The Winston Plan cats
The date was December twenty-third. The time along the Greenwich meridian, from which all world times are measured, was 8:15 P.M. At widely scattered points around the globe, four voices were raised simultaneously.
Even an experienced observer could not have found a connection between the four voices and what they were saying, yet each voice started actions that would soon be interwoven into a single pattern—a pattern of danger, adventure, and mystery that would culminate in sudden violence within sight of one of the seven wonders of the world.
In Chicago, it was 2:15 in the afternoon. At the edge of the city a man spoke into the telephone in the office of a small plastics factory. “The cat is ready,” he said.
In Paris, a phone rang. The man who answered noted in the log that his overseas call had gone through at exactly 9:15 p.m. He picked up the phone and spoke crisply. “Monsieur l’Inspecteur? … Bien. This is Interpol. We have a relay for you from the United States. Monsieur, this will please you—and it most certainly will amaze you. Message begins…
In Cairo, the time was 10:15 P.M. A famous Egyptian astronomer walked into his office and called to his associate. “Hakim! Good news. He can come. Now we can find out what that accursed hydrogen-line impulse means.”
On Spindrift Island, off the coast of New Jersey, it was 3:15 in the afternoon. The island was quiet under a blanket of snow. The long, gray laboratory buildings, where so many dramatic scientific developments had taken place, were deserted. Only in the homes of the scientists was there activity, and all of it was in preparation for Christmas.
In the big main house on the seaward side of the island, Dr. Hartson Brant, director of the world-famous Spindrift Scientific Foundation, walked to the foot of the stairs and called to his son.
“Rick, can you come to the library in five minutes? Bring Scotty with you.”
Rick Brant, a tall boy with light-brown hair and eyes, paused in his gift wrapping long enough to call an affirmative to his father, then he made sure Don Scott, whose room was next door, had heard the summons.
Scotty had. He came through the connecting door. “What’s up?”
“Don’t know. Maybe Dad has some Christmas chores for us to do.”
Scotty, a big, husky boy with black hair and brown eyes, was an ex-Marine who had originally joined the Spindrift group as a guard during the adventure of The Rocket’s Shadow. Since then, he and Rick had become the closest of friends, and the Brants had accepted him as a full-fledged member of the family.
“I’m willing, whatever it is,” Scotty told Rick. “I’m so full of Yuletide spirit I may bust a seam from sheer joy.”
Rick grinned. He felt exactly the same way. He continued wrapping the present for his sister Barbara, a pretty girl a year his junior. Barby had a definite talent for sketching and painting and Rick had bought her a complete artist’s kit, hoping it would encourage her natural skill.
She’ll be tickled pink,” Scotty remarked. “Come on. Let’s go down.”
“Go ahead. I’ll be right with you.” Rick finished taping on a spray of evergreen, then he carefully put the present out of sight under his workbench. Barby’s lively curiosity was subdued at Christmas time, but it was better not to take chances. He surveyed the bench to see if he had left anything out. Usually it was cluttered with apparatus, tools, and parts, because Rick was an inveterate experimenter, but it was clear now, in preparation for the holiday.
He walked down the corridor to the stairs, smiling to himself. Christmas at Spindrift was fun. The entire scientific staff and their families joined in, first in cutting their own trees from the stand of spruce at the back side of the island, then in decorating the big tree in the Brant library. On Christmas Eve there was a Yule log to be brought in and presents to be exchanged, although the Brants waited until morning to open their gifts to each other.
Hartson Brant and Scotty were waiting in the library, standing before the great fireplace in which logs crackled merrily. Seated in the leather chair next to the Christmas tree was Parnell Winston, one of the leading staff scientists.
Winston was a big man, with jet-black curly hair and great bushy eyebrows that hid merry blue eyes. He was an expert in cybernetics, the science of electronic computer design, and his contributions to the theory of computer operations, and to advanced electronic control systems, were known to scientists around the world. Winston had originally joined the staff to supervise the design and construction of a “thinking machine,” the Tractosaur.
