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The Menace From Earth

Robert A. Heinlein

  The Menace From Earth

  Robert A. Heinlein

  Robert Heinlein

  The Menace From Earth

  The Year of the Jackpot

  At first Potiphar Breen did not notice the girl who was undressing.

  She was standing at a bus stop only ten feet away. He was indoors but that would not have kept him from noticing; he was seated in a drugstore booth adjacent to the bus stop; there was nothing between Potiphar and the young lady but plate glass and an occasional pedestrian.

  Nevertheless he did not look up when she began to peel. Propped up in front of him was a Los Angeles Times; beside it, still unopened, were the Herald-Express and the Daily News. He was scanning the newspaper carefully but the headline stories got only a passing glance. He noted the maximum and minimum temperatures in Brownsville, Texas and entered them in a neat black notebook; he did the same with the closing prices of three blue chips and two dogs on the New York Exchange, as well as the total number of shares. He then began a rapid sifting of minor news stories, from time to time entering briefs of them in his little book; the items he recorded seemed randomly unrelated--among them a publicity release in which Miss National Cottage Cheese Week announced that she intended to marry and have twelve children by a man who could prove that he had been a life-long vegetarian, a circumstantial but wildly unlikely flying saucer report, and a call for prayers for rain throughout Southern California.

  Potiphar had just written down the names and addresses of three residents of Watts, California who had been miraculously healed at a tent meeting of the God-is-AII First Truth Brethren by the Reverend Dickie Bottomley, the eight-year-old evangelist, and was preparing to tackle the Herald-Express, when he glanced over his reading glasses and saw the amateur ecdysiast on the street comer outside. He stood up, placed his glasses in their case, folded the newspapers and put them carefully in his right coat pocket, counted out the exact amount of his check and added twenty-five cents. He then took his raincoat from a hook, placed it over his arm, and went outside.

  By now the girl was practically down to the buff. It seemed to Potiphar Breen that she had quite a lot of buff. Nevertheless she had not pulled much of a house. The corner newsboy had stopped hawking his disasters and was grinning at her, and a mixed pair of transvestites who were apparently waiting for the bus had their eyes on her. None of the passers-by stopped. They glanced at her, then with the self-conscious indifference to the unusual of the true Southern Californian, they went on their various ways. The transvestites were frankly staring. The male member of the team wore a frilly feminine blouse but his skirt was a conservative Scottish kilt--his female companion wore a business suit and Homburg hat; she stared with lively interest.

  As Breen approached the girl hung a scrap of nylon on the bus stop bench, then reached for her shoes. A police officer, looking hot and unhappy, crossed with the lights and came up to them. "Okay," he said in a tired voice, "that'll be all, lady. Get them duds back on and clear out of here."

  The female transvestite took a cigar out of her mouth. "Just," she said, "what business is it of yours, officer?" The cop turned to her. "Keep out of this!" He ran his eyes over her get up, that of her companion. "I ought to run both of you in, too."

  The transvestite raised her eyebrows. "Arrest us for being clothed, arrest her for not being. I think I'm going to like this." She turned to the girl, who was standing still and saying nothing, as if she were puzzled by what was going on. "I'm a lawyer, dear." She pulled a card from her vest pocket. "If this uniformed Neanderthal persists in annoying you, I'll be delighted to handle him."

  The man in the kilt said, "Grace! Please!"

  She shook him off. "Quiet, Norman—this is our business." She went on to the policeman, "Well? Call the wagon. In the meantime my client will answer no questions."

  The official looked unhappy enough to cry and his face was getting dangerously red. Breen quietly stepped forward and slipped his raincoat around the shoulders of the girl. She looked startled and spoke for the first time. "Uh—thanks." She pulled the coat about her, cape fashion.

  The female attorney glanced at Breen then back to the cop. "Well, officer? Ready to arrest us?"

  He shoved his face close to hers. "I ain't going to give you the satisfaction!" He sighed and added, "Thanks, Mr. Breen—you know this lady?"

  "I'll take care of her. You can forget it, Kawonski."

  "I sure hope so. If she's with you, I'll do just that. But get her out of here, Mr. Breen—please!"

