"Uh-huh," Ketzel grunted significantly. "Petty cash box. About how much was in it, Mr. Bending?"
"Three or four thousand, I imagine: you'll have to ask Jim Luckman, my business manager. He keeps track of things like that."
"Three or four thousand in petty cash?" Ketzel asked, as though he'd prefer Bending to correct the figure to "two or three hundred."
"About that. Sometimes we have to order equipment of one kind or another in a hurry, and we can usually expedite matters if we can promise cash. You know how it is."
Sergeant Ketzel nodded sourly. He evidently knew only too well how it was. Even the most respectable businessmen were doing occasional business with the black market in technological devices. But he didn't say anything to Bending.
"What did the cash box look like?" he asked.
Bending held out his hands to measure off a distance. "About so long--ten inches, I guess; maybe six inches wide and four deep. Thin sheet steel, with a gray crackle finish. There was a lock on it, but it wasn't much of one; since it was kept in the safe, there was no need for a strong lock."
Sergeant Ketzel nodded. "In other words, an ordinary office cash box. No distinguishing marks at all?"
"It had 'Bending Consultants' on the top. And underneath that, the word 'Lab'. In black paint. That 'Lab' was to distinguish it from the petty cash box in the main office."
"I see. Do you know anything about the denominations of the bills? Were they marked in any way?"
Bending frowned. "I don't know. You'd have to ask Luckman about that, too."
"Where is he now?"
"Home, I imagine. He isn't due to report for work until ten."
"O.K. Will you leave word that we want to talk to him when he comes in? It'll take us a while to get all the information we can from the lab, here." He looked back at the hole in the wall. "It still doesn't make sense. Why should they go to all that trouble just to shut off a burglar alarm?" He shook his head and went over to where the others were working.
It was hours before the police left, and long before they were gone Sam Bending had begun to wish fervently that he had never called them. He felt that he should have kept his mouth shut and fought Power Utilities on the ground they had chosen. They had known about the Converter only two weeks, and they had already struck. He tried to remember exactly how the Utilities representative had worded what he'd said, and couldn't.
Well, there was an easy way to find out. He went over to his files and took out the recording for Friday, 30 January 1981. He threaded it through the sound player--he had no particular desire to look at the man's face again--and turned on the machine. The first sentence brought the whole scene back to mind.
"Thank you for your time, Mr. Bending," the man whose card had announced him as Richard Olcott. He was a rather average-sized man, with a fiftyish face, graying hair that was beginning to thin, and an expression like that of a friendly poker player--pleasant, but inscrutable.
"I always have time to see a representative of Power Utilities, Mr. Olcott," Bending said. "Though I must admit that I'm more used to dealing with various engineers who work for your subsidiaries."
"Not subsidiaries, please," Olcott admonished in a friendly tone. "Like the Bell Telephone Company, Power Utilities is actually a group of independent but mutually co-operative companies organized under a parent company."
Bending grinned. "I stand corrected. What did you have on your mind, Mr. Olcott?"
Olcott's hesitation was of half-second duration, but it was perceptible.
"Mr. Bending," he began, "I understand that you have been ... ah ... working on a new and ... ah ... radically different method of power generation. Er ... is that substantially correct?"
Bending looked at the man, his blocky, big-jawed face expressionless. "I've been doing experimenting with power generators, yes," he said after a moment. "That's my business."
"Oh, quite, quite. I understand that," Olcott said hurriedly. "I ... ah ... took the trouble to look up your record before I came. I'm well aware of the invaluable work you've done in the power field."
"Thank you," Bending said agreeably. He waited to see what the other would say next. It was his move.
"However," Olcott said, "that's not the sort of thing I was referring to." He leaned forward in his chair, and his bright gray eyes seemed to take on a new life; his manner seemed to alter subtly.
"Let me put my ... our cards on the table, Mr. Bending. We understand that you have designed, and are experimenting with, an amazingly compact power source. We understand that little remains but to get the bugs out of your pilot model.
"Naturally, we are interested. Our business is supplying the nation with power. Anything from a new type solar battery on up is of interest to us." He stopped, waiting for Bending to speak.
Bending obliged. "I see Petternek let the cat out of the bag prematurely," he said with a smile. "I hadn't intended to spring it until it was a polished work of engineering art. It's been more of a hobby than anything else, you see."
Olcott smiled disarmingly. "I'm not acquainted with Mr. Petternek; to be quite honest, I have no idea where our engineers picked up the information."
"He's an engineer," Bending said. "Friends of mine. He probably got a little enthusiastic in a conversation with one of your boys. He seemed quite impressed by my Converter."
"Possibly that is the explanation." Olcott paused. "Converter, you say? That's what you call it?"
"That's right. I couldn't think up any fancier name for it. Oh, I suppose I could have, but I didn't want anything too descriptive."
"And the word 'converter' isn't descriptive?"
