Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.
A RICK BRANT SCIENCE-ADVENTURE STORY
BY JOHN BLAINE
GROSSET & DUNLAP PUBLISHERS
NEW YORK, N. Y.
(C) BY GROSSET & DUNLAP, INC., 1957
* * * * *
I THE MILLION-DOLLAR GIMMICK 1
II THE INVASION OF SPINDRIFT 10
III A SYSTEM WITHIN A SYSTEM 24
IV A HAIRCUT AND A WINK 33
V JANIG RUNS A SECURITY CHECK 45
VI A CALM PRECEDES A STORM 55
VII THE PERIPATETIC BARBER 65
VIII THE MIND READER STRIKES 74
IX DAGGER OF THE MIND 86
X SEARCH FOR STRANGERS 94
XI THE DANGEROUS RESEMBLANCE 105
XII THE COAST GUARD DRAWS A BLANK 119
XIII THE MEGABUCK MOB ACTS 130
XIV SURVEILLANCE—WITH CEREAL 148
XV A MATTER OF BRAIN WAVES 154
XVI THE VANISHING MERMAIDS 164
XVII POINTER TO DISASTER 179
XVIII THE ONE-MAN BOARDING PARTY 186
XIX TAPED FOR TROUBLE 194
XX JANIG CLOSES IN 202
* * * * *
THE ELECTRONIC MIND READER
The Million-Dollar Gimmick
Rick Brant stretched luxuriously and slid down to a half-reclining, half-sitting position in his dad's favorite library armchair. He called, "Barby! Hurry up!"
Don Scott looked up from his adjustment of the television picture. "What's the rush? The show hasn't started yet."
Rick explained, "She likes the commercials."
A moment later Barbara Brant appeared in the doorway, hastily finishing a doughnut. Rick cocked an eyebrow at her. "If you're going to eat, you might at least bring a plateful, so we can have some, too."
Barby gulped. "Sorry. I didn't intend to have a doughnut. I went to the kitchen to see if Mom and Dad wanted to watch the show, and they were having doughnuts and milk."
"Never mind," Scotty said. "We forgive you. We'll get ours later. Are Mom and Dad coming?"
"Maybe later. Now be quiet, please, so I can hear the commercial."
Dismal, the Brant pup, wandered in and paused at Rick's chair to have his ears scratched before taking up his favorite position, under the TV table. Rick obliged and the shaggy pup groaned with pleasure.
"Why all the interest in a breakfast-food commercial?" Scotty asked.
"The announcer is cute," Barby stated.
This made no sense to Scotty. He stretched out on the rug in front of the set, then rolled over on his back and looked up at the girl. "I don't get it. Then why do you eat Crummies for breakfast instead of the hay this guy sells?"
"The Crummies announcer is cuter," Barby explained patiently.
The boys grinned and fell silent as the cereal salesman went into his spiel. Barby perched on the edge of a chair and listened attentively.
Rick watched his sister's expressive face, chuckling to himself. Barby always listened to the commercials. It was only fair, she insisted, and the boys went along with her wishes. Come right down to it, Rick thought, listening to commercials was the price that had to be paid for entertainment. Not listening meant not paying the price. He didn't think that the point was particularly important, but there was a small element of justice in Barby's view.
Their Sunday evenings on Spindrift, the private island off the New Jersey coast, usually ended with this particular program. The members of the Spindrift staff were not TV enthusiasts at best, and they cared little about the program. Mr. and Mrs. Brant sometimes watched, more for the sake of being companionable than for the sake of the program. But usually the three young people watched alone.
The program was a typical quiz. Contestants who were expert on a particular category returned week after week on their build-up to a grand prize, which was a quarter of a million dollars. This quiz, however, had elements that the younger Brants liked. In the first place, the contestants were ordinary people. The producer didn't seem to go in for odd characters as other programs did.
For the past few weeks the hero-contestant had been an eighteen-year-old coal miner from Pennsylvania. There was nothing unusual about him, except for one thing: he had become interested in the mining of precious stones, and from there he had studied their history. He was an expert on historical gems.
Now, as the master of ceremonies greeted the miner, Barby said with admiration, "He has a wonderful personality. And imagine him knowing so much about gems!"
Rick draped a leg over the chair arm. "See, Scotty? The perfect reaction."
"What do you mean?" Barby demanded indignantly. "He absolutely does have a wonderful personality, and I think it's amazing that a coal miner should know so much about gems."
Scotty grinned up at her. "Rick means people can't get on quiz shows unless they have good TV personalities. And how much appeal would the show have if a gem expert answered questions on gems?"
"I see what you mean," Barby agreed.
"That's it," Rick nodded. "Anyway, I agree that the miner has a swell personality, and he certainly knows his gems."
The three fell quiet as the quiz began. The questions were really tough, filled with the kind of detail no one could be expected to remember, but which good contestants always did. Then, at a crucial moment, the miner hesitated over identification of a date in the long and bloody history of the Koh-i-noor diamond.
"If only we could help him," Barby wailed.
"We don't know, either," Scotty reminded.
But Rick suddenly realized that they did know—or, at least, had the answer available. He was certain it could be found in one of his father's books, if not in the encyclopedia. But even if they had time to look it up, which they didn't, the contestant couldn't hear them in a soundproof booth. Or could they get a message to him if they were part of the studio audience? Or was there some other way? It was typical of Rick, when faced with an apparently insoluble problem, to look for an answer.
The miner finally remembered, and the three breathed a mutual sigh of relief. But the ordeal was not yet over, because the questioning had several parts. Next came a quiz on the Star of Africa.
The questions asked, the camera began switching from the contestant's face to the tense faces in the audience. A woman, probably the miner's mother ... a man with a beard ... a man with a hearing aid ...
Rick suddenly sat up straight. He had it! He knew how the information could be handed to the contestant! At least he knew in theory. He sat back and started to work out the details.
The miner made it. Limp and happy, he came out of the booth, shook hands with the MC, and staggered off with an armload of books containing answers to next week's series of questions. The announcer went into the final commercial, with Barby and Scotty listening attentively. Rick didn't listen. He had a wonderful idea on which he was putting the finishing touches.
As programs shifted, Scotty reached up and turned off the set. Dismal left his place under the table and trotted off to the kitchen.
"Me for a doughnut," Scotty announced.
Barby was still spellbound by the miner's success. "It's just fantastic, utterly, how much he knows." She shook her smooth blond head. "I wish I knew that much about something."
"Want to win a million?" Rick asked.
"Who doesn't?" Barby returned dreamily. Suddenly she stared. "You have a Look on your face," she stated. "Rick Brant, you're cooking up something!"
Rick grinned. "I can win the quiz," he said casually. "It's easy. Let me know if either of you want to win. Of course you might end up in jail if you're not real careful, but I think it'll work."
Scotty looked his disbelief. "Easy, huh? What are you expert on?"
"Nothing," Rick said airily. "And anything. Of course we all know you're an expert on eating, but that's not a category, it's a capacity."
Barby gave what might be described as a lady-like sneer.
Rick shook his head. "It's terrible the way people in this house have no faith in genius. Just terrible." He sighed heavily.
Scotty watched him suspiciously. "All right, Doctor Brant. Give with the great idea."
"Okay." Rick waved at the encircling shelves of books. "Pick a subject. Any subject, so long as it is contained in a very few references. Like the life of the bee, or the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, or the Life of Dickens."
Barby said obligingly, "All right. I pick Ben Franklin. Now what?"
"We get the major books on old Ben, plus the copy of the encyclopedia we need. Then we set up an index, and we put principal categories of information on file cards. For Ben, we'd need the Sayings of Poor Richard, and the dates they appeared, and where. And we'd need a list of his inventions, plus dates. And so on. Generally, we fix things so we can find any answer in a few seconds."
Barby shook her head. "That would be awfully hard. It would take weeks, and whoever operated the file would have to know it nearly by heart."
Rick agreed. "But isn't a million bucks worth a few weeks of effort?"
Rick's famous father, Hartson Brant, walked into the library in time to hear the last comment. His eyebrows went up. "What's all this megabuck talk?"
That was a new word to Barby. "What talk?"
"In the metric system, 'meg' means million. So a megabuck is a million bucks, if you'll pardon the slang."
"Oh—well Rick is going to win a megabuck."
Rick explained rapidly about choosing a subject that could be cross-indexed for ease of reference, then went on. "After we get the subject all set, we choose the contestant. It has to be a real person. We'd need several contestants, because the gimmick could be worked on every big money quiz. Maybe more than once on each. Of course the contestants would have to be members of the Megabuck Mob, as we'll call it."
"I like that," Barby said enthusiastically. "That would make me a Megabuck Moll, wouldn't it?"
"Yep," Scotty agreed. "And Rick can be the Megabuck Mole."
"And you can be the Megabuck Moose, you big ox," Rick finished. He was warming up to his subject now. There had to be a hole in it somewhere, but he hadn't found it yet. "Anyway, we have Ben Franklin on file cards and Barby has studied carefully to be the first contestant. Then what?"
"Someone asks who Ben Franklin was, and I say that he started a chain of department stores," Barby said helpfully.
"Not you," Rick denied. "You know all the right answers. And why? Because the Megabuck Mob is behind you. The Megabuck Moose is going through the cards, and the Megabuck Mole is feeding the answers into the Megabuck Memory Machine, and the Megabuck Moll in maidenly modesty mumbles madly—"
"Help him," Scotty interrupted. "His lips are stuck together. He can't say anything but mmmmm."
But Barby was interested now. "And how does the Memory Machine madly machinate and murmur the answers?"
"Mmm," Rick murmured. "That is the secret!"
Hartson Brant threatened his son with a handy volume of the Physics Handbook. "Out with it, young man. This is no time to keep secrets, now that we're all partners in the deal."
Rick sighed. He waved at Barby. "Look at her. So young, so smart, so pretty. But the poor girl has a very slight handicap. She has to wear a hearing aid...."
Scotty got it then. "Hey! Rick, that's great! The hearing aid would be a radio receiver!"
