The effect was startling. The tele-columnist was a tall, dour and bushy-browed man who took a perverse sort of pride in the impression he gave of shabbiness. He slouched wordlessly into the room, hands thrust deep in the pockets of a makeshift jacket. But there was nothing shabby about the man's perceptive and analytic mind, Beardsley remembered; true, Pederson had fallen from the heights since the ECAIAC debacle, but his retirement from the limelight was more studied than sullen and could only have been his own choosing. Lately he had emerged again, and with all of his old news-sense and political acumen he was making his presence felt ... he was a man of considered but lightning mood who, when asked for an opinion invariably gave an argument.
Beardsley observed him shrewdly. From the depths of his mind came a warning, a restless unease that took root and blossomed into turbulence. This man will bear special watching....
Pederson came on into the room, nodded dourly at Mandleco (no love lost there!) and remained alertly silent; for the merest instant he met Beardsley's gaze, and there was a definite challenge and something of mockery. Damn him, thought Beardsley, he knows why he's here ... but how could he know? He's aware that he's on the tapes, too--even one of the Primes--and he doesn't give a damn!
Mandleco finished the introductions quickly and took over. It was plain that he wanted to get through with this, but at the same time Beardsley sensed that he was no longer quite so sure of Jeff Arnold and ECAIAC ... above all things, Mandleco had to avoid any hint of trouble with ECAIAC.
And he managed that with an adroitness that bordered on the cunning. After some glowing comments on Beardsley's past esteemed record--with pointed emphasis on the pre-ECAIAC era--he ended with a truly inspirational touch: "Let us just say, then, that you have been invited here in the interests of an experiment which Crime-Central has been contemplating for some time. An inquiry into--ah--certain facets of past investigatory methods. Crude as it may seem to you, certain factors may be forthcoming here--psychologic and derivational--which may later be refined, analyzed and integrated into the operational function of ECAIAC...."
Beardsley stared at Mandleco. It was altogether a neat side-step, and he almost admired him for it.
"Please understand, this is a necessary adjunct to the true development of ECAIAC. We shall have here two divergent lines of approach within parallel fields. Actually, each of you will be an important co-aide in this experiment! I would like you to cooperate fully with Mr. Beardsley's line of approach. Uh--vintage '60," he added for their amusement.
The reaction was immediate and varied. Victor d'Arlan examined his fingernails and registered aristocratic boredom. Pederson slouched up against the desk, seeming amused at Mandleco's pitch ... but he wasn't watching Mandleco. The gaze he fastened on Beardsley said plainer than words that he was quite aware of the situation.
Only Sheila Carmack seemed fascinated, as she sat a bit straighter in her chair and peered brightly across her drink. It was obvious that she, for one, was taken in.
"Why, I wouldn't have missed it for the world!" she sparkled. "Just like, you know, in those--what did they call them--whodunits? It's actually thrilling!"
"It's archaic!" d'Arlan sneered.
"It's heroic," said Pederson, his gaze still on the little Coordinator. "Beardsley, I hope you pull it off. I actually do. Always did think you were twice the man ECAIAC is!"
Beardsley moved forward, not smiling. "Thanks," he said. "In that case you won't mind if I begin with you."
"With me?" Pederson stared, then laughed suddenly and without mirth. "Skip it, Beardsley! I know your methods, and I can tell you right now it won't get you any--"
Beardsley stopped him. "Pederson," he said, "as of now we agree on just one thing. I also think I'm twice the man. The only difference is that I'm man enough to really believe it." He paused and watched him absorb that. "It's going to be ECAIAC or vintage '60, Pederson. Your choice!"
It was at once a rebuff and a challenge. Pederson then straightened up slowly, a muscle in his face flinched and then he smiled--with all but his eyes. "All right," he snapped, "we'll begin with me. I'll fill you in plenty! You want to know if I saw Carmack the day of the murder? I did! The louse put through a vis call to me. Insisted I come out and see him--"
"Whoa, now just a minute! You wouldn't say this was a friendly visit?"
"I'll get to that!" Pederson's words came fast and clipped. "You know how I fought the ECAIAC lobby. I fought it long and hard, and when I lost it finished me with the public. But I wasn't through! I began digging up every fact I could about Carmack. Took me a few years, but worth it. Most of it smelled! Ask Professor Losch, he'll tell you--"
"I've already spoken with Losch," Beardsley said quietly. "He managed to convey his sentiments pretty thoroughly."
"Good. Then try talking to him," Pederson nodded venomously at Mandleco. "Ask Mandleco how the great Carmack managed to get those patents through.... I can tell you he didn't do it alone! Oh, I've dug plenty!"
"Why, you--" Mandleco gave a snort of anger and started forward, but Beardsley managed to forestall him. He gazed sternly at the tele-columnist.
