For Beth’s Eyes Only
by Anta Baku
Part 22 of The Cell Phone Towers of Elfland (Read Part 1)
Before Angie and Owen arrived, Beth was enjoying having the apartment to herself for the first time. While it was awfully nice of Ian to let her sleep on his couch while she was trying to figure out what to do with herself, sharing a one-bedroom apartment with a young man and an intelligent harp was somewhat too cramped for comfort. Ian had been having trouble with it lately, too, she thought. At least, he never seemed easy about all of them being there together.
This morning she’d given him another pep talk, trying to convince him that there was still a chance to stop the expansion of the Pig Merchants’ Guild and save Fairyland. Trying to convince herself, too, if she was honest. They were running out of strategies, and she’d sent Ian and Harp off on a long shot, trying to bury the hatchet with Harp’s old employer and get him on their side. Industrial Giant Corporation controlled the weather in most of Fairyland, and if the giant who was its namesake took against the pigs, he could do them a lot of good.
If he was willing to forgive Ian for stealing Harp, and Harp for allowing herself to be stolen. Ian thought he could handle it, and Harp bought into his plan enough to agree to go back into Fairyland for the day, which left Beth gloriously alone in the apartment for about twenty minutes before Angie showed up unexpectedly.
“I have a phone now,” said Beth. “You could have texted me first.”
“Sorry,” said Angie. “I hope you weren’t in the middle of anything.”
“I was going to use the day to work on my University application,” said Beth.
“Well, we thought this might be an emergency,” said Angie, introducing the man she’d brought with her. “This is Owen, he works with me sometimes.”
“I’ve seen you before,” said Beth. “You were working with Angie in the Empire.”
“That was a great caper,” he said. “Sell them smaller and smaller clothes until you’re selling them nothing and they don’t even notice.”
“Yeah, well,” said Beth. She had noticed, and she had made sure everyone else noticed, but this probably wasn’t the best time to tell him that. “Nice to meet you.”
“Owen works a little farther outside the law than I do,” said Angie. “It’s nice to have someone like that on your team from time to time.”
“One of the things I do is make fake IDs,” said Owen.
“Identification cards,” said Angie. “The government issues them so you can prove who you are.”
“I don’t have one of those yet,” said Beth.
“I wouldn’t know where to start with getting you one,” said Angie. “I don’t think they have Fairyland figured out yet.”
“Nobody seems to,” said Beth.
“Anyway, when someone wants to be able to prove that they’re someone they actually aren’t, they come to me,” said Owen.
“And you want to make me a fake identification card because I can’t get a real one?” asked Beth.
“That might not be a bad idea,” said Owen.
“Then again, it might,” said Angie. “That’s not what we came for.”
“Something strange happened to me this morning,” said Owen. “I’ve had a lot of strange customers over the years, but I’ve never had to make an ID for a talking pig.”
“So he thought the Fairyland experts should hear about it,” said Angie.
“A pig?” said Beth.
“It could hardly be from anywhere but Fairyland,” said Angie.
“I don’t even know how to make a fake ID for a pig,” said Owen. “Our government only issues IDs to humans.”
“It must be someone from the Pig Merchants’ Guild,” said Beth. “And if it is, he’s up to no good.”
“That’s why we came to you,” said Angie. “I may not see this Guild as a big deal, but Ian clearly does, and he says you do. You might be right. And if you are, I’d hate to have kept this from you.”
“It doesn’t bother you that they’re sending pigs into your world?”
“We certainly mess up theirs enough,” said Angie. “Yours? Whatever. Why shouldn’t people come through the other way? You did.”
“I’m not running errands for an evil king, though,” said Beth.
“He might not be, either,” said Owen. “It could just be some pig here on his own.”
“Some pig,” said Angie. She apparently found that funny.
“I didn’t see a spider with him,” said Owen.
Beth was lost, like in so many conversations recently. “I wish I could see the pig you were talking about,” she said.
“Oh, I took pictures,” said Owen. “I had to, for the ID.” He took out his phone and paged through it for a moment before offering it to Beth.
