Plant Science Building. She looked at it as her mind struggled vainly to find something meaningful in the data she had. Somebody was cheating—but how?

  There was a doghouse on the roof of the Plant Science Building.

  “What’s a doghouse doing on the roof of that building?” asked Kay.

  “I would assume,” said the white-haired woman, “for a dog to live in.”

  “On the roof?”

  The white-haired woman smiled. “Fresh air, perhaps,” she said.

  Kay looked at the doghouse awhile longer, telling herself that the only reason she was suspicious was because she was hunting for anything unusual that could explain the anomalies in the Manhattan, Kansas, power usage pattern.

  “I want to see that doghouse,” she said.

  “Why?” asked the white-haired lady. “Surely you don’t think a generator could hide in a doghouse! Or solar-power equipment! Why, those things take whole buildings!”

  Kay looked carefully at the white-haired woman and decided that she protested a bit too much. “I insist on seeing the doghouse,” she said again.

  The white-haired woman smiled again. “Whatever you want, Miss Block. Let me call the custodian so he can unlock the door to the roof.”

  After the phone call they went down the stairs to the main floor of the administration building, across the lawns, and then up the stairs to the roof of the Plant Science Building. “What’s the matter, no elevators?” Kay asked sourly as she panted from the exertion of climbing the stairs.

  “Sorry,” the white-haired woman said. “We don’t build elevators into buildings anymore. They use too much power. Only the power company
can afford elevators these days.”

  The custodian was at the door of the roof, looking very apologetic.

  “Sorry if old Rover’s been causin’ trouble ladies. I keep him up on the roof nowadays, ever since the break-in attempt through the roof door last spring. Nobody’s tried to jimmy the door since.”

  “Arf,” said a frisky, cheerful looking mix between an elephant and a Labrador retriever (just a quick guess, of course) that bounded up to them.

  “Howdy, Rover old boy,” said the custodian. “Don’t bite nobody.”

  “Arf,” the dog answered, trying to wiggle out of his skin and looking as if he might succeed. “Gurrarf.”

  Kay examined the roof door from the outside. “I don’t see any signs of anyone jimmying at the door,” she said.

  “Course not,” said the custodian. “The burglars was seen from the administration building before they could get to the door.”

  “Oh,” said Kay. “Then why did you need to put a dog up here?”

  “Cause what if the burglars hadn’t been seen?” the custodian said, his tone implying that only a moron would have asked such a question.

  Kay looked at the doghouse. It looked like every other doghouse in the world. It looked like cartoons of doghouses, in fact, it was so ordinary. Simple arched door. Pitched roof with gables and eaves. All it lacked was a water dish and piles of doggy-do and old bones. No doggy-do?

  “What a talented dog,” Kay commented. “He doesn’t even go to the bathroom.”

  “Uh,” answered the custodian, “he’s really housebroken. He just won’t go until I take him down from here to the lawn, will ya Rover?”

  Kay surveyed the wall of the roof-access building they had come through. “Odd. He doesn’t even mark the walls.”

  “I told you. He’s really housebroken. He wouldn’t think of mucking up the roof here.”

  “Arf,” said the dog as it urinated on the door and then defecated in a neat pile at Kay’s feet. “Woof woof woof,” he said proudly.

  “All that training,” Kay said, “and it’s all gone to waste.”

 
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