"I think we're all aware of your considerable talent for digging, Pederson. ECAIAC, too," he added pointedly, "for we already have it on the tapes."
Pederson bristled. "Sure. Sure, you have it! My past connection, my opposition to the lobby, even my digging maybe. But you don't have it all! How do you equate hate, Beardsley? Is that on your tapes?"
Beardsley could have told him that it was, indeed, on the tapes. But he only shook his head. "No," he said slowly, "we don't have it all. Not ECAIAC nor I nor any of us, and that's the eternal pity of it. But I'd like to try! The sum and the substance, Pederson ... don't you understand me? Just once before I'm through--"
It was the voice, some secret and subtle thing in the voice that reached out and gripped Pederson and bore meaning with it. He stood quite motionless, staring at Beardsley; for a split second his eyes widened, then disbelief gave way to something of comprehension, admiration.
"Beardsley," he said softly. "You fool. You utter damned fool!"
Oblivious of the others, then, he turned and began to pace. "All right. Here it is. Carmack called me out to see him. He had gotten wind of what I was up to, and offered to buy me off." Pederson laughed bitterly. "Wasn't even subtle about it! Said he liked my stuff, and would like to see me at the top again where I belonged. Said he could arrange for me to step into a top job at Central Telecast. Providing, of course, I could manage to--ah--'forget' certain little items I'd uncovered."
Pederson was doing all right. Beardsley gave him his lead.
"He actually thought it would be that simple! I refused him outright, and of course, he couldn't believe it. A man like that--We dropped all pretense, there were some bitter words--"
Beardsley said quickly, "Could you elaborate?"
"Oh, I don't remember exactly. He went venomous! I suppose there were threats. I told him he hadn't enough money or influence to buy what I knew, and that when I had it properly documented I intended to make a national scandal of it." Pederson halted abruptly. "You know, it occurred to me later that was a foolhardy thing to say!"
"Ah? Why is that?"
"Well, I had heard of that safeguard of his--the 'neuro-vibe'--and I suppose there were other things, too. He was a cautious man, a dangerous man. But," Pederson shrugged, "he let me into his home readily enough."
Beardsley lifted a finger. "Because he was confident he was going to buy you--wouldn't you say?"
"I suppose that's it. Maybe I was lucky to get out of there so easily! Anyway I did." Pederson stopped pacing, and his gaze bored into Beardsley's. "So now to the big question. Yes, he was alive when I left him. No, I never saw Carmack again. I went straight to my office and worked until well past midnight; by the way, I have ample proof of that--"
"Yes, I'm sure you do! What were your feelings at this point?"
"My feelings? I knew my life was in danger now! Carmack would be out to stop me. I don't mind admitting I was ... well, rather relieved, when I heard the news."
"Ah-h! And when did you hear it?"
Pederson glared, but his answer was quick. "Late the next afternoon, of course! By habit I work late hours and I sleep long." With an air of finality he threw a challenging look around. "I want to congratulate whoever did it, and I don't much care whether the answer comes from you or ECAIAC!"
Beardsley surveyed him solemnly. Pederson had little more than brushed the surface, but it was enough, it served to set the pattern; he could have sworn Pederson was aware of that. He said drily, "Thanks, Pederson. Your story is--very pat."
He turned to the others. Mandleco rather surprised him, seeming not so much disturbed as he was engrossed deep in thought; as for Mrs. Carmack, Beardsley saw that the comedy had gone out of it for her, but she tried to keep up the veneer.
"This is all most interesting!" she sparkled, placing her glass down carefully and turning to face him. "Am I to be next, Mr. Beardsley? Shall I give both the questions and the answers as Mr. Pederson did?"
"No, Mrs. Carmack. I'll do that! I took note a moment ago that you mentioned the whodunits. You must be familiar with them? Say as a hobby?"
It wasn't at all what she expected. She stood wide-eyed and startled.
"This is so thrilling, remember. Vintage '60! As the whodunits will tell you, one of the prime requisites is an accounting and proof of your whereabouts at the time of the deed! Well?"
Beardsley's voice was just edged enough to throw her into confusion. "Why, I--" she faltered. "You mean that night? I--I--"
"What, no alibi? You don't even remember? According to vintage '60 that could mean either complete innocence or extreme cunning; beware the suspect who is clever enough to be ready with no alibi!"
Beardsley saw her stiffen; there was a change across her face, a struggle beneath the eyes. "But then," he shrugged, "it has always been my conviction that motive rather than opportunity is the real requisite. On that basis it's plain you couldn't have killed your husband. You loved him! He was only fifty-eight, he only left you a dozen million dollars, but you loved him and you were faithful! Anyone can see that after seven weeks you're still all broken up over it!"