She had thought she might be able to tell what the pig’s job was from his appearance, but it was easier than that. This pig was familiar. “I know him,” she said. “He was my friend, or I thought he was. Then he turned on me.”
“Why?” said Angie.
“I don’t know,” said Beth. “Because I wasn’t a pig, I guess. He thought pigs deserved all the good jobs just for being pigs.”
“And he works for this Pig Merchants’ Guild?” said Owen.
“He does,” said Beth. “Or he did when I knew him. His name is Gjolli.”
“What did you do with him, anyway?” said Angie. Beth started to open her mouth, then realized the question was directed at Owen.
“He said he wanted to start a business in the construction trades,” said Owen. “But no one here would have taken him seriously in the clothes he was wearing. So I told him the IDs would take a while, and sent him off to buy a new set of gear.”
“Where did you send him?” said Angie.
“Fleet Farm. The one up in Circle Pines. I had to help him figure out the rideshare app.”
“You sent a pig,” said Angie. “To Fleet Farm.”
“Sure, why not?” said Owen. “He needed to look like someone who understood construction. Where else would you go?”
“He’s a pig, Owen,” said Angie.
“I think we need to get up there before something goes wrong.”
“He’ll be back for his IDs this afternoon,” said Owen. “I thought you could meet him there if you had to.”
“I think if we don’t get moving he won’t be back at all,” said Angie. “And we’ll never find out what he came for.”
Beth didn’t understand what the problem was any more than Owen did, but she followed them out to the car anyway. If someone was going to track down Gjolli she should be there, even if it meant putting off her University applications another day or two.
It was a long drive, but Owen’s car was a lot nicer than Ian’s, or Pol’s, or even Angie’s. She’d ridden in a lot of things that barely got from place to place, but this one was actually comfortable, with leather seats and working temperature controls. It didn’t make worrying banging noises, either. And comparing the cleanliness of it to Angie’s made it clear that Owen didn’t have any kids.
Angie tried to explain Fleet Farm to Beth as they drove, but it didn’t get through very well. Beth was still trying to work out how this society that was focused on shopping worked, and she got that Fleet Farm was a store, but not much else about it. She was distracted by riding on the highway for the first time, a road that was many times the size of anything in Fairyland. The vehicles moved extremely fast.
Owen drove north, clearly used to navigating this incredible road, and as they went the buildings thinned out and the trees got denser. Beth had already felt like this city was built in a forest, but the farther they got from the downtown area, the stronger that feeling became. It took almost half an hour on the highway to get to where they were going, and Beth didn’t understand why Owen would have sent anyone this far out of the city. Until she saw the Fleet Farm.
The parking lot alone was almost the size of her original kingdom, and it was mostly full of cars. The store was just a rectangular box from the outside, though with strange small open-topped vehicles lined up outside of it. Owen told her they were lawn mowers, which didn’t help her understand. The one artistic touch was trash cans shaped like silos outside the entrance, which even Beth interpreted as a message that they weren’t in the city anymore.
The inside confirmed her impression of Fleet Farm as an institution straddling the conceptual boundary between urban and rural. There were appliances and furniture and clothing, but also saddles and horse tack, chicken coops, fishing supplies, and giant tires clearly meant for farm equipment. Half the customers seemed to have brought their dogs into the store with them, something she had never seen in the city.
She had no idea how they were going to find Gjolli in such a huge place, but Owen found an employee right away. It took him a minute to explain that he wasn’t looking for pig feed, pig medicine, or pig watering tanks, but an actual pig. Then it took him another minute to explain he hadn’t mistaken Fleet Farm for a livestock market, but he was looking for a customer who also happened to be a pig. The employee still didn’t seem to understand, but he was willing to be helpful anyway, and he took them to customer service to have Gjolli paged.
The woman at customer service already knew there was a pig in the store, though. “We’ve been watching him,” she said. “It’s the most amazing thing. He’s been here over an hour and nobody can figure out what he’s doing.”
