She moved back from the door into the darkness of the house; and the salesman shifted his case back to his left hand, pushed the front door wide and took a quick long step inside. He was just in time to hear the slight click of the closing of a second door in front of him. He reached for the knob, turned it; but the door was locked. The outside door still stood open, caught by the end of the sample case.
The July daylight from outside showed him that he was in a tiny entrance hall not more than forty inches each way. He pulled the case in and by squeezing against the inner door allowed the front door to close. Anyhow, he was inside the house. He rapped sharply on the inner door.
The latch on the front door snapped to and instantly the hall was flooded with light from a tremendous bulb in the ceiling, which, surprisingly, was twenty feet above him.
A harsh voice, tinny with tremendous amplification but unmistakably that of the old woman, filled the hall, "ALL RIGHT, YOUNG MAN. I HAVE THE VIZER TURNED ON YOU. LET'S SEE THE DEMONSTRATION. I BELIEVE YOU SAID SIX MINUTES. GET ON WITH IT."
Screening his eyes with his fingers, the salesman scanned the walls and ceiling for the vizer lens, found it beside the five-hundred watt bulb pouring blindingly down on him, on the other side of a speaker grille.
"C-certainly, madame." What a layout. As he automatically laid his case on the floor and opened back the top against the front door, his eyes searched the walls for indications of openings which might mean unexpected defenses such as anesthetic tanks. The only breaks in the two smooth white plaster surfaces which he could see as he squatted before the case were a horizontal row of glass bosses on each side at about the height of his knees.
"Now, since my face," he closed his eyes and flashed a toothy smile, like a video actor, up at the vizer lens, "is subjected to the daily care of Taffeta Products," he turned his face down to the case and gritted his teeth, "I must smear facial muscle softener into the left half to show the action and appearance of muscles which have lost their tonus." He whipped the cover off a small ivorine jar and rubbed his cheek vigorously with a brownish salve. "You will note that this softener also contains a percentage of grime which lodges in the pores."
He heard a gasp from the speaker grille when he displayed a face whose left cheek and brow were sagged, wrinkled and hideously brown speckled. From somewhere behind the gasp, he heard a continuous tinkle of tiny bells.
His hands moved among the bottles and jars, raised a round silver box which he held up. "The delicately perfumed applicator pads for all applications of Taffeta Preparations are pre-saturated with Firmol Tone Charger. I dip the pad into this solution of Enhancing Hyssop," he did so, "and work it gently into the pores. The results are instantaneous!" He turned up his original video star appearance.
While bending his body forward to reach the articles strapped to the top of the case, he noticed that the tone of the distant bells was raised. Screwing a circular hairbrush to the thread of a collapsible tube, he sank back on his haunches. The bell tones were lower. He placed a hand on one of the glass bosses nearest the inner door, apparently to steady himself. An even lower tone was added to the bell notes. Obviously electric eyes with a set of bell signals in the old woman's present location. He smiled down at the floor--to himself.
"Now I want you to notice closely this object which I will show you." He held up the brush with the tube screwed on its back and turned it about. "Do you know what this is?"
There was no answer from the speaker but its own hum and the tinkle of the bells. "What does it look like?" He spoke rapidly, pleasantly. There was still no answer.
He rose quickly and tried the knob of the inner door again. He could hear the bell notes lower in pitch as he pressed against the door.
"LET ME SEE THE THING AGAIN, YOUNG MAN. HONEST TO GOODNESS, WHAT DIFFERENCE DOES IT MAKE WHETHER OR NOT I KNOW WHAT IT IS? IT LOOKS LIKE A HAIRBRUSH WITH SOME DO-JIGGER ON THE TOP.".
He jumped back to the center of the hall. "This brush is the essential feature of our sensational Hair Relustrifier Kit. The tube screwed to the top feeds the specially developed Brilliancette directly through each hollow bristle to reach every part of the hair." He ran or rather scrubbed the brush through the right side of his long fair pompadour with small rotary motions. When he removed the brush, that side of his head was covered with crisp yellow ringlets which shone under the light like sculptured gold.
"THAT'S SOME SORT OF A TRICK! DO IT ON THE OTHER...." Her voice was interrupted by a syncopated clicking. A telephone signal. "JUST A MOMENT, YOUNG MAN." The hum of the speaker cut off and the sudden silence seemed full of the echoes of the bells.