"Hardly," said Bending with a short laugh. "Every power supply is a converter of some kind. A nickel-cadmium battery converts chemical energy into electrical energy. A solar battery converts radiation into electrical current. The old-fashioned, oil- or coal-burning power plants converted chemical energy into heat energy, converted that into kinetic energy, and that, in turn was converted into electrical energy. The heavy-metal atomic plant does almost the same thing, except that it uses nuclear reactions instead of chemical reactions to produce the heat. The stellarator is a converter, too.
"About the only exception I can think of is the electrostatic condenser, and you could say that it converts static electricity into a current flow if you wanted to stretch a point. On the other hand, a condenser isn't usually considered as a power supply."
Olcott chuckled. "I see your point. Could you give me a rough idea of the principle on which your Converter operates?"
Bending allowed himself a thoughtful frown. "I'd rather not, just now, Mr. Olcott. As I said, I want to sort of spring this full-blown on the world." He grinned. He looked like a small boy who had just discovered that people liked him; but it was a calculated expression, not an automatic one.
Olcott looked into Bending's eyes without seeing them. He ran his tongue carefully over the inside of his teeth before he spoke. "Mr. Bending." Pause. "Mr. Bending, we--and by 'we', I mean, of course, Power Utilities,--have heard a great deal about this ... this Converter." His chocolate-brown eyes bored deep into the gray eyes of Samson Bending. "Frankly," he continued, "we are inclined to discount ninety per cent of the rumors that come to us. Most of them are based on purely crackpot ideas. None the less, we investigate them. If someone does discover a new process of producing power, we can't afford to be blind to new ideas just because they happen to come from ... ah ... unorthodox sources.
"You, Mr. Bending, are an unusual case. Any rumor concerning your work, no matter how fantastic, is worth looking into on your reputation alone, even though the claims may be utterly absurd."
"I have made no claims," Bending interposed.
Olcott raised a lean hand. "I understand that, Mr. Bending. None the less, others--who may or may not know what they are talking about--have made this claim for you." Olcott settled back in his chair and folded his hands across his slight paunch. "You've worked with us before, Mr. Bending; you know that we can--and do--pay well for advances in the power field which are contributed by our engineers. As you know, our contract is the standard one--any discovery made by an engineer while in our employ is automatically ours. None the less, we give such men a handsome royalty." He paused, opened his brief case, and pulled out a notebook. After referring to it, he looked up at Bending and said: "You, yourself have benefitted by this policy. According to our records, you are drawing royalties from three patented improvements in the stellarator which were discovered at times when you were employed by us--or, rather, by one of our associative corporations--in an advisory capacity. Those discoveries were, by contract, ours. By law, we could use them as we saw fit without recompense to you, other than our regular fee. None the less, we chose to pay you a royalty because that is our normal policy with all our engineers and scientific research men. We find it more expedient to operate thus."
Bending was getting a little tired of Olcott's "none the less," but he didn't show it. "Are you trying to say that my Converter was invented during my employ with your company, Mr. Olcott?"
Olcott cleared his throat and shook his head. "No. Not necessarily. It is true that we might have a case on those grounds, but, under the circumstances, we feel it inexpedient to pursue such a course."
Which means, Bending thought, that you don't have a case at all. "Then just what are you driving at, Mr. Olcott?" he asked aloud.
"I'll put my cards on the table, Mr. Bending," Olcott said.
You've already said that, Bending thought, and I've seen no evidence of it. "Go ahead," he said.
"Thank you." He cleared his throat again. "If your invention is ... ah ... worth while, we are prepared to negotiate with you for use and/or purchase of it."
Bending had always disliked people who said or wrote "and/or," but he had no desire to antagonize the Power Utilities representative by showing personal pique. "Let me understand you clearly," he said. "Power Utilities wants to buy my rights to the Converter. Right?"
Olcott cleared his throat a third time. "In a word, yes. Provided, of course, that it is actually worth our while. Remember, we know almost nothing about it; the claims made for it by our ... ah ... anonymous informer are ... well, ah ... rather fantastic. But your reputation--" He let the sentence hang.
Bending was not at all immune to flattery. He grinned. "Do you mean that you came to me to talk about buying an invention you weren't even sure existed--just because of my reputation?"
"Frankly, yes," said Olcott. "Your reputation is ... ah ... shall we say, a good one in power engineering circles."
"Are you an engineer?" Bending asked suddenly.
Olcott blinked. "Why, no. No, I am not. I'm a lawyer. I thought you understood that."
"Sorry," Bending said. "I didn't. Most of the financial work around here is done through my Mr. Luckman. I'm not acquainted with the monetary end of the business."
Olcott smiled. "Quite all right. Evidently I am not as well known to you as you are to me. Not that it matters. Why did you ask?"
Bending stood up. "I'm going to show you something, Mr. Olcott," he said. "Would you care to come with me to the lab?"
Olcott was on his feet in a second. "I'd be glad to, Mr. Bending."
Bending led the man into the lab. "Over here," he said. At the far end of the laboratory was a thick-legged table cluttered with lengths of wire, vacuum tubes, transistors, a soldering gun, a couple of meters, and the other various paraphernalia of an electronics workshop. In the center of the table, surrounded by the clutter, sat an oblong box. It didn't look like much; it was just an eighteen by twelve by ten box, made of black plastic, featureless, except for a couple of dials and knobs on the top of it, and a pair of copper studs sticking out of the end.
