Read CHAPTER IV - A Haircut and a Wink of The Electronic Mind Reader , free online book, by John Blaine, on ReadCentral.com.

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.”

“Which is?”

“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.”

“But why?”

“I don’t know,” Rick said slowly. “For some reason, I just didn’t want him to have that dry-hair treatment!”