Read The Lighter Side Online

Authors: Keith Laumer,Eric Flint

Tags: #Science fiction, #Adventure, #General, #Science Fiction - General, #Fiction, #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Fiction - Science Fiction, #Space Opera, #Short stories, #Science Fiction - Adventure, #Science Fiction - Space Opera, #High Tech, #Science Fiction - Short Stories

The Lighter Side (10 page)

BOOK: The Lighter Side
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"Something like that. Only this is a galleon, late sixteenth-century type. Portuguese, from the flag."

"Looks like somebody could have told us about it," Acosta said. "Hey, you on deck!" He cupped his hands and shouted to the faces above. "If that tub draws more than two fathoms, you got problems!" He jerked a thumb over his shoulder. "Shoal waters!" he added.

The man who had first appeared called out something in a hoarse voice.

"Hey," Acosta said. "I was right. He's talking some kind o' Spanish." He cupped his hands again.

"¿Quién son ustedes? ¿Qué pasa?"
The man on deck shouted at some length, making the sign of the cross as he did.

"What did he say?" the officer inquired.

Acosta shook his head. "He talks funny, skipper. He must think we're part of the movie."

"We'll go aboard and take a look."

An hour later, a line aboard the derelict, the cutter headed for the Port Tampa quarantine wharf.

"What do you think?" Joe Acosta asked, eyeing the skipper sidelong.

"I think we've got a galleon crewed by thirteen illiterate Portuguese in tow," the officer snapped. "Outside of that, I'm not thinking."

 

 

 

2

 

At 10:15 A.M., as was her unalterable custom, Mrs. L. B. (Chuck) Withers put on her hat, checked her hemline in the front-hall mirror, and set out on the ten-minute walk into town. She passed the long-defunct service station at the bend, walking briskly, head up, back straight, breathed in for four paces, out for four, a simple routine to which she ascribed full credit for the remarkable youthfulness of her thirty-six-year-old figure.

A minute or two after passing the station, Mrs. Withers slowed, sensing some indefinable strangeness in the aspect of the road ahead. She had long ago ceased to notice her surroundings on her walks, but now an unfamiliar sign caught her eye ahead:

 

BRANTVILLE—1 MILE

 

It was curious, she thought, that they should bother to erect a new sign here—especially an erroneous one. Her house was precisely one half-mile from town; it couldn't be more than a few hundred yards from here to the city limits. Closer, she saw that the sign was not new; the paint was chalky and faded, peppered by a passing marksman with a pair of rust-edged pits. She looked around uneasily; now that she noticed, this stretch didn't look precisely familiar, somehow. There—that big sweetgum tree with the 666 sign—surely she would have noticed that . . . 

She hurried on, eager for a cheery glimpse of the Coca-Cola billboard around the gentle curve of the road. Instead she saw a white-painted building, patchily visible through the foliage. The brick chimney had a curiously familiar look. She pressed on, passed the shelter of the line of tall poplars—and halted, staring indignantly at her own house. She had left it, walking east—and now she was approaching it from the west. It was preposterous—impossible!

Mrs. Withers settled her hat firmly on her head. Very well: daydreaming, she had taken some turn (not that she had ever seen any branching road between home and town) that had brought her in a circle back to her own door. It was a nonsensical mistake, and the widow of L. B. Withers had no patience with nonsense, which was best dealt with by ignoring it. Grasping her handbag in both hands as one would a set of reins, she marched determinedly past the front gate.

Five minutes later, with a mounting apprehension stirring beneath her ribs, she approached a sign planted by the roadside:

 

BRANTVILLE—1 MILE

 

For a moment she stared at the letters; then she whirled and marched back the way she had come. At her gate, she caught at the post, breathing hard, collecting herself. The sight of the familiar front porch with the broken lattice that Mr. Withers had always been going to fix but somehow never had gotten around to calmed her. She took a deep breath and forced her respiration back to normal. She had almost made a fool of herself, running into the house and telephoning the sheriff with an hysterical tale of mixed-up roads. Hmmph! Interesting gossip
that
would make in town, with half of the old lechers there already smirking lewdly at her as they made their sly remarks about women who lived alone. Very well, she'd gotten confused, twice taken a wrong turning, even if she hadn't noticed any place where a body could
take
a wrong turning. This time she'd watch every step of the way, and if she arrived at the post office half an hour later than usual, she dared anybody to make a remark about it!

