Markoff and the astronaut had been standing around, looking at the deer head on the wall of his study and drinking beer for a while before Myrah had called to tell them that she would be late in returning from the store. The builder barely heard the reason. There was something about an accident and a person who needed saving. The police were there and people were being questioned.
Whatever the case, she was happy managing another crisis. He could tell it by her voice. Their relationship had been strained as of late and anytime that she talked to him with a satisfied lilt he knew that something had terrible had happened. Since this Taj Mahal burned down it was about the only thing that kept her from being angry at him.
He didn’t know why his wife had been dissatisfied with their life here lately. He knew that she was looking for a purpose and that she felt abandoned by the relationship that he’d forged with her son but in his mind he was doing everything that he could to be supportive. He’d helped her as much as he could with the sign and since he’d called Jose fat he’d done more than enough to make up for it.
In fact, he still felt terrible about that. Seeing what the kid had made on the computer had been a revelation for the builder. A boy who had constructed such a vibrant and alive world had more to do at his age than engage in sports. It was fine for Justine to be a star on the soccer field but Jose was designing worlds and speaking Markoff’s language. Now, if only he could figure out where to go next.
“You don’t understand.” He said turning to Wallace and pointing at him over the lip of his beer can. “I’m pretty damned sure that I lost the contract at the mall because of this guy.”
“You can’t win ‘em all.” The astronaut smiled.
“I have.” Markoff argued. “I’ve bought damned near every piece of land from here to the coast and I’ve got projects going on most of them. Now, the banks froze me out and I may be insolvent by the Fall.”
“No.” The builder shot back. “I’m not.”
“You can’t fill up every empty lot with a shopping center.”
“You want to bet I can’t?” Markoff asked with a snarl. “The Japanese say that what they can’t rent they’ll use as recreation. They’re putting video arcades in half of Space Port City to keep people busy shoving coins into them while the robots do their shopping for them.”
“That’s a good idea.” The astronaut replied raising his eyebrows and his glass.
Markoff shook his head. “Like hell it is.” He growled. “They’re stealing my designs.”
“Do you know this?”
The builder fixed Wallace with a stern look. “Have you see Tokyo?”
Of course, the question was a rhetorical one. Just last week a small meteor had come down in the center of that sprawling city wiping out nearly 10 blocks of gleaming skyscrapers. Pictures of men and women clad in business attire and walking though the ashy remains while carrying briefcases had been everywhere on the news.
“Look man.” The astronaut said turning to his friend. “Just because they’ve got an Alpine Village and a Taj Mahal is no reason to think they’re stealing from you.”
“They’ve got Taj Mahal’s everywhere!” The builder blurted. “Every time I look at a picture from Japan I see a God damned Taj Mahal.”
“So, you’re big in Japan.” Wallace grinned. “Worse things can happen. Heck, I once did a speaking engagement over there and they loved me. Real polite people. I never went to bed alone, let me tell you that.”
“I’m not interested in an Asian affair.” Markoff said taking a swig off his beer. “I’m interested in building something of my own.”
The builder thought about that for a moment. The boy had copied his designs but he’d given them a new life through his imagination. They were authentic looking worlds. Pre-programmed pedestrians and shoppers went about their way doing exactly what the maker had written them to do. They stopped to admire the sunrise, they picked out goods from the stalls of gypsies, they fought evil. “Not like that.” He said at last.
“The boy’s done some nice work.” The astronaut argued. “He let me see it earlier. Did you know he’s got a pretty good representation of what it’s like to be out in space? Getting use to the controls for zero gravity was like riding the vomit comet for the first time.”
“I don’t know where he learns those things.” The builder muttered. “He copies my blueprints but then he puts stuff in that I didn’t even think of.”
Wallace nodded. “He makes it more authentic.”
“Exactly.” Markoff shot back. “That’s exactly what he’s doing. I’m building stuff that looks like things that my wife reads about in the National Geographic but he’s got the real deal.”
“Right down to the ninjas and guns.”
“Maybe I want to make something real.” The builder continued. “Maybe I want to make the real Taj Mahal instead of something that just looks like it. For years I’ve built all of these shopping centers for Myrah. She tells me where she thinks one would work and shows me pictures in a magazine that she thinks are interesting. I try to get it all as close as possible.”
