Ian and the Beanstalk
by Anta Baku
Part 2 of The Cell Phone Towers of Elfland (Read Part 1)
My second day working in Fairyland had me stalking a little boy with an emaciated cow. That wasn’t exactly what I signed up for when I got this job negotiating for places to put cell phone towers, but the gates to Fairyland weren’t open then, and it’s not like I had a choice when they transferred my territory. Besides, it wasn’t all that much weirder than things I had to do when trying to convince city councils to let us lease space on top of their water towers.
I got a nice bonus for pulling off a castle easement on my first day on the job, especially since it was free, but after that the boss decided I was clearly good enough to find my own leads in the future. Which is how I ended up working the roads to the Fairyland Farmer’s Market, trying to find a kid willing to sell his cow for a handful of beans. It wasn’t without its perks: Fairyland has the best pomegranates. Hiding in the bushes trying to ambush a poverty-stricken nine-year-old feels a little better when you’ve got sweet ruby-colored seeds to munch on.
I mean, it’s still pretty creepy. But I wasn’t going to abduct the kid, I just wanted to offer him a contract. Fairyland doesn’t have any rules about age of majority for signing away the air rights to your beanstalk, although with people like me running around now, they’ll probably get around to fixing that.
I only managed to finish half of the pomegranate before the kid came down the road, practically dragging his cow behind him. You’ve heard the stories, but they really undersell just how ridiculously underfed this cow was. You hear Jack wants to get rid of her because she stopped giving milk, but she also could barely stand up on her own. If he’d waited another day or two he never would have been able to get her to market. I’m not sure I would have traded a handful of beans for her even if they weren’t magic.
That made it easy to get out in front of them and pretend that we were just having a chance meeting on the path. I asked him if he was going to Scarborough Fair, because that seems like the standard conversation opener, though I doubted he could get a bunch of parsley for this cow, let alone those other things.
“I’m going to the market, sir,” he said, “to sell this cow. Do you have any need for a cow, sir? Almost good as new, sir.” He put his heart into it, but I don’t think he expected it to work.
“I have no use for a cow, son,” I said. Establishing yourself in a position of authority is an old negotiating trick, and I knew this Jack had no real father, so I could just slide into the empty place. You pretty much have to give up feeling like a good person in this job. We have a lot of turnover.
“Is there anything else I can do for you, sir?” said Jack. “I’m just desperate for money.” He wasn’t unlike city councils after all. More sympathetic, though. If there’s one piece of advice I can give to anyone new to this job, it’s to eat soothing things for breakfast, because sometimes taking advantage of people can make you want to puke.
“I’ll tell you what, son,” I said. “I’m looking for tall things. Fifty, sixty feet tall at least. You got anything tall?” Of course I knew he didn’t, but you have to set them up a little bit.
“No sir,” he said. “Why do you want to buy things that are tall?”
“Don’t want to buy them, son,” I said. “You get anything tall, you can keep it. I just want a high place to put some things. Find me something tall, I’ll give you two hundred gold pieces if you let me put my special equipment on it. Won’t even hurt it.” The company authorizes me to offer a thousand, but you have to start somewhere. Besides, for all I know there are kids running around trading cows for magic bell peppers or something, and we just don’t hear stories about them. You gotta hedge in situations like that.
He signed the contract, of course, because why wouldn’t he? Naturally it wouldn’t do any good to give him my cell phone number, but I told him I would check in on him every once in a while to see if he’d discovered anything tall. It’s not like I was doing anything else with my time.
Actually, that was a problem. I walked Jack into the market, just to make sure that he got to the magic bean-seller all right, but then I had no idea what to do with the rest of my morning. Fairyland beanstalks, while fast-growing enough to attract the attention of the University’s experimental agriculture department, only sprout overnight. So I couldn’t do anything more with Jack until the next day, but clocking out and going home didn’t seem quite like being a responsible employee. So I looked around the market a bit. It never hurts to start digging up additional prospects, even when you’ve got a project in hand.
It wasn’t maybe the most exciting morning I’d ever had, but I managed to hand out a bunch of business cards, and maybe one of them would come to something. All the construction trades in town were busy supplying a subdivision for pigs, but who knew what they might build next? I spent half an hour talking to a wolf who was waiting for his grandmother costume to be mended, and he was a very enthusiastic prospect, so he’s sure to be a valuable lead in the future. And I spent some time trying to find the owner of the nearby land, who everyone told me was the Marquis of Carabas, but somehow he was nowhere to be found.
