There was a crowd pressed together in front of the shop.
Crowell light-footed it into that crowd, his face long and sad. He cast a glance back over one lean shoulder, muttered to himself, and widened a lane through the people, quick.
A hundred yards behind him a low shining black beetle car hummed to the kerb. A door clicked open, and the fat man with the grey-white face climbed heavily out, his expression one of silent, dead-pan hatred. Two bodyguards sat in the front seat.
Gyp Crowell wondered why he bothered running away. He was tired. Tired of trying to tell news over the audio every night and waking up every morning with gangsters at his heels just because he had mentioned the fact that ‘a certain fat man has been doing some dishonest finagling of Plastics, Inc’
Now, here was the fat man himself. That black beetle car had trailed Crowell from Pasadena all the way here.
Crowell lost himself in the crowd. He wondered vaguely why this crowd should be so curious about the shop. Certainly it was unusual, but so is everything else in southern California. He broke through the inner circle, looked up at the large scarlet lettering over the blue glass windows, stared at it without a flicker of expression on his lean, perpetually sad face:
The sign on the shop said:
Crowell took it in a dead calm. So this was the assignment his audio editor had given him to cover? Small-time screwpot stuff. Should be handled by a cub reporter. Nuts.
Then he thought about Steve Bishop, the fat man with the guns and the bodyguards. Any old port in a storm.
Crowell drew out a small transpara pad, scribbled down a few of those names—doohingies, hinkies—realising that Bishop couldn’t shoot him in this mob. Sure, maybe he had a right to shoot, after that threatened expose and the blackmail Gyp was using against Bishop: the three-dimensional colour images—
Crowell eased over to the translucent door of the shop, pushed it, and followed it in. He’d be safe in here, and doing his routine news assignment, too.
Brilliant light flushed the interior of the shop; pouring over a cold blue-and-white colour scheme. Crowell felt chilly. Counting seventeen display cases, he investigated their contents at random, dead-grey eyes flicking passionlessly.
A very tiny man popped out from behind a blue glass case. He was so tiny and bald that Crowell had to repress a desire to pat him upon the head in fatherly fashion. That bald head was made for patting.
The tiny man’s face was quite square and a peculiar yellowed tint, as if it had been aged much in the same manner as an old newspaper. ‘Yes?’ he said.
Crowell said ‘Hello’ quietly, taking his time. Now that he was in here he had to say something. So he said, ‘I want to buy a ... a doohingey.’ His voice struck the same tiredly grieved note his face expressed.
‘Fine, fine,’ said the tiny man. He dry-washed his hands. ‘I don’t know why, but you’re the first customer. The other people just stand out there and laugh at my shop. Now—what year doohingey will you have? And what model?’
Crowell didn’t know. He knew only surprise, but his face didn’t show it. He’d begun his enquiry as if he knew all about it. Now was no time to confess ignorance. He pretended to muse over the problem and finally said, ‘I guess a 1973 model would do. Nothing too modern.’
The tiny proprietor blinked. ‘Ah. Ah, I see you are a man of precise decision and choice. Step right this way.’ And he scuttled down an aisle, to pause before a large case in which reclined a—something.
It might have been a crankshaft, and yet it resembled a kitchen shelf with several earrings dangling along a metal edge which sup-ported three horn-shaped attachments and six mechanisms Crowell couldn’t recognise, and a thatch of tentacles resembling shoelaces poured out of the top.
Crowell made a throat noise, as if strangling on a button. Then he looked again. He decided that the tiny man was an utter idiot; but he kept this decision sealed in his gaunt brain.
As for the little proprietor, he was standing in a perfect ecstasy of happiness, eyes shining, lips parted in a warm smile, hands clasped over his chest, bending forward expectantly.
‘Do you like it?’ he asked.
Crowell nodded gravely. ‘Ye-ess. Ye-ess, I guess it’s all right. I’ve seen better models, though.’
‘Better!’ the little man exclaimed. He drew himself up. ‘Where?’ he demanded. ‘Where!’
