One Last Sale

Nicodemus still had a warm glow from the day's successes as he neared the last address on the street. Sure, there had been that one nasty dog, but half a dozen sales were nothing to sneeze at. Even the increasing slope of the hill and the heat of the late summer day did little to dim his euphoria.

A short way ahead the street ended, and the hillside rose even more steeply, covered with grass and clover instead of tar and asphalt. Nicodemus had never been to this neighbourhood before--it had a bad reputation, one which as far as he was concerned was entirely undeserved. Some other salesman, jealous of his territory, had probably started the rumour.

He couldn't quite make out the last house, though. He did see smoke rising from a small chimney, but he couldn't see walls or windows, just more hillside. Ah, wait--it must be one of those buried houses. Supposed to conserve heat or something, with the ground as insulation. In this climate, he didn't doubt it was cooler, too. Still, a house was a house, and they still might want one of his air purifiers.

There wasn't really a path from the street, and the yard was fairly overgrown with what looked like harmless weeds but proved quickly to be covered with nasty thorns. Still, his euphoria carried him on. Through the foliage he saw what looked like some classical statuary, which he thought was a good sign, since in his experience such stuff was rather expensive. On the other hand, the condition of the grounds showed that the occupants cared little for their environment. Or maybe they cared about the inside of their house and not the outside...and, since the place was at the edge of town, the municipal government had never bothered to do anything about it. Or maybe they just didn't like visitors.

Euphoria notwithstanding, Nicodemus might still have turned back had he not glimpsed the entrance. He might have expected some kind of camouflaged door, or maybe something forbidding, but instead there didn't seem to be a door at all. Just a narrow tunnel, just above man-height. Well, then, they couldn't be that unfriendly, then, if they didn't lock their door, or even have a door to lock.

As he ducked his head to enter the cool passage(he did have clearance, but not much), Nicodemus was struck with an extremely bitter odour, that made him think of the funeral of his aunt Rhea, when they'd put her into the mausoleum... What was that stuff called? Myrrh, that was it. Like in the Christmas carol. "Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume..." Some stipulation of her will, anyway.

Was this a tomb? But no, there had been smoke coming from the chimney. And there had been a mailbox on the street. (Did they have to come through all those thorns to get to it? Maybe there was a path he hadn't noticed.) Maybe whoever lived here just made myrrh. It had to come from somewhere, didn't it?

The tunnel led into a large cave, which was lit through a small hole in the roof. The light brightened and dimmed as smoke from the chimney passed over it. There was a squat stove in the center of the cavern, which probably gave off enough heat to overcome the chill. Now the underground location made sense; above the ground, that stove would turn an already overheated house to a pit of Hell, in the summer. Nicodemus thought he saw a shadowy figure or two in the room, but he wasn't sure. He coughed to announce himself, and felt rather than saw eyes turning to look at him.

"Excuse me," he said. "I...the way was open." No response, though he thought he heard some rustling noises. Or was that hissing? He collected himself. "Of course, it's obvious that you need ventilation here--I'd leave the door open myself. But let's face it, that and the chimney are obviously inadequate to deal with the air. For a normal house, perhaps, but for a home industry like yours, you need more than that, don't you agree?"

Silence for a moment, then a response in a high-pitched, creaky old lady's voice, with a touch of a Greek accent that somehow failed to make him feel at home. "What do you mean?"

Not the most encouraging response, but still a response. "I mean, you're obviously engaged in some kind of home manufacturing here, but it can't be worth it if the main effect is to pollute your home. Or even if this isn't your main dwelling, it can't be healthy to work in such an environment either. Now, it's lucky for you that I happened by, because I know of a very good, simple solution."

Not waiting for a response this time, he set down his sample case and opened it up. "Now here's a little device--deceptively small, if you ask me, for its power--that can be a great help to you. It's made by a company named FiltAir, and...well, let me just demonstrate here."

He didn't see any sign of a plug-in, or anything that might use one, but he'd run into such situations before, and he had a fully-charged battery installed as well. He took the purifier out of the case, set it on the floor--which was very uneven, but he found a fairly flat spot, and it had tripods anyway--and turned it on.

There was an instantly perceptible hum, and the clouds of acrid smoke started to drift towards the purifier.

"Now, with smoke, this actually works best if you have it on a shelf or something, so that it can more effectively deal with the air at the level you are most concerned about--the stuff you're actually going to breathe. But it can also be used to keep dust from collecting in the air, and for such purposes it works just as well at ground level.

"I probably don't need to mention for you the medical benefits of cleaner air. You'll breathe easier, of course, and your risk of lung cancer is significantly reduced. In general, the mortality rate of people breathing filtered air is reduced substantially. This could actually add years to your life!"

There was a renewed hissing--definitely a hissing this time--and then another voice, just as creaky as the first, said, "Oh, we're not worried about our mortality rate."

"But what about our sister?" said the first voice.

"If your sister's condition is more delicate, then, for her sake, you'll surely want to consider one of these," Nicodemus said swiftly.

"She has been coughing more in the last age or so," said the second voice.

"Well, then, I'm sure I'd be able to make arrangements to get one of these for you...or more than that, if you want some for your living space as well."

"I'm sure we'll only need the one. The one you have with you."

"Of course," Nicodemus said smoothly. This was his last sale of the day, so he could easily justify leaving the sample behind. "Would you prefer to pay now, or later?"

"We'll all pay later," said one of the voices(he couldn't tell them apart any more). "But that's not what you're asking, is it?"

"We have a variety of installment plans...this can be yours for as little as a dollar a day, depending on the period..."

"I'm afraid we don't like to be in debt."

"Well, then," said Nicodemus, "I can certainly take a cheque, or a credit card, or cash if you prefer..."

"Very well, then 'cash' it will be." The voice, or voices, seemed to be getting nearer.

"Then the price is--"

"We'll leave it to you to determine the price." Definitely nearer.

This took Nicodemus somewhat aback. Most of the Greek women he'd known had been inveterate hagglers. Aunt Rhea had never believed that any store would actually let you know how much they wanted for something, and kept trying to beat them down. Still, he never refused to let anyone pay the list price.

Now he could see them, two heavily robed women, faces hidden in shadow that somehow he knew he didn't want to pierce, strange hissings coming from within. One of them extended a hand, gnarled and warted with age, but holding within it a wealth of coins. He didn't know exactly what they were worth, but he was sure his uncle the numismatist would give his eyeteeth for a look at them. "I'll--I'll have to check the exchange rate, and I'll be sure to repay you any difference--"

"Take it," the women said. "If you dare."

All his objections fleeing at her tone, he grabbed the coins with an indecent hurry. Her hand was tough and leathery, and he felt his fingers going weirdly stiff where they touched hers. But he managed to scoop the coins up clumsily, and dumped them, for lack of a better place, in his sample case. "I'll leave the manual here--" he said, then abandoned all pretense and fled.

Soon he was standing out at the end of the street, not even remembering what must have been a frantic plunge through the thorns. He half-expected his clothes to be ripped to shreds, but as far as he could tell they were relatively unscathed. In fact, he began to wonder if he had dreamed the whole thing--what had been in that smoke?--but his sample case was still full of ancient coins. He hurriedly closed it, marvelling that he hadn't spilled the whole thing among the thornbushes. Then he straightened his tie and started back downhill towards his car, wondering how exactly he would report this to his boss.

Based on the words: Euphoria Con Myrrh Vat

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The Den of Ubiquity / Aaron V. Humphrey /