Frederick Braun, M.D., Ph.D., various other Ds, pushed his slightly crooked horn-rims back on his nose and looked up at the two-story wooden house. There was a small lawn before it, moderately cared for, and one tree. There was the usual porch furniture, and the house was going to need painting in another six months or so, but not quite yet. There was a three-year-old hover car parked at the curb of a make that anywhere else in the world but America would have been thought ostentatious in view of the seeming economic status of the householder.
Frederick Braun looked down at the paper in his hand, then up at the house again. He said to his two companions, “By Caesar, I will admit it is the most average-looking dwelling I have ever seen.”
Patricia O’Gara said impatiently, “Well, do we or don’t we?” Her hair should have been in a pony tail, or bouncing on her shoulders, or at least in the new Etruscan revival style, not drawn back in its efficient bun.
Ross Wooley was unhappy. He scratched his fingers back through his reddish crew cut. “This is going to sound silly.”
Patricia said testily, “We’ve been through all that, Rossie, good heavens.”
“Nothing ventured, nothing...” Braun let the sentence dribble away as he stuffed the paper into a coat pocket, which had obviously been used as a waste receptacle for many a year, and led the way up the cement walk, his younger companions immediately behind.
He put his finger on the doorbell and cocked his head to one side. There was no sound from the depths of the house. Dr. Braun muttered, “Bell out of order.”
“It would be,” Ross chuckled sourly. “Remember? Average. Here, let me.” He rapped briskly on the wooden door jamb. They stood for a moment then he knocked again, louder, saying almost as though hopefully, “Maybe there’s nobody home.”
“All right, all right, take it easy,” a voice growled even as the door opened.
He was somewhere in his thirties, easygoing of face, brownish of hair, bluish of eye and moderately good-looking. His posture wasn’t the best and he had a slight tummy but he was a goodish masculine specimen by Mid-Western standards. He stared out at them, defensive now that it was obvious they were strangers. Were they selling something, or in what other manner were they attempting to intrude on his well being? His eyes went from the older man’s thin face, to the football hero heft of the younger, then to Patricia O’Gara. His eyes went up and down her figure and became approving in spite of the straight business suit she affected.
He said, “What could I do for you?”
“Mr. Crowley?” Ross said.
“I’m Ross Wooley and my friends are Patricia O’Gara and Dr. Frederick Braun. We’d like to talk to you.”
“There’s nobody sick here.”
Patricia said impatiently, “Of course not. Dr. Braun isn’t a practicing medical doctor. We are research biochemists.”
“We’re scientists,” Ross told him, putting it on what he assumed was the man’s level. “There’s something on which you could help us.”
Crowley took his eyes from the girl and scowled at Ross. “Me? Scientists? I’m just a country boy, I don’t know anything about science.” There was a grudging self-deprecation in his tone.
Patricia took over, a miracle smile overwhelming her air of briskness. “We’d appreciate the opportunity to discuss it with you.”
Dr. Braun added the clincher. “And it might be remunerative.”
Crowley opened the door wider. “Well, just so it don’t cost me nothing.” He stepped back for them. “Don’t mind the place. Kind of mussed up. Fact is, the wife left me about a week ago and I haven’t got around to getting somebody to come in and kind of clean things up.”
He wasn’t exaggerating. Patricia O’Gara had no pretensions to the housewife’s art herself, but she sniffed when she saw the condition of the living room. There was a dirty shirt drooped over the sofa back and beside the chair which faced the TV set were half a dozen empty beer cans. The ashtrays hadn’t been emptied for at least days and the floor had obviously not been swept since the domestic tragedy which had sent Mrs. Crowley packing.
Now that the three strangers were within his castle, Crowley’s instincts for hospitality asserted themselves. He said, “Make yourself comfortable. Here, wait’ll I get these things out of the way. Anybody like a drink? I got some beer in the box, or,” he smirked at Patricia, “I got some port wine you might like, not this bellywash you buy by the gallon.”
They declined the refreshments, it wasn’t quite noon.
Crowley wrestled the chair which had been before the TV set around so that he could sit facing them, and then sat himself down. He didn’t get this and his face showed it.
Frederick Braun came to the point. “Mr. Crowley,” he said, “did it ever occur to you that somewhere amidst our nearly one hundred million American males there is the average man?”