Still, Olcott didn't look skeptical. Nor surprised. Evidently, his informant had had plenty of information. Or else his poker face was better than Bending had thought.
"This is your pilot model?" Olcott asked.
"One of them, yes. Want to watch it go through its paces?"
"O.K. First, though, just how good is your technical education? I mean, how basic do I have to get?" Sam Bending was not exactly a diplomat.
Olcott, however, didn't look offended. "Let's say that if you keep it on the level of college freshman physics I'll get the general drift. All right?"
"Sure. I don't intend to get any more technical than that, anyway. I'm going to tell you what the Converter does--not how."
"Fair enough--for the moment. Go ahead."
"Right." Sam flipped a switch on the top of the box. "Takes a minute or so to warm up," he said.
When the "minute or so" had passed, Bending, who had been watching the meters on the top of the machine, said: "See this?" He pointed at a dial face. "That's the voltage. It's controlled by this vernier knob here." He turned the knob, and the needle on the voltmeter moved obligingly upwards. "Anything from ten to a thousand volts," he said. "Easily adjusted to suit your taste."
"I don't think I'd like the taste of a thousand volts," Olcott said solemnly. "Might affect the tongue adversely." Olcott didn't look particularly impressed. Why should he? Anyone can build a machine that can generate high voltage.
"Is that AC or DC?" he asked.
"DC," said Bending. "But it can easily be converted to AC. Depends on what you want to use it for."
Olcott nodded. "How much power does that thing deliver?"
Sam Bending had been waiting for that question. He delivered his answer with all the nonchalance of a man dropping a burnt match in an ash tray.
"Five hundred horsepower."
Olcott's face simply couldn't hold its expressionless expression against something like that. His lips twitched, and his eyes blinked. "Five hundred what?"
"I will not make the obvious pun," said Bending. "I said 'five hundred horsepower'--unquote. About three hundred and seventy-five kilowatts, maximum."
Olcott appeared to be unable to say anything. He simply stared at the small, innocuous-looking Converter. Bending was unable to decide whether Olcott was overawed by the truth or simply stricken dumb by what must sound like a monstrous lie.
Olcott licked his lips with the tip of his small, pink tongue. "Five hundred horsepower. Hm-m-m." He took a deep breath. "No wonder those copper studs are so thick."
"Yeah," said Bending. "If I short 'em across at low voltage, they get hot."
"Short them across?" Olcott's voice sounded harsh.
Bending was in his seventh heaven, and he showed it. His grin was running as high an energy output as that he claimed for the Converter. "Sure. The amperage is self-limiting. You can only draw about four hundred amps off the thing, no matter how low you put the voltage. When I said five hundred HP, I meant at a thousand volts. As a matter of fact, the available power in horsepower is roughly half the voltage. But that only applies to this small model. A bigger one could supply more, of course."
"What does it weigh?" asked Olcott, in a hushed voice.
"Little over a hundred pounds," Bending said.
Olcott tore his eyes away from the fantastic little box and looked into Sam Bending's eyes. "May I ask where you're getting power like that?"
"Sure. Hydrogen fusion, same as the stellarator."
"It's powered by deuterium?"
Bending delivered his bombshell. "Nope. Water. Plain, ordinary aitch-two-oh. See those little vents at the side? They exhaust oxygen and helium. It burns about four hundred milligrams of water per hour at maximum capacity."
Olcott had either regained control of himself or had passed the saturation point; Sam couldn't tell which. Olcott said: "Where do you put the water?"
"Why put water in it?" Sam asked coolly. "That small whirring sound you hear isn't the hydrogen-helium conversion; it's a fan blowing air through a cooling coil. Even in the Sahara Desert there's enough moisture in the air to run this baby."
"And the fan is powered--"
"... By the machine itself, naturally," said Bending. "It's a self-contained unit. Of course, with a really big unit, you might have to hire someone to hang out their laundry somewhere in the neighborhood, but only in case of emergencies."
"May I sit down?" asked Olcott. And, without waiting for Sam Bending's permission, he grabbed a nearby chair and sat. "Mr. Bending," he said, "what is the cost of one of those units?"
"Well, that one cost several hundred thousand dollars. But the thing could be mass produced for ... oh, around fifteen hundred dollars. Maybe less."
Olcott absorbed that, blinked, and said: "Is it dangerous? I mean, could it explode, or does it give out radiation?"
"Well, you have to treat it with respect, of course," Bending said. He rubbed his big hands together in an unconscious gesture of triumph. "Just like any power source. But it won't explode; that I can guarantee. And there's no danger from radiation. All the power comes out as electric current."
Sam Bending remained silent while Olcott stared at the little black box. Finally, Olcott put his hands to his face and rubbed his eyes, as though he'd been too long without sleep. When he removed his hands, his eyes were focused on Bending.