Paul's new temporary office was a small, unattractive one in a building off Mahogany Row. Paul's heart sank when he explored it, but he realized that he had a purpose to accomplish.
As he stared at the bare wallsoff-baby blue scarred with old tape marks, pencil streaks, laundry marker graffitiand the brown linoleum floor that was missing a few tiles, he realized how precarious his position was. Nobody had said this to him yet, but he knew that he must be able to prove his new technology.
He had a battered wooden desk and a plain wooden chair. He sat down and put his pencil and the Ufimtsev paper on the desk before him. There was something else. He'd put it out of his mind, but now it dawned on himthey'd stumble over it as the previous investigator had. But the previous investigator had not been his enemy. The current two men seen by the librarian might well be in league with these auditors.
Everything rested on his proving the diffraction concept!
He almost couldn't concentrate for the burning in his stomach. His head was awhirl. He hardly noticed as a workman came in and began installing a plain black telephone on the desk.
Okay, first things first.
He went out to the parking lot to get his car. Deep in thought, he fumbled for the keys for a minute or two. Then he got in and started to put the key in the ignition.
Backing out of his former nose-in parking space was a green Jaguar convertible. The top was down, and looking over his shoulder backing out was a smug Alex Fitch. Sitting beside him was Marsha Kassner. She sat a bit stiffly, with her hands evidently folded in her lap, and her expression was unreadableshe looked comfortable, Paul thought, maybe even amused at something Fitch was saying.
Fitch changed gears and the car rolled forward.
Then Fitch said something clever and Marsha burst out laughing, so much that she held her hand over her mouth for a second. Then she had to reach up and catch her sunglasses before they fell off. They drove away, both talking and laughing at once as if they'd been friends for years.
Paul felt the blow hit him, like a second punch.
Okay, this was not his day. Not his week. Not his season. Not his life.
He sighed deeply as he started the Mustang. Don't die on me, he thought at the car, and it purred smoothly. Of course you won't because I can fix whatever is wrong with you. I can open the hood and fiddle until you're better. I can't do that with Marsha or with these people at work here. But there will be good times again. Somehow. Someday. Somewhere.
At home, Paul made a pot of coffee. He opened a pack of cookies. And he piled his purchases of the previous Friday on the living room table.
As he sipped the hot coffee, and munched on the sweetness of the cookies, he doodled his design for the prototype on a pad. He'd have to build the engine frame himself before he could approach Steve to get any shop work done, like on the inner surfaces.
The windows were open, and the air smelled sweet. It was nice to be homeif he didn't feel so twisted up inside!
There was a knock on the door, and he got up to answer. For a second, he hoped it would be Marsha. Buthe glanced at his watchshe'd be back from her lunch date with Fitchandwell, he had an ominous feeling about her now.
Mrs. Garcia stood before the door, wearing her long gray wool coat and holding her worn black purse. She was a white-haired, heavy-set woman of 60, with a coppery complexion that bespoke her Mexican-American heritage. "Hello, Paul."
"Mrs. Garcia! I thought you gave up on me."
"Do you still need laundry done, and such?"
"More than ever. Come on in." He let her in and closed the door.
"I'm sorry, Paul. I had things to do in the city. My oldest daughter was sick, and I cared for her children. I asked Alberto to tell you, but I guess he must have forgotten."
"That's okay. I have more laundry and dishes than I know what to do with."
"Okay," she said, taking her coat off. "I'll start with the laundry."
The phone rang, and Paul sprang to answer.
"Paul?" It was his dad a retired teacher. Paul's parents now lived in Cocoa Beach, Florida.
"Dad! How are you. How long since we talked?"
As was his custom, Mark was gruff and to the point. "We're fine. I'm a little concerned, son. Some FBI people came around yesterday. It's a good thing your mother was out having her hair done."
"Yeah, they were snooping around the library here too. For all I now, they may be listening in on us." Geez, am I getting paranoid or what? "What did they want, Dad?"
"Well, they asked about this and that, you know, and then they narrowed in on your college days. I tried to tell them, 'the boy got straight A's and was on the dean's list every semester.' "
Here it comes.
"Then they zeroed in on that unfortunate situation. I had a feeling those bastards were after that from the start. I tried to tell them it was all a mistake, but they just wanted the facts. Just the facts, sir. Makes me sick."
"Yeah..." Paul nodded to himself. It was coming down the pike, like an express train, and he was going to be run over.
A steady man... Marsha had said. Not a guy who's been arrested, who is about to lose his job, and maybe already has lost his mind to be playing with models.
