Chapter 35: The Painted Desert
Officer Poulsen pulled up to our house in his police cruiser the following Saturday and got out dressed in his duty uniform.
I called out to him from atop the ladder I was standing on, there beside the house, paint roller in hand, myself clad in nothing more than random paint splatters. “Good day, Officer! Is this official business?”
“No,” he called back, walking up, “just decided to get out and about before my shift today, and didn’t want to get re-dressed later. Why?” he asked, eyes getting squinty. “What did you do?”
“Fifth?” I pled with a smile.
“Hmph,” he said, then looked over at Kaitlyn, working ahead of me on the house trim with a paintbrush, creating the borders I’d be working into as I caught up to her detail work. This wasn’t entirely successful, since I kept having to put the roller down and help her with the trim and border work for a while, fiddly as the task was, but at the moment, she was still working down the side of the house from the front, which we’d finished this morning. She was just as sparsely paint-clad as I was.
“Nice to see you, Kaitlyn,” Poulsen said, looking her straight in the eye, not even a flicker of a glance up and down her tanned body. Poulsen was just that disciplined. It was one of the things I admired most about him.
“Hi, Jasper,” she replied.
“Not that I’m complaining about your presentation, Kaitlyn, but you do know there are coveralls made for painting in, right?”
“What sense is there in painting while clothed?” she shot back jocularly. “Especially outdoors in early summer,” she added. When he had no response to that rock-solid bit of logic, she asked, “So what really brings you out today?”
“Can’t a guy just pop by his friends’ house for a visit?”
“You have an ulterior motive, Jasper. Spill,” my wife demanded with a small smile, knowing full well that she was right.
He smiled slightly, then said, “Miki’s been telling me good things about your work ethic and your charity. She was especially impressed by you giving a Mr. Franklin one last freebie massage.”
“That’s us, charitable to a fault,” I quipped.
“May I infer that you made that last massage extra special?”
“You may, and if you weren’t wearing that uniform, I’d even tell you that it was all mostly legal, what we did.” I waited for him to stare hard at me, then added, “But since you are wearing that, I will instead tell you that what we did was entirely legal.” I stressed this last, adding a wink.
“You two,” he sighed.
“What it was, Jasper, was entirely moral,” my wife added quietly, and the two exchanged a long look of understanding.
“Not always the same thing, are they, legal and moral?” he philosophized, breaking his gaze into her eyes.
Wanting to get us off this conversation thread, I asked, “Whose brilliant idea was it to dress a desert police force in all-black uniforms?” as he wiped sweat from his brow for the second time since getting out of his cruiser.
“We complained to the brass,” he said with a small ironic smile, “and they compromised: they let us wear short-sleeved shirts in summer.” Before I could come up with a scintillating rejoinder, he said, “Kaitlyn’s wrong: I didn’t have an ulterior motive in coming out here; I had two of ’em. Any chance of a massage? I had to break up a bar brawl last night, and my left shoulder’s wrenched.” With a wince, he added, “One of ’em used that arm to throw me over a table.”
I looked at Kaitlyn, she looked at me, down to her paint bucket, and back to me.
I sighed, then said, “Another time, we’d be happy to, but if we stop here, we either have to wash the painting things first, else we risk everything drying out on us. That’s like a ten, fifteen minute job in itself.”
“Yeah, been there,” he replied knowingly.
He stood there looking thoughtful while Kaitlyn and I awkwardly looked on, neither of us so socially crippled that we’d just go on painting while he stood there, yet needing to get on with it anyway.
Shortly, he began unbuttoning his uniform shirt. I was about to speak, to ask him what he was doing, when he explained, “It’ll go faster if I help, right?” I nodded, and he went on, “I have only one busted wing; the other works fine still. Anyway, I have no illusions of being able to paint a house without getting my clean black uniform spattered!”
A minute later, he was bare, his things folded on the porch swing, and he asked, “I should have checked first, but I hope you have a second brush?”
“We do,” I informed him to his evident relief.
I teamed them up on the trim and borders so I wouldn’t catch up to them with my broad roller nearly as frequently as when it was just Kaitlyn and I.
