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HOUSE HUNTING

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        They found the ideal house, but it was too expensive. Tough. A week later, however, when Sedrick was chatting with a client in a whale restaurant, beer-throwing hall, a solution offered itself.
        "You want it cheaper?" said the client. "I know a guy who can arrange that. For a price."
        "I'll think about it," said Sedrick.
        "Let's wander over to the pool," said the client. "They're about to harpoon the whale."
        Later, having thought it over, Sedrick decided to bite.
        "I'm interested," said Sedrick. "But what's your price?"
        "For an introduction?" said the client. "A five per cent discount on our next order. You can manage that, can't you?"
        "Uh ... I think so," said Sedrick. "Let me have a word with someone at the office then I'll get back to you."
        In point of fact, the napalm market was going through one of its periodic slumps, and Sedrick was authorized to offer discounts of up to thirty per cent. But he was far too good at his job to come right out and say so. That was why he was a member of the house-buying elite. (Well, as long as the houses were on the cheap side.)
        A week later, the client got his discount and Sedrick got his introduction, which was to a analytical chemist by the name of Theremin Tolholst. They met at a sushi restaurant, a restful place where fish swam sedately in commodious aquariums.
        "I wanted to get into medical school but they said I didn't have the personality," said Theremin. "But I've gone ahead with it as a hobby. Quite a profitable one."
        "What do you mean?" said Sedrick.
        "Kidneys, in particular," said Theremin. "There's a thriving market."
        "But how does that relate to houses?" said Sedrick.
        "Well, let's say the man doesn't want to sell his house," said Theremin. "There's an incident down the street. Two doors away, the landlord loses a kidney."
        "And what's the connection?" said Sedrick.
        "Ten per cent of the price of a house is a lot more than the market value of a kidney," said Theremin.
        "Well, thanks but no thanks," said Sedrick.
        "I wasn't aware that I was offering anything," said Theremin. "Anyway, let's eat."
        Then Theremin pointed at the fish he wanted. Adroitly, the sushi chef then threw it down on a wooden board where it kicked in stammers. The chef hit it over the head with a highly polished wooden cudgel — kablak! Then shoved a sharp knife into the head and twisted the last of the life out of the dying organism.  
        "Boy, I just love this city," said Theremin.
        "Well, I do like sushi," said Sedrick noncommittally.
        True, he did. It was low fat food, and Sedrick had a small but undeniable weight problem. The electronic stomach massager which Zilla had bought him just wasn't working as advertized.
        So much for the ideal house. A week later, the city government released its plans for the new superhighway which would cleave the city in two, and it turned out that it would go right past the ideal house. The price of the ideal house immediately dropped by fifty per cent, but neither Sedrick nor Zilla was interested in living right beside either a highway construction site or a highway.
        "Still, I'm sure we'll find somewhere by the time the baby arrives," said Zilla. "And the child will strengthen our relationship."
        "I absolutely agree," said Sedrick.
        He wanted the child, yes, absolutely. And it was about time, because they had been working toward parenthood for what felt like two or three lifetimes, and it had been a real trial. They had almost gotten divorced in a big argument over which temperature-charting software package to use. It had been a great relief to see the ultrasound pictures which gave the final visual confirmation of their incontrovertible success.
        But, secretly, despite his desire to be a father, Sedrick had his doubts. He had grown up in what was, by modern standards, a big family — three brothers and fifteen sisters, all younger than himself — and knew just how demanding a young child could be. Although Zilla had read her textbooks and had watched her training videos, the fact was that she was an only child, and Sedrick had told her to her face that she really had no idea what she was in for.
        And Sedrick did not share his wife's confidence that they would get their accommodation sorted out in time for Baby One. And if they didn't, how could their marriage survive if they had to cope with the stresses and strains of bringing up a child while still living in this rabbit hutch of theirs?
        True, Hutch 20497 in the AgriBiz sector was a steal, as far as the rent went. But, despite the remodeling, it still smelt ever so slightly of rabbit. The smell had gotten deep into the pipe spaces of the warren of a building, and it spoke to Sedrick in his dreams, and sometimes he woke weeping. It had gotten to the point where he felt sick just walking past the mechanically animated bunny ears of the local O'Brian's Burgers.
        "We have to step up our house hunting," said Sedrick. "Maybe the ideal house isn't possible. Maybe there isn't an ideal house. But we absolutely must have a new place before the baby arrives."