This time when the sign appeared ahead, she halted in the middle of the road, looking both ways, torn between a desire to run ahead and catch a glimpse of the town's edge and an equal desire to flee back to the familiarity of the house.

"It can't be," she said aloud, and was shocked at the undisciplined break in her voice. "I've walked along this road a thousand times! There's no way to get lost . . . "

The sound of the word "lost," with its implication of incompetence, had the effect of rousing a renewed surge of healthy indignation. Lost indeed! A sober, God-fearing, respectable adult woman didn't get lost in broad daylight, like some drunken hobo! If she was confused, it was because the road had been changed! And now that she thought of it, that was no doubt the explanation: during the night, the road people had brought in their equipment and cut a new road through—everybody knew how quickly they could do it these days—without even telling anyone. The idea! And the new sign fitted in with it. Her jaw set determinedly, Mrs. Withers turned and started for home with a firm tread. This time she'd call the sheriff, and give that self-satisfied old fool a piece of her mind.

The busy signal went on and on. After dialing five times, Odelia Withers went into the kitchen, rigidly holding her expression of righteous disapproval, opened the icebox door, and began mechanically setting out lunch. Fortunately there was food on hand; it wasn't that she
had
to shop today. Carefully holding her thoughts from her aborted walk to town, she prepared a sandwich from the last of the boiled ham and poured a glass of milk, seated herself in a ray of sunlight streaming past the ruffled curtains, and ate, listening to the tick of the clock in the hall.

She tried the telephone ten times in all during the afternoon. First the sheriff's office, then the Highway Patrol, then the city police. The lines were all busy; probably a flood of complaints about the road. Then, on impulse, she dialed Henry, the mechanic at the station in town. Another busy signal. She tried the numbers of two of her friends, then the operator. All busy.

She turned the radio to her favorite program, a harrowing drama of small-town PTA politics, and busied herself cleaning the already spotless house until the shadows of late afternoon lay across the lawn. After dinner she tried one more call, hung up as the instrument emitted its impersonal
zawwp, zawwp, zawwp
 . . . 

The next morning she walked as far as the sign before returning home, filled with frustrating desire to complain to someone. Without thinking, she went to the icebox, took out the ham and the milk.

She frowned at the meat on the plate. Three slices. But she had eaten the last of the ham yesterday, two slices for lunch, the other in a salad at dinnertime. And the milk: she had finished it, put the empty bottle by the door . . . 

She went to the cupboard, took down the jar of mayonnaise she had opened yesterday, removed the lid. The jar was full, untouched.

Odelia Withers proceeded to prepare lunch, eat, and wash the dishes. Then she put on a sun hat and went into the garden to cut flowers, an expression of determined disapproval on her face.

 

 

 

3

 

"It's a kook item," Bill Summers, the "Personalities" editor of
Scene
magazine, said in his usual tone of weary disparagement. "But that doesn't mean it's not news."

"Some guy goes poking around in the off-limits section of an Arab town and gets a mob after him," Bud Vetch,
Scene
's number one field man, said. "Maybe that's a hot item to the local U.S. Embassy, but what's it to the public?"

"Didn't you look at the pics?"

Vetch yawned as Summers passed the three five-by-eight glossies across to him. "So some tourist had a Brownie with him," he said. "Amateur photo hounds . . . " His voice faded as he looked at the top picture. It showed a tall, ungainly, stoop-shouldered man with a hollow face, deep-set eyes, a short black beard, a prominent wart, dressed in a dowdy black suit and a high hat. In the background were visible a crowd of white-robed men around a merchant's stall. Vetch looked at the next shot. It showed the man seated at a table under an awning, bushy head bared, fanning himself with the hat, apparently deep in conversation with a khaki-uniformed native policeman. The third photo was a close-up of the lined face, looking back, with a slightly surprised expression.

"Hey!" Vetch said. "This looks like—"

"Yes," Summers cut him off. "I know all the wise remarks you're going to make. I don't know what this bird's angle is, but if he wanted to attract attention, he did it with bells on. The locals don't have a very good idea of chronology. An official inquiry came through to Washington this morning from their Foreign Office, and State had to send them a formal reply, confirming the man in question was dead. That's when the chili really hit the fan. The Tamboolans say they've seen pictures and they have a positive ID on this character, and that he's very much alive. Either that, or he's an afreet. Either way, it's a problem. I want you to get there before the bubble bursts and interview this fellow."