By lunchtime I felt like I had exhausted all the opportunities the market had to offer, but I stayed there to eat anyway, because if I have lunch in Fairyland I’m allowed to expense it. There’s a pretty little pastry shop on the corner there, run by cats, and apparently avocado toast is a thing in Fairyland now because they were very excited about their new lunch menu. I ordered one and it turned out to be pretty nice.
All of their tables were occupied, and while looking for an open seat I spotted my new friend Angie, who I had met the day before. Angie’s a human private investigator, expanding her practice into Fairyland just like I am. The day before she’d been disguised as a fairy godmother, but now she just looked like a normal middle-aged lesbian. She waved me over, so I sat.
“Working on a new case?” I asked. We’d both finished ours at the same time the day before, which was part of why we were at least sort of friends.
“Looking for one,” she said. “You need anything?”
“I don’t think so,” I said. “Right now I’m just making contacts, waiting for Jack to grow a beanstalk tonight. But that should be easy, I’ve already got the contract.”
“You know Jacks always cut their beanstalks down, right?” she asked.
“Not this one,” I said around a mouthful of avocado toast. “We’re paying him not to.”
“Doesn’t matter,” she said. “He won’t be able to resist.”
We finished up and went our separate ways, her to try to find the Marquis of Carabas and ask for a job, me to stop off at the office and finish up some paperwork from before my transfer. I couldn’t stop dwelling on the idea that my perfect setup of the kid would end up a failure for him cutting down the beanstalk. Maybe even after we paid him.
Worrying woke me up early the next morning, so I was up and out and ready for business before the sun came up, and long before Jack was awake. Sure enough, there was the outline of a giant beanstalk above his house in the pre-dawn glow, and I settled in to wait for something to happen.
It was the mother who woke up first. She came out to look at the sunrise, and it took her a minute to notice the beanstalk, which was west of the house. When she did she yelled for Jack and went back inside to wake him up. I made sure I had my copies of the contract, circled around, and started for the house as if I was coming from the road.
By the time I got there the kid already had an axe in his hand and was looking at the thing with a gleam in his eye. Maybe Angie was right, but at least I was there in time.
“Excuse me,” I said. Jack barely looked at me, but his mother paid attention.
“Who are you?”
“My name is Ian. Your son signed a contract that gives me the right to use anything tall he comes into possession of.” I handed her a copy of the contract. “You can keep that, it’s a copy.”
“I can’t read,” she said. “Jack! Jack, did you make a deal with this man?”
Jack finally looked at us. “Yeah,” he said. “Two hundred gold pieces!”
“I have them right here,” I said. “But you have to promise not to cut down the beanstalk.”
“I want to cut it down, though,” he said.
“Jack!” said his mother. “Two hundred gold pieces!”
“We need the beanstalk to stay up,” I said.
“All right,” said Jack. “I won’t cut it down. I’ll just climb it!” And he took off before either of us could stop him, right up the beanstalk, hand-over-hand on the branches without any safety equipment or anything.
The mother wasn’t happy. “He’s always getting himself into trouble,” she said. “You’ll have to go and bring him back.”
“Me?” I said.
“If you don’t, ten will get you twenty he’ll find some reason to chop that beanstalk down.”
Well, when she put it that way, I guess this was my job after all. “Do you have a safety harness?” I asked.
“How about a belaying rope?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
It figured. Fairyland wasn’t big on preventing injuries. Then again, people only seemed to get hurt here in narratively-appropriate moments. I decided it was worth a shot. I had her hold my jacket, though. No use letting it get in the way.
The thing was pretty tall, but it wasn’t a lot of trouble to climb. The branches came at regular intervals, and had better gripping surfaces than I expected, so it wasn’t all that different than climbing a ladder. I tried not to reflect on how much harder I find it to go down ladders, with limited success.
Eventually I hit the cloud layer, and regretted leaving my jacket behind, because the moisture condensed on my skin and left me feeling clammy all over, even though only my arms were exposed. Somehow all that water didn’t do anything to make my grip more difficult, though, so it only took a few minutes to climb through it and reach the very top of the beanstalk.
