A COMMON ENEMY
THE FIRE-SAFETY inspector jabbed his finger in the direction of the aromatic joss stick smoking in its stand.
'And what's that?'
'Opium,' the young woman replied dreamily.
There was a sudden silence in the accounts office. The inspector's face broke out in red blotches.
'I'm not joking. What is it?'
'A joss stick, it's Indian. It's called opium.' The young woman looked round at her colleagues and added self-consciously, 'But that's only a name, you mustn't think... There isn't really any opium in it!'
"At home you can smoke opium or cannabis, or anything else you like,' said the inspector, ostentatiously nipping his fingers together and extinguishing the small smouldering stick. 'But here... you're surrounded on all sides by nothing but paper.'
'I keep an eye on it,' the young woman objected resentfully. 'And it's in a special stand, see? The ash falls on the ceramic base. It's a nice smell, everyone likes it... '
She spoke in a gentle, reassuring voice, in the same tone as adults use when they're talking to a little child. The inspector was about to say something else, but just then the middle-aged woman who was sitting facing all the other bookkeepers intervened.
'Vera, I'm sorry, but the inspector is quite right. It's a very sickly smell. By the time evening comes it gives you a headache.'
'In India the windows are probably always kept wide open,' a third woman put in. 'And they burn their fragrances all the time. It's terribly dirty there, there are always cesspits some where close by, and everything rots very quickly because of the climate. They have to smother the stench somehow. But what do we need it for?'
A fourth girl, the same age as Vera, giggled and pressed her face towards the screen of her computer.
'Well, you should have said!' Vera exclaimed. Her voice sounded tearful. 'Why didn't you tell me?'
'We didn't want to offend you,' the older woman replied.
Vera jumped to her feet, covered her face with her hands and ran out into the corridor. Her heels clattered on the parquet flooring, and the door of the restroom slammed in the distance.
'We had to tell her sooner or later,' the middle-aged woman said with a sigh. 'I'm really sick of smelling those sticks of hers. It's always opium, or jasmine, or cinnamon...'
'Do you remember the chillies and cardamom?' the young girl exclaimed. 'That was really horrible!'
'Don't make fun of your friend. You'd better go and bring Vera back, she's much too upset.'
The young girl willingly got to her feet and left the room.
The inspector gazed round at the women with a wild expres sion. Then he glanced at the man beside him - a plump young, individual wearing a T-shirt and jeans. Beside the inspector in his respectable uniform, he looked very untidy.
'This is a madhouse,' the inspector declared. 'Nothing but breaches of the fire-safety code everywhere I look. Why haven't you been closed down yet?'
'I'm surprised at that myself,' the other man agreed. 'Sometimes when I'm walking to work, I wonder: What if it's all over now? What if they've put an end to the whole mess, and from now on we're going to work according to the fire-safety regulations, without breaking a single rule
'Show me the fire-safety board on the second floor,' the inspector interrupted, looking at his plan of the building.
'Gladly,' said the man, opening the door for the inspector and winking at the women they were leaving behind in the office.
The inspector's indignation was lessened a bit by the sight of the board. It was brand new and very neat and tidy, painted red. Next to it were two fire extinguishers, a bucket of sand, an empty conical-shaped bucket, a spade, a gaff and a crowbar.
'Well, well. Well, well, well,' the inspector murmured as he glanced at the buckets and checked the date when the extinguishers were last refilled. 'The good old-fashioned kind. I didn't really expect that.'
'We make an effort,' said his guide. 'When I was still in school, we had one just like that on the wall.'
The inspector turned his plan round and thought for a moment.
'And now let's take a look at... at your programmers.'
'Yes, let's,' the other man said brightly. 'That's upstairs - follow me.'
At the foot of the stairs he stepped aside to let the inspector go first. He turned back and glanced at the fire-safety board, which faded and then dissolved into thin air. Something fell to the floor with a quiet sound. The man smiled.
The visit to the programmers gave the inspector another reason to be indignant. The programmers (two young women and one young guy) were blithely smoking at their workstations and the wires from the computers were twisted into terrible tangles. (The inspector even crawled under one desk and checked that the sockets were earthed.) When they came back down to the first floor fifteen minutes later, the inspector walked into an office that had the strange title 'Duty Pointsman' on the door and laid his papers out on the desk. The young man acting as his guide sat down facing him and watched with a smile as the inspector filled in his report form.
'What sort of nonsensical title is that you have on the door?' the inspector asked, without looking up from what he was doing.
'"Duty Pointsman"? He has to deal with anything that turns up. If some inspector or other calls, if the drains burst, if someone delivers pizza or drinking water ?he has to handle everything. Something between a receptionist and an office manager. It's a boring job, we take turns to do it.'
'And just what is it that you do here?'
'Is that really any business of the fire-safety service?' the man asked thoughtfully. 'Well... we guard Moscow against manifesta tions of evil.'
'You're joking!' said the inspector, giving the 'duty pointsman' a dour look.
'Not at all.'
A middle-aged, eastern-looking man walked in without knocking on the door. The duty pointsman quickly got to his feet as he entered.
'Well now, what have we got here?' the newcomer asked.
'One item left in the accounts office, one in the toilet, one in the fire-safety board on the second floor,' the duty pointsman replied eagerly. 'Everything's in order, Boris Ignatievich.'
The inspector turned pale.
'Las, we haven't got a fire-safety board on the second floor,' Boris Ignatievich observed.
'I created an illusion,' Las replied boastfully. 'It was very realistic'
Boris Ignatievich nodded and said:
'All right. But you didn't notice the other two bugs in the programmers' room. I think this is not the first time our guest has combined the duties of fire inspector and spy - am I right?'
'What do you think you're? the man began, and then stopped.
'You feel very ashamed of carrying out industrial espionage,' said Boris Ignatievich.'It's disgusting! And you used to be an honest man... once. Do you remember how you went to help build the Baikal?Amur railroad? And not just for the money, you wanted the romantic dream, you wanted to be part of some great effort... '
Tears began running down the inspector's cheeks. He nodded.
'And do you remember when you were accepted into the Young Pioneers?' Las asked cheerfully. 'How you stood in line, thinking about how you would devote all your strength to the victory of communism? And when the group leader tied your tie for you, she almost touched you with her big bouncy tits...'
'Las,' Boris Ignatievich said in an icy voice. 'I am constantly amazed at how you ever became a Light One.'
'I was in a good mood that day,' Las declared. 'I dreamed I was still a little boy, riding a pony...'
'Las!' Boris Ignatievich repeated ominously.
The duty pointsman fell silent.
The silence that followed was broken by the fire-safety inspector's sobbing.
'I ... I'll tell you everything ... I went to the Baikal?Amur rail road to avoid paying alimony...'
'Never mind that,' Boris Ignatievich said gently. 'Tell us about being asked to plant bugs in our office.'