Crowell could have got flustered. He didn’t. He simply took out his note pad, scribbled in it, kept his eyes on it and said cryptically, ‘You know where—’ hoping this would satisfy the man.
‘Oh!’ gibbered the proprietor. ‘Then you know, too. How fine to deal with a connoisseur. How fine.’
Crowell flicked a glance out of the window, past the chuckling crowd. The fat man and his bodyguards and the black beetle car were gone. They had given up the chase for a while.
Crowell whipped his pad into his pocket, put his hand on the case with the doohingey in it. ‘I’m in a great hurry. Could I take it with me? I haven’t money, but I’ll make a down payment in trade. All right?’
‘Perfectly all right.’
‘OK.’ Crowell, with some misgiving, reached into his loose-fitting grey blouse and drew forth a metal apparatus, an old pipe cleaner that had seen better days. It was broken and bent into a weird shape. ‘Here you are. A hinkie. A 1944 model hinkie.’
‘Oh.’ The little man exhaled dismay. He stared with horror at Crowell. ‘Why, that’s not a hinkie!’
‘Uh ... isn’t it?’
‘No, of course not.’
‘Of course not,’ repeated Crowell carefully.
‘It’s a whatchamacallit,’ said the little man, blinking. ‘And not a whole one either; just part of one. You like your little joke, don’t you, Mr—’
‘Crowell. Yeah. My little joke. Yeah. If you don’t mind. Trade? I’m in a great hurry.’
‘Yes, yes. I’ll load it on a skate platform so we can roll it out to your car. One moment.’
The tiny man moved swiftly, procuring a small wheeled truck, onto which he transferred the doohingey. He helped Crowell roll it to the door. Crowell stopped him at the door. ‘Just a moment.’ He looked out. The black beetle car was nowhere in sight. ‘Good. OK.’
The little man’s voice was soft with caution. ‘Just remember, Mr Crowell—please don’t go around killing people with this doohingey. Be ... be selective. Yes, that’s it, be selective and discerning. Remember, Mr Crowell?’
Crowell swallowed a number-ten-size lump in his throat.
‘I’ll remember,’ he said, and hurriedly finished the deal.
He took the low-level avenue tube out of the Wilshire district heading for his home in Brentwood. Nobody trailed him. He was sure of that. He didn’t know what Bishop’s plans for the next few hours might be. He didn’t know. He didn’t care. He was in the middle of another pall of melancholy. It was a lousy, screwball world, in which everybody had to be dishonest to get along. That fat slug of a Bishop, he—
The contraption on the seat beside him drew his attention. He looked at it with a little shaking dry laugh coming out of his mouth.
‘So you’re a doohingey?’ he said. ‘Huh, everybody to their own special racket. Bishop and his plastics, me and my blackmail, and that little dope with the doodads and hingdooies. At that, I think the little guy is the smartest.’
He turned his white beetle car off the sub-branch tube and went down a side tunnel that came up under his block. Garaging his car and scanning the surrounding park carefully, he lugged the doohingey upstairs, opened the dial door, went in, closed the door, and set the doohingey on the table. He poured himself a few fingers of brandy.
A moment later someone rapped softly, quietly and very slowly on the door. No use putting it off. Crowell answered and opened it.
The fat man at the door had a face like cooked pork, cold and flabby. His eyelids drooped over red-veined, green-irised eyes. He had a cigar in his mouth that moved with his words.
‘Glad you’re home, Crowell. Been waiting to see you.’
Crowell backed up and the fat man came in. The fat man sat down, put his hands over his round belly and said, ‘Well?’
Crowell swallowed. ‘I haven’t got the images here, Bishop.’
The fat man didn’t say anything. He unlocked his two hands slowly, reached into his pocket as if to get a handkerchief and brought out a small paralysis gun instead. Cold blue steel.
‘Change your mind, Crowell?’
