Banquets of the Black Widowers (The Black Widowers #4)

Chapter 3


ROGER HALSTED looked over his drink and said in his soft voice, "Successful humor has its incongruity. That is why people laugh. The sudden change in point of view does it and the more sudden and extreme the change, the louder the laugh." His voice took on the slight stutter that marked his more earnest moments.

James Drake thought about it. "Well, maybe, Roger. There are lots of theories about humor, but for my money, once you've dissected a joke, you're about where you are when you've dissected a frog. It's dead."

"But you've learned something. – Think of a joke."

Drake said, "I'm trying to."

Mario Gonzalo, resplendent in a turtlenecked shin in rich purple under a beige jacket, said, "Try Manny Rubin."

Emmanuel Rubin, having glowered at Gonzalo, and turned away with a look of unmistakable pain, said, "I claim no expertise in humor. My writing is invariably serious."

Gonzalo said, "I'm not talking about your writing. I'm talking about you."

Rubin said, "I'd answer that, Mario, but dressed as you are, you're taking an unfair advantage. I keep fighting nausea."

The monthly banquet of the Black Widowers was in full swing and Henry, the indispensable waiter at these functions, announced that dinner was served.

"Easy on the food, Manny," said Mario, "it's roast beef and Yorkshire pudding today, Henry tells me, and we don't want trouble with your delicate intestines and gross wit."

"Writing your own material, I see," said Rubin. "Too bad. – Ah, there's Tom."

Tom Trumbull's white thatch of hair showed as he moved hastily up the stairs, followed by the rest of him, "Apologies, gentlemen, minor family crisis, all taken care of and – Thank you, Henry." He seized his Scotch and soda gratefully. "You haven't begun eating yet?"

Geoffrey Avalon said gravely, "Roger is buttering his roll but that's as far as we've gotten."

Drake said, "Tom Trumbull, meet my guest, Kirn Magnus. He's an exobiologist."

Trumbull shook hands, "Pardon me, Mr. Magnus. I didn't quite get Jim's job description."

Magnus was tall and thin, with lank black hair worn at medium length and a boyish face. He spoke quickly, but with intervals of careful enunciation. "Exobiologist, Mr. Trumbull. E – x – o, a Greek prefix meaning 'outside.' Personally, I prefer 'xenobiologist', which sounds as though it starts with a z, but is x – e – n – o from a Greek word meaning 'stranger.' Either way it's the study of life on other worlds."

"Like Martians," said Trumbull.

"Or Mario in his shirt," said Rubin.

Magnus smiled. "The subject evokes laughter, I admit. There is a certain incongruity in a field of study that includes no known cases and, as Mr. Halsted was saying, incongruity is the very stuff of humor."

"Exactly," said Halsted, swallowing a mouthful of kidney – on – toast. "I'll give you an example. Jack is sitting glumly in a bar, staring at his beer. Bob walks in, looks at Jack and says, 'What's the matter?' Says Jack, 'My wife ran away with my best friend.' Bob says, 'What are you talking about? I'm your best friend.' And Jack says, 'Not anymore.'"

There was general laughter and even Trumbull condescended to smile.

"You see," said Halsted, "you're allowed to assume that Jack is weighted down with grief until the last three – "

"We got it, Rog," said Rubin. "No need to belabor it."

"Or take the following – "

"Praise the Lord," said Trumbull when Drake rattled his spoon on the water glass. "Henry, make mine a double brandy. – Oh, you have!"

"Yes, sir," said Henry, blandly, "I anticipated the need when Mr. Halsted began to quote limericks."

"I've already remembered you in my will, Henry, and more of these sessions will hasten your role as beneficiary. – What?"

"I said," said Drake, patiently, "that I would like you to do the honors, Tom, and grill our exobiologist."

"My pleasure," said Trumbull, "if I may be allowed one invigorating sip. – Ah. Now, Mr. Magnus, it is usual for us to begin by asking a guest to justify his existence but I will make the question less general. – How does your role as exobiologist justify your existence?"

Magnus smiled. "Would you believe the glory of seeking knowledge?"

