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 Chapter 24


One day in early May, Maria and I took the train to Washington in order to find a suitable apartment and make other arrangements. During the first part of the journey, we chatted comfortably. There was, nevertheless, a nagging worry on my part. Just before leaving, Brenda had said to me jokingly,

"Try not to give the impression of a perverted older man, Thomas."

It may have been a joke, but it was more than that. Maria was now close to sixteen, a complete young lady dressed for travelling, and, indeed, quite an attractive one in her quiet dark way. I wasn't a blood relative, nor did I bear any legal relation whatever to her. It only briefly occurred to me to present Maria as my niece. But, then, I realized that it was virtually a tradition for older men to call their young mistresses their nieces. The notion of advertizing Maria as a cousin, or as the daughter of an old friend stood the test of scepticism no better. Moreover, I, at any rate, am not a good liar. People seeing through my prevarications would automatically assume the worst.

In something approaching desperation, I excused myself to go to the toilet, really just to give myself a chance to think. It occurred to me that a man my age with a young mistress would almost surely be wealthy. Unless she were from the dregs of society, she wouldn't have him otherwise. I must look a little threadbare. I then hit on the other part of the solution. I was Maria's tutor, in the employment of her adoptive mother. Except for the fact that Maria could teach me more than I her, it was not so far from the truth. It was, of course, eccentric to send a girl her age off with a male tutor, but I thought I would be believed, particularly when people got to know us.

When I came back, I presented the idea to Maria. Despite her sophistication in so many areas, I think it actually didn't occur to her that we might be suspected. She nodded in a matter-of-fact way, but didn't seem embarrassed. That is, she didn't rapidly begin to converse on another subject. She instead allowed me to pick up our previous conversation in a relaxed way.

The National Information Laboratory was one of those organizations whose name, by intention, meant almost nothing. Although it contracted with the Department of Defense, "DoD" in the argot, it was actually part of an illustrious university. The joke was, however, that one could work for NIL for ten years without ever seeing the university or hearing its name mentioned.

We also discovered that NIL was somewhat elusive physically, being scattered over northwest Washington and the adjoining Maryland suburbs. The so-called "main building" on Connecticut Avenue in Chevy Chase was leased from the Boy Scouts of America and still had signs and emblems proclaiming its ownership. We had an appointment to see the Personnel Director, a Dr. Howsam Mitcham.

The secretary, an attractive young woman, greeted us pleasantly and went to inform Dr. Mitcham of our presence. Through the open office door, I could see a pair of very large hiking boots on a desk top. The legs to which they were attached were bare and tanned, and, although most of the body was obscured by the desk, I could make out a head bedecked with what appeared to be an Australian bush hat.

When the secretary spoke, the boots hit the floor with a great bang, and the large figure bounced up. Dr. Mitcham was dressed in what looked like British army tropical shorts, much the worse for wear, and a flowered Hawaiian shirt. However, while his appearance was frankly rather shocking, Dr. Mitcham, an intensely tall and athletic looking young man, made up for it with a great warmth of manner.

We were soon installed in his large disorderly office with coffee and brownies that the secretary had made and brought from home. He was charming to Maria, and acted as if any brilliant young woman ought to go around the country with her personal tutor in tow. We quickly sketched out Maria's background. Mitcham nodded and replied,

"My childhood was pretty disorganized too. Seventeen schools in twelve years. My mother named me for a town in Texas where she had a lover. I'll have to visit it some time."

Surprisingly, in view of his general manner, Mitcham got down to business quite quickly.

"It might look as if we're spies, but our business is actually strategy. Of course, we hope there won't be war with the Soviet Union, but we have to be prepared. It would be irresponsible not to be. What's unusual is that, under conditions of tight security, DoD has contracted part of this planning out to a civilian agency. The reason is that we have more expertise in operations research and computers. The reason for that is that the best scientists in the field don't want to have to join the army to do their work. The atmosphere here is much more attractive."

With that, he gestured around him and smiled. I understood immediately. Mitcham's whole appearance was calculated to reassure the civilian scientists he was interested in hiring. They might be working for the military, but they would in no way be subject to military discipline.

It was then time to find out what Maria knew. Most often, adults confronted with Maria fell back in awe, at least when they discovered her abilities. Mitcham instead treated her as if she were any other new employee, perhaps in her mid-thirties. After questioning her, he concluded,

"Good theoretical mathematics, but not much in the way of applications. We do a lot of curve fitting here, finding an algorithm to express a curve which represents data. You could talk to your mathematics teacher and work that up a bit."

Mitcham was himself a physicist, and probed Maria's rather limited knowledge in that area. He then went to a bookcase, took down a volume on atomic physics, and handed it to her.

"I think you're ready for this. You won't need it for the work here, but you'll enjoy it."

After a little more talk, he again got a book for Maria.

"This is an intro to statistics. Almost everyone uses it these days, and there's no avoiding it. The tone of this book is a little condescending, but it's got everything you'll need."

By this time, Mitcham, sitting in a chair beside his desk, had one boot up on it. After thinking a minute he said,

"Maria, I think we might assign you to the computer lab. We've got a big computer in a warehouse over in Bethesda. We also have a war game that we play between America and Russia, set at varying periods into the future, and we're trying to get it onto the computer. Of course, the computer itself is experimental and is down half the time, but it's an exciting place to be. You'll be getting in very close to the ground floor. You're the right age for it, too. Most of us are really too old."

I think, even then, that both Maria and I realized that it was the opportunity of a lifetime. Before we could say much, Mitcham turned to me,

"We'll fix up something for you, Tom, so you won't be bored. If it's all right with you, I'll put you on a part-time appointment. The salary will be nominal, but you'll have security clearance. You can come in with Maria and work with her, or at anything you like. We need literary people too."