I’ve always imagined walking in the clouds to be like walking on snowbanks, only worse. You have to test everywhere you’re thinking about putting your foot in case you fall through, and sometimes maybe the cloud has a crust on it that seems like it will hold you until you actually put your weight on it. Except instead of wet socks you’ve got a thousand-foot drop as punishment. I was glad to find that these clouds weren’t like that at all. They had birch-wood platforms, just within the body of the cloud, but close enough that they were easy to see from above. The platforms weren’t everywhere, but there were trails of them that led off in all directions.
Unfortunately I couldn’t see any way to find out which direction Jack had gone. So I just picked a path at random, and headed off down it, with little jumps over the gaps between platforms. It felt like Super Mario Brothers, and just like that, the path I followed inevitably led me to the walls of a castle, with Jack standing in front of a closed, multi-story gate.
“Come back with me, son,” I said. “Your mother is worried about you.”
“I have to get into the castle,” he said.
“Don’t you want to spend those two hundred gold pieces?”
He hesitated for a moment, but said “I have to get into the castle” again.
“How do you plan to get in?” I asked.
“I could cut down the beanstalk,” he said. He was still holding his axe. I wasn’t sure how he thought that would get him into the castle, but I have cousins, I can follow nine-year-old logic.
“Maybe you should try knocking instead,” I said.
“You do it,” he said. “You’re taller.”
Compared to the size of that door, Jack and I weren’t all that different, but I went ahead and knocked. The door was stone solid, and I didn’t feel like I was making any noise at all, but it opened a large enough crack to let us in. There wasn’t any apparent person responsible either for opening the door or for preventing us from just going wherever we wanted inside.
I grabbed Jack by the scruff of his shirt before he could race off down the hall and start doing some damage with his axe. It wasn’t the most beautiful, high-art castle I’d ever imagined. It didn’t even really compare with the one I’d been in two days ago, for fancy decor. But it was very carefully organized and obsessively clean, and I didn’t think whoever was responsible for that would appreciate Jack very much.
We peeked into some rooms and they were full of technical equipment that seemed like it might have been at home at my company’s headquarters, way above anything I’d seen in Fairyland. I didn’t actually recognize any of it, but I’m a negotiator, not a technician.
“I wonder what all this technology does,” I wondered aloud.
“I could go cut down the beanstalk and find out,” said Jack. You gotta give the kid credit for focus, at least.
Despite all the equipment, there weren’t any people in the castle to operate it, even when we found what was obviously the central control room.
“Hello?” I said into the emptiness.
“Welcome to Corporate Giant Industries,” said a pleasant alto voice. “A subsidiary of Industrial Giant Corporation.” It was a woman’s voice, but there wasn’t a woman to go with it. It seemed to be coming from every corner of the room. “How can I help you?”
“What is this place?” I asked.
“CGI provides meteorological services to Fairyland,” said the voice. “When you need fantasy weather, use CGI.”
“So you create the weather in Fairyland?”
“If you wish for fine weather, and your sister for rain, CGI can provide both at the same time!”
“Is there a button I can press to talk to an actual person?”
“I’m a person,” she said.
“All right, person,” I said. “How did this place come to be?”
“Our founder, the illustrious Giant, once sent a snowstorm to plague the people of Fairyland. But they were delighted by it, and Giant decided to turn his talent into a business. Eventually Corporate Giant Industries grew to provide seventy-four percent of all the weather in Fairyland—”
“Look, can I get something other than marketing copy?”
“I bet I could get her to talk,” said Jack.
“By cutting down the beanstalk.” Was I this single-minded when I was nine? In any case we didn’t get to try that or anything else, because at that moment a giant man wearing only a very large, very fluffy towel came into the room. He was obviously just out of the shower, and his arrival boosted the humidity in the room at least twenty percent, which couldn’t have been good for the equipment.
“Fee, Fie, Fo, Fum,” said the giant. “I smell—I smell John Varvatos! I’m going to have such a migraine!”
I hadn’t thought my cologne was that strong. I sniffed myself just to be sure.
“I know what to do for migraines!” shouted Jack.
“Don’t shout,” said the giant.
“I’m going to go cut down the beanstalk!” shouted Jack.
I grabbed him before the giant could, and put a hand over his mouth. “Enough with the beanstalk,” I said in a sharp whisper. “Find something else to think about.” I took away his axe just to be sure.
