"Got an hour?" asked James with a smile. "Then listen--"
At the end of James Holden's long explanation, Tim Fisher said, "Me--? Now, I need a drink!"
James chuckled, "Alcoholic, of course--which is Pi to seven decimal places if you ever need it. Just count the letters."
Over his glass, Tim eyed James thoughtfully. "So if this is true, James, just who owns that fabulous machine of yours?"
"It is mine, or ours."
"You gave me to believe that it was a high-priority Government project," he said accusingly.
"Sorry. But I would lie as glibly to God Himself if it became necessary to protect myself by falsehood. I'm sorry it isn't a Government project, but it's just as important a secret."
"Anything as big as this should be the business of the Government."
"Perhaps so. But it's mine to keep or to give, and it's mine to study." James was thoughtful for a moment. "I suppose that you can argue that anything as important as this should be handed over to the authorities immediately; that a large group of men dedicated to such a study can locate its difficulties and its pitfalls and failures far swifter than a single youth of eleven. Yet by the right of invention, a process protected by the Constitution of the United States and circumvented by some very odd rulings on the part of the Supreme Court, it is mine by inheritance, to reap the exclusive rewards for my family's work. Until I'm of an age when I am deemed capable of managing my own life, I'd be 'protected' out of my rights if I handed this to anybody--including the Government. They'd start a commission full of bureaucrats who'd first use the machine to study how to best expand their own little empire, perpetuate themselves in office, and then they'd rule me out on the quaint theory that education is so important that it mustn't be wasted on the young."
Tim Fisher smiled wryly. He turned to Janet Bagley. "How do you want it?" he asked her.
"For Martha's sake, I want it his way," she said.
"All right. Then that's the way we'll have it," said Tim Fisher. He eyed James somewhat ruefully. "You know, it's a funny thing. I've always thought this was a screwy set-up, and to be honest, I've always thought you were a pretty bumptious kid. I guess you had a good reason. Anyway, I should have known Janet wouldn't have played along with it unless she had a reason that was really helping somebody."
James saw with relief that Tim had allied himself with the cause; he was, in fact, very glad to have someone knowledgeable and levelheaded in on the problem. Anyway he really liked Tim, and was happy to have the deception out of the way.
"That's all right," he said awkwardly.
Tim laughed. "Hey, will this contraption of yours teach me how to adjust a set of tappets?"
"No," said James quickly. "It will teach you the theory of how to chop down a tree but it can't show you how to swing an axe. Or," he went on with a smile, "it will teach you how to be an efficient accountant--but you have to use your own money!"
In the house on Martin's Hill, everybody won. Tim Fisher objected at first to the idea of gallivanting off on a protracted honeymoon, leaving a nine-year-old daughter in the care of a ten-year-old boy. But Janet--now Mrs. Fisher--pointed out that James and Martha were both quite competent, and furthermore there was little to be said for a honeymoon encumbered with a little pitcher that had such big ears, to say nothing of a pair of extremely curious eyes and a rather loud voice. And furthermore, if we allow the woman's privilege of adding one furthermore on top of another, it had been a long, long time since Janet had enjoyed a child-free vacation. So she won. It was not Hawaii by air for a ten-day stay. It was Hawaii by ship with a sixty-day sojourn in a hotel that offered both seclusion and company to the guests' immediate preference.
James Holden won more time. He felt that every hour was a victory. At times he despaired because time passed so crawlingly slow. All the wealth of his education could not diminish that odd sense of the time-factor that convinces all people that the length of the years diminish as age increases. Far from being a simple, amusing remark, the problem has been studied because it is universal. It is psychological, of course, and it is not hard to explain simply in terms of human experience plus the known fact that the human senses respond to the logarithm of the stimulus.
With most people, time is reasonably important. We live by the clock, and we die by the clock, and before there were clocks there were candles marked in lengths and sand flowing through narrow orifices, water dripping into jars, and posts stuck in the ground with marks for the shadow to divide the day. The ancient ones related womanhood to the moon and understood that time was vital in the course of Life.
With James, time was more important, perhaps, than to any other human being alive. He was fighting for time, always. His was not the immature desire of uneducated youth to become adult overnight for vague reasons.
With James it was an honest evaluation of his precarious position. He had to hide until he was deemed capable of handling his own affairs, after which he could fight his own battles in his own way without the interference of the laws that are set up to protect the immature.
