Meekness cowered in front of his desk. Meekness in the form of a small birdlike person with beseeching amber eyes.
"I am Amenth," he said, cringing.
Vogel eyed the olive skin, the cheekbones, the blue-black hair. "A wetback," he said. "Three men short and they send me wetbacks. You know sheet metal, buster?"
"I am not of the understanding," Amenth offered. "Experience, no." He beamed. "Aptitude, yes."
Fighting apoplexy, Vogel took him out into the shop. Amenth cringed at the howl of air tools and punch presses. Vogel contemptuously took him by the arm and led him to a workbench where a wizened persimmon of a man performed deft lightnings with rivets and air wrench.
"Benny, this is Amenth. He's new." Vogel pronounced it like a curse. "Get him some goggles from the crib, a rivet gun."
Vogel returned to his office scowling. The phone rang almost instantly.
"Boss," said Benny, "he's from nothing--all thumbs with an air wrench and he don't know alclad from stainless."
"Be right out," Vogel said, hanging up.
Before he had a chance to fire Amenth, the Fabrication Super came in with a production problem. Vogel solved it, but it was almost an hour before he returned to Benny's bench--and stared.
Amenth was a blur of motion. His Keller chattered like a live thing.
A furious sweating Benny snapped at Vogel, "You playing practical jokes? Look, this guy's gone crazy, he's fifty per cent under standard! Tell him to slow down before I file a grievance."
Amenth beamed. "I am of the aptitude," he said.
A queer deep tingle went through Vogel. The crystal delight of challenge he felt when confronted by an apparently impregnable fianchetto.
That was the first day.
A week later, Vogel was compiling a progress report from completed shop travelers. Abruptly he scowled at one traveler, then said, "Charlie!"
"Yes, sir," one of the planners said.
"Why didn't these galley panels go out for drop hammer?"
Charlie peered at the form and whistled. "Somebody must have changed the planning sheet."
"Get me the story!"
Charlie went hurriedly out into the shop.
Some time later he returned with a pale dazed look. "It's this guy in assembly," he said. "Name is Amenth. He didn't even read the traveler. Just looked at the attached detail print and decided to miter the edges, then reverse the flange with a weld." He threw the completed part on Vogel's desk. "Go ahead, check those tolerances," he said whitely. "Right on the money."
Vogel walked over to a calculator and figured. There was a dreamy expression in his eyes. He said softly, "All fabrication in our own shop. A net saving of 93 cents per unit, or eight hundred dollars total. I believe you planned this item, Charlie."
Vogel fired him.
That same afternoon Amenth came into the office on Vogel's order. "Sir?"
"Don't you know how to read a traveler?" Vogel asked sternly.
"It was a lucky accident." Amenth looked terrified. "I just read the print--"
"And did what seemed logical." Statement, then a very quiet question. "What happened to your accent?"
The little man looked blank.
Vogel took a slow deep breath. "I've got a material planning job open," he said tightly. "Three-fifty to start. Interested?"
For a moment he thought Amenth would lick his hand.
The little man took to planning sheets like a duck to water. He pored feverishly over blueprints, turning out travelers in a steady flood.
Vogel watched him. He went over to Personnel, requested Amenth's employment application, read it and scowled. It was a masterpiece of anonymity. Birthplace: New York. Former Occupation: Laborer. Hobbies: None. He memorized Amenth's address and returned the application.
Vogel always ate lunch in the office with his expediters. That noon two of them got into an argument about the planets.
"I say there is life on Mars," Pete Stone insisted stubbornly. "When the polar ice cap melts, the water runs along the canals and traces of green from growing vegetation can be spotted."
"Which proves nothing," Harvey Lamb yawned. Lamb was chief expediter. "Man couldn't live there, anyway. There's not enough oxygen."
"You would be amazed," Amenth said quietly, "at the adaptability of Man."
Vogel set down his thermos and leaned forward. "You mean Martians, for instance, could live here, assuming they existed and had spaceships?"
Amenth's smile was infinitely bitter. "Until they'd go mad."
The talk turned to baseball. Vogel lit his pipe and gave Amenth a surreptitious glance. The little man slumped in the corner, bleak and withdrawn.
This was delicious.
Vogel left the shop and drove across town to Amenth's address. It turned out to be an ancient rooming house on the West Side. Mrs. Reardon, the landlady, was an apathetic woman who brightened when he asked her about Amenth.
"He moved in just three weeks ago." Her face softened in recollection. "He was like a lost dog coming in out of the rain. Couldn't hardly speak English and he wanted me to trust him for the rent. I must have been crazy." Her nostrils flared. "Not that he hasn't paid up. Are you a cop?"
Vogel nodded as he took out his wallet. In it was his honorary sheriff's badge, but he doubted if the woman would know the difference. She didn't. She led the way upstairs to Amenth's room, worrying, and Vogel assured her they were only looking for a hit-and-run witness, that it was strictly routine.
