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The Smuggled Atom Bomb
By Philip Wylie
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1956 Philip Wylie
All rights reserved.
A languorous ocean breeze set sail from the Bahama Islands for the coast of Florida. It crossed the Gulf Stream and came ashore where autumn tourists sprawled on the allegedly golden but actually pale brown sands of Miami Beach. A breath of it—after crossing Miami and following a road lined with fluffy evergreens—swung finally into a stand of much larger trees: mahoganies, tamarinds, poincianas, gumbo limbos and live oaks. These it stirred audibly before it moved over a sun-brilliant lawn, entered the screened window of a dilapidated, two-story frame house and touched the bright blond hair on the brow of a pretty, middle-aged woman who sat in a bed. She glanced up with the pleasant thought that the still heat of day was ended. She saw the clock. Three-twenty. She faced the screen and called, in a contralto that was penetrating without being harsh, "Charlee-ee!"
Her mind pictured her dark-haired, merry-eyed son, age twelve. The picture did not materialize and she remembered he was going to try to get a newspaper route after school. She conjured up the brunette glow and giggly adolescence of her younger daughter. "Marian! Marian!" Again there was no answer and again she remembered. Marian had said she would be delayed. Eleanor, her eldest, wasn't due until four-thirty because she had a regular lab period that day at the university. Mrs. Yates, invalided eight years before in the accident that had taken her husband's life, leaned back on her pillows, still smiling, and wished she hadn't called. For she knew what would happen.
Feet strode on the crushed coral of the driveway. A foot tripped on the threshold of the back door. And a young man appeared, grinning, at the entrance of her downstairs room—a man of less than twenty-five, a tall man and thin, a stooped young man with pole-like arms and legs, eyes of a faded blue, unkempt hair the hue of new rope, and a determination of mouth and chin that did not fit his overall diffidence.
"Duff," she said apologetically, "I didn't mean to bring you in from the barn! What in the world were you doing, though? You've still got on your good gabardine slacks!"
The young man chuckled, looked down as if to check the statement, started to answer and was obliged to deal with a slight impediment of speech before saying, "Oh! Oh—sure! Decided not to change. Not doing anything messy—labeling a lot of cans with small hardware in 'em."
She laughed. "Of course! You said you were going to. I'm so scattered! Well—I'm sorry I disturbed you."
"Not a bit. Nearly finished. Did you want something? Iced tea, maybe? Eleanor left things ready."
"Later, perhaps. No, Duff. Don't want anything. I'd forgotten the kids were going to be late. It's their afternoon to sweep and dust and scour."
His grin widened. "I'll do it. Give me an excuse to put off mowing the lawn till a cooler day. Besides, I'm a talented house cleaner."
She laughed again. Duff Bogan—Allan Diffenduffer Bogan—had been a boarder at the Yates home for more than a year. The luckiest boarder, she thought, that any invalid woman with three children ever had—though Eleanor couldn't possibly be called a child any more. "You go back and finish." Seeing he wouldn't, she added, "Or at least put on an apron."
He executed a comic salute and soon she heard a broom working upstairs. Not long after came a bizarre din from the bathroom, and she lay on her pillows, chuckling.
He was, she thought, such a dear. A graduate student of physics at the University of Miami. He'd come over at the start of the first semester, the year before, when the Yateses had had a vacancy in the two-boarder schedule that augmented their slender finances. Who'd brought him? One of Eleanor's numberless admirers. She thought back. It was that fullback, she believed, the one with that absurd nickname—Avalanche. Avalanche Billings.
"We have to have," she remembered saying to Duff, "somebody who can help around the place, take care of the yard and the station wagon—which is vintage and requires plenty of care. Somebody who can tend the trees and shrubs, won't mind doing dishes at times, and so on. The rate is low on account of the help I need."