With Tim Fisher and his brand-new bride out of the way, James took a deep breath at having leaped one more hurdle. Then he sat down to think.
Obviously there is no great sea-change that takes place at the Stroke Of Midnight on the date of the person's 21st birthday; no magic wand is waved over his scalp to convert him in a moment of time from a puling infant to a mature adult. The growth of child to adult is as gradual as the increase of his stature, which varies from one child to the next.
The fact remained that few people are confronted by the necessity of making a decision based upon the precise age of the subject. We usually cross this barrier with no trouble, taking on our rights and responsibilities as we find them necessary to our life. Only in probating an estate left by the demise of both parents in the presence of minor children does this legal matter of precise age become noticeable. Even then, the control exerted over the minor by the legal guardian diminishes by some obscure mathematical proportion that approaches zero as the minor approaches the legal age of maturity. Rare is the case of the reluctant guardian who jealously relinquishes the iron rule only after the proper litigation directs him to let go, render the accounting for audit, and turn over the keys to the treasury to the rightful heir.
James Holden was the seldom case. James Holden needed a very adroit lawyer to tell him how and when his rights and privileges as a citizen could be granted, and under what circumstances. From the evidence already at hand, James saw loopholes available in the matter of the legal age of twenty-one. But he also knew that he could not approach a lawyer with questions without giving full explanation of every why and wherefore.
So James Holden, already quite competent in the do-it-himself method of cutting his own ice, decided to study law. Without any forewarning of the monumental proportions of the task he faced, James started to acquire books on legal procedure and the law.
With the return of Tim and Janet Fisher matters progressed well. Mrs. Fisher took over the running of the household; Tim continued his running of the garage and started to dicker for the purchase of the house on Martin's Hill. The "Hermit" who had returned before the wedding remained temporarily. With a long-drawn plan, Charles Maxwell would slowly fade out of sight. Already his absence during the summer was hinting as being a medical study; during the winter he would return to the distant hospital. Later he would leave completely cured to take up residence elsewhere. Beyond this they planned to play it by ear.
James and Martha, freed from the housework routine, went deep into study.
Christmas passed and spring came and in April, James marked his eleventh birthday.
One important item continued to elude James Holden. The Educator could not be made to work in "tandem." In less technical terms, the Educator was strictly an individual device, a one-man-dog. The wave forms that could be recorded were as individual as fingerprints and pore-patterns and iris markings. James could record a series of ideas or a few pages of information and play them back to himself. During the playback he could think in no other terms; he could not even correct, edit or improve the phrasing. It came back word for word with the faithful reproduction of absolute fidelity. Similarly, Martha could record a phase of information and she, too, underwent the same repetition when her recording was played back to her.
But if Martha's recording were played through to James, utter confusion came. It was a whirling maze of colors and odors, sound, taste and touch.
It spoiled some of James Holden's hopes; he sought the way to mass-use, his plan was to employ a teacher to digest the information and then via the Educator, impress the information upon many other brains each coupled to the machine. This would not work.
He made an extra headset late in June and they tried it, sitting side-by-side and still it did not work. With Martha doing the reading, she got the full benefit of the machine and James emerged with a whirling head full of riotous colors and other sensations. At one point he hoped that they might learn some subject by sitting side-by-side and reading the text in unison, but from this they received the information horribly mingled with equal intensity of sensory noise.
He did not abandon this hope completely. He merely put it aside as a problem that he was not ready to study yet. He would re-open the question when he knew more about the whole process. To know the whole process meant studying many fields of knowledge and combining them into a research of his own.
And so James entered the summer months as he'd entered them before; Tim and Janet Fisher took off one day and returned the next afternoon with a great gay show of "bringing the children home for the summer."
Even in this day of multi-billion-dollar budgets and farm surpluses that cost forty thousand dollars per hour for warehouse rental, twenty-five hundred dollars is still a tidy sum to dangle before the eyes of any individual. This was the reward offered by Paul Brennan for any information as to the whereabouts of James Quincy Holden.
If Paul Brennan could have been honest, the information he could have supplied would have provided any of the better agencies with enough lead-material to track James Holden down in a time short enough to make the reward money worth the effort. Similarly, if James Holden's competence had been no greater than Brennan's scaled-down description, he could not have made his own way without being discovered.
Bound by his own guilt, Brennan could only fret. Everything including time, was running against him.
And as the years of James Holden's independence looked toward the sixth, Paul Brennan was willing to make a mental bet that the young man's education was deeper than ever.