He tried to reassure his father: "It's probably nothing, Dad. Everything is fine at work. I can't say any more than that about what I'm doing. It's probably just a routine background investigation." He made up a new word: "It's probably a recertification. Yeah. A recert."
"Well, I hope so, son. How's the social life?"
Ouch. "Well, I went down to San Diego this weekend with a neighbor and her son. Had a great time.
His father's tone got gruffer, like gravel. "Stay away from those divorced women, especially if they have kids."
"This one's a widow, Dad." Why was he becoming defensive about her?
"Well." For a moment the old man didn't know what to say. "Okay then. You take care, son."
"Okay, Dad. Thanks. Bye."
Why did I not say something like, Love you, Dad? He banished the fleeting thought.
Back to his model. He had three propeller screws. He'd thought about using four, but it would be difficult enough getting three screws to work in perfect alignment. He'd need a little stiffer frame, and that would add weight. Damn! But then again, the chassis might be inert, but it did the fundamental work of holding the entire machine together.
He leapt up. "Mrs. Garcia!"
The elderly woman looked up from a couch littered with clothing. "Yes?"
"Is your husband still doing metals work?"
"Do you think he'd help me out? I need a few little things doneI'll pay him."
She waved. "Sure. Just give him a call."
An hour later, Paul stood in the cavernous interior of A. Garcia & Son, Metals.
Alberto Garcia was a big, solid man, over six feet tall, with wide shoulders and, in his upper years, an equally wide stomach that his pillow-striped gray-black overalls did little to hide. The shop smelled of tar and oil and burning rubber. In one corner, Garcia's son Juan pounded noisily with a hammer on a bar of metal on an anvil while a cousin stood by with welder's mask and torch to put together a wrought iron fence. In another corner, two Garcia cousins were rebuilding an old racing car.
"What can I do you for, Denny?"
Paul held up his drawings. "I need an eighth inch thick sheet of radio frame stamped out with these tokens." He'd marked the shapes he needed cut.
Garcia took the paper in a gloved hand and held it up. He squinted, head back, and flicked the paper several times fighting the wind which wanted to fold it over his fist. "Yeah, we can do this while you wait," he said. "Cost you twenty bucks for the setup and op time. I'll give you the metal free."
"That's nice of you, Mr. Garcia."
While he waited, Paul strolled around the garage. He was watching a young man in oily blue apron turning a series of three foot pipes to create thread on one end, when he had an idea. "Do you have any really fine iron shavings?"
The young man stopped his machine and lifted his safety glasses up onto his head. "Excuse me?"
"Iron filings. Very fine."
The young man grunted something and indicated Paul should follow him. He took off his gloves. The fellow had a shambling, awkward walk, very slow, while he wiped his blackened hands on his apron. He took Paul to a recycling area that had several small, heavily reinforced dumpsters, the kind a truck could lift once a week. There were also several buckets standing around, filled with a mishmash of metal debrisfine shavings, rough shavings, rings of copper and rings of iron.
"Do you have a fine sieve?" Paul asked.
"Sieve?" The young man shook his head as if he'd been hit, but he dutifully strolled to another part of the yard outside, where Mr. Garcia had a stack of large grates to lay over a concrete mixer. "Too big?"
Frustrated, Paul returned alone to the buckets. They were heavy. He squatted down and nudged them playfully, trying to think of a solution. He wanted very fine pellets. Maybe this was the wrong place to look. Maybe a place that made electronic componentsYes!
"Here's your work," Mr. Garcia said, handing over a piece of heavy paper folded several times. Inside were Paul's precious model parts. He paid Garcia and walked out, wondering if he didn't belong in the model airplane business instead of nose cones.
The iron would have to wait for later.
When Paul returned home, Mrs. Garcia had left. The house looked sparkling clean. The kitchen counter had not shone like that in months. And he'd forgotten to leave her a check! He slapped himself on the forehead and ran out the door. It was a ten minute drive to her house. He left a check in an envelope for her with a small child who answered the door.
When he got back, Marsha was just pulling into the driveway with Pete. She smiled and waved.
Paul waved, but he had to force a smile.
"How are you, Paul?" she asked as she got out of the car.
Pete got out and ran over. "Hi, Mr. Owens."
Paul picked Pete up and spun him around.
"Come on honey," she called to her son. She looked apologetically at Paul. "He has to eat and then start right up on his homework."
"Cool," Paul said, kind of relieved. "Go on, Pete. Run to your mom."
Apparently sensing something, Pete did as he was told, but with an odd, questioning glance over his shoulder.
