THE street snarled at Phil. The snarl came chiefly from a charged-up electric hot rod that swerved close to the curb to remove a triangular chunk from the rump of a fat man who had been too slow in skittering to safety. A second look showed he was not a fat man, but a thin man in a balloon suit. It deflated rapidly, and he sat down in its limp folds on the curb and began to sob. Balloon suits were of no real protection to pedestrians, except by increasing the apparent target, but they continued as a fad. During the last war they had been pumped full of hydrogen as a shield against neutrons until a couple of small but unpleasant explosions in crowded shelters had caused the government to crack down.
After snarling, the street continued to growl deep in its throat-it had two lower levels. The growl was composed of the hum of electrics, the subterranean rumble of heavier traffic, the yak-yak of competing vocal advertisements, and the nervous shuffle of feet that was the same when Rome and Babylon were young, but that was intensified here because most of the women's feet were on platforms three to ten inches high.
Neither the growl nor the snarl disturbed Phil. Normally he'd already have had his ear plugs tucked in, his face fixed straight ahead, his eyes nervously questing for hot rods, which were known to jump curbs. But today he simply wanted to drink it all in, to see the things he'd always been blind to, to note the anxious but apathetic expressions on the faces of the pedestrians, to sense the invisible lines of force that, like spider webs or marionette strings, joined them to the space-overflowing advertisements, which ranged from the crisp, "Learn to Break Necks!" and the cute "A Strip-Tease Doll All Your Own!" to the "Why Not Lobotomy?" and the imagination-tantalizing "Glamorize Your Figure with a Sprayed-on Evening Dress! Plasticfabric cures in a jiffy, breathes. No heat, no adhesions! Special forms flare the skirt, shape the bosom! Designed by artists right on your body!"
Lucky seemed no more frightened of the street than Phil. He scampered along close to the base of Skyway Towers ' monumental facade, the camouflaging green color of which may have explained why none of the pedestrians took note of him-not that any explanation was needed as to why those walking nerve-bags didn't see things right under their noses!
A gleaming sales robot veered toward Phil on its silent wheels, but Phil deftly interposed another balloon-suited man between himself and it. The balloon-suited man began to get a slick reducing pill sales talk; evidently the robot had scanned his profile. Phil hurried around the corner after Lucky, who had turned down garish Opperly Avenue.
As if he had picked up a scent, Lucky abruptly left the wall, glided across the sidewalk and padded across Opperly Avenue between the passing cars. Phil followed, not without a certain heart pounding, but with no real anxieties. Something allowed him to sense easily the intentions of all the cars in the block-dodging them was almost fun.
He reached the opposite curb a good five feet ahead of a playful youth in a jalopy with a tin body like a space jeep scribbled over with such signs as "Oh, You Venusian!" and "Girls beware-escape speed zero." Effortlessly recovering his breath, Phil found himself facing an ornate cave mouth flanked with old-fashioned fluorescent posters, the largest lettering on which read: "TONIGHT! Juno Jones, the Man-Maiming Amazonvs. Dwarf Zubek, the Bone-Crushing Misogynist."
But he had no time to read the rest of the bill, for Lucky was dancing up the broad corridor lined with giant stereographs of menacing, half-naked men and women, looking in the dim light like genies freshly materialized from smoke.
Ordinarily Phil would have felt a certain amount of disgust mixed with fear and uneasy fascination at entering, or even passing, a wrestling palace specializing in male-female, but today it seemed simply a part of life. It never occurred to him not to follow Lucky.
Just short of some turnstiles and a robot ticket taker lost in shadows, a side corridor spilled light. Lucky whisked into it. Phil had barely rounded the corner after him when a long, handless, boneless gray arm shot out of the wall and slapped itself firmly against Phil's middle.
"Where you think you're going, Mack?" a voice rasped from the wall. "On your way." And it gave him a quick shove toward the ticket taker.
Phil could see Lucky mincing inquisitively down the side corridor, which was lined with doors. He tried to go around the arm, but it extended itself until it stretched from wall to wall.
"Still here?" the rasping wall inquired. "Look, Mack, I don't know your voice. If you got business with somebody, name me their name and the word they gave you."
