By Heaven! Did they intend to steal the third Converter, too? And right in front of his eyes, before it even got decently dark?
Sam was so furious that he couldn't even think straight. When the two men climbed out of the car and started walking toward the house, Sam ran back into his study, pulled open his desk drawer, and took out the .38 Special he kept there. It was the work of seconds to thumb six cartridges into the chambers and swing the cylinder shut.
The door chime sounded.
Sam went back into the front room with the revolver in his jacket pocket and his hand ready to fire it.
"Who is it?" he called, in what he hoped was a steady voice.
"We're Special Agents of the FBI," said a voice. "May we see you for a few moments, Mr. Bending?"
"Certainly. Come on in; the door's unlocked." Just walk in, you phonies! Just trot right on in, he thought.
And they did. The two men walked in, removing their hats as they did so.
"We--" one of them began. He stopped when he saw that he was addressing a round, black hole that was only a fraction more than a third of an inch in diameter but looked much, much larger from his viewpoint.
"Get your hands in the air and turn around very slowly," said Bending. "Lean forward and brace your hands against the wall."
They did as they were told. Bending frisked them carefully and thoroughly, thankful that the two years he had spent in the Army hadn't been completely wasted. Neither one of them was carrying a gun.
Bending stepped back and pocketed his own weapon. "All right. You two can turn around now. If you want to try anything, come ahead--but I don't advise it."
The two men turned around. Neither of them was exactly a small man, but the two of them together didn't outweigh Samson Bending by more than fifty pounds.
"What's the idea of the gun, Mr. Bending?" the taller of the two asked. He seemed to be the spokesman for the team.
"I'll ask the questions," Bending said. "But first, I want to tell you that, in the first place, you can get in trouble for impersonating a Federal officer, and, in the second, I don't like being followed. So you just trot right back to the boys at Power Utilities and tell them that if they want to play rough, I am perfectly willing to do likewise. That if they come after me again, I'm going to do some very unpleasant things. Understand?"
"I think we understand," said the spokesman, still relatively unruffled. "But I don't think you do. Would you care to look at our credentials, Mr. Bending?"
"Credentials?" Sam looked startled. Had he made a mistake?
"That's right. May I take my billfold out?"
Bending took his gun out again. "Go ahead. But slowly."
The billfold came out slowly. Bending took it. The identification card and the small gold badge said very plainly that the man was a Special Agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
"I ... I'm sorry," Bending said weakly. "I thought you were someone else. Some men were following me this afternoon, and--"
"That was us, Mr. Bending. Sorry."
"May I verify this?" Bending asked.
"Certainly. Go right ahead."
Bending phoned the local office of the FBI and verified the identities of the two men. When he cut off, he asked dazedly: "What was it you wanted?"
"Would you mind coming with us--downtown? We'd like to have you see some people."
"Am I under arrest?"
"No." The agent smiled a little. "I suppose, if we had to, we could get you for speeding and reckless driving; that was pretty fancy dodging you did. But we're not supposed to be traffic cops."
Sam smiled feebly. "What's this all about?"
"I haven't the faintest notion, Mr. Bending. Honestly. We were told to stick with you until we got word to pick you up. We got that word just shortly after you ... hm-m-m ... after you left us. Fortunately, we found you at home. It might have been difficult ..."
"Can we go in my car?" Bending asked. "I'd rather not leave it unguarded just now."
"Certainly. I'll go with you, and Steve can follow." He paused. "But I'm afraid you'll have to take that revolver out of your pocket and put it away."
"Sure," Bending said. "Sure."
Bending's mind simply refused to function during the drive back to the city. The FBI agent beside him just sat silently while Sam drove the car.
Once, Sam asked: "Who is it that wants to see me?"
And the FBI man said: "Sorry, Mr. Bending; I can't answer any questions. My job is over as soon as I deliver you."
A little later, Sam had another question. "Can you tell me where we're going, at least?"
"Oh--" the agent laughed, "sure. I thought I had. The General Post Office Building, on Kenmore Drive."
After that, Sam didn't say anything. That this whole affair had something to do with the Converter, Sam had no doubt whatsoever. But he couldn't see exactly what, and none of his wild speculations made sense.
He pulled up at last into the parking lot behind the Post Office Building. The second FBI man came up in the steel-blue Ford, and the three of them got out of the cars and went towards the building. It was quite dark by now, and the street lights were glowing against a faint falling of February mist. Bending, in spite of his topcoat, felt chilly.
