Posts filed under “Short Fiction”

THE GODPROOF ROOM.

A TALE OF THE FAR FUTURE.

Part Two.

Continuing the story that began here.

I was walking through a leafy forest with Rahab on my arm, and I was just explaining to her that the crocodiles along the path were tame ones and nothing to worry about when one of the crocodiles jumped up and said, “I’ve got it!”

“What have you got?” I asked the crocodile, but suddenly the forest was filled with blinding light, and Rahab and the crocodile vanished.

“I’ve got the answer,” Wright said. He had turned on the overhead light. “They can think it, but they can’t say it.”

“Who can… What?” I was angry now, because I had been having a good time with Rahab in the crocodile forest.

“ ‘Not the thought but the word condemns the speaker.’ That’s in Wit & Wisdom 12:9. And ‘Who can stop a passing thought? But God takes account of deeds.’ Book of Jane 5:14. It’s all through the Primary Testament. Their God can hear what you say, but he can’t monitor thoughts. See, they could think what they wanted, but they couldn’t tell me, or God would hold them accountable. That’s the answer.”

“I think that’s the question,” I grumbled.

“It’s the answer,” he repeated. “All they need is some way to communicate and make decisions without God finding out about it.”

“So you woke me up to tell me you’re going to pull the wool over God’s eyes? And how do you propose to do that?”

“Oh, that’s simple. It’s all in here.” He waved the Primary Testament under my nose. “We can get started right away.”

“No we can’t,” I said.

“Why not?”

“Because it’s the middle of the night!” I yanked the blanket over my head and turned away. “And I want to get back to my dream about Rahab.”

“You mean the deaconess?” There was a pause, during which I could hear the heavy machinery in Wright’s brain changing subjects. “You don’t mean that you’re—”

I sat up and tore the blanket off my face. “I very much am,” I said.

“But you won’t get anywhere with her.”

“Now look here.” I leaned toward him and punched a finger right into his chest. “You’re not going to keep me from the love of my life. Not this time. You got away with it with Rebecca and that woman on Pevunghia whose name escapes me at the moment, but you’re not going to get away with it now. Do you understand me? You will not interfere this time!”

“I just thought—”

“Listen!” If my finger could have drilled straight through to his heart, it would have. “You will promise not to say another word to me about Rahab, do you hear me? Not one more word. You will not interfere this time. If you can’t agree to that, then I resign effective now. Do you understand me?”

“Perfectly,” he replied.

I expected him to put up more of a fight. I expected to have to repeat my threat more than once. But I was glad I’d stuck up for myself. I was not about to lose another love of my life to Wright’s machinations.

He continued: “I suppose I’ll go back and make some sketches. You can sleep, and we’ll get started when you’re ready.”

He left, and I lay back down.

“Lights out,” I said.

But of course there was no voice control in that primitive Bethelite hovel, so I had to get out of bed and push the button.

I woke up the next morning quite late. It was about ten local time, and Wright never lets me sleep in past seven when we’re on a job. I had, for just a moment, an irrational fear that something might have happened to him, and simultaneously an irrational hope that something might have happened to him. But since he was nowhere to be found in the guest house, and I didn’t know my way around the settlement well enough to go looking for him, I decided that I wouldn’t worry too much about him. So I went into the tiny kitchen for a hot breakfast, which I didn’t have because the oven didn’t work.

Wright came in about an hour later, and he walked right past me without saying a word. That’s not unusual, but the fact that it was normal didn’t mean I wasn’t annoyed by it. He sat in the wicker chair, picked up his sketch pad, and started drawing some doodle with his finger (he lost the stylus years ago). And of course I waited till he was really concentrating on something or other before I decided to interrupt him. I never said I wasn’t petty.

“Been busy?” I asked in an unnecessarily loud voice.

“Oh, you’re here,” he replied with such apparently genuine surprise that I wondered whether he had actually forgotten he had brought me with him. “What do you know about architecture? You’re not an architect, are you?”

“No,” I answered quite truthfully.

“Didn’t think you’d be any use. I need to bring in an architect, too, then.”

“What do you want with an architect?”

“We need to build a Godproof room for the council and the treasury. God doesn’t like it if you get too rich, either, so they need a Godproof treasury.”

Now, I’m used to hearing Wright spout utter nonsense like that, so I have a standard default response prepared, which is sarcasm. “So you think you can just call up an architect and say, ‘I need one of your Godproof rooms, please, the standard model will be fine, and could you have that ready by Tuesday?’ I don’t think you’ll find many architects who can design one for you.”

“I don’t expect the architect to design it. I’m going to design it. I just need the architect to make sure the structure doesn’t fall down. —Here, this is something you can take care of. Get me an architect and a bunch of builders and equipment to make a building roughly like this. Send this sketch and tell them the details aren’t negotiable. Get them on a fast cruiser and have them here in two days standard.”

I stared at him for a long moment. “And who’s paying for all this?” I asked at last.

“Oh, the Council will pay. It’s all worked out. I met with the special committee this morning and told them I could solve their problem if I could build something like this.”

I looked down at his sketch pad. “They’ll think you’re mad, you know. The architect and builders. They’ll think you’ve lost your mind.”

“Why would they think that?” he asked. And it was a sincere question.

•  •  •

“Your employer is mad, you know,” the first architect I got in touch with told me.

“I don’t doubt it,” I replied. “Can you do it?”

“I’d rather clean toilets than have my name attached to this,” she said.

“We could let you do both,” I suggested, and she broke the connection.

The sixth architect I tried was down on her luck and agreed to take on the project as long as I promised to keep her involvement a secret. “He’s mad, you know,” she said, “but I need the money.”

“Glad to hear it. An architect who needs money is just what we want.” And that was it: we agreed to the arrangements, and she was on her way with as many construction workers as she could round up in a few hours.

Meanwhile, there was the lovely Rahab to cultivate.

“They certainly know their baskets,” I told her as we watched the thrilling action in the basket-weaving shop. Wright had refused all sightseeing tours (“Why would I want to do that?” he demanded, which I interpreted for Rahab as “He’s very busy”), and that left me free to spend as much time with Rahab as I liked, at least until the workers arrived and we could start building Wright’s folly. The trouble was that she insisted on showing me the sights when we went sightseeing, whereas the only sight worth seeing in the whole place was Rahab. I didn’t want a tour of the basket shop or the agricultural research center (where they were experimenting with three different kinds of dirt) or the sewage treatment plant or the chapels or even Founder’s Hill, a high rock from which we had an excellent view of the lower rocks. The only tour I wanted was a tour of Rahab, every hill and valley and all the secret places. But to get to that point I would have to show an interest in whatever she thought I should be interested in, which is why I ended up holding up a basket and saying, with as much enthusiasm as I could muster, “Now that’s a basket.”

“We had to create an artificial marsh to grow reeds,” Rahab explained with obvious civic pride. “There’s no native growth that’s suitable for weaving.”

“Rahab, what do people do for fun around here?”

“We have games,” she said a bit tentatively. “It’s Tertiary Testament Trivia night at the South Chapel.”

“That might be a little too exciting for me. I mean, what do people do when they want to, you know, get to know each other?”

“I guess they go somewhere and talk.”

“Rahab,” I said in a lower voice, “would you like to go somewhere and talk?”

She looked into my eyes, and it seemed to me that she saw my desire there. “All right,” she said after a moment.

Things were definitely heading in the right direction.

It was late afternoon, and the orange sun was low in the violet sky as we left the streets of dumpy buildings and walked out into the desert, past a few irrigated fields and into the endless rocks. With the long shadows and orange light, even the lumpish beige rocks of Bethel could be almost picturesque. It was as close to a romantic setting as we could get, so I started to turn up the romance.

“You look beautiful with the sun in your hair.”

“ ‘God sees the beauty of a faithful soul,’ ” she replied almost automat­ically. “Aphorisms 26:39.”

“And I see the beauty of the body that carries the soul. God created you very beautiful, Rahab. He must be very proud of his work.”

“ ‘The beauty of the eye passes away like the dew.’ Wit & Wisdom 3:7.”

“But surely that’s all the more reason to enjoy it while we have it. A drop of dew may be gone in an hour, but what a world of sparkling loveliness God gives us in that drop! Should we not enjoy it just because it will be gone soon?”

“But certain kinds of beauty, like— like the beauty of a strong young man, can lead us to… immoral behavior.”

“Surely God made that beauty to be enjoyed.” I could see the longing in her eyes, and I decided then and there that this prize was worth the ultimate sacrifice. “Rahab, I can’t help it if I look at you with desire. But I’m willing to play by the rules and devote my life to you.” I fell on my knees in front of her, badly bruising one knee on a rock I hadn’t noticed. “Rahab, my beautiful, incomparable Rahab, will you be my wife?”

•  •  •

I stormed into the guest house, slammed the door, and stopped in front of Wright in the wicker chair.

“You knew!” I bellowed at him.

“What did I know?” he asked with exaggerated innocence and an unforgivably smug expression.

“You know perfectly well what you knew! Deaconesses are celibate! It’s in that Primary Testament thing!”

“Rules & Regulations 9:16: ‘For the deaconess is—’ ”

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“You told me not to,” he said very calmly.

“What gave you an idiot idea like that?”

“ ‘You will promise not to say another word to me about Rahab, do you hear me? Not one more word!’ ”

I stared at him, boiling with rage and incapable of any reply, because he had given me not only a verbatim recitation of what I had said, but also a very good imitation of my tone of voice.

“I’m sorry you didn’t get anywhere with her,” he continued quite calmly, “but I did tell you that would happen.”

He had told me, hadn’t he? For some reason that made me even more furious. “This is not a defeat,” I said, setting my jaw in the steely-determination position. “This is a challenge. And I accept the challenge.”

“Good. It will give you something to occupy your mind while we work on the construction tomorrow.”

I stormed off to my bedroom, where I sat on the bed in the dark for a while, fuming. I refused to give Wright this victory. I knew a thing or two about women, and I could tell Rahab was susceptible. I would just have to keep pushing, that was all. Religion is all very well, but I relied on her deepest human urges. She might be a deaconess, but she was a woman first. And a woman was something I knew how to work with. I sat and rubbed my bruised knee and schemed.

•  •  •

The architect and builders arrived in the middle of the next morning, and of course I had to sit in on the architect’s first meeting with Wright, if only to keep her from murdering him. I wanted that pleasure for myself.

“You have columns here,” she said, pointing to Wright’s enlarged drawing on the wall of the guest house.

“Yes,” he agreed.

“And you have a wall outside them.”

“Yes.”

“And a wall inside them.”

“Yes.”

“So you have columns that no one will ever see.”

“That is correct.”

“Then why do you have columns? It’s perfectly easy to hold up the roof with the wall. Why columns?”

“They’re a fence to keep God out.”

She looked at him blankly for a moment, and then asked, “Can I get my whole fee in advance?”

“No,” Wright answered.

There was a brief pause, and then she continued.

“Now, you’ve specified concrete, but it would be much more economical to use native stone, don’t you think? There’s an infinite supply of it, and we’ve brought the cutters for it, and I—”

“It’s got to be concrete,” Wright told her, “because of the sand bugs.”

“Ah, yes, the sand bugs. What exactly are sand bugs? Is that some sort of reinforcement system?”

Wright turned to me. “Hey, um…”

“Pulaski,” I filled in for him.

“Right. Go out and get me a couple of sand bugs.”

I was about to argue with him, but I realized no good would come of that. So I went over to the little kitchen and found a heavy cup and saucer (all the pottery the Bethelites made was crude heavy stoneware) and took it out past Wright and the architect, who were arguing over the interior color scheme of the treasury section, and out into the warm midday sun. Sand bugs, huh? They were everywhere, except when you were looking for them. I was so engrossed in looking for sand bugs that I was quite surprised when I found Rahab instead.

“Oh—hello,” I said, standing up (I had been kneeling and staring very intently at the sand). “I’m looking for sand bugs.” I realized immediately that there was no way to say that and sound sane.

“Sand bugs?” The doubt of my sanity was unambiguously expressed in her tone of voice.

“Mr. Wright needs a couple of them.”

“Oh,” she said, and it was clear that the reputation of the great genius Wright answered all questions. “If he wants to start a colony, he’ll need all three sexes.”

“I don’t think he wants a colony.”

“Look in the shade next to the house,” she suggested. “They look for somewhere cool this time of day.”

Rahab was right. It took me a moment to see them, because they’re the same color as the sand, but the shady spot on the southwest side of the house was crawling with sand bugs. They’re little five-legged things, radially symmetrical, about the size of my thumbnail, and they can move pretty fast when they’re motivated. But after a few tries I had two of them in the cup, with the saucer as a lid to keep them in.