Vetch was still studying the photos. "It's uncanny," he said. "If this is makeup or a mask, it's a top-quality job."

"What do you mean, 'if'?"

"Nothing—I guess," Vetch said. "By the way, did this fellow give a name?"

"Sure," Summers growled. "He told them he was Abraham Lincoln."

 

 

 

4

 

"I'm glad to see the last of that sin-killer," Job Arkwright growled, standing at the cabin door, watching the slight, dandified figured in the incongruously elegant greatcoat and boots disappear along the snow-blanketed path into the deep shadows of the virgin forest.

"It were a mean trick, Mr. Arkwright, making poor Fly help you cut all that cordwood—and then sending the poor slicker out in this weather," Charity Arkwright said. "After all, he's a preacher—even if he does have that sweet little mustache."

"I'll sweeten his mustache!" Arkwright glowered at his mate, a young, large-eyed woman with an ample bosom and slim waist. "If you'd of went ahead and fattened up like I ast you, you wouldn't have no trouble with them kind of fellers!"

"No trouble," Charity murmured, and patted her hair. "All the while you were out hunting rabbits, he set by the fire and read scripture to me. My, didn't I learn a lot!"

"Well—just so he didn't get no idears."

"Fiddle-dee-dee! I didn't give him a chance to."

"I wisht I knew jist how to take that," Job muttered. "Looky here, girl, did he—"

"Hark! What's that?" Charity cupped a hand to her ear. "Somebody coming?"

Job grabbed his muzzle-loader down from its place and swung the door open. "Can't be no hostiles," he said. "They don't make that kind o' racket!" He stepped outside. "You stay here," he ordered. "I'll have a look-see."

He moved to the corner of the cabin. The crashing sounds from the underbrush approached steadily from the deep woods to the rear of the house. The brush parted and a bedraggled figure emerged from the last entangling thicket and halted, staring across toward the cabin.

"Who's that?" Job barked.

"Why—'tis I, Fly Fornication Beebody," a breathless voice came back. "Brother Arkwright—is it thee, in sooth?"

"Who else? Ain't nobody else in these parts. How'd you get around back? And what the devil are ye doing there? I thought you was headed for Jerubabbel Knox's farm when you left here."

"Don't take the name of the Fiend lightly," Fly gasped, coming up, his round face glowing with sweat in spite of the bitter cold. "I warrant, Brother Arkwright, I see his foul hand in this! I struck due east for Knox's stead, and the treacherous path led me back to thy door."

"Fly, you got a bottle hid?" Job demanded. He leaned toward the itinerant parson and sniffed sharply.

"Would I play thee false in that fashion?" Beebody retorted. "What I'd not warrant for a goodly sup of honest rum at this moment!"

"Come on; I'll set ye on the trail," Job said. He went into the cabin for his coat, then led at a brisk pace with Beebody panting at his heels. The trail wound around a giant pine tree, skirted a boulder, angled upward across a rise. Arkwright paused, frowning about him, then went on. The trail dwindled, vanished in a tangle of dead berry vine."

"Arkwright—we're lost!" Fly Beebody gasped. "Beelzebub has set a snare for us—"

"Have done, ye fool!" Arkwright snapped. "The path's overgrowed, that's all!" He forced his way through the dense growth. Ahead, the trees seemed to thin. He made for the clearing, stepped into the open—

There was a deafening
boom!
and a heavy slug whickered through the icy branches by Job's ear. He threw himself flat, gaping in amazement at the cabin, the corn shed, the frozen garden patch, the woman with the muzzle-loader in her hands.

"Charity!" he yelled. "It's me!"

Half an hour later, in the cabin, Fly Beebody was still shaking his head darkly.

"I'll make my couch in the snow if need be," he said. "But I'll not set foot i' that bewitched forest 'ere tomorrow's dawn."

"You can lie here, i' the shed," Job said grudgingly. "If you must." Charity offered the involuntary guest a quilt, which he accepted with ill grace. He departed, grumbling, and Job barred the door.

Husband and wife slept poorly that night. Shortly before dawn, they were awakened by a frantic pounding on the door. Job leaped up, opened it, gun in hand. Fly Beebody stood there, disheveled, coatless. He stuttered, then pointed.

BOOK: The Lighter Side
3.56Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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