Barby got it, too. She finished in a rush, "And the Megabuck Mob would be watching on TV, and digging out the answers, and the Memory Machine would be a radio transmitter ..."
"It wouldn't matter about the soundproof booth," Scotty chimed in, "because radio will go right through the walls!"
Hartson Brant held both hands to his head in mock horror. "To think that my only son should turn out to be a halfway criminal genius!"
Rick glanced up at his father suspiciously. "Halfway?" He knew from the word that the scientist had immediately spotted some reason why his gimmick wouldn't work.
"Never mind, son." Hartson Brant put a hand on Rick's shoulder. "The Megabuck Moll can bake you a cake with a file in it, so you can break out of jail. I'm sure you won't mind being a fugitive from justice."
A harsh growl from the doorway caused them all to whirl around, startled. "He'll never get a chance. The Megabuck Mob is pinched as of right now. The federal government is taking over this island!"
Crouched in the doorway, submachine gun cradled in his arms, was an officer of the United States Coast Guard!
The Invasion of Spindrift
Hartson Brant reacted first. He said severely, "I've tried to teach Rick that one never points a firearm at people. You're setting him a bad example." Then the scientist smiled and held out his hand. "This is an unexpected pleasure, Steve. Why didn't you let us know you were coming? And why the disguise?"
Steve Ames, a chief agent of JANIG, the Joint Army-Navy Intelligence Group with which Spindrift had so often worked, straightened up and grinned. He winked at the astonished young people. "Hi, gang."
The trio chorused, "Hi, Steve."
Steve shook hands with Hartson Brant, then explained, "I'm not really setting a bad example. If you'll look closely, you'll see that the bolt of this chopper is open, the safety is on, and there isn't a round in the chamber."
"But why carry it at all?" Barby demanded.
Rick closed his mouth. He had been about to ask the same thing. He felt a tingle of excitement. When Steve Ames showed up on Spindrift, adventure wasn't far off. The federal agent came to Spindrift only for help, and then only when his usual sources had failed.
The first time, in the case of The Whispering Box Mystery, the Spindrifters had worked with Steve in Washington. Recently, quite by accident, the boys had become involved in a JANIG case while vacationing in the Virgin Islands. As the case of The Wailing Octopus came to an end, Steve had warned them that he might see them soon. And now here he was.
"The reason for the chopper is a long story," Steve answered Barby. "But the reason for the uniform is simple. It's mine."
Then Steve, who had never before appeared as anything but a civilian, was actually a full Commander in the Coast Guard! Rick marveled at how little they really knew about their friend. He certainly excelled at keeping his mouth shut. Probably he was a reserve officer.
"I think you look handsome in it," Barby said dreamily. The boys had kidded her before about getting all misty-eyed when Steve showed up. Actually, Steve was a very handsome young man, so Barby's mild crush was understandable.
"That makes it worth wearing," Steve said gallantly. Barby beamed.
Hartson Brant detached a key from his chain and handed it to Steve with a flourish. "You said you were taking over the island, I believe? You'll need the house key."
Rick smiled. That was his father's way of leading the conversation back to Steve's reason for coming, without taking the edge off their delight at the unexpected reunion. But Steve was not to be pushed into business talk so easily. He looked at Rick.
"You and your schemes! I think I'll poke it full of holes just to show you that crime doesn't pay."
Scotty asked curiously, "How much did you hear?"
"The whole plan. I've been casing the joint, as we say. Okay, Rick. You must have considered that a rash of winners wearing hearing aids would attract attention and comment. How are you going to prevent it?"
Rick answered automatically, his mind not really on his Great Idea any more. So Steve had been "casing" the island! He replied, "Not all the hearing aids would be visible. For instance, I could make a receiver for Barby that would be an ornamental plastic band to wear the way girls wear barrettes, or whatever they call them. Or, I could fit a receiver into a special pair of glasses. There's one type of hearing aid that's built into glasses, you know."
"I do know," Steve agreed. "All right. I'll try again. Each contestant that looks good to the program people gets a thorough quizzing on the chosen subject before being accepted. That's to find out if they're really experts. How are you going to handle it?"
Rick hadn't known about that. He pondered for a moment. "That means we'd have to prepare a hidden transmitter, too, so we could help out during the examination. It could be done. The contestants could wear the gadget strapped to their legs, under their skirts or trousers."
Steve was enjoying Rick's ready responses. His eyes twinkled. "You'd have to use very limited range on your Megabuck Mob transmitter, and a very high frequency. Otherwise, the Federal Communications Commission would pick you up, use a direction finder, and move in on your operation. They might locate you, anyway, even on low power and ultra-high frequency. How are you going to lick that?"
Rick held up his hands in surrender. "I'm not. I can't take a chance of getting the federal government into the act. Gosh, I'd have the FCC, the FBI, and maybe a dozen others on my trail. I quit. The Megabuck Mob is hereby dissolved."
Steve looked disappointed. "And I was hoping your plan was foolproof. I was about to buy stock in the Mob." The amusement in his eyes belied the words.
Hartson Brant laughed. "I'm glad you're the one that stuck a pin in his bubble, Steve. The way Barby bakes cakes, I'm not sure Rick could ever break one to get the file out."
Steve chuckled. "The records are full of foolproof get-rich-quick schemes like this one. And the jails are full of halfway criminal geniuses, too. But don't overlook the advantages of an eat-proof cake. It might come in handy to throw at the guards during the getaway."
The young people laughed, too, then Barby sobered suddenly. "Rick, could you really put one of those things in my hair?"
He had an image of the gadget in his mind, and he knew it would work. "Sure, Sis. Why?"
"An idea I want to talk to you about later." She turned to Steve and asked anxiously, "You do know Rick was only fooling, don't you, Steve? He wouldn't steal anything from anyone, honestly."
Steve nodded. "I do, Barby. I won't throw him in jail this time. I might need him."
"Is that what you're here for?" she asked.
"I need you all," Steve said. He motioned to chairs. "Let's sit down. Can Mrs. Brant join us?"
Hartson Brant went to get her while the young people started to deluge Steve with questions. He held up a hand in protest. "Wait until the whole family's here, please."
In a moment Mrs. Brant had joined them and greeted Steve cordially. Then the young agent got serious.
"I was only partly joking when I said I wanted to take over Spindrift. I really do, in a way. Here's why. We've had a team of scientists working on a project that's of the greatest importance to national defense. There were four in the team, all topnotchers. Hartson, I'm sure you'll know some, if not all of them, by reputation."
Steve removed the ammunition clip from his submachine gun and sighted through the barrel, then let the bolt ram home with a sharp click. "It was my job to guard the project. As you know, I had to go to the Virgin Islands, but I left one of my best men in charge, and he did his job thoroughly. I'm satisfied about that. No unknown person has been near the project office. And no unknowns have been in close contact with any of the team. Yet, two of them are in the hospital."
"Sick or wounded?" Scotty asked.
"Neither, really. We don't know what's wrong. Their minds suddenly ceased to function."
Hartson Brant leaned forward. "You mean they're unconscious?"
Steve shook his head. "Not in the usual sense. It's as though all their thoughts and memories had suddenly been scrambled. Did you ever see a teletype machine in operation, particularly one that suddenly went haywire?"
Rick had. "The news machine did that over at the Whiteside Morning Record. It was typing out clear copy, then suddenly there wasn't anything but gibberish."
"That's it," Steve agreed. "And it's the best analogy I can think of for what happened to the two scientists. When a teletype goes haywire, one moment everything is clear and perfect, the next everything is scrambled. All the letters are there but they no longer make words. The scientists talk words—common, everyday words—but the words don't make thoughts or sentences. Just sounds."
"How awful," Mrs. Brant murmured. Barby looked horrified.
Rick searched his memory for anything similar he had ever read about or heard of, but there was nothing. From the expressions on their faces, his father and Scotty were equally puzzled.
"Well, even though I have absolutely no evidence of foul play, I decided not to take chances," Steve went on. "I got one of the scientists to go along with my plan. He shares my concern, simply on the basis that no known disease would affect human beings in this way, and two scientists of the same team being stricken with an unknown ailment is too much coincidence."
"He's wise," Hartson Brant agreed.
"He also has a family. The other scientist does not. He's a crusty old bachelor who thinks the whole thing is nonsense and insists on staying right where he is."
"How do we fit in?" Scotty asked. "You said you needed all of us."
"That's right. I want to relocate the project at Spindrift."
"Using the co-operative scientist as the basis for a new staff?" Rick inquired.
"Yes. We went through some of the most complicated maneuvers you ever saw to got him out of Washington with his family. I'm certain his movements cannot be traced. So his presence here will be a complete secret. But it isn't just the scientist. I'm also asking you to take in his family, consisting of his wife and daughter."
"Of course we will," Mrs. Brant said warmly.
Steve turned to Barby. "I think you'll enjoy it, because the girl is just your age, and she's a very friendly and pleasant young lady."
Barby looked pleased and excited. "What's her name?"
"Janice. Janice Miller."
"Is the scientist Dr. Walter Miller by any chance?" Hartson Brant asked quickly.
"Exactly right. Do you know him?"
"Not personally. We've never met, but a few years ago we carried on a very extensive correspondence on the subject of energy levels in nuclear isomers."
Steve grinned. "I won't pretend to know what you're talking about. But I'm glad you'll have something in common. Will you and your staff join him to make up a new project team?"
"I think we can," Hartson Brant said thoughtfully. "Some of us can put aside what we're doing. I'll have to know a little more about the project, of course."
The federal agent nodded. "Dr. Miller can give you the details personally."
Rick expressed a thought that had been on his mind. "We're sort of isolated here, but we're certainly not cut off from the world. Our friends visit us, and we go to the mainland almost every day. How do we explain who these people are? I'm sure you don't want their names to get out."
"I'll give you a cover story. Their name is Morrison. You met them through Dr. Ernst while you were in the Virgin Islands. They were very hospitable, and you're simply returning their hospitality. They know the Islands well from vacations spent there, so no one will trip them up on details."