“Thank you for the help,” I told her, with my patented eye contact-and-light-smile combination that was meant to suggest much more than I actually said.

It seemed to be working. She looked a bit flustered.

“I— I came to ask you if you’d like, if you’re not busy I mean, if you’d like a tour of the pumping station after evening prayer.”

“I’d—” I stopped. She could do things with her eyes, too, and they were sending a clear message. “I’d love a tour of the pumping station,” I said. It was a close thing: I’d been about to tell her, although probably in politer terms, that I’d rather eat live sand bugs. But I could see in her eyes that she was much more interested in being somewhere with me than in playing tour guide.

“Um,” she began hesitantly, and then got up the courage for her question. “Is it true that you and Mr. Wright are building a room to keep God out?”

“I’m not supposed to answer that question,” I told her. “The special committee told Mr. Wright that he wasn’t supposed to tell anybody about it.”

“Oh,” she said. But she had got the answer clearly enough. “Well, then…I’ll see you after evening prayer. I’ll stop by here.”

As she left, I thought how relieved I was that she didn’t expect me to do any actual praying.

When I brought the sand bugs back in, I set them in their cup in front of the architect, the saucer still on top. “Sand bugs,” I announced.

She lifted the saucer and immediately dropped it again. “Ew!” was her only remark.

“What we need to know,” Wright explained, “is how many of those we can embed per cubic meter without seriously weakening the concrete.”

“These things?” she asked. “In the concrete?”

At this point I stopped paying attention to the conversation and daydreamed about Rahab instead.

She met me as scheduled, and we took our tour of the pumping station, which certainly looked like a pumping station to me. And it was delightful, because the machinery was entirely automatic, which meant that no one worked there, which meant that we were alone. And after she had explained to me how the pumps worked (they worked like pumps), Rahab asked me,

“John, why did you ask me to marry you?”

“Because I loved you,” I answered simply.

“But of course now that you know that deaconesses—”

“I still love you,” I told her, and I gave her the eye contact.

She smiled briefly. “Of course it’s impossible. But…”

I waited, still focusing on her eyes.

“But,” she continued at last, “no one has ever looked at me the way you do.”

“Rahab, I could spend my life looking at you.”

She stared into my eyes with a hint of moisture in her own. At last she turned away.

“These are… These are valves,” she said, pointing to some valves.


Concludes in Part Three.

THE GODPROOF ROOM.

A TALE OF THE FAR FUTURE.

Part One.

Oh, sit back down. We have time for one more, don’t we? And while we finish it off, I can tell you the story of how Wright took on God and beat him. Or maybe he didn’t. To tell you the truth, I’m still not sure who won this round. But I can tell you the story, and you can judge for yourselves.

This one started with a message from the Council of Elders of the Theocratic Republic of Bethel, which I’d never heard of before, and I’ll bet you haven’t either. They offered quite a lot of money if Wright would solve their problem. But they wouldn’t say what the problem was. In fact, their message said quite specifically that they refused to tell us what the problem was.

So I was ready to file the message under “cranks” and send the standard rejection letter. But I wasn’t quick enough, or careful enough, or sneaky enough—however you want to look at it. Wright had seen the message over my shoulder, and he was intrigued for some reason.

“You don’t even know what the problem is,” I protested.

“Look—they addressed me as ‘Senator,’ ” he said, pointing out the word. “I like that. It shows proper respect.”

“That title’s only worth anything on Pevunghia,” I reminded him, “and you’ll probably never go back there. And don’t forget, I’m a Pevunghian senator, too.”

“Yes, but I’m the genius.”

“If you were smart enough to say more than ‘Problems Solved’ in your advertisements, you wouldn’t get messages from cranks like these.” I had looked them up while we were talking. “Look at this. The Theocratic Republic of Bethel is a haven for fanatics. It sounds like these Bethelites believe that pretty much everyone else in the universe is going to hell.”

“But they seem to have money.”

“Maybe they’re industrious. I’ll give them that. They probably think anyone who doesn’t work sixteen hours a day is going to hell on the express liner. Oh, look here—it says ‘large mineral reserves.’ That has to help. But look—they’re a hundred light years from anywhere. Why would you want to go to such a backwater?”

“It’s an interesting problem.”

“You don’t even know what the problem is!”

“That’s what makes it interesting.”

He was wearing that smugly blank expression of his, and suddenly it occurred to me that I must be wrong. “You do know what it is, don’t you?”

“Oh, not precisely,” he said. “But it’s perfectly obvious what kind of problem it must be.”

And that was all I could get out of him. So in two days we were off to the stickiest part of the sticks.

•  •  •

There are no regular liners to Bethel. The Council of Elders hired a grubby old charter for us, a tub that was built for commuter routes and had been very inexpertly converted for long-distance travel. I won’t catalogue the indignities we suffered. You can just add it to the long list of unpleasant voyages Wright has dragged me into. Just once I’d like somebody to have an insoluble problem at some five-star resort on the trunk line.

Wright spent the whole trip immersed in the Primary Testament, the Bethelite scriptures. It seems these Bethelites believe that there have been three great revelations in history. The first was to Moses et al. in what they call the Tertiary Testament, the second to Jesus Christ as described in the Secondary Testament, and the third to Wilbur C. McClusky. The three revelations ascend in importance, and the one to the prophet McClusky, being primary, includes the other two, or at least the greatest hits from the other two.

This was as much as I could be bothered to learn about Bethelite theology, and believe me even that was a slog. Wright kept trying to persuade me to read the Primary Testament, but I told him I’d rather stare straight ahead and pick at the peeling paint in the so-called stateroom if it was all the same to him.

“Did you know that God loathes a pillar?” Wright said, à propos of nothing.

“A pillar?”

“Column, pillar, whatever. God hates them. Domestics 3:14: ‘God loathes a pillar, and into a house with columns he will not enter.’ It’s in the Tertiary Testament, too. Deuteronomy 16:22: ‘Neither shalt thou set thee up a pillar, which the Lord thy God hateth.’ ”

“What good is a God with a pillar phobia?”

“He also hates sand bugs,” Wright added.

“I imagine I would, too. I don’t know what a sand bug is, but I already hate them just from the name.”

“There’s quite a list of things God hates in here. God seems to have strong opinions on architecture and interior design. Get them wrong, and God won’t have anything to do with you.”

“What’s got into you?” I asked him. “You don’t even believe in God.”

“Well, of course I do,” he replied.

This came as a complete surprise to me. “What? I’ve never seen you give any indication of it.”

“I believe in God as the most reasonable and parsimonious explanation of the phenomenon of existence. What else do you expect me to do? I leave God alone, and God leaves me alone, and I think we’re both perfectly happy with that arrangement.”

That, I suppose, is a complete statement of Wright’s theology.

I wasn’t in the best mood by the time we reached Bethel, which by the way has no station at all, so that the rusty old shuttle they sent up had to dock with us directly. That’s never a good sign. And the shuttle pilot was a taciturn half-deaf fellow who muttered to himself but would hardly say two words to us the whole way down. Perhaps he thought we were irredeemable heathens. He was probably right, but at least he could have been polite about it.

As we came down to the surface, my mood did not improve. The landscape was rocky—not colorful, picturesque rocks, but dull beige rocks, rocks that looked like they came in bulk from a discount rock outlet. A few scrubby patches of ill-tended earth vegetation only emphasized the ugly barrenness of the rest of the landscape. Obviously the Bethelites had got this section of the planet cheap because nobody else wanted it.

So I was all ready to make a miserable grump of myself as soon as Wright and I got to whatever grubby hovel the Bethelites had set aside for guests. I would wait that long because I’m always polite in public. One of us has to be polite, and from long experience I know it’s not going to be Wright.

But then the shuttle door opened, and there she was.

For a moment, I thought the Bethelites must have captured an angel. The late-day sun was behind her, and her golden hair glowed like a halo. Her blue-trimmed white robe billowed in the warm breeze, successively outlining different parts of her anatomy, each more delightfully perfect than the last. She smiled at us as if she were genuinely pleased to be here of all places, and I began to think that there might be something to this McCluskyism after all. I knew that I had come face to face with the love of my life.

“Grace be to you and peace from God and his servant Wilbur C. McClusky,” the radiant vision said. “Welcome to Bethel, the house of God.”

Privately I thought that God could afford to live in a better neighborhood. But I am a professional, after all. “Thank you,” I said. “I’m John Pulaski, Mr. Wright’s assistant, and this is Thomas Aquinas Wright.”

“Very pleased to meet you both. I’m Rahab the deaconess, and I have been called to be your guide.”

Our guide! How absolutely delightful. I was going to need constant guidance—I could tell that already. “That’s very kind of you,” I said. “After Mr. Wright and I have had a chance to settle in and wash up, you can show me the sights. I mean us. Show us the sights.”

“Of course,” my delightful Rahab responded. “We get so few visitors that I’m sure everyone will be happy to see you. Oh! The youth division is weaving mats today! That’s always very exciting to watch.”

“When can I get to work?” Wright demanded, making no attempt to conceal his grumpiness. Small talk and sightseeing both annoy him, and small talk about sightseeing must have been excruciating for him. So I was prepared to keep it up indefinitely, but Rahab answered Wright before I could prevent her.

“Oh, I’m sure the special committee could meet with you right after evening prayer. Until then, I can show you to your rooms, and then we can see the sights.”

Wright made a “piff” sound that I chose to interpret as acquiescence.

“We’d be delighted,” I told Rahab. And I certainly meant it, for myself anyway. I was already seeing the best sights, so I was already delighted. I was delighted to walk behind her and watch the way the robe outlined some of her best features. I was delighted to listen to her musical voice as she apologized for our having to walk because “the cart needs work.” I was delighted to see the golden sunlight playing through her even more golden hair. I was delighted by pretty much everything, right up to the moment we reached the appalling dump that Rahab identified as the guesthouse.

“I’m sorry,” Rahab said, and to give her credit she was clearly embarrassed. “I thought the place had been cleaned, and—I, uh, I’ll get someone right away, and I’ll…”

I could actually see tears of frustration and embarrassment welling up in those perfect blue eyes, and nothing should make my beautiful Rahab weep. “Please don’t worry about it,” I said. “I’m sure we can make—”

“It’s a dump,” Wright said. “I’m not staying here.” He ran a finger over the top of a small table near the door, revealing quite a different color under the uniform layer of sandy dust.

Of course Rahab was crushed. I think she wanted to dissolve into dust herself. And of course I couldn’t let her be crushed. So I did something very much against my principles: I volunteered.

“We’ll be fine,” I insisted. “I’ll get started cleaning up, and I’m sure it will take no time at all if you send someone over and we work together.”

Rahab looked so wonderfully grateful that I was sure I’d said the right thing. She promised again to send someone right over, and she smiled at me, and one of those smiles was worth any amount of labor.

And that was how I ended up spending the whole first evening of our stay in Bethel dusting and scrubbing and chasing out sand bugs, which are harmless but not exactly welcome in the well-ordered home. Apparently they’re about the highest form of animal life in Bethel, apart from the humans, and after three hours of cleaning and still no sign of the promised help, I was making some comparisons between the humans and the sand bugs that were not entirely to the advantage of the humans.

Meanwhile, Wright had gone out with Rahab for evening prayer (the idea of Wright praying amused me for a moment before I went back to my default state of quiet fury) and his meeting with the special committee, which apparently was a subset of the Council of Elders formed to deal with the problem they refused to tell us about.

The help finally arrived about three hours after I’d started, by which time I’d done nearly everything myself. I sent the snotty teenager off to find some clean linens, which was the single useful thing he managed to accomplish before Wright returned with the glorious Rahab.

“Much better,” Wright declared, glancing around the little parlor of the guesthouse. Then he turned to the useless teenager. “It’s very good work. Can you accept a gratuity?”

And the little twit did, if you can imagine that.

I didn’t say anything at the time, because I couldn’t afford to make a bad impression on the divine Rahab. But as soon as she left me alone with Wright, I admit I relaxed my politeness a little. Not that it did me any good. Wright wasn’t interested in my complaints, and what he’s not interested in he doesn’t hear.

So eventually, out of boredom, I decided to ask him how his evening had gone. “Did they tell you the thing they wouldn’t tell you? Or are you as much in the dark as ever?”

“They told me nothing,” Wright replied. “But they made it perfectly obvious what they want.”

“How?” I demanded. “Did they point and make faces?”

“They apologized.”

“You mean they apologized for bringing us to this ugly hole in the galaxy without telling us what they want?”