Our next stop was security. This department was housed in a set of offices over a Chinese restaurant in a less affluent district. There was no one here who was at all like Howsam Mitcham. We had entered the world, not of spies, but of counter-spies. We began, prosaically enough, by filling out questionnaires.

The head of security, Robert Baker, was also young, but he had the aspect of an insurance adjustor. We were in a group along with a depressed-looking Indian scientist, an American mathematician, and a girl not much older than Maria who was to be a secretary. Baker's opening speech must have been a set one he delivered to everyone, but he made it seem fresh.

"When you take this job, you give up some freedom. If you go downtown to the Soviet Embassy and go inside, you'll be fired. We don't wait for proof of betrayal, we fire on suspicion. Now I'll explain what else is required."

It was only because I had come to know Maria so well that I realized how nervous she was. Robert Baker didn't look to me at all like anyone who might have worked for the Gestapo, but the similarity of their work evidently produced common characteristics which caused Maria to react. I had the usual comic-book impression of Gestapo officers as sly and insinuating, but I now wondered if they had instead been direct and exhaustive.

Baker went into some detail when instructing us what to say when asked what work we did.

"There's no point in trying to deny a military connection. The important thing is to give the impression that you're not very important and don't know much. That's hard for some people."

I fancied that Baker was looking straight at me. He then continued,

"At the average cocktail party people will be quite ready to accept that. They may go off to talk with somebody they think is more interesting, but that's the price of working here. But remember this: If someone won't accept that, if they ask more than one or two questions, come and tell me immediately."

At the end of the session, Baker asked me to stay behind. When we were alone, he gave me a look that would have done credit to any Gestapo officer and asked,

"What's going on here?"

His attitude came as a shock to me. I suppose I had been lulled by Mitcham. But I knew instantly that Maria wouldn't get her opportunity unless this man could be satisfied. I was only thankful that I hadn't claimed to be Maria's uncle. On the other hand, the fact of having so recently been in a state of mind in which such a pretense appeared possible now weighed on me. I did manage to reply,

"Do you want me to start with my first meeting with Maria?"

Baker nodded, and I began. He stopped me occasionally with detailed questions about Brenda and myself, but let me finish. At the end, he asked,

"Why are both you and she so nervous?"

I confessed my fear that my relationship with Maria might be misunderstood. He smiled for the first time and said,

"I wasn't worried about that."

He then added,

"But there's something wrong, and we don't want people who can be blackmailed. Are you alcoholic or homosexual?"

By this time, I had no pride left. I explained my former alcoholism. Baker replied,

"Ok. What's she hiding, then?"

"She's not hiding it. She just refuses to talk about it."

I hadn't meant to say that, but it was too late. Baker looked at me expectantly. I said,

"I think she killed someone in Germany who was about to turn her in."

I then recounted the incident in Cincinnati which had re- awakened that memory and Maria's withdrawal. I had no idea what Baker would make of it.

Having got the truth, he leaned back in his chair and scratched his head. After a moment, he spoke.

"Refugees are always dangerous. It's the easiest way for our enemies to infiltrate agents into this country. However, she doesn't fit the profile of an agent at all. Much too young and much too brilliant. Also, Sam Mitcham really wants her. If the FBI checks don't turn up something you haven't told me, it'll be all right."

Baker then conducted me into the outer office where Maria was waiting. He smiled and spoke pleasantly to her. I thought that he liked her, not because of her ability, but because she had killed someone. My own claim to a share of the credit for rebuilding the Sanderson fortune must rest primarily on that interview.

When we returned to Cincinnati, it was only Ralph who really understood the magnitude of Maria's opportunity. Jane and Brenda thought of it as just a summer job, albeit of an interesting kind. Ralph, even then, was aware of the difference computers were about to make in the world. He did, however, have some reservations which he put to me.

"I can teach her what she'll need to know before she gets there. The only trouble is that the glamour of a big new one- of-a-kind computer is likely to be overpowering. She may well end up as a computer specialist."

"I suppose that's why NIL is bringing in these high school students. Is there anything wrong in that?"

"Only that it's a form of applied science. That's not what the Greeks had in mind when they talked about education."

Ralph made it a bit of a joke, but I knew that he hoped that Maria would be a theoretician like himself. In his scheme of things, one first exercised one's mind on the most abstract and difficult problems, and one did it for its own sake. Only if one failed, or couldn't progress beyond a certain point, did one think about applications. Howsam Mitcham, a physicist doing personnel work, was one who had either sold himself very short or had failed dismally.

Ralph would never have said these things in so many words, even in private. He would have thought such a position arrogant. On the other hand, it was an inescapable consequence of the assumptions on which he based his life.

Brenda, having majored in philosophy at Vassar, did have some inkling of the sort of thing that motivated Ralph. However, that had been long ago in Brenda's life, longer than the years would have indicated. She had become an intensely practical person, not only as regards making money, but in her evaluation of people. Much as she cared for Ralph, he was a special case. We all respected him, but it would hardly have occurred to Brenda that anyone would try to pattern themselves after him. It went without saying that Maria would grow up to be a financier like herself.

Maria, I believed, had strong tendencies in both directions, and it was an open question whether they were compatible. I thought it most likely that she would go off in a third direction, but would do it with an extremely graceful bow towards both Ralph and Brenda. In any case, it looked as if I would be on hand during an interesting and critical period for Maria. We thus closed up the house in Covington and prepared for our journeys.

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