Duff had regarded her amiably, even warmly, and replied, "Mrs. Yates, I was brought up in the family of an underpaid Indiana preacher. Housework, its simplification and efficient management, became one of my hobbies. I have other hobbies that might prove helpful."
She had taken him, on trial. After a week, she had come to feel Duff was indispensable. Now, he was like a son—except, of course, where Eleanor was concerned. He was too shy, too self-effacing to be like a brother to Eleanor, which somewhat interfered with his status as "son." Mrs. Yates sighed. Eleanor didn't give him much encouragement. Much? Not any. Which wasn't surprising in a girl elected Miss Freshman in her first year, the Belle of the junior Prom, and who now, as a senior, was Queen-elect of the Orange Bowl festivities.
Upstairs in the bathroom, Duff Bogan had gone to work with equipment of his own devising—a "gun" for spraying insecticides and a second "gun" for dusting. First he dampened all porcelain, metal and tile surfaces with a water spray. Then he dusted with a scouring powder. Thereafter, a damp cloth in each hand, he polished furiously—which caused the din Mrs. Yates had heard. In fifteen minutes the bathroom glittered.
Perspiring in the damp warmth of the day, he called down the stairway: "What about Harry's room?"
"That, too," she responded. "He never locks it."
So Duff entered the quarters of the other boarder, Harry Ellings. A light dust mopping only was needed there. For Harry, who had been with the Yateses ever since the father's death, made his own bed and kept his own premises picked up. It wasn't, Duff thought, much of a home for a fifty-year-old bachelor like Harry. A living-sitting room in somebody else's house—a day bed and a desk, a shelf of books, bridge lamps, old chair, a worn rug, a radio, a few photographs, a calendar hung on the knob of the closet door. That was Harry's residence.
He had a job as a mechanic with a trucking concern; before that he'd been a letter carrier. He had quit during his early years with the Yateses because of varicose veins, and had gone to school to learn his present trade.
Church on Sundays, a Friday bridge game, his Wednesday evenings practicing casting, a lot of porch sitting and radio listening, occasional fishing trips, few visitors, little mail—that summed up all Duff knew of the other boarder.
Maybe, from Harry's viewpoint, it was a good life, whole and satisfying. The thought depressed Duff. He finished dusting, helped himself to one of Harry's cigarettes and stared out at the sunshine, wondering, as young men do, what he would do when his degree had been awarded and the uncertain world said wordlessly, "Okay, Bogan; beat me if you can!"
He picked up the mop and noticed then, behind the calendar that hung from the knob, a lock on the closet door, a lock newer than the hardware of the Yates house, which he constantly repaired and replaced.
If he had not observed the lock, it is possible, although unlikely, that Duff Bogan's life might have been, relatively speaking, as colorless as his estimate of Harry Ellings'. But Duff did notice the lock and wonder about it, and nothing was ever the same for him afterward.
Wondering about locks was not, in Duff's case, an idle exercise in bafflement. Early in life he had been discarded by his schoolmates as a possible pitcher, fielder, end or basketball center. Competitive sports revealed him as something of an Ichabod Crane and, since his middle name was Diffenduffer, after his mother's father, he had been called Duffer from the age of ten. He was Duff only to the kindly Yateses. But though a duffer at games and sports, he excelled in hobbies. Among them was a know-how concerning locks.
At eleven, Duff had sent ten cents for a booklet called The Boy Locksmith. Finding that people were either charmed by or aghast at his proficiency with skeleton keys, he had advanced to more elaborate literature on the subject. Before he reached high-school age he was much in demand where keys were lost or where trunks, barns, cabinets and the like refused to open. In high-school, while other boys mowed lawns for extra change, Duff had repaired luggage and started cars that lacked keys.
To look at Harry Ellings' lock-fitted closet door, then, was to know how to get the door open rather quickly. Since it was unthinkable that the drab, good-natured star boarder had anything important or secret locked away, Duff felt no curiosity. But it would be fun, he thought, to open the door, set something alien in the closet—and wait for results.
