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Denizens: 8 - Arnold

...Katzmeyer took Julia by the arm. “Come, my dear. Let the young man get settled in. Lunch downstairs in the canteen in about half an hour, Tom. Just turn left at the bottom of the stairs and follow your nose.”

Then they left Tom alone, and he stood in the middle of the room and looked around. “Welcome to the booby hatch,” he said aloud. Then he laughed, and began to unpack his bags...

Tom Stoddard arrives at a secret research institute and is welcomed by the eccentric Dr Katzmeyer.

For earlier chapters of Brian William Neal's stunning novel of the future click on Denizens in the menu on this page.

Los Angeles, California
July, 2034

Tom Stoddard turned the VW off the freeway and drove through downtown Santa Monica, then on to the coastal highway. Approximately four miles down the coast, halfway to Marina Del Rey, a small promontory jutted out into the Pacific. He turned off the highway and followed a narrow gravel road until he came to a solid looking steel gate. There was a guardhouse at the gate, and a sign that read:

LOWER YOUR WINDOW

STOP YOUR ENGINE

PLACE BOTH HANDS ON THE WHEEL

And in smaller print below:

Have a nice day

Tom smiled at this; obviously, someone at the institute had a sense of humor. Still, he had to wonder at the bureaucratic mind. If they really wanted to preserve the secrecy and anonymity of the place, why did they go to so much trouble to advertise its presence with such ostentatious security? He was still smiling when the guard came out of the guardhouse, but when he saw the very businesslike rifle the man was carrying, he switched off the car’s engine and placed his hands carefully on the steering wheel.

Tom gave his name, stated his business and produced his all-purpose ID card/driver’s license. The guard scrutinized both the photo on the card and Tom very carefully, and made something of a big production of returning to the guardhouse and phoning, Tom assumed, the institute. While he was waiting, Tom surveyed his surroundings.

Where the gravel road ended at the gate, an obviously new sealed road began. It wound away through the dunes, and disappeared amidst rough, scraggly bushes. Everything was very still; the cries of the seagulls overhead was the only sound in the warm air. Although he could not see the ocean, Tom knew it could not be far away, beyond the dunes. He could smell the salty tang, and from close by came the soft crash of a light surf.

The guard returned to the car and handed back Tom’s ID card. He looked inside the car, and said, “Open the trunk”. Without another word, he walked around the car and stood at the rear, waiting for Tom to obey his instruction.

Smiling to himself, Tom decided he had had enough of the man’s bullshit, and popped the release button. The guard found himself looking at the air-cooled, 1600 c.c. rear positioned engine of the Volkswagen. After a moment, the man slammed the cover shut and walked to the front of the car. Tom, struggling to keep a straight face, hit the other button, and the hood opened. The guard busied himself under it for a few moments, then slammed it shut, and returned to the guardhouse without another word. A moment later, the gate began to swing inwards, and the guard waved Tom through. In his rear-view mirror, Tom watched the gate swing shut again; of the guard, he saw no further sign.

The road wound through the dunes, which were covered with the same tired looking bushes and gorse. After a half-mile or so, the car rounded a large dune and the long, low buildings of the institute rose up before him. As he pulled into the parking lot in front of the buildings, Tom was reminded of a small school; all that was missing, he thought, were the children. He switched off the car’s engine and sat for a moment, listening to the quiet of the place.

Somewhere far off, sea birds screeched faintly, and away to the south, a fifteen hundred passenger SST was making its final approach, gliding in from the sea like a giant condor to LAX, just a dozen miles down the coast. Tom opened the car door and stepped out, breathing deeply of the fresh sea air. This was more like it, he thought. He hated being penned up in the city, and he lived for the times when he could be near the ocean, and smell its cleanness.

Tom opened the trunk and removed two cases and an old duffel bag. He looked around, and was beginning to wonder where everyone was when a white coated figure burst through the double doors of the institute, and ran down the steps towards him. The man came to a halt in front of Tom. He appeared to be in late middle age, perhaps sixty or so, tall and stick-thin, and was panting with exertion. His longish white hair was in some disarray, and he stared at the younger man with large, protuberant eyes underneath bushy white brows.

“You Stoddard? Doctor Stoddard?” he rasped.

Tom recoiled slightly, taken aback. “Well, not ‘doctor’, exactly…” he began, but got no further. A firm hand grasped his arm, and the human dynamo began to lead him into the building.

Tom hung back, protesting. “Hey, wait a minute, my stuff…”

“Never mind that,” said the other man, still dragging Tom by the arm. “We’ve got work to do!”

Tom ceased resisting, and allowed himself to be led through the double doors and into the building. They half-ran down a long corridor and into a large office; there was a woman standing by the window, and she turned and looked at then with an expression of resigned tolerance. The man left Tom standing beside a chair and sat behind a large desk.

“Sit down, sit down,” he rasped. Then, to the woman, “You too, Julia.”