He would have won. James was close to his dream of making his play for an appearance in court and pleading for the law to recognize his competence to act as an adult. He abandoned all pretense; he no longer hid through the winter months, and he did not keep Martha under cover either. They went shopping with Mrs. Fisher now and then, and if any of the folks in Shipmont wondered about them, the fact that the children were in the care and keeping of responsible adults and were oh-so-quick on the uptake stopped anybody who might have made a fast call to the truant officer.
Then in the spring of James Holden's twelfth year and the sixth of his freedom, he said to Tim Fisher. "How would you like to collect twenty-five hundred dollars?"
Fisher grinned. "Who do you want killed?"
"All right, drop the word to Paul Brennan and collect the reward."
"Can you protect yourself?"
"I can quote Gladstone from one end to the other. I can cite every civil suit regarding the majority or minority problem that has any importance. If I fail, I'll skin out of there in a hurry on the next train. But I can't wait forever."
"What's the gimmick, James?"
"First, I am sick and tired of running and hiding, and I think I've got enough to prove my point and establish my rights. Second, there is a bit of cupidity here; the reward money is being offered out of my own inheritance so I feel that I should have some say in where it should go. Third, the fact that I steer it into the hands of someone I'd prefer to get it tickles my sense of humor. The trapper trapped; the bopper bopped; the sapper hoist by his own petard."
"It isn't fair to Martha, either. So the sooner we get this whole affair settled, the sooner we can start to move towards a reasonable way of life."
"Okay, but how are we going to work it? I can't very well turn up by myself, you know."
"People would think I'm a heel."
"Let them think so. They'll change their opinion once the whole truth is known." James smiled. "It'll also let you know who your true friends are."
"Okay. Twenty-five hundred bucks and a chance at the last laugh sounds good. I'll talk it over with Janet."
That night they buried Charles Maxwell, the Hermit of Martin's Hill.
In his years of searching, Paul Brennan had followed eleven fruitless leads. It had cost him over thirteen hundred dollars and he was prepared to go on and on until he located James Holden, no matter how much it took. He fretted under two fears, one that James had indeed suffered a mishap, and the other that James might reveal his secret in a dramatic announcement, or be discovered by some force or agency that would place the whole process in hands that Paul Brennan could not reach.
The registered letter from Tim Fisher culminated this six years of frantic search. Unlike the previous leads, this spoke with authority, named names, gave dates, and outlined sketchily but adequately the operations of the young man in very plausible prose. Then the letter went on in the manner of a man with his foot in a cleft stick; the writer did not approve of James Holden's operations since they involved his wife and newly-adopted daughter, but since wife and daughter were fond of James Holden, the writer could not make any overt move to rid his household of the interfering young man. Paul Brennan was asked to move with caution and in utter secrecy, even to sending the reward in cash to a special post-office box.
Paul Brennan's reaction was a disappointment to himself. He neither felt great relief nor the desire to exult. He found himself assaying his own calmness and wondering why he lacked emotion over this culmination of so many years of futile effort. He re-read the letter carefully to see if there were something hidden in the words that his subconscious had caught, but he found nothing that gave him any reason to believe that this letter was a false lead. It rang true; Brennan could understand Tim Fisher's stated reaction and the man's desire to collect. Brennan even suspected that Fisher might use the reward money for his own private purpose.
It was not until he read the letter for the third time that he saw the suggestion to move with caution and secrecy not as its stated request to protect the writer, but as an excellent advice for his own guidance.
And then Paul Brennan realized that for six years he had been concentrating upon the single problem of having James Holden returned to his custody, and in that concentration he had lost sight of the more important problem of achieving his true purpose of gaining control of the Holden Educator. The letter had not been the end of a long quest, but just the signal to start.
Paul Brennan of course did not give a fig for the Holden Estate nor the welfare of James. His only interest was in the machine, and the secret of that machine was locked in the young man's mind and would stay that way unless James could be coerced into revealing it. The secret indubitably existed as hardware in the machine rebuilt in the house on Martin's Hill, but Brennan guessed that any sight of him would cause James to repeat his job of destruction. Brennan also envisioned a self-destructive device that would addle the heart of the machine at the touch of a button, perhaps booby-traps fitted like burglar alarms that would ruin the machine at the first touch of an untrained hand.