"For yourself, certainly, and for me, maybe – but your researches draw heavily on the public purse. How do you justify your existence to the taxpayer?"

"I wish I could, Mr. Trumbull. I wish I could say to him loudly enough to be heard – "Sir, the world pays out 400 billion dollars each year for its various sets of armed forces in order to buy nothing but the increasing certainty of destruction. Let us have one tenth of one percent of that to gain what may be fundamental knowledge concerning the Universe."

Avalon shook his head severely and said, "That won't work, Dr. Magnus. The public sees national defense as their security against invasion and oppression by hated foreigners. They may be wrong, but what have you to offer instead? What if you do discover life on Mars? Who cares? Why should anyone care?"

Magnus sighed. "Somehow I didn't expect Philistinism here."

Avalon said, "I plead the Philistine case on behalf of my exorbitant tax bill. What is your answer?"

"That your tax bill is exorbitant for reasons that have nothing to do with exobiology or science and a great deal to do with folly and corruption, worldwide. If we did discover life on Mars, which, since the Viking landings, is unlikely, then no matter how simple it is, it will offer us for observation, for the first time, a life structure not in any way related to ourselves.

"All life forms on Earth, plant, animal, bacterial, and viral, are built around the same scheme; all the two million or so species are interconvertible in the sense that any one of them can be part of a food chain that ends in any other. Martian life, however simple it might be, would instantly double the varieties of life we know, with results of possibly incalculable benefits to the biologist and, of course, to all of us. After all, the better we can understand life, the better our chances for such things as disease cure and life extension."

Rubin interposed. "But the fact is that there is probably no life on Mars, however simple."

Magnus said, "The odds now are that there isn't."

"Or anywhere in the Solar System."

"Possibly not."

"And if there were, it might after all be built on the same plan as is Earth life."

"That is conceivable."

"And if it isn't, the difference may not help us understand ourselves at all."

"I would hate to believe that, but I suppose that might be so."

Rubin said, "Then, playing the devil's advocate, wouldn't you say that the odds you offer aren't worth the money you ask?"

Trumbull said, "Manny, it's worse than that. I don't think exobiology concerns itself with the Solar System only. Aren't there plans for trying to detect radio signals of intelligent origin from other stars?"

"From planets circling other stars, yes," said Magnus.

"And wouldn't that cost millions of dollars?"

"Many millions if done properly."

"And if we locate this life and draw their attention to us, then what? Do they invade us and take us over? Is that what we'll pay those many millions for?"

For the first time, Magnus allowed a look of impatience to cross his face. "In the first place," he said, "we are merely listening. The process is SETI, 'search for extraterrestrial intelligence.' If we receive signals, we need not try to answer, if we do not wish to. In the second place, the chances are that if we do receive signals, the source will be anywhere from dozens to hundreds of light – years away. That means it will take them decades to centuries to receive any message we send them and with conversations like that danger wouldn't seem to be imminent. In the third place, even if they could move faster than light and wanted to reach us, we have no reason to suppose conquest and destruction are what they have in mind. We think that only because we insist on transferring our own bestiality to them. In the fourth place, we have, in any case, given away our existence. We have been leaking electromagnetic radiation of clearly intelligent origin for eight decades and the leakage has been growing steadily more intense every year. So they'll know we're here if they want to listen. And in the fifth place – " He stopped suddenly.

Trumbull said, "You rattle that off as though you have much occasion to go through the list."

"I do," said Magnus.

"Then why did you stop? Have you forgotten the fifth place?"

"No, it is, in fact, the easiest one to remember. We're not spending millions of dollars, you see, so the taxpayer has no worries for either his bankroll or his life. In point of fact, we're spending almost nothing."

Rubin said, "What about Project Cyclops? – Over a thousand radio telescopes computerized into unison to listen for signals from any star within a thousand light – years, one by one. Don't tell me that won't cost a fortune."

"Of course it would, and a bargain, too, at almost any price. Even if we pick up no signals of intelligent origin at all, who can tell what bizarre and unexpected discoveries we will make when we probe the Universe with an instrument whole orders of magnitude more refined than anything we use now?"