Amenth's room was incredibly aseptic, barren of pictures, ash trays, dirty laundry, any of the normal masculine debris. Vogel got the stark impression of a convict's cell. In the bleak dresser were two pair of socks, underwear, one tie. In the closet hung one white shirt ... period. Everything wore an indefinable patina of newness. Two books graced the top of the dresser. Vogel recognized one of them, a text on fabrication and design which Amenth had borrowed from his office. The other was a child's primer of English.
"He stays in his room almost every night--reads mostly, and he speaks English much better now," said Mrs. Reardon. "A good tenant--I can't complain--and he's quiet and clean." She described Amenth and Vogel shook his head.
"Our man is about sixty, with a beard," he said. "Funny coincidence. It's a strange name."
Mrs. Reardon agreed.
Vogel drove back to the shop, whistling.
He did not go to his chess club that night, but went to the library instead. He read about Flying Saucers, about space travel, about the possibility of life on other planets. Sometimes he chuckled. Once he frowned deeply and bit his lip.
That night in bed, listening to his wife's shallow breathing, he said, "Alice."
"Supposing you were lost on a desert island. What would you do?"
"I'd build a raft," she said sleepily.
Vogel smiled into the darkness.
Next day he made a systematic tour of the stockroom, scanning the racks of completed sub-assemblies, the gleaming fixture components, the rows of panels, brackets, extrusions, all waiting like soldiers to march from the stockroom into final assembly.
Vogel suddenly grunted.
There, half hidden behind a row of stainless-steel basin assemblies, was a nine-inch bowl. He examined it. The bowl was heavy and shiny. There was no part number stamp, and the metal was not alclad, not stainless, not cad nor zinc. Five small copper discs had been welded to the lower flange.
Vogel carefully scraped off a sample with a file. Then he replaced the part in the stock rack and went into his office where he placed the sample in an envelope.
That afternoon he ranged the shop like a hound.
In the shipping crib, he found a half-completed detail that struck a chord of strangeness. Two twisted copper vanes with a crumpled shop traveler signed by Amenth. The next operation specified furnace braze. Vogel squinted at the attached detail print. It was a current job number.
He spent the next two hours in the ozalid room, leafing through the print files. The job number called for a deep-freeze showcase, and there were exactly two hundred and seven detail drawings involved.
Not one of them matched the print in shipping.
After an almost silent dinner at home, he sat smoking his pipe, waiting for the phone to ring. It rang at eight.
"It's platinum," Carstairs said. Tim Carstairs was a night-shift chemist. "Anything wrong, Mr. Vogel?"
"No." Vogel paused. "Thanks, Tim." He hung up, glanced at his fingers. They were shaking.
"You," Alice said, "look ready to call mate in three."
"I'm going over to the shop," he said, kissing her. "Don't wait up."
He was not surprised to see the light on in the parts control section. Amenth was writing planning sheets.
"I don't believe we authorized overtime," Vogel told him mildly, hanging up his coat.
"Just loose ends." Amenth's smile was nervous. "Tying up these burden charts. I'm on my own time."
"Thought I'd set up next month's budget." Vogel sat at his desk. "By the way, what did you do before you came here?"
"Odd jobs." Amenth's lips twitched.
"Your family live on the coast?"
Sweat glistened on the little man's forehead. "Ah--no. My folks passed on years ago."
Cat and mouse.
"You've done good work lately." Vogel yawned, studying the progress chart on the wall. Behind him he heard a soft exhalation of relief, the furtive rustle of papers as Amenth cleaned off his desk.
When Amenth finally left, Vogel went over to his desk and methodically ransacked the work in process file. It took him two hours to find what he was looking for.
One: A schematic detail on graph paper which resembled no type of circuit Vogel had ever seen.
Two: Fourteen completed shop travelers on which were typed clearly, Call Amenth upon completion. That was not unusual; most expediters wanted to be notified when a hot part hit Inspection. The unusual part was that no inspection stamp had been placed opposite the final operation of Inspect, Identify, Return to Stock. Ergo, Amenth had inspected and stocked the parts himself.
Three: A progress chart with dates, indicating four detail parts still remaining in fabrication. Final assembly date--tomorrow!
The following afternoon, Vogel sat alone in the conference room. The door opened and Amenth came in. "You sent for me, sir?"
"Sit down, Amenth. Let's talk a while."
Amenth sat down uneasily.
"We're considering you for promotion," Vogel said, silencing the little man's protests with a deprecating wave. "But we've got to know if you're ready. Let's talk about your job."
They talked shop for a few moments, then Vogel opened a folder, took out his watch. "Very good," he said. "Now let's check your initiative potential." As Amenth stiffened, Vogel reassured him, "Relax. It's a routine association test."
For the next ten minutes he timed Amenth's responses with a stop watch. Most of the words were familiar shop words and most of the responses were standard.
"Escape," Amenth said instantly.
It was all so childish, so obvious, and Amenth's eyes were frightened amber pools when Vogel dismissed him. No matter. Let him suspect. Vogel studied the reaction results with grim amusement.