Brennan's mind began to work. He must plan his moves carefully to acquire the machine by stealth. He toyed with the idea of murder and rejected it as too dangerous to chance a repeat, especially in view of the existence of the rebuilt machine.
Brennan read the letter again. It gave him to think. James had obviously succeeded in keeping his secret by imparting it to a few people that he could either trust or bind to him, perhaps with the offer of education via the machine, which James and only James maintained in hiding could provide. Brennan could not estimate the extent of James Holden's knowledge but it was obvious that he was capable of some extremely intelligent planning. He was willing to grant the boy the likelihood of being the equal of a long and experienced campaigner, and the fact that James was in the favor of Tim Fisher's wife and daughter meant that the lad would be able to call upon them for additional advice. Brennan counted the daughter Martha in this planning program, most certainly James would have given the girl an extensive education, too. Everything added up, even to Tim Fisher's resentment.
But there was not time to ponder over the efficiency of James Holden's operations. It was time for Paul Brennan to cope, and it seemed sensible to face the fact that Paul Brennan alone could not plot the illegal grab of the Holden Educator and at the same time masquerade as the deeply-concerned loving guardian. He could label James Holden's little group as an organization, and if he was to combat this organization he needed one himself.
Paul Brennan began to form a mental outline of his requirements. First he had to figure out the angle at which to make his attack. Once he knew the legal angle, then he could find ruthless men in the proper position of authority whose ambitions he could control. He regretted that the elder Holden had not allowed him to study civil and criminal law along with his courses in real estate and corporate law. As it was, Brennan was unsure of his legal rights, and he could not plan until he had researched the problem most thoroughly.
To his complete surprise, Paul Brennan discovered that there was no law that would stay an infant from picking up his marbles and leaving home. So long as the minor did not become a ward of responsibility of the State, his freedom was as inviolable as the freedom of any adult. The universal interest in missing-persons cases is overdrawn because of their dramatic appeal. In every case that comes to important notice, the missing person has left some important responsibilities that had to be satisfied. A person with no moral, legal, or ethical anchor has every right to pack his suitcase and catch the next conveyance for parts unknown. If he is found by the authorities after an appeal by friends or relatives, the missing party can tell the police that, Yes he did leave home and, No he isn't returning and, furthermore he does not wish his whereabouts made known; and all the authorities can report is that the missing one is hale, happy, and hearty and wants to stay missing.
Under the law, a minor is a minor and there is no proposition that divides one degree of minority from another. Major decisions, such as voting, the signing of binding contracts of importance, the determination of a course of drastic medical treatment, are deemed to be matters that require mature judgment. The age for such decisions is arbitrarily set at age twenty-one. Acts such as driving a car, sawing a plank, or buying food and clothing are considered to be "skills" that do not require judgment and therefore the age of demarcation varies with the state and the state legislature's attitude.
James was a minor; presumably he could repudiate contracts signed while a minor, at the time he reached the age of twenty-one. From a practical standpoint, however, anything that James contracted for was expendable and of vital necessity. He could not stop payment on a check for his rent, nor claim that he had not received proper payment for his stories and demand damages. Paul Brennan might possibly interfere with the smooth operation by squawking to the bank that Charles Maxwell was a phantom front for the minor child James Holden. And bankers, being bankers, might very well clog up the operation with a lot of questions. But there was the possibility that James Holden, operating through the agency of an adult, would switch his method. He could even go so far as to bring Brennan to lawsuit to have Brennan stopped from his interference. Child or not, James Holden had been running a checking account by mail for a number of years which could be used as evidence of his good faith and ability.
Indeed, the position of James Holden was so solid that Brennan could only plead personal interest and personal responsibility in the case for securing a writ of habeas corpus to have the person of James Holden returned to his custody and protection. And this of itself was a bit on the dangerous side. A writ of habeas corpus will, by law, cause the delivery of the person to the right hands, but there is no part of the writ that can be used to guarantee that the person will remain thereafter. If Brennan tried to repeat this program, James Holden was very apt to suggest either the rather rare case of Barratry or Maintenance against Brennan. Barratry consists of the constant harassment of a citizen by the serial entry of lawsuit after lawsuit against him, each of which he must defend to the loss of time and money--and the tying up of courts and their officials. Maintenance is the re-opening of the same suit and its charges time after time in court after court. One need only be sure of the attitude of the plaintiff to strike back; if he is interested in heckling the defendant and this can be demonstrated in evidence, the heckler is a dead duck. Such a response would surely damage Paul Brennan's overt position as a responsible, interested, affectionate guardian of his best friends' orphaned child.