"How about details of our trip?" Scotty asked.
"They've been briefed thoroughly, by me. You can check them and fill in any missing details."
Barby giggled. "I'm glad that you didn't have any doubts about our taking them in, Steve."
"Steve knows we're available any time he needs us, and for anything we can give," Rick said.
Steve smiled his thanks. "Well, now you can guess why I showed up with a hunk of artillery under my wing. I had to be sure there wasn't a reception party waiting. You never can tell about information leaks, no matter how careful you are, so I landed at the back end of the island with a squad of men and we went over the place with a fine-tooth comb. I didn't walk in until I was certain there wasn't a stranger on the island—including strangers you might not have known about."
Hartson Brant rose. "Well, I think we've settled all initial details except where we put the Millers—or rather, the Morrisons. Can you bring them tomorrow?"
Steve rose, too. "As Rick and Barby said, I didn't have any doubts. How about tonight?"
"Tonight!" Barby gasped. "Are they here?"
"Almost. They're on a cutter offshore. If it isn't convenient, I can keep them overnight."
"Of course it's convenient," Mrs. Brant said firmly. "We'll put Mr. and Mrs. Morrison in John Gordon's room. He's still out West. And we'll take the spare twin bed out of Hobart Zircon's room and put Janice in with Barby. Bring them ashore right away, Steve. Barby and I will get busy, and Rick and Scotty can move the spare bed."
"Wonderful." Steve walked out to the porch and coughed twice. Rick hurried to his side just in time to see one of the trees in the orchard yield up a dark shadow that turned out to be a Coast Guard petty officer, carbine at the ready and a walkie-talkie slung over his shoulder.
"Let me have your horn, Smitty," Steve requested.
The coastguardman gave Rick a curious look as he handed Steve the phone.
The agent said, "Nevada, this is Texas. Deliver the goods."
The reply was, "Texas, this is Nevada. The package is in the mail."
Steve handed the phone back to the coastguardman and ordered, "Get the boys together and return to the ship, Smitty. Repeat their instructions. They don't know where they've been, and they don't know what they've been doing."
Smitty grinned. "Aye-aye, sir. That won't be hard. None of us really know where we've been or what we've been doing."
"Life is easier that way," Steve said. "Shove off, now."
"Aye-aye, sir." The guardsman faded off into the night.
"Let's move furniture," Steve suggested.
For the next few moments the house was a flurry of activity. Rick and Scotty dismantled the twin bed in Zircon's room, explaining only to the big scientist that unexpected company had arrived. Zircon, engrossed in a theoretical problem, scarcely noticed.
By the time Mrs. Brant was satisfied with arrangements and had counted the towels for the third time, Steve called from downstairs that the boat was arriving.
Rick, Scotty, and Barby ran to Steve's side and walked with him toward the landing where the Spindrift boats were moored. Dismal had paid little attention to the proceedings, but now, fearful of being left behind, the pup raced ahead of the group.
The boat carrying the Morrisons—for so Rick was already conditioning himself to think of them—was approaching the dock. As the group hurried to meet the unexpected guests, two coastguardmen leaped from the big motor whaleboat and made it fast.
Dismal got there first. He barked furiously, trying to frighten off the invaders, then his barks suddenly changed to an anguished howl as a new voice joined in the racket. It was a feline voice, and a highly indignant one.
"Great grandma's ghost!" Steve exclaimed. "I forgot to tell you they have a cat!"
Dismal shot by them, followed by an enormous creature with glowing eyes that yowled at the top of its lungs, in what was probably very coarse language to anyone who spoke cat talk. Dismal had at last met his match, and was beating an inglorious retreat.
Just as Rick was about to take up the chase and rescue his pup, the cat decided to break off the engagement. The ruffled fur subsided slightly as the animal turned from the chase and approached the four who had been hurrying to the pier. In the beam of Steve's flashlight Rick saw that the cat was a huge blue Persian, and though he knew little about cats, he recognized that this was an aristocrat of its kind.
The Persian gave a meow of greeting, then walked up and rubbed against Barby's legs. It gave out a noise that reminded Rick of a wood rasp rubbing over a piece of broken pine. The cat was purring!
Barby had stamped her foot angrily at the sight of Dismal being forced to retreat to the house, but the cat was too much for her. "You beautiful thing!" she exclaimed, and picked the creature up. It responded by purring louder.
Rick grinned. On the pet level, at least, the Morrison invasion was off to a fast start. He hoped the incident wasn't symbolic.
A System Within a System
When Rick came down to breakfast the next morning, the day was already hours old for his father, Steve Ames, Julius Weiss, Parnell Winston, and Dr. Walter Miller alias Morrison. The scientists had been closeted in the library with Steve since dawn, their talks interrupted only by Mrs. Brant serving coffee to the group. Steve, too, had remained overnight.
Barby and Scotty were around the island somewhere with Janice. Mrs. Brant and Mrs. Morrison were in the kitchen, getting acquainted and finding that they had friends in common.
It wasn't that Rick had slept late; he was on time. Everyone else had gotten up early. Rick told himself that he was the only calm member of the family, but underneath he was a little chagrined. If he had arisen earlier, he might have been able to take part in the talks now going on in the library.
The Morrisons had been so tired from the strain of getting out of Washington undetected, and from the trip in the confined quarters of the Coast Guard cutter that they had gone to bed almost immediately.
Dr. Morrison turned out to be a tall man with a kind, tired face, steel-rimmed glasses, and a shock of curly white hair. Mrs. Morrison was a pleasant, stylish woman whose reaction was a mixture of pure pleasure at finding herself in the comfortable Brant home and embarrassment at the circumstances that had forced her to impose herself on strangers. Rick had liked both the Morrisons immediately.
His reaction to Janice was favorable, too. He admitted that she was a remarkably pretty girl, as dark as Barby was fair, and of about the same height and slimness. She hadn't said a great deal, and he decided at once that she was shy. Barby had taken to her immediately, and she to Barby. The last thing Rick had heard before falling asleep was the two of them talking and giggling in the room down the hall.
He walked into the dining room, hoping he wasn't too late for breakfast, and stopped short, stifling a laugh at the sight that met his eyes.
The Morrisons' cat, whose name was Shah, was crouched on one of the dining-room chairs. Dismal was sniffing around beneath the chair, obviously looking for the cat. As Rick watched, Dismal gave up the search and walked from under the chair. Instantly he was batted on the nose from above by a paw that moved with supersonic speed. Rick laughed as Dismal gave a cry of pure frustration and headed for the kitchen at a trot. The cat had been playing, since the blow was struck with claws sheathed. If Shah had wanted to hurt the pup, raking claws could have torn deep furrows.
Rick stroked the silky fur and Shah purred hoarsely. He hadn't had much experience with cats, but he liked this one. The Persian had a sense of humor. Rick went into the kitchen and consoled Dismal, after bidding good morning to his mother and Mrs. Morrison. The pup rolled over on his back and played dead, his only trick. The boy scratched Dismal's stomach until the pup's hind leg flailed in delighted ecstasy.
"Am I too late for breakfast?" Rick asked his mother.
"Of course not. We'll be ready in ten minutes."
Rick wandered out to the screened front porch that was the Brants' summer living room. The ocean was calm this morning. He searched the horizon for some sign of the Coast Guard cutter. There was none, which didn't surprise him. Steve was too old a hand to attract attention to Spindrift by having a government craft waiting offshore.
Barby, Jan, and Scotty were walking from the long, low gray laboratory building on the southeast corner of the island, past the place where the Sky Wagon, his plane, usually was staked down. His landing strip ran along the seaward edge of the island, from the lab building to the front of the house. However, the plane still carried the pontoons with which it had been fitted for the Virgin Islands trip, and for the time being, it was drawn ashore at Pirate's Field.
Presently the trio joined him on the porch. Jan smiled and said good morning in her soft voice. Scotty said, "I thought you were going to sleep all day."
Barby came to Rick's defense. "He was tired. After all, it's hard work to get wonderful ideas like the one he had last night."
Apparently Barby had told Jan all about it, because the girl asked, "Can I be a member of the Megabuck Mob?" There seemed to be just a touch of wistfulness about the way she added, "You always seem to be having adventures of one sort or another at Spindrift."
Rick answered, "Please don't believe everything Barby tells you. She exaggerates, sort of."
"I do not," Barby answered emphatically. "We do have adventures. Besides, Jan already knew about some of them, because she read about Spindrift in the papers. And she's already a member of the Mob, because I invited her!"
Rick interpreted Barby's glare correctly. It said that if he wasn't gracious and nice to their new guest, he would have his sister to reckon with, and, as he knew full well, she was no mean adversary.
"Fine," he said. "Welcome to the Mob, Miss Morrison. We'll assign you the subject of economic history."
"Jan, please," she answered, then smiled shyly. "But couldn't I have another subject? I'm just not the type to know much about economics, I guess."
"That's just the point," Scotty explained.
Barby had a serious look on her pert face. "Of course Rick's idea about stealing a million from quiz shows was just a joke. But, Rick, you gave me an idea—if you'll co-operate."
"It depends on the idea," Rick answered warily.
"Oh, don't be so cautious. I'm not trying to trap you into taking me on any trips." Barby referred to the promise she had once wangled out of her brother that she could go on the next expedition, a promise that had gotten the Spindrift young people entangled in a hazardous adventure in the far-off South Seas.
Rick perched on the arm of a sofa. "Okay. Let's have it."
"Well, I was thinking about the Harvest Moon Show at school." She explained, in an aside to Jan, "Every October the high school puts on a big variety show in the city auditorium to raise money for the school athletic fund. Rick said he could make me a radio receiver that I could wear in my hair."
"He can," Scotty interjected. "Remember the control radios we made for the Tractosaur? He could make one for you the same way."
The Tractosaur was a "thinking bulldozer" the Spindrift scientists had designed.
Barby continued, "I know you can make a small transmitter that will fit in your pocket, because that's all the Tractosaur control was, really. Well, if I wore a receiver that no one could see, and if you carried a transmitter that no one could see, we could put on the most wonderful mind-reading act in history!"