  The lawyer interrupted. "Just a moment—you're interfering with my client."

  Kawonski said, "Shut up, you! You heard Mr. Breen—she's with him. Right, Mr. Breen?"

  "Well yes. I'm a friend. I'll take care of her."

  The transvestite said suspiciously, "I didn't hear her say that."

  Her companion said, "Grace—please! There's our bus."

  "And I didn't hear her say she was your client," the cop retorted. "You look like a—" His words were drowned out by the bus's brakes, "—and besides that, if you don't climb on that bus and get off my territory, I'll... I'll..."

  "You'll what?"

  "Grace! We'll miss our bus."

  "Just a moment, Norman. Dear, is this man really a friend of yours? Are you with him?"

  The girl looked uncertainly at Breen, then said in a low voice, "Uh, yes. That's right."

  "Well..." The lawyer's companion pulled at her arm. She shoved her card into Breen's hand and got on the bus; it pulled away.

  Breen pocketed the card. Kawonski wiped his forehead.

  "Why did you do it, lady?" he said peevishly.

  The girl looked puzzled. "I... I don't know."

  "You hear that, Mr. Breen? That's what they all say. And if you pull 'em in, there's six more the next day. The Chief said—" He sighed. "The Chief said well, if I had arrested her like that female shyster wanted me to. I'd be out at a hundred and ninety-sixth and Ploughed Ground tomorrow morning, thinking about retirement. So get her out of here, will you?"

  The girl said, "But—"

  "No 'buts,' lady. Just be glad a real gentleman like Mr. Breen is willing to help you." He gathered up her clothes, handed them to her. When she reached for them she again exposed an uncustomary amount of skin; Kawonski hastily gave them to Breen instead, who crowded them into his coat pockets.

  She let Breen lead her to where his car was parked, got in and tucked the raincoat around her so that she was rather more dressed than a girl usually is. She looked at him. She saw a medium-sized and undistinguished man who was slipping down the wrong side of thirty-five and looked older. His eyes had that mild and slightly naked look of the habitual spectacles wearer who is not at the moment with glasses; his hair was gray at the temples and thin on top. His herringbone suit, black shoes, white shirt, and neat tie smacked more of the East than of California.

  He saw a face which he classified as "pretty" and "wholesome" rather than "beautiful" and "glamorous," It was topped by a healthy mop of light brown hair. He set her age at twenty-five, give or take eighteen months. He smiled gently, climbed in without speaking and started his car. He turned up Doheny Drive and east on Sunset. Near La Cienega he slowed down. "Feeling better?"

  "Uh, I guess so. Mr.—‘Breen'?"

  "Call me Potiphar. What's your name? Don't tell me if you don't want to,"

  "Me? I'm... I'm Meade Barstow."

  "Thank you, Meade. Where do you want to go? Home?"

  "I suppose so. I—Oh my no! I can't go home like this." She clutched the coat tightly to her.


  "No. My landlady. She'd be shocked to death."

  "Where, then?"

  She thought. "Maybe we could stop at a filling stati
on and I could sneak into the ladies' room."

  "Mmm... maybe. See here, Meade, my house is six blocks from here and has a garage entrance. You could get inside without being seen." He looked at her.

  She stared back. "Potiphar you don't look like a wolf?"

  "Oh, but I am! The worst sort." He whistled and gnashed his teeth. "See? But Wednesday is my day off from it." She looked at him and dimpled. "Oh, well! I'd rather wrestle with you than with Mrs. Megeath. Let's go."

  He turned up into the hills. His bachelor diggings were one of the many little frame houses clinging like fungus to the brown slopes of the Santa Monica Mountains. The garage was notched into this hill; the house sat on it. He drove in, cut the ignition, and led her up a teetery inside stairway into the living room. "In there," he said, pointing. "Help yourself." He pulled her clothes out of his coat pockets and handed them to her.

  She blushed and took them, disappeared into his bed- room. He heard her turn the key in the lock. He settled down in his easy chair, took out his notebook, and opened the Herald-Express.