Crowell’s sad white face looked all sadder with cold sweat on it. His throat muscles lengthened. He tried to get his brain working, but it was locked in cement, hard and hot and furiously, suddenly afraid. It didn’t show through to the outside. He saw Bishop, the gun, the room joggling up and down in his vision.
And then he saw the ... the doohingey.
Bishop shifted the safety stud on the gun. ‘Where’ll you have it? Head or chest? They say you die quicker if they paralyse your brain first. I prefer touching the heart with it, myself. Well?’
‘Wait a moment,’ said Crowell carelessly. He made himself draw back a slow pace. He sat down, all the while realising that Bishop’s finger was quavering on a hair trigger. ‘You’re not going to kill me; you’re going to thank me for letting you in on the greatest invention of our time.’
Bishop’s huge face didn’t change a line or muscle. His cigar waggled. ‘Snap it, Crowell. I haven’t time for greasing the tongue.’
‘Plenty of time,’ said Crowell, calmly. ‘I’ve got a perfect murder weapon for you. Believe it or not, I have. Take a look at that machine sitting on the table.’
The gun remained firm, blue steel. Bishop’s eyes slid to one side of his face, jerked back. ‘So what?’ he said.
‘So if you listen to me you can be the biggest plastics boss ever to hit the Pacific coast. You want that, don’t you?’
Bishop’s eyes widened a microscopic trifle, narrowed. ‘Are you stalling me for time?’
‘Look, Bishop, I know when I’m cooked. That’s why I’m cutting you in on ... on that damned doohingey of mine.’
‘On that what?’
‘I just call it a doohingey. Haven’t got a name for it yet.’ Crowell’s brain was rotating, throwing ideas off one after another with the heated centrifuge of desperation. One idea stuck. Keep Bishop stalled until you have a chance to get his gun. Bluff him. Bluff him like hell. Now—
Crowell cleared his throat. ‘It... it’s a radio killer,’ he lied. ‘All I have to do is give it directions and it’ll kill anyone. No mess. No nothing. No clues. Perfect crime, Bishop. Interested?’
Bishop shook his head. ‘You been drinking. It’s getting late—’
‘Hold on,’ said Crowell, suddenly tensing forward, his grey eyes bright. ‘Don’t move, Bishop. I’ve got you covered. That machine is trained on you. Before you came in I set it to a certain frequency. One squeak out of you and it’ll nail you!’
Bishop’s cigar fell to the floor. The gun hand wavered.
Crowell saw his chance. His lean muscles bunched into one tight, compact coil. His mouth opened, words darted out. ‘Watch it, Bishop! All right, machine, do your stuff! Kill Bishop!’
And with that, Crowell catapulted himself. He felt himself leave the chair, saw the startled look on Bishop’s face. The misdirection had worked. The gun went off. The silver beam sizzled past Crowell’s ear and splashed on the wall. Crowell snatched with both hands to clutch Bishop, get the gun.
But Crowell never got to Bishop.
Bishop was dead.
The doohingey got there first.
Crowell had a drink. Then he had another. His stomach was floating in the stuff. But he still couldn’t forget how Bishop looked—dead.
Bishop had died—how? He had been sort of stabbed, shot, strangled, electrocuted—he’d been... uh... you know what I mean? He was sort of—dead. Yeah, that’s it. Dead.
Crowell had another drink just on account of that. He looked at the bedroom wall and decided that sometime in the next minutes those bodyguards would be busting in up here, looking for their boss. But Crowell couldn’t stand the thought of going in the living-room to see where Bishop lay on the floor next to the—doohingey. He shivered.
After two more drinks that didn’t even touch his mind, he got around to packing some of his clothes. He didn’t know where he was going, but he was going. He was about to leave the house when the audio made a gonging noise.
‘This is the little man at the Doodads Shop.’
‘Oh, yeah. Hello.’
‘Would you mind dropping by the shop again? And please bring the doohingey with you, yes? I fear that I’ve short-changed you on that model. I have another one here that is much better.’
