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There! Lyson was at the blackboard, his back to the door, furiously chalking calculations. Mortima shut the door, her hands behind, pushing in the lock button. She remained in the shadows, not daring to move, her back against the door, her hands out of sight on the knob, her eyes unwavering.
On a strange-looking table in the center of the room, filling half the room, stood an enormous dollhouse illuminated by a conical lamp hung low from the ceiling. Only the table was in direct light; the window was heavily curtained, so the dollhouse almost seemed to float in the dim room. It was the fanciest dollhouse Mortima had ever seen, and it was absurd that a grown man should have such a toy when so many little girls like Mortima had to grow up with cardboard types, if any at all. Mortima gripped the doorknob. A plaything like this!
Yet, it was no ordinary dollhouse. More like a two-tiered wedding cake, she thought; a silvery conical roof, something like a Chinese coolie’s hat, supported on slender white columns arranged on a round platform and topped by a spire resting on a smaller circle of columns over a round opening in its peak, like a church steeple. No walls. Just Grecian columns. Really a very pretty model, as large as any she’d ever seen.
Before she could complete the thought process leading toward a suspicion that Mary was expecting a new Sulla, Lyson made a quick motion that startled her. Without warning he turned to the table and hunched over a large book, his lips puckered and twitching with silent figurings, sweating profusely, the beads shining like crystals on his face. Mortima thought it odd, too, that he was wearing a business suit, and a tie to boot. The suit was wet under the armpits, and a grimy ring could be seen around the collar of his white shirt. All this sweat reminded Mortima that she had a nose, and she started at the pungent male odor at close quarters. It reminded her of musk, but before she could establish an opinion about it, Lyson slapped his head and rushed back to the blackboard and resumed the figurings, his hands and sleeves dusty with chalk.
The blackboard covered much of the wall to the left. Writing with his right hand, Lyson’s back was turned toward the door as he scribbled, so Mortima was safe for the moment. On the wall opposite Mortima was a window heavily curtained, no doubt, against prying eyes. A cluttered desk sprawled on the right. Her eyes laughed at the huge mirror above it; it was framed by a bank of bare lamp bulbs, like an actress’s dressing room. A vanity mirror! Her mouth opened in a humph, but she shut it. The fillings and caps on her teeth might catch the light—and his eye.
Something he had just written on the blackboard thrilled Lyson, and he gave a tiny leap, thrusting a fist high in the air. Mortima cringed back against the door, gripping the knob ever tighter. Lyson bounded back to the table and pushed little matchbox automobiles, trucks, earthmoving machines, and tanks closer toward the dollhouse over roads painted gray over the green of the table, his eyes bright, his lips putt-putting little engine noises. Whoa! A sudden roadblock brought everything to a grinding halt, and he bit his knuckle. He consulted the big book, frantically turning the pages and gingerly touching the little cars. He slapped his forehead and went back to the blackboard, shaking his head in chagrin at some gaffe unknown and incomprehensible to Mortima. His damp hand erased some of the figures and chalked in new ones.
His intensity perplexed Mortima as she looked hard at the numbers on the blackboard. Islay—302,074. Pinnacle County—198,862. Suffex—121,483. Sanday County—28,704. Crewe—18,573. Flint County—40,669. Wrexham—22,154. Mortima allowed her mouth to fall open. Islay and Suffex seemed familiar. Something she thought she’d seen on a green sign somewhere, along a freeway to New York. Ah, Islay, a tiny state, she recalled. How come such an interest in such a nothing place? she wondered. A geography freak? Bah! Not much of a scandal.
But then why the locked door and secrecy, she reminded herself. The dollhouse,
too. And the vanity mirror. And the sweat and the smell and the fever. She
looked harder and in the dim light noticed framed portraits arrayed on either
side of the mirror. Abraham Lincoln so grave. Tight-lipped George Washington.
Napoleon proud as a peacock. Gandhi in a sheet. Einstein with a halo of unruly
white hair. Martin
She stared accusingly at the back of Lyson’s head bobbing as he wrote vigorously on the blackboard, the chalk worn down to one tiny fragment so difficult to hold that it often slipped, making a mess that upset Lyson almost to distraction.
On a shelf by the desk were piled book upon book, horizontally for some reason rather than vertically. That much easier to find a particular title, though, thought Mortima as she strained her eyes to read the titles in the gloom of the room. The Compleat Candidate. Marketing of the President. Strategy and Your Election. Winning the Female Vote. Care and Maintenance of the Gastro-Respiratory Tract. Mortima went over them again and again, intent on recalling them for future reference.
Taking a cautious step toward the dollhouse, she saw that all the roads led to the apex of an irregular triangle painted green on the table. Tiny plastic trees, columns of tin soldiers, even plastic models of warships! Just like the war rooms she’d seen at the movies! A closet Dr. Strangelove?
Suddenly Lyson was back at the table, full of renewed enthusiasm. The roadblock was broken! He gleefully rolled cars, trucks, bulldozers, tin soldiers, even trees up closer to the edifice, surrounding it in a splendid military procession. The warships sailed up blue ribbons painted on either side of the triangle to the apex and laid siege to the dollhouse. Two tanks crashed into each other due to mixed signals between Lyson and his hands. He berated them in the manner of a drill sergeant and set the tanks straight and roaring on their way. With sputtering lips, he bulldozed down a couple of little bridges, isolating the triangle from the outside world across the blue ribbons of rivers. This accomplished, he marched the bulldozers back into formation alongside the tanks and other engines of war. The enemy was taken! He thrust a fist in the air and held it there in triumph. A sigh of satisfaction, and he dropped his fist slowly, surveying his great victory, his eyes bright and dancing, his face flushed with victory and dripping wet with the passion of battle.