Then to put the top on the bottle, James Holden had crossed state lines in his flight from home. This meant that the case was not the simple proposition of appearing before a local magistrate and filing an emotional appeal. It was interstate. It smacked of extradition, and James Holden had committed no crime in either state.
To Paul Brennan's qualifications for his henchmen, he now added the need for flouting the law if the law could not be warped to fit his need.
Finding a man with ambition, with a casual disregard for ethics, is not hard in political circles. Paul Brennan found his man in Frank Manison, a rising figure in the office of the District Attorney. Manison had gubernatorial ambitions, and he was politically sharp. He personally conducted only those cases that would give him ironclad publicity; he preferred to lower the boom on a lighter charge than chance an acquittal. Manison also had a fine feeling for anticipating public trends, a sense of the drama, and an understanding of public opinion.
He granted Brennan a conference of ten minutes, and knowing from long experience that incoming information flows faster when it is not interrupted, he listened attentively, oiling and urging the flow by facial expressions of interest and by leaning forward attentively whenever a serious point was about to come forth. Brennan explained about James Holden, his superior education, and what it had enabled the lad to do. He explained the education not as a machine but as a "system of study" devised by James Holden's parents, feeling that it was better to leave a few stones lying flat and unturned for his own protection. Manison nodded at the end of the ten-minute time-limit, used his desk interphone to inform his secretary that he was not to be disturbed until further notice (which also told Paul Brennan that he was indeed interested) and then said: "You know you haven't a legal leg to stand on, Brennan."
"So I find out. It seems incredible that there isn't any law set up to control the activity of a child."
"Incredible? No, Brennan, not so. To now it hasn't been necessary. People just do not see the necessity of laws passed to prevent something that isn't being done anyway. The number of outmoded laws, ridiculous laws, and laws passed in the heat of public emotion are always a subject for public ridicule. If the state legislature were to pass a law stating that any child under fourteen may not leave home without the consent of his parents, every opposition newspaper in the state would howl about the waste of time and money spent on ridiculous legislation passed to govern activities that are already under excellent control. They would poll the state and point out that for so many million children under age fourteen, precisely zero of them have left home to set up their own housekeeping. One might just as well waste the taxpayer's money by passing a law that confirms the Universal Law of Gravity.
"But that's neither here nor there," he said. "Your problem is to figure out some means of exerting the proper control over this intelligent infant."
"My problem rises higher than that," said Brennan ruefully. "He dislikes me to the point of blind, unreasonable hatred. He believes that I am the party responsible for the death of his parents and furthermore that the act was deliberate. Tantamount to a charge of first-degree murder."
"Has he made that statement recently?" asked Manison.
"I would hardly know."
"When last did you hear him say words to that effect?"
"At the time, following the accidental death of his parents, James Holden ran off to the home of his grandparents. Puzzled and concerned, they called me as the child's guardian. I went there to bring him back to his home. I arrived the following morning and it was during that session that James Holden made the accusation."
"And he has not made it since, to the best of your knowledge?"
"Not that I know of."
"Hardly make anything out of that. Seven years ago. Not a formal charge, only a cry of rage, frustration, hysterical grief. The complaint of a five-year-old made under strain could hardly be considered slanderous. It is too bad that the child hasn't broken any laws. Your success in collecting him the first time was entirely due to the associations he'd made with this automobile thief--Caslow, you said his name was. We can't go back to that. The responsibility has been fixed, I presume, upon Jake Caslow in another state. Brennan, you've a real problem: How can you be sure that this James Holden will disclose his secret system of study even if we do succeed in cooking up some legal means of placing him and keep him in your custody?"
Brennan considered, and came to the conclusion that now was the time to let another snibbet of information go. "The system of study consists of an electronic device, the exact nature of which I do not understand. The entire machine is large and cumbersome. In it, as a sort of 'heart,' is a special circuit. Without this special circuit the thing is no more than an expensive aggregation of delicate devices that could be used elsewhere in electronics. One such machine stands unused in the Holden Home because the central circuit was destroyed beyond repair or replacement by young James Holden. He destroyed it because he felt that this secret should remain his own, the intellectual inheritance from his parents. There is one other machine--undoubtedly in full function and employed daily--in the house on Martin's Hill under James Holden's personal supervision."