"So it leaves me right where I started, doesn't it? And yet I know this: it was no emotional killing. It was all coldly planned. The killer was someone Carmack trusted enough to have in his home; they were probably having a quiet little chat together. And then precisely--on a predetermined minute--the killer rose from his chair and struck."
Mandleco lifted his heavy hands and then, as if conscious of them, let them fall limply across the desk. "But--come now, Beardsley! Psychologic deduction is all very well, but how can you possibly know that?"
Beardsley gazed calmly at the Minister of Justice. For a moment he said nothing. Mandleco seemed more alert than startled, more annoyed than either.
"That," said Beardsley softly, "I am not prepared to tell you."
Mandleco seemed about to pursue the point, but there came an interruption. Both men turned abruptly as the stat-screen gave its warning blip.
"Code C-C-Five!" came the remote voice. "Bermuda to Washington, Priority. This is Priority. C-C-Five ... your party is ready now, sir!"
It was a pool-side scene, with hotel and tropical palms against an unbelievable blue sky. Professor Emil Losch loomed on the screen; he was in swimming trunks, a small gray man who seemed hard as nails, his lean tanned body belying his years.
"Hello?" Losch peered sharply and then pulled away, almost upsetting an expensive decanter of liquor on the table beside him. He seemed to blanch as he recognized the Minister of Justice. "Mandleco!"
The latter raised a hand in greeting. "Don't be alarmed, Professor, this is not official. Just a social call."
"I want to correct that," Beardsley said bluntly as he thrust himself into range. "Professor Losch, this is official; furthermore, I wish to advise you that this stat is monitor-taped for both vis and audio, and the resulting record is therefore admissible in any Court of Law. Being so advised, is there any objection on your part to answering a brief series of questions pertaining to the Carmack Case? I have been duly authorized by George Mandleco, Minister of Justice," he added for the record.
Losch glanced bewilderedly from Beardsley to Mandleco, and seemed to take courage from the latter.
"Objection?" he said. "This is a bit unusual, but ... of course, I have no objection."
"Very well. I shall make a series of statements, and give you opportunity to refute them either in part or in toto. Professor Losch, some years ago you were engaged privately, in magnetronic cybernetic research along similar lines to those later developed by Amos Carmack. Shortly thereafter you claimed that Carmack had thwarted you, out-maneuvered you, out-stolen you at every turn; I believe those are pretty much your own words, as revealed by court records--"
"Correct! I repeat them now!"
"You filed against him, and litigation dragged through the courts for several years before Carmack finally won out. Shortly thereafter you disappeared; I believe you took up residence in Europe. About a year ago you returned, and was hired as Research Consultant in the laboratories of the Carmack Foundation. This is true?"
For a moment Losch avoided looking at the screen. It was obvious he was considering his answer carefully.
"It's true," he said.
Beardsley said quickly, "It is my understanding that Mr. Mandleco interceded with Carmack on your behalf--"
"I protest the last statement!" Losch's words exploded from the screen. "There was no intercession by anyone!" His head lifted defiantly. "Yes, I came back. I don't mind admitting I came crawling back. Carmack offered me the position and I accepted!"
"Quite so. And he offered you a hundred thousand a year, didn't he? Twice the salary of any other top man?"
"You think that's out of line," Losch bristled, "but he must have thought I was worth it--I think you know why! He owed me ten times as much!"
"You must have really hated Carmack," murmured Beardsley.
Mandleco thrust forward angrily, gesturing. "Losch, let me caution you not to answer that!"
"But I will answer it! Yes, I hated him, but if you think I killed the man you're wrong. Sure--I wanted to kill him--I thought about it often enough, but I hadn't the courage." Losch glared at Beardsley from the screen. "No doubt my Augment Index will bear it out," he said bitterly. "Neuro-thalamic imbalance isn't it called? Pronounced efforts at emotional suppression?"
"Close enough," Beardsley nodded, refusing to be enticed from his query. "And you were in Washington prior to and including the day of the murder. You admit this?"
"Of course, of course I admit it!" Losch sighed wearily and lifted his hands. "Why deny the obvious? I'm resigned to the fact that my Index probably makes me a prize Prime!"
"Professor Losch. As a person closely associated with the Carmack Laboratories, you must be aware of the--shall we say--elaborate precautions Carmack took to ensure his privacy?"
Losch sank back slowly, but his eyes couldn't conceal a livening interest. "I don't know what you mean."
"Then I'll tell you. I refer to the frequency barrier which Carmack installed within the past year. The 'neuro-vibe' I think he called it. That strikes a note?"
Losch said sullenly, "Perhaps! What about it?"
"Only this. Assuming the killer was a person Carmack had reason to mistrust--or to fear--he had to solve the neuro-vibe in order to gain access. Not many persons could have done that, Losch. But you could have done it."
Losch came up out of his chair with a heavy, angry look. "Now see here, you--"
"Which pretty well establishes motive, means and method. You were in Washington the day of the murder! And you left for Bermuda the day following! Is that substantially correct?"