Rick's quick imagination elaborated on Barby's words. It was a great idea! He could work among the audience, while Barby sat blindfolded on the stage. He would choose a person in the audience and ask for something from wallet or purse, and whisper: "Please let me have your driver's license. Thank you. Mr. Charles Rogers, is it?... Where is 3218 Newark Drive?... Oh, over by the airfield. Well, Mr. Rogers, let me see if I can transmit all this information telepathically to my sister." Then he would hold up the driver's license and say loudly, "What have I here?" And Barby, who had heard every whispered word, would answer. He would coax the information out of her, and the audience would be baffled.
"Sensational," he complimented her. "We'll do it."
"Brant and Brant," Scotty intoned, "the marvels of the universe! See the living proof of the science of parapsychology! Mystifying, terrifying, a scientific phenomenon without parallel that has baffled the leading minds of the world!" Scotty's quick mind also had caught the implications of Barby's idea.
Jan Morrison was a scientist's daughter, too, and printed electronic circuits were no mystery to her. She said enthusiastically, "You could even do mind reading at a distance."
"How?" Barby asked.
"Well, if there were two transmitters, Scotty could have one, too. He could go to someone outside the auditorium, like the mayor, or some other official, and have him write a sentence on a sheet of paper, which Scotty could read over his shoulder. Then Barby, on the auditorium stage, would ask everyone to look at their watches, and say that the mayor had just written so and so on a sheet of paper, then burned it. Scotty would bring the mayor to the auditorium, and Barby would tell him what she had said, and at what time, and ask him if it was right. Of course it would be."
Rick looked at the girl with new respect. It was a very good gimmick indeed. He said as much.
Barby put her arm around Jan's waist. "We'll be sure to invite you to the show. Won't it be fun?"
"If it's safe for us to let people know where we are by then," Jan said somberly.
They fell silent at the reminder that Jan's presence was far more serious than a casual visit. Finally Rick said, "We'll get to work on the sets this afternoon."
"Make it tomorrow," Barby said quickly. "I sort of promised Jan something...."
Rick and Scotty exchanged glances.
"I said you and Scotty would teach her how to use the aqualungs."
Rick breathed a sigh of relief. That would be no hardship. He and Scotty needed practice, anyway. They had hardly used the lungs since returning from the Virgin Islands.
Mrs. Brant summoned them to breakfast and they walked in to find Steve and the scientists gathered at the big table.
"Got everything settled?" Rick asked.
"Just about," Steve replied. "We have a job for you, though."
Rick's pulse quickened. "What is it?"
"Your father and Weiss will need to pay a quick trip to Washington. I want you to take them in the Sky Wagon."
"When?" Scotty inquired.
"Tomorrow morning. You'll come back tomorrow afternoon."
Over breakfast, Rick tried to get more information from the agent. "Exactly what are we working on, Steve?"
Ames sipped steaming coffee thoughtfully. "Ever hear of a weapon system?"
Rick had. "It's a weapon so complicated, with so many parts, that it's actually a system instead of just a simple weapon. I think the term is used mostly for missiles."
"You think right. Well, Winston, Weiss, and your father will help Dr. Morrison do the basic design work on a system to go into a weapon system."
Scotty had been listening, too. "How complicated can you get?" he asked.
Dr. Morrison answered. "When it comes to missile work, you can get fantastically complicated. In fact, some missile systems are so complicated it's a wonder they ever work at all."
The telephone rang. Barby, who served when necessary as the island's switchboard operator, ran to answer. In a moment she returned. "It's for you, Steve. From Washington. I plugged it in on the library extension."
Steve excused himself. A few moments later he returned. "Hartson, I just took the liberty of ordering a scrambler placed on your phone switchboard, in case we need to hold any classified conversations between here and my offices. The phone man will install it today, if you have no objection."
"Of course not," Hartson Brant said. "I think it's a sensible precaution, especially with one member of the team remaining in Washington."
"What's a scrambler?" Barby asked.
"A special device that turns phone conversations into jumbled gibberish so no one can understand them. You talk normally, and sound normal to the person listening. But anyone tapping in on the line gets only sounds that mean nothing."
The agent's face turned grim. "Speaking of gibberish reminds me of the reason for the call. The Washington Post carried a story in one of its columns this morning hinting that two scientists working on a supersecret project had been driven insane. It also hinted that the insanity was an effect of the gadget they were working on!"
A Haircut and a Wink
Rick held the Sky Wagon at the altitude to which he had been assigned by the control tower at Anacostia Naval Air Station in Washington. He was a little nervous because there was more air traffic around him than he had ever seen before.
Across the Potomac River, so close that the traffic patterns almost interlocked, was busy Washington National Airport. Below him along the Anacostia River were two military airports; Anacostia, at which he would land, and Bolling Air Force Base. And to complicate matters slightly, Andrews Air Force Base was only a short distance away.
A thousand feet above his head a tremendous Air Force Stratocruiser circled patiently. A thousand feet below him a flight of Navy Banshee fighters awaited clearance for landing. And climbing through the pattern came a division of Air Force F-80's.
Rick's neck ached from swiveling around. Scotty was helping him watch for other aircraft. But in the rear seat, Hartson Brant and Julius Weiss talked a steady stream, as they had ever since taking off from Spindrift. Rick wished he were as oblivious to the traffic. Actually, he didn't know what they were talking about. Good as his scientific training was, they were in a realm where his young mind hadn't even probed.
His earphones gave out: "Tower to Spindrift Flight. You are cleared to land. Approach from Northeast."
Rick glanced down in time to see the Navy fighters peel off in a precision maneuver that was lovely to watch. Then, on their heels, he stood the Sky Wagon up on a wing and slid down toward the muddy river below.
A short time later Rick called for instructions and was told to beach at Ramp Three. He located it without difficulty. Scotty climbed out on the pontoon and caught the rope thrown by a seaman. In a few moments they were beached.
A stocky young man who might have been a government clerk approached and introduced himself as Tom Dodd. The identification folder he held out bore the familiar JANIG imprint. "Steve phoned ahead," he said. "Do you need anything for your plane?"
"We'd better top off the tank," Rick said. "Everything else is all right." He described the kind of gas his plane used, fearful that the Navy might use either a higher or lower octane that would not be suitable.
Dodd gave instructions to a Navy petty officer, then led the Spindrifters to a waiting sedan. Rick got into the back seat and slumped back between his father and Weiss. The little mathematician looked at him in some alarm.
"Rick! You look done in. What on earth is wrong?"
He smiled feebly. "I'm a sissy, Professor. The only other times I've flown into Washington I landed at light-plane airports outside the city. This morning I got right into the middle of the big kids. Honest, the traffic was worse than Times Square. I was so scared I'd lose position and bang into someone that I almost swiveled my head off."
Tom Dodd looked back and grinned sympathetically. "Don't feel badly. Even the commercial pilots sit up straight and keep bright-eyed on the Washington approach. Airwise, it's one of the most crowded cities in the world."
As Tom steered the big sedan expertly through the traffic en route to downtown Washington, Rick asked his father, "What were you and Professor Weiss talking about? You lost me just about the time we got air-borne."
The scientist shook his head. "This time, Rick, I can't help much. Ask me again when you've completed your undergraduate work in college."
"I'm afraid your father is right," Weiss agreed. "When one gets deeply into the physical sciences there are no longer simple mechanical analogies; there are only equations that I'm afraid are beyond you for now, Rick."
Rick sighed. "A lot of help I'm going to be on this project!"
"You're not supposed to help," his father corrected. "The project is entirely for the purpose of developing principles for the system. The final product will be the equations with which the technologists can begin actual system design. In other words, we are working only on the first theoretical step."
"But the newspaper article said the scientists were affected by a gadget," Scotty objected.
"The article was wrong. Paper covered with mathematical computations can scarcely affect anyone," Hartson Brant said decisively.
Rick stared through the window. The sedan was moving down Constitution Avenue toward 14th Street. "But how did the newspaper find out anything in the first place?"
Dodd swung the sedan around a truck, then shrugged expressively. "We'd like to know. Columnists have their sources of information. Usually the source isn't close to the inside dope, so most of the columns are pretty inaccurate. A good thing, too, otherwise the enemy would be getting our top-secret information in print all the time. Probably this leak came from someone in the hospital where the team members were taken."
Conversation lapsed until Dodd swung the sedan into a restricted parking place near the corner of 15th and K streets. Then he led the way into an office building. Rick looked around him as they walked to the elevators. It was a typical large office building with an arcade-type lobby. He noticed a haberdashery shop, a barbershop, a florist, a newspaper-tobacco stand, and the entrance to a drug store. The building directory was loaded with names.
In the elevator, Dodd said, "Four, please."
The Spindrifters were the only ones that got off at that floor. As the door slid closed, Rick saw that a man was seated in an alcove, just out of sight of anyone who got off the elevator. Dodd greeted him, then said, "Remember these faces, Sam."
Sam nodded without speaking.
Dodd led them down a hall. Rick had to satisfy his curiosity. "Is this a government building?"
"No. It's a regular office building. We leased this floor under the name of a phony corporation. It's entirely ours, but the rest of the building is occupied by legitimate firms."
"Isn't that risky?" Weiss asked.
"It depends. If the project is penetrated, then it becomes easier for the enemy in one way, since we don't have the protection of a government building. On the other hand, the public has free access to all but a few of the government buildings, while we can control who comes in and out of this floor."
"What does 'penetrated' mean?" Scotty inquired.
"Known to the enemy."
"But couldn't you have put the project in the Pentagon, or in the Atomic Energy Commission Building?" Rick pursued.
"Yes, except that it's top secret, even within the government. I doubt that more than two dozen people even know about it. Remember, the best security is not to let people even suspect that a thing exists."
"But the project has been penetrated," Scotty pointed out.
"We don't know that. The newspaper article gave no details, remember. Only that some unidentified scientists had gone insane. No location, no names, no anything of real value. And we have taken precautions. After all, you have the team chief. Only one man is left, and we hope to get him out of here, too."