Crowell’s voice got caught in his throat. ‘This one seems to be working fine.’
He cut the contact and held onto his brains with both hands so they couldn’t slide down into his shoes. He hadn’t planned on killing anybody. He didn’t like the idea. And that put him on the spot even more than before. Those gunmen bodyguards wouldn’t stop now until—
His jaw stiffened. Let them come after him. He wasn’t running away this time. He was staying in town, doing his news work as if nothing had happened. He was tired of the whole business. He didn’t care if he got shot now or not. He’d even laugh with joy when they were shooting.
No use making unnecessary trouble, though. He’d carry the fat man’s—body—down to the garage, put it in the back seat of the white beetle, and drive past some lonely spot, bury it, and hold the bodyguards off by telling them he had kidnapped Bishop. Yeah, that was a good idea. Clever man this Crowell.
‘All right—’ He tried to lift Bishop’s tremendous body. He couldn’t. He finally got the body downstairs to the beetle, though— the doohingey did it.
Crowell stayed upstairs until the job was done. He didn’t like to watch the doohingey at work with a dead body.
‘Ah, Mr Crowell.’ The little proprietor opened the gleaming glass door. There was still a small crowd outside. ‘I see you brought the doohingey. Good.’
Crowell set the contraption on the counter, thinking quickly to himself. Well. Now maybe explanations would be made. He’d have to be subtle; no blunt questions. He’d—
‘Look, Mr Whosis, I didn’t tell you, but I’m an audio reporter. I’d like to broadcast a story about you and your shop for the Audio-News. But I’d like it in your own words.’
‘You know as much about the thingumabobs as I do,’ replied the little man.
‘That’s the impression you gave me—’
‘Oh, sure. Sure I do. But it’s always better when we quote some¬body. See?’
‘Your logic is nebulous, but I shall cooperate. Your listeners will probably want to know all about my Doodad Shop, eh? Well, it took thousands of years of travelling to make it grow.’
‘Miles,’ corrected Crowell.
‘Years,’ stated the little man.
‘Naturally,’ said Crowell.
‘You might call my shop the energy result of misconstrued improper semantics. These instruments might well be labelled “Inventions That Do Everything Instead Of Something”.’
‘Oh, of course,’ said Crowell, blankly.
‘Now, when a man shows another man a particular part of a beetle car’s automotive controls and he can’t recall the proper label for that part, what does he do?’
Crowell saw the light. ‘He calls it a doodad or a hingey or a whatchamacallit. Right?’
‘Correct. And if a woman, talking to another woman about her washing machine or egg beater or knitting or crocheting and she had a psychological blocking, forgets the proper semantic label, what does she say?’
‘She says, “Take this hungamabob and trinket the turndel with it. You grasp the dipsy and throw it over the flimsy”,’ said Crowell, like a school kid suddenly understanding mathematics.
‘Correct!’ cried the little man. ‘All right, then. Therefore we have the birth of incorrect semantic labels that can be used to describe anything from a hen’s nest to a motor-beetle crankcase. A doohingey can be the name of a scrub mop or a toupee. It’s a term used freely by everybody in a certain culture. A doohingey isn’t just one thing. It’s a thousand things.
‘Well, now, what I have done is form into energy the combined total of all things a doohingey has ever referred to. I have entered the minds of innumerable civilised humans, extracted their opinion of what they call a doohingey, what they call a thingum, and created from raw atomic energy a physical contraption of those mentally incorrect labellings. In other words, my inventions are three-dimensional representations of a semantic idea. Since the minds of people make a doohingey anything from a carpet sweeper to a number-nine-size nut-and-bolt, my inventions follow the same pat¬tern. The doohingey you carried home today could do almost anything you would want it to do. Many of the inventions have robotlike functions, due to the fact that the abilities of movement, thought and mechanical versatility were included in them.’
‘They can do everything?’
