Read CHAPTER XX - Janig Closes In of The Electronic Mind Reader , free online book, by John Blaine, on ReadCentral.com.

Steve Ames walked around the objects on the laboratory table. “Nothing deadly looking about these gadgets,” he said. “Which goes to show how misleading appearances can be.”

The objects included the barber’s massage machine, an ancient composition-board suitcase, the gadget from the houseboat, and a TV set with an indoor antenna of the kind known as “rabbit ears.”

Parnell Winston admitted, “There is plenty we don’t know about them, especially the inside of that TV set. But we’ll learn.”

Steve smiled at the assembly of faces. In addition to the project team and the boys, Mrs. Brant, Mrs. Morrison, and the two girls were in the group. So was Joe Blake.

Rick regretted that Jerry, Duke, and Cap’n Mike could not be invited. But the matter was still not for discussion with people on the outside. If a story ever could be made public, the Morning Record would be the first to have it, but in all probability the facts would remain buried for some time.

In a large room in the lab basement the four houseboaters and the barber waited under heavy guard for the arrival of a Coast Guard cutter. The barber was there courtesy of Captain Douglas, who had picked him up and delivered him to Spindrift after a call from Joe Blake.

Steve rapped for attention. “We’re about to tie up some loose ends, everyone. Let’s get seated, because the cutter will be here any moment.”

The room was sometimes used for lectures when Hartson Brant got his entire staff together, and there were plenty of chairs. In a moment the audience was seated comfortably and listening to Steve.

“You were all involved,” the agent began, “so I want you all to know what has been going on. Some details are not known to us, yet. But we’re continuing the investigation. However, the part that involves you is finished, and you’ll probably never hear about the rest of it.”

Rick knew that was true. Who the houseboaters and the barber really were, who paid them, how they had been tipped off to the project in the first place, and similar details would remain locked in top-secret files somewhere in Washington.

“The key to the whole affair was uncovered in Washington yesterday. Most of you know about the physical arrangements on the fourth floor. In setting up the security system we checked all wiring, traced all phone lines, and in general made sure the place was not ‘bugged,’ which is the term we use for wire taps, hidden microphones, and so on.”

Steve paused, and Rick thought his friend looked a little embarrassed. “In spite of our care, it developed that we did have a hidden microphone picking up all conversation and relaying it to the enemy group. I can only say in our own defense that it was the kind of ‘bug’ we couldn’t have found without tearing the building apart.”

“It’s nearly impossible to take all modern electronic developments into account,” Julius Weiss said. “We all know how thorough you are, Steve. Go on.”

“Thank you, Julius. Directly above us, on the fifth floor, was the Peerless Brokerage Company. It was a legitimate firm, doing a good business. We had no reason to suspect it, even though we checked out all firms both above and below us. Well, in checking on the houseboaters, we discovered that the firm had recently been taken over by a dummy corporation, and most of it was actually owned by the man Rick called ‘striped shirt.’ He bought the stock right after the project moved in on the fourth floor.”

“There was no change in the firm?” Dr. Morrison asked. “Nothing suspicious?”

“Nothing. The firm continued to operate as always. There was one personnel change. A lawyer, representing the new principal stockholder, took over one of the offices.”

Rick suspected that said lawyer was now in custody.

“As soon as we discovered the connection, we made a check. Under the floor in the lawyer’s office we found a ‘bug.’ A hole had been drilled into the floor structure until only a thin shell of plaster remained. The plaster was, of course, our ceiling. So actually the microphone was within a fraction of an inch of our room, but there was no way we could detect it. That’s how every move we made was anticipated, and why the enemy moved to Whiteside on the same day that the project moved to Spindrift.”

That explained a lot, Rick thought. “Did the barber tape the two scientists?” he asked.

“We think so. He’s the boss of the enemy team, Rick. We’ve found that during the period when he was in Washington, his massage machine was wired through to a room in the basement. The wiring went through the power cord into the electric outlet, and the impulses were actually transmitted over the power system and taken out of a plug in the basement. We found the machine where he had stored it.”

Rick knew that could be done quite simply. The frequencies of the electric current and the brain patterns were so different that they would not interfere with each other.

“He didn’t plan to use his machine in Whiteside,” Steve went on, “because he left the mind-reading part of the machine in Washington.”

“Then why did he bring it?” Barby asked.

“We’re not sure. The likeliest possibility is that he wanted to continue using it as a massage machine, because he made a little money with it. I never knew an espionage agent who didn’t need money.”

Steve looked at Rick. “I’m a little surprised at one thing. Why didn’t the Spindrift twins suspect foul play when Hartson Brant ran over something in the speedboat?”

It was Rick’s turn to be embarrassed. “I guess we were so upset we didn’t think straight. Why?”