A few minutes into the work, Poulsen said, “Now that I’m not wearing that uniform, how about you tell me what you actually did for Mr. Franklin?”
We chatted about that and broader magical topics while we painted.
“So you see,” Kaitlyn explained at one point, “the only thing legally dodgy we did out there was to be naked in a national park. Besides which, you know why we had to do it that way.”
“Sure, but what about the public sex?”
My wife pointed out, “We had a reasonable expectation of privacy, and Davie was on the lookout. We knew we couldn’t be seen, and we weren’t caught. And to save you the awkward accusation, it wasn’t prostitution because we weren’t charging him. No, Jasper, what I did was fully justified: we were on a clock, and sex magic works a lot better than the unaided sort.”
We’d previously had no cause to discuss this topic with him. Needless to say, he found the notion of sex magic absolutely fascinating. Yet through some discipline akin to — yet different from — my own Indian meditation skills, he managed to almost completely prevent an erection.
An hour later, we’d emptied the paint can and roller tray, so we walked back a few paces and admired our handiwork.
“I like the new color better,” offered Poulsen.
The house’s prior owners painted it a dove gray with white trim, which was okay, I supposed, but I wanted something that would blend better with the surrounding terrain. We were going with sand brown for the overall main house color, with a darker brown shade for the trim.
The new solar panels stood out starkly, but there was no helping that: they had to be shiny and black to achieve their designed purpose.
It was the panels that kicked off this project anyway, their shiny newness calling attention to every place where the old paint was flaking, peeling, and fading. Now that we had clients coming out here, the house had to look its best, and this was the first free time we’d had to tackle such things since Carlo and Kristen stayed here, a couple of months back now.
We set the paint things to soaking in the kitchen sink while we washed the paint and sweat off in the backyard shower.
“Wanna stay for lunch, Officer?” I asked after we’d pulled a drying air blast over our bodies. “We can do your massage after.”
“I ate before coming over,” he replied, “but I can snack while you two have a proper lunch. It wouldn’t be the first time if I made it through the whole shift without being able to get away for a meal break.”
On stepping back outside after lunch, the three of us squinting in the brightness, Poulsen asked, “Was the A/C running in the house? It’s so much hotter out here than I remember while we were painting!”
I knew it was an illusion due to the shock of the change; he’d been sweating despite being out of that ill-considered uniform, but I just told him, “We don’t have air conditioning at all, Officer.” I went on as we escorted him out to the massage area, “Before bed each night we open a few windows on the ground floor, and we open the windows in the bedroom atop the house, creating a chimney effect. It draws the cooling night air in from outside and expels the day’s heat while we sleep. In the morning, we batten the house back down again, trapping the night’s cooler air.”
“Clever,” he responded, “but that only takes you so far. What happens when the overnight temp’s above seventy?”
I replied, “Part of our answer to that is nude living, but as the summer goes on, we’ll be putting up reflective insulating panels in the south-facing windows during the day to reduce the greenhouse effect indoors. This year, it’ll be even cooler thanks to the solar panels: they obviously capture energy from the sun, but what is less obvious is that in doing so, they shunt that energy away from the roof and into generated electricity, so the house’s roof and attic stay cooler, letting the house as a whole stay cooler.”
This turned into a discussion of our new green power scheme, the three of us chatting while we began the massage he’d earned, but he lost interest in that topic fairly quickly.
We fixed his wrenched shoulder and other bruising from the bar fight with explicit magic, not needing to hide what we were doing with him.
As we explained our work, Poulsen joked, “So just plain old magical massage? No sex magic for me?”
Kaitlyn answered seriously, “I’m not morally opposed to it, Jasper, but I do worry that it’d upset the equilibrium of our power dynamic. You’re my boss’ boyfriend, and you’re also something of a boss to us, your batmen. The old morals based on controlling procreation don’t apply to mages: our healing powers put us leagues beyond mundane birth control. Also inapplicable are the more recent morals based on controlling the spread of STIs, for essentially the same reason: I don’t have to send a prospective sex partner to the doctor for a battery of tests to learn whether they’re clean before we hook up; besides which, I don’t believe there’s anything they could have that I couldn’t fight off before they could pass it to me. Davie’s not the jealous type, Jasper, so if we were just friends and you were single, my only objection would be that there’s no good cause to use sex magic on you. We’d just be a couple of friends humping, no more to it than that.”