        "Oh, I agree absolutely," said Zilla brightly.
        "Our own place," said Sedrick. "I want ferroconcrete walls, double glazing and a roof balcony."
        "Yes, a roof balcony would be just the place for a baby," said Zilla.
        "Remember they can crawl," warned Sedrick. "Not only that, pretty soon they can climb."
        "Yes, dear," said Zilla. "I think I've internalized the crawling and climbing lecture, thank you very much. I'm not a complete idiot, you know."
        "I didn't say you were," said Sedrick.
        "That's true," said Zilla. "Your most cutting insults are delivered with such fantastic economy of effort that not a single morpheme is employed in their delivery."
        "All right," said Sedrick. "I am aware that you're the articulate one. No need to rub it in. If you must rub something, I'd rather you rubbed my back, thank you very much."
        And, to his surprise, Zilla did so. Maybe their sniping at each other was good for their relationship — though it had taken twenty years of marriage to discover this.
        Twenty years into their marriage and with the baby a bare four months distant, Zilla and Sedrick finally got into now-or-never mode and accelerated their house hunting efforts. But and, even though there were plenty of places on the market, finding a decent one was a trial.
        Selzodanakatelprish was a fantastically crowded city, so the building sites tended to be tiny squares on which townhouses were built like towers of toy blocks stacked on top of each other. Walk in through the front door and there is your toilet. Up a flight of stairs, the bathroom. One flight further, a kitchen. Finally, many flights of stairs uphill, a handkerchief of rooftop balcony. Fine if your sport was mountain climbing, but otherwise not such a good idea.
        Where the building sites were not small and square they tended to be long and thin, forcing the architects to design fantastically anorexic houses — long, narrow buildings which were stretched out like bits of string. Often the toilet was remotely located at the end of long hallway so narrow that you had to turn sideways to negotiate it, and, given Zilla's condition, this was a recipe for disaster.
        "It will have to be an apartment block," said Zilla at last.
        But the first apartment block, twenty five stories tall, was built just down the road from the chimney of the local municipal garbage incinerator, which, coincidentally, was also twenty five stories tall.
        "Dioxin is bad for growing babies," said Sedrick firmly.
        "I'm sure if it was seriously dangerous then the authorities wouldn't let them burn garbage there," said Zilla.
        "You are?" said Sedrick. "Well, what I'm sure of is this: if the authorities were seriously concerned with our health, they'd close down this entire city and evacuate us all to the desert."
        The next apartment block was built on reclaimed land of the kind that has the disconcerting habit of turning itself into a liquid during major earthquakes. And the third was in Bivelsodi.
        "Bivelsodi!" said Zilla. "We can't live in Bivelsodi! You didn't tell us you were bringing us to Bivelsodi!"
        "Yes," said Sedrick, joining the attack on the realtor. "This is where the serial killers operate!"
        "It's perfectly safe," said the realtor, an unflappable gentleman by the name of Eddie Vackentacker. "As you say, the serial killers do operate in this area, but, for that reason, it's heavily patrolled by the police. Statistically, it's the safest place in the city."
        "No," said Zilla, shaking her head. "Sedrick, this is no good. We have to find a proper house."
        Sedrick looked at Eddie who pursed his lips then spoke.
        "There is one place," said Eddie. "It's on Gelmot Street. It's built on the site of a small apartment block and it's ... well, it's nice. Ferroconcrete — that really cuts the noise, you know. Double glazing. And it has a roof balcony."
        "Great," said Sedrick. "So what's the catch?"
        "As I say, there was an apartment block, before," said Eddie. "But the woman who lived there went and hung herself, so most people aren't interested."
        The realtors had to be up front about this kind of thing because, if they weren't, sales contracts could later be canceled.
        "She committed suicide?" said Sedrick. "Well, that wouldn't bother me. Zilla?"
        "I'd have to see the house," said Zilla non-commit tally.
        Right then and there, Sedrick could see how this was going to work out. Probably it was the ideal house, but Zilla would get all emotional about it and would veto their one hope of saving themselves, their baby and their marriage. (By this stage, Sedrick had convinced himself that introducing a baby into their rabbit hutch would automatically lead them to the divorce courts.)
        "Okay," said Sedrick, putting a brave face on it. "Let's go have a look."