Crowley looked at him.
Braun cleared his throat and with his thumb and forefinger pushed his glasses more firmly on the bridge of his nose. “I suppose that isn’t exactly the technical way in which to put it.”
Ross Wooley shifted his football shoulders and leaned forward earnestly. “No, Doctor, that’s exactly the way to put it.” He said to Crowley, very seriously, “We’ve done this most efficiently. We’ve gone through absolute piles of statistics. We’ve...”
“Done what?” Crowley all but wailed. “Take it easy, will you? What are you all talking about?”
Patricia said impatiently, “Mr. Crowley, you are the average American. The man on the street. The Common Man.”
He frowned at her. “What’d’ya mean, common? I’m as good as anybody else.”
“That’s exactly what we mean,” Ross said placatingly. “You are exactly as good as anybody else, Mr. Crowley. You’re the average man.”
“I don’t know what the devil you’re talking about. Pardon my language, Miss.”
“Not at all,” Patricia sighed. “Dr. Braun, why don’t you take over? We seem to all be speaking at once.”
The little doctor began to enumerate on his fingers. “The center of population has shifted to this vicinity, so the average American lives here in the Middle West. Population is also shifting from rural to urban, so the average man lives in a city of approximately this size. Determining average age, height, weight is simple with government data as complete as they are. Also racial background. You, Mr. Crowley, are predominately English, German and Irish, but have traces of two or three other nationalities.”
Crowley was staring at him. “How in the devil did you know that?”
Ross said wearily, “We’ve gone to a lot of trouble.”
Dr. Braun hustled on. “You’ve had the average amount of education, didn’t quite finish high school. You make average wages working in a factory as a clerk. You spent some time in the army but never saw combat. You drink moderately, are married and have one child, which is average for your age. Your I.Q. is exactly average and you vote Democrat except occasionally when you switch over to Republican.”
“Now wait a minute,” Crowley protested. “You mean I’m the only man in this whole country that’s like me? I mean, you mean I’m the average guy, right in the middle?”
Patricia O’Gara said impatiently. “You are the nearest thing to it, Mr. Crowley. Actually, possibly one of a hundred persons would have served our purpose.”
“O.K.,” Crowley interrupted, holding up a hand. “That gets us to the point. What’s this here purpose? What’s the big idea prying, like, into my affairs till you learned all this about me? And what’s this stuff about me getting something out of it? Right now I’m between jobs.”
The doctor pushed his battered horn-rims back on his nose with his forefinger. “Yes, of course,” he said reasonably. “Now we get to the point. Mr. Crowley, how would you like to be invisible?”
The three of them looked at him. It seemed to be his turn.
Crowley got up and walked into the kitchen. He came back in a moment with an opened can of beer from which he was gulping even as he walked. He took the can away from his mouth and said carefully, “You mean like a ghost?”
“No, of course not,” Braun said in irritation. “By Caesar, man, have you no imagination? Can’t you see it was only a matter of time before someone, possibly working away on an entirely different subject of research, stumbled upon a practical method of achieving invisibility?”
“Now, wait a minute,” Crowley said, his voice belligerent. “I’m only a country boy, maybe, without any egghead background, but I’m just as good as the next man and just as smart. I don’t think I like your altitude.”
“Attitude,” Ross Wooley muttered unhappily. He shot a glance at Patricia O’Gara but she ignored him.
Patricia turned on the charm. Her face opened into smile and she said soothingly, “Don’t misunderstand, Mr. Crowley. May I call you Don? I’m sure we’re going to be associates. You see, Don, we need your assistance.”
This was more like it. Crowley sat down again and finished the can of beer. “O.K., it won’t hurt to listen. What’s the pitch?”
The older man cleared his throat. “We’ll cover it quickly so that we can get to the immediate practical aspects. Are you interested in biodynamics ... umah ... no, of course not. Let me see. Are you at all familiar with the laws pertaining to refraction of ... umah, no.” He cleared his throat again, unhappily. “Have you ever seen a medusa, Mr. Crowley? The gelatinous umbrella-shaped free swimming form of marine invertebrate related to the coral polyp and the sea anemone?”