"Exactly," said Rubin. "Who can tell? No one. For it may come up with nothing."

"Well, no point in arguing," said Magnus. "It's very doubtful we'd ever get the necessary funds voted us by Congress. So far, it's been hard enough to get the money for some of us to attend international conferences on the subject and even that may be phased out, thanks to the damndest set of circumstances." A spasm of unhappiness crossed his face.

There was a short silence and then Avalon, drawing his formidable eyebrows together said, "Would you care to describe the circumstances, Dr. Magnus?"

"There's not much to describe," said Magnus. "There's a dull fog of suspicion that won't lift and that plays right into the hands of the millions – for – defense – but – not – one – cent – for – survival band of fools."

Gonzalo looked delighted. "A dull fog of suspicion is just what we like to hear. Tell us the details."

"It would scarcely be discreet to do so."

Trumbull said at once, "Nothing said here is ever repeated outside. We are all discreet and that includes our esteemed waiter, Henry."

"When I say it would not be discreet to tell you the details," said Magnus, sadly, "I am referring to my own folly. I am afraid it is I who caused the trouble and I find it embarrassing to discuss."

"If that's what's bothering you," said Trumbull, "then please tell us. Confession is good for the soul and even if it weren't, the condition of the dinner, as Jim has no doubt told you, is submission to our grilling."

"He told me," said Magnus. "Very well – "

"Some time ago," said Magnus, "we held an international meeting for those interested in SETI in New Brunswick, in Canada. The Soviets sent a sizable contingent of some of their top – flight astronomers, and, of course, we ourselves were present in force as were Canadians, British, French, Australians, Japanese, and a scattering of others, including a few Eastern Europeans.

"There were also auxiliary personnel – translators, for instance, though most of those attending could speak very good English. Oddly enough, the purest and most smoothly colloquial English came from the sole Bulgarian delegate, who sounded perfectly Ohio at our social gatherings, but insisted on speaking Bulgarian and using an interpreter in the formal sessions, perhaps to show his orthodox side to the Soviets – but that's neither here nor there.

"Included also were, I am quite certain, a few Soviet ringers who were, in actual fact, part of their security apparatus. I am equally certain that American security personnel were also present."

Gonzalo said, "What for, Mr. Magnus? Where's the danger in listening to the stars? Are the Soviets afraid we'll make an alliance with some little green men against them?"

"Or vice versa?" asked Halsted, dryly.

Magnus said, "No, but knowledge is indivisible. Those of us who are experts on radio astronomy know a good deal about such things as reconnaissance satellites and killer satellites, and on handling, misleading, and aborting electronic reconnaissance. Both sides, therefore, would be anxious to prevent their own men from being indiscreet and to trap their opposite numbers into being overtalkative."

Avalon said, "It seems to me that security would be helpless in such matters. Could a CIA operative know when an astronomer was being indiscreet when he probably couldn't understand the subject matter?"

Magnus said, "You underestimate the training special agents undergo. Then, too, actual astronomers on either side might double as security. I name no names."

Trumbull said, "No point in going into that any further. Would you go on, Dr. Magnus?"

"Certainly," said Magnus. "I have stressed the total size of the delegation in order to explain that we could not all be housed in one place. In fact, the New Brunswick site, although suitable as a quasi – neutral spot – an earlier meeting had been held in Finland – and although beautiful and isolated, to say nothing of possessing tennis courts and a swimming pool, did not offer adequate housing. Personnel were rather widely scattered and the Canadian government supplied transportation.

"We had several cars, each with a driver, and these were in constant demand. The Americans used a limousine which could hold six easily, although the driver would readily carry even a single passenger back and forth. Wasteful of gasoline, but convenient.

"The driver was Alex Jones, an eager young man in his late twenties, who seemed to have the fixed notion that we were all astrologers. He was as ignorant as anyone could be without actually being retarded, but he was fascinated by us. He knew each one of us and called us all by some weird variety of our name.