“No.” Wright was almost smiling, which is very rare. “They apologized for our having to walk everywhere, because all the carts are broken and the mechanics promised they’d be fixed by now but haven’t got around to them yet. They apologized for the broken window in the common room, because young hooligans smashed it and the glazier said he’d be there last week, but you know how it is. They apologized for the shuttle pilot, although I’m not sure what was wrong with him. They apologized for our having to double-lock the doors at night, but there have been several burglaries lately, and they know perfectly well who’s responsible, but what can you do?”

“What can you do?” I snorted. “You can lock the burglars away somewhere, that’s what you can do. Or you can give them a good thrashing if you’re the old-fashioned sort. I don’t see how any of these are your sort of problem. You could solve them all with a little bit of discipline.”

“Yes, you could,” Wright agreed. “But they couldn’t. God wouldn’t like it.”

“Who c——” and then I stopped, because it occurred to me that “Who cares what God likes?” might sound like a stupid question to religious people. So I contented myself with asking, “What do you mean, ‘God wouldn’t like it’?”

“You didn’t read the Primary Testament. Aphorisms chapter eight, verse thirty-two: ‘Not seven times shall you forgive, and not seventy times seven, but seventy times seven times seventy times seven.’ ”

I tried to do the math in my head, and the result I came up with was, “That’s a lot of forgiving.”

“Also,” Wright continued, beginning to pace as he always does when he’s in the grip of an enthusiasm, “Aphorisms 15:12: ‘If you forgive not, neither shall you be forgiven.’ And Wit & Wisdom 2:27: ‘Forgiveness at a price is not forgiveness.’ And a number of other passages to that effect. The Bethelites believe that their eternal salvation depends on their offering absolute and unconditional forgiveness. No repentance or promise of amendment required. There are a lot of other things their salvation depends on, too, but that’s one of the big ones.”

“So if you don’t forgive people, God sends you to hell?”

“It’s one of the many offenses that incur eternal damnation,” Wright said.

“Well, that doesn’t seem fair. God should have to play by his own rules.”

“God plays by the rules revealed to Wilbur C. McClusky. That’s the root of the problem.” He was pacing back and forth so quickly it was like watching a tennis match. “The constitution of the Republic says that the Council of Elders must be made up entirely of Bethelites. So it is. And that’s the only government they’ve got. There’s no other executive, no separate judiciary. And every good Bethelite on the council believes that he’ll go to hell if he doesn’t forgive unconditionally. Now, that probably worked when the Republic was a hundred people or so. But now they’ve got about forty thousand in various settlements, and the Council can’t manage them anymore.”

“So what do they want you to do? Thrash some malefactors? That doesn’t sound like your sort of thing.”

“Only Bethelites can govern. What they need is some way to govern effectively without God sending them to hell.”

“And how are you going to give them that?”

He stopped in front of one of the rickety wicker chairs. “I have absolutely no idea.” He flopped down in the chair—by some miracle it didn’t collapse—and his face lit up with just about the brightest smile I’ve ever seen on it. “I have no idea at all. Isn’t that wonderful?’’

Well, I knew that meant he’d be up all night having fun with his little problem. And that meant he didn’t need me, so I went to bed.

Continues in Part Two.

THE BRIGHT LINE.

A TALE OF THE FAR FUTURE.

Part Three.

Concluding the story that began here.

Rebecca must have sounded urgent, or the members of the board must not have had any real work to do, because it didn’t take them long at all to assemble in the lab. Rebecca had arranged chairs and stools in a circle, and the meeting was promptly called to order.

“We called in Mr. Wright and Mr. Pulaski for a fresh perspective on why we couldn’t beat Mr. Kulundu’s infection,” Rebecca began. “Mr. Wright, could you explain what you’ve found?”

“You created a new form of intelligent life and now we have to kill it,” Wright said.

Including the four techs who were sitting over in the corner of the room looking bored until that moment, there were only eleven of us; but there was enough low murmuring for a considerable crowd.

“Well,” Rebecca said over the murmuring, “that’s what we’re here to decide. Mr. Wright, do you think you could explain how you came to your conclusion?”

She had just invited him to give his favorite lecture: How T. A. Wright Is Smarter Than You. “It was obvious, really,” he said, implying “obvious to a genius like me”: “in fact I suspected it from the moment I got your first inquiry. You designed your bacteria to work together by means of binary values and a simple instruction set. In a mouse they multiplied as you planned and formed a small biological computer that was completely adequate to its task. But in a human subject, of course, they had the opportunity to multiply into a computer that was more complex by orders of magnitude. Although our modern computers use much more exten­sive instruction sets for the sake of efficiency, we’ve known for centuries that, in theory, binary values and a simple instruction set can create infinite complexity. Your mistake was in not designing any barriers to that complexity. In a sense, you trusted your bugs too much. Now they’ve formed not just a brain but a mind. The mind is intelligent enough to meet the challenge of any treat­ment you’ve tried so far, and it’s becoming curious. It recognizes that there is an outside world where some other intelligence lives—maybe a malicious intelligence, but an intelligence—and it wants to communicate.”

“That’s the reason for the glowing line,” Rebecca said. Obviously the connection had just occurred to her.

Here an elderly man with a grey beard halfway down to his waist spoke up: “What glowing line?”

So Rebecca explained, with help from Wright, all about the experiments we’d made so far, playing the recorded conversation with the bugs. With a few more technical explanations, the four members of the board were convinced. Even I felt as though I under­stood what was going on.

Rebecca turned and called the medical tech over to the circle. “How long can Mr. Kulundu’s body be kept alive?”

“The body? Years. But the brain won’t keep functioning forever. You’d have to ask the doctors how long, but…two weeks, maybe.”

“After that,” Rebecca said, “we’ve got a live body but a dead person.”

“Pretty much,” the tech agreed.

“So,” Rebecca continued, “we have two persons that both need the same body, and only one can have it.”

A woman on the ethics committee asked, “Can’t we just take some of the bacteria and grow them in a culture?”

“Can’t we just kill you and clone you from your fingernail?” Wright returned. I glowered at him, but he wasn’t looking in my direction.

Rebecca noticed the rather bludgeoned look on the committee member’s face (a common reaction to meeting Wright for the first time), and she explained in a con­cili­atory tone, “Mr. Wright has pointed out, quite graphically, the flaw in that idea—and, believe me, it was the first thing I thought of—which is that it wouldn’t be the same person. This intel­ligence, however we think of it, is made up of all the bac­teria, con­stantly changing, dividing, dying, and experiencing. It’s murder to kill you even if you have clone children, because you’re a distinct person. It’s not your genetic makeup—it’s the combination of that and all you’ve learned, all you’ve felt, all you remem­ber, all you’ve made of yourself. Another intel­ligent biological computer grown from the same stock would be a different…person. I can’t avoid that word ‘person.’ ”

The man with the remarkable beard said, “I think the answer is obvious here. The body belongs to Mr. Kulundu. It is Mr. Kulundu. No matter how inno­cently it happened, this other thing is an invader. Sometimes we have to defend ourselves.”

“But this is a new species,” Rebecca said. “And it’s unique. And it’s intelligent. How can we deliberately…” She paused to choose the exact word. “How can we deliberately murder it?”

“Dr. Witterman, you of all people—”

“Of all people I’m the one who hates this decision most,” she said with a bit of steel in her voice that I hadn’t heard before. It was very attractive. “I think you know me well enough to believe that. But we’ll make it together, and we’ll make it as dis­pas­sionately as we can. Today we’re going to learn what we can learn, and then we can think about our decision. Mr. Wright, if we decided to kill the… the infection, do you think it could be done?”

“Easily,” Wright said.

“We haven’t been able to do it,” the beard grumbled.

“That’s because you tried to beat it with a club,” Wright said. “It’s an intelligence. First you have to distract it. Then you beat it with a club.”

“Distract it?” Rebecca asked. And then I could almost hear something click in her brain. “Oh, you mean—”

“It thinks in chemicals,” Wright explained, not giving even the divine Rebecca a chance to be clever in the same room. “Chemical quantities repre­sent binary states—that’s how the individual cells make up one brain. Flood the body with those proteins, and the brain disappears. You’ve killed it. Then you just have to mop up a bunch of indi­vidual bacteria.”

“Simple,” one of the committee members said.

“But brilliant,” Rebecca added quite unnecessarily. Although I suppose if she hadn’t said it Wright would have.

“So we think we know how to save Mr. Kulundu,” the beard said. “I say the sooner we use that information the better.”

“I agree,” said another member of the board.

“I think,” Rebecca said—and then she paused to consider how she ought to continue. “I think we have a duty to listen to at least one other opinion.”

She looked at Wright, and it was a significant look, which of course meant that Wright was completely oblivious to it. “The box,” I mouthed to him, but he doesn’t read lips.

At last Rebecca figured out that Wright wasn’t going to get it. “Mr. Wright,” she said, “could you please put us in touch with… with the intel­ligence again?”

“Oh,” he said. He picked up the box, which was sitting on the floor beside him. Turning it on, he took a breath to speak, when the box suddenly spoke in its un­settlingly bland female voice:

“Are you there?”

“Uh,” Wright said. We were all a bit startled—even I was, and I’d heard the box talk before. Everyone had probably heard dozens of artificial-voice systems that used this identical voice, but the idea of an infectious disease talking to us was a little spooky.

“Are you there?” the box said again, without varying its expression.

“Answer the nice bugs,” I whispered to Wright.

“Interesting,” he said, looking at the simple display on the box. “It looks as though the intelligence has been sending an ‘Are you there’ message every twelve and a half seconds, roughly speaking.”

“Let me talk to it,” Rebecca said. Wright shrugged and passed the box over to her.

Rebecca pushed the button. “We are here,” she said.

After a short silence, the box said, “We.”

“Yes,” Rebecca responded.

“There are other others,” said the box.

“Yes,” Rebecca said.

“Where?” the box asked.

Rebecca hesitated. She looked at Wright, who was looking at her legs, and then decided to answer, “Outside.”

There was a short silence, and then the box said, “Outside the world.”

Rebecca thought for a moment. “Your world,” she said to the box, “is my friend Pierre Kulundu. We created you to go into his body and heal him, but you became some­thing else. Something new.”

After the usual pause, the box asked, “You are worlds?”

While Rebecca was thinking about that one, it suddenly occurred to me that the thing she was talking to was struggling with its own thoughts as much as she was with hers. “You live in Mr. Kulurdu’s body, but he can’t keep living with you in there. That’s our problem. And if Pierre dies…”

She stopped, let go of the button for a moment, and then pushed it and continued.

“I don’t want to harm you. And I don’t want to lose Pierre. And I don’t know how to save Pierre without harming you. He’ll die if…”

She stopped. Outwardly her face was impassive; but her face wasn’t usually impassive, and I suspected a mighty struggle with her emotions behind the face.

Then the box spoke again. “He will die if I live.”

Rebecca looked down at the box and then back up, glancing around the circle. “Does anyone have the heart to answer that one?”

There was silence for half a minute.

Then the beard spoke up. “My opinion hasn’t changed. I still say we have a duty to save Mr. Kulundu. No matter how sophisti­cated the attack, no matter how innocent the attacker, it’s still an attack. He has a disease, and our duty is to cure it.”

“My opinion has changed,” Rebecca said. “I wasn’t sure, but now I am. I can’t recommend taking an innocent life. There’s a bright line we can’t cross, or we become murderers.”

“But,” the beard objected, “if we fail to save Mr. Kulundu when we know we could, then we murder him.”

“If we look at the question philosophically,” another board member said, “we might be able—”

“Just vote and get it over with,’’ Wright said. Uncertainty annoys him, and he has a violent allergy to philosophy.

After a moment of silence, Rebecca said, “He’s right. We’ll only dither if we spin it out. All stand, and we’ll take a vote.”

We all stood up. Although I wasn’t on the board, I would have felt awkward sitting when everyone else was standing, and in a social situation Wright usually just does what I do if he happens to notice it.

Rebecca posed the question officially: “Shall we apply Mr. Wright’s suggested cure? I’ll start. I vote no.”

“Yes,” the beard said.

“Yes,” said the next board member in the circle.

“No.”

“Yes.”

And then Rebecca looked at me. “We’re missing two members, and…”

The beard said, “Yes, I agree. You and Mr. Wright are our experts. You’re entitled to a vote.”

Ha! I saw where my chance lay. I knew Wright would side with Rebecca, but I had the chance to do it first and earn her grati­tude on my own, not just as Wright’s minion. “No,” I said confidently.

We all turned to Wright. He had the deciding vote. I looked a bit smug, I’m sure: I had stolen his chance to be the first to leap to Rebecca’s defense and take her side.

“Yes,” Wright said.

What? What was he up to? Had he actually developed prin­ciples or something? Was he exhibiting early symptoms of a conscience?