  He was finishing the Daily News and had added several notes to his collection when she came out. Her hair was neatly rolled; her face was restored; she had brushed most of the wrinkles out of her skirt. Her sweater was neither too tight nor deep cut, but it was pleasantly filled. She reminded him of well water and farm breakfasts.

  He took his raincoat from her, hung it up, and said, "Sit down, Meade."

  She said uncertainly, "I had better go."

  "Go if you must—but I had hoped to talk with you."

  "Well—" She sat down on the edge of his couch and looked around. The room was small but as neat as his necktie, clean as his collar. The fireplace was swept; the floor was bare and polished. Books crowded bookshelves in every possible space. One corner was filled by an elderly flat-top desk; the papers on it were neatly in order. Near it, on its own stand, was a small electric calculator. To her right, French windows gave out on a tiny porch over the garage. Beyond it she could see the sprawling city; a few neon signs were already blinking.

  She sat back a little. "This is a nice room—Potiphar. It looks like you."

  "I take that as a compliment. Thank you." She did not answer; he went on, "Would you like a drink?"

  "Oh, would I!" She shivered. "I guess I've got the jitters."

  He got up. "Not surprising. What'll it be?"

  She took Scotch and water, no ice; he was a Bourbon-and-ginger-ale man. She had soaked up half her highball in silence, then put it down, squared her shoulders and said, "Potiphar?"

  "Yes, Meade?"

  "Look—if you brought me here to make a pass, I wish you'd go ahead and make it. It won't do you a bit of good, but it makes me nervous to wait for it."

  He said nothing and did not change his expression. She went on uneasily, "Not that I'd blame you for trying—under the circumstances. And I am grateful. But... well it's just that I don't—"

  He came over and took both her hands. "My dear, I haven't the slightest thought of making a pass at you. Nor need you feel grateful. I butted in because I was interested in your case."

  "My case? Are you a doctor? A psychiatrist?"

  He shook his head. "I'm a mathematician. A statistician, to be precise."

  "Hub? I don't get it." "Don't worry about it. But I would like to ask some questions. May I?"

  "Uh, sure, sure! I owe you that much—and then some."

  "You owe me nothing. Want your drink sweetened?"

  She gulped it and handed him her glass, then followed him out into the kitchen. He did an exact job of measuring and gave it back. "Now tell me why you took your clothes off?"

  She frowned. "I don't know. I don't know. I don't know. I guess I just went crazy." She added round-eyed, "But I don't feel crazy. Could I go off my rocker and not know it?" "You're not crazy... not more so than the rest of us," he amended. "Tell me, where did you see someone else do this?"

  "Huh? But I never have."

  "Where did you read about it?"

  "But I haven't. Wait a minute—those people up in Canada. Dooka-somethings."

  "Doukhobors. That's all? No bareskin swimming parties? No strip poker?"

  She shook her head. "No. You may not believe it but I was the kind of a little girl who undressed under her nightie." She colored and added, "I still do--unless I remember to tell myself it's silly."

  "I believe it. No news stories?"

  "No. Yes, there was too! About two weeks ago, I think it was. Some girl in a theater, in the audience, I mean. But I thought it was just publicity. You know the stunts they pull here."

  He shook his head. "It wasn't. February 3rd, the Grand Theater, Mrs. Alvin Copley. Charges dismissed."

  "Huh? How did you know?"

  "Excuse me." He went to his desk, dialed the City News Bureau. "Alf? This is Pot Breen. They still sitting on that story?... yes, yes, the Gypsy Rose file. Any new ones today?" He waited; Meade thought that she could make out swearing. "Take it easy, Alf—this hot weather can't last forever. Nine, eh? Well, add another—Santa Monica Boulevard, late this afternoon. No arrest." He added, "Nope, nobody got her name—a middle-aged woman with a cast in one eye. I happened to see it... who, me? Why would I want to get mixed up? But it's rounding up into a very, very interesting picture." He put the phone down.

  Meade said, "Cast in one eye, indeed!"

  "Shall I call him back and give him your name?"

  "Oh, no!"

  "Very well. Now, Meade, we seemed to have located the point of contagion in your case--Mrs. Copley. What I'd like to know next is how you felt, what you were thinking about, when you did it?"