Instantly the man dropped the gadget into the case and grabbed a handful of cleansing tissues from a box in it. He snapped down the top of the case and whipped the straps through the buckles. Then he shoved the case against one of the side walls and sat on it to flip off his shoes and socks. Shoving his back tightly against the wall, he bent his knees up and pushed his bare feet flat against the other. After placing the wad of tissues in his lap, he put his hands against the wall below his buttocks and, like an experienced mountain climber, inched his way rapidly up the 'chimney' of the hall. When his head touched the ceiling, he braced himself firmly with his left hand and reached with his right for the tissues in his lap. Protecting his hand with several of the white papers, he felt above him for the base of the light bulb, unscrewed it, and dropped it gently onto the rest of the tissues still in his lap. The sudden blackness was smothering.
Heat seeped through the tissues more rapidly than he had expected; and the effort to keep his knees from contracting and spilling him in the utter darkness to the floor fifteen feet below was agony.
When he finally reached the floor, he placed the bulb on it beside the sample case. Then he opened the front door and closed it again, leaving the door caught open a fraction of an inch by the latch against the frame. Taking an anesthetic cartridge out of his pants pocket, he broke the seal, taking care not to trigger it, and returned to his crevice-climbing posture. He lifted himself again above the row of electric eyes and waited, cartridge in hand, leg muscles cramping painfully.
After Miss Noble had turned off the speakphone, she pulled herself away from the fascinating view of golden curls and scuttled over to a stiff ladder-back chair beside the telephone stand. She lifted the antique cradle phone (none of these modern invasions of privacy like the vizerphone) and spoke warily into the mouthpiece.
"Who is it? What do you want?"
"Barbara?" A man's voice was urgent.
"This is Miss Noble speaking," she replied haughtily.
The voice was savage. "Well, this is Doctor Harris, then. Have you looked at the mail today? I got my directors' meeting notice this morning."
"Yes, I got one. The fifth of August," she said impatiently.
"And this seems to be our year. There's been a girl here already this morning with some story about my having advertised for a housekeeper. She told it to the doorphone and wouldn't leave when I said I didn't want anybody--but it only took one drop of skunk oil in the hallway to send her packing." The horrid chuckle that came from the receiver was so raucous that Miss Noble held it away from her ear.
"Blonde or brunette?" she asked noncommittally.
"Blonde--and really young, not a damn rejuvenee!"
"Rod Harris! You actually went and peeked at her, you old goat!"
"Only through the one-way."
"Well, since the company knows that a pretty girl is still good bait for an old ninny, you're as good as a goner. They'll have you rejuvenated before long."
"They won't get a chance to! And I'm going to get old enough so I can't even lift a hand to thumb my nose at the company. Then I'm going to go and die and the Juvine Perpetual Youth Corporation will scream in agony as it disbands and makes public property of its hallowed formulas as per the original articles of incorporation ... and you will probably get a new set of false teeth and take the treatment again since you could get it real cheap when the monopoly's finished and not have to disturb your millions salted away in the sugar bowl."
This mixture of facetiousness and downright sarcasm was only surpassed by Miss Noble, who snapped back, "Don't you sneer at me, Doctor Roland Harris, when you know perfectly well that the only reason I have to go on living this long is to make sure that you are really dead first. You didn't invent rejuvenation all by yourself without the aid of Barbara Noble, Ph.D., and the company has the sole right to the process until we're both dead. And, if you start peeking at plump blonde wenches at this point, I suppose I'll have to live till Los Alamos freezes over!"
"All right, all right. But she wasn't plump. She wasn't any bigger than you are. Besides, you know I'd rather have dinner with you. My man Marko could give us roast beef with all the fixings and afterward I want you to hear my latest discovery. It's the best damn extempore-singer you've ever heard, Jeery Wade--fellow in his first late fifties, no fluff-brain of a juvenee--a blood and thunder baritone that'll lift that knob of hair clean off your scalp. Let's say you get here about six-thirty and I'll phone him we'll be over at his place for a session of hollering about eight."
Miss Noble's scorn needed no vizer to carry it over the wire in full force. "I'm not going to budge out of this house until after the director's meeting and then only if the shops stop all delivery service. This time I'm not taking any chances. Life is too much of a bore to have to put up with it for another eighty years even for your marvelous singer who would probably go and get rejuvenated just as I got to enjoy him. And nothing could induce me to listen to an evening of your stories for the nine hundredth time. If there's one thing I'm thankful for in this scatter-brained age, it's the marriage dissolution law that's got me free from your anecdotes after three separate terms of fifty years each."