And then Rebecca suddenly fell on him—literally fell on him, her arms around him, tears flooding her cheeks. “Thank you!” she half-whispered, and she actually kissed his filthy cheek. “Thank you! Thank you!”

Well, this was just too much. I had voted with her. I had been on her side. If it had been up to me, the vote would have gone her way. Here Wright casts the deciding vote against her, and somehow he sucks up all the grati­tude. Where is the justice in that?

And of course he was smirking at me over her shoulder. He knew. Somehow he knew it would work out this way.

Wright addressed the rest of the room. “I need a current sample, with a complete chemical analysis to see what the thing has mutated into. We’ll get to work right away.”

Rebecca pulled herself together and let go of him. “I’ll take care of it,” she said; and she started for the door, with the medical tech close behind her.

“I’ll go with you,” I said.

“So will I,” Wright added immediately.

And for some reason the beard and another board member came along, too, and for some reason they made it to the tube and into the first car with Rebecca well before we got there. Maybe it was because of the way Wright and I kept tripping each other. We had the next car to ourselves.

“You knew, didn’t you?” I said to him as the little car took off.

“Knew what?” he asked in that infuri­atingly smug voice he uses when he knows he’s got the best of me.

I knew he knew what I meant, and I knew he knew I knew it. “The thing I can’t work out is how you knew that Rebecca wanted you to vote against her. I mean, I can see the psychology of it—can’t stand the idea of having the death of a colleague on her conscience, blah blah blah. But how did you know?”

“I asked the medical tech,” he answered smugly.

I was taken aback. I had expected some clever series of deductions. “That’s all?”

“I just said, ‘What does she really want me to do?’ and he said, ‘She’ll wrestle with her conscience, but what she really wants to do is appease her conscience and then be talked out of it.’ Sometimes the cleverest solution is the most straightforward.”

“That’s cheating,” I grumbled, by which I meant, “I wish I’d thought of it.” “So now,” I continued, “you just have to hope your idea works. If it doesn’t, you still lose.”

“Oh, I don’t think I have to worry about that.”

“You never worry, do you? But you’ve failed before. How do you know you can kill the bugs without killing our patient?”

“I’m pretty sure that’s already taken care of,” Wright said, still sounding smug. I had no idea what he meant by that, but I wasn’t in the mood to give him the satisfaction of asking.

We reached the patient’s room to find something of a commotion going on. Rebecca was saying, “Are you sure? It’s not just—” And the tech was inter­rupting her with “Look at the numbers!”

“I thought so,” Wright said. He wasn’t smiling, but I could smell the stench of smugness in the air.

“They’re gone,” Rebecca told him. “They’re just gone.”

“Well,” Wright responded, “that saves us some trouble.”

“Gone?” I felt as though the ship had left without me. “What’s gone? What do you mean, ‘gone’?”

“No trace of living bacteria in the patient’s blood­stream,” the medical tech explained. “I mean, you know, manu­factured ones. They just, uh—”

“Killed themselves,” Wright said. “Not surprising.”

“Not surprising?” Rebecca and I asked simultaneously.

“You gave them an ethical problem, and they solved it quite efficiently,” Wright said with that annoying detachment of his.

Rebecca looked stunned. “It was more human than we were willing to be.” She was gazing at me with those marvelous eyes, but I had a strong impression that she was staring into space and I just happened to be in the way. Then she snapped back into her competent-administrator mode. “Get his doctors up here right away. The infection is gone, so we can start reviving Pierre immediately.”

“Well, then,” Wright said cheerfully, “problem solved.” That was his way of reminding them that they owed him a fee.

• • •

It seems that our clients always want to do something to honor us when Wright has solved a thorny problem, and it seems that, pretty much universally, the idea they come up with is dinner. Our dinner was scheduled for two days after the demise of Mr. Kulundu’s infection. By that time the patient had revived wonder­fully, thanks to the excellent facilities of the Institute’s medical department. We had seen him a couple of times, because Rebecca insisted on introducing Wright to him as the genius who had saved his life. After that, Rebecca seemed to be very busy, and I didn’t see much of her. But Wright didn’t either, as far as I could tell.

I got out Wright’s good suit for him, and he spent half an hour making himself look like a clown, which was quite a bit of effort for a man who usually thinks it takes five minutes to dress for a funeral. I think he had it in mind that this dinner would be his last chance to impress Rebecca. I had it in mind, too. I did not look like a clown.

It was as formal a dinner as they could manage in the bland conference room the Institute provided. We were ready to sit down to a meal of appropriately bland institutional food, but we were waiting for Rebecca. She was very uncharacteristically late, as the bearded man remarked to me.

“Where is Dr. Witterman?” I asked him.

“The last I heard, she was in Mr. Kulundu’s room talking to him. She must have got, um, distracted.”

“I’ll go get her,” Wright said, immediately heading for the door.

“So will I,” I said, and I followed. The bearded man was saying something about its not being necessary, but his definition of “necessary” didn’t take into account my desperation.

Wright was almost running in the hall toward the tube. I passed him; he put on some speed. We arrived at the tube simultaneously.

“We’ll go together,” I said. “At the same time.”

“Why?” he asked as we stepped into the car.

“Because it’s undignified to run, but if it comes to that, my legs are longer.”

We did find Rebecca in the much more spacious room Mr. Kulundu was now occupying. She was on the bed with him, and she was—well, mostly dressed.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I completely lost track of time. Um, Pierre has recovered marvelously.”

“Well,” Mr. Kulundu said, “I could use a lot more physical therapy.”

She laughed and kissed him. Wright and I looked at each other. The psychology of the situation was suddenly abundantly clear to us. We both wanted to gag.

The next day we didn’t talk much on the crumbling liner as it started out along its long chain of backwater stops. Wright seemed lost in thought. I certainly was. I was thinking about a pair of emerald eyes, and about how unfair it was that they were shining right now on someone else. But at last, after the lighting had dimmed for the night cycle, I said in a low voice, “The one thing that consoles me is that you lost, too. You might have beaten me, but you didn’t get anything out of it.”

“Well,” he said, “I did get one thing.”

“Oh, really? And what would that be?”

He pulled something out of his bag. I recognized the little transparent box of cultured bugs, with the green line still glowing across it.

“But that’s— I mean, do you realize how dangerous that is?” I whispered hoarsely. “What do you plan on doing with it, for heaven’s sake?”

“I’ll think of something,” he replied, slipping the box back into his bag.

And I don’t doubt he will. That’s what worries me.

THE BRIGHT LINE.

A TALE OF THE FAR FUTURE.

Part Two.

Continuing the story that began here.

Dr. Witterman’s minions must have worked all night, because by the middle of the next morning, standard time, Wright had the lab he wanted, with all the stuff he had asked for and two techs eagerly awaiting his orders, and the glorious Dr. Witterman herself sitting on a stool, looking even more beautiful than she had looked the day before. Wright had not called me after breakfast, and after a while I had got suspicious and gone looking for him. And sure enough he was there already, discussing something about bacteria with her. There could be only one reason why he had started without me, when ordinarily he thinks he needs me to buckle his shoes.

“Good morning, Mr. Pulaski,” Dr. Witterman said when she saw me come into the room.

“Oh, you can just call me John,” I replied. Whatever advantage in intimacy Wright had gained so far, I was determined to catch up.

Wright looked up at me with a calculating expression. “Oh, you’re here,” he said. “Good.” There was a pause while he calculated some more; and then, “Go up to my room and get my sketch pad.”

What a transparent ploy! “There’s one right next to you,” I pointed out with an oh-no-you-don’t glare.

“I like mine better.”

“Yours doesn’t even have a stylus anymore.”

“I’m used to it.”

He won that round. Without making an ugly scene in front of the love of my life, I had no way of refusing to assist him. “Assistant” was my title, after all. But he would pay for it. All the way up and over in the tube I thought of ways to make him pay for it, but most of them were illegal.

I returned with the sketch pad, and since Rebecca was across the room conferring with one of the techs, I took the opportunity to inform Wright that, if he sent me off for no reason again, I would poison his coffee. I don’t know whether he believed me or not, but I think he may have hesitated a bit the next time he took a sip.

One big advantage I had was that Wright couldn’t concentrate on our little rivalry forever. He had to do some actual work, if only to keep Rebecca’s respect; and once he got started on the problem, he actually got interested in it. I, on the other hand, had no real interest in the problem at all. While Wright was scribbling on his sketch pad with his finger, I had the opportunity to talk about nothing in particular with Rebecca. She was easy to talk to once I got her going, and I was thoroughly enjoying myself when Wright suddenly announced, “I need a sample.”

“A sample?” I asked.

“Some of the bugs infecting our patient. I need a current sample, taken from the patient right now, isolated and cultured.”

“I’ll take care of that myself,” Rebecca said.

“I’ll go with her,” I quickly added.

“No, I’ll go,” Wright said.

“Don’t be silly. You have important work to do. I can go.”

“He’s right,” Rebecca said—dear Rebecca! “You don’t need to come with me. That’s why you have an assistant, after all.”

Round two to me. Wright did a very poor job of concealing his annoyance, and I left with Rebecca.

“So anyway,” I continued as we walked toward the tube, picking up our conversation where it had left off, “I’ve always lived in a big city. I’d think a small colony like this would limit your social opportunities.”

“Well, I have to admit, when I was younger I thought I’d be married by this age. But I do love my work, and this is where it is.” We stepped into the tube, and as the door closed and the little car started to move, she continued: “How about you? Do you have a husband or boyfriend waiting for you?”

I laughed. “That’s not my thing, I’m afraid. I’m only into women.”

“Oh! I’m sorry.” She sounded a bit puzzled. “Thomas said you were homosexual.”

He did, did he? “Thomas was mistaken.” And he would pay for it. I wondered whether any of those dumpy little stores sold rat poison.

I suppose there was really very little reason for Wright or me to go along with her, since all I ended up doing was watching while she put on the biohazard suit and went in to draw blood from the patient. It would have been just about as exciting as watching dust settle on the furniture if it had been anyone else doing it, but there was just something poetic about the Rebecca moved, even in the bulky suit and filter hood. And of course I would have loved to be watching when she decontaminated, but the provisions for privacy were disappointingly adequate.

That first day of work was very stressful for Wright and me—at least I know it was for me, and I can infer that it probably was for Wright. He found half a dozen excuses for sending me away on trivial errands that were just useful enough to be plausible, and I found increasingly implausible reasons for following Rebecca every time she left the room. I was exhausted by the time we knocked off for the evening, and then we still had to have dinner with Rebecca and the two techs, which meant that I still had to be bright and cheerful for another two hours. And Wright was making some effort in that direction, too, but he was a bit subdued—a bit more like his normal self. Which could be dangerous. If he solved the problem right away, he might look like the wizard he thinks he is, and that might have some considerable effect on Rebecca’s esteem for him. I would have to watch these developments. It looked as though he was thinking.

I was right about the thinking. In the middle of the night I woke to a thunderous pounding on my door. I incorporated it into my dream of Rebecca for a few seconds, but it became too insistent to sleep through.

“Get Rebecca down to the lab,” Wright told me when I opened the door. “She gave me her thingy, but I lost it. Stupid com. Go get her. She needs to see this.”

“It’s—” I stopped. I was about to tell him it was half past two, and whatever it was could wait until the rest of the world woke up. But then the image of Rebecca in a diaphanous nightgown floated into my mind, and I thought, in the selfish depths of my primitive mind, that there might be some advantage to rousing her from bed in the middle of the night for one of Wright’s whims. What was the worst thing that could happen? She’d be roused in the middle of the night for no good reason, and it would be all Wright’s fault. And I would sympathize, and…

I called Rebecca—the com knew her as “Witterman,” and I suspect that the “thingy” Wright had lost was her last name—and told her what Wright had told me. Then I ran for the tube, which did me no good at all, because I still had to wait two and a half minutes for the next car. Still, though Wright got to the lab first, he didn’t gain anything by it, since Rebecca and I arrived at the same time from opposite directions. I was disappointed in my hope for a diaphanous nightgown, by the way; she was in shorts and a floppy shirt. The shorts at least confirmed that Wright was correct about her legs.

“Come in,” Wright said impatiently. “Over there. The sample on the bench. Go—over there—the sample on the bench.” He was practically pushing us. We walked over to where the little transparent box of bugs in culture was sitting on a lab bench. All I could see was the transparent box with some goo in it. I admit that microbiology isn’t my thing, but a glance at Rebecca told me that she was just as puzzled as I was.

“Ready?” Wright asked. We didn’t answer, because we didn’t know what we were supposed to be ready for. “Lights out.”

The room lighting turned off, leaving us in total darkness. Total, except—there was a glowing green line straight across the sample box.