Her frank speech twitched his cock into a semi, but he maintained a steadfastly serious mien, asking, “What about that handjob you gave me back at Christmas?”
“Well, one, I was on a leave of absence at the time, so not formally your girlfriend’s employee at all,” she began, “and two, Sherry was there and gave me permission. Oh, and three, it was just plain practical: you were totally distracted until I took care of that for you. You’ll recall that we had a very productive tutorial session afterward.”
“I suppose you’re right,” he said wistfully, clearly reliving the experience for a time before twigging on something. “Waitaminnit, you say I don’t need sex magic. What does that mean?”
“Okay, take Ron…Mr. Franklin, I mean. I had no guarantee that he’d sign up as a massage therapy client, and even if he does, I only had that one shot to use the power of sex magic to cure him. In regular massage, I’m at least partly clothed even if the client isn’t, so sex magic is off the table. I had to make it count. I don’t doubt that your injury was painful, but it’s nowhere near what you get from the complications of amputation. Even if your injuries were comparable, we have the luxury to work on you regularly, so we can achieve the same effects over the course of weeks rather than in the hour we gave him out in Arches. In a perfect world, we’d have the chance to make that choice purely rationally, but as it is, it’s a constant battle of risk vs. reward, a balance of obligations to the client, to each other, and to society.”
Poulsen replied, “I understand, and I don’t want you two getting into legal trouble just to fulfill your mandate to improve the local health and social fabric. What if it’d been someone else who drove up here while you were painting, not someone like me who knew what to expect?”
“We have the sign,” Kaitlyn replied, referring to the warning along the drive up to the house’s level. “We’ve been found naked out here a few times now, usually by one of the drop-ins we’ve had, but no one’s gotten mad about it so far. Of the few that actually said anything, rather than just look happy to see us, they’ve said something like, ‘I suppose I was warned,’ referring to the sign. Usually the drop-in is a nature-lover fresh from a Jeep ride through Gaia’s beauty, so they’re not hard to talk around.”
“That’s good,” Poulsen opined, “but over time, word will get around, and it’ll be an attraction to certain types of people rather than a warning. What then? What stops some perv from driving out here with the intention of catching you naked outdoors?”
“If that had happened, Officer,” I began, “would that trigger the application of laws meant for strip clubs here on our rural homestead?”
“The first time, almost certainly not,” he opined, “but over time, yeah, you could become the target of a sting, particularly if it became known during the trial that you didn’t take measures to avoid the peepers. Even if you win the court battle, you aren’t likely to win your legal fees in the judgement. That ‘win’ will end up costing you thousands of dollars and months of heartburn.”
“We could put up one of those remote-opening gates on the path,” proposed my wife. “You know, the ones with the call box?”
I objected, “That’s kind of expensive all by itself, and we’d have to fence the whole property in to give it any legal force anyway. Besides, it might keep legitimate clients away. The main problem, Kaitlyn, is that I was up on a fiberglass ladder, disconnected from Gaia. I could’ve kept an eye on the surrounding area otherwise.”
My wife observed, “But I was on the ground, Davie. I should’ve been the one keeping an eye out. Jasper’s right, and it was my mistake, not yours.”
I looked at her critically, then said, “But could you have, really? I mean, we’ve spread out through Gaia over miles before, but only in a deep trance, with no other distractions. To keep a proper watch, I don’t think you could have been helping me paint the house. That doesn’t sound like a great solution, one person on constant watch, the other doing the real work.”
The good Officer asked, “Can you two talk to animals?”
“Talk?” I asked. “Well, not as such…”
Kaitlyn expanded on this, “Most animals don’t have the intelligence for meaningful communication beyond base desires: me hungry, me horny, me gotta poop.”