"Now, Barbara, was it that bad?" Roland Harris sounded distressed.
"Do you really think I could be honestly grateful to the Corporation for a hundred and fifty years of listening to that disgraceful old thing about the Martian, the Venusian, and the robot?"
"Well, if you feel that way about it, I'll keep my discoveries to myself. I hope your fancy hallway keeps you safe till you rot."
"It's doing all right," replied the old woman smugly. "I have a young pup down there right now cooling his number thirteens and waiting to pretend to interest me in some new face paint and hair gik. My electric eye set and vizer are less repulsive than your skunk oil and twice as effective."
"They're not going to stop me from having a good time while I last, anyhow. I think they're through with me for today; and I'm going to hear Jeery Wade, anyhow. He'll make up a hooting good song about all this when I tell him."
"Take care of yourself, Rod ... goodbye," said Miss Noble, almost concernedly.
She dropped the phone into its cradle, rose, and went back to the vizer screen, switching on the speaker as she sat down. Only then did she notice that the screen was entirely dark except for a vague sliver of gray.
"Are you still there, young man?" she asked the microphone.
There was silence from the speaker. The hammer on each bar of the long metal xylophone of the electric eye signal hung motionless.
"He's gone ... and left the front door unlatched too. And I thought he was persistent." She was disappointed. "He owes me four more minutes of fun."
She got up slowly and started for the door. "That curly hair stuff is new since my last sixties, too. I wonder if it would work on white hair ... I'd better go down and close the door. Can't have just anybody coming into one's house."
She descended the stairs, opened the door from the front room, then took one step forward into the hall. Before she could interpret the soft bump of the salesman's bare feet as they struck the floor, she was encircled by his strong arm; and the hiss of the anesthetic gun was loud in the small area of the hall. Limply she sagged against his arm.
The hissing of the gun stopped. The young man slipped it into his pocket and, turning, thrust the inner door wide open with his now free hand. Entering the tidy front room, he kicked the door shut behind him and gulped in the good air before he headed for the back of the house, cradling the small body easily in his arms. Failing to find there what he was looking for, he went up the narrow white-railed stairway to the second floor. Across the landing, the gleam of porcelain showed through a half-open door.
He laid his burden carefully on the vari-colored braided rug by the tub and began to draw a warm bath, testing the temperature frequently with his hand. When water reached the overflow outlet, he turned off the tap and sprinted downstairs for his sample case. The hall was still chokingly full of gas; and after grabbing out the case, he slammed the door again. He brought the case up to the bathroom, where he opened it on the floor beside the form of the old woman. He lifted out the tray, revealing masses of silvery tubing and a number of flasks of iridescent solutions nestling among loops of rubber insulated wiring. One flask he emptied into the bath, making the water seethe and turn a cloudy green.
Then, dashing down the stairs again, he began looking for the telephone. His search became more and more hurried, as he opened cupboards and drawers in front room and kitchen with no success. Returning upstairs, he almost missed the instrument in the sitting-room because he was expecting the familiar sight of a round vizer screen. He stood over the phone and dialed.
"What luck, Riggy?"
"I'm in. The old lady's out cold on the bathroom floor. Primer solution's in the bath at five above tepid. I'm shoving her in now--with all her clothes on, of course--and I've wasted a lot of time already looking for this hypoblastic phone, so beat it on over here with Margy and get to work."
"Are you ordering me around, Rigel O'Maffey?"
"You know I never did this job on a woman. And don't forget, honey, we'll get enough out of this to get a new copter together. C'mon now." He put the phone back in, the cradle before she could answer.
Back in the bathroom, he drew a long thermometer from the case, took a careful reading on the water, ran in a little more hot from the faucet and left it running the slightest dribble.
Carefully lifting the small body of Barbara Noble, Ph.D., he slid it gently into the water feet first over the end, smoothing down with one hand the percale housedress which ballooned as she went into the water. Finally he knelt beside the tub, holding her head out of the water in the crook of his elbow.
A banging on the inner door downstairs some fifteen minutes later reminded him of the force with which he had slammed it in his hurry to reach the uncontaminated air of the front room. He looked longingly across the bathroom at the racks of towels on the other side, but finally, as the banging stopped and a feminine voice began yelling, "Hey, Riggy! Let us in!" he grabbed up the bright rug and wadded it under the scrawny neck.
The girls scolded him all the way up the stairs for not leaving the door unlocked, while he tried to explain, at the same time, that he had to hold up the woman's head.
