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24

JOHN WASN'T WATCHING football, and May didn't like that at all. Here it was November, the middle of the season, every team still at least theoretically in the running, and John doesn't even sit down to watch Sunday football. Not even the pregame show. It was worrying.

May was in the kitchen, involved in that worrying, when the street doorbell sounded, a noise she was still getting used to, that bell having been on the blink for many years until the landlord abruptly fixed it as a run-up to a rent increase. But now, unasked for and unneeded, here it was working again, and the sound had already trained her enough so that she automatically went to the little round grid in the kitchen wall and said into it, "Hello?"

"It's Andy," said a garbled voice that could have been any Martian.

Andy? Andy doesn't ring doorbells, he picks locks, you don't know Andy's going to make a visit until he's sitting in the living room.

What was going on here? John doesn't watch football, Andy Kelp doesn't pick locks, the world is coming to an end. "Come on up," she said dubiously, and pushed the button below the grid.

Did he plan to ring the upstairs doorbell, too? Well, we don't have to put up with that. So May walked down the corridor from the kitchen to the apartment front door, passing along the way the open door on her right to the room where John sat brooding in the direction of the switched-off television set but not, she knew, actually seeing it.

With the apartment door open, she could hear the asymmetric tramp of feet coming up the stairs; more than one, then. And yes, into view from the staircase came Andy and with him that nice kid Judson who'd attached himself to the group recently.

"Harya," Andy said, approaching. "I brought the kid."

"I see that. Is he the reason you rang the bell?"

Looking a bit sheepish, Andy grinned and said, "Basically, yeah. We don't want to give him too many bad habits all at once."

"Hi, Miss May," Judson said.

"Hi, yourself," May said, and stepped back from the doorway. "Well, come on in. John's in the living room, not watching football."

"Oh," Andy said. "That doesn't sound good."

"That's what I think."

They went in to see John as though entering a sickroom. Brightly, May said, "John, look who's here. It's Andy and Judson."

He sort of looked at them. "Harya," he said, and stopped sort of looking at them.

"Sit down," May said, so Andy and Judson perched uncomfortably on the sofa and she wrung her hands a little, not a normal gesture for her, and said, "Can I get anybody a beer?"

Andy could be seen to be about to say yes, but John, in a voice of doom, said, "No, thanks, May," so Andy closed his mouth again.

"Well," May said, and sat in her own chair, and everybody carefully didn't look at John.

Andy said, "This weather. For November, you know, this weather's pretty good."

"Very sunny out there," Judson added.

"That's nice," May said, and gestured at the window. "In here, you hardly notice."

"Well, it's really sunny," Andy said.

"Good," May said.

And then nobody said anything, for quite some time. Andy and Judson frowned mightily, obviously racking their brains in search of topics of conversation, but nothing. The silence in the room stretched on, and everybody in there except John became increasingly tongue-tied and desperate. John just continued to brood in the direction of the television set. Then:

"The problem is," John said.

Everybody turned to him, very alert. But then he didn't say anything else, just shook his head.

They waited; nothing. Finally May said, "Yes, John? The problem?"

"Well, I'm thinking about it backwards," John said. "That's what's been wrong."

May said, "Backwards? I don't follow."

"When the kid said yesterday, we can't get into the vault—"

"I'm sorry I said that, John," Judson said. "I've been wanting to tell you that, I'm sorry."

"No, you were right," John said. "That's what I've been saying all along, there's no way to get into that vault."

"I'm sorry."

"Fuggedabodit. See, what it is I gotta do, I gotta stop thinking about getting into the vault because I can't get into the vault. That's the backwards part."

Judson said, "It is?"

"The mountain," John explained, "gotta go to whatsisname. Mohammed."

Fearing the worst, May said, "John?"

"You know," John said, and gestured vaguely with both hands. "He won't go to that, so that's gotta go to him. Same with the vault. We can't get in at the chess set, case closed, no discussion, so what we gotta do is get the chess set to come out to us."

"That's brilliant, John," Andy said. "How do we do that?"

"Well," John said, "that's the part I'm working on."


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