“Still, there must be a bunch of sapient animals close enough here to serve, some with senses better than a human’s,” he persisted. “Couldn’t you… Oh, I don’t know, like see through their eyes or something? Hear with their ears? Sniff out trouble before it gets too close? Use them like a sort of natural remote sensor system. Lizards would be great spies, well-attuned to movement, so you can detect peepers and react appropriately before they can see you.”
I had indeed borrowed an animal’s senses on a few occasions, though only with one animal at a time. For this to work, I’d need several of them in a ring around the area we wanted to protect from spies. To the others I said, “Gimme a sec,” and I paused in my massage work while I reached out to the local fauna, attempting to integrate all of their eye-pictures into a single overall sense of what was going on around the house.
Some seconds later, my head started pounding, so I gave up and healed my developing headache. “Graaah! It’s utter confusion! I can’t keep it all straight!”
“Let me try,” Kaitlyn said, and I resumed work on Poulsen.
A minute later, she said, “I don’t know what you’re having trouble with, Davie. I could keep this up all day!”
“You’re seeing through multiple animal eyes at once?” I asked incredulously.
“Not exactly. Come into rapport with me, and I’ll show you.”
I did and found she had several different animals’ limbic systems peripherally attached to her own, so that when one of them startled, she’d feel it and could zoom in on that animal’s perception or to that of another nearby animal to find out why the first one got scared.
I attempted to recreate the effect, but my head started pounding again. “I think we just found your affinity, Kaitlyn!” I replied aloud after magically batting my developing headache away again. “Makes sense; about the only times I’ve taught you anything about working with animals, it was because I was showing you a thing for the first time. Maybe now you can show me a thing or two.”
“About time you’re the shishya again,” she replied with a self-satisfied smile.
We explained to Poulsen what Kaitlyn had just achieved, and he said, “That’s cool, but what next? You need to plan your reactions before you can work the plan.”
I knew he was speaking from his experience of tactical training and its application in his work, so I gave his advice serious thought. “Freeze or scamper, I guess, just like the animals.”
“Of the options, it would have to be scamper with you on the side of the house nearest the driveway, like I found you today, but why not go invisible instead?”
“I’d take a big hit to my magical reserve doing that up on the ladder,” I answered. “I’d probably have to get off and into contact with Gaia to prevent it from draining me before the intruder went away. If I’m going to have to move anyway, it might as well be behind cover, rather than resort to magic.”
Kaitlyn added, “And I probably couldn’t have done it at all, what with the paint spattering my body.”
“Why not?” asked Poulsen.
“We can only use invisibility to cover up natural materials,” I explained to him. “Latex is plant-derived, and many pigments are naturally sourced, but there’s enough technology in a modern paint that I’ll bet it still counts as manufactured from a magical perspective. Go on, Kaitlyn, give it a try,” I encouraged her. “For science.”
“All right,” my wife said. She got up, popped open the paint can we’d most recently emptied and tossed into the trash, finding enough still-wet paint to dab herself liberally. That accomplished, she stepped away from the receptacle and its techie contents, then disappeared.
What we actually saw was a bunch of sand-brown spots hanging in mid-air where she’d touched her body, including the fingertip she’d used to make the spots. Surrounding each was a narrow annulus of unpainted skin, marking the nearest approach her magic could take to the manufactured paint. Kaitlyn used one hand to smear and spread one paint spot, eventually crumbling it off her skin so the bubble could fill the gap, hiding that patch of her.
Then she walked over to the shower and spookily turned it on despite the tech interference from the inline tankless heater. Clean water began spraying over her mostly-invisible body, creating a strange effect as it apparently splashed off of nothing at all.
“How’d she do that?” Poulsen asked me.
“Stay invisible while touching the shower knob! It’s manufactured, and you’ve got a snazzy water heater right above it. Why didn’t her magic fail?”
Kaitlyn heard this under the spray and replied, “I took a hit to my reserves, Jasper, but I held onto the spell by drawing on Gaia.”
Having done much the same before myself, I added, “See, she’s all but bare and anchored to Gaia. The sandbox and slate are scant interference, so she’s got a direct line to the planet to support her magical working.”