Dodd swung open a door that opened into a bare outer office, and led them into an inner room where a man bent over a desk.
Rick knew his name. This was Dr. Humphrey Marks, the reluctant bachelor. All Rick could see for the moment was a bald head. It was completely bald, not even a fringe of hair remaining. It gleamed in the light of the desk lamp. Presently the bald pate revolved back and a truculent face stared up at them.
Dr. Marks looked like a man who had been born impatient. His underslung jaw thrust forward as he demanded, "Well, well? What is this, Dodd? Well? Who are these people?"
Dodd was unperturbed. "Dr. Brant, Dr. Weiss, and Richard Brant and Donald Scott."
Marks harrumphed. He stood erect, and he was scarcely taller than little Julius Weiss. He had a solid, square build and massive hands. "I am honored, gentlemen," he said crisply. "Sit down."
The Spindrifters did so. "We will get to business," Marks stated. "You will forgive me if I begin on an elementary level. It is only for the purpose of defining the problem. Ames said you had been briefed by Miller, so I will confine the briefing to my part of the project."
Hartson Brant and Julius Weiss produced notebooks. Rick and Scotty relaxed as best they could in the uncomfortable chairs and prepared to listen.
"You are, of course, aware of the problems inherent in the development of inertial systems," Marks began. "Perturbations are many, and both predictable and random. Consider our missile. We set its little brain for a given pattern. We depend on its inertia to inform the brain when perturbations are pulling it off course. The brain then takes the necessary corrective action. This, of course, is oversimplification."
It wasn't very simple to Rick. He squirmed uncomfortably on the hard chair.
"Now, we have dealt primarily with the perturbations one would expect. The equatorial bulge, for example. The result? We still have a probable error of several miles in hitting the target. This is not to be borne, gentlemen. We must have precision. Now, what information do we have that allows such precision? We have the effects of perturbation of the other planetary bodies and of the sun itself. These we may calculate closely. We shall use them to guide our missile, as they interact with the missile's own inertia."
Marks broke off to glare at Rick. He inquired acidly, "Do I perhaps bore you? Or have you a serious itch? If so, scratch it, for heaven's sake. You are squirming so, I can see only a blur through the corner of my eye."
Hartson Brant came to his son's rescue. He looked at Dodd. "May the boys be excused? I'm sure this discussion will be of no value to them, and probably they have some things they would like to do."
Dodd nodded. "If you decide to leave the vicinity, let Sam know."
"We'll be in the lobby," Rick said. He motioned to Scotty. His feelings were of mixed relief at getting out of there and irritation at Marks for what amounted to summary dismissal.
As they walked to the elevator, Rick asked, "What did you make out of that?"
"Not much. How about you?"
"A little," Rick admitted. "Enough to know what the project is aiming at."
"A guidance system for the intercontinental missile, and a fantastic one that uses the moon and the sun, and maybe Venus and Mars as guideposts."
Scotty whistled. "As you said, a lot of good we'll be to this project. Well, what do we do now?"
Rick ran a hand through his hair. "Follow Barby's instructions." His sister had said bluntly that both he and Scotty were getting as shaggy as Dismal, and please get haircuts. He knew why, of course. Barby wanted them to be at their best, because she liked Jan Morrison very much and wanted Jan to like the boys, too.
Sam nodded to them as they walked to the elevator. Rick noted that the guard could watch the stairs as well as the elevator doors. He also noted that the guard's coat was loose, and that the butt of a Magnum revolver was within easy reach of his hand. Knowing how Steve Ames operated, Rick also suspected that other, less visible, methods had been taken to guard the fourth floor, but there was nothing he could see.
It was still early in the day and the barbershop in the lobby was not crowded. Rick and Scotty both were able to get chairs.
Rick browsed through a magazine as the barber worked, but found nothing of interest. He put it down and looked around him. The shop was like any other shop, anywhere. He thought that barbershops may vary in the number of chairs, the luxuriousness of the appointments, and the size of the mirrors, but they all have about the same smell, and the same collection of bottles for the barber's use.
However, one item attracted Rick's attention, because it seemed out of place. It looked for all the world like the hair driers one finds in beauty shops. There was a stand, and a metal hood.
He gestured toward it. "What's that?"
"It's for treating dry hair," the barber answered. "Special oil treatment, with electric massage. Very good."
Rick's hair was dry from frequent immersion in both salt and fresh water. Being inquisitive about everything in the world, he thought about trying it.
"Maybe I'll have time for a treatment," he said.
The barber ran a hand through the boy's light-brown hair. "You don't need one. Your hair is healthy, and not especially dry. I wouldn't give you a treatment you don't need."
"Have it your way," Rick said. The barber was either too lazy or too honest for his own good. In all probability the machine would do nothing Rick couldn't do for himself with his own two hands.
There was a good view of the elevators through the barbershop windows. Rick watched people coming and going, and speculated for his own amusement on who they might be, and their business in the building. Speculation was idle, of course. Take Tom Dodd. No one, without inside knowledge, would suspect that he was a federal agent engaged in guarding a hush-hush project on the fourth floor. Or Dr. Marks. Who would suspect that he carried a vital secret? Or, more accurately, that he was working on one?
As the barber was brushing Rick off, the boy saw his father step out of the elevator, stop, and look around. He saw the elevator operator step from the car, look into the barbershop, and wink. Rick almost winked back, then he realized that the operator was winking at the barber and not at him.
The scientist saw Rick at almost the same moment and walked into the barbershop. "Julius will be busy for another half hour," he said. "I think I'll follow your example, Rick." He climbed into the chair Rick had just vacated.
Scotty was through, too. The boys took seats and busied themselves reading magazines.
Hartson Brant's hair had needed only trimming, not complete cutting, so he was finished in a short time. The barber shook out his cloth, then put it back on for the finishing touches. Rick glanced up as the barber spoke.
"Your hair's pretty dry, sir, and I have an excellent treatment here. I'd like to give you one. It would make your hair look better, and make it easier to handle."
Tension swept through Rick as though someone had turned on an electric current. The tension had no focus. It was just that something deep within him had reacted. He stood up and dropped his magazine.
"Dad," he said hastily, "I just saw Julius go through the lobby."
"Where did he go?" Hartson Brant demanded. "I didn't see him."
"I think he went through the front door," Rick said. "Better hurry. I'll try to catch him."
Outside the barbershop he stopped, to let Scotty catch up with him. "Why should Weiss run out through the front door?" Scotty demanded.
"He didn't. It was a stall, to get Dad out of there in a hurry."
"I don't know," Rick said slowly. "For some reason, I just didn't want him to have that dry-hair treatment!"
JANIG Runs a Security Check
There wasn't much evidence on which to base his reaction, Rick admitted. But when he reacted, he just reacted and that's all there was to it. Call it a hunch, or call it nonsense. That's how it was, and he couldn't change it.
The barber had practically refused him a dry-hair treatment—and his hair was rather dry. The same barber had tried to sell a treatment to Hartson Brant—whose hair was not dry at all. And the elevator boy who had carried the scientist down from the fourth floor had winked at the barber.
Even admitting that it added up to no evidence of anything, it bothered him. He had asked Tom Dodd how much JANIG knew about the barber.
Tom admitted that JANIG didn't know much. After all, he pointed out, it was impossible to check everyone in an office building of that size, or at least impractical. Furthermore, it was a cover operation, and any kind of a careful check on people in the building would warn them that something was going on. Tom agreed, however, that it was better to be safe than sorry. JANIG would run a check on the barber, even though Rick's evidence was no evidence at all.
Rick wasn't satisfied. He felt he had to talk it over with Steve Ames, and called the agent, who was in JANIG's New York office, as soon as he got home.
There was a small switch box next to the telephone in the library. It had only two positions, one marked "normal" and the other not marked at all.
Steve asked, "Who is it?"
"Throw your switch."
Rick did so, with no apparent results. "Nothing happened," he said.
"Nothing audible," Steve corrected. "I threw mine at the same time. We're scrambled. Go ahead, Rick, what is it?"
Rick told him the story. Steve didn't laugh. He had had experience with Rick's hunches before. "All right. I've already talked with Tom Dodd. He told me the story and I agreed we should run a check. He also reported that Weiss had persuaded Marks to come to Spindrift so the team could work together. I have Dodd planning how to get him out of Washington."
"Tom told me why no check had been run on the people in the building," Rick said hesitantly. "Honestly, Steve, I thought you always checked on everyone who might have a connection with a case."
"We do," Steve said flatly. "But we can't check on everyone in the city of Washington. Consider, Rick. There are several hundred people that work in the building and perhaps as many more who go there regularly for perfectly legitimate reasons. We couldn't run a deep check on all of them, and a superficial check wouldn't mean anything. So we don't check. Instead, we make sure we know about the people the scientists see regularly, and we give physical protection not only to the scientists but to the floor they work on. We keep a careful check to be sure our phones aren't tapped, and there's a scrambler on each line. Of course the moment we get even a slight odor of fish, we run a check. That's why we're working on your barber right now. We're also checking the elevator operator."
"All right. I was off base, I guess."
"Not at all. I'd be disappointed if you didn't ask for explanations."
There was one other question in Rick's mind. "How do you know we weren't followed back to Spindrift?"
Steve chuckled. "You had two cars on your tail. They'd have picked up anyone who tried to follow Tom. What's more, our men at the airport identified every plane that took off from the vicinity of Washington for two hours after your departure."
Rick said sheepishly, "Sorry, Steve."
"Forget it. I'll be in touch with you, Rick."
Steve was right, of course. JANIG was on the job and would plug any loose holes. And once Marks arrived, Spindrift would be the only base the JANIG men had to cover. That would make it simpler. Rick decided he might as well put the matter out of his mind.
Barby, Jan, and Scotty were waiting for him on the front porch.
Scotty asked, "What gives?"
"Steve says to forget it."
Jan frowned, her pretty face worried. "Barby told me about these odd hunches you sometimes get. Aren't they ever wrong?"