"I just want to get my cat," Phil answered. Lucky had reached the end of the corridor and was peering into the last doorway. "Here, Lucky," he called, but the cat took no notice.
"Means nothing to me," the wail rasped on. "You still ain't named me no names that tripped any of my relays."
Lucky disappeared through the doorway. Phil said, "Please let me through a minute to get my cat," trying to sound as sincere as he could. "I'll be right back."
"I ain't letting nobody through," the wall asserted. "Give me a name and word, quick, Mack."
At that instant an appalling spasm of fear went through Phil, as if a light had been turned out inside his mind and his heart sprayed with liquid ice. He knew that something had happened to Lucky. He ducked under the gray arm and darted forward, but before he had taken five steps he felt himself grabbed. The corridor whirled as he was roughly spun back. Looking down he saw the elastic arm wrapped around him like a gray python, while the wall grated in his ear, "No go, Mack. Now I'll have to hold you till the man comes."
"Let me go. I've got to get in there, do you hear!" Phil yelled. He struggled futilely to release his arms, yet all the while he kept his eyes on the doorway through which Lucky had vanished. "Let me go!"
"Hey, what goes on?" A large, tall woman with close cropped blonde hair, a broken nose, an outsize jaw and big blue eyes had stepped out of the nearest doorway. "Cool down, son," she boomed out, coming toward him. "What did you want?"
"My cat ran in here," he explained, trying to speak calmly, "It ran in that room down there at the end." He nodded his head toward it. "I tried to go after it and this thing grabbed me."
"Yes, a pet."
She thought. He noticed for the first time, perhaps because he was watching the far doorway so closely, that she wore maroon tights and was stripped to the waist. Her breasts were small, her shoulders sloped steeply and were heavily, though not cordily, muscled.
"Okay," she said after a bit. "Let him go," she told the wall.
"Didn't give a name or word," the wall complained. "Tried to duck through. Got to hold him till the man comes."
"Which'll be at least an hour, if I know Jake. Let him go, you dumb robot," she said in a majestic bass. "This man is my friend. I am inviting him in."
"All right, Mrs. Jones," the wall said, sounding almost sulky. The gray arm unwrapped from Phil and shot back into the wall.
"Now go find your cat and then beat it," the giantess told him.
"Thank you very much," Phil said, half turning to her, but keeping the far doorway in the corner of his gaze. But she didn't answer, only stared after him doubtfully, still appearing quite unconscious of her partial nakedness.
Phil tried not to hurry, although the corridor seemed endless. He kept telling himself that nothing had happened to Lucky, and wished very hard he could believe it. He didn't feel big any more, or adventurous. He passed the woman's door, vaguely noticing heaps of untidy clothes and a stationary rubber-armed robot for wrestling practice. He came to the door at the end, having observed that all the others were tightly shut. He hesitated. He couldn't hear a sound. He stepped inside.
The room was large, low ceilinged, and lined with lockers and benches. At the far end was a closed door, flanked by two low mechanical massage tables, their jointed rubber-fisted arms extended crookedly upward and making them look like two beetles on their backs. There were a few other pieces of apparatus, none of which Phil recognized, but most of the floor was empty.
Almost in the center of the floor was a brown box about a foot square. Staring at it, their backs turned to Phil, were two men. One was rather small but quick looking, dressed in a black turtleneck sweater and tight black trousers, and holding some sort of gun. The other was smaller and slighter, and similarly clad in blue. He held a wire leading to the box.
Phil cleared his throat. The two men eyed him expressionlessly, then turned back to the box. Phil edged forward into the room, peering into the corners for Lucky. Then he jerked back. He had almost stepped on a dead mouse.
Looking more closely, he saw there were half a dozen dead mice scattered around the floor.
He cleared his throat again, louder, but this time the men didn't even look around. He started forward again, stepping gingerly over the dead mouse.
There was a click. A tiny door opened in the top of the brown box and a mouse catapulted out. Hitting the floor, it made off in frantic zig-zags, skidding at each turn
. Phil stared, suddenly expecting Lucky to come darting out of a corner after it. The man in black followed the zig-zags with his gun. There was no sound or flash from the gun, but the mouse stopped moving.
