"A dilemma," Preston said.
"I made a promise to the starmen-and a solemn promise, it was-not to reveal them to the world for what they done here. I feel most bad about breakin' that promise, but the hard fact is I've got to eat and pay bills."
Preston nodded at the bibbed and bearded moron. "I'm sure the starmen will understand."
"Don't mean to say I'm not for-sure grateful about havin' the cripple takin' right out of me with that blue-light thing of theirs. But all-powerful like they were, it seems queer they wouldn't also thought to give me some skill or talent I could put to use makin' a livin'. Like mind readin' or seein' the future."
"Or the ability to turn lead into gold," Preston suggested.
"There would be a good one!" the Toad declared, slapping his armchair with one hand. "And I wouldn't abuse the privilege, neither. I'd make me just as little gold as I needed to get by."
"You strike me as responsible in that respect," said Preston.
"Thank you, Mr. Banks. I do appreciate the sentiment. But this is all just jabber, 'cause the spacemen didn't think to bless me in that regard. So … though it shames me to break my solemn promise, I can't see any damn way out of this dilemma, as you called it, except to sell my story of bein' de-crippled by aliens."
Although the Toad gave even deeper meaning to the word fraud than had any politician of recent memory, and though Preston had no intention of reaching for his wallet and fishing out a twenty-dollar bill, curiosity compelled him to ask, "How much do you want?"
What might have been a shrewd expression furrowed the Toad's blotchy red brow, pinched the corners of his eyes, and further puckered his boiled-dumpling nose. Or it might have been a mini seizure.
"Now, sir, we're both smart businessmen here, and I have a world of respect for you, just as I'm sure you have for me. When it conies to business matters between such as us, I don't believe it's my place to set a final price. More like it's your place to start the dealin' with a fair offer to which, with due consideration, I'll reply. But seein' as how you have been a gentleman to me, I will give you the special courtesy of sayin' that I know what's fair and that what's fair is somewhere north of a million dollars."
The man was a complete lunatic.
Preston said, "I'm sure it's fair, but I don't think I've got that much in my wallet."
The choirboy voice produced a silvery, almost girlish laugh, and the Toad slapped his armchair with both hands. He seemed never to have heard a funnier quip.
Leaning forward in his chair, clearly confident of his ability to be amusing in return, the Toad winked and said, "When the time comes, I'll accept your check, and no driver's license necessary."
Preston smiled and nodded.
In his quest for extraterrestrial contact, he had tolerated uncounted fools and frauds over the years. This was the price he had to pay for the hope of one day finding truth and transcendence.
ETs were real. He badly wanted them to be real, though not for the same reasons that the Toad or average UFO buffs wanted them to be real. Preston needed them to be real in order to make sense of his life.
The Toad grew serious. "Mr. Banks, you haven't told me your outfit yet."
"In a true spirit of fair dealin', I'm obliged to tell you that just earlier this very day, Miss Janet Hitchcock herself of Paramount Pictures paid me a visit. She'll be makin' an offer tomorrow. I told her straight out about your interest, though I couldn't tell her your outfit, bein' as I didn't know it."
If Paramount Pictures ever sent an executive to Nun's Lake to buy the Toad's tale of being de-crippled by aliens, their purchase of screen rights could be reliably taken as an omen that the universe would at any moment suddenly implode, instantly compacting itself into a dense ball of matter the size of a pea.
"I'm afraid there's been a misunderstanding," said Preston.
The Toad didn't want to hear about misunderstandings, only about seven-figure bank drafts. "I'm not pitchforkin' moo crap at you, sir. Our mutual respect is too large for moo crap. I can prove every word I'm sayin' just by showin' you one thing, one thing, and you'll know it's all real, every bit of it." He rolled up and out of the armchair as though he were a hog rising from its slough, and he waddled out of the hub of the maze by a route different from the one that they had followed here from the front hall. "Come on, you'll see, Mr. Banks!"
Preston had no fear of the Toad, and he was pretty sure the man lived alone. Nevertheless, although additional members of this inbred clan might be lurking around and might prove ferociously psychotic, he wasn't put off by the prospect of meeting them, if they existed.
