Bill MacDonald looked across the table at Jean and said, "All right, Jean."
Jean and all the MacDonalds bent their heads and the girl began, "We thank Thee for our daily bread as by Thy hands...."
As the girl spoke Phil's gaze drifted around to his wife, who lifted her shoulders in mystified amazement. But it was a bigger surprise to see John's bent head. For the moment John was a part of this family--part of a wholeness tied together by an invisible bond. The utter strangeness of it shocked Philon into rare clarity of insight.
He saw himself wrapped up in his business with little regard for Ursula or John, letting them exist under his roof without making them a part of his life. Ursula with her succession of gigolos and her psycho-plays and John withdrawn into his upstairs room with his books. Then he closed his mind again as if the insight were too blinding.
What strange customs these MacDonalds had! Yet he had to admit the meal looked more appetizing than anything he had ever seen. It gave an impression of sumptuous plenty to see the food for everybody in one place instead of individually packaged under glistening thermocel. And instead of throwaway dishes they used chinaware that could have come right out of a museum.
Ursula asked, "What kind of fish is this?"
Bill MacDonald answered with a big grin. "It's Royal Chinook salmon that I caught in the fish derby on the Columbia River only last--"
Mrs. MacDonald colored suddenly. "You'll have to forgive Bill. He gets himself so wrapped up in his fishing."
Glancing at MacDonald Philon was surprised to see the same confusion and embarrassment on his host's face.
It was after dinner when Mrs. MacDonald and Jean were clearing the table that Philon looked over the library shelves. MacDonald himself appeared uneasy and hovered in the background.
"You'll have to excuse my selections. They're all pretty old. I--er--inherited most of them from a grandfather."
In a few minutes Philon spotted the Smyth Report. Fixing its position well in mind he turned away. MacDonald was saying, "Come down in the basement and I'll show you my hobby room."
"Glad to." As MacDonald led the way Philon whispered to John, "You'll find the book on the second shelf from the bottom on the right side."
John returned him a stony stare of belligerence and Philon clamped his jaw. The boy dropped his glance and gave a reluctant nod of acquiescence.
Upstairs a half hour later Ursula, who had filled her small ashtray with a mound of stubs, suddenly told Philon she was going home.
"But, Ursula, I thought that--"
With thin-lipped impatience she snapped, "I just remembered I had another engagement at eight."
Mrs. MacDonald was genuinely sorry. "Oh, that's too bad, I thought we could have the whole evening together."
Casting a meaningful glance at John and getting a confirming cold-eyed nod in return, Philon got on his feet. "Sorry, folks. Maybe we'll get together another time."
"I hope so," MacDonald said.
In angry silence Philon walked home. Not until they were all in the house and Ursula was hastening toward her second-floor room did he say a word. "I suppose your 'other engagement' means the Cairo again tonight?"
Ascending on the escalator Ursula turned to look scornfully over her shoulder. "Yes! Anything to escape from boredom. All that woman talked about while you were in the basement was redecorating the house or about cooking and asking my opinions. Ugh!"
Philon laughed mirthlessly. "Yeah, I guess she picked a flat number to discuss those things with. Anything you might have learned about them you must have got out of a psychoplay."
Stepping off the escalator at the top Ursula spit a nasty epithet his way, then disappeared into the upstairs hall.
John stood at the foot of the escalator, a reluctant witness to the bickering. Divining his attitude Philon mentally shrugged it off. The kid might as well learn what married life was like in these modern days.
"You got the book, eh?"
John pulled a book from his suit coat and laid it on a small table. "Yes, there's the book--and I never felt so rotten about anything in all my life!"
Philon said, "Kid, you've got a lot to learn about getting along in this world."
"All right--so I've got a lot to learn," John cried bitterly. "But there must be more to life than trying to stop the other guy from stripping the shirt off your back while you succeed in stripping off his!"
With that he took the escalator to the upper hall while Philon watched him disappear.
Left alone now, Philon settled into a chair by a window and stared down the street at the MacDonald house. Odd people--it almost seemed they didn't belong in this time and period, considering their queer ways of thinking and looking at things. MacDonald himself in particular had some odd personal attitudes.
Like that incident in his basement--Philon had curiously pulled open a heavy steel door to a small cubicle filled with a most complex arrangement of large coils and heavy insulators and glassed-in filaments. MacDonald was almost rude in closing the door when he found Philon opening it. He had fumbled and stuttered around, explaining the room was a niche where he did a little experimenting on his own. Yes, strange people.