“He was supposed to pick out some gear for a construction job,” said Owen, like it was completely normal that a pig might be doing that. Of course, in Fairyland it would have been, but Beth had noticed that people from the World of Chaos had difficulty with sentences that wouldn’t have been out of line at all at home. Owen wasn’t one of them.
“That explains why he spent so long looking at gloves,” said the customer service woman.
“Did he find any?” asked Angie.
“We don’t really stock anything for people with fewer than five fingers,” said the woman. “If this is a trend we might have to start. We carry a lot of things for pigs but pig gloves are new to me.”
She directed them to Gjolli’s current location, and it was true they stocked a lot of things for pigs, because an employee was trying to sell Gjolli a pig-specific skin cream and hair spray. She was clearly having a lot of fun with the first customer she could treat as a personal user, offering him samples and demonstrating how shiny it made his skin. Beth almost hated to interrupt.
“Gjolli,” she said softly. “What are you doing here?”
He turned around. “Beth!” he said. “I didn’t know you were in this world. And you, I don’t remember your name, I’m sorry.”
“And this is Angie,” said Beth.
“How do you all know each other?” said Gjolli.
“They came to me because they wanted to know why a pig from Fairyland came here to pretend to be a construction worker,” said Beth.
“It’s my new job,” said Gjolli. “We did well building the windmill. I wish you could have stuck around to see it.”
“As I remember you wanted me to stick around to do all the worst work,” said Beth.
“Yes, well, I’ve been thinking about that,” said Gjolli. But she didn’t get to hear his thoughts, because three large men had blocked off the aisle, two on one side and the largest on the other. They clearly weren’t there to shop. The store employee had somehow vanished, and the four of them were stuck in the middle.
“You can leave, folks,” said one of the pair. “We only want the pig.”
“They don’t sell pigs here,” said Owen. “I have it on good authority.”
“Even better,” said the largest man. “We’ll take him for free.”
He advanced on them, but just because he was large didn’t mean he scared Beth. All three of them were burly, hairy guys, in work clothes, who probably had a lot of experience in wrestling pigs. But they hadn’t come shopping prepared for a fight, and no matter how big the guy, he wasn’t going to be able to stand up to Beth unless he’d come with his vulnerable spots protected. Her kicking was both powerful and accurate, as the largest of the attackers discovered.
Angie and Owen grabbed Gjolli by the arms and hustled him out of the store while Beth covered their escape. The other two attackers weren’t too fast at following them while their partner was still writhing on the floor.
“I don’t understand what they wanted,” said Gjolli. “And couldn’t we have stayed long enough for me to buy some of that skin cream? It really did feel nice and make my skin look good.”
“If we stuck around any longer your skin would look good on a grill covered in butter,” said Angie. “People eat pigs here.”
“People eat pigs in Fairyland,” said Gjolli. “But not talking pigs.”
“Yeah, well, nobody here has ever seen a talking pig before,” said Owen. “You’ll have to give them time to adjust.”
Owen wasn’t thrilled with the idea of having a pig in his nice car, but there wasn’t really any other option. Angie and Beth sat to either side of Gjolli in the back seat to make sure he didn’t try to escape. That didn’t seem very necessary, as he wasn’t much of a fighting pig, but presumably the trip here was the first time he had ever been in a car. They wouldn’t want him opening a door on the highway by accident.
In any case, Owen didn’t get back onto the highway like Beth was expecting him to. He pulled onto a different street, and only drove for a few minutes before arriving at a place called Dairy Queen, where he parked and told them to get out. For a country that was supposed to have no nobility, the World of Chaos sure had a lot of kings and queens in it.
Dairy Queen wasn’t any more royal than the Northrup King building had been. In fact it was a dessert restaurant full of some of the most proletarian young women Beth had ever seen, who Owen identified as a middle school track team. Beth wanted to talk to them about Marxism while they were waiting in line, but Angie shut her down quickly, telling her this was the worst possible place for that. Beth didn’t understand why Anoka County would be a bad place to talk about communism, because this seemed like the most working-class environment she had visited in the World of Chaos. But if Angie said it was a bad idea, she was willing to listen.
