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By Charles McCarry
A MysteriousPress.com Copyright © 2011 Charles McCarry
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ALTHOUGH HE WAS ONE OF the most famous men in the world, Henry Peel was a will-o'-the-wisp. Paparazzi could not plague him because they didn't know what he looked like. Hardly anyone did. The only known photograph of him was the one on his student ID at Caltech. He was fifteen years old when the picture was taken. The image was blurred. He never posed for a yearbook picture because, working alone during the summer between his junior and senior years, he solved the problem of the room temperature superconductor and shortly thereafter dropped out of college. Not long after that he patented a feasible design for a fusion reactor. His discoveries earned him a large fortune before he was twenty-five. As time went by, he perfected other inventions that had been regarded as unachievable and made more money—a lot more. Forbes magazine, estimating that he was richer than all the billionaires on its annual list of the filthy rich, called him a trillionaire. He was the only one in the world.
Henry Peel could not explain how he did what he did. Like Leonardo or Newton or Einstein, he worked by flashes of intuition and did the math afterward. Answers that had eluded the best scientific minds for decades or sometimes for centuries simply came to him—an apple bounced off his head, and suddenly he knew everything about gravity.
One summer's day, someone purporting to be Henry Peel called me out of the blue and asked if we could get together. The caller had a pleasant tenor voice. He was polite but made no special effort to be ingratiating. I thought the call was a joke. I was busy. I said good-bye in a not-nice voice and started to hang up.
"Wait," the caller said.
He gave me the name of a mutual friend who could certify that he was who he said he was. I have to admit that I thought it was pretty cool that Henry Peel wanted to prove his identity to me. Melissa had been my college roommate and was still my best friend. I hadn't known that she knew Henry Peel, but when I called her, seconds later, she admitted that she did. In fact, she was his lawyer. She refused to answer any questions about him—what he looked like, whether he lived in New York, whether he was married or single. Was he a regular person or was he going to show up in an armored limousine inside a ring of bodyguards? Had I been invited out on a date, or was there some other reason for Henry's call?
"I'm not at liberty to answer those questions," Melissa said. "But trust me, the caller was Henry. I'm the one who gave him your phone number."
"What other information did you give him?"
"I told him no secrets."
"Can I be sure of that?" I asked.
A moment of silence. An exhalation. Melissa was telling herself to be patient, a losing proposition. She hung up.
Henry and I met two days later on a bench in Central Park at noon exactly. He turned out to be a lean, forty-something fellow with a few strands of gray in his close-cropped dark hair and brown eyes whose whites were so perfectly white that my first thought was, This guy has never had a drink or a sick day in his life. He wore a Yankees cap, a plain black T-shirt, blue jeans without a belt, Nikes, no socks. Slung over his shoulder by one strap was a daypack.
"Hi, I'm Henry," he said. Piercing blue stare, no smile. "I hope you like Chinese food."
I don't especially. He rummaged in the daypack and handed me a Styrofoam container of sweet and sour soup, a plastic spoon, and a paper napkin. The soup was excellent. The entrée, also delicious, was a vegetable dish I did not enjoy.
Henry made no conversation. Neither did I, though I studied him in stealthy, sidelong glances. He detected every single glance but did not react to any of them. When we finished eating, he gathered up the debris and threw it into a trash basket. Then he sat down again.
He said, "Let me ask you something. What, in your opinion, is the prime attribute of genius?"
As it happened, I had thought about this, in connection with Henry, on the way to this rendezvous, so I had an answer on the tip of my tongue.
I said, "The ability to see the obvious."
At last, a reaction, but so slight a reaction that I wondered if he had heard me. The hubbub of the city enveloped us—taxi horns, sirens, music, shouts, guffaws, shrieking brakes, breaking glass—all of it. Henry looked as though he heard nothing. His mind was working. This was almost a visible thing, as if inside his head, gears and balance wheel were spinning, springs were tightening, and a tiny Henry was walking around inside the mechanism, looking for a squeak, with a minuscule oilcan in his hand.
He said, "Let me ask you another question."
"Be my guest."
"Suppose an archeological expedition to Antarctica discovers a sphere, an artificial object, in a cave in the highest mountain on the continent...."
This geographical showing-off did not please him. He went on after the briefest of pauses.
"The archeologists pick up the sphere in their mittened hands and take it back to their laboratory in California," he continued. "They place it in an air-conditioned room, inside a transparent case at a temperature equal to the temperature in the cave in which it was found. The scientists touch it only with instruments. The sphere is made of a material that resembles Lucite, but is not Lucite. It is inert. It does nothing, teaches nothing, issues no warning. So what's the point of it? Clearly it comes from another world. Does it contain a message? If so, why doesn't it deliver it? Why would it have been left where we could find it, but in the last place on Earth we would look for it? Who left it?"
He paused. I waited for him to go on.
He said, "A genius is called in as a consultant. What does he do?"