"I got off rather lightly. He called me Maggins, which is rather close, and once Maggots, which is not so close. I didn't mind and I didn't try to correct him. Alfred Binder of Arizona State was routinely called Bandage, however, and he seethed each time. Sometimes, Binder shouted at the young man in a rather uncalled – for manner."

Avalon said, "May I interrupt, Dr. Magnus? Are you getting off the subject? You sound as though you were reminiscing rather aimlessly."

There was a trace of stiffness in Magnus's response, "I am sorry, Mr. Avalon, but this is all essential to the story. There is little that is aimless about my manner of thought."

Avalon cleared his throat and said in a subdued tone, "My apologies, sir," then took a rather agitated sip at what was clearly an empty brandy glass. Henry quietly poured him a refill at once.

"No offense, sir," said Magnus. "Alex was not the only driver, of course. There were half a dozen at least, but he was the one who usually serviced the American delegation. Binder, I think, occasionally hitched a ride with the Canadians or British just to get away from Alex. I suspect he would have ridden with the Soviets if he had thought he could clear it with security on both sides.

"I must confess that Binder's irritation with Alex amused me. My sense of humor tends to be on the unkind side now and then, and when Binder was in the car I would encourage Alex to ask questions. He would invariably ask what constellations we were studying, for instance, and which constellation was lucky for that day. Once, I even called Binder 'Dr. Bandage' when we were in the car – not really on purpose – and afterward he blew up at me."

Rubin said, "People are generally sensitive about their names."

"Granted," said Magnus, "and, as I said, I'm not really pleased with the direction my sense of humor takes, but when I am caught up in the fury of it, so to speak, I can't resist the joke.

"Of course, you must not suppose that these interludes in the car were nothing but nonsense. In fact, I should say most of the delegates spoke about their work with a feverish intensity, since we were there as our own little clique. Alex listened without understanding a word and to me that was an added incentive, for I loved his off – target remarks. Once when someone mentioned Cygnus XI – the putative black hole, you know – Alex said, 'We're all sinners but it can't be helped. It's in the stars." For a minute there, I didn't see what he meant, but he was never completely off – base. It was a matter of 'Cygnus' and 'sinner' and Alex free – associated them.

"But the conference was drawing to its close. We had all given our talks, we had all had our informal discussions over meals and during evening relaxation, and on the last day but one we were having a symposium, including six of the more vociferous attendees, whose attitudes were sufficiently different to promise some exciting give – and – take.

"A group of us were being driven to luncheon, with the symposium slated for the afternoon, and the people in the car were speculating on how hectic the arguments might get. Out of sheer trouble – making I suppose, and in order to bait Binder, I said, 'And what do you think of the people who will be in the symposium, Alex?'

"Alex said, "Pluhtahn," in a low voice and I said, 'Pluhtahn? Who's he?'

"That was where Binder overflowed. "What's the use of asking that idiot? God knows what poor devil he's plastered with that name or what he's talking about. Why in hell do you encourage him?'

"That, in turn, made me stubborn. I said, 'Come on, he may not get the names quite right, but he refers to definite people.'

"Binder said, 'There's no one in our group who has a name anything like Pluhtahn. It's just idiocy.'

"'He's not an idiot,' I said in a low voice, and anxious to prove that, I said, 'Come on, Alex, which one of us is Pluhtahn? What's he look like?'

"But Alex looked terribly upset. I could see him in profile as I leaned over the back of the front seat. His lips were trembling and he had to swallow before he could say anything. Clearly, Binder's rage had frightened him. He muttered, 'I guess I must have made a mistake, Mr. Maggins.'

' He was silent for the short remainder of the trip and when we piled out, he skipped his customary wave of the hand and his toothy grin. Poor fellow! I called out to him but he didn't answer. I couldn't help but think of Binder as a pompous fool.

"If I had left it at that, all might have been well but, by pure chance, Yuri sat down next to me at lunch.

"Yuri was a member of the Soviet group, of course, a dumpy man, quite stout, who was bald except for a fringe of dark hair, which he kept quite short. He always wore a gray suit and a maroon tie and, while an excellent radio astronomer, he was given to grumpiness. I never saw him smile and probably that's why I couldn't resist kidding him. – That, and my troublemaking sense of humor.