‘Well, not everything. Most of the inventions have about sixty different processes, all alien, all mixed, all shapes, sizes, moulded into them. Each one of my creations has a different set of services. Some are big. Some small. Some of the big ones have many, many services. The small ones have only one or two simple functions. No two are alike. Think of the space and time and money you save by buying a doohingey!’
‘Yeah,’ said Crowell. He thought about Bishop’s body. ‘Your doohingey is certainly versatile, all right.’
‘That reminds me,’ said the little man. ‘About that 1944 model hinkie you sold me in trade. Where did you get it?’
‘Get it? You mean that pipe cle—I mean, the hinkie? I—Oh, well, I--’
‘You don’t have to be secretive. We share trade secrets, you know. Did you make it yourself?’
‘I... I bought it and worked on it. The ... the power of thought, you know.’
‘Then you know the secret? How astonishing! I thought I was the only one who knew about the transmission of thought into energy forms. Brilliant man. Did you study in Rruhre?’
‘No. I was always sorry I never got there. Never had the oppor-tunity. I had to struggle along alone. Look, I’d like to turn this doohingey in for another apparatus. I don’t like it.’
‘You don’t like it? Why not?’
‘Oh I just don’t. Too cumbersome. Give me something simple every time.’
Yeah, simple, he thought, something you can see how it works.
‘What kind of machine do you want this time, Mr Crowell?’
‘Give me a ... gadget.’
‘What year gadget?’
‘Does that make a great deal of difference, what year?’
‘Oh, you’re joking again, aren’t you?’
Crowell swallowed. ‘I’m joking.’
‘You know, of course, that in each year for thousands of years the type of gadget and the name for a gadget would be different. A thingooey of the year 1965 would be an oddsblodkins in 1492. Or an ettubrutus in the days of Caesar.’
‘Are you joking?’ asked Crowell. ‘No. Never mind. Give me my gadget and I’ll go home.’
That word ‘home’ startled Crowell. It wouldn’t be wise to go there just yet. Hide out for a while until he could send a message to the bodyguards saying that he was holding Bishop prisoner. Yes. That was it. That was safest.
In the meantime he was curious about this shop, but not curious enough to have horrible contraptions like that doohingey near him. The little man was talking:
‘I’ve a whole case full of thingumabobs from all historical periods I’ll give you,’ he was saying. ‘I’m so overstocked with stuff, and nobody but you takes me seriously so far. I haven’t made one sale today. It’s quite saddening.’
Crowell felt sorry for the man, but—’Tell you what. I’ve got an empty storage room in my house. Send the stuff around in a few days and I’ll look it over and take what I like.’
‘Can’t you take some of it with you now?’ pleaded the little man.
‘I don’t think I can—’
‘Oh, it’s small. Very small stuff. Really. Here. I’ll show you. A few little boxes of trinkets and knicknacks. Here. Here they are.’ He bent behind a counter, brought out six boxes, enough to load Crowell’s arms up to the chin.
Crowell opened one box. ‘Sure. I’ll take these. Nothing but soup strainers, paring knives, lemon juicers, doorknobs and old meer-schaum pipes from Holland. Sure, I’ll take these.’ They looked safe. They were small, simple. Nothing wrong with them.
‘Oh, thank you. Thank you. Put these in the back of your beetle, gratis. I’m glad to clean them out of the store. I’ve done so much energy creating in the last few years or so I’ll be relieved to get rid of them. Sick and tired of looking at them. There you go.’
Crowell, his arms full, staggered out to his white beetle and tossed the stuff in the back seat. He waved to the little man, said he’d see him again in a few days, and drove off.
The hour spent in the shop, the gibbering joy of the little man, the bright lights, had made him forget, for the time, about Bishop’s bodyguards and Bishop himself.
The beetle car hummed under him. He headed downtown towards the Audio studios, trying to decide what was wisest to do. He reached back, curiously, and pulled out one of the little gadgets. It was nothing more nor less than a pipe. Seeing it made him hungry for a smoke, so he took the pipe, filled it with makings from his blouse pouch, and lit it, experimentally, carefully. He puffed smoke. Fine. A good pipe.