The atmosphere of" decline and dissolution in this house was from Preston's perspective a romantic ambience. To a man so in love with death, this was the equivalent of a starlit beach in Hawaii. He wished to explore more of it.
Besides, although the Toad had thus far seemed to be a flagrant fraud, his sweet clear voice had resonated with what had sounded like sincerity when he'd claimed that he could show Preston one thing to prove that his story was "all real, every bit of it."
Into tunnels of paper and Indians and stacked furniture, Preston followed his host. Into a warren of glossy fashion, pulp fiction, and yellowing news compacted into building blocks.
Out of angular and intersecting passageways as oddly scented as the deepest galleries of ancient Egyptian tombs, around a shadowy cochlear spiral where the Toad's open-mouthed breathing whispered off every surface with a sound like scarabs scuttling in the walls, they progressed through two more large rooms, identifiable as separate spaces only by the intervening doorways. The doors had been removed, evidently to facilitate movement through the labyrinth. The remaining jambs and headers were embedded like mine-shaft supports in the tightly packed materials that formed these funhouse corridors.
All windows had been blocked off. Maze partitions often rose until the overhead plaster allowed no higher stacks; therefore, the ceiling transitions from chamber to chamber were difficult to detect. The oak floors remained consistent: worn to bare wood by shuffling traffic, darkened here and there by curious stains that resembled Rorschach patterns.
"You'll see, Mr. Banks," the Toad wheezed while through his snaky warrens he hurried like a Hobbit gone to seed. "Oh, you'll see the proof, all right!"
Just when Preston began half seriously to speculate that this bizarre house was a tesseract bridging dimensions, existing in many parallel worlds, and that it might go on forever, the Toad led him out of the labyrinth into a kitchen.
Not an ordinary kitchen.
The usual appliances were here. An old white-enameled range- yellowed and chipped-with side-by-side ovens under a cooktop. One humming and shuddering refrigerator that appeared to date from the days when people still called them iceboxes. Toaster, microwave. But with these appliances, the ordinary ended.
Every countertop, from the Formica surface to the underside of the upper cabinets, was packed to capacity with empty beer and soda bottles stacked horizontally like the stock of a wine cellar
. A few cabinet doors stood open; within were more empty bottles. A pyramid of bottles occupied the kitchen table. The window above the sink provided a view of an enclosed back porch that appeared to contain thousands of additional bottles.
The Toad apparently prepared all his meals on the butcher-block top of the large center island. The condition of that work surface was unspeakable.
A door opened on a set of back stairs too narrow for the storage of Indians. Here, with glue, empty beer bottles-most of them green, some clear-had been fixed to the flanking walls and to the ceiling, hundreds upon hundreds of them, like three-dimensional wallpaper.
Although the malty residue in all the containers had years ago evaporated, the stairwell still smelled of stale beer.
"Come along, Mr. Banks! Not much farther. You'll see why north of a million is a fair price."
Preston followed the Toad to the top of the glass-lined stairs. The upper hall had been narrowed by an accumulation of junk similar to the collection on the lower floor.
They passed rooms from which the doors had been removed. Annexes of the primary first-floor maze appeared to have been established in these spaces.
The Toad's bedroom still featured a door. The chamber past this threshold had not been transformed into an anthill of tunnels as had so much of the house. Two nightstands with lamps flanked the large unmade bed. A dresser, a chiffonier, and a chifforobe provided the Toad with ample storage space for his bib overalls.
The threat of normalcy was held at bay, however, by a collection of straw hats that hung on nails from every wall, ceiling to floor, Straw hats for men, women, and children. Straw hats in every known style, for every need from that of the working farmhand to that of a lady wanting a suitable chapeau to attend church on a hot summer Sunday. Straw hats in natural hues and in pastel tints, in various stages of deterioration, hung in overlapping layers, until Preston almost began to forget they were hats, to see the repetitive shapes of the crowns as a sort of wraparound upholstery like the acoustic-friendly walls of a recording studio or radio station.
A second collection cluttered the room: scores upon scores of both plain and fancy walking sticks. Simple walnut canes with rubber tips and sleek curved handles. Hickory canes with straight shafts but with braided-wood handles. Oak, mahogany, maple, cherry, and stainless-steel models, some with plain handles, others graced by figured grips of cast brass or carved wood. Lacquered black canes with silvery tips, the perfect thing for a tuxedoed Fred Astaire, hung next to those white canes that were reserved for the blind.