"I said to him, "What's this I hear, Yuri, about your driving in our group's limousine?'

"He put down his knife and stared at me indignantly, 'What are you talking about?' He spoke English quite well, as did most of the Soviets – which was humiliating for us, in a way, since none of us could speak more than a few words of Russian.

"You see, Yuri's last name was Platonov, accent on the second syllable, and it just struck me that if Alex had had him in the car, the name Pluhtahn could well have been wished on him. Of course, I knew that Platonov would never have used our car. Of the entire Soviet group, he was the least likely to chance anything unorthodox. He was never friendly and some of us were convinced he was a member of Soviet security.

"Of course, that made my joking seem all the runnier to me. I said, "Our driver, Alex Jones, mentioned you, Yuri, so I gather you've been driving with him and talking to him. What have you been doing? Trying to get him to defect?'

"Yuri grew furious. He said, 'Is this a joke? I warn you, I shall place a protest. I do not think a sober scientific gathering is the place for tasteless remarks.'

"Well, it was tasteless, I suppose, and besides, Yuri had raised his voice and people were looking at us from all parts of the room. So I backed off. I said, "No offense, Yuri. I just mentioned the symposium to our driver and he mumbled something about Pluhtahn and I thought I would tease you. Our driver always gets names wrong and it doesn't mean anything.'

"Yuri said, grumpily, 'Keep your teasing to yourself.' He settled down to eat and neither looked at me nor talked to me during the remainder of the meal. In fact, he said nothing at all to anybody and seemed rather deep in thought.

"My conscience smote me. He might not be part of Soviet security. He might, in fact, be very vulnerable. If anyone on the Soviet side had heard me, all of Yuri's protestations and all my insistence that I was just making a bad joke might do no good. The unreasoning arrow of suspicion might come to rest on him and, conceivably, his career might be ruined. By the time I reached that stage in my thoughts, I felt pretty sick, and I did not enjoy the symposium.

"In fact, the symposium was just a bit of a fizzle. Yuri, who was one of the participants, had been counted on for fireworks and he didn't offer any. He seemed almost absentminded, as though he had something on his mind. I felt terrible and, of course, things got worse – "

At this point, Gonzalo interrupted. "Don't tell me this guy Platonov got in trouble and has been sent to Siberia!"

Magnus said, "No, not as far as I know. What did happen was that that evening, our last at the conference, Alex died."

"The driver?" said Avalon, clearly astonished.

Trumbull said, "How did he die?"

"Well, that's it," said Magnus. "It was not a natural death. Do you remember I mentioned a Bulgarian in the group who spoke excellent English? Well, he was driving one of the smaller cars of those reserved for the Soviet contingent to the village on an errand of some sort and he said that Alex came staggering into the road in front of him and there was no way of avoiding him."

"Did it happen in the village?" asked Rubin.

"No, on the grounds, when the rest of us were gathering for the post – dinner convivial hour, so to speak, and most of us were there when the local police gathered. It was clear that the Bulgarian – his name was Gabrilovich, by the way – expected to be imprisoned and charged with murder, and he feared the excesses of the capitalist – imperialist constabulary, but there was nothing like that, of course. He was an honored foreign guest of the nation and was given the benefit of the doubt. During the night the autopsy was performed and it seemed that Alex had indeed been loaded with alcohol. He was quite drunk enough to have staggered out into the road helplessly.

"We carried on with the final summarizing session the next morning – which Gabrilovich did not attend – and had permission to leave and go about our business after lunch. Gabrilovich himself had to stay an extra day to undergo additional questioning, which must have frightened him badly. Several on the Soviet side kept him company and then they all left, too.

"I called the Canadian police a few days later, but the case was closed. Alex had no relatives and no possessions to speak of. He was buried and that was the end of it."

Halsted said, his high forehead pink with suppressed excitement, "But you think it was no accident. Right?"