Rick grinned. "I'll say they are. Don't worry, Jan. You're safe here."
Her dark eyes flashed at him. "I'm not worried about myself. I'm worried about my father."
Rick apologized. "I didn't mean that quite the way it sounded. But don't forget, Jan. Our father is in this, too. So we'll worry with you—if there's any worrying to be done."
Barby changed the subject. "It's still early. Why can't we give Jan another swimming lesson?"
They had started the day before teaching Jan how to use underwater breathing apparatus. She was an excellent swimmer, almost as good as Barby. But she had never had experience with mask, fins, and snorkel, so lessons in the use of those were required before she could graduate to the aqualungs.
"Let's go," Rick said.
In a short time the four had changed to swimming suits and were testing the water off Pirate's Beach. It was cold, but not unbearable. Once they were accustomed to it, Rick picked up the instructions where he had left off the day before. Jan was using Barby's mask, snorkel, and fins. They would get her some of her own on the first trip to Whiteside.
Barby had borrowed her father's equipment. The mask wasn't a perfect fit, but she was experienced enough not to mind a little leakage. The snorkel was all right, since no fit was involved, but the fins were ludicrous on her small feet. She had stuffed cotton in the toes to make them tight enough to wear, but that made the fins hard to control.
"Follow the leader!" Rick called. "I'll lead, Jan next, Scotty next, and Barby bring up the rear."
That was so Scotty would be instantly aware of any trouble Jan got into. Barby could swim as well as either of the boys and needed no watching.
Rick started by going straight out, watching the bottom through his mask. When he got to about the fifteen-foot depth, he bent at the waist and threw his legs upward. He slid smoothly into the water, rolling on his back to watch Jan. She imitated his movements perfectly, and he turned back, satisfied. She was graceful as a seal in the water. It wouldn't take much to make a first-class diver out of her.
Rick went to the bottom and moved along, doing underwater acrobatics and touching a rock here and there. Then he turned over on his back again and started upward, eyes on Jan. She followed. He led the way back to the beach.
As the group emerged from the water and lifted their masks, Rick looked at Scotty. His pal nodded. "She'll do. She followed you like a shadow."
"Good. All right, Jan. Next step is clearing your mask of water. The principle is easy. Just remember that gas is lighter than liquid. Your breath is lighter than the water. So you hold the top of your mask and blow it full of air, which forces the water out the bottom. Watch."
He demonstrated a few times, then Jan tried it. She caught on easily.
The instruction continued, until at the end of two hours, Rick took all of Jan's equipment and threw it into twelve feet of water. "Now," he said calmly, "go after it and put it on in the water. Clear your mask and snorkel, then come back to shore with full gear on and operating. No surfacing to take a breath. Use only the snorkel."
Jan looked into the water thoughtfully. The moments ticked by. Finally Rick asked, "What is it?"
The girl smiled. "I'm planning how I'll do it. If I don't plan in advance, it will be too late after I've started, and I intend to do it right the first time."
Rick, Barby, and Scotty exclaimed together, "Good girl!" They laughed, and Rick explained, "That's what makes a safe diver. Know what you're going to do before you have to do it."
Jan filled her lungs and dove. The three swam out over her and watched through their masks. She found the mask, and there was a bad moment when she got it on upside down, but she quickly reversed it, held it to her face, and blew it clear. Only then did she bother with the strap that held it.
Rick watched, pleased. He hadn't told her it wasn't necessary to attach the mask before clearing. She put the snorkel mouthpiece in place, but did not bother to attach the rubber strap to her head. Then, working smoothly but without waste of time, she slipped on the fins and flashed to the surface. The snorkel emerged and she blew it clear, then swam to the beach.
"Perfect," Rick applauded.
"You're a natural," Scotty added.
Barby just beamed.
Jan was obviously pleased at their praise, but she was a little shy, too, so she contented herself with smiling her thanks.
"Aqualung instruction tomorrow morning," Rick said. "Come on. I've worked up an appetite."
That evening Rick began work on the radio circuits, as he had promised Barby. The transmitters would be the easiest part, since he could use the same circuits that had gone into the design of the Tractosaur controls, modified only slightly for use on the highest amateur band. Fortunately, Rick had both an operator's and station licenses as a radio "ham," so Barby's scheme wouldn't mean illegal operation.
The girls wandered into the shop where he and Scotty were at work, but there was nothing exciting about the painstaking work of laying out diagrams, so they soon left.
Scotty paused in his work of assembling the parts they would need. "Rick, how about making transceivers instead of simple transmitters?"
"So we can send and receive on the same unit? We can do it, all right. But why?"
"I was just thinking. Quite a few times we'd have been a lot better off if we could talk back and forth at a distance. There's no reason why these have to be designed just for you and Barby to use in the mind-reading act."
Scotty was right, of course. He usually was. "We'll make a pair of transceivers, and a receiver for Barby. Unless you think we ought to build a transceiver into her outfit, too."
"Would it be much work?"
"Not much. We might as well, I suppose."
They buckled down to the job. Rick found he couldn't work long, however. "I've still got that guitar-string feeling," he admitted. "I'm all tight inside." He didn't like it, and there was no apparent reason for it. But that didn't help him to get rid of it.
Scotty knew Rick from long experience. "Wish I could help," he said, "but I'm stymied. There's nothing we can get our teeth into. Those two scientists bother me. I can't imagine what would put two perfectly sensible and healthy people into a state like Steve describes."
"Same here." Rick had thought about it a number of times in the past day, but had reached no conclusion. "But if it's from natural causes, how did Marks and Miller—I mean Morrison—escape?"
Scotty grinned wryly. "You're not asking me because you expect an answer."
"No," Rick agreed. He said abruptly, "I've had it. Let's hit the hay."
He might have felt better, or worse, had he been able to tune in on a conversation between Tom Dodd and Steve Ames that was going on at that very moment.
"We've had seven men on it ever since this morning," Tom was saying. "We checked him from here to breakfast, and the record is absolutely negative. Same for the elevator operator. The barber is a wanderer, never stays in one shop for long. He's hunting another job right now. The machine is his, and it's the only one of its kind. We sent Mike Malone in for a treatment. He says the machine is good. Apparently it's nothing but a hood with three massage machines installed on spring mounts, so they fit the head. The barber applies oil, then turns on the machine. It has dials, but they're fakes. It's a massage machine, pure and simple, and it passed the health inspection board, so we know it's not harmful."
Steve Ames said thoughtfully, "Negative record. Hmm. Well, at least no one has ever caught up with him if he happens to be a wrong one. It doesn't prove he's clean."
"Too true. Any ideas?"
"Just keep an eye on him. He's innocent until we get some evidence that he may be guilty. Same for the elevator operator. But, for now, we'll consider you've drawn a blank and let it go at that."
A Calm Precedes a Storm
A crisis had arisen and Rick and Scotty could only stand by helplessly. After all, what could mere males do in such a situation?
Barby decided that Rick and Scotty were to fly over to Whiteside and get diving equipment for Jan, so she could have her own. It was easy to agree on the type of face mask, snorkel, and fins. But everything bogged down when it came to color.
Rick's own mask, snorkel, and fins were sea green. Scotty had a green mask, blue snorkel, and black fins. Barby had a white mask, red snorkel, and white fins.
"Look," Rick said impatiently. "What earthly difference does it make? The principal thing is comfort. If the fins feel good and the mask fits comfortably, that's it. Color? What difference does color make to a fish?"
Barby sniffed. "I wouldn't expect you to understand."
Jan looked at him coldly and stated that she wouldn't know what difference color made to a fish, because she was not a fish.
"You swim like one," Scotty said diplomatically, but didn't even get a smile in return.
There was only one thing for the boys to do, and that was to make as graceful a retreat as possible. They did so, and sat waiting under a tree in the orchard while raging debate went on between the girls on the porch.
Rick looked over at the laboratory building. His father and the other scientists were hard at work on the project, he supposed. He felt rather left out, because they were too busy to talk with him, and when he went in to look around he could see only stacks of paper covered with equations that he couldn't begin to understand.
"Wonder when Marks will arrive?" he asked.
Scotty shrugged. "We'll probably find out when he gets here."
Dr. Marks had agreed to join the team at Spindrift as soon as he finished running some of the team calculations through the automatic computer at the Bureau of Standards in Washington. Tom Dodd would arrive with him, Steve had reported. Meanwhile, protection for the Spindrift team was under the direction of another of Steve's men, Joe Blake. Joe and another agent took turns in the laboratory, sleeping and eating there and emerging one at a time for a little exercise.
Nor were Joe and his partner the only protection. In the woods on the mainland, just out of sight of the tidal flat, a group of four Boy Scout leaders were encamped, working on special camping and pioneering qualifications that would enable them to become qualified instructors for their Scout Troops. The Whiteside newspaper had even carried a brief story about the Scout activities. But Jerry Webster, Rick's friend and newspaper reporter, hadn't known when he wrote the story that the Scout leaders carried an astonishing amount of armament for such a peaceful expedition. The JANIG agents, however, had been chosen for the assignment because they really were Scout leaders in their home communities. The story would stand investigation.
Barby and Jan left the porch and walked to where the boys waited.
"We've decided," Barby announced.
The boys applauded politely.
"You see," she went on, "I'm blond, and Jan is brunette."
Rick squinted up at the girls. "By golly," he exclaimed, "that's right!" He put a hand on his heart. "One with hair filled with captured sunlight, the other with hair like the raven's wing, filled with the gleams of moonlight."
Barby threatened him with her foot. "Be serious!"
Rick composed his face in stern lines. "I am."
"Well," Barby continued, "we decided that Jan should wear a white suit and white equipment. It will make her dark hair and her tan look very dramatic. But of course I can't wear white if she does."
This was beyond Rick. Why they couldn't wear the same color was outside of his comprehension. "Of course not," he murmured politely.