Grinning, Duff ran down the back stairs, came back with selected tools, and took steps three at a time while Mrs. Yates gripped the binding of her magazine tightly—sometimes, when he rushed that way, Duff fell.
His hands, however, were not clumsy. They worked rapidly over the lock and soon the door swung open. Inside, Harry's suits hung neatly. On the shelf were suitcases, old and dusty. On the floor was a cubical hatbox of cardboard. Duff procured a metal wastebasket and set it on top of the hatbox.
He thought his joke would be more noticeable if he put the hatbox on the basket. Only he couldn't lift the hatbox. He took another hold and tried again. The cardboard threatened to tear, but the box didn't budge. So Duff untied the tape and raised the lid. Inside was a hardwood box, well made, waxed, with an inset handle and a lock of a kind Duff had never before seen. He stared at this and then tipped over the box and its hatbox disguise—which could be done only with effort. The whole thing weighed about a hundred pounds.
He went downstairs then and interrupted Mrs. Yates' reading. "The doggonedest thing," he said—and told her. "What could he have—what could anybody have—in a fifteen inch box, weighing that much? Gold?"
"Harry/" She chuckled. "Heavens! I know what Harry does with every cent! Better put it back, Duff."
He went upstairs. It was about four-thirty. Harry wouldn't be home for more than an hour. Duff had opened the closet without curiosity; the box and its peculiar lock left him with no feeling but curiosity. He struggled with his conscience—and tried certain tools. When the lock clicked, he found it hard to raise the lid because of its weight. The underside was metal-lined. Lead. Whatever was in the box was packed in cotton. He raised the cotton and saw a very odd object of grayish-silver metal, machined and polished. It looked like a segment of a big egg, saw-toothed on one face, as a cog or gear would be. When he hefted it, he judged it weighed about five pounds. Maybe more.
He tried, as a graduate student of physics and a man with mechanical hobbies, to imagine what the object was.
He couldn't, at first. When, presently, he had a single idea, he pushed it from his mind: too crazy. Nevertheless, after some very worried thought, he went downstairs again.
"Sweeping the kids' room," he called untruthfully to Mrs. Yates. "Bring you your iced tea before long."
He worked fast after that. With fine emery paper he removed a trace of the metal; with scouring powder he polished away the scratches made by the emery. He wore gloves and took extreme care. Having obtained a microscopic sample, he restored everything to the exact state in which he had found it. He left the cigarette in Harry's ashtray after thought which told him Harry could easily notice his room had been dusted that day.
He then hid the emery paper sample in the barn, washed his hands repeatedly and did a quick sweeping job on Charles' and Marian's rooms. He was making iced tea in the kitchen when Eleanor drove up in the family station wagon.
"Let me do that," she said. "You've spilled on the drainboard and got ice on the floor!" She put a load of books on the table and turned her back to him. "Unbutton."
Duff smiled and undid little buttons between her shoulder blades where she couldn't reach easily. The dress was one of two cotton prints she'd found at a sale—yellow like her curly hair, light brown like her topaz eyes. She hurried from the room, called to her mother, and was soon back in the kitchen wearing an old dress and moccasins, instead of her high-heeled shoes.
A match struck; the burners of the kerosene stove slowly took fire. "I wish we had gas or electricity! Kerosene's so slow!"
She bent over a bin Duff had made from lumber scraps, and came up with an armful of potatoes. "Peel!" She emptied out a sack of green peas and started shelling. "What's new?"
"We had a burglar."
Her eyes glowed. "No! I bet he didn't steal anything! I bet, if he really looked the place over, and if he was a nice burglar, he left something for us when he went out! Five dollars, maybe, on the hall table!"
"I was the burglar."
"Oh!" Her eyes looked up and laughed. "What'd you rob? The kids' bank?"
"Harry's room. His closet. The locked closet."
"Harry hasn't got a locked anything! That poor, sweet guy is the world's openest book!"