"Try to surprise me better next time, Cookie," the man in black told his companion. "I saw your hand move when you punched the button." They resumed their alert, motionless stance.
Moving around them in a cautious circle, Phil searched for Lucky. He soon realized there were few likely places of concealment. The lockers reached from floor to ceiling and were all closed.
One of the dead mice began to twitch. Cookie put down the wire with the push-button at the end of it, picked up the mouse and dumped it in the box through a side door. Phil was beginning to feel very queer. He felt there must be some connection between Lucky and the mice, but it was a dream connection that didn't make sense. The muscles in the calves of his legs had begun to ache from his silent tip-toeing.
Nerving himself, he approached the motionless pair. "Excuse me," he said with difficulty, "but did you see a cat come in here?"
The words got no more response than the throat clearing. "I beg your pardon," he said, "but really I must find out," and he barely touched the elbow of the man in black.
The response was instantaneous, though from another quarter. Phil was grabbed by his jacket front and jerked back by Cookie, whose infantile features were now tensed into a hard mask.
"What you did!" The voice was shrilly scandalized. "Interrupting the kingman at his recreation! Shoving the kingman around! That brings punishment, that brings pain!"
Phil felt sick with fear. He knew if only Lucky were there, if only he could recapture his earlier mood of golden confidence, he wouldn't be so shamelessly terrified of this little bully who was holding him at arm's length.
He wet his lips. "I was only trying to find my cat," he quavered, "and I didn't shove him."
"You did too! I saw you! A great big rude shove! And as for cats, Swish Jack Jones, the Lady Killer, is the top cat around here, the only cat." The hand holding him twisted his lapels tighter around his throat. "You can't weasel out of what's coming to you. Well, Jackie, what are you going to do to him?"
And now, at long last, the man in black moved. He slowly turned his head in its ruff of black wool and fixed on Phil the sad, weary smile of a king who knows it is his boring but inescapable fate to inflict doom and punishment. He slowly reached out his hand until it grasped Phil's elbow.
"Please don't," Phil whispered, but just then a thumb dug into a nerve between his bones and he couldn't keep back a squeal of pain. The baby-faced man grinned with mincing approval, as if at last the proprieties were being satisfied.
Swish Jack Jones frowned, as if he felt the squeal hadn't been loud enough, and lifted his other hand. "This is a stun gun," he said in a voice patchily varnished with intellectualism. "Ultrasonic. I might spray your spine with it to get you ready for being worked over. It's set for mouse power now, but I'll step it up if necessary."
Phil's guts turned to water. "You don't need to hurt me," he said. "I tell you I was just looking for a cat."
The other shook his head sadly and said, "Nosey little men up to Bast knows what shouldn't tell such great big lies." And he reached for Phil's thigh.
At that moment the tidal wave struck. Cookie was shoved ten feet, the stun gun clattered on the floor, Swish Jack Jones had taken a quick backward spring, and the blonde giantess was planted enragedly in front of Phil and was thundering, "You know mucking well I can stand anything except when you start bullying people."
She had slipped on a very dirty short kimono, beautifully embroidered in the finest Oriental style, except that the figure on the back was not a dragon, but a fire-breathing spaceship.
"Don't touch me, Juno, I'm telling you," the man in black snarled in a voice that had lost a lot of its intellectual veneer. He was massaging a slapped wrist.
"I licked you the first time I was matched with you," the giantess replied. "I licked you the night I married you. And I can do it again anytime. Youand Cookie here," she added as the latter made a grimace that was intended to be threatening but merely registered spite. "Why was you tormenting the little guy?"
"Tormenting?" Jack's voice rose. "I wasn't tormenting him. Just taking precautions. He came in here like a screwball, not saying anything, dancing around on his toes, babbling about a cat. As if he was about to go off his nut. Dangerous."
Cookie's tight-lipped face bobbed up and down in agreement, but Juno wasn't at all impressed. "He seemed about as dangerous to me as yeast spread. Why didn't you let him find his cat and get out?"