        When the realtor parked his car outside the house on Gelmot Street, Sedrick got out. Almost immediately, the sidewalk started to slide beneath his feet. Looking around in alarm, he saw the road accelerating. Then the houses on both sides of the street started to move, and soon they were whizzing by at a fantastic rate. And yet, even so, they were getting nowhere.
        "Oh, oh!" said Zilla, clutching both hands to her belly.
        "Don't worry," said Eddie. "It's only an illusion. It'll settle down soon enough."
        And soon enough it did. The surroundings decelerated and the world once again became a tranquil landscape picture rather than a manic video.
        "Why didn't you warn us?" said Zilla, angry and shaken. "You should've told us this was a fluxional area."
        "I thought you knew," said Eddie. "Gelmot's famous for it."
        "What else is there about this area that you think we know?" said Sedrick.
        "Well ... I did think you'd read about the underground highway," said Eddie. "It's going to be finished two years from now, and it will go right under this house. However, it's quite deep, and you shouldn't hear much noise, if any. As for the chimney which vents the exhaust fumes from the highway, well, that's five streets away, and it won't form part of your view."
        Five streets away? Their baby was going to grow up breathing second-hand exhaust fumes? That was almost as bad as the municipal garbage incinerator. Still, by this stage Sedrick was getting desperate.
        "Okay," said Sedrick. "Let's go in."
        Inside, the house still stank of the glue which had been used to help construct the interior inside the ferroconcrete of the exterior box. If they did buy it, they would have to run fans for the first six months or so or be poisoned by the fumes. Still, it had to be admitted that it was nice and roomy two-story house, with wide hallways, high ceilings and plenty of storage. Only ... there was something a bit oppressive about the looming walls of the neighboring houses which were pressed close to the edges of the building plot ... and Sedrick did wonder what was going on inside the ten-story factory that he could see rising just two houses to the north, the Granpunkle Electronic Bread Compliguration Plant. When he opened one of the double-glazed windows to get a look, he heard a high-pitched whine coming from the factory, and he realized they would have to keep the windows shut all through the long hot summer, or else live with that whine.
        "It's wonderful, isn't it?" said Zilla, beaming at her husband.
        And Sedrick knew her well enough to realize, instantly, that for her this was the place.
        "Yes," said Sedrick. "Yes, it is."
        He was finding it hard to breathe. The smell of glue was making his head spin. Despite having closed the window, he could still hear the whine from the nearby factory, and it seemed to be growing louder. He felt sick.
        "Excuse me," said Sedrick.
        And fled to the toilet and knelt, meaning to vomit. But he could not. The walls of the smallest room in the house closed around him, forcing the air out of his throat so he could not breathe, could not squeak, could not move.
        A thought flashed in his mind: panic attack.
        Knowing that, he was able to calm himself, though it was an effort. The urge to vomit faded, and he got to his feet and wiped the cold sweat from his forehead.
        "This," said Sedrick, "is the place."
        It was big. It was well-designed. It was ... well, not exactly cheap, but certainly affordable. True, it was in a fluxional area, but fluxional effects were only intermittent. Air quality problems? Well, they could buy one of those new-fangled air-cleaning gadgets designed to filter household air, cleaning out everything from pollen to tobacco smoke. The factory noise? That was just a hallucination. No noise which was legally permissible could cut through the combination of concrete and double-glazing.
        "Are you all right?" said Zilla, when Sedrick rejoined her.
        "Sure," said Sedrick. "We're going to buy it, right?"
        "Oh, yes," said Zilla. "Without a question."
        And they signed an agreement that same day.
        Three days later, after they'd told all their friends and relations and colleagues and clients about their good news, Sedrick came home from a day at the head office of International Napalm to find his wife crying. He had never seen her so badly upset before.
        "What is it?" said Sedrick in alarm. "What's happened to the baby?"
        "It's not the baby, it's the house."
        "What about the house?" said Sedrick.
        "We've been gazumped," said Zilla.
        "Gazumped?" said Sedrick. "There's no such word."
        "Yes there is," said Zilla. "It's where you get an agreement on a property and then someone goes and offers more money."
        "But we've got a contract!" said Sedrick.
        "They've already been to court and got it legally broken," said Zilla. "They say we didn't disclose our job history."
        "Job history?" said Sedrick. "I've only had one job in my life, and I've always paid my taxes. As for your job — well, I drink a little myself, socially, and I totally agree that children should be taught how to handle the habit at an early age."