"So I'm going with you. We both have to have new bathing suits, a white one for Jan and a dark-blue one for me. And I'm going to give Jan my mask and fins, because they're white. So I'll have to get blue equipment for me. And my snorkel is red, and that just won't do, because..."
Scotty held up his hand. "Say no more. I will swap snorkels with you, because mine is blue."
"I knew you would when you understood," Barby said smugly.
"I don't understand, but I'll trade. Come on. Let's go to Whiteside."
Jan remained behind, because Steve had not given permission for the Morrisons to leave the island, and Rick refused to take the responsibility in spite of Barby's pleading. The best he could do was to promise to call Steve about it and perhaps get permission for future trips.
The Sky Wagon landed at Whiteside pier, and the trio went to the nearby garage where the Brants' car was kept. Hartson Brant had decided it was more convenient to have a car available for use at all times than to depend on taxis, or on friends.
The local sporting goods store had a good stock of equipment and Barby was able to purchase what she wanted without difficulty. But when it came to the bathing suits, she debated over the large selection for an hour before choosing two that were identical except for color. Rick and Scotty waited impatiently, now and then prodding Barby to hurry up. She refused to be hurried.
Back at Spindrift, Jan met them with a greeting. "That certainly didn't take long! Barby, how on earth could you pick these out so quickly?"
The boys looked at each other. Their opinion was that Barby had taken just one hour longer than necessary. Here, obviously, was that mysterious thing, the feminine mind at work. Rick examined the problem from the scientific viewpoint and got nowhere. The ways of girls defied analysis.
Both boys had to admit, however, that the results of Barby's shopping had been worth the delay. Their own rather shabby swim trunks, torn and stained from contact with undersea rocks and coral, suddenly seemed sloppy. But when Barby examined the aqualung tanks distastefully and demanded that Rick paint them to match the new suits, both boys put their feet down emphatically.
"The tanks are that color because they've been treated to withstand rust and corrosion," Rick stated. "If we paint 'em, the paint will only get knocked off and they'll look terrible. I won't do it."
The girls exchanged a glance that seemed to say, "Boys! They have such stubborn, silly ideas!"
Jan had already gone through the exercise of clearing the aqualung hoses of water, clearing her mask while using the lung underwater, and using the reserve lever on the tank, and Rick had instructed her in the theory of diving.
Now it was time to put what she had learned to the ultimate test.
The boys hauled the equipment down to the beach in Rick's old coaster wagon, modified for carrying equipment, then directed the girls to check the regulators, check the tanks, and connect regulators to tanks preparatory to diving.
They lolled on the beach and watched. Scotty grinned. "This is the life. Tony Briotti tells me it's always this way in primitive societies. The men loaf while the women work. I'm in favor of it."
"I'm sure you are," Barby said acidly.
Jan said nothing, but continued to work with meticulous care. Rick watched closely, and was satisfied. There was ample equipment for all. Scotty helped Barby into her gear while Rick instructed Jan.
"This is the tough part. If you make it, that's the end. From then on all you'll need is practice. We'll all swim down to the fifty-foot depth. Watch your ears and don't try to continue down if you feel any pain. Go back up a few feet and try to clear your ears. When we get to the bottom, I want you to take off all your equipment, swim away from it, then swim back and put it on. Okay?"
Jan gave him a tremulous smile. "I think so."
"Good. Plan how you'll do it. Remember, air is the last thing you'll need, and the first."
It was easy enough for a diver with plenty of experience, and the confidence that experience brings, but Rick remembered from his own training that it was plenty rough the first time.
He held the tank while Jan got into harness and said reassuringly, "You'll make it. You're a natural for diving because you don't lose your head. That's just about the only really dangerous thing a diver can do." He got into his harness, then picked up his movie camera in its underwater case.
At his signal, the four waded out into the cold water, splashed around a little to get accustomed to it, then put mouthpieces in place and prepared to don masks. Rick waited until last, and called, "Everybody getting air?" When they nodded, he put his own mouthpiece in place, checked to make sure the demand valve was working, then slipped the mask down from his forehead and went underwater.
There was a convenient sandy space among the rocks at the fifty-foot level. He reached it and turned to count noses. All were present. Visibility was good enough. He set his camera and took a position cross-legged on the sand. Barby and Scotty took similar positions and waited.
At Rick's signal, Jan slipped off her fins, which she placed carefully on the sand. Her weight belt followed, then her mask. Rick kept the camera going as she jerked the quick release buckle on her harness, then pulled the tank over her head, keeping the mouthpiece in place. At the last moment, she filled her lungs with air, let the mouthpiece drop to the sand, and swam away. Rick followed as she went about twenty feet into the rocks, and returned.
Jan had planned well. She picked up the mouthpiece and held it high so the air rushed out, then she popped it into her mouth and began breathing. She didn't bother with the tank harness yet. Instead, she picked up her mask, adjusted it, and blew it clear. Only then, when she could see and breathe, did she leisurely put the harness straps in position and swing the tank over her head and into place on her back. She buckled it on, and added her weight belt. The fins were last.
A flume of air from her exhaust, a sign of exhaustion, told Rick that Jan was tired. Probably the mental strain more than the exercise had left her too weak for further swimming. He slung the camera from a belt hook, took her hand and shook it solemnly, then led the way back to the beach.
After a short rest the others were anxious to go back in again, but Rick vetoed the idea. "We could," he admitted, "and probably no harm would come of it. But skin diving is the easiest thing in the world to overdo. Jan is tired. And she's excited, even if she doesn't look it. This afternoon, after we've had a little rest, we can come back again and just have fun. There won't be any strain on Jan then, because she passed the last test with flying colors. So she can swim without worrying whether she's meeting our standards, or doing it the way we think it ought to be done."
He grinned at the girl. "I know it was a strain. Remember, we've all been through it, too."
Jan had a nice smile. "You're right," she admitted. "I was so scared I wouldn't do it correctly! Then, when I knew that it was all right, I sort of fell apart."
Barby arose. "Come on, Jan. Let's go shower and change." She smiled with false sweetness at the boys. "Now that you're through testing Jan, I'm sure you won't mind doing your own work. 'Bye, now." And she left them to pick up the gear and truck it back to the laboratory building where it was kept.
Rick got to the shower first, then stretched out on his bed to wait for Scotty. It's a fine day, he told himself. All is well. JANIG has the island covered like a blanket. The project team is going full speed ahead. We're having fun. Jan is just the companion Barby needs. All's right with the world.
He turned over on his stomach and bunched his pillow up more comfortably. Then why, he asked himself, did he still feel funny?
Scotty came in from the shower, toweling vigorously. "What's eating you?" he demanded.
Rick turned over and stared at his pal. "Is it that obvious?"
"It is to me. What's up?"
"I don't know," Rick admitted. "Wish I did. Have you noticed how quiet everything is? It's like the day before a hurricane moves in. The ocean gets glassy, and there isn't any wind, and you're almost afraid to breathe because the air is so charged a breath might start the lightning."
"'The calm before the storm,'" Scotty quoted. "Maybe it is. I feel it a little, too. But what can we do?"
Rick shrugged as expressively as one flat on his back could manage. "Nothing. We can swim with the girls, and we can keep working on the radio units. But there isn't a single thing to do so far as the project goes. I wish there were. I feel left out."
Scotty grinned. "You're never really happy unless we're up to our hips in trouble or a mystery. I know what's really bothering you. A fine, fat mystery is afoot and you haven't a shred of it you can call your own."
Rick had to grin back. There was much in what Scotty said. As long as the mystery of the two scientists remained unsolved, he wouldn't be really happy.
The Peripatetic Barber
"We're trapped here," Barby said stormily, "and I want you to do something about it, Rick Brant! If you don't call Steve Ames and get permission for us to go to the mainland, I'll do it myself!"
Rick sighed. He had tried to point out that Barby was being illogical. Neither the Morrisons nor the Brants were trapped anywhere. It was just that common sense required the Morrisons to be careful.
Barby drove home another point. "Steve gave us a cover story, and what good is a cover story if you don't use it?"
Scotty grinned at Rick's expression of resignation. "Better give up," he advised.
Jan hadn't said anything. She just looked at Rick in a beseeching way that said as much as all Barby's arguments.
Rick shook his head unhappily. He knew when he was licked. Come right down to it, he didn't have the say-so on Jan leaving the island, anyway. He had taken a stand against her going to Whiteside, based half on intuition and half on the knowledge that a secret soon ceases to be one when it's flaunted in public. And Jan's presence was a part of the big secret of Spindrift.
He stood up and shrugged. "Chances are it will be all right. But if Jan is recognized by any of the enemy..."
"Steve isn't even sure there is an enemy," Barby pointed out swiftly. "How can you be so sure?"
Rick didn't answer. He turned and went into the house, the others at his heels. In the library, he consulted the schedule Steve had given them, so they would know where to reach him at any time. The agent was at JANIG headquarters in Washington today.
Rick got the number, and asked for Steve's extension. In a moment he had the agent on the wire.
"Let's scramble," he said, and threw the switch. Then, "Steve, Barby wants to take Jan to Whiteside. What do you think?"
Steve hesitated before he answered, "It's a little hard to give reasons why she shouldn't go, Rick. Have you checked her on the cover story?"
"Not yet. I will, though, if you say the word."
Again Steve hesitated, and Rick knew the agent was very much in his own position. There were no reasons to believe it would do any harm. Yet...
"Let her go," Steve said finally. "Only ask her and Barby not to get into any public parades. You know."
"I know," Rick affirmed. "All right, Steve. When is Marks coming?"
"We're not certain yet. Ask your father. Marks is having some trouble with the computations."
"Okay, Steve. See you soon." He hung up and turned to the others. "He says all right, but please don't get into any public parades. In other words, Barby, don't cover too much territory."
Scotty spoke up. "We'd better tell Duke and Jerry to leave it out of the paper."
Duke Barrows was editor and Jerry Webster the reporter for the Whiteside paper. Both were good friends. "They'll play ball," Rick agreed. "Well, young ladies, when is the big safari?"
Barby consulted her watch. "Right now. We'll dress and you can fly us over."