“I apologize,” I said to the giant. “I didn’t know my cologne would be a migraine trigger.” Usually you don’t want to apologize to a customer, you want to thank them for being patient with you, but this giant wasn’t exactly a customer, and he didn’t seem to be in the mood for being patient with me either. He swiped at me with one hand, but he had to use the other to hold up his towel. The awkward position allowed me to dodge, and I took off in one direction while Jack dashed in another. At least I still had his axe, so he couldn’t cut down the beanstalk while he was out of my sight.
I know this story, the giant’s supposed to chase Jack down the beanstalk at this point, but this giant ignored the kid completely and came after me. I channeled my memories from the high school track team and beat it right of the castle, wet giant hot on my heels. I motored over the platforms toward the beanstalk, and navigating the gaps in them while keeping control of his towel slowed the giant enough that I was able to stay ahead.
At the beanstalk I took a hard left onto another set of platforms. If I climbed down I’d have to chop the beanstalk down to save myself from the giant, and I’d be out two days work, not to mention stranding Jack up here with only the disembodied marketing lady to keep him company. As I suspected, every cloud platform path led inexorably to the castle, so pretty soon we were back inside. I was still doing more or less OK despite lack of recent running practice, but the giant was huffing and puffing hard. I think he started out overheated from his shower and just got more so.
Once we were inside the castle I had even more of an advantage, because he didn’t corner very well. I just kept turning every couple of rooms and he had no chance to catch me. I even managed to take a little rest and catch my breath.
Then I ran into Jack, who had used his free time during my chase to boost the giant’s portable valuables, in this case a small golden harp. I mean, small for a harp. It was still three feet wide and more than half Jack’s size, but it wasn’t the sort of harp where you’d be sued by the stagehands’ union if you moved it yourself.
We mutually agreed to make our way out of the castle again, and by now we were so far ahead of the giant we didn’t have to run too fast. Once we were a reasonable distance outside and he hadn’t followed, we took a break and I examined the harp. The frame was made of solid gold all right, the strange, light Fairyland gold I was beginning to recognize. Of course it was easy to recognize in a chunk I wouldn’t have been able to lift if it had been gold from my world. The tuning pegs were mother of pearl, and the strings were made of some sort of thin-spun glass. I gave it a quick brush to see what the sound was like.
“Hey, no playing me without permission.” It was the same voice that had given us marketing copy before the giant showed up.
“You’re a harp?” I said. “I thought you told me you were a person.”
“I’m a harp and a person,” she said. “Is that so hard to understand?”
“I stole the harp,” said Jack. I guess he had something new to focus on now.
“I felt better about stealing a harp than I feel about stealing a person,” I said. “We don’t steal people.”
“Maybe he liberated me,” said Harp.
“Were you a slave?” I asked. “To that giant?”
“No,” she said. “I’m just an instrument badly in need of a job search.”
I raised my eyebrows. “What are your qualifications?”
“I’ve spent the last twenty-five years operating the weather control for all of Fairyland,” she said. “I think that counts for something.”
“You run that place?”
“The whole thing,” she said. “The giant built the company, but after he hired me he just lounges around all day while I do all the work. He says it’s his right as an executive.”
“Speaking of the giant, we should probably get moving again, ” I said. “He’ll be rested up and after us again in no time.”
“Don’t worry about him,” said Harp. “With me gone, there’s nobody else to run the company. I imagine he’s drowning in support requests by now. He won’t be able to move from the castle for weeks.”
So the three of us made our way gingerly down the beanstalk. I managed not to drop Harp, or the axe, or myself. In hindsight I’m not quite sure how. Jack was proud of stealing Harp, and wanted to keep her, but she didn’t think the job prospects this close to her previous employer would be very good. I couldn’t blame her.
I gave the axe to Jack’s mom and asked her to make sure it stayed locked up tight. I got the feeling she had been looking for an excuse to do just that for a while. I gave her a check for the two hundred gold pieces, and then had to explain to her how checks work, but I’m sure she’ll figure it out.
I stopped off at the office to schedule an installation team to visit the beanstalk, and brag a little bit to my co-workers about earning two sizable bonuses in three days. They weren’t as jealous as I expected, for some reason. Then I went home to relax and plan my evening. With how well this week was going I could even take tomorrow off, go out, get a date. Fortunately girls like my cologne more than giants do.
Having Harp in the middle of my dining room table is pretty awkward, though. Especially when I bring a date home. I hope she gets a new job soon.
Part 3 of The Cell Phone Towers of Elfland is Ian and the Magic Mirror.
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