“The mainland team found a log. It had a yoke on it. Apparently the houseboaters had taken a lesson from the incident on the pier and were waiting for Spindrift traffic on the water. We think they waited until they heard the sound of the Spindrift speedboat, then took the pram and cut across the course hauling a log on a long rope.”

Scotty spoke up. “That’s what puzzles me, Steve. Why the switch from long-distance electronics to violence?”

“When we moved the project to Spindrift, we also removed the chance of taping project members in some natural setting like the barbershop. They had hoped to knock out the team without anyone suspecting it was enemy interference. That worked, at first. But moving the project upset their plans. They rigged the train deal that caught Marks. But even though it worked, it showed we were dealing with an enemy.”

“So they had to catch the scientists in order to tape them,” Scotty commented.

“Right. Of course they tried to do it in a way that looked natural in the case of Marks and Dr. Brant. Probably they hoped the attack on Duke, whom they mistook for Morrison, would be taken as a holdup. They undoubtedly planned to allow time between the accident, or attack, and following through with the mind-reading machine, hoping that the two wouldn’t be connected.”

The pattern was clear, Rick thought. Like many such schemes, the moment a suspicion of foul play developed, the plan began to boomerang.

“I think the order of events is clear enough,” Steve concluded. “Any questions?”

Barby had one. “I don’t understand about Dr. Marks. Did they turn on the mind reader from the train?”

“Probably. The man on the train apparently had a two-section gadget in a suitcase. One part took the EEG and the other sent out the signal that did the damage. He waited until the train was pulling out of the station before turning on the record section. Then all he had to do was get off at New York. We haven’t found him, or his machine. But we will. Any other questions?”

“Why did the barber move to Whiteside, if he didn’t intend to tape anyone?” Weiss asked.

“The barbershop in any small town is a good central location for keeping track of goings-on in town. I think that’s all he had in mind besides the fact that barbering was his trade. If Vince Lardner hadn’t needed an assistant, he probably would have moved into one of the summer colonies, or gotten some other kind of job. We can’t be sure.”

Rick asked, “Are there any machines in existence besides these two and the missing one from the train?”

“We don’t know. But it doesn’t matter. The enemy now knows we’re onto the system and can’t expect to get away with it again. Besides, Dr. Winston says a countermeasure is easily arranged, to be used when we suspect the mind readers might make another try.”

“Who are these people?” Jan demanded.

Steve grinned. “Unfriendly agents. Seriously, Jan, we aren’t sure about their employers. It will take some backbreaking investigation to get the whole story, because the files show nothing on any of them. That means they were deep-cover agents, kept hidden until there was something important enough to bring them out. We may never get the whole story.”

“Won’t they talk?” Scotty asked.

“They haven’t yet. They may. But, anyway, we’d have to check on their stories. Any other questions? Okay, I’m finished. Dr. Winston will take over at this point.”

The cyberneticist came to the front of the room. “We have something here,” he stated, “but we don’t yet know what it is. And, curiously enough, from the crude nature of the machines, I doubt that the enemy knows, either. If we have to speculate and I guess we do we might guess that sometime, in an enemy EEG laboratory, some experiment resulted in a subject having his mind erased. It was probably an accident that the enemy exploited without knowing how it worked.”

“Can’t we even guess how it works?” Weiss asked.

“Approximately, without knowing the physiology of it. The EEG recording is simply fed into a gadget that modulates a carrier wave. The carrier is an average frequency for brain patterns. In effect, the thing simply transmits the man’s own pattern back to him. Why that should produce trauma of the kind we have seen is a mystery.” The scientist gestured to the TV receiver. “The transmitter is incorporated into the TV chassis, and the ‘rabbit ears’ act as an antenna when adjusted properly. The recorder is a simple EEG mechanism.”

Winston smiled. “You may be sure we’re not through with this apparatus. I’m leaving the project immediately to set up a new team with Chavez, for the investigation of this phenomena. It may be another major key to the physiology of the brain.”

“Do you mean we know nothing more than you’ve told us?” Rick asked.

“Nothing more, Rick. Oh, are you wondering about the barber’s machine? Actually, the massage gadgets acted as electrodes, and the massage oil did very well in making good contact. It was a simple setup.”

There were no questions for Parnell Winston. Steve took over. “In a short time we’ll take the prisoners off your hands. Joe Blake and two men will remain as guards, but I think we have nothing more to worry about beyond routine security.”

“I just remembered,” Rick interrupted. “How about the elevator operator?”

“We picked him up, but he didn’t know a thing. The barber paid him in free haircuts to keep track of people coming and going from the fourth floor. That’s all. He didn’t know why.”