The veneer was gone now; Sheila Carmack's eyes were vicious pools of hate, her mouth a grimace. "Why, you--you ridiculous little monster!" Victor d'Arlan stepped forward belligerently. "Say, now look here! This is all very--" Beardsley placed a hand on d'Arlan's chest and shoved, and the latter stumbled back with mouth agape. Pederson was gazing at Beardsley with delight and admiration, seeming to visualize this little man as material for his next tele-column. Mandleco stood transfixed, a monument of agony, twisting a fist into his palm. "Beardsley, stop it! This ridiculous farce has gone far enough! I warned you about these tactics--"
Beardsley said, "Shut up!" and Mandleco stood there with mouth opening and closing soundlessly.
"Well, Mrs. Carmack? Answer me! You loved your husband, didn't you? For the past ten minutes you've heard him maligned; I should think you'd want to protect his very good name!"
"Sheila, I must advise you against making any statement of whatever nature!" Mandleco strode for the tele-stat, then turned back and pointed a trembling finger at Beardsley. "This man," he choked--"this man is no longer acting in any official capacity for Crime-Central!"
With a quick step Pederson got himself between Mandleco and the tele-stat; he strolled over to the instrument and leaned against it, with a knowing look at Beardsley.
Sheila Carmack tilted her chin in defiance. "But I wish to answer this man. I insist on answering! Loved Amos Carmack? Love him?" Her voice rose a full octave and broke in stridence. "For the past nine years I have hated--his--guts!"
For a long moment the room was silent. No one moved. Beardsley's thick glasses glinted eerily as he peered around at them, from Mandleco to Sheila to Pederson and back to Mandleco.
"Well now," he said, "this is remarkable. Most remarkable! Everyone hated Carmack. Professor Losch--we know why. Pederson here--he's told us why. His wife--I think it's obvious. Who else? Surely not you, Mandleco! Carmack was a pal of yours! You backed his cause with ECAIAC, you lobbied for him, you even stole patents for him.... I wonder what persuasion he held over you to bring all that about. Or is persuasion too mild a word? Vintage '60 had a better term for it!"
Slowly, through the murk of his agitation Mandleco seized a measure of control; he gazed at Beardsley out of cold incalculable eyes now hooded with dire intention. "You're really trying hard, aren't you!" he grated. "Well, make the most of it, because I guarantee you won't be around, not after the next Annual Basic! Do you understand that--Mister Coordinator?"
But Beardsley was watching Pederson now, whose face took on a sudden febrile gleam. "Blackmail ... by God, Beardsley, that's it! And I have the proof! Sure, it was Carmack I was after, but I dug out a lot more--" Pederson shot a challenging look at the Minister of Justice. "It goes back some years, but I can prove that Amos Carmack had enough on Mandleco to finish him politically any time he chose. You can bet your life Mandleco hated him. Enough to warrant murder!"
There was an odd, illogical delight in the way Pederson said it--and something almost frightening the way Mandleco just stood there in cold silence, gazing at the tele-columnist with a look of boundless regret.
Beardsley said very softly, "Thanks, Pederson, but I'd suggest you save it. It's scarcely pertinent now."
"Not pertinent? But, man, I tell you I have proof! What better motive would you--"
"Motive?" Beardsley hit him with a pitying glance. "Why, I thought it was obvious. We've progressed beyond motives now."
Again there was an electric silence, and Beardsley let it assimilate. "I have said," he went on, "that all this is most remarkable. But you know, the really remarkable thing--" He paused and watched them. Mandleco continued to grind a fist into his palm; Pederson straightened attentively, and d'Arlan, sneery no longer, moved over to stand beside Sheila Carmack.
"--the really remarkable thing is this. I am now ready to state, unequivocally, that the person who killed Amos Carmack ... didn't hate him at all."
A thought was throbbing through the room like the seconds passing. Quick and cumulative, almost embodied, it made transition from stunned mind to startled mind as Beardsley stood there blinking at them. Beardsley really didn't mind; they just couldn't know how subtly he worked into his themes! Taking advantage of the lull, he went over to the door and peered out into the Operations Room.
He peered long and soberly, then turned. Mandleco had found his voice first, perplexity pushing down his anger: "Beardsley, either you're bereft of your senses or--Do you mean to say," he choked--"after going to these preposterous lengths do you mean to say that no one here--"
"Just a moment!" To everyone's surprise it was d'Arlan who broke in. "I'm not sure what's going on here, not sure at all, but I want to make one thing quite clear. Sheila had no complicity in this crime! I know, because--" He hesitated, touched her gently on the arm. "Sorry, darling, I've got to say it. I know because she was with me that night."