“How did you do that?” Rebecca’s voice asked in the darkness.

“I didn’t,” Wright answered. “They did. Or I should say it did.”

“What does it mean?” I asked.

“It means I was right,” Wright answered. “It means I need to get you and the techs building the things on my sketch pad. In fact, I need another tech. I need a computer tech. Get me the best you have. Now we can really get to work.”

“Can it wait until morning?” I asked, more than a little annoyed.

Wright was in the middle of a full-blown enthusiasm. “Wait?”

“Lights on,” I said, and the room became blindingly bright. “Have you had any sleep?”

“Sleep?” he repeated, as if it were some foreign slang term that his translator couldn’t parse.

“We won’t do our best work unless we’ve had some rest.”

“Rest?”

Here Rebecca intervened and made me love her even more. “John’s right. We can get started after breakfast. You can explain it all to us then.”

Thanks to her sober thinking, we were all able to get a few more hours’ sleep, to Wright’s great disappointment but no one else’s. After breakfast I made sure to get right to the lab, without waiting for Wright to summon me, and I actually managed to get there before Rebecca did.

“So was it really necessary to wake us up in the middle of the night?” I asked Wright, who was making some last-minute adjustments to one of his drawings.

“Of course it was,” he replied, without adding any other reason than “of course.” He didn’t lift his head from the drawing, either. I looked at one of the techs, and she silently shrugged. She was already learning the first principle of dealing with Wright, which is not to try to figure him out.

Rebecca showed up a little while later with a computer tech in tow. The tech was a no-nonsense middle-aged woman who looked as if she had seen several wars and could deal with any emergency. I figured Wright would have her reduced to tears within an hour.

“We’re building this,” Wright said, showing us a sketch. “You’ll deal with the mechanical parts and the wiring,” he said to me; and to the computer tech, “You’ll deal with the chemo-electronic conversion and plug in some standard two-way speech converter here.”

I had to ask the obvious question: “What will it do?”

“It will talk to the bugs,” Wright answered. “And the bugs will talk back.”

The trouble with asking Wright an obvious question is that even when you get a straight answer it doesn’t make any sense.

We got right to work, requisitioning materials and making notes on Wright’s sketches to show how this would fit into that. The mechanical and electrical parts were simple enough—just a box with switches, connections, and other things needed to hold up and connect whatever mystical apparatus the computer tech was building. She just told me what had to be connected, and I figured out a way to connect it.

And now Wright had the advantage, because I had to be working most of the time, whereas all Wright had to do was look over my shoulder once in a while and tell me I was doing it wrong. So he could spend most of the time chatting over in a corner with Rebecca. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but I heard Rebecca laugh twice, and unless she was laughing at his preposterous arrogance those laughs represented two more jokes than I had ever heard Wright make since I’d met him. It was galling, but the only way out I could think of was to get my job done quickly and well, so that I’d be done soon and wouldn’t have to do any of the work over again. It’s a sad day when high-quality work is the only strategy I can come up with.

We had worked past lunch—did I mention that we didn’t stop to eat?—when Wright came over to add what he called a minor alteration, which instantly scrapped the whole interface the computer tech and I had built. The tech’s head flopped down on the counter in resignation and despair. I muttered under my breath, “That took longer than I expected.” And since Wright’s new design called for “some sort of bio-interface thing,” we ended up having to call in a medical tech as well, which took more time. I offered to go with Rebecca to explain things to the medical tech, but she very reasonably pointed out that it would be easier to explain things once the tech was in the lab. So Wright went with her instead. How did that happen? I don’t know, but it was a triumph for him. He would have looked more triumphant if he hadn’t been sticking his tongue out at me as he left with her.

It took us a day and a half, but eventually we had Wright’s thing cobbled together, whatever it was. It was big enough to need a cart of its own—not one of the expensive hovercarts I’m sure Wright would have specified if it had been up to him, but a good old-fashioned cheap cart on wheels, one of which squeaked all the way down the hall to the tube. There wasn’t enough room for all of us and the cart in the little car, so Wright somehow got Rebecca to go with him in the first car and left the tech and me to wait with the cart for the next car.

The cart squeaked out of the tube and all the way to the patient’s room. It was loud enough to make conversation difficult. We didn’t really get to talk until the medical tech suited up and squeaked the cart in to start hooking Wright’s thing up to the patient.

“What will it do?” Rebecca asked—not for the first time.

“It will talk to the bugs,” Wright answered—not for the first time. I think Wright actually believes he’s giving straight answers when he talks like that. I decided to fill in what I could:

“Your medical tech says the interface basically becomes part of the patient’s circulatory system. His blood will flow through it, and Mr. Wright’s machine will…do something to it.”

“It varies certain chemical quantities that correspond to binary values,” Wright added, not at all helpfully to me.

But it was apparently helpful to Rebecca. Her gorgeous eyes lit up; I could almost see their emerald glow shining on Wright’s face. “You’ve built a computer terminal!” she exclaimed with dishearteningly obvious admiration.

“Exactly,” Wright agreed, looking smug.

“Well,” I asked a bit testily, “why didn’t you just say that?”

“I didn’t want to get too technical.”

So I had to listen to Rebecca’s unreserved admiration as she interrogated Wright, and he described chemical processes I didn’t understand, and I didn’t realize he understood either. When did he become a chemist?

At last the thing was hooked up, and the tech was decontaminated and back on our side of the window. It was time for a demonstration in the cramped little booth. At least I had managed to maneuver myself so that I was standing right next to Rebecca, and maybe by physical proximity I could give pheromones a chance to operate. Maybe it would have been a good idea to study chemistry.

Wright held the little brown box we had made for him. It had an elementary sound transmission and reception system, and a button to hold in when he wanted to transmit. He held in the button and said, slowly and clearly, “Who are you?”

We waited.

I could hear Rebecca’s soft and shallow expectant breathing. The silence continued.

“Well, that was exciting,” I remarked after half a minute or so. My job is to make Wright look good, but I wasn’t getting much job satisfaction at the moment.

Suddenly—it startled us all—there was an artificial female voice from the box. “I am I,” it said.

There was more silence, but this silence had a certain stunned quality to it.

At last Rebecca asked quietly, “Was that the—”

The box interrupted her: “Are you I?”

Wright pressed the button and said, “No.”

We waited in silence until the box spoke again: “You are other than I.”

“Yes,” Wright responded.

There was more silence, but it was noticeably shorter than the previous silence. Then the box said, “Other than I is I to you.”

“Um,” Wright said, but Rebecca quickly said “Yes!,” so Wright pushed the button and said “Yes” into the box.

That was the end of the conversation for the moment. “Let’s go back to the lab,” Wright said. “I figured out how to talk to it. Now I have to figure out what to say.”

“What exactly were we talking to?” I asked.

“Yes,” Rebecca agreed. “I think I’m beginning to see it, but I need you to tell me what it all means. In the lab—tell me in the lab. I need to think.”

So we all got out of that cramped little booth and headed for the cramped little tube car. This time I managed to get into the first car with Rebecca without too obviously shoving Wright out of the way, so while I was alone in the tube with her I asked her for some clarification.

“What’s it about? I’m afraid I’m not a chemist, so…”

“Thomas is a genius,” she said with obvious admiration—and yet somehow she didn’t sound altogether happy about it.

“Well, that’s what he says, but it’s really more of an advertising slogan.”

“I’m not going to be happy however this turns out.” She sighed a melodramatic sigh. “Somebody’s going to die.”

That didn’t sound very good. I don’t know what you think when you hear “somebody’s going to die,” but one of the first things I think is, “Maybe it’s going to be me.”

“You mean your patient?” I asked.

“Or… somebody else.” And then, almost inaudibly, and not really to me: “And I’ll bet I get to choose.”

When we got back to the lab, Rebecca started making calls right away. Wright walked in while she was on her third call. “There was room for four in that car,” he grumbled.

“I didn’t want to take the risk,” I explained.

“All right,” Rebecca announced. “One more, and then we wait for them to get here.”

“Wait for whom?” Wright and I asked simultaneously.

“The Board of Ethics. At least the ones who aren’t off-colony—we’ll be missing two. I need the best advice I can get.”

She was already back on the com, so I asked Wright, “Advice about what?”

“Don’t ask me,” he replied. “I never understood ethics.”

And would you believe me if I told you I actually kept my mouth shut?

Concludes in Part Three.

THE BRIGHT LINE.

A TALE OF THE FAR FUTURE.

Part One.

Well, I suppose I could tell you about the time Wright cheated me out of the love of my life. Yes, I know I told you about that time, but this was the other time. One of the other times, anyway.

It started the way it always seems to start, with Wright saying we were going to take the job and me saying it was a stupid idea. I told him he wasn’t a doctor, and he had no business pretending to know anything about medicine. I told him that if he would put something more specific than “Problems Solved” in his advertisements, we wouldn’t be bothered with jobs we didn’t know how to do.

He told me to pack his good suit, because there might be dinner. “But not the one that makes me look like a clown,” he added, and I didn’t have the heart to tell him that all his good suits make him look like a clown.

I knew what had happened, of course. Our new clients had posed him an intellectual puzzle, and Wright thought he already had the solution. And he must have thought it was a clever solution that would give him a chance to show off how clever he was in front of a new and more appreciative audience. More appreciative than I am, that is. Our greatest triumphs always begin with Wright coming up with some instant intuition like that. So do our worst fiascos.

“You realize,” I said, “that if you’re wrong about whatever your pet theory is, our client will be dead, and we’ll get the blame.”

“The Institute is our client,” Wright replied, as if that settled all possible objections.

So I’ll skip over all the indignities of traveling in the cheapest possible seats in a crusty old local that should have been retired decades ago. If you looked at his bank account, you’d think that Wright was quite wealthy. But if you judged by the way he spends money, you’d have to conclude that he doesn’t know where his next meal is coming from. People look at him and wonder whether they should drop something in his hat, but he’s usually wearing it.

The Institute for Applied Research is in one of those boring middle-sized stopover colonies they used to build along the main routes, back when travel was a lot slower and it was a lot more useful to have boring places to stop. The colony orbits a stable but otherwise useless dwarf star, with no habitable planets or more interesting colonies around it. About half the population works for the Institute. And since the population is only about 12,000 (I think that’s what I heard), that leaves only 6,000 people to do something interesting with the place.

I could tell as soon as we arrived that those 6,000 weren’t nearly enough.

“What a backwater,” I grumbled as I surveyed the little core of run-down shops and cheap diners that was grandiosely labeled “Downtown” on the map.

“The Institute for Applied Research has been behind some of the most important advances in technology for the past 175 years,” Wright replied. He was repeating almost verbatim a sentence from the visitor brochure.

“I was hoping to meet some women,” I said.

“Our contact is a woman. At least to judge by her name.”

“I meant for fun.”

”They might have a whorehouse. You could ask.”

I didn’t dignify that with a response.

It was a very short walk from “Downtown” to the Institute’s main entrance, and as soon as we presented ourselves at the front desk we were made to feel very important. I do wish Wright would take the trouble to introduce me sometimes, instead of leaving me to explain myself; but all I had to say was “I’m John Pulaski, Mr. Wright’s assistant,” and I caught the full gleam of his reflected glory.

“Wait right here,” the suddenly nervous-looking receptionist said with her best attempt at an ingratiating smile. “Dr. Witterman will be right down.” And she scurried off to the tube, while Wright and I sat on a bench in front of the reception desk.

“That was a woman,” Wright pointed out helpfully.

“She’s about three times my age.”

”Oh, you have age requirements,” Wright said in that tone he uses when he thinks I’m being inexplicably unreasonable.

So I was sitting there thinking how boring this job was going to be, and grumbling at the utter boringness of the stark and boring lobby which I guessed was about fifty years old, dating from the boringest period of boring colonial architecture, and how fitting the style was as an emblem of the boredom I felt right at the moment—

—and suddenly the tube doors opened, and there she was: the love of my life.

Have you ever looked across a room and seen a woman and known, just known, that she was the love of your life, the one and only woman in the universe for you? It’s happened to me at least half a dozen times, so I recognize it when it happens. This was it.

I wish I could describe her to you, but some kinds of beauty are too transcendent to yield to mere words. You may take it for granted that, even in her sensible work outfit, her figure was perfect. Her cascading auburn hair—oh, I could get lost in that hair! Her face could have launched a thousand ships, or ten thousand moldy old liners like the one we came in on. But it was those eyes, eyes of the most transfixingly rich emerald color—the eyes were what pierced straight through to my soul. And yes, I know that deep emerald irises like those are almost always implants. And yes, hers were. And I didn’t care. It was what she did with those eyes that was the magic. She turned them toward me, and I felt hot and cold and tense and limp all at the same time.