"Then right now means in an hour. Okay. We'll be ready."
Upstairs, Rick and Scotty washed up and changed into what Scotty called "shore-going clothes" that were only slightly less informal than their dungarees and T shirts. As they finished and sat down to wait for the girls, Rick picked up one of the radio units on the workbench. All were finished, although untested. A few final decorative touches remained for Barby's plastic headset, including setting in some rhinestones for her. It would look like any other plastic bauble when he finished.
"Let's get some fresh batteries while we're in town," Rick suggested. "Then we can check these out tonight."
"Okay. And remind me to pick up a new mouthpiece for the lung Jan uses. She says the one that's on it now is too big and uncomfortable. It hurts her mouth."
Jan had become proficient under water with only a few hours practice. Rick had led the girls through the entire series of underwater maneuvers with the lungs, including practice in sharing one lung between them. He was satisfied that they both had a thorough understanding of team swimming and enough sense to stay out of at least the more obvious troubles novices can get into. He was content now to let them go off on their own, which they did fairly often.
After Rick's estimated hour the girls were ready—except that Barby had to make a phone call. She spent another fifteen minutes arranging a small get-together at a friend's home to introduce Jan to her chums.
"Now," she said brightly. "We're ready. Are you?"
Rick wisely refrained from comment.
Ten minutes later the four were in the Brants' car, en route to Barby's destination. Rick dropped the girls off and arranged to pick them up in two hours, then he turned the car toward town.
"Let's visit Duke and Jerry," he suggested.
Scotty looked at him. "Still bothered, aren't you?"
Rick shrugged. It was hard to pinpoint the way he felt. He tried to put it into words. "I've talked to the scientists, including Parnell Winston. None of them has ever heard of an ailment like the thing that struck the team scientists. Winston especially knows a lot, because he's studied the human brain extensively. He doesn't even know of anything similar."
Scotty knew all this because he had been present. But talking aloud helped to make things clearer, so he only commented, "And where does that leave us?"
"At the starting line. We haven't moved an inch forward. But at least, if medical history seems to have no record of any such cases, we can assume that something new and different caused the scientists to go off the beam."
"Yes, but if some enemy caused it, how was it done?"
"Glad you asked that," Rick answered gloomily. "Wish someone could answer. Anyway, we know why it was done—if it was done. It was to cause trouble with the project. That would be important enough for an enemy to go to a lot of trouble."
Scotty shook his head. "The thing that sticks in my craw is, how come only two of the scientists got hit? Why wasn't the same thing used on the others? If anything was used, that is."
Rick was bothered by the same point, and he had no answer—nor did Steve Ames, with whom they had discussed the problem.
To both boys, the puzzle was more than just an interesting problem to be solved. If some enemy really had penetrated the project and somehow caused disruption of the scientists' brains, then the people nearest and dearest to both of them were also in jeopardy. Spindrift now provided three out of five for the new project team.
Rick swung into the main street and into the public parking lot. The Whiteside Morning Record was in the heart of town, only a block away. Next to the parking lot was a hardware store where Rick planned to buy batteries, and diagonally across the street was the Sports Center. Nothing in Whiteside was far from anything else; it was a typical small town.
It took only a moment to buy a box of batteries; they were the type used in hearing aids. Then the boys crossed the street to the Sports Center. Extra mouthpieces for the lungs were in stock. They chose one that seemed softer and smaller than the regulation models, then started for the newspaper.
Two doors away from the Sports Center was the town's only barbershop. As they passed, Scotty suddenly grabbed Rick's arm and said hurriedly, "Come back!" Quickly he led the way out of sight of the barbershop windows.
Rick looked at him curiously. "See something?"
Scotty's forehead wrinkled. "I think so. But it's so unlikely that I'm not sure. Rick, I thought I saw the barber from Washington—the one with the massage machine!"
Rick's mouth opened in astonishment. "You're kidding!"
Scotty shook his head. "I'm not. I said I wasn't sure. But I don't want to stand in front and look, because if it is the barber, he'd recognize us."
Rick thought quickly. "Come on."
Back inside the Sports Center, he went to the manager and borrowed a powerful monocular—a pocket telescope that was really one half of a pair of binoculars. Then he and Scotty went across the street, taking care to keep out of sight of the barbershop by using parked cars as cover.
Rick found a vantage point behind a sedan that had all its windows open. He focused the monocular on the barbershop window.
Vince Lardner, the shop owner and—until now—the sole barber, was cutting the hair of a man Rick recognized as a local resident. A second barber was cutting the hair of another local man, but the barber had his back to the street for the moment.
Rick waited patiently. Scotty asked, "See anything?"
"Only his back. Wait a minute."
Presently the barber spun the chair around and walked to the sink. In a moment he turned and his face came into view in the tight close-up the powerful glass provided.
Rick sank his teeth into his lip and handed the glass to Scotty wordlessly.
The pieces were beginning to fall in place now, and the assumption that the project had been penetrated was a long step closer to proved fact.
The Washington barber had come to Whiteside!
"Wonder what he's after?" Scotty asked.
"One thing is for sure," Rick stated grimly. "He isn't here just to cut hair!"
The Mind Reader Strikes
Jerry Webster often spoke of himself as "Whiteside's best reporter," which Rick considered a fair description, since he was the only reporter in town. Of course Duke Barrows, the editor, did some reporting himself, but that didn't count since he carried the title of managing editor.
"I'm a good reporter because I can sense a story," Jerry told Rick and Scotty. "You two have that certain look that spells trouble. What gives?"
"No trouble," Rick answered swiftly. "We just need a little help."
Duke Barrows glanced up from the proof sheets he was editing. "When Spindrift needs a little help, there's always a story in it. We'll make a deal, won't we, Jerry? You give us the story and we'll supply the help."
Rick knew Duke and Jerry well, so it wasn't necessary to beat around the bush. "No story. At least not yet, and I can't even give you a hint. Only we do need help."
"Two kinds," Scotty added.
"That's right. First of all, we have guests at Spindrift. Name of Morrison. You'll pick that up sooner or later, because Barby is running around town with Janice Morrison. What we need is a promise that you won't mention it in the paper."
Duke's eyebrows went up. "Ahah! Trying to suppress legitimate news, are you? What do you think, Jerry?"
Jerry Webster stared up at the ceiling. "I can see the headline now. 'Mysterious Visitors at Spindrift!' Lead paragraph: 'The mystery of strange visitors at Spindrift Island deepened today as members of the scientific foundation threatened the Whiteside Morning Record with drastic action unless the story was withheld.' How's that, Duke?"
"Needs editing," Duke replied, "but you're on the right track. What's the drastic action you're threatening us with?"
Scotty grinned. "Item," he intoned. "Editor and reporter drowned in own ink supply. Bodies found among leftover newspaper copies, apparently discarded with other waste."
"Too good for 'em," Rick disagreed. "How about 'Editor and reporter assume new dimensions. Rolled to paper thinness in own press.'"
"That's drastic," Duke admitted. "Seriously, Rick, you must have some good reason for asking us to leave out what could only be a small social item."
"It's a good reason, all right," Scotty answered him. "Only we can't tell you what it is, Duke."
The editor looked at Jerry. "What say, can we take it on faith?"
"Too simple," Jerry objected. "We ought to get something in trade."
Scotty made eating motions. "Apple pie, with homemade ice cream? Sunday night. Said apple pie would be used to pack down a nice, thick steak."
Jerry sighed. "I'm tempted."
"It's a deal," Duke agreed. "Make mine rare. And I add one thing: If there's a story, we get it first."
Rick looked pained. "Don't you always? But chances are, there never will be a story out of this."
"Government deal," Duke said. "It has to be. Okay, Rick. We'll go along. What's the second kind of help?"
Rick breathed a sigh of relief. He hadn't doubted that Duke and Jerry would hold the story, but it was always hard to ask a favor without being able to give the reason. "There's a new barber in Vince Lardner's shop."
"Think we're chumps who don't keep up with the news?" Jerry asked, his expression disdainful. "Of course there's a new barber. What of it?"
"We need some information about him. If you'll just let me see your notes, that should do it."
Jerry hesitated and Scotty grinned. "Bet he doesn't have any notes."
Duke glared at Jerry. "See? You've embarrassed the Record. I told you to get the story on that barber this morning."
"Time enough later," Jerry retorted, unruffled. "We don't need the dope until tonight, and I'll have it. What kind of information do you want?"
Rick listed the points on his fingers. "Where he came from, his full name, how he happened to get the job—I mean whether he applied directly to Vince or whether he got the job some other way—and how long he expects to stay."
Scotty had a few points, too. "If Vince had a vacancy, find out how long he looked for a barber, and how he got this one. Timing is important, Jerry. Get all you can on it. And ask him a few questions about his massage machine, if it's in sight. It looks like the hair gadgets they have in beauty shops."
Editor and reporter stared at the boys curiously. "Why so much interest in the barber?" Jerry demanded.
Rick tried to look casual. "Why, one of our special guests might want a haircut, and we couldn't take a chance that the barber might not be government approved. Simple."
Duke Barrows tilted back in his chair and pushed the green eyeshade to the top of his head. "I get the picture." He ticked off the points on his fingers, mocking Rick. "Strangers at Spindrift. Not to be mentioned. Government work of some kind, for sure, and pretty hot, too. So hot, in fact, that a stranger in Whiteside might possibly be a menace to the strangers at Spindrift. Rick Brant asks help of local reporter. Gets name of stranger. Turns name and details in to some government security officer for a check. How's that?"
"Too good," Rick admitted. He had known it would be impossible to put anything over on Duke. The editor was a sharp cookie. "But keep it quiet, will you, please?"
"You know anything we discuss never goes farther than this office. All right, Rick. Jerry will get the dope. Hop to it, hawkeye. Duty calls."
Jerry waved his arms dramatically. "Hold the presses! New barber in town! Here I go, after the story of the year!" He swept through the door, then made a sheepish reappearance. "Forgot my pencil and copy paper," he explained, grabbed them, and vanished.