They went in the back way, past the uniformed Postal Service guard, and took an elevator to the sixth floor. None of the three had anything to say. They walked down the hall, toward the only office that showed any light behind the frosted glass. The lettering on the glass simply said: Conference Room A-6.
The FBI man who had driven with Sam rapped on the door with gentle knuckles.
"Yes?" said a questioning voice from the other side.
"This is Hodsen, sir. Mr. Bending is with us."
The door opened, and Sam Bending felt mild shock as he saw who it was. He recognized the man from his news photos and TV appearances. It was the Honorable Bertram Condley, Secretary of Economics for the President of the United States.
"Come in, Mr. Bending," the Secretary said pleasantly. Unnecessarily, he added, "I'm Bertram Condley."
He held out his hand, and Sam took it. "It's a pleasure, Mr. Secretary."
Condley gave out with his best friendly-politico smile. "I'm sorry to have to drag you up here like this, Mr. Bending, but we felt it best this way."
Sam smiled back, with a trace of irony in the smile. "It's a pleasure, Mr. Secretary," he repeated.
Condley nodded, still smiling--but there was a spark in his eyes now. "I see we understand each other. Come on in; I want you to meet the others." He looked at the FBI men. "That's all. For now."
The Federal agents nodded and moved away into the dimness of the corridor.
"Come in, man, come in," the Secretary urged, opening the door wider.
Sam hesitated. The light within the room was none too bright. Then he stepped forward, following the Secretary.
The outer room was dark. Not too dark, but illuminated only by the dim light from the corridor and from the inner room. From that inner room, there was only a glow of light from the frosted glass panel of the door that separated the two rooms.
Condley closed the hall door, and, as Sam stepped forward toward the lighted door, held out a hand to stop him. "Just a moment," he whispered softly. "I think you ought to know what you're walking in to, Mr. Bending."
Bending stood stock-still. "Yes, sir?" he asked, questioningly.
"I suppose you know what this is all about?" Secretary Condley asked softly.
"The Converter, I imagine," Sam Bending said.
Condley nodded, his gray hair gleaming silver in the dim light. "Exactly. I'm sorry we had to drag you up here this way, Mr. Bending, but, in the circumstances, we felt it to be the best way." He took a breath. "Do you know why we called you here?"
"No," Sam said honestly.
Condley's head nodded again. "You're in for an argument, Mr. Bending. A very powerful one, I hope. We want to convince you of something." Again he paused. "Are you an open-minded man, Mr. Bending?"
Sam Bending followed the Secretary's lead, and kept his voice low. "I like to think so, Mr. Secretary." He recognized that Condley was preparing him for something, and he recognized that the preliminary statements were calculated to soften him. And he recognized the fact that they did soften him. All right--what was the argument?
"You're an engineer, Mr. Bending," Condley said, in the same low voice. "You have been trained to evaluate facts. All I ask is that you use that training. Now, let's get in there before Tovarishch Artomonov begins to think we might be stalling him."
Condley strode toward the door and grasped the knob with a firm hand. Sam Bending followed, wondering. Artomonov? Who was Artomonov? The Secretary of Economics had indicated, by his precise enunciation of tovarishch, that the man was a Russian--or at least a citizen of one of the Soviet satellites. Sam Bending took a deep breath and decided that he was prepared for almost anything.
There were four men seated around the conference table in the back room, and the most surprising thing, as far as Sam was concerned, was that he recognized only one of them. From the big buildup, he had had half a notion that the President himself might be there.
"Mr. Samson Bending, gentlemen," said Secretary Condley to the group. They all rose and made half-hearted attempts to smile, but Sam could see that they were watching him as though he had a live grenade in his pocket.
"Mr. Bending, I believe you know Mr. Richard Olcott," the Secretary said.
Bending gave the Power Utilities executive a sardonic smile, which was returned by a solemn nod of the head.
Sure I know you, you crook, Bending thought.
"And, around the table," Condley continued, "are Dr. Edward Larchmont, the research departmental head of Power Utilities--Dr. Stefan Vanderlin, of the United States Bureau of Standards--and Dr. Alexis Andreevich Artomonov, of the Soviet Socialist Republics' representative office at the United Nations."
Sam Bending managed not to blink in astonishment as the last man was introduced--a feat which took every milligram of his self-possession. He recognized the name; A. A. Artomonov, head of the United Nation's International Trade Bureau. What was he doing here?
