Braling Two did a magic trick and produced a white card:
Duplicate self or friends; new humanoid plastic 1990 models, guaranteed against all physical wear. From $7,600 to our $15,000 de luxe model.
“No,” said Smith.
“Yes,” said Braling.
“Naturally,” said Braling Two.
“How long has this gone on?”
“I’ve had him for a month. I keep him in the cellar in a toolbox. My wife never goes downstairs, and I have the only lock and key to that box. Tonight I said I wished to take a walk to buy a cigar. I went down cellar and took Braling Two out of his box and sent him back up to sit with my wife while I came on out to see you, Smith.”
“Wonderful! He evensmells like you: Bond Street and Melachrinos!”
“It may be splitting hairs, but I think it highly ethical. After all, what my wife wants most of all isme. This marionetteis me to the hairiest detail. I’ve been home all evening. I shall be home with her for the next month. In the meantime another gentleman will be in Rio after ten years of waiting. When I return from Rio, Braling Two here will go back in his box.”
Smith thought that over a minute or two. “Will he walk around without sustenance for a month?” he finally asked.
“For six months if necessary. And he’s built to do everything—eat, sleep, perspire—everything, natural as natural is. You’ll take good care of my wife, won’t you, Braling Two?”
“Your wife is rather nice,” said Braling Two. “I’ve grown rather fond of her.”
Smith was beginning to tremble. “How long has Marionettes, Inc., been in business?”
“Secretly, for two years.”
“Could I—I mean, is there a possibility——” Smith took his friend’s elbow earnestly. “Can you tell me where I can get one, a robot, a marionette, for myself? Youwill give me the address, won’t you?”
“Here you are.”
Smith took the card and turned it round and round. “Thank you,” he said. “You don’t know what this means. Just a little respite. A night or so, once a month even. My wife loves me so much she can’t bear to have me gone an hour. I love her dearly, you know, but remember the old poem: ‘Love will fly if held too lightly, love will die if held too tightly.’ I just want her to relax her grip a little bit.”
“You’re lucky, at least, that your wife loves you. Hate’s my problem. Not so easy.”
“Oh, Nettie loves me madly. It will be my task to make her love me comfortably.”
“Good luck to you, Smith. Do drop around while I’m in Rio. It will seem strange, if you suddenly stop calling by, to my wife. You’re to treat Braling Two, here, just like me.”
“Right! Good-by. And thank you.”
Smith went smiling down the street. Braling and Braling Two turned and walked into the apartment hall.
On the crosstown bus Smith whistled softly, turning the white card in his fingers:
Clients must be pledged to secrecy, for while an act is pending in Congress to legalize Marionettes, Inc., it is still a felony, if caught, to use one.
“Well,” said Smith.
Clients must have a mold made of their body and a color index check of their eyes, lips, hair, skin, etc. Clients must expect to wait for two months until their model is finished.
Not so long, thought Smith. Two months from now my ribs will have a chance to mend from the crushing they’ve taken. Two months from now my hand will heal from being so constantly held. Two months from now my bruised underlip will begin to reshape itself. I don’t mean to soundungrateful . . .
He flipped the card over.
Marionettes, Inc., is two years old and has a fine record of satisfied customers behind it. Our motto is “No Strings Attached.” Address: 43 South Wesley Drive.
The bus pulled to his stop; he alighted, and while humming up the stairs he thought, Nettie and I have fifteen thousand in our joint bank account. I’ll just slip eight thousand out as a business venture, you might say. The marionette will probably pay back my money, with interest, in many ways. Nettie needn’t know. He unlocked the door and in a minute was in the bedroom. There lay Nettie, pale, huge, and piously asleep.