"This object is untouched by human hands, right?"
I said, "The genius walks into the lab and picks up the sphere in his bare hands. For maybe thirty seconds, nothing happens. Then the sphere activates. It lights up. Data—pictures and what seem to be numbers—stream across the surface of the super-Lucite."
"Because the sphere is programmed to switch on when touched by something or someone who has opposable thumbs and a body temperature of 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. In other words, Homo sapiens and nothing else that lives on this planet."
Henry's eyes widened. He didn't exactly smile, but his expression changed for the better.
"I like the way you think," he said. "I'll be in touch."
He lifted a hand in farewell and walked away. That seemed to be the end of it, whatever "it" had been.
Time passed. Henry did not call, he did not write. I called Melissa.
"Don't worry," she said. "You impressed him."
"How do you know?"
"He called to thank me for the introduction. He said you were amazing."
"I doubt that. But Henry is hard to amaze."
Also, as cold as a stone. This didn't amaze me. Practically everyone I knew in my socioeconomic class had an emotional temperature just high enough to keep the blood from congealing, except when they went crazy with anger or jealousy or frustration or the self-doubt that had them all by the throat. Usually they were alone or in the presence of a therapist when such outbursts happened. It was the zeitgeist. Of course Henry didn't get in touch. Making that airy promise was just his way of saying so long.
After a while I stopped listening for the phone and went back to work on the book I was writing before Henry interrupted. Now and then I felt a twinge of pique. I was annoyed at myself. Without even knowing this guy, I had reported for duty, I had eaten Chinese food, which I loathe, on a park bench, and pretended to like it. I had let myself be interrogated like an applicant for an entry-level position. And I knew why: He was a trillionaire and he had awakened my inner gold digger. I was ashamed of myself. I was supposed to be hipper than that.
Shame never lasts. I went on with my life, getting up early, writing my five hundred words a day, going for a run when the sun shone, using my treadmill when it didn't, reading new books and enjoying old ones better, listening to music, watching sitcoms that featured smart-mouth women and cute, clueless men, going to the movies.
On a Friday in September, about three months after our meeting in the park, the phone rang. I had just finished writing, so I picked up.
A tenor voice said, "Hi, it's Henry."
Lifting the first syllable of his name into a higher key, I said, "Henry?"
He answered with a split second of silence, then he said, "I'd like to continue our conversation."
Oh, that Henry!
I said, "Same place?"
"No. I'm not in New York. I have an airplane parked at Newark Airport. I can send a car to take you there. The flight would last about four hours. You'd be back home Sunday night. Casual clothes. Bring a bathing suit if you like to swim."
"Where would I be going, exactly?"
"An island in the Caribbean, not far from Grenada."
"Does this island have a name?"
"No. It's a small island in the Grenadines."
"How small? One palm tree, like in the cartoons?"
Henry said, "Are you OK with this?"
"Not really," I said. "Who else will be there?"
"Just the two of us, but let me make myself clear. I'm talking about a business meeting, nothing else."
"Can you tell me something about the purpose of the meeting besides the conversation?"
"Conversation is the purpose of the meeting."
In other words, trust me, sweetheart. I could always leave a letter for the cops, in case I vanished. I love the Caribbean. It was January in New York. I said, "OK."
Henry's airplane turned out to be a Gulfstream. We took off almost as soon as I was seated and belted. Aloft, a smiling young steward offered me food and drink. I asked for a glass of water, drank it, and went to sleep.
When I woke up three hours later, it was dark. The night was moonless, so the stars seemed brighter than usual. As a child, I had learned from a stargazing father the names of the constellations and the galaxies that can be seen with the naked eye. They were clearer at forty thousand feet than they had been in our backyard on Long Island.
I can't say that anything else was.
The plane had been losing altitude. Now it banked, metal groaning. The pilot switched on the landing lights. The stars vanished. The plane touched down.
Henry stood beside a golf cart at the foot of the gangway. In Central Park he had kept his teeth beneath his lip, but now he smiled, fleetingly. He was dressed in the same nerdish style as before, except that he had gotten rid of the Yankees cap and wore shorts and sandals instead of jeans and sneakers. The steward heaved my bag and a large picnic cooler into the golf cart. I climbed into the passenger seat. Henry drove uphill, without headlights, over a bumpy track. Under this unpolluted sky, the starlight was enough to light the way. The plane took off, strobes flashing. Henry stopped the golf cart until the jet disappeared and all was silence and darkness again, then pressed the button on a remote control. A house sprang out of the pitch-black night, a large glass cube on a hilltop, filled with light.
Inside, the house was simple, not to say stark—minimalist furniture, sculptures and paintings, to nearly all of which an art history major like myself could put the name of a famous artist and a probable price at Sotheby's. We ate cold soup, lobster salad, and sherbet with blackberries. Henry served. He was as adept as a waiter in a three-star restaurant. As before, the food was delicious, the conversation minimal. Henry offered me wine. I refused it. I wanted no alcohol in my bloodstream in case I really had been brought here to think.