"Screepers, Riggy, what do you think the perfectly good pair of water-wings in your case is for?"
Humbled, he departed as the girls took over the beginning of the complicated, fortnight-long process of the rejuvenation of Barbara Noble.
The receptionist behind the ebony desk, whose gold plate proclaimed it as the headquarters of the Juvine Perpetual Youth Corporation, crammed shut the drawer before her. A metallic clink from within was the fall of a mirror with which she had been assisting the application of scarlet which now fluoresced gently on her full lips.
Tossing her head (which showed the crop of glistening black curls to the fullest advantage) in a preoccupied manner, she addressed the man who stood before her desk. "How can the Juvine Perpetual Youth Corporation serve you?" Her hastily assumed look of efficient importance was replaced by melting eagerness as she took in the chiselled perfection of features and the broad shoulders of the young man in knife-creased bronze spunlon.
"I'm Harris. For the directors' meeting." His voice was curt.
"You're Doctor Harris? The Director? Oh, do come in." She rose from the desk and went around the end of it to open the high wrought-gold gate and hold it wide for him. "You're a little early. I'll take you down to the Board Room." Eager willingness to help was apparent in her every gesture.
"Thanks, I know the way," he informed her, brushing past.
She followed him, however, across the patio-like reception room, with its exotically gardened borders and splashing fountain, down the long corridor past glowing murals of men and women swimming, dancing and playing tennis, past tapestry shielded doorways to the great bright arch at the end. Before he went through, she caught his sleeve.
"I should be pleased to steno for you today, if you need me."
He turned and looked at her as if he had not known she was behind him. "Thanks, but I sha'n't need one. It'll be a short meeting." He smiled down and patted her cheek. "But if I'm not entirely satisfied with the proceedings, maybe I can dictate a little afterward."
She laughed as if that were a special joke between them and retreated rapidly down the corridor before he had time to turn and miss the splendor of her graceful carriage.
His eyebrows were still raised and the corners of his mouth curved in appreciation when he passed through the arch and into the vast room under the clear bubble of a tremendous skydome.
A girl was sitting there, her back to him, looking out over the simmering city streets to the cool rise of mountains beyond. He recognized at once the slight figure, the sheen of the long curling auburn bob, the poise of her head and slim hand resting on the arm of the chair.
She turned half around. "Hello, Rod."
He grinned and sank down in the next chair. "Here we are again."
"Knocked out by your own skunk oil?" she asked pointedly.
"No. Company copter man got me leaving Jeery Wade's. What happened to you? I thought you were walled up neatly for the declining years."
"The cosmetic man ambushed me in the hall. But I've got another fifty years to figure out something better ... if I still need it."
"What do you mean if you still need it? Are you changing your mind about rejuvenation?"
She smiled. "Well, you know it's always fun at first. But I'm having my lawyer come to this meeting. I've got an idea we can change the articles of agreement so that the process can finally become public property at the end of another fifty years instead of only after our deaths. Then if we want to go on and die, nobody" (she waved her hand around the great room at the little group of athletic men and glamorous, expensively gowned women moving in through the arch) "nobody will have any financial interest in rejuvenating us. Then, too, our own fat incomes will lapse; and since that's the reason we set up the articles the way they are--so we'd never be in danger of starving, that is--we'd have the more interesting choice of whether to die off or get young again and go back to work. Would you sign a fifty-year termination, Rod?"
"Would you marry me for the fifty years, Babs?" His voice was gentle, pleading.
"Honest to goodness, now, aren't you really pretty tired of me?" she asked earnestly, turning to face him.
"No, I can't say I am. You're pretty special, doctor, and you're special pretty." It was a ritual.
"You know you're the only man. I'll marry you. Will you sign?"
"Of course I'll sign. I would have anyhow when I knew you wanted me to. And Babs--maybe we could get some sort of jobs now--sort of to get in practice. I'll bet we could rent a lab somewhere and do commercial analyses for a while until we got hit by another idea for research."
"Rod, that's the best idea you've had in the last hundred and fifty years. But we could have a honeymoon first, couldn't we?"
"That's your best suggestion in the last seventy years. And maybe we could get Jeery Wade and his wife to rejuvenate and go with us. After the first couple of weeks, that is."
They left the meeting arm in arm, somewhat ahead of the rather disgruntled group of directors, who stayed behind to lament the end of a good thing. In the garden room, Barbara stopped to choose an orchid.
Rod Harris wandered on to the receptionist's desk, where the girl of the black curls waited, smiling.