Ross Wooley scratched his crew cut and grimaced. “Jellyfish, Doctor, jellyfish. But I think the Portuguese Man-of-War might be a better example.”
“Oh, jellyfish,” Crowley said. “Sure, I’ve seen jellyfish. I got an aunt lives near Baltimore. We used to go down there and swim in Chesapeake Bay. Sting the devil out of you. What about it?”
Patricia leaned forward, still smiling graciously. “I really don’t see a great deal of point going into theory, gentlemen.” She looked at Ross and Dr. Braun, then back at Crowley. “Don, I think that what the doctor was leading up to was an attempt to describe in layman’s language the theory of the process onto which we’ve stumbled. He was using the jellyfish as an example of a life form all but invisible. But I’m sure you aren’t interested in technical terminology, are you? A good deal of gobbledygook, really, don’t you think?”
“Yeah, that’s what I say. Let’s get to the point. You mean you think it’s possible to make a guy invisible. Nobody could see him, eh?”
“It’s not a matter of thinking,” Ross said sourly. “We’ve done it.”
Crowley stared at him. “Done it? You mean, you, personal? You got invisible?”
“Yes. All three of us. Once each.”
“And you come back all right, eh? So anybody can see you again.”
The doctor said reasonably, “Here we are, quite visible. The effect of the usual dosage lasts for approximately twelve hours.”
They let him assimilate it for a few minutes. Some of the ramifications were coming home to him. Finally he got up and went into the back again for another can of beer. By this time Ross Wooley was wishing he would renew his offer, but the other had forgotten his duties as a host.
He took the can away from his mouth and said, “You want to make me invisible. You want me to, like, kind of experiment on.” His eyes thinned. “Why pick me?”
The doctor said carefully, “Because you’re the common man, the average man, Mr. Crowley. Before we release this development, we would like to have some idea of the scope of the effects.”
The beer went down chuck-a-luck. Crowley put the can aside and licked his bottom lip, then rubbed it with a fingertip. He said slowly, “Now take it easy while I think about this.” He blinked. “Why you could just walk into a bank and...”
The three were watching him, empty-faced.
“Exactly,” Dr. Braun said.
Frederick Braun stared gloomily from the hotel suite’s window at the street below. He peered absently at his thin wrist, looked blank for a moment, then realized all over again that his watch was being cleaned. He stared down at the street once more, his wrinkled face unhappy.
The door opened behind him and Patricia O’Gara came in briskly and said, “No sign of the guinea pig yet, eh?”
The doctor cleared his throat. “There was an item on the newscast. A humor bit. It seems that the head waiter of the Gourmet ... Have you ever eaten at the Gourmet, Patricia?”
“Do I look like a millionaire?”
“At any rate, a half pound of the best Caspian caviar disappeared, spoonful at a time, right before his eyes.”
Patricia looked at him. “Good heavens.”
“Yes. Well, Ross has gone to pay the tab.”
Patricia looked at her watch. “The effects will be wearing off shortly. Crowley will probably be back at any time. We warned him about returning to visibility in the middle of some street, completely nude.” She sank into a seat and looked up at the doctor. “I suppose you admit I was right.” Her voice was crisp.
The other turned on her. “And just why do you say that?”
“This caviar bit. Our friend, Donald Crowley, has obviously walked into the Gourmet restaurant, having heard it was the most expensive in New York, and ate as much as he could stuff down of the most expensive item on the menu.”
The elderly little doctor pushed his battered horn-rims farther back on his nose. “Tell me, Patricia, when you made the experiment, did you do anything ... umah ... anything at all, that saved you some money?”
Uncharacteristically, she suddenly giggled. “I had the time of my life riding on a bus without paying the fare.”
Braun snorted. “Then Donald Crowley, in eating his caviar, did substantially the same thing. It’s probably been a life’s ambition of his to eat in an ultra-swank restaurant and then walk out without paying. To be frank,” the doctor cleared his throat apologetically, “it’s always been one of mine.”
Patricia conceded him a chuckle, but then said impatiently, “It’s one thing my saving fifteen cents on a bus ride, and his eating twenty-five dollars worth of caviar.”
“Merely a matter of degree, my dear.”
Patricia said in irritation, “Why in the world did we have to bring him to New York where he could pull such childish tricks? We could have performed the experiment right there in Far Cry, Nebraska.”