The next day Philon eagerly hastened to a bookstore dealing in antique editions. Hugging the book closely Philon told himself his troubles were all over. The book would surely bring between fifty and a hundred grand.
A clerk approached. "Can I help you?"
"I want to talk to Mr. Norton himself."
The clerk spoke into a wrist transmitter. "Mr. Norton, a man to see you."
In a few moments a bulbous man came heavily down the aisle, peering through dark tinted glasses at Philon. "Yes?"
"I have a very rare first edition of Smyth's Atomic Energy," said Philon, showing the book.
Norton adjusted his glasses, then took the book. He carefully handled it, looking over the outside of the covers, then thumbed the pages. After a long frowning moment, he said, "Publication date is nineteen forty-six but the book's fairly new. Must have been kept hermetically sealed in helium for a good many years."
"Yeah, yeah, it was," Philon said matter-of-factly. "Came from my paternal grandfather's side of the family. A book like this ought to be worth at the very least seventy-five thousand."
But the bulbous Mr. Norton was not impressed. He shrugged vaguely. "Well--it's just possible--" He looked up at Philon suddenly. "Before I make any offer to you I shall have to radiocarbon date the book. Are you willing to sacrifice a back flyleaf in the process?"
"Why a flyleaf?"
"We have to convert a sample of the book into carbon dioxide to geigercount the radioactivity in the carbon. You see, all living things like the cotton in the rags the paper is made of absorb the radioactive carbon fourteen that is formed in the upper atmosphere by cosmic radiation. Then it begins to decay and we can measure very accurately the amount, which gives us an absolute time span."
With a frustrated feeling Philon agreed. "Well okay then. It's a waste of time I think. The book is obviously a first edition."
"It will take the technician about two hours to complete the analysis. We'll have an answer for you--say after lunch."
The two hours dragged by and Philon eagerly hastened to the store.
When Mr. Norton appeared he wore the grim look of a righteously angry man. He thrust the book at Philon. "Here, sir, is your book. The next time you try to foist one over on a book trader remember science is a shrewd detective and you'll have to be cleverer than you've been this time. This book is, I'll admit, a clever job, but nevertheless a forgery. It was not printed in nineteen forty-six. The radiocarbon analysis fixes its age at a mere five or six years. Good day, sir!"
Philon's mouth fell open. "But--but the MacDonalds have had it for...." He caught himself, and stammered, "There must be some mistake because I...."
Norton said firmly, "I bid you good day, sir!"
With a sense of the sky falling in on him, Philon found himself out on the street. No one could be trusted nowadays and he shouldn't have been surprised at the MacDonalds. Everyone had a little sideline, a gimmick, to put one over on whoever was gullible enough to swallow it.
Why should he assume a hillbilly family from way out in Oregon was any different? This was probably Bill MacDonald's little racket and it was just Philon's bad luck to stumble on it. MacDonald probably peddled his spurious first editions down on Front Street for a few hundred dollars to old bookstores unable to afford radiocarbon dating.
For awhile he stared out his office window, brooding. The fifty grand just wasn't to be had--legally or illegally. And when he recalled Feisel's little gem about the man falling out his office window Philon was definitely ill.
Then the cunning that comes to the rescue of all scheming gentry who depend on their wits emerged from perverse hiding. An ingenious idea to solve the nagging problem of the fifty thousand arrived full-blown. Grinning secretively to himself, he walked into the telecommunications room.
He got the Technical Reference Room at the Public Library and asked for the detailed plans of the big electronic National Vote Tabulating machine in Washington. At the other end a microfilm reel clicked into place, ready to obey his finger-tip control.
For two hours he read and read, making notes and studying the circuits of the complicated machine. Then, satisfied with his information, he returned the microfilm.
Leaving the office he descended to the streets and set out for the party headquarters. Now if only he could sell the neat little idea to the hierarchy....
At the luxurious marbled headquarters he asked to be let into the general chairman's office. The receptionist announced him and Philon walked in to find Rakoff awaiting him behind his beautiful carved desk.
Rakoff's dead-white cheeks never stirred and his stiff blond hair stood up in a rigid crew cut. He rolled his cigar in his big mouth. "Hello, Miller. What's on your mind?"
Philon took a breath and it seemed to him now that this idea was a crazy one. "I came to tell you I'm unable to raise my fifty grand quota, Rakoff."
The man's brows moved slightly and his eyes narrowed significantly. With a rasp in his voice he said deliberately, "That's too bad, Mr. Miller--for you."
The rasping tongue put a faint quaver in Philon's voice but he went on. "However, I've brought you an idea that's worth more than fifty grand. It's worth millions."