        "Yes, but they said they were morally contaminated, and the judge said we're lucky we didn't go to jail for non-disclosure," said Zilla, then wept all the more.
        At this, Sedrick felt morally outraged. He had tried to play it straight. He had signed on the dotted line, all nice and legal, and where had it got him? He had been cheated, and swindled, and insulted, and his wife had been attacked and emotionally lacerated.
        "Let's give this a couple of weeks and see how it works out," said Sedrick. "I have a feeling the new buyers might change their minds."
        "Why would they do that?" said Zilla.
        "Well, it is a fluxional area, you know," said Sedrick.
        Within a week, three kidneys had gone missing in Gelmot street, and buyers who were in the market for things going cheap had their pick of the properties. The first buyer to take advantage of the new opportunities was arrested by the police after an anonymous tipoff alerted them to the existence of a bloodstained knife and half a kidney in a plastic bag taped to the underside of the lid of the cistern of his upstairs toilet.
        "It's horrible to think what some people will do to secure a bargain," said Zilla.
        "Yes," said Sedrick, so happy he was positively purring. "But it worked out well for us, didn't it?"
        Because, just as the police had been arresting the bloodstained knife man, Sedrick and Zilla had been signing the contract for their dream house, the gazumping buyer having bailed out and the original asking price having dropped by half.
        After that, Sedrick had to hide the bad times from his wife. It was difficult, but not impossible. Married couples are capable of keeping all manner of secrets from each other, not excluding alcoholism, infidelity and insanity. Keeping a lid on the occasional panic attack was well within Sedrick's ability.
        And all went well until two years later when Sedrick was home alone — alone apart from little Alavilli, since it was Sedrick's turn to babysit. That was when a small shaped charge blew open the front door of the house on Gelmot Street, permitting the entry of Theremin Tolholst, analytical chemist by profession.
        "What are you doing here?" said Sedrick in shock, confronting Theremin in the hallway.
        "Oh, I always come back," said Theremin, in a matter-of-fact manner, reaching into the small leather briefcase he carried. "That's part of who I am."
        "But we had a deal," said Sedrick.
        "And?" said Theremin. "Do you want to take me to court to quibble about the details? I'm here for a kidney, and don't think you're going to stop me."
        "You're not having one of my kidneys," said Sedrick.
        "Oh, no, I wasn't even thinking of it," said Theremin. "You can cut them down to size, up to a point, but this one is for a very, very small customer."
        Upstairs, little Alavilli began to cry. A high, piercing cry. Theremin smiled, and from his briefcase he pulled a gun. He fired it. A dart hit Sedrick fair and square in the abdomen.
        "You'll be out cold for six hours," said Theremin. "Afterwards, you won't name me. If you do, my brother will be round. My brother does eyes, you know. I'm sure your wife's corneas would be exactly what he's looking for."
        Then Theremin strode forward confidently.
        But, as Theremin pushed past, Sedrick struck him violently in the side of his head with an elbow. Theremin went down like a sack of sugar. Sedrick wrenched out the dart, which had sunk its venomous tip into the electronic stomach massager he always wore.
        "Hunh!" cried Sedrick, driving the dart into the side of Theremin's neck.
        Standing over Theremin, wondering if the man was dead, Sedrick felt the light fading, the shadows darkening. The hallway seemed narrower than before, pressing in on him.
        "A natural reaction," said Sedrick, invoking logic in the face of what he knew must surely be another panic attack.
        He was finding it hard to breathe, but that would wear off. Maybe he should call the cops right away. If the panic attack got too bad, he might collapse. And Theremin might not be dead. Might recover and escape. Call the cops, confess, get this guy in jail, do what it takes — the emergency number is on the speed dial.
        So thinking, Sedrick reached into his pack pocket and hauled out his cell phone. And something kicked it away. Almost simultaneously, a blow across the face threw Sedrick down on his back. He found himself looking up at a big, big man with a huge black beard.
        "He wasn't bluffing about his brother," said the bearded man. "We always cover each other's backs. Oh, and by coincidence, this time I also have a customer who happens to be on the small side."
        Then the light faded as the pressure on Sedrick's throat intensified, and, as he lost consciousness, he thought he was going blind. But, physically, there was nothing wrong with him. And, when it came time for him to stand trial — the bloodstained knife which had been found in bed with him was the most damning kind of evidence — there was ample opportunity for him to gaze upon the photographs of the face of his child.


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