By the time we finished eating it was too late to talk, and despite my nap on the plane, I was too tired for conversation. When I mentioned this, Henry nodded his head as if to tell me he understood that I couldn't help it if I belonged to a species that slept half the time. He showed me to my room. Like the rest of the house, it was severe except for the Chagall on the wall and a bronze stalk of a woman by Giacometti that stood on a pedestal in the corner.
I woke up early. Outside the glass walls the world was bright blue. The house intrigued me—not the architecture but the mind of its owner. Why would Henry, the hidden man, choose to live in a transparent house? Downstairs, I found him seated under an umbrella at a table by the swimming pool, communing with a computer. On a table by the pool, breakfast had been laid out. I poured myself a cup of coffee and put some fruit on a plate. The sun was warm on my skin. I regretted having dressed so unseductively in shirt and slacks and sensible sandals. If ever there was a place to live in a bikini, this was it. From this vantage point it was possible to see the entire island. No other roof was visible, nor smoke nor movement. No noise, either, except for the palms, the surf, the gulls on the beach.
I stood up. The dishes in my hand rattled. Henry noticed my presence at last. He lifted his eyes from the computer screen and said, "Sleep well?"
"Like the dead," I said.
Henry said, "Good. Shall we get to work?"
He led me inside, to a room that obviously was his workspace: a desk, a computer, a large television screen, two identical space-age chairs facing each other. The only splash of color was a Finland rug lying between the chairs. He gestured me into one of the chairs and sat down in the other and gave me the same intense look I had noticed in Central Park. The eye contact lasted no more than a second or two.
He said, "You look as if you have a question."
"I do," I said. "Why am I here?"
"I want you to work with me."
"Helping me think."
"Something new I have in mind."
"Why do you think that I can help you, of all people, to think? I don't know a cosine from a hypotenuse."
"I've read some of your books. I liked them, liked the way your mind works. That thing you came up with about the sphere was impressive."
I said, "This new thing you mentioned. Is it a secret?"
"You could say that."
"Then maybe you've got the wrong person. I don't like secrets. I write books. My specialty is telling the world everything I know."
He took this calmly. "Are you saying you're not interested?" he asked.
"I'm not sure. You said you want me to be your confidant. But you hardly know me, or I you. It's like hearing a proposal of marriage on a blind date."
Henry said, "Let me explain what's involved. Then you can decide."
"Am I sworn to secrecy?"
For the next hour, Henry talked without pause, mostly about the cores of the earth. The inner core is made of iron and nickel. It is roughly the size of the moon, but heavier by a third. Its temperature is approximately fifty-five hundred degrees Celsius, or ten thousand degrees Fahrenheit, about the same as the surface of the sun. It is surrounded by the outer core, also composed of iron and nickel, but in a molten state. Spinning together, the two cores constitute a huge electric motor. This motor helps generate Earth's magnetic field.
The inner core is spinning faster than the planet itself. This was demonstrated in the late twentieth century by scientists at Columbia University, who compared the speeds at which seismic waves generated by two nearly identical earthquakes traveled through the inner core many years apart. Over the past hundred years, the inner core has gained a quarter-turn on the surface of the earth. That could mean that it has gained fifteen million complete turns, more or less, in the sixty million years since the extinction of the dinosaurs. This has created a tremendous amount of energy.
The question—Henry's question—was, where is all that energy? Some of it has been released in the form of heat to the rest of the planet. Some was transmitted in the form of electricity to Earth's magnetic field. No one knows how much, in either case. One possibility is that the energy, or most of it, is stored at the center of the planet. This energy is produced by a spinning object. Therefore it is kinetic energy, rotational energy, the kind of energy produced by a flywheel. What if the spinning cores, usually compared to an electric motor, more closely resemble a flywheel? Henry asked. How does a flywheel work? It spins, it creates energy through rotation, it stores the energy at the center of the wheel. At a certain point, it is logical to assume that the center will release this energy to the rim of the wheel.
"Think of Earth as a flywheel," Henry said. "Think of what such an event would mean, what it would do to the surface of the planet."
Recently there had been changes, a lot of them, in the magnetic field of the planet, first in Australasia, then in Southern Africa. In the South Atlantic Ocean, more or less overnight, the magnetism of an area the size of Brazil became much weaker. Something was going on in the core of the earth and it was manifesting itself on the surface of the planet. The North and South Poles might reverse. The North Pole used to be in what is now the Sahara Desert. In just the past one hundred years, it had moved almost a thousand miles out into the Arctic Ocean. It was still moving at a more rapid pace, in the direction of Siberia.
Excerpted from Ark by Charles McCarry. Copyright © 2011 Charles McCarry. Excerpted by permission of A MysteriousPress.com.
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