Hartson Brant, an older version of his son, greeted the boy. “Come in, Rick. Parnell, the floor is yours.”
Winston motioned the boys to chairs. “Sit down. I called this meeting to make a proposal. But first, how are your bank balances? Fat or thin?”
Rick considered. Most of his income, including his small salary as a laboratory assistant, went into his education fund. However, the salary he had earned for working at the Nevada rocket base during The Scarlet Lake Mystery had been put into
his “ready” fund. “I’m in good shape,” he said, and Scotty echoed him.
“Fine. Now, the Egyptian Astronomical Society has just finished constructing a new radio telescope. It’s a first-rate instrument from which we expect great things. Your father and I were in at its birth, so to speak. We consulted on the initial designs during a meeting of the International Astronomical Union.”
Rick knew that was one of the many world-wide private scientific organizations operating under the International Council of Scientific Unions. He also knew of the growing importance of radio astronomy, but he hadn’t known the Egyptians were in on it.
“Apparently some unusual trouble developed during the tuning of the instrument,” Winston went on. “Earlier this afternoon I had a phone call from Cairo, and a request to help our Egyptian colleagues iron out the bugs. I accepted.”
Rick sat upright in his chair. Winston going to Cairo? How did this concern Scotty and him?
“My proposal is this,” Winston concluded. “The Egyptians are short of technicians and we may need help. I’ll leave the day after Christmas, returning within ten days. If you two can pay half your expenses, and help me half the time, I’ll take you with me.”
Both boys jumped to their feet. Rick looked anxiously at his father.
Hartson Brant smiled. “According to Parnell’s schedule, you’ll be back just in time for school at the end of the holidays. Ifyou want to go, of course.”
Rick let out a wild yell of exuberance that brought his sister Barby running to the library. She looked at the group with wide eyes. “Rick! Was that you?”
He grinned at her. “It wasn’t a wounded buffalo, Sis. Guess what? We’re going to Egypt!”
Barby’s pert face lengthened. “I don’t suppose I can go, too?”
Parnell Winston walked over and ruffled her blond hair. “Not this time, Barby. But I’ll make you a promise. The next field expedition under my supervision will include my wife, you, and Jan Miller.”
The prospect of an expedition that included Jan, daughter of one of the staff physicists and her dearest friend, cheered Barby at once.
“I don’t suppose you could promise to leave Rick and Scotty at home?” she asked.
“Can’t promise.” Winston chuckled. “We might need them to carry your luggage. Girls can’t travel without a dozen suitcases each, I’m told.”
The scientist turned to the boys. “Start reading up on the country, and I’ll arrange for you to get some additional background by meeting some Egyptians. It happens that an Egyptian physicist is arriving in New York today for a lecture tour of American universities. There’s a reception for him tomorrow. We’ll drive to New York. You can meet him and some of his countrymen, and we’ll go to the consulate to obtain visas. Are your passports and health cards up to date?”
Fortunately, all was in order because the boys had spent a part of the summer in the Sulu Sea region, where they had helped to locate and rescue two staff scientists.
Barby asked wistfully, “Couldn’t I meet some real Egyptians, too?”
As Scotty had once said, if Barby ever got wistful while fishing, the fish would knock themselves out trying to climb into the boat to cheer her up. Winston replied quickly, “No reason why not. I’ll check with my host, but I’m sure it’s all right, so you can plan to come with us.”
Rick’s eyes met Scotty’s. He shrugged. He was glad in one way that his sister could go, because he always hated to have her unhappy about being left behind. On the other hand, Barby was unpredictable. He couldn’t be sure of what she might do or say, but he could be certain her curiosity and enthusiasm would stir up something.
If Rick had been enough of a prophet to see all the events his pretty sister’s helpfulness at the reception would get him into, he would have handcuffed her to the Christmas tree before ever allowing her off Spindrift Island.