“Your Taj Mahal don’t look much like the pictures I’ve seen.”
“That’s God damned right!” The builder shot back. “That’s how I know that the Japanese stole their version from me. Both of our Taj Mahal’s don’t look nothing like the real deal. They’re cheap fabrications made on a budget and a gimmick of an idea. They don’t inspire anything.”
“Have you ever seen the real one?”
Markoff shook his head. “No, and I’ve never seen the Sydney Opera house or the Forbidden City either. My architects sometimes go out to them but mainly I’m here to make sure that whatever we decide to build gets built and sold. It’s how I make my living.”
“And you’re good at it.”
“I like it.”
“So what’s the problem?”
The builder sighed. “The problem is that I’m starting to think that my wife doesn’t respect me for it.” He said with a heavy sense of sadness to his voice. “She calls them tacky, and she never shops at them.”
“She shops at the mall.”
Markoff nodded. “The one place around here that I didn’t build.”
The astronaut flashed him an understanding smile. “And that’s why you want to redesign it.”
The builder nodded again. “That’s why I want to make it mine.”
They stood for a moment in silence, both of them looking at the deer’s head. The buck had once looked so grand to Markoff hanging on the wall of his office but now it seemed tacky and out of place to him. It took up so much room with its huge antlers extending outward from either side of it. They covered the pictures and landscapes that hung behind them and seemed to be a tangled mess.
As if Mother Nature had a solution for what he was thinking a loud bang shook the house, knocking the trophy from the wall. Both he and the astronaut jumped backwards, spilling their drinks to avoid its fall. Frames and plaques shattered on the floor. Books on building and construction codes toppled from the bookcase. The television above the fire place went down with a loud slapping sound as it screen smacked against the hardwood.
“What the hell?” Wallace said. He was still stumbling around in a daze looking at his mostly empty glass of wine and shaking the residue of the liquid from his fingertips.
“That felt like something collapsed.” Markoff said. He sat his beer down on the desk and walked quickly over to the window that looked out into the back yard.
The astronaut bent to examine a spot on his shoe. “I’d say it was an earthquake if I didn’t know any better.”
“Nothings wrong in back.” The builder replied. “Maybe something out front.”
“Damn wine.” Wallace frowned.
Markoff eased around the astronaut who was concentrating on scrappingthe stain off his sued loafers with the nail of his thumb. “With all this digging, I wouldn’t be surprised if we didn’t have some kind of cave in on one of the holes.” He said going to the entryway and throwing open the front door.
Outside the snow was unmarred by any movement. The cops still sat in their cruisers with the wipers going on and off intermittently. All of the heavy equipment; the shovels and the bulldozers stood idle like statues. Nothing looked out of place.
“Do you smell something?” Wallace said coming up to his side.
Markoff sniffed at the air. There was a faint metallic scent, like someone was using a welding torch to fry up a piece of steak. It didn’t seem to be coming from outside but rather from in the house itself.
Suddenly Justine called down from upstairs. “Dad?” She said with a mixture of annoyance and alarm.
“I’m down here.” The builder said. “Are you and your brother okay?”
There was a pause. “I think so.” His daughter replied.
Then Jose, “My computer’s gone.”
To Markoff, the boy sounded like he was about to cry. “What do you mean it’s gone?” He called up the stairs.
There was the sound of footfalls in the hallway coming from the direction of the boy’s room. “It’s gone!” He said with growing alarm. “There’s just a big hole there.”
The builder watched him come into view. He could see that the boys face was red and his eyes were tearing up. “Calm down.”
“It had everything on it!” The boy sobbed. “My whole game.”
“I don’t know!” The boy cried. “I was in the bathroom when the bang happened and when I came back to my room to check it was gone.”
From the front room Wallace yelled, “Found it!”
Markoff turned to look the boy rushing down the steps to follow close behind him.
There, in muted light streaming in from the windows were the smashed remains of Jose’s computer. Insulation, splintered wood and mortar dust blossomed around the pile. At its center a small rock glowed molten, emitting a thin trail of smoke in the air above it.