Magnus nodded. "Two reasons. First, what was Gabrilovich doing driving to the village alone when the people on the Soviet side, including the Eastern Europeans, never went in groups of less than three?"

"Come, come," said Avalon, "that is custom and not cosmic law."

"Custom is sometimes surer," said Magnus, "and a man who could speak English perfectly, but used Bulgarian to parade his loyalty, would not break that custom. Furthermore, he was going into town to buy himself an electric shaver, he said, because he was tired of nicking himself with his Bulgarian Straight razor. However, I had never seen nicks on his face and it seemed to me that he would not so parade his infatuation with Western technology."

"Not so," said Avalon. "I imagine that there's nothing wrong with that. The Soviets buy all the effete bourgeois products they can get their hands on. To give them credit, they make no bones about admiring the technology while claiming to despise the economic principles that go along with it."

Magnus shrugged. "Maybe. The second thing that bothers me is that Alex simply didn't seem like a drinker to me. Drinkers lard their conversation with casual references to drinks, and Alex never did."

"That's even weaker than the first reason," said Avalon. "You can never tell a secret drinker. For all you know Alex was an alcoholic trying to stay off the booze at a conference where it probably drenched the proceedings at all times. On the last evening, he couldn't resist a drink, which led to another and another – No, Dr. Magnus, his death may not have been an accident but what you advance for thinking so would not suffice to make the police act upon it."

Magnus said, "But consider the coincidence. Earlier that day I had joked with Yuri Platonov concerning Alex's use of the name of Pluhtahn. That night he was dead."

Rubin said, skeptically, "Do you think the joke was worth a murder?"

"Suppose," said Magnus, "Yuri had been in the automobile which Alex was driving. Suppose he had been talking to some Westerner, receiving information. They might well have disregarded Alex, who was so clearly not mentally equipped to be dangerous. But suppose Alex had heard the Westerner address the other as Platonov and had picked up the name. Who knows what else he would remember? So he was killed to keep from blowing the cover of an important spy in the enemy camp."

Avalon said, "Surely, the chances that an ignorant young man could have heard anything of importance – "

"If he could identify who was with Platonov at that time, and he might, that would be enough. – In any case," Magnus said, broodingly, "I'm not the only one who suspects murder and treason. I strongly suspect that American security has tumbled to the possibility probably because of what I was overheard to say. I've been discreetly questioned about events at the conference, and I gather that a few others have been, too. What's more, there's a certain amount of red tape that is slowing our ability to attend other conferences abroad."

"In other words," said Trumbull, "you think the government suspects that one of the American delegation to the New Brunswick conference is a traitor, but it doesn't know which one."

Magnus nodded wordlessly.

"Do you think it's true?" said Trumbull.

Magnus said, "I don't know. I hate to believe it's true. But it might be. The worst of it is that if it hadn't been for my joking in the car and at the luncheon table, there would be no grounds for supposing Alex's death to be anything but accident. And maybe it was accident."

Gonzalo said suddenly, "No, it wasn't. It was murder."

Rubin looked outraged, "On what grounds, Mario?"

"The best in the world," said Gonzalo. "When Dr. Magnus said Alex had died that night, I happened to have my eye on Henry – and while the rest of you were registering surprise, Henry nodded his head just a little as though he'd been expecting it. Come on. Henry, what do you think of that automobile accident?"

Henry hesitated a moment, then said, "Clearly murder, I should say, Mr. Gonzalo. I feel it to be uncomfortably melodramatic to say so, but I suspect Alex Jones was pumped full of alcohol by persuasion or force, then pushed into the road in front of the car which Gabrilovich was driving for the sole purpose of committing a murder that was to be made to look like an accident."

Everyone stared at Henry in astonishment and Trumbull said, "This time, Henry, you've gone too far. On what can you possibly base that scenario, which you yourself call melodramatic?"

Magnus, who looked rather thunderstruck at the sudden participation of the waiter in the discussion, said, "Yes. Why do you say that?"