“Mr. Wright?” she asked as she stepped out of the tube car, walking toward us.

I stood at once, and Wright rose after I kicked his ankle.

“Thomas Aquinas Wright,” he said automatically as he stood. After years of training, I had finally taught him to respond to a greeting in at least a minimal way.

“I’m Rebecca Witterman,” the vision of glory announced, holding out her hand as she approached. I kicked Wright again, and his hand rose to meet hers.

“And I’m John Pulaski,” I said, wanting, needing, a touch, however brief, from that perfect hand.

She turned her eyes toward mine, and I took her hand, and I felt the whole colony spinning—which of course it does: I mean, that’s how we get gravity, isn’t it? But it was all spinning around her eyes, and I felt my whole body melting into her hand.

But she had finished saying “Pleased to meet you,” and I had to let her hand go unless I was going to propose to her on the spot—which I seriously considered before deciding that it was probably premature.

“I was impressed by your work with the Pevunghian cult artifacts,” the vision said, apparently to both of us. “Such a surprising answer to a difficult problem. No one else had thought of it.”

“I figured out how to make them talk,” Wright said. “Any genius could probably have done it.”

“Mr. Wright is characteristically modest,” I said quickly, lying through my teeth. Part of my job is to make Wright look good to the client without letting him make too much of an arrogant twit of himself.

“But no other genius did find the answer. You did. I’ve come to the conclusion that our own problem here needs some sort of genius that we don’t have.”

“You have us now,” I told her, and I was rewarded by a glance from those eyes.

”Would you like to start by seeing the patient?” she asked us.

Wright looked at me. Usually, left to himself, he would just go into a room and start building something that would test his hypothesis. But I had lectured him enough on the human side of the business that he was willing to spend a little extra time at the beginning of a job pretending to be human if I thought it was necessary. And I wanted to spend a few extra hours or years with Dr. Witterman, so of course I said yes. To be precise, I said, “That sounds like a good idea.”

So Dr. Witterman led us to the tube—oh, she was perfect from every angle—and we squeezed into the little car, which was delightfully cramped, which meant that I was standing near enough to Dr. Witterman to feel the warmth radiating from her body. I hoped the ride would last forever, but we went up a few levels and then over for a minute, and we stopped when the display read “HOSPITAL.”

The Institute’s research hospital looked pretty much like any other hospital—a bit blander, perhaps, but that was the era: it looked as though the whole institute complex was rebuilt at the same nadir of colonial architecture. We walked through a quiet hall, past mostly empty rooms, until we came to a door marked “DANGER—QUARANTINE—AUTHORIZED PERSONS ONLY.”

“We can go in as far as the observation room,” Dr. Wilterman told us, waving her hand over the lock. “We can’t go into the patient room without suiting up.”

She opened the door and led us into a little room—more like a booth, and again it necessitated standing very close to her—with an entire wall of window overlooking another small room. In that room beyond was a bed, and on the bed was a body—presumably still living, since there were monitors in the booth measuring heart rate and temperature and other things that cease to be interesting after the patient is dead. But the man could have been a plaster statue for all the signs of life he showed to my unscientific eye.

“He’s still being kept in a coma,” Dr. Witterman explained. “I, um, don’t know how much of what we sent you you’ve had a chance to read…”

Wright and I had both read the whole file. I’d read it twice just on the trip, because there was nothing else to do while the rumbling old local lurched from one godforsaken backwater to the next. But I wanted to hear more of her voice, and to stand there right next to her and inhale the ethereal but intoxicating fragrance of her, so I decided to suggest, “Why don’t you give us a more informal summary, so we can understand it from your perspective?”

“Well,” she said, and I was in heaven just listening to the music of her voice, “it should be a basic bacterial infection, but those aren’t basic bacteria. They come from a strain we were modifying genetically to fight against other infections.”

“You said they were like primitive computers,” I mentioned just to show that I had actually done my homework, and with the hope that she would turn those eyes back to me for a moment.

“Very primitive,” she confirmed—and yes! the eyes! “Simple binary machines, slow and limited, but implemented biochemically. They were supposed to be able to react to changing conditions with a few simple if-then instructions. And that may be the problem. No matter what we throw at it, the infection just adapts.”

“’How do you get the output from them?” Wright asked.

“Output?”

“Status, data collected…”

“Oh. We don’t. They weren’t designed to collect data. They were just supposed to go in, do their job, and then be flushed out.”

“Mm,” Wright said. It was a disapproving “mm.”

“So they don’t have something like an expiration date?” I asked. “You know, like some way of automatically shutting down when they’re done?”

“They should die when the infection they’re fighting is gone, because that’s their food, so to speak. That didn’t happen. Failing that, we should be able to get rid of them with a standard antibiotic treatment. That didn’t happen either.”

“And you’ve never had this problem before?” I asked.

“This was our first experiment on a human subject,” she answered. I apparently hadn’t quite done all my homework. But at least I got a flash of those eyes. “It worked perfectly in mice.”

“I’ll need a big room,” Wright told her, “with all the equipment for working on your bugs. I’ll need two of your top lab techs who know this project. I’ll need access to every file, including the ones you don’t want to show me because you think they’re trade secrets. And I’ll need you.”

“Me?”

“You’re obviously in charge here, so you can get things done. I need you to drop whatever else you’re doing and be available for me all day, every day, until this problem is solved.”

That was an unusual demand from Wright, whose usual demands were more like “Give me what I want and leave me alone.” But my soul danced a jig that I could barely keep out of my feet when Dr. Witterman cheerfully agreed. Yes! I would be working all day with the love of my life! This would be the best job we’d ever had.

“That went well,” I said cheerfully as I helped Wright unpack his things in the bland but spacious guest room he’d been assigned. “Dr. Witterman gave you everything you wanted, and you didn’t even have to throw a tantrum.”

“And did you ever see legs like those in your life?” Wright added.

A little alarm bell rang in my brain. “What?”

“Rebecca. She has perfect legs.”

“She was wearing pants.”

“They were tight. You could see the shape of her legs. Did you like the way I made sure she’d be with me all day? I’m looking forward to that, I can tell you.”

“Wait a minute. Are you saying you got Dr. Witterman to work with us just so you could gawk at her legs all day?”

“Well, eventually I’m hoping to see a lot more than her legs.”

“You— but— What’s got into you? You never chase women when we’re working. You never chase women when we’re not working.”

“I never met one with legs like those before.” He was smiling and looking past me, as if his mind was filled with pleasant images.

“No,” I said. “No, no, no, no. You can’t do this to me. How can you talk about her legs when…

“When what?”

“When… those eyes?”

“Oh, so you’re an eye man. I’m a leg man. Well, may the best man win, then.”

I slammed a drawer shut and turned to stomp out of the room.

“Just remember,” Wright added, “I’m the genius.”

Because I couldn’t think of a comeback for that, Wright had the last word, which ruined my dramatic exit.

Continues in Part Two.

THE SINGULAR ASPECT.

thirteenth-anniversary

In honor of the thirteenth anniversary of his migration to the World Wide Web, Dr. Boli is reprinting the first story he ever published in electrical form.

A MAN WALKED into Abelard’s office the other day and announced that he had a singular case. Our morning had begun with tea, as usual, but I had hardly poured the first cup when the office door opened and the man with the singular case walked in.

It is well known by now that Magnus Abelard deals only with singular cases, so everyone who walks through the door announces that he has a singular case. Nevertheless, the door is, by Abelard’s explicit command, never locked; and this case really did turn out to be singular. I have taken the trouble, therefore, to record it among Abelard’s most remarkable achievements, in the hope that the record will serve as an imperishable monument to Abelard’s genius.

We began with the usual formalities. I informed our visitor that he would have ten minutes to convince Abelard of the singularity of his case. I also explained the payment schedule in the unlikely event that Abelard did pronounce his case singular. Abelard did not speak during the proceedings; he never does speak until some singular aspect of the case has caught his attention.

“Mine is a singular case,” the visitor began as I took notes. “Indeed, it is so singular that I have not spoken with anyone about it until now. I have lived for ten years in fear for my life—a fear all the worse for being secret. I have not dared reveal it to anyone, and yet it eats at me, day after day, hour after hour, like a kind of parasitic creature that gnaws but cannot consume.”

“You have nine and a half minutes,” I reminded him.

“Ten years ago, my wife, to whom I had been married only a month, announced that she had a few purchases to make, and declared her intention to walk to the drug store on Murray Avenue. She would be gone for about an hour, she said. I bid her farewell; she walked out the door; and that, Mr. Abelard, was the last time I ever saw her.

“I shall not weary you with the details of my inquiries. Over the years, I have found opportunities to interrogate our neighbors and the clerks at the drug store. From their statements, I have discovered that my wife did indeed reach the drug store; that she left and turned right on Murray Avenue; that she was last seen walking on Phillips, the very street on which we lived, in the direction of our house. But she never arrived.”

Here the visitor stopped; and, as Abelard was still silent, I knew the narration had not interested him enough for him to take the case. It was therefore incumbent upon me to disappoint our visitor.

“Disappearances such as the one you describe,” I told him, “while exceedingly regrettable, are not extraordinarily uncommon. Perhaps the city police, or a less specialized private agency, might be able to render you some assistance.”

Our visitor sat back in his chair and sighed. “I have not yet revealed to you,” he said slowly and quietly, “the singular aspect of the case.”

Abelard leaned forward. This statement had at least caught his attention.

The visitor took a deep breath, appeared to think for a moment, and then continued, picking his words with care and deliberation.

“About an hour after my wife left, a woman entered my house by the front door. She entered boldly—as if she owned the place, you might say. Now here is the singular and remarkable thing: in every particular, this woman was the exact image of my missing wife. Even her clothes were the same as the ones my wife had been wearing when she left. She proceeded to make herself quite at home; she treated me as though she were actually my wife.”

Here the visitor leaned forward and lowered his voice about a fifth. “For ten years, Mr. Abelard, that woman has inhabited my house, living in every respect as though she were my wife. For ten long years, I have lived in fear, utterly convinced that this woman in my house is somehow deeply involved in the mystery, and afraid even to sleep at night—afraid I might fall prey to the same sinister forces that took my beloved wife from me. The fear is tearing at my soul, sir, and I have at last resolved that, whatever the cost to myself, I must unravel this mystery.”

A moment of silence followed; then Abelard spoke for the first time.

“And how exactly was it that you knew this woman was not really your wife, returned from her shopping trip?”

The visitor started forward; then he sank slowly back in his chair, staring straight ahead.

“Good lord,” he whispered hoarsely.

Abelard observed him closely.

“Good lord,” the visitor said again, somewhat louder this time. “I never thought of that.”

He sat upright in his chair with a new air of confidence. “Well, sir, you certainly have earned your reputation. I never would have imagined that a mystery of such devilish complexity could be unraveled in such a short time. I shall certainly be recommending your agency. You may expect a check from me in the morning, although you must be aware that no remuneration could ever express my profound gratitude. I bid you good day, and once again I thank you from the bottom of my heart.”

Abelard watched him walk out of the office with a jaunty confidence that had been completely foreign to him only minutes before.

For some time after, Abelard was silent, as though lost in thought. At last he turned to address me.

“Perhaps,” he said, “we ought to reconsider the idea of locking the door.”

THE SINGULAR ASPECT.

TWELFTH ANNIVERSARY.

Dr. Boli has traditionally celebrated the anniversary of his migration to the World-Wide Web by reprinting the first story he ever published in electrical form. Having missed a few anniversaries is all the more reason for celebrating this one.

A MAN WALKED into Abelard’s office the other day and announced that he had a singular case. Our morning had begun with tea, as usual, but I had hardly poured the first cup when the office door opened and the man with the singular case walked in.

It is well known by now that Magnus Abelard deals only with singular cases, so everyone who walks through the door announces that he has a singular case. Nevertheless, the door is, by Abelard’s explicit command, never locked; and this case really did turn out to be singular. I have taken the trouble, therefore, to record it among Abelard’s most remarkable achievements, in the hope that the record will serve as an imperishable monument to Abelard’s genius.

We began with the usual formalities. I informed our visitor that he would have ten minutes to convince Abelard of the singularity of his case. I also explained the payment schedule in the unlikely event that Abelard did pronounce his case singular. Abelard did not speak during the proceedings; he never does speak until some singular aspect of the case has caught his attention.

“Mine is a singular case,” the visitor began as I took notes. “Indeed, it is so singular that I have not spoken with anyone about it until now. I have lived for ten years in fear for my life—a fear all the worse for being secret. I have not dared reveal it to anyone, and yet it eats at me, day after day, hour after hour, like a kind of parasitic creature that gnaws but cannot consume.”