The woman sat in another chair, and Tom turned and gave her a bemused look. She appeared to be in her mid-forties, with blonde hair pulled back from her face in a tight bun, giving her a severe look. The warmth and amusement in her cornflower-blue eyes offset this, and Tom knew she would have a wonderful smile. The woman spoke to the man, who was rummaging through the drawers of the desk.

“Really, Arnold, can’t this wait until Mr. Stoddard is at least settled in his quarters?”

The man answered without interrupting his search. “No, no, Julia, we have no time to lose.”

“But Arnold, surely we can at least spare time for introductions?”

The man looked at her strangely. “But we took care of that in the carpark.”

The woman made an exasperated sound, and fixed the man with a stern look. “Honestly, Arnold! I think you’re carrying this ‘eccentric scientist’ routine too far. Don’t you think it’s time we gave Mr. Stoddard a proper welcome?”

The man stopped his frantic searching, and slumped back in his chair, and a sheepish smile began to creep over his face. Then he sat up, and smoothed back his hair, clasping his hands on the desk in front of him. The transformation was amazing; it was as though a different person sat there, so complete was the shedding of the original persona.

“Very well, Julia” the man said. Then he turned to Tom, who had observed the whole performance with the same bemused look on his face.

“Don’t mind me, Mr. Stoddard,” he said. “It’s just one of my little ways. You’ll get used to it. To tell you the truth, I only spring it on people I don’t know, so you’ll be pretty safe from now on.”

Tom smiled. “Not at all, Doctor Katzmeyer. Professor Kleinman has spoken to me of your love for the, er, dramatic arts. He neglected to mention, however, that you sometimes gave impromptu performances.”

Katzmeyer laughed, the lines around his eyes crinkling with mischief. “And how is Larry, up there at Stanford? Fit and well?”

Tom nodded. “Yes, sir. He sends his best.”

The institute head nodded, then glanced at the woman, who was regarding him with a my-patience-is-running-out expression on her face.

“Oh, er, allow me to present my second-in-command. Mr. Stoddard, this is Doctor Julia Sears.”

Tom smiled at her. “Of course, I know you by reputation, Doctor Sears. It’s a great pleasure to meet you in person. And you too, of course, Doctor Katzmeyer,” he added.

Katzmeyer sat back in his chair. “We’re going to be working closely together for a while, and we’re pretty informal here anyway,” he said. “Do you mind if I call you Tom?”

“No, not at all,” said Tom. “I’d be honored.”

“Excellent,” said the older man. “And you may call me Doctor Katzmeyer.”

There was silence in the office for a few seconds, then the man burst out laughing; after a moment, Tom joined in, a little uncertainly.

“Couldn’t resist that one, but it’s the last, I promise,” said Katzmeyer. He extended his hand across the desk. “Arnold to my friends, Tom. And this is Julia.”

“Or Julie,” the woman said. “I answer to both,” she added, casting a reproachful look at the older man, which he affected not to notice.

Arnold stood up and walked around the desk. “Come on, Tom. Let’s get you settled into your room.” With that, he walked out of the office, leaving the others with no option but to follow. As they hurried after him, Tom asked Julia, “Is he always like this?”

Julia smiled ruefully. “Pretty much. He lives at the speed of light. The rest of us poor mortals just have to do our best to keep up.” She lowered her voice slightly. “But don’t be fooled by the clown act, though. When it comes to business, he’s one hundred percent professional, and God help anyone who screws up.”

Tom had of course heard of Doctor Arnold Katzmeyer, and his work in the marine sciences, but had never met the man before. His Dean had been oddly reticent about the institute head, and now Tom could see why. The professor obviously hadn’t wanted to spoil his friend’s fun. Well, thought Tom, a little bit of that goes a long way. He hoped Julia was right in her assertion of Katzmeyer’s professionalism because, despite Cheeseman’s almost unbelievable briefing, it seemed as if they had a serious job to do.

Returning to Tom’s car, they began to divide his gear between them; fair to say, Arnold took at least as much as Tom, while Julia carried his overnight bag. They entered the building again and climbed up one flight of stairs. There was a long corridor, the twin of the one downstairs, running the length of the building, with rooms leading off it. Tom was shown to a surprisingly comfortable looking room, nicely furnished with a leather sofa and one armchair, and a large double bed. There, the others left him to unpack.

“It’s not much,” said Julia, as she and Arnold were leaving, “but it’s clean and cozy. You should be O.K. here, and it’s only for a few days. If you need anything, just ask.”

Tom smiled. “Are you kidding? You should have seen my apartment in Palo Alto. This is a palace.”

Katzmeyer took Julia by the arm. “Come, my dear. Let the young man get settled in. Lunch downstairs in the canteen in about half an hour, Tom. Just turn left at the bottom of the stairs and follow your nose.”

Then they left Tom alone, and he stood in the middle of the room and looked around. “Welcome to the booby hatch,” he said aloud. Then he laughed, and began to unpack his bags.

***


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