Gjolli didn’t want to talk about anything, at least until they had gotten to a table by themselves with their desserts. Owen had ordered the Fairylanders each something solid in a cup called an Oreo Blizzard, and Beth poked a spoon at hers tentatively. After her experience with bubble tea, she wasn’t sure she trusted desserts in this world. But Gjolli dug into his like, well, like a pig. Anything he liked so much was probably worth trying, so she ventured in with her spoon and took a bite.
It was much better than bubble tea. Just as weird, but different. It was cold and sweet and had some kind of cookie jumbled up in it. It even cheered her up a little bit, but it was nothing next to how it improved Gjolli’s mood. One minute he was sullen and silent at being captured, the next he had finished his Blizzard and was ready to be talkative. Beth ate hers more slowly and listened.
“I owe you an apology,” he said to her. “I was brought up within the Guild, I was excited about the expansion of the Guild. And within the Guild, you have to understand, it has always been taken for granted that pigs are the best. That we’re pigs, and we work for the benefit of other pigs. Everyone else comes second.
“So when you wanted to be treated as well as a pig, I didn’t think. I just went with my reflex, that the Guild is about pigs and pigs should be first. That was wrong, and I’m sorry.”
“Thank you,” said Beth. “No one should be first just because of how they were born. That’s how we got nobles in the first place.”
“Everyone should be equal,” said Gjolli. “In the Guild now, they say they’re building a society where everyone is equal. But I don’t see it happening. Most of the people saying that are only using it to get ahead.”
“Is that why you’re here?” asked Angie.
“No, I’m here because I was ordered to come,” said Gjolli. “I’m equal but somehow I have to take orders.”
“The Great White Boar,” said Beth. “He’s a king even if he’s not calling himself that right now. As long as he’s there he’ll be giving orders.”
“Well, he gave me this one,” said Gjolli. “I guess I’m coming up in the world, to get orders directly from the Great White Pig. He took me out of the village I was running and told me that since I had spent time with people from the World of Chaos, he was going to send me here to find out more about it.”
“So you’re a spy,” said Owen.
“Not a very good one, apparently.”
“You do stand out, here,” said Angie.
“I’ve never had a customer who was a talking pig before,” said Owen.
“I don’t know if he knew there weren’t pigs here,” said Gjolli. “Or if he just didn’t care. He only has pigs to work with, anyway. If he was going to send someone it would have been a pig.”
“What about the construction work?” said Owen. “That’s a pretty complicated cover story.”
“It wasn’t just that,” said Gjolli. “He wants to establish an economic foothold in the World of Chaos. The Guild thought construction would be a good start. After all, we sell straw and sticks and bricks all over Fairyland. But you use different things here. What in the world is drywall? What’s a housewrap?” He said those things loud enough, and confused enough, that he drew attention from people at other tables. Angie quieted him down.
“A lot of things are different here,” she said.
“I can tell I’m only starting to find that out,” said Gjolli. “Maybe we should concentrate on selling these Blizzard things in Fairyland. They’re great and we could make a bundle selling them to Fairyland people.”
“Is that what you want?” said Beth. “To make a bundle? I thought you wanted to build a world without money and property.”
“Oh,” said Gjolli. “Well, old habits of thought are hard to get rid of. I started out as a merchant, after all. But you’re right.”
“And what about the other pig merchants?” said Beth.
“They still think like that,” said Gjolli. “It makes it hard to work within the principles of socialism.”
“It sounds like it’s not going well for you,” said Angie.
“When has communism ever gone well?” said Owen.
“It might, someday,” said Beth.
“You’re deluding yourself,” said Owen. “It sounds like it’s falling apart before they ever get started.”
“Well, the way they’re doing it,” said Beth. “They’re just using the words to get power over people.”
“That’s how it always works,” said Owen.
“Let her be,” said Angie. “She’s what, nineteen? We thought we had all the answers when we were that age.”
“What happened?” said Beth.
“We grew up,” said Angie. “We were hardcore libertarians in college, Owen especially. That’s basically the exact opposite of socialism. As little government as possible.”