"It's simple enough," said Henry. "When you mentioned the symposium, Mr. Magnus, Alex responded with "Pluhtahn." As it happens, there is a great literary work known as the Symposium. To mention it is bound to give rise, irresistibly, to the name of its author in anyone with a classical education. The author happens to be Plato and 'Plato's Symposium' is practically one word; one implies the other."

Magnus said, "You mean that when I said 'symposium,' Alex couldn't resist saying "Plato"? Alex? He had no classical education. I doubt if he finished grade school."

Henry said, "It is easy to pretend to be uneducated and simple – minded. If anything, Alex worked too hard at it. This business of mispronouncing names was rather a case of painting the lily, and in itself it arouses suspicion."

Magnus said, "You can't have it both ways. If it was 'Plato' he was trying to say, he pronounced it incorrectly, which blows the theory of education sky – high."

"Ah," said Henry, "but he did not mispronounce Plato's name, Dr. Magnus. We do. In the original Greek, the name was 'Platon' and was pronounced closer to 'Pluhtahn' than to our own 'Playtoe.' The Russians kept both the spelling and the pronunciation and there was a famous high official of the Russian Church named Platon. I looked him up in the Biographical Dictionary while you were telling your story just to make sure I remembered correctly."

"You remembered correctly," said Avalon. "Now why on earth didn't I think of that. 'Platon' is the Greek word for 'broad' and Plato received it as a nickname because of his broad shoulders. His real name was Aristocles."

Magnus said, "But why should Alex use the Russian version of the name?"

Henry said, "I suppose because he was Russian, and when you said 'symposium', the free association trapped him into the Russian, rather than the English, version of the name. I imagine he was a Soviet agent, planted as a Canadian national, and playing the role of simpleton. His assignment at the time was, undoubtedly, to listen to the conversations in the car.

"However, when he muttered 'Pluhtahn' and you picked that up, Dr. Magnus, the driver realized he might have revealed his identity. You said he seemed stricken. You thought it was by Dr. Binder's rage, but I suspect it was for a more serious reason.

"Then, when you joked about it with Mr. Platonov, he had no trouble recognizing the author of Symposium and it seemed to him, too, that Alex had given himself away. Even if you did not see it, Dr. Magnus, you might mention it to someone who would. The Soviets might well suppose that Alex would no longer be reliable; that he might be picked up; that he might defect out of the fear of the consequences. And if he had become an embarrassment and danger while alive, he might be better off dead."

Magnus was thoughtful for a moment. "I think I ought to report all this."

Trumbull said, "It would lift some of the undeserved heat from the astronomers at the conference. If you'll give me permission, I will make a phone call that will set the machinery moving."

"Yes, yes, of course," said Magnus. "How strange for Alex to give himself away in such a fashion when he played his part so well."

Avalon said, philosophically, "Oh, well, educated men required to sound silly are under an intolerable strain. Sooner or later, they cannot resist the urge to display their erudition. It will burst forth."

"You demonstrate that all the time, Jeff," said Gonzalo.

"I believe," said Avalon, austerely, "that I am not the only one here who is guilty in that respect."

"I myself," said Henry, "fear I am not quite innocent – in that respect."


Fred Dannay didn't like this one. At least he sent it back to me.

In a way it was my fault. This was before I had begun my Union Club series, and I was going hot and heavy on the Black Widowers. As it happened, I wrote two of them in succession, "The Driver," and "The Good Samaritan," which follows.

I then, in an attack of hubris, brought them in on the same day and handed them in together.

This is clearly a matter of bad tactics. If an editor reads two of your stories at the same time, he is very likely to like one of the stories better than the other. If he had read the weaker story by itself, suitably isolated from a similar story that came previously, it might seem a little weak even so, but perhaps not too weak to publish. With the direct comparison of the other story, its flaws are magnified, and back it goes.

Fred accepted "The Good Samaritan" and when "The Driver" came back, I reread the two stories and decided that Fred was right and that "The Good Samaritan" was the better of the two.

The lesson I learned, then, was not to tempt an editor by giving him two at once. And (since I'm prejudiced) I don't think that "The Driver" is so weak that it ought to be discarded altogether. It appears here, then, for the first time in print.

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