He didn’t look convinced, so I thought a bit, then tried an analogy. “You’re old enough to remember when incandescent bulbs were ubiquitous, right? Turn on a vacuum cleaner, and the room lights dim, but your modern electronics ride through the dip without a problem. Ever wondered why?”
“Sure,” he agreed, “but what has that got to do with anything?”
“Your computer and smart TV and such have a big power supply with capacitors that help them ride through minor brownouts. Kaitlyn’s magical reserves help her do the same.”
Kaitlyn was washing as I spoke, the paint spots disappearing one by one, so that there was now only a Kaitlyn-sized hole in the shower spray! She turned off the shower and padded over toward us, wet footprints appearing on the slate as she addressed our guest, “Jasper, what we call mage kryptonite, things like smartphones, that’s only because they drain us from a distance, and fast. Our new water heater isn’t far enough up that scale to be an instant problem: I can be near it through a shower while maintaining invisibility. Touching the knob which touches the pipe which goes into that water heater caused a hit to my reserves, but I let go before it drained me.”
Musingly, I added, “I suppose a mage’s reserves are more like a computer UPS than like a power supply capacitor…” but I could see Jasper was losing interest.
“Scamper it is,” he conceded with a note of wonder in his voice.
A pair of footprints appeared in the sand, then she spoke from the air beside Poulsen, “If we’d been working on the front yard xeriscaping when you drove up, we could’ve easily used invisibility to hide, since we’d only have dirt and such on our bodies. You will note that the sand doesn’t cause me to lose invisibility, nor does the natural mineral oil.”
“Amazing,” he replied.
“And philosophically productive,” I observed. “Poulsen, we should have you over more often: you spark the most amazing discussions!”
Afterward, we directed Poulsen to shower again before re-dressing for his upcoming shift. He complimented us on the garden, not missing its significance.
Poulsen doesn’t miss much at all.
As he re-dressed beside the quiescent shower, he opined, “I still think you should wear the uniforms for professional massages. You’re fine with me now, you two, but I tell you from experience that a uniform creates a useful bit of working space for you, even those skimpy ones you prefer.”
“You’d know, wouldn’t you?” I acknowledged, waving my hand up and down his re-clad body.
“You two began treating me differently as soon as I began to unbutton my shirt,” he observed, reinforcing his point by brushing his fingertips down the shirt’s refastened front.
“You changed from Officer Poulsen to Friend Jasper as you peeled off that uniform,” my wife said, nodding.
“And now I am Officer Poulsen again,” he said, spreading his hands in presentation. “It would have worked for any one of my fellow officers,” he asserted. “In fact, I’ll prove it.” He pulled a shock-cased mobile phone from a basket-woven leather pouch on his duty belt and made a call.
“I need to speak to Officer Foster, please.”
“Hi, it’s Poulsen. Lookit, I need you to do something before your shift starts today: get yourself out to Magic Hands Massage and get a four-handed massage. Today, no arguments. I’m tired of hearing your complaints about your back, and that B.S. chiropractic stuff you’ve been doing isn’t working. The staff there owes me a free massage, and I’m ordering you to take it instead.”
“Yes, just drive up and tell them I sent you. The ell-tee needs us healthy, Foster. As your squad leader, I need you healthy.”
“Yes, but come in full uniform. I’ve told them to give you an extended massage, right up to your shift time, so you’ll go on patrol starting from their location.”
“Get it done, Foster.”
He clicked off, then with an apologetic tone asked, “I hope it’s okay that I just gave away some of your services for free.”
Kaitlyn said, “For an injury taken in the line of duty, I’d say handling it is part of our social obligation, Jasper. Send firefighters, too; yum!”
She smiled wickedly at me, but I just grinned back, not rising to her bait. She wants firefighters, she gets firefighters.
Poulsen left shortly after, saying, “I’m over Foster in the chain of command, so it wouldn’t be right if I stayed and watched. Besides… Well, you’ll see.”
And with that, he got into his cruiser, executed a crisp K-turn in our new parking area, and rolled sedately down the drive and out onto Kane Creek Boulevard, headed for Moab.