Joe Blake came in the door. “Motor whaleboat coming, Steve. Shall we take the prisoners to the landing?”

“Yes, Joe. Please.”

Barby looked at Steve speculatively. “How about the houseboat?”

“Well, how about it? Haven’t you seen enough of it?”

Barby smiled. “It would be very nice, if it were only another color. What will happen to it?”

“A coastguardman will be after it tomorrow. It will be impounded for a while. After that it may be sold for public auction, or it may revert to the owner’s estate. It depends on the court.”

Barby looked a little disappointed. “Oh, well, we don’t really need a houseboat, anyway.”

The group broke up as Joe and his partner walked the prisoners across the island to the landing. In a short time the motor whaleboat was speeding to the horizon where a cutter waited.

Rick took a last look. That just about closed the case. The remaining details probably would never be known to the Spindrift group.

“Can’t anything be done for Dr. Marks and the other scientists?” he asked Parnell Winston.

Winston shook his head. “No, Rick. We’re afraid to tamper, for fear of making things worse. But I neglected to tell you one very important item. The first scientist stricken is becoming rational again, or at least we hope so. Yesterday he asked for food. A short time later he picked up a pencil and paper and began to work out an equation, one connected with the project. Apparently the equation was the last thing he had been working on when the mind reader struck. So we hope and believe that nature is healing the damage. There is no evidence of tissue destruction, so perhaps complete recovery is possible. It’s a question of waiting and watching.”

Within two weeks Rick had an opportunity to see for himself, because the two scientists from Washington joined the Spindrift group. They were fully recovered, with only vague memories of the period when their minds were not functioning. And Dr. Marks was reported well on the way to normalcy.

The project was almost at an end, with only a few final checks needed on the critical equations. The Morrisons had already set a day for their departure to Barby’s great unhappiness.

As Barby said at dinner one night, “I didn’t realize how lonely it gets sometimes without another girl on the island. Until Jan came, that is. Now she’s going, and I wish she weren’t.”

“I’d love to stay,” Jan said. “Really I would.”

Hartson Brant arrived in time to hear the last exchange. He had left the table briefly to take a phone call. “I’m afraid it’s going to be pretty quiet on Spindrift,” he agreed. “It looks as though we’ll be losing Rick and Scotty for a while!”

Barby wailed, “Not again! Why can’t they stay home for a while?”

Rick and Scotty had looked up with quick interest at the scientist’s words.

“We’ve been home for weeks,” Rick replied. His eyes were on the slip of paper in his father’s hand. “Dad, what is it? Where are we going?”

“Read it aloud,” Hartson Brant suggested. He handed Rick the slip.

Rick scanned it quickly. It was a telegram that his father had taken over the phone. Rick’s pulse quickened. Dr. Gordon, who had been at work on a secret rocket project in the far west, had wired:

ARRIVING TOMORROW. NEED RICK AND SCOTTY FOR SPECIAL WORK. URGE THEY BE READY TO DEPART IN THREE DAYS EQUIPPED FOR EXTENDED STAY AT DESERT BASE.

Rick’s eyes met Scotty’s as he finished reading. “Desert base,” he repeated.

Scotty grinned his delight. “John Gordon’s rocket base is in the desert. He must want us there.”

“But why?” Barby demanded. “You’re not rocket experts. Why, even when we had the moon rocket here, you didn’t work on the rocket itself.”

That was perfectly true. Rick shrugged. “You know as much as we do, Sis.”

Hartson Brant stirred his coffee thoughtfully. “I have a hunch,” he said. “From the tone of the wire, I suspect John is in some kind of difficulty. Surely he doesn’t want you as technicians, but it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility that he needs a little detective work done.”

It made sense to Rick. But what kind of detective work could he and Scotty do at a highly guarded and secret government base? He fought down the impulse to run up to his room and start packing. Gordon had said in three days. There was plenty of time. Except that Rick knew he’d be dizzy with wondering until John Gordon gave them more information.

The Morrisons rose to the occasion beautifully. “We wouldn’t want Barby to be without any companions of her own age here,” Mrs. Morrison said quickly. “If it’s all right, I’m sure we can let Jan remain until the boys return.”

The girls beamed without saying a word, then they broke into excited chatter. Rick and Scotty retired to the front porch and grinned at each other.

“If Dad is right, this is going to be plenty of fun,” Scotty said happily. “I’ve always wanted to get close to the big rockets.”

“We’ll find out,” Rick said. “And if John Gordon has a mystery, we’re the pair who can solve it for him.”

Later, Rick’s words returned to him under the most unusual and terrifying circumstances of his entire life. The story of the project that led to Rick’s greatest adventure will be told in the next Rick Brant Science-Adventure mystery.