Dr. Braun abruptly ceased the pacing he had begun and found a chair. He absently stuck a hand into a coat pocket, pulled out a crumbled piece of paper, stared at it for a moment, as though he had never seen it before, grunted, and returned it to the pocket. He looked at Patricia O’Gara. “We felt that on completely unknown territory he would feel less constrained, don’t you remember? In his home town, his conscience would be more apt to restrict him.”
Something suddenly came to her. She looked at her older companion suspiciously. “That newscast. Was there anything else on it? Don’t look innocent, you know what I mean.”
“Well, there was one item.”
“Out with it,” she demanded.
“The Hotel Belefonte threatens to sue that French movie star, Brigette whatever-her-name is.”
“Brigette Loren,” Patricia said, staring. “What’s that got to do with Donald Crowley?”
The good doctor was embarrassed. “It seems that she came running out of her suite, umah, semi-dressed and screaming that the hotel was haunted.”
“Good heavens,” Patricia said with sudden vision. “That’s one aspect I hadn’t thought of.”
“Evidently Crowley did.”
Patricia O’Gara said definitely, “My point’s been proven. Our average man is a slob. Give him the opportunity to exercise unlimited freedom without danger of consequence and he becomes an undisciplined and dangerous lout.”
Ross Wooley had come in, scowling, just in time to catch most of that. He tossed his hat onto a table and fished in his pockets for pipe and tobacco. “Nuts, Pat,” he said. “In fact, just the opposite’s been proven. Don’s just on a fun binge. Like a kid in a candy shop. He hasn’t done anything serious. Went into a fancy restaurant and ate some expensive food. Sneaked into the hotel room of the world’s most famous sex-symbol and got a close-up look.” He grinned suddenly. “I wish I had thought of that.”
“Ha!” Patricia snorted. “Our engagement is off, you Peeping Tom.”
“Children, children,” Braun chuckled. “I’ll admit, though, I think Ross is correct. Don’s done little we three didn’t when first given the robe of invisibility. We experimented, largely playfully, even childishly.”
Patricia bit out, “This experiment is ridiculous, anyway, and I don’t know why I ever agreed to it. Scientific? Nonsense. Where are our controls? For it to make any sense we’d have to work with scores of subjects. Suppose we do agree that the manner in which Don Crowley has reacted is quite harmless. Does that mean we can release this discovery to the world? Certainly not.”
Ross said sullenly, “But you agreed that we’d go by the results of this...”
“I agreed to no such thing, Rossie Wooley, you overgrown lug. All I agreed to do was consider the results. I was, and am, of the opinion that if the person our politicians so lovingly call the Common Man was released of the restrictions inhibiting him, he’d go hog wild and destroy both society and himself. What is to prevent murder, robbery, rape and a score of other crimes, given invisibility for anyone who has a couple of dollars with which to go into a drugstore and purchase our serum?”
Her fiancé sighed deeply, jamming tobacco fiercely into the bowl of his briar. He growled, “Look, you seem to think that the only thing that restricts man is the fear of being punished. There are other things, you know.”
“Good heavens,” she said sarcastically. “Name one.”
“There is the ethical code in which he was raised, based on religion or otherwise. There is the fact that man is fundamentally good, to use a trite term, given the opportunity.”
“My education has evidently been neglected,” Patricia said, still argumentatively. “I’ve never seen evidence to support your claim.”
“I’m not saying individuals don’t react negatively, given opportunity to be antisocial,” he all but snarled. “I’m just saying people in general, common, little people, trend toward decency, desire the right thing.”
“Individuals my ... my neck,” Patricia snapped back. “Did you ever hear of Rome and the games? Here a whole people, millions of them, were given the opportunity to indulge in sadistic spectacles to their heart’s desire. How many of them stayed home from the games?” She laughed in ridicule.
Ross flushed. “Some of them did, confound it.”
Dr. Braun had been taking in their debate, uncomfortably. As though in spite of himself, he said now, “Very few, I am afraid.”
“Religious ethic,” Patricia pursued, relentlessly. “The greatest of the commandments is Thou Shalt Not Kill, but comes along a war in which killing becomes not only permissible but an absolute virtue and all our good Christians, Jews, Mohammedans and even Buddhists, who supposedly are not even allowed to kill mosquitoes, wade in with sheer happiness.”