“And now you’ve become productive members of society?” said Gjolli.
“I don’t think so,” said Beth. “They run scams and make fake identification, who knows what else? They don’t like government now any more than they used to.”
“We’ve figured out how to live with it, though,” said Angie.
“And make a little money while we’re at it,” said Owen.
“I prefer your attitude,” Gjolli said to Beth. “We can figure out a way to make this work, somehow,”
“It won’t, though,” said Beth. “Not as long as the Great White Boar is in charge.”
“There I’m beginning to think you’re right,” said Gjolli. “Most of what I do, I don’t see how it’s helping the masses. It’s only helping the leaders.”
“You could help us, then,” said Beth. “You’re close to Richard. You can help us remove him from power.”
“The Great White Boar’s name is Richard?” said Owen.
“He’s Richard III,” said Angie.
“Yeah. Ian keeps trying to convince me that he’s a threat and we need to fight him.”
“We do need to fight him,” said Beth. “He’s taking over Fairyland.”
“I didn’t think that’s a big deal,” said Angie. “I still don’t think it’s a big deal. But I didn’t expect him to be sending pigs to spy on us.”
“If we can convince Gjolli to help us, he could be really important,” said Beth.
“I wish Ian was here,” said Angie. “I can’t tell you I think this is as important as he and Beth think it is.”
“That’s all right,” said Gjolli. “I’ve seen what they mean, from the inside. The Guild is expanding, and I’m no longer sure it’s good for the people whose countries it’s taking control of.”
“Will you help us, then?” said Beth.
“I need something in return,” said Gjolli. “If we beat the Great White Boar, if we remove him from power, then what?”
“I don’t know,” said Beth.
“I want to make a real try at socialism in the lands controlled by the Guild,” said Gjolli. “That’s my price. I want to be in a position to make that happen.”
“If we make a new government, somehow,” said Beth.
“No more expansion?” said Angie.
“No more expansion,” Gjolli agreed. “Just, a real try at making everyone who is governed by the Guild truly equal.”
“I don’t know how you’re going to manage that,” said Owen.
“I’ll help you,” said Beth. “I don’t know how to do it either, but I’ll help you.”
“That’s one,” said Gjolli. “What about the two of you?”
“I don’t want to build a communist country in Fairyland,” said Owen.
“I don’t think you want to stop him from doing it either, though,” said Angie.
“No,” said Owen.
“So we’ll support you,” said Angie. “From afar. We’ll help you get into the government if we can. But the work of governing is your job. And Beth’s if she wants it.”
“I do want it,” said Beth. “I need to figure out how to do this. I owe it to the people of my kingdom, and workers everywhere.”
That was when they found out why Anoka County wasn’t an ideal place to talk about such things. Beth hadn’t paid much attention to the attention people were paying them. Or to the fact that several of them were on their phones. In the city a group of communist sympathizers, one of whom was a pig, might be a funny thing to text your friends about. But it wouldn’t be a community-wide sensation.
Even so, they probably would have been left alone if someone hadn’t told the three men from Fleet Farm about it. They came in obviously angry, and just as obviously drunk. They must have stopped off at a bar to commiserate over losing the pig, and now they were ready for another shot at him. And this time they weren’t going to be stopped by a surprise kick from a girl much smaller than any of them. They had whiskey on their breath and visions of ham in their eyes, and no pigs were going to get out of that Dairy Queen alive if they had any say in the matter.
Nobody else was leaving, either. The middle school girls were particularly anxious to see what happened.
“We’re going to barbecue that pig,” said one of the men as he approached their table. The four of them all stood up, but there was no obvious escape.
“This is a treats-only DQ,” said Owen. “They don’t serve hot food here.”
“Then we’ll take him home with us,” said another man.
“I’ve got a grill made from an old oil drum,” said the third. “Plenty of room.”
“He’s a person,” said Beth. “You can’t just eat him.”
“Looks like a pig to me,” said one of the men.
“Bet he tastes like one, too,” said another.