"Totally correct!" said Losch savagely. "Now may I ask what the hell you're going to do about it?"
Beardsley observed him for a prolonged second. "Remember it," he answered softly.
Losch opened his mouth to say more, but Beardsley lifted a palm at the screen and smiled benignly. "Well, sir, I think that about covers it. I want to thank you very much for the record, and--ah--have a nice vacation! Goodbye."
With that he clicked off abruptly.
He turned to face Mandleco, who was struggling between anger and distress as he paced away from the screen and back. He confronted Beardsley with a sad and accusing look. "Now see here, Beardsley! If I'd known your methods were ... don't you think that was all a bit high-handed?"
"What? No, not in the least. Didn't you notice?"
"Losch was an angry man, yes, indeed."
"Angry," snapped Mandleco. "Good reason!"
"No," Beardsley mused. "The wrong reason. Murder--at least the type we're concerned with--is a form of release, you know. A killer may commit his deed in anger, but once the thing is accomplished he never retains that anger long." Beardsley gazed contemplatively at the screen. "You know, I admire that man. I really do. He had the convictions at least, if not the courage."
Mandleco pounced on that. "Then you think Losch is innocent?"
"I didn't say that!" Beardsley paused in a strange hesitation; his eyes had gone remote beneath the very thick glasses, and his words came slow and isolated. "But he's part of the record. Yes, it should be quite a record. In fact, I have a feeling--you know?--that this case is going to stand as a monument in the annals of crime...."
Mandleco stared at him, searched for the meaning there and then gave it up. Why had he ever committed himself to this situation anyway? Did this little man really know as much as he pretended, or was he merely fumbling around in the dregs of a forgotten past? To be sure, Beardsley was a pathetic enough figure; but the man had once been great in his field, and there was something about him even now....
There was the sudden way Beardsley had of losing his abstracted look, the eyes beneath those ridiculous lenses coming to a sharp bright focus with tiny livening flecks in the gray of the iris; and the way the change lifted his features from mediocrity to the alertness of a terrier. It was absurd, it was farcical ... and it was all very disturbing.
"You told me," Mandleco said testily, "that the killer was someone Carmack trusted enough to have in his home. Then you bludgeon Losch with the idea it was a person Carmack had reason to fear! It would seem to me, Beardsley--"
"No, no. I think my words to Losch were assuming the killer was such a person." Beardsley looked up brightly, and even through those lenses Mandleco could see the sharp focus.
"Just the same, I fail to see what's to be gained by these outlandish methods!"
Beardsley seemed genuinely surprised. "But I've gained a great deal already! And don't forget, Mrs. Carmack and Pederson should be here soon."
"That's a prospect I look forward to," Mandleco tried to salvage a modicum of humor and failed miserably. He extracted a cigar, clamped his teeth upon it, frowned and glanced at his watch. He strode over and peered out at the operations room.
Beardsley said innocuously, "I wouldn't count on ECAIAC just yet."
It was Beardsley's first error. He realized it instantly. The remark seemed to trigger something in Mandleco.
The Minister of Justice turned slowly, rolling the cigar from one corner of his mouth to the other. "But I may," he said. "You know, I just may! It's barely possible, Beardsley, that with some luck we'll be able to dispense with your talents!" He said it with considerable more relish than conviction, and moved for the door. "I think I'll just see how Arnold is making out!"
Arnold was making out very well, much to Mandleco's delight. No longer was there chaos and confusion. The new feed-back unit had arrived, and installation was well under way. Blueprints were spread out as a crew of techs worked feverishly at all damage areas.
"It looks promising," Arnold hurried up to greet him. "Told you I had a good crew here! Look--see this?" He indicated one of the variant-tapes being slowly reversed across the relays.
"What is it?"
"The number eight reject."
"That what caused the trouble?"
"Well ... we think so, but it's problematical. Whether it did or not, we're safe in resuming the run without any shift in the correlation total."
Mandleco stared at the number eight. "Throw it out!" he snapped.
"What--what did you say, sir?"
"I said throw it out! Get this thing to functioning!"
Arnold was aghast. "But," he gulped, "we just can't throw out data! Sure, it was about to be a reject--but everything, even rejects, contain a factor-balance! You know that, sir."
Mandleco got control of himself with an effort. "Yes--yes, of course. I know you're right. But damn it, man, those units cost something like eighty thousand dollars! Suppose the same breakdown occurs?"
"Not a chance of it this time. We'll merely continue with a stepped-up synaptic check. Take longer for Cumulative, perhaps, but absolutely fool-proof once we--"
For a long instant Mandleco stood musing. Then he nodded brusquely. "All right. How long to get going?"
"Why, we'll be ready in forty minutes at the most. I told you I had a good crew, sir! Excuse me--" One of Arnold's techs was motioning to him. "Excuse me," Arnold said again, and hurried away to consult with the man.