“War releases abnormal passions,” Ross said grudgingly.
“You don’t need a war. Look at the Germans, supposedly one of our most highly civilized people. When the Nazi government released all restraints on persecution of the Jews, gypsies and others, you know what happened. This began in peace time, not in war.”
Dr. Braun shifted in his chair. He said, his voice low, “We needn’t look beyond our own borders. The manner in which our people conducted themselves against the Amerinds from the very beginning of the white occupation of North America was quite shocking.”
Ross said to him, “I thought you were on my side. The Indian wars were a long time ago. We’re more advanced now.”
Dr. Braun said softly, “My father fought against Geronimo in Arizona. It wasn’t so long ago as all that.”
Ross Wooley felt the argument going against him and lashed back. “We’ve been over and over this, what’s your point?”
Patricia said doggedly, “The same point I tried to make from the beginning. This discovery must not be generally released. We’ll simply have to suppress it.”
The door opened behind them. They turned. Nothing was there. Ross, scowling, lumbered to his feet to walk over and close it.
“Hey, take it easy,” a voice laughed. “Don’t walk right into a guy.”
Ross stopped, startled.
Dr. Braun and Patricia stood up and stared, too.
Crowley laughed. “You all look like you’re seeing a ghost.”
Ross rumbled a grudging chuckle. “It’d be all right if we saw the ghost, it’s not seeing you that’s disconcerting.”
The air began to shimmer, somewhat like heat on the desert’s face.
Crowley said, “Hey, the stuff’s wearing off. Where’re my clothes?”
“Where you left them. There in that bedroom,” Ross said. “We’ll wait for you.” He went back and rejoined his associates. The door to the bedroom opened, there was a shimmering, more obvious now, and then the door closed behind it.
“He rejoined us just in time,” Dr. Braun murmured. “Another ten minutes and he would have ... umah... materialized down on the street.”
Ross hadn’t finished the discussion. He said, his face in all but pout, “What you don’t realize, Pat, is the world has gone beyond the point where scientific discoveries can be suppressed. If we try to keep the lid on this today, the Russians or Chinese, or somebody, will hit on it tomorrow.”
Patricia said impatiently, “Good heavens, let’s don’t bring the Cold War into it.”
Ross opened his mouth to snap something back at her, closed it again and shrugged his bulky shoulders angrily.
In a matter of less than ten minutes the bedroom door reopened and this time a grinning Crowley emerged, fully dressed. He said, “Man, that was a devil of an experience!”
They saw him to a chair and had him talk it all through. He was candid enough, bubbling over with it all.
In the some eleven and a half hours he’d been on his own, he had covered quite an area of Manhattan.
Evidently the first hour had been spent in becoming used to the startling situation. He couldn’t even see himself, which, to his surprise affected walking and even use of his hands. You had to get used to it. Then there was the fact that he was nude and felt nude and hence uncomfortable walking about in mixed pedestrian traffic. But that phase passed. Early in the game he found that there was small percentage in getting into crowds. It led to all sorts of complications, including the starting of minor rows, one person thinking another was pushing when it was simply a matter of Crowley trying to get out from underfoot.
Then he went through a period of the wonder of it all. Being able to walk anywhere and observe people who had no suspicion that they were being observed. It was during that phase that he had sought out the hotel in which he had read the chesty French movie actress Brigette Loren was in residence. Evidently, he’d hit the nail right on the head. Brigette was at her toilette when he arrived on scene. In telling about this, Crowley leered amusedly at Patricia from the side of his eyes. She ignored him.
Then he’d gone through a period when the full realization of his immunity had hit him.
At this point he turned to Braun, “Hey, Doc, you ever eaten any caviar? You know, that Russian stuff. Supposed to be the most expensive food in the world.”
The doctor cleared his throat. “Small amounts in hors d’oeuvres at cocktail parties.”
“Well, maybe I’m just a country boy but the stuff tastes like fish eggs to me. Anyway, to get back to the story...”
He’d gone into Tiffany’s and into some of the other swank shops. And then into a bank or two, and stared at the treasures of Manhattan.