Paul went into his house, the paper folder with his new acquisitions under his arm, and opened the door into the garage. Flicking a light on, he treaded his way among sporting toysbicycles, surfboard, beach ball, skate board, and moreto his work bench. He flicked on the fluorescent lights and put the metal cutouts on the worn wooden surface. Been a long time since he'd worked on a model here. He'd repaired Pete's finger damage on the kitchen table. This was for hard-core model construction. He flicked on the radio, found a station with good rock tunes, and pulled up a stool.
He pulled out his sketch pad and compared the pieces to drawings he'd done earlier. Perfect. Garcia did precision work. I'm aiming for 25% less return, Paul told himself. That's enough to get their attention with the primitive tools I have here.
He put on safety glasses and inspected his welding kit. Good; he had a full bottle of gas. The first three pieces of the frame had to be perfectly aligned for the rest to fit together properly. He began the assembly by making the most careful measurements. Old Russian saying: cut once, measure seven times. Or was that nine times? How about twelve? When he was absolutely certain that the first two pieces were aligned, he turned on the welding torch and uncurled a short length of flux. He put a few drops of resin on the surfaces and then went to work with flux and torch.
He'd used small wooden dowels of identical length, since he lacked premier shop tools, to prop the stove-ring chassis pieces exactly one inch apart. Now he welded four triangular fins between each level to replace the temporary wooden dowels. At each step, he used small leveling gauges to make sure the alignment was near perfect. Satisfied, he regarded the first result of his work while chewing on a toothpick.
So far so good. What he had now were three plates, each an eighth of an inch thick, held in parallel, so they formed a structure just over two inches high, roughly square at about six inches to a side. In these plates were three matching round holesthat was where the engines would go: three model airplane engines fueled by individual tanks containing a mix of oil and gasoline. It would be noisy, unfortunatelybattery powered would be silent, but the batteries needed would be far too heavy. He didn't want a tethered device because even the finest wire would show up in the radar return.
God, he thought, please let this work or I'll be out of a job and likely ruined.
It was slow, painstaking work, and he went about it methodically, often undoing a piece of work rather than continue on. Sometimes he'd do a step three or four times before nodding in satisfaction.
The doorbell rang.
Paul looked at the shop clock. 5:30 p.m.what to bet it would be old Pete, with the usual question? Paul took off his safety glasses and rubbed his eyes.
The doorbell rang again.
"I'll be right there!"
Time to switch to the FORTRAN code, he thought. If he could get at least one module written tonight, he could bring it to Steve tomorrow and start getting some numbers back for the surface configuration of the prototypes that would have to be built.
"Hi, Mr. Owens!" Pete said, nose to the back screen door.
Paul opened the door, and Pete marched in. "What's up, Pete?"
"I came to see if you want to fly Condor."
"Did you do your homework?"
"Yes, it's all done."
"No math problems?"
"WellMom helped me with those."
"Oh, okay. Good. Sure, let's go fly the plane for a little while."
As he sat on the porch, watching the boy run around as the white plane leaped and soared, he felt a kind of sick pleasure. He wanted to see her, even though he knew as sure as that tree over there was attached to the earth that Alex Fitch would be making his move any time now. Funny, how she'd let him tutor Pete, when she was undoubtedly just as good at arithmetic as Paul, being an accountant. Now she was abandoning that strategywhy? No longer interested? Paul hated being paranoid, but right now it was the only kick he had.
Sure enough, Marsha came out after a while. "Hi, Paul!" she said brightly. "Peter, time to come wash up for supper!" She pattered past, wearing her flowery kitchen apron and fluffy slippers. No effort to apply makeup like that other time; that first blush of wanting to impress him was over, huh? But she still did look very fine, Paul thought.
She looked down and laughed. "Trying to cook and clean and raise a kid." She took Pete by the arm. Pete said: "Hey, no strong arm stuff."
Pete flew the plane toward Paul, landed it expertly at this feet, and cut the engine. As he brought the controls over, Paul applauded.
"I was looking for you today at work," she said. "I'm working in your building now."
"Yeah... well, I've temporarily moved to another building...to do some consulting for another project."
"Oh." She appeared innocently surprised. "Too bad. I was hoping to say hello. Man, everything is way top secret in that place." She put her hand behind Pete's head to tow him along. "Come on, squirt. See you, Paul."
"See you." Paul watched her as she walked away. Okay. Just friends. Fine. He could still see the snapshot in his mind of the way she and Fitch had driven away laughing together.
Back to work! He ordered himself mentally, snapping out of his disappointment.