“Too gamy,” said Owen. “How about you eat one of those nice young middle-school girls instead?”
The girls all screamed, and Owen used the distraction to make a break for it. He got past the row of burly drunks, but none of the others were fast enough to follow him.
“You can go on,” said one of the men. “We only want the pig.”
Then he got hit in the back of the head with a handheld frozen dessert of some kind. Owen had found the freezer full of treats, and he was prepared to use it. The man turned around, only to get a cake full in the face from Owen, who was waiting for him. It wasn’t a normal cake, either, but full of something gooey and cold, and the man went down in a heap.
Angie took the opportunity to make a dash for the serving counter while Owen went back to the freezer to reload. The largest man, the one Beth had kicked before, grabbed Gjolli and tried to drag him toward the door. Beth hung onto his other arm, but the man was strong enough to move both of them. At least he was until he hit the part of the floor Angie had covered in sugar sprinkles. He lost traction and went down, and Beth took the opportunity to reinforce the lesson she had tried to teach him earlier.
She looked for the third man, just in time to see him taken out by another cake from Owen, thrown from across the room. The middle-schoolers cheered his accuracy, and the four of them made a dash for the door before the men had a chance to recover.
They’d won, but they weren’t clean, and Owen’s car not only smelled slightly of pig but had frozen dessert bits all over the leather seats. A few exits down the highway he stopped at a gas station to clean it off as best he could, and Angie went inside to buy Gjolli a cell phone.
“If I understand Ian right, this should work most places in Fairyland by now,” she said. “We can use it to keep in touch.”
“You still want to work with me?” said Gjolli. “I was no good at all back there.”
“We still need you,” said Beth. “And you’ll do better in a world where you’re not the only talking pig”
“All right,” said Gjolli. “How do I use this?” Beth put her number into his phone, and Ian’s. After thinking about it for a minute she added Harp’s as well.
“You don’t know Harp,” said Beth, “but she’ll always know where to find us.”
Owen wasn’t satisfied with his cleanup job, but he said he wanted to get Gjolli back to the portal before anything else happened. “I’ll have to clean it again later,” he said.
“You can manage that,” said Angie. “I don’t think you need to finish those fake IDs.”
“I’m never coming back here,” said Gjolli. “Pigs don’t belong in this world.”
“Be sure to tell your boss that,” said Angie.
“Don’t worry, I will,” said Gjolli. “We won’t send any more pigs.”
“Don’t send any more anybody,” said Owen.
“I’ll see if I can make that happen,” said Gjolli.
Unexpectedly, Gjolli got to meet Harp after all, because while they were taking him back to the portal they met Ian and Harp coming out. Beth tried to introduce Gjolli to Ian, too, but it turned out they had already met.
“And what are you doing in this world?” said Ian, with more hostility than Beth thought was deserved.
“He was a spy,” said Angie. “But now he’s a mole.”
“I thought he was a pig,” said Ian.
“I’m a pig who’s also a mole,” said Gjolli.
“I think I read a short story about that once,” said Owen.
“He came to spy on us for Richard,” said Beth. “But now he’s going to spy on Richard for us.”
“And what did you do to turn him?” said Ian, still cranky.
“We took him to Dairy Queen,” said Angie.
“I told him I would help him build a socialist country in Fairyland after we depose Richard,” said Beth.
“And they saved me from some people who wanted to barbecue me,” said Gjolli.
“Sounds like a long day,” said Harp.
“No kidding,” said Owen.
“You really think we can depose Richard?” said Ian.
“We have an ally now,” said Beth. “One inside the Guild.”
“Another, too,” said Harp. “We managed to convince the giant to help us.”
“Not to mention give me a contract for a cell tower in his cloud city,” said Ian.
“A good day all around, then,” said Beth. “How does that put you in your competition?”
“I’m still a little bit behind,” said Ian. “But now it’s close enough that I might have a chance. There’s a lot of line-of-sight range from a weather-control castle in the clouds.”
Part 23 of The Cell Phone Towers of Elfland is Ian and the House of Straw.
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