“You have nine and a half minutes,” I reminded him.

“Ten years ago, my wife, to whom I had been married only a month, announced that she had a few purchases to make, and declared her intention to walk to the drug store on Murray Avenue. She would be gone for about an hour, she said. I bid her farewell; she walked out the door; and that, Mr. Abelard, was the last time I ever saw her.

“I shall not weary you with the details of my inquiries. Over the years, I have found opportunities to interrogate our neighbors and the clerks at the drug store. From their statements, I have discovered that my wife did indeed reach the drug store; that she left and turned right on Murray Avenue; that she was last seen walking on Phillips, the very street on which we lived, in the direction of our house. But she never arrived.”

Here the visitor stopped; and, as Abelard was still silent, I knew the narration had not interested him enough for him to take the case. It was therefore incumbent upon me to disappoint our visitor.

“Disappearances such as the one you describe,” I told him, “while exceedingly regrettable, are not extraordinarily uncommon. Perhaps the city police, or a less specialized private agency, might be able to render you some assistance.”

Our visitor sat back in his chair and sighed. “I have not yet revealed to you,” he said slowly and quietly, “the singular aspect of the case.”

Abelard leaned forward. This statement had at least caught his attention.

The visitor took a deep breath, appeared to think for a moment, and then continued, picking his words with care and deliberation.

“About an hour after my wife left, a woman entered my house by the front door. She entered boldly—as if she owned the place, you might say. Now here is the singular and remarkable thing: in every particular, this woman was the exact image of my missing wife. Even her clothes were the same as the ones my wife had been wearing when she left. She proceeded to make herself quite at home; she treated me as though she were actually my wife.”

Here the visitor leaned forward and lowered his voice about a fifth. “For ten years, Mr. Abelard, that woman has inhabited my house, living in every respect as though she were my wife. For ten long years, I have lived in fear, utterly convinced that this woman in my house is somehow deeply involved in the mystery, and afraid even to sleep at night—afraid I might fall prey to the same sinister forces that took my beloved wife from me. The fear is tearing at my soul, sir, and I have at last resolved that, whatever the cost to myself, I must unravel this mystery.”

A moment of silence followed; then Abelard spoke for the first time.

“And how exactly was it that you knew this woman was not really your wife, returned from her shopping trip?”

The visitor started forward; then he sank slowly back in his chair, staring straight ahead.

“Good lord,” he whispered hoarsely.

Abelard observed him closely.

“Good lord,” the visitor said again, somewhat louder this time. “I never thought of that.”

He sat upright in his chair with a new air of confidence. “Well, sir, you certainly have earned your reputation. I never would have imagined that a mystery of such devilish complexity could be unraveled in such a short time. I shall certainly be recommending your agency. You may expect a check from me in the morning, although you must be aware that no remuneration could ever express my profound gratitude. I bid you good day, and once again I thank you from the bottom of my heart.”

Abelard watched him walk out of the office with a jaunty confidence that had been completely foreign to him only minutes before.

For some time after, Abelard was silent, as though lost in thought. At last he turned to address me.

“Perhaps,” he said, “we ought to reconsider the idea of locking the door.”

NoteIn an early version of this anniversary article, the story was published with an incorrect title. Dr. Boli apologizes to the three and a half readers who noticed.

THE CASE OF THE MISSING CASE.

NINTH ANNIVERSARY.

As he has done every year, Dr. Boli celebrates the anniversary of his migration to the World-Wide Web by reprinting the first story he ever published in electrical form.

A MAN WALKED into Abelard’s office the other day and announced that he had a singular case. Our morning had begun with tea, as usual, but I had hardly poured the first cup when the office door opened and the man with the singular case walked in.

It is well known by now that Magnus Abelard deals only with singular cases, so everyone who walks through the door announces that he has a singular case. Nevertheless, the door is, by Abelard’s explicit command, never locked; and this case really did turn out to be singular. I have taken the trouble, therefore, to record it among Abelard’s most remarkable achievements, in the hope that the record will serve as an imperishable monument to Abelard’s genius.

We began with the usual formalities. I informed our visitor that he would have ten minutes to convince Abelard of the singularity of his case. I also explained the payment schedule in the unlikely event that Abelard did pronounce his case singular. Abelard did not speak during the proceedings; he never does speak until some singular aspect of the case has caught his attention.

“Mine is a singular case,” the visitor began as I took notes. “Indeed, it is so singular that I have not spoken with anyone about it until now. I have lived for ten years in fear for my life—a fear all the worse for being secret. I have not dared reveal it to anyone, and yet it eats at me, day after day, hour after hour, like a kind of parasitic creature that gnaws but cannot consume.”

“You have nine and a half minutes,” I reminded him.

“Ten years ago, my wife, to whom I had been married only a month, announced that she had a few purchases to make, and declared her intention to walk to the drug store on Murray Avenue. She would be gone for about an hour, she said. I bid her farewell; she walked out the door; and that, Mr. Abelard, was the last time I ever saw her.

“I shall not weary you with the details of my inquiries. Over the years, I have found opportunities to interrogate our neighbors and the clerks at the drug store. From their statements, I have discovered that my wife did indeed reach the drug store; that she left and turned right on Murray Avenue; that she was last seen walking on Phillips, the very street on which we lived, in the direction of our house. But she never arrived.”

Here the visitor stopped; and, as Abelard was still silent, I knew the narration had not interested him enough for him to take the case. It was therefore incumbent upon me to disappoint our visitor.

“Disappearances such as the one you describe,” I told him, “while exceedingly regrettable, are not extraordinarily uncommon. Perhaps the city police, or a less specialized private agency, might be able to render you some assistance.”

Our visitor sat back in his chair and sighed. “I have not yet revealed to you,” he said slowly and quietly, “the singular aspect of the case.”

Abelard leaned forward. This statement had at least caught his attention.

The visitor took a deep breath, appeared to think for a moment, and then continued, picking his words with care and deliberation.

“About an hour after my wife left, a woman entered my house by the front door. She entered boldly—as if she owned the place, you might say. Now here is the singular and remarkable thing: in every particular, this woman was the exact image of my missing wife. Even her clothes were the same as the ones my wife had been wearing when she left. She proceeded to make herself quite at home; she treated me as though she were actually my wife.”

Here the visitor leaned forward and lowered his voice about a fifth. “For ten years, Mr. Abelard, that woman has inhabited my house, living in every respect as though she were my wife. For ten long years, I have lived in fear, utterly convinced that this woman in my house is somehow deeply involved in the mystery, and afraid even to sleep at night—afraid I might fall prey to the same sinister forces that took my beloved wife from me. The fear is tearing at my soul, sir, and I have at last resolved that, whatever the cost to myself, I must unravel this mystery.”

A moment of silence followed; then Abelard spoke for the first time.

“And how exactly was it that you knew this woman was not really your wife, returned from her shopping trip?”

The visitor started forward; then he sank slowly back in his chair, staring straight ahead.

“Good lord,” he whispered hoarsely.

Abelard observed him closely.

“Good lord,” the visitor said again, somewhat louder this time. “I never thought of that.”

He sat upright in his chair with a new air of confidence. “Well, sir, you certainly have earned your reputation. I never would have imagined that a mystery of such devilish complexity could be unraveled in such a short time. I shall certainly be recommending your agency. You may expect a check from me in the morning, although you must be aware that no remuneration could ever express my profound gratitude. I bid you good day, and once again I thank you from the bottom of my heart.”

Abelard watched him walk out of the office with a jaunty confidence that had been completely foreign to him only minutes before.

For some time after, Abelard was silent, as though lost in thought. At last he turned to address me.

“Perhaps,” he said, “we ought to reconsider the idea of locking the door.”

THE SINGULAR ASPECT.

Eighth Anniversary

As he has done every year, Dr. Boli celebrates the anniversary of his migration to the World-Wide Web by reprinting the first story he ever published in electrical form.

A man walked into Abelard’s office the other day and announced that he had a singular case. Our morning had begun with tea, as usual, but I had hardly poured the first cup when the office door opened and the man with the singular case walked in.

It is well known by now that Magnus Abelard deals only with singular cases, so everyone who walks through the door announces that he has a singular case. Nevertheless, the door is, by Abelard’s explicit command, never locked; and this case really did turn out to be singular. I have taken the trouble, therefore, to record it among Abelard’s most remarkable achievements, in the hope that the record will serve as an imperishable monument to Abelard’s genius.

We began with the usual formalities. I informed our visitor that he would have ten minutes to convince Abelard of the singularity of his case. I also explained the payment schedule in the unlikely event that Abelard did pronounce his case singular. Abelard did not speak during the proceedings; he never does speak until some singular aspect of the case has caught his attention.

“Mine is a singular case,” the visitor began as I took notes. “Indeed, it is so singular that I have not spoken with anyone about it until now. I have lived for ten years in fear for my life—a fear all the worse for being secret. I have not dared reveal it to anyone, and yet it eats at me, day after day, hour after hour, like a kind of parasitic creature that gnaws but cannot consume.”

“You have nine and a half minutes,” I reminded him.

“Ten years ago, my wife, to whom I had been married only a month, announced that she had a few purchases to make, and declared her intention to walk to the drug store on Murray Avenue. She would be gone for about an hour, she said. I bid her farewell; she walked out the door; and that, Mr. Abelard, was the last time I ever saw her.

“I shall not weary you with the details of my inquiries. Over the years, I have found opportunities to interrogate our neighbors and the clerks at the drug store. From their statements, I have discovered that my wife did indeed reach the drug store; that she left and turned right on Murray Avenue; that she was last seen walking on Phillips, the very street on which we lived, in the direction of our house. But she never arrived.”

Here the visitor stopped; and, as Abelard was still silent, I knew the narration had not interested him enough for him to take the case. It was therefore incumbent upon me to disappoint our visitor.

“Disappearances such as the one you describe,” I told him, “while exceedingly regrettable, are not extraordinarily uncommon. Perhaps the city police, or a less specialized private agency, might be able to render you some assistance.”

Our visitor sat back in his chair and sighed. “I have not yet revealed to you,” he said slowly and quietly, “the singular aspect of the case.”

Abelard leaned forward. This statement had at least caught his attention.

The visitor took a deep breath, appeared to think for a moment, and then continued, picking his words with care and deliberation.

“About an hour after my wife left, a woman entered my house by the front door. She entered boldly—as if she owned the place, you might say. Now here is the singular and remarkable thing: in every particular, this woman was the exact image of my missing wife. Even her clothes were the same as the ones my wife had been wearing when she left. She proceeded to make herself quite at home; she treated me as though she were actually my wife.”

Here the visitor leaned forward and lowered his voice about a fifth. “For ten years, Mr. Abelard, that woman has inhabited my house, living in every respect as though she were my wife. For ten long years, I have lived in fear, utterly convinced that this woman in my house is somehow deeply involved in the mystery, and afraid even to sleep at night—afraid I might fall prey to the same sinister forces that took my beloved wife from me. The fear is tearing at my soul, sir, and I have at last resolved that, whatever the cost to myself, I must unravel this mystery.”

A moment of silence followed; then Abelard spoke for the first time.

“And how exactly was it that you knew this woman was not really your wife, returned from her shopping trip?”

The visitor started forward; then he sank slowly back in his chair, staring straight ahead.

“Good lord,” he whispered hoarsely.

Abelard observed him closely.

“Good lord,” the visitor said again, somewhat louder this time. “I never thought of that.”

He sat upright in his chair with a new air of confidence. “Well, sir, you certainly have earned your reputation. I never would have imagined that a mystery of such devilish complexity could be unraveled in such a short time. I shall certainly be recommending your agency. You may expect a check from me in the morning, although you must be aware that no remuneration could ever express my profound gratitude. I bid you good day, and once again I thank you from the bottom of my heart.”

Abelard watched him walk out of the office with a jaunty confidence that had been completely foreign to him only minutes before.

For some time after, Abelard was silent, as though lost in thought. At last he turned to address me.

“Perhaps,” he said, “we ought to reconsider the idea of locking the door.”

THE ADVENTURE OF THE ARCHBISHOP’S CANE.

An Ozro Reade Mystery.

PART 2.

(Continued from Part 1.)

At once (Reade continued) I attempted to take in all the details of the scene. There were no signs of a struggle; the body had fallen in the middle of the floor, without the usual overturned chairs and broken crockery that accompany a murder in the pantry [see Murder in the Pantry, no. 128 in the Ozro Reade series]. Even the bloody cane was placed neatly parallel to the body.

A few moments later, Dr. Washing-Machine appeared on the scene.

“Let me examine the man,” he said. “I know you are the famous detective, but remember that I was a medical doctor before my useful invention placed me beyond the need of dealing with filthy sick people.”