Jack's face registered astonishment. "Juno, was it you let in this Ikeless Joe?" (It took Phil a moment to realize Ikeless meant lacking I.Q.) "I was wondering how he got past Old Rubberarm. Do you mean to say you fell for that story about a cat?"
"Well, isn't there one?" Juno demanded, scanning the room.
"How could there be, Juno?" Jack protested, the barest note of intellectual superiority beginning to creep into his voice. "You didn't see one, did you? No. And if there had been a cat, wouldn't it have been after these mice like a shot? And where could it hide in here, anyway? It couldn't have got in there," he went on as Juno's gaze rested on the inner door."He's in there." Juno nodded. "So where could it be, I ask you?" Jack finished. "You don't suppose Cookie and me... I kidnapped it, do you?"
Juno rubbed her battered nose thoughtfully. She turned on Phil a face that was friendly but heavy with doubt. "Let's hear some more about that cat, son. What color was it?"
"Green," Phil heard himself say, and even as he saw the looks of incredulity appear on the faces around him, he couldn't keep himself from going on: "Yes, bright green. And he liked cranberry sauce. He just came to me an hour ago. I called him Lucky because he made me feel so good, as if I could understand everything."
There was a long silence. Phil felt his spirits sink past zero. Then Juno laid on his shoulder a huge hand that made it sag. "Come on, son," she said gently. "You better get going."
Jack strode up with a wry eye on Juno. "Look, Mister," he said to Phil in a solicitous voice in which the mockery was still cautious, "I had an appointment with an analyst for tonight, but I think you need it more than I do." And handed Phil a torn-off bit of phonoscribe tape. Phil accepted it humbly and put it in his pocket. Cookie tittered. Juno whirled on him. "Look," she roared, "his being a nut doesn't excuse laughing at him any more than bullying!"
The inner door opened, but Phil couldn't see inside, because a tall, fat man with a sooty jowl and thick dark glasses pretty well filled it. Phil sensed a note of respectfulness in the other three.
"What's the racketting about?" the fat man demanded in a voice which startled Phil because it was Old Rubberarm's
"This guy -" Cookie began, but stopped at a quick look from Jack.
The thick glasses flashed at Phil. "Oh, one of your nut admirers, Jack," the fat man said comprehendingly. "Get him out of here."
"Sure, Mr. Brimstine," Jack said. "Right away."
The inner door closed. Phil let Juno steer him through the other. He felt way down in the minuses. So much so that he almost didn't notice the odd couple coming down the corridor toward them. The man looked saintly, yet sprightly. He was very sunburned and he wore orange shoes and an orange beret. The woman looked like a youngish witch, but with the nose and chin already seeking each other. A little red hat was attached by twenty long hatpins to her coarse dark hair, and she had a red skirt stiff and thick as a carpet. Both of them were wearing black turtlenecked sweaters. Phil noted them numbly, lost in his own distress, but was vaguely aware that they were pointedly ignoring the giantess at his side.
"You'll find your little tin hero back there shooting mice," she snarled at them as they passed. The woman merely snooted her witchy nose, but then the sunburned man looked around with elfin eyes and a benign smile. "Joy, Juno," he admonished lightly. "Nothing but joy."
The giantess looked after them glumly for a moment, then went on. "Couple of Jack's intelleckchul fans," she confided bitterly. "Poets, religious nuts, and all that goes with it. Completely turned his head, the stinkers."
They reached the corner. Old Rubberarm waggled the tip of a fingerless hand and muttered, "No loitering," but Juno silenced him with a weary, "Shut up!"
"Now get along home, son," she told Phil. "I don't know as I'd visit that analyzer of Jack's. Probably some fancy guy he got put onto by the Akeleys-those two intelleckchul jerks you just saw. But maybe some kind of psycher would be a good idea." She patted his shoulder and grinned, showing a scar inside her lip. "I'm sorry about what happened back there-that lousy husband of mine. Anytime you feel like it, drop in on me. Old Rubberarm's got your voice pattern. Just ask for Juno Jones. Only one thing, son-no more green cats."