The Complete Stories (Page 173)
"He got his degree in ’43."
"You’ve known him eight years then."
" "That’s right."
us "And you don’t know about his private life?"
"A man’s life is his own, Inspector. He wasn’t very sociable. A great many of the men are like that. They work under pressure and when they’re off the job, they’re not interested in continuing the lab acquaintanceships."
"Did he belong to any organizations that you know of?"
The inspector said, "Did he ever say anything to you that might indicate he was disloyal?"
Grant shouted "No!" and there was silence for a while.
Then Darrity said, "How important is Ralson in atomic research?"
Grant hunched over the wheel and said, "As important as any one man can be. I grant you that no one is indispensable, but Ralson has always seemed to be rather unique. He has the engineering mentality."
"What does that mean?"
"He isn’t much of a mathematician himself, but he can work out the gadgets that put someone else’s math into life. There’s no one like him when it comes to that. Time and again, Inspector, we’ve had a problem to lick and no time to lick it in. There were nothing but blank minds all around until he put some thought into it and said, ‘Why don’t you try so-and-so?’ Then he’d go away. He wouldn’t even be interested enough to see if it worked. But it always did. Always! Maybe we would have got it ourselves eventually, but it might have taken months of additional time. I don’t know how he does it. It’s no use asking him either. He just looks at you and says ‘It was obvious’, and walks away. Of course, once he’s shown us how to do it, it is obvious."
The inspector let him have his say out. When no more came, he said, "Would you say he was queer, mentally? Erratic, you know."
"When a person is a genius, you wouldn’t expect him to be normal, would you?"
"Maybe not. But just how abnormal was this particular genius?"
"He never talked, particularly. Sometimes, he wouldn’t work."
"Stayed at home and went fishing instead?"
"No. He came to the labs all right; but he would just sit at his desk. Sometimes that would go on for weeks. Wouldn’t answer you, or even look at you, when you spoke to him."
"Did he ever actually leave work altogether?"
"Before now, you mean? Never!"
"Did he ever claim he wanted to commit suicide? Ever say he wouldn’t feel safe except in jail?"
"You’re sure this John Smith is Ralson?"
"I’m almost positive. He has a chemical bum on his right cheek that can’t be mistaken."
"O.K. That’s that, then I’ll speak to him and see what he sounds like." The silence fell for good this time. Dr. Grant followed the snaking line as Inspector Darrity tossed the penknife in low arcs from hand to hand.
The warden listened to the call-box and looked up at his visitors. "We can have him brought up here, Inspector, regardless." "No," Dr. Grant shook his head. "Let’s go to him." Darrity said, "Is that normal for Ralson, Dr. Grant? Would you expect him to attack a guard trying to take him out of a prison cell?" Grant said, "I can’t say."
The warden spread a calloused palm. His thick nose twitched a little. "We haven’t tried to do anything about him so far because of the telegram from Washington, but, frankly, he doesn’t belong here. I’ll be glad to have him taken off my hands." "We’ll see him in his cell," said Darrity.
They went down the hard, barlined corridor. Empty, incurious eyes watched their passing.
Dr. Grant felt his flesh crawl. "Has he been kept here all the time?" Darrity did not answer.
The guard, pacing before them, stopped. "This is the cell." Darrity said, "Is that Dr. Ralson?"
Dr. Grant looked silently at the figure upon the cot. The man had been lying down when they first reached the cell, but now he had risen to one elbow and seemed to be trying to shrink into the wall. His hair was sandy and thin, his figure slight, his eyes blank and china-blue. On his right cheek there was a raised pink patch that tailed off like a tadpole. Dr. Grant said, "That’s Ralson."
The guard opened the door and stepped inside, but Inspector Darrity sent him out again with a gesture. Ralson watched them mutely. He had drawn both feet up to the cot and was pushing backwards. His Adam’s apple bobbled as he swallowed.
Darrity said quietly, "Dr. Elwood Ralson?" "What do you want?" The voice was a surprising baritone. "Would you come with us, please? We have some questions we would like to ask you."
"No! Leave me alone!"
"Dr. Ralson," said Grant, "I’ve been sent here to ask you to come back to
Ralson looked at the scientist and there was a momentary glint of something other than fear in his eyes. He said, "Hello, Grant." He got off his cot. "Listen, I’ve been trying to have them put me into a padded cell. Can’t you make them do that for me? You know me, Grant, I wouldn’t ask for something I didn’t feel was necessary. Help me. I can’t stand the hard walls. It makes me want to … bash-" He brought the flat of his palm thudding down against the hard, dull-gray concrete behind his cot.
Darrity looked thoughtful. He brought out his penknife and unbent the Reaming blade. Carefully, he scraped at his thumbnail, and said, "Would you like to see a doctor?"
But Ralson didn’t answer that. He followed the gleam of metal and his lips parted and grew wet. His breath became ragged and harsh.
He said, "Put that away!" ,, Darrity paused. "Put what away?"