Sheila was startled for a moment, then utterly scathing. "You needn't lie for me, Victor! I appreciate your sense of the dramatic, and even your motives, but I assure you they are both misplaced. I have never heard such nonsense!"
d'Arlan looked more desolate than abashed. As for Beardsley, he was only a little amused. "Well, now, this is really more than I deserve; in all my years on Homicide I wanted to experience this, but I finally put it down as a myth. The Noble Alibi!" He peered sharply. "True vintage, right out of the whodunits--wouldn't you agree, Mrs. Carmack?"
The answer didn't come, and Beardsley went on sternly: "And you reject his noble attempt on your behalf. That is interesting! Especially, as it occurs to me that d'Arlan's effort is just a little delayed...." He paused, gazing thoughtfully upward. "It's enough to make one wonder whether his noble effort is designed to protect you--or himself!"
d'Arlan suddenly paled, as if he had just been kicked in the stomach. He gulped heavily and tried to speak. Beardsley watched stolidly for a moment, then dismissed him with a gesture of complete disgust. "Oh, hell, never mind! I would say neither. The lady is right, sonny, you'd better watch those impulses. You just aren't the type!"
Mandleco had been hanging onto every word, grimly intent; he was sure Beardsley was getting somewhere at last. Now he straightened, and his grinding fist indicated that he'd had quite enough. Without a word, without even a deigning glance at Beardsley, he traversed the office with great purposeful strides and slammed through the outer door into ECAIAC's room-- And was back an instant later, trailing Jeff Arnold as the latter brushed past him into the office. Mandleco was saying something urgently, tugging at Arnold's arm. Arnold ignored him. His startled gaze was on the little group.
"Sheila!" He took a step forward. "Sheila, what are you doing here?"
"I wish you'd tell me, Jeff. I wish someone would explain what this is all about...."
Beardsley watched the tableau in silence. Jeff Arnold's gaze flicked to d'Arlan, who stared back with insolence, and there was no mistaking the hostility that leaped between the two.
Sheila noticed it, too, and there was an indecisive moment that mounted toward panic. Beardsley watched her churning effort to control it. She said quickly, an inflection of fear in her voice: "Mr. Beardsley, if it really matters--my whereabouts that night--you'll understand my reluctance to say it before! I was with Jeff. Truly! I'm sure he will tell you--"
The words were directed at Beardsley, but she was talking to Jeff Arnold. And deliberately, almost brutally, Arnold refused to accept the cue. Beardsley saw the pleading turn to apprehension in Sheila's eyes.
"But, Jeff, you remember! Surely you do! Jeff, you don't understand--you must tell them--"
Arnold looked at her for a single comprehending instant, a pitying instant, then his lips compressed tightly as he turned away.
There was finality in it. Sheila's eyes were stark and unbelieving. She stood there without motion, without a word, her mind groping in a shock of blindness.
Beardsley said gently, "It's all right, Mrs. Carmack. It's really all right. Merely an experiment, an inquiry into comparative methods as Mandleco said. I'm truly sorry if my methods seemed harsh, but"--he shrugged--"I dare say my participation is over now."
"You're damned right you may say it, Beardsley!" Arnold's eyes raked him with venom, but he controlled himself and turned to Mandleco. "I only came to tell you, sir, that we have ECAIAC ready. We'll be reaching Cumulative very shortly now."
"Jeff ... are you sure?"
"Quite sure! Depend on it, there'll be no more trouble."
More than relief took hold of Mandleco; it was transformation, it was as if a spell had been snapped. He glanced once about the room, and shuddered as his gaze encountered Beardsley.
"Uh--yes. Fine!" he said. "That's fine, Jeff! Shall we proceed?" He strode through the door, pausing only to fling back scathingly: "That is, if Mr. Beardsley is quite sure it meets with his approval!"
ECAIAC was in finest fettle again as the tapes sped through. Circuits were activated. Codes gave meaning. Synaptic cells summed and integrated, cancelled and compared and with saucy assurance sent the findings on toward Cumulative. The murmur was soft and sustained and somehow apologetic, as if ECAIAC were quite aware that she had failed in her duty but would be just pleased to make amends this time.
So like a woman ... fractious, unfathomable, then fawning and attrite--with a purpose! Beardsley cocked his head and listened, his mien almost beatific. Purpose? This creature had none that could quite match his! He was convinced of it now, and he had never been more happy or self-assured.
It was Pederson who was distressed, as he paced with long nervous strides and watched the equate-panel where the mathematics were made visible in a pattern of constantly changing lights. It had meaning only for the techs, but Pederson couldn't seem to take his eyes from it. At last he came over to Beardsley and managed to steer him aside.
"Beardsley, I just don't get it! This whole thing--are you quite sure--"