"Forty minutes!" Mandleco couldn't believe it. He chortled happily, and swung about to greet Beardsley who approached at that moment. "Hear that, Beardsley? Forty minutes! Excellent man, Arnold. I'm sorry I ever doubted--"
Beardsley wasn't listening. He stared about at the miracle of reconstruction, and there was more of amazement on his face than distress. Adjusting his glasses, he gazed thoughtfully at Jeff Arnold's retreating figure.
Mandleco was saying, "Just as well your little experiment didn't go any further! Dangerous precedent ... don't know what possessed me ... you realize that in the last analysis I'll have to put my faith in ECAIAC! No bad feelings?"
"No, sir," Beardsley pronounced somberly. "No bad feelings, because I'm holding you to your word. ECAIAC hasn't solved your case and it never will."
Mandleco stood still, open-mouthed. "What's that? Nonsense! Arnold just assured me--"
"He assured you of nothing! I'm more convinced than ever now. I'm the only one who can solve this case, and I'm holding you to your word."
Mandleco seemed undecided whether to laugh or censure. His heavy fingers opened and closed aimlessly, as he stared across the room at Arnold and back at Beardsley. Finally his teeth snapped together. "Beardsley," he choked--"I warn you, if this is some sort of trickery--"
Beardsley shook his head solemnly. "You'd do well to believe me, sir. I was never more serious."
"So you're determined to go on with it! Very well, Beardsley. You have something like forty minutes, and believe me you'd better prove yourself! May I remind you"--fraught with meaning, his voice bordered on anticipation--"may I remind you, Beardsley, that already you've given sufficient cause for a complete review of your qualifications as Coordinator?"
Beardsley looked at him and smiled. "Yes, sir. And may I remind you, sir," he nodded toward the far door, "that your guests have arrived?"
Mrs. Carmack, Beardsley thought as he watched her, was that rare type of woman who could defy all the current conventions of style and carry it off successfully; her type of beauty was unostentatious and yet vibrant. She was dressed impeccably in black and silver, her hair was authentic honey-blonde in a coronet braid, and her face possessed that pure line of profile together with the quality of translucence one sees in rare porcelain.... Sheila Carmack was thirty-five, and she paid her beauticians that many thousands annually to keep her looking fifteen years younger. Just now she seemed in buoyant good spirits as she greeted Mandleco.
Not so the young man who accompanied her. The escort was a person Beardsley had never seen before, quite handsome and quite aware of it, with an impudent world-wisdom centered about his sharp eyes. He turned immediately to Mandleco with a bluster as phony as it was towering: "This is an outrage, sir! A damned outrage! On Sheila's behalf I deplore these tactics, and I question your right! Our entire afternoon perfectly ruined...."
"Correction, darling," purred Mrs. Carmack. "You mean our perfect afternoon entirely ruined." She turned smiling to the Minister of Justice. "You really mustn't mind Victor."
"Hello, Sheila," Mandleco greeted her wanly. "I must apologize for the inconvenience, but I assure you--"
"Oh, but this is thrilling! I mean really!" Mrs. Carmack was gazing about ECAIAC's room with considerable more delight than suspicion, and Beardsley watching her was thinking: Thrilling! Can she really mean it? She must surely be aware of ECAIAC's task for today--today of all days....
He glanced uneasily down the room, and saw that Jeff Arnold was much too occupied to have noticed the newcomers. He gestured to Mandleco, who finally took the hint and escorted the visitors into the privacy of the office.
There Mandleco offered drinks, but the young man named Victor refused his, preferring to maintain his air of injured dignity. Mandleco sighed and gave an accusing look at Beardsley. "I know this is unusual," he apologized to Sheila, "but I--uh--I am rather hopeful that you may find it entertaining!" He gave a slight sardonic emphasis to the last word. "If you'll just bear with me until our other guest arrives."
Victor had been awaiting his chance. "Another? Really! We're guests, Sheila, do you hear that?" He looked at Mandleco with immense disdain, gave a pert tilt of his head and surveyed the room with a grimace of distaste. "And just how long are we to be detained in this--this--"
Beardsley's fist itched to splatter those handsome features around a little. Instead he strode forward, said bluntly: "That'll do it, sonny! Who the hell are you anyway?"
The handsome face sneered at him. "I am Victor d'Arlan! I am a good friend of Sheila's--of the family," he corrected. "We were on our way to the Concert when those--those impertinent men detained us. To think we must forego Perro's Fifth Color-Concerto for Sub-Chromatics in favor of this!"
Sheila's eyes danced with tolerant amusement. "Victor, please. This promises to be much more exciting; I'm sure Mr. Mandleco knows what he is about, and...." Wide and curious, her gaze went to Beardsley and lingered there.
Belatedly, Mandleco made introductions. "Perhaps I should explain," he gave an improvident laugh, "that Mr. Beardsley's role at the moment is--ah--a little beyond the ordinary! That is, I--" He paused miserably, and then was saved for the moment as all eyes turned toward the door.
Brook Pederson had arrived and the attention of everyone was drawn to him.