The canes were stored in groups in several umbrella stands, but they also hung from the sides of the dresser, the chiffonier, and the chifforobe. Instead of cloth panels, curtains of canes dangled from the drapery rods.
At one window, the Toad had previously unhooked a dozen canes from the rod, revealing a portion of the pane. He'd also rubbed the glass half clean with his hand.
He led Preston to this view and pointed northeast across a weedy field, toward the two-lane road. A little winded from the journey, he said, "Mr. Banks, you see the woods yonder, past the county blacktop? Now look seventy yards easterly of the entrance here to my farm, and you'll damn well see a car pulled in among the trees over there."
Preston was confused and disappointed, having hoped that the Toad's proof of a healing close encounter might be an alien artifact obviously not manufactured on this world or snapshots of strange three-eyed beings-or, if the evidence was obviously fake, then something worth a good laugh.
"That's the sneaky junk car she used to disguise herself when first she come here, pretendin' not to be big-time movie people."
Preston frowned. "She?"
"Miss Janet Hitchcock, like I told you, all the way here from Paramount Pictures down in California, your stompin' grounds. She's watchin' my place so she can see who her competition is!"
A pair of high-power binoculars rested on the windowsill. The Toad handed them to Preston.
The binoculars felt greasy. He winced and almost cast them aside in disgust.
"Proof, sir," said the Toad. "Proof I'm not inventin' all this whoop-de-do about Paramount Pictures, proof I'm bein' foursquare fair with you, businessman to businessman, with full respect. It's just a speck of brightness in among the pines, but you'll see."
Curious, Preston raised the field glasses and focused on the car in the woods. Even though the vehicle was white, it was tucked among the high-skirted trees, shrouded by shadows, and not easy to see in any useful detail.
The Toad said, "She was leanin' against the front of it earlier, watchin' to where my driveway meets the county road, hopin' she'd see who you might be."
The woman no longer leaned against the car. Maybe she had gotten into the vehicle. The interior was dark. He couldn't tell whether someone sat behind the wheel.
"Whatever outfit you're with down there in California, I'm sure you're well connected to the movie world entire, you go to all the same parties as the stars, so you'll recognize a true big wheel like Miss Janet Hitchcock of Paramount Pictures."
When he located the woman, Preston recognized her, all right. She stood apart from the car, not as deep in the shadows as it was, leaning now against a tree, identifiable even in the drowned light of the pending storm. Michelina Teresa Bellsong-ex-con, apprentice alcoholic, job-seeker without hope, niece to senile old Aunt Gen, cheap slut trying to reform, guilt-racked wretch looking for meaning in her stupid sorry little life, self-appointed savior of Leilani, would-be exhumer of Lukipela, self-deluded dragonslayer, useless nosy meddlesome bitch.
Still watching Micky Bellsong, Preston said, "Yes, it's Janet Hitchcock, sure enough. Looks like I'm not going to be able to avoid a bidding war, Mr."-and he almost said Mr. Toad-"Mr. Teelroy."
"Wasn't ever the case I was schemin' toward that, Mr. Banks. I just wanted you to know fair enough that you had competition. I'm not lookin' for more than my story's rightly worth."
"I understand, of course. I'd like to make you an offer before I leave today, but it's my preference, in these cases, to present the deal in the presence of the whole family, since this much money will affect all of you profoundly. Is there a wife, sir, and children? And what of your parents?"
"Ma and Pa, they're both long gone, Mr. Banks."
"I'm sorry to hear that."
"And I never did marry, not that I was wholly without some good opportunities."
Still focused on the distant woman, Preston said, "So it's just you here alone in this rambling house."
"Just me," said the Toad. "And much as I surely am a committed bachelor, I must admit… it gets awful lonely sometimes." He sighed. "Just me."
"Good," said Preston, turning away from the window and, with savage force, smashing the heavy binoculars into the Toad's face.
The blow produced a wet crunch, a strangled sob, and the man's immediate collapse.
Preston threw the binoculars on the disheveled bed, where he would be able to find them later.