Rakoff's eyes hardly blinked. "I'm listening--you're talking."
And Philon talked, talked rapidly and convincingly. When he finished Rakoff slapped his fat thigh in excitement.
That evening Philon dropped in on Bill MacDonald, who was sitting in his slippers smoking an old fashioned wood pipe.
"Come in, come in." MacDonald greeted him with a friendly smile. "I was just doing a little reading."
Philon held out the book. "I'm returning your masterpiece," he said with a sardonic smile.
MacDonald received it, glancing at the title. "Oh, Smyth's Atomic Energy. Good book--did you find it interesting?"
Philon began to laugh. "Well, I'll tell you, Bill, your little racket of having spurious first editions printed some place and then peddling them sure caught up with me."
The good-natured smile on MacDonald's face faded in a look of incredulity. He took the pipe from his mouth. "Spurious first editions?"
"Yeah, I sure took a beating today but I couldn't help laughing over it afterwards. Here I've been thinking of you folks as simon-pure numbers. But I got to hand it to you. You sure took me in with Smyth's Atomic Energy as being a genuine first edition." Philon went on to explain the radiocarbon dating of the book.
MacDonald finally broke in to protest, "But that book really is over a hundred years old." Then he looked up at his wife. "Of course, Carol, that's the explanation. The radiocarbon wouldn't decay a full hundred years any more than we...." Suddenly, he seemed to catch himself, as his wife raised a hand in apparent agitation.
"But why did you want to sell my book to a dealer?" MacDonald continued.
Philon went on to explain the system of the poll quota. He told him a lot of other things too about the election of a President and the organized political machines that levied upon all registered voters what amounted to a checkoff of their incomes.
Carol MacDonald said, "You mean that not everyone can vote?"
Philon looked at her in surprise. "Well, of course not. Only people of means vote--and why shouldn't they? They take the most interest in the elections and all the candidates come from the higher-middle-class of income. Anyway why should the people squawk? They took less and less interest in the elections.
"When the proportion of voters turning out for elections got down to thirty percent those that did turn out passed laws disenfranchising those who hadn't voted for two Presidential elections. So if things aren't being run to suit those who lost their rights to vote they've got no one to thank but themselves."
Bill MacDonald looked at his wife and said in a voice filled with incredulity, "My lord, Carol, if the people back there only knew what their careless and negligent disinterest would one day do to their country!"
Philon looked from one to the other, saying, "You sound as if you were talking about the past."
MacDonald said hurriedly, "I--er--was referring to the history books."
That night Philon did not sleep well for the morrow would be a day he'd never forget. Even to his calloused mind the dangers involved in the exploit were considerable.
In the morning he went into John's room and stood looking down at the boy, who sleepily opened his eyes.
Philon said, "I'm going to be gone from my office all day. And if anyone calls or comes to see me here at the house tell him I'm sick. If necessary I'm ordering you to swear in court that I was here all day and night. Ursula's gone for the weekend to the seashore, so I'm depending on you. Do you understand?"
John frowned in confusion. "You say you're sick and staying home all day?"
Impatience edging his words Philon went over the explanation again.
"What d'you mean 'swear in court?' What are you planning to do, Phil?" John's eyes were wide open now and full of apprehension.
"Never mind what I'm doing. Just tell anybody inquiring that I'm sick at home."
"You mean lie, eh?"
Phil lifted his hand, then swung, leaving the imprint of his four fingers on the boy's left cheek. "Now do you understand?"
The boy blinked back a tear and nodded wordlessly.
In the late afternoon Philon landed at Washington and under an assumed name made his way to the government building housing the big Election Tabulator. At the technical maintenance offices Philon asked, "Is Al Brant around?"
"Nope. He doesn't come on duty until tomorrow."
At Brant's address Philon knocked on an apartment door. Footsteps approached inside and the door was opened by a medium-sized man with black tousled hair. He appeared less than happy to see Philon.
"Hello, Phil. What's on your mind?"
Philon stuck out his hand. "Al, glad to see you again. I know you're not pleased to see me but let's let bygones be bygones. Can we talk?"
Al Brant stepped back reluctantly. "Well, I guess so. I thought we'd said everything we had to say the last time."
Philon walked in and settled himself on the davenport. "Yeah, I know, Al, we had some pretty harsh words. But at least I got you out of the mess."
Brant said bitterly, "Yeah, got me out of a mess I got into helping you on one of your shady deals when I worked for you. Well, as I said before, what's on your mind?"
Philon patted his right chest saying, "Got a hundred thousand here for you, Al."