At this point he looked at Ross. “You know, just being invisible don’t mean all that. How you going to pick up a wad of thousand dollar bills and just walk out the front door with them? Everybody’d see the dough just kind of floating through the air.”
“I came to the same conclusion myself, when I experimented,” Ross said wryly.
He had ridden on the subways ... free. He had eaten various food in various swank restaurants. He had even had drinks in name bars, sampling everything from Metaxa to vintage champagne. He was of the opinion that even though he remained invisible for the rest of his years, he’d still stick to bourbon and beer.
He had gone down to Wall Street and into the offices of the top brokerage firms and into the sanctum sanctorums of the wealthiest of mucky-mucks but had been too impatient to stick around long enough to possibly hear something that might be profitable. He admitted, grudgingly, that he wouldn’t have known what to listen for anyway. Frustrated there, he had gone back uptown and finally located the hangout of one of the more renown sports promoters who was rumored to have gangster connections and was currently under bail due to a boxing scandal. He had stayed about that worthy’s office for an hour, gleaning nothing more than several dirty jokes he’d never heard before.
All this activity had wearied him so he went to the Waldorf, located an empty suite in the tower and climbed into bed for a nap after coolly phoning room service to give him a call in two hours. That had almost led to disaster. Evidently, someone on room service had found the suite to be supposedly empty and had sent a boy up to investigate. However, when he had heard the door open, Crowley had merely rolled out of the bed and left, leaving a startled bellhop behind staring at rumpled bedclothes which had seemed to stir of their own accord.
The rest of the day was little different from the first hours. He had gone about gawking in places he couldn’t have had he been visible. Into the dressing room of the Roxie, into the bars of swank private clubs, into the offices of the F.B.I. He would have liked to have walked in on a poker game with some real high rollers playing, such as Nick the Greek, but he didn’t have the time nor know-how to go about finding one.
Crowley wound it all up with a gesture of both hands, palms upward. “I gotta admit, it was fun, but what the devil good is it?”
They looked at him questioningly.
Crowley said, “I mean, how’s it practical? How can you make a buck out of it, if you turn it over to the public, like? Everybody’d go around robbing everybody else and you’d all wind up equal.”
Dr. Braun chuckled in deprecation. “There would be various profitable uses, Don. One priceless one would be scientific observation of wild life. For that matter there would be valid usage in everyday life. There are often personal reasons for not wishing to be observed. Celebrities, for instance, wishing to avoid crowds.”
“Yeah,” Crowley laughed, “or a businessman out with his secretary.”
Dr. Braun frowned. “Of course, there are many other aspects. It would mean the end of such things as the Iron Curtain. And also the end of such things as American immigration control. There are many, many ramifications, Don, some of which frighten us. The world would be never quite the same.”
Crowley leaned forward confidentially. “Well, I’ll tell you. I was thinking it all out. What we got to do is turn it over to the Army and soak them plenty for it.”
The others ignored his cutting himself a piece of the cake.
Ross Wooley merely grunted bitterly.
Patricia said impatiently, “We’ve thought most of these things through, Don. However, Dr. Braun happens to be quite a follower of Lord Russell.”
Crowley looked at her blankly.
“He’s a pacifist,” she explained.
Braun pushed his glasses back more firmly on his nose and said, gently, “The military already have enough gadgets to destroy quite literally everything and I trust one set of them no more than the other. If both sides had our discovery, then, very well, each would go about attempting to find some manner of penetrating the invisibility, or taking various measures to protect their top secrets. But to give it to just one would be such an advantage that the other would have to embark immediately upon a desperate attack before the advantage could be fully realized. If we turn this over to the Pentagon, for exclusive use, the Soviets would have to begin a preventative war as soon as they learned of its existence.”
“You a red?” Crowley said, scowling.
The doctor shrugged hopelessly. “No,” he said.
Crowley turned to the other two. “If you think it’s the patriotic thing to do, why don’t one of you sell it to the government?”
Patricia said testily, “You don’t understand, Don. Even if we were so thoroughly in disagreement that we would act unilaterally, we couldn’t. You see, this is a three-way discovery. No one of us knows the complete process.”
His face twisted. “Look, maybe some of this egghead stuff doesn’t get through to me but I’m not stupid, see? You got the stuff, haven’t you? You gave me that shot this morning.”