"If you'll sit down, Mr. Bending," Condley was saying, "we can get to business."
Bending sat down, and the others sat with him. "May I say something before we go any further?" Sam Bending asked. "May I say that I think this is a rather irregular method of doing things and that I think I ought to see my lawyer."
Secretary Condley's eyes narrowed just the slightest. He was a heavy, jowl-faced, graying man who was known for his firmness in his official capacity. "At this stage of the game, Mr. Bending, there is no need for a lawyer. We merely want to explain something to you--we want you to get all the data. If, afterwards, you still want your lawyer, you'll be perfectly free to call him. Right now, we want you to listen with an open mind."
Bending thought it over. "All right. Go ahead."
"Very well. First, I'll agree that all this may seem a bit high-handed. But time was--and is--getting short." He glanced at Olcott, and the glance was not all friendliness. "The Government was notified about this almost too late; we have had to act fast. Almost too fast."
"I notified the Government as soon as I was sure of my facts," Olcott said, completely unflustered.
"That's as may be," Condley said. "The point is that we now have the problem on our hands, and we must find an equitable solution." He took a gold fountain pen from his pocket, and his strong, thick fingers began toying with it while his eyes remained on Sam Bending. "The fact that you have applied for a patent makes it imperative that we get the situation under control immediately."
Before Sam could answer, there was a knock on the outer door that came clearly into the rear room. Secretary Condley rose without saying a word and went out.
Dr. Larchmont, the Power Utilities physicist, decided to make small talk to bridge the hiatus. "That's a really beautiful piece of machinery you've built, Mr. Bending. Really remarkable." He was a small, flat-faced man with a fringe of dark hair around his otherwise naked scalp.
Sam looked a little startled. "You mean you opened a Converter up?"
Larchmont nodded. "I presume you are referring to the fusing device. We X-rayed the thing thoroughly before we opened it. These days, many devices are rigged to be self-destroying, but that, in itself is a specialized field. Most of them are traps that are rather easy to get around if one is expecting them and knows how to handle them. But the Converter itself, if I may say so, is one of the most original and elegant devices I have seen in many a day."
"Thanks," said Bending, with a touch of bitterness in his voice. "I--"
The door opened at that moment, and Secretary Condley came in followed by a tall, round-faced man with dark wavy hair and clear brown eyes.
"Jim!" Sam said in surprise.
The man was James Luckman, Sam Bending's business manager. "Hello, Sam. What's this all about? The FBI men who picked me up said I wasn't under arrest, but I had a hunch it was about as close as you can come without actual arrest."
Sam nodded. "Funny--I had that impression, too." He looked at Condley. "What's the idea, Condley? Jim doesn't know anything about this."
The Secretary managed to look unoffended at Bending's tone. "Possibly not. We can't be sure, of course, but--frankly, I'd be willing to accept your word." He paused. "But--you're not a businessman, Mr. Bending?" He made it only half a question.
"No. I leave that sort of thing up to Jim. Oh, I don't say I'm completely ignorant of the field; it's just that I'm not particularly interested, that's all. Why should I be?" He went on, half belligerently. "I've known and trusted Jim for years. He knows his business; I know my science. I know enough to be able to check the account books, and he knows enough to be able to understand a technical report. Right, Jim?"
Luckman looked bewildered. "Sure, Sam. But what's all this leading up to? I don't get it." He frowned suddenly. "Has someone accused me of cheating you?"
"No, no, no," Condley said rapidly. "Of course not. Nothing like that." He looked sharply at Luckman. "Do you know anything about the Converter?"
Jim Luckman glanced at Bending before replying. Bending's face remained expressionless. "Go ahead, Jim," he said, "square with him."
Luckman spread his hands. "I know that Sam was working on something he called a Converter. I don't know anything more about it than that. Sam keeps his ideas secret until he gets them to a marketable stage, which is all right with me. I have enough work to do, handling the stuff he's already patented, without worrying about anything that isn't salable yet. So?"
Condley nodded, then gestured toward a chair. "Sit down, Mr. Luckman. Do you know these other gentlemen?" he asked rhetorically. He proceeded to introduce the others. Sam Bending noted with satisfaction that Luckman looked rather puzzled when the Russian was introduced.
Condley himself sat down again, and said: "Well, we're all here. We're not going to make this formal, gentlemen, but I hope it won't develop into a heated argument, either. Let's try to keep our tempers."