  She was frowning intently. "Wait a minute, Potiphar--do I understand that nine other girls have pulled the stunt I pulled?"

  "Oh, no—nine others today. You are—" He paused briefly. "—the three hundred and nineteenth case in Los Angeles county since the first of the year. I don't have figures on the rest of the country, but the suggestion to clamp down on the stories came from the eastern news services when the papers here put our first cases on the wire. That proves that it's a problem elsewhere, too."

  "You mean that women all over the country are peeling off their clothes in public? Why, how shocking!"

  He said nothing. She blushed again and insisted, "Well, it is shocking, even if it was me, this time."

  "No, Meade. One case is shocking; over three hundred makes it scientifically interesting. That's why I want to know how it felt. Tell me about it."

  "But—All right, I'll try. I told you I don't know why I did it; I still don't. I—"

  "You remember it?"

  "Oh, yes! I remember getting up off the bench and pulling up my sweater. I remember unzipping my skirt. I remember thinking I would have to hurry as I could see my bus stopped two blocks down the street. I remember how good it felt when I finally, uh—" She paused and looked puzzled. "But I still don't know why."

  "What were you thinking about just before you stood up?"

  "I don't remember."

  "Visualize the street. What was passing by? Where were your hands? Were your legs crossed or uncrossed? Was there anybody near you? What were you thinking about?"

  "Uh... nobody was on the bench with me. I had my hands in my lap. Those characters in the mixed-up clothes were standing near by, but I wasn't paying attention. I wasn't thinking much except that my feet hurt and I wanted to get home-and how unbearably hot and sultry it was. Then--" Her eyes became distant, "--suddenly I knew what I had to do and it was very urgent that I do it. So I stood up and I... and I--" Her voice became shrill.

  "Take it easy!" he said. "Don't do it again."

  "Huh? Why, Mr. Breen! I wouldn't do anything like that."

  "Of course not. Then what?"

  "Why, you put your raincoat around me and you know the rest." She faced him. "Say, Potiphar, what were you doing with a raincoat? It hasn't rained in weeks--this is the driest, hottest rainy season in years."

  "In sixty-eight year
s, to be exact."


  "I carry a raincoat anyhow. Uh, just a notion of mine, but I feel that when it does rain, it's going to rain awfully hard." He added, "Forty days and forty nights, maybe."

  She decided that he was being humorous and laughed.

  He went on, "Can you remember how you got the idea?"

  She swirled her glass and thought. "I simply don't know."

  He nodded. "That's what I expected."

  "I don't understand you--unless you think I'm crazy. Do you?"

  "No. I think you had to do it and could not help it and don't know why and can't know why."

  "But you know." She said it accusingly.

  "Maybe. At least I have some figures. Ever take any interest in statistics, Meade?"

  She shook her head. "Figures confuse me. Never mind statistics--I want to know why I did what I did!"

  He looked at her very soberly. "I think we're lemmings, Meade."

  She looked puzzled, then horrified. "You mean those little furry mouselike creatures? The ones that--"

  "Yes. The ones that periodically make a death migration, until millions, hundreds of millions of them drown themselves in the sea. Ask a lemming why he does it. If you could get him to slow up his rush toward death, even money says he would rationalize his answer as well as any college graduate. But he does it because he has to--and so do we."

  "That's a horrid idea, Potiphar."

  "Maybe. Come here, Meade. I'll show you figures that confuse me, too." He went to his desk and opened a drawer, took out a packet of cards. "Here's one. Two weeks ago a man sues an entire state legislature for alienation of his wife's affection--and the judge lets the suit be tried. Or this one--a patent application for a device to lay the globe over on its side and warm up the arctic regions. Patent denied, but the inventor took in over three hundred thousand dollars in down payments on South Pole real estate before the postal authorities stepped in. Now he's fighting the case and it looks as if he might win. And here--prominent bishop proposes applied courses in the so-called facts of life in high schools." He put the card away hastily. "Here's a dilly: a bill introduced in the Alabama lower house to repeal the laws of atomic energy--not the present statutes, but the natural laws concerning nuclear physics; the wording makes that plain." He shrugged. "How silly can you get?"