Duff rinsed a white-peeled potato, cut it up, started another. "I'd have agreed, two hours ago. He's still probably innocent. Just keeping something that some pal asked him to put under lock and key."
"What are you talking about, Duff Bogan?"
He told her. "First, you see, it was going to be a gag. Then I got curious. The lock on that box was a new one to me. And then, the gadget inside—"
"Sounds like some sort of trophy."
"Trophy?" "Sure," Eleanor said. "You know. Golfers get silver golf balls. Anglers get gold-plated fish. Probably Harry won the Never-Missed-a-Working-Day-in-Five-Years prize at his company. Being a mechanic, it was probably a cogwheel, only silver or something."
"Oh." Duff thought about that. "It wasn't silver. It wasn't a cog. It wasn't engraved."
"Then," she said, snatching at a pea that popped out of its pod and rolled, "what was it?"
"It barely might be—uranium."
She was about to answer derisively. His seriousness sank in. "What?"
"The only thing I could imagine it looked like was a carefully machined part of something which, with other parts like it, would fit together to make a sphere. A sphere weighing maybe twenty pounds, more or less. It might have been any of a half dozen metals or a thousand alloys. Still, there's only one thing I know of, made of parts which fit perfectly into what is probably a sphere around that size. The pieces that come together to form a critical mass and go off with a hell of a bang."
"You mean an atomic bomb?"
"Maybe it's only a mock-up. A model, I mean. That's why I took a sample. To test and see what the metal is. I could be wrong, but I think Harry, whether he knows it or not, either has a piece of the heart of an A-bomb up there or else a metal model of one."
Eleanor began to laugh. "Harry—a spy?" When he didn't join her laughter, she looked at him for a long moment. "You think somebody's stealing more of our A-bomb secrets and Harry's being used to keep the thing—until time to move it on out of the country? Let's ask Harry where he got the box!"
Duff wished for a moment he hadn't told Eleanor anything. "Ye gods!" he answered. "Not really! I just—have to know what the metal was, now that I've seen the gadget. Chances are a million to one my idea is totally nuts. But if it did happen to be that millionth chance, then asking Harry anything would be a terrible blunder!"
"You're right about that," she said contritely. Then, hearing a car in the drive, she murmured, "There Harry is now. Go clean up, and I'll finish supper.
At the least, get that repulsive apron off. You look like a cross between Mother Hubbard and the Scarecrow in the Oz books!"
His smile was sheepish. "Okay."
Before he left the kitchen she asked hastily and in a low tone, "Can you tell, from such a tiny sample?"
"I'm no microchemist. But I should be able to, yes."
"I hope you're crazy," she said earnestly.
Duff's room was not much different from Harry's, save that it was less neat and contained more books. In order to save time, he had availed himself of an old-fashioned pitcher and wash bowl which he'd found in the attic. He began shaving while Harry took his daily shower. Charles Yates came whizzing home, bike siren loud, his voice shrill as he shouted through his mother's window, "I got the old paper route!"
Duff grinned, grinned again when Marian, panting after running three blocks from the bus stop, dramatically announced she would be Titania in the play. He felt at home with the Yateses; there had been a troop of young Bogans.
Gazing into the mirror, still wearing the apron over his work-stained T-shirt, Duff thought about Eleanor's description of his looks. Mother Hubbard and the Oz-book Scarecrow. His grin failed somewhat, but a glimmer remained. He certainly was on the bean-pole side. No girl like Eleanor would ever think of any guy like himself in romantic terms. She was already Orange Bowl Queen. Why, if she just wanted to, she could be in the movies! Perhaps she'd do something like that when she graduated—to compensate for being so poor, for endless cooking, washing, mending, cleaning and bargain hunting. And for the constant care of her mother.
Excerpted from The Smuggled Atom Bomb by Philip Wylie. Copyright © 1956 Philip Wylie. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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