He stooped beside the body and relayed his findings as he examined.

“It would appear that he has received thirty-one blows to the head from some sort of blunt instrument; his skull is smashed, and, as he has been dead for probably two or three hours, I must inform you that in my professional opinion his chances of recovery are very slim. From the shape and depth of the wounds, I should say that they were inflicted by some object having roughly the form of a cylinder, long in proportion to its width; such as, perhaps, a tenor recorder, or a column from a 1-to-24 scale model of the Parthenon, or an extremely large novelty pencil.”

“Or perhaps that bloody cane beside him,” I suggested.

“By Jove, you really are as sharp as they say. I never should have thought of that myself. Well, from the evidence before us, although I cannot entirely rule out natural causes, or the cane falling accidentally on his head thirty-one times, I should say that Lady Agrippina may possibly be correct in her assumption that this unfortunate man has been murdered.”

I straightened myself up and prepared to get to work. “In that event, Dr. Washing-Machine, week-end etiquette demands that, as the world-famous detective of the party, I should take on the case. Would you be willing to assist me?”

“Oh, I say! Really? I’d be honored, of course. But why me?”

“I need someone of respectable credentials but distinctly limited mental capacity, whose inevitable misinterpretations of the information we discover will serve to set my correct deductions in high relief, as it were.”

“Say no more! I’m in. Just tell me what to do.”

“The first thing to do, then, is to summon the local constabulary. It is essential that they should bumble about for a while and arrest the wrong suspect. In the interim, we must make sure no one leaves this house, not even any of the other servants, though we shall not interview them, and in fact this statement will be our only reminder of their existence for the rest of the night. Once we have made those arrangements, the two of us must interview the other guests one by one, so as to discover the embarrassing but ultimately irrelevant secrets they are hiding from us and from one another. It is an arduous process, but one that is absolutely essential to the conduct of my investigation; for even though I already know what happened and how, the laws of week-end etiquette strictly bind me to conceal that information until we have uncovered a certain number of apparent clues that will prove later on to be ‘red herrings,’ as we say in the detecting trade.”

“Right,” said Dr. Washing-Machine. “I’ll have the butler call for the—— oh, I suppose that won’t work very well, will it? Never mind. I shall attempt it myself. Assuming I do succeed in figuring out that infernal telephone contraption, whom shall we interview first?”

“I think it ought to be the privilege of the hostess to be interviewed first, don’t you?”

“Is that week-end etiquette as well?”

“I believe it can at least be deduced from the principles of week-end etiquette. You ring the constabulary; I shall arrange the library as our interviewing room.”

While Dr. Washing-Machine was gone, I procured a liberal supply of handkerchiefs against the probable outbreak of tears in several of the interviews; then I placed the chairs around the reading table, making sure that my own chair was at precisely the proper distance for leaning in dramatically when such histrionics were called for. In a few minutes, Dr. Washing-Machine returned with the announcement that a constable was on his way; though, as a bicycle was his only transportation, the condition of the roads and the distance from the village would prevent him from arriving earlier than half past one. “The telephone is actually a very simple affair once you figure out that you have to pick up that thing with the wire coming out of it before you start talking to it. I’m surprised they don’t have that printed on it somewhere.”

“I’m glad you succeeded,” I told him. “Now, remember, doctor, that your rôle in these interviews will be to belabor the obvious, to ask disorientingly obtuse questions, and to leap to obviously incorrect conclusions. If you would be so kind, would you ask Lady Agrippina to step in here please?”

“I say, this is terribly exciting! Would you like me to use the telephone again? Oh, but I suppose that’s best left for talking to people who are outside the house. Well, I’ll be right back in half a shake.”

It was closer to three quarters of a shake, but soon Dr. Washing-Machine had returned with our exceptionally lovely hostess, who sat opposite us at the reading table and immediately took advantage of the supply of handkerchiefs I had laid in.

“First of all,” I said with a calculated air of sympathy, “let me express my condolences on your loss. It must be very difficult for you.”

“Yes—yes, it is.” She blew her nose loudly. “Eames was more than a butler to me. He was family. The kind of family you never invite to dinner and never give a birthday present and whose first name you don’t actually know, but certainly family.”

“Like a first cousin twice removed who always shows up Thursday afternoons and sits in the corner of the front parlor reading Upper Middle Class Romance Monthly but never says much of anything,” Dr. Washing-Machine volunteered.

“I shall be brief, then,” I continued. “In order to establish the facts of the case, I should like to have you tell me, in as much detail as you can remember, exactly what you did from the time we dispersed after Sir Sigismond’s outburst in the hall to the time you discovered Eames in the pantry.”

“There’s very little to tell,” Lady Agrippina responded. “I went up to the sewing room to work, and it was—”

“Just a moment,” I interrupted. “Pardon me for inquiring, but exactly what sort of work were you doing?”

“It’s just a little hobby of mine. I’ve been building a model of the Parthenon at 1:24 scale. I’m just working on the columns right now.”

“I see. And how long were you up there in the sewing room?”

“Till just about midnight. I stayed in the sewing room the whole time, and quite definitely did not pay a clandestine visit to Sir Inigo Scotch-Terrier’s room. I was so involved in my work that the time took me by surprise. When I saw that the clock was about to strike twelve, I decided to get myself something to eat before going to bed. And that was when—”

Here she trailed off, dabbing her eye with the handkerchief.

“Yes, of course,” I said sympathetically. “So you had no contact with Eames between the time you sent him to clear the dinner things and the time you discovered his body?”

“None at all.”

“Well,” Dr. Washing-Machine said after Lady Agrippina had left the room, “she was in the sewing-room when the murder occurred. Clearly she had nothing to do with it.”

“Unless she’s lying,” I remarked.

“Good lord! I never thought of that at all! My word, Reade, you do have a steel-trap mind. Well, what shall we do now?”

“Would you mind asking Mr. Ramshackle to step in here, please?”

Elbert Ramshackle entered wearing a mauve silk dressing-gown over bright yellow silk pajamas. “Murder,” he said as he sat in his chair, “is like a violin. It must be tuned regularly, or it—or it— no, hang it, that’s not going anywhere, is it?”

“I shall be brief,” I told him. “I should like a complete account of where you were and what you did from the time we dispersed after Sir Sigismond’s outburst in the hall to the time of the discovery of the body.”

“Well, there is little to tell. Abhorring confrontations, which in mundane life are invariably disappointing from an aesthetic point of view when measured against the French dramas of the confrontationalist school, I retired quickly to my room, where I spent a few hours learning the tenor-recorder part in a motet a few of us will be performing at the annual soirée of the Aesthetic Society.”

“I see. And you did not leave your room during that time?”

“Not for an instant. The music is intricate and difficult, and required my complete attention for several hours. There was no time for me, for example, to tiptoe down the hall to Louise-Claude’s room—I mean Mme de Fronsac’s room. Music is like a—”

“So you saw nothing of Eames after he left us to put away the dinner things?”

“Nothing whatsoever.”

“Well,” Dr. Washing-Machine remarked after Ramshackle had left the room, “he was in his room the whole time. Clearly he had nothing to do with the murder.”

“Unless he’s lying,” I pointed out.

“Good lord! There you go again! My word, Reade, what I’d give to have a mind like yours!”

“Could you ask Sir Sigismond to step in next?”

Sir Sigismond entered reluctantly and refused to sit. “I have no intention of remaining long enough to make sitting worth my while,” he explained.

“I shall be brief, then. After you left us in the hall at about seven this evening, you expressed your intention to repair to the pantry for cold meat. Did you go to the pantry then?”

“I suppose you think I’m the sort of man who would fail to reach his destination if he set out for the pantry. I suppose you think I’m the sort of man who would set out for the pantry and end up in the upstairs maid’s room instead. Well, let me inform you that I am not. I reached the pantry as I intended to do, as I allowed nothing, not even the flashing dark eyes and ruby lips and perfect alabaster skin of Henriette the upstairs maid, to distract me from my intention.”

“And did you notice anything unusual when you were in the pantry?”

“Nothing but the blasted inconvenience of having to step over a corpse.”

Dr. Washing-Machine interrupted. “But I say, Prattle, you mean the dead body was already in there when you went in?”

“Yes, and it was a dashed nuisance. Had to be careful not to get his filthy blood on my shoes.”

“But for heaven’s sake, man, why didn’t you tell someone?”

“Tell someone what? It was just a servant. There’s nothing remarkable about it. Butlers die all the time. More often than not, in my experience. He wasn’t even a particularly good one. Expected me to get my own arms out of the sleeves when my coat was absolutely soaked. Why should I go out of my way to deal with a servant’s personal problems? If he’s been murdered, that’s his funeral, as that detestable music-hall screecher from the States would say. Bad enough that I had to step around the rotter to get my roast beef.”

“Well,” said Dr. Washing-Machine after Sir Sigismond had left the room, “the body was already there when he went into the pantry. Clearly he had nothing to do with it.”

“Unless he’s lying,” I suggested.

“You amaze me, Reade! I really ought to have thought of that.”

We had time for only two more interviews, and they followed a similar pattern. Professor Creak had definitely not left his room to dally with any American singers or anything like that, because he was too busy trying to write a treatise on the construction of glasshouses for tropical fruit with a giant novelty pencil that had been a gift from the Accounting Division of the Associated Fruit Vendors of the United Kingdom. Miss Warble had been alone in her room all evening, with no visitors whatsoever, and had certainly not eaten any mangoes in a lascivious manner. By the time we were finished with her, it was nearly half past one.

“Are all the guests still waiting in the hall?” I asked Dr. Washing-Machine.

“Everyone is accounted for,” he replied.

“Very good. The clock says half-past one,” I continued, “so I expect the constable will be here soon.”

“Unless the clock is lying,” Dr. Washing-Machine offered helpfully.

But at that very moment there was a pounding at the door, which, in the absence of Eames, Lady Agrippina opened herself.

“What’s hall this habout murder?” demanded the soaking wet constable on the other side of the door.

“I’m afraid my butler Eames has been murdered,” Lady Agrippina explained.

“Right,” the constable answered. “Did ’e ’ave hany motive?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“No, wait—hit’s the murderer what ’as the motive, ham I right? Not the victim. Well, then, Hi shall ’ave to hask heveryone hin the ’ouse to hassemble ’ere hin the ’all.”

“I have taken the liberty of assembling them already,” I explained.

“Right! Your name, sir?”

“Ozro Reade, world-famous detective.”

“Right. Well, Hi ’ave a hespecially ’ard duty to do, but Hi ’ave to do it. Hi must hask the most hattractive hand hinnocent-looking young woman from this party to step forward, please.”

Lady Agrippina, Miss Warble, and Mme de Fronsac all stepped forward.

“Right,” said the constable. “Well, hit’s not standard procedure to harrest three hinnocent suspects hat once, so Hi’ll ’ave to start from the left. Lady Hagrippina Pinchbeck, Hi harrest you for the murder hof Heames, no known Christian name, formerly hin your hemploy has butler.”

“I say, constable, is that really necessary?” Dr. Washing-Machine asked.

“Hit his habsolutely necessary for me to harrest the most hattractive hand hinnocent-looking young woman hin the party, yes, sir.”

“No, I mean that thing with the aitches, where you drop them where they’re wanted and stick them in where they’re not wanted.”

“Hi must do hit, Hi’m hafraid. Section 416, Constabulary Code: ‘Hall constables, hin speaking with the general public, must drop their haitches’; furthermore, Section 417, ‘Hin dropping ’is haitches, heach constable must remember to compensate by hadding haitches hat the fronts hof words what begin with hay, hee, hi, ho (hexcept for one or once), hor yu, when hit his pronounced without the consonantal Y sound.’ Hi’m honly doing my duty, sir.”

“I see,” Dr. Washing-Machine replied. “Well, it seems like a bally load of effort for you, but a chap’s got to do his duty, I suppose. What about Y?”

“Hi beg your pardon?”

“You know, Y, sometimes a vowel, like Ygg­drasil, Ypsilanti, and so on. How do your regu­lations address that issue?”

“Well, hum… herr… That’ll be just habout henough hout hof you! Now then, Lady Hagrippina, you will haccompany me.”

“That will not be necessary, constable,” I assured him. “Since you have seen fit to arrest our beautiful and innocent hostess, week-end etiquette now permits me to solve the mystery forthwith. As the guests are all gathered here together, I shall do it in the style approved by the foremost authorities on etiquette: namely, by means of an elaborate recapitulation of the whereabouts, activities, and motivations of every member of this party. And I shall do it so thoroughly,” I added, “that it will necessitate a third installment of this story.”

Concluded in Part 3.