He was busy enjoying the pipe when he noticed something in the rear-view mirror. He was being followed by two black beetle cars. No mistaking those low ebony high-powered crawlers.
He cursed silently and put on speed. The beetles were catching up with him, gaining speed every instant. There were two thugs in one of them, and two in the other.
‘I’ll stop and tell them that I’m holding their boss as hostage,’ said Crowell to himself.
There were guns gleaming in the hands of the thugs in the black cars.
Crowell realised that they would shoot first and talk later. He hadn’t planned that. He had planned on hiding away and calling them and giving them his ultimatum. But—this! They were coming after him. He wouldn’t have a chance to explain before they’d shoot him down.
He increased the speed with his foot. Sweat came out to play on his forehead. What a mess. He was beginning to wish he hadn’t returned the doohingey to the shop. He could use it now, just as he had inadvertently used it on Bishop.
Crowell cried out in relief. Maybe—
He reached into the back seat and scrabbled wildly among the litter of gadgets. None of them looked like they could do anything, but he’d try, anyhow.
‘OK, you thingums, do your stuff! Protect me, damn you!’
There was a rattling crisp noise and something metallic thumped past Crowell’s ears, winged outside on transparent glass wings back in the direction of the pursuing enemy car and hit it head on.
There was an explosion of green fire and grey smoke.
The fraltamoret had done its work. It was a combination of a little boy’s automatic aeroplane and an explosive projectile.
Crowell pressed the floor plate and shot his beetle ahead again. The second car was still pursuing. They wouldn’t give up.
‘Get them!’ cried Crowell. ‘Get them, too! Get them any way you can!’ He dumped two boxes of trinkets out of the window. Several of them took flight. The others bounced harmlessly on the cement.
Two missiles glittered in the air. They looked like old-fashioned pinking shears, sharp and bright, and an antigravity main-mechanistic drive attached. They sang along the boulevard until they got to the remaining black beetle car.
They went in through the open windows gleaming.
The black beetle car lost its control and went off the avenue, turning over and over, smashing, and bursting into a sudden savage fire.
Crowell slumped in his seat. He let the beetle slow down and pull around a corner and over to the kerb, stopping. He was breathing fast. His heart crashed.
He could go home now, if he wanted to. There would be no one else waiting for him at home, waiting to ambush him, stop him, question him, threaten him.
He could go home now. Funny, but he didn’t feel relieved or happy. He just felt dark, unhappy, ill at ease. The world was a lousy place to live in. He had a bitter taste in his mouth.
He drove home. Well, maybe things would be better. Maybe.
He took the remaining boxes of trinkets and got out of the beetle and took the vac-elevator upstairs. He opened the door and laid the boxes down and sorted through them.
He still had that pipe in his mouth, after all the excitement. He had picked it up automatically and put it back in his mouth. He was nervous. Needed another smoke now to quiet his mind.
He put fresh tobacco in his new pipe and puffed it into life. That little man was a screw for giving him all this stuff. Dangerous to have this sort of knowledge lying around in the world. All kinds of wrong people might get hold of it, use it.
He laughed and puffed at his pipe.
From now on, he’d play big shot. With the help of the little man and the shop, he’d make those big Plastics officials jump, pay him money, obey his every thought. Damn them.
It sounded like a lot of trouble, though. He sat down and scowled and brooded about it and his thoughts got dark, like they had been for so many years. Pessimistic.
What was the use of trying to do anything in this world? Why did he bother to go on living? He got so tired.
Sometimes, like tonight and so many nights in the long years, he felt that it might be a good idea if those gunmen caught up with him and filled him full of paralysis. Sometimes, if he had a gun in his own fingers, he’d blast his brains out.
There was a sharp explosion. Crowell stood up suddenly. He stiffened and fell down on his knees.
He’d forgotten about the pipe in his mouth—forgotten it was a thingumabob gadget.
It took an unpleasantly fatal way of reminding him.
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