The Sound of Life and Everything (7 page)

BOOK: The Sound of Life and Everything
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Dr. Franks stopped himself before he spilled the beans, but the damage was already done. He'd all but admitted that
something
was happening. Unfortunately, Mama was less interested in pumping him for details than setting the record straight.

“No one sent us,” she said as calmly as a spring morning.

But Dr. Franks was just getting warmed up. While the assistants' jaws slowly dropped, he whined about everything from English food (which apparently tasted like shoes) to the boys from Cavendish (whose names were James and Francis).

The Japanese man, on the other hand, watched me through the glass. Neither of us said a word, but we still had a conversation. He asked about our house and whether the trees in our backyard were big enough to climb, but it seemed like he was really asking if I was going to take him home.

10

I tapped Dr. Franks's shoulder. “When do we get to
take him home?”

“Excuse me?” he asked.

I cleared my throat. “I said, when do we get to take him home?” I said it carefully so he wouldn't misunderstand. “That is what you've been tryin' to get us to do from day one.”

“Well, yes,” he said, retreating. “But I thought—I just assumed—”

“We wouldn't want him?” Mama asked.

“Well, yes!” Dr. Franks shouted as he fiddled with his sleeve. “In case you haven't noticed, he's a Jap.”

“Oh, we've noticed,” I said.

“Then you also must have noticed that he doesn't belong to you. What makes you think you have the right to steal ten years' worth of research?”

I threw up my arms. “I thought you wanted us to take him!”

“I did,” he said. “Before . . .”

“Before
what
?” Mama pressed.

I bit my lip to keep from squealing. Mama had finally asked the all-important question. Dr. Franks was finally going to have to tell us the truth.

He opened his mouth to answer, and for a second, I really thought he was going to say it. But then he snapped his mouth shut. “Before I changed my mind.”

I stuck both hands on my hips. If he wanted to play that game, then I'd play it, too. “Well, I'm not changin' mine.”

“Then it appears we're at an impasse.”

“What's an impasse?” I asked.

“A stalemate,” Mama said. “Which means we'll need someone to break it.”

Dr. Franks harrumphed. “Well, it shouldn't be
you.

“No,” Mama agreed, “it should be someone impartial, someone—”

“In charge?” I asked.

“Exactly,” Mama said.

I smiled mysteriously. “Then I know just the person.”

Mama cocked an eyebrow, and a part of me worried that she was going to try to stop me. But instead of getting in my way, she got out of it. And smiled.
Go ahead, sweetness,
that smile seemed to say.
If anyone can do this, you can.

As it turned out, the head honcho was pretty easy to find. I just shouted Dr. Pauling's name as I dashed up and down the halls, taking random lefts and rights. Every intersection looked the same, so it wasn't hard to choose. Doors slid open in my wake, ejecting scads of assistants, who trailed along behind me like a ticker-tape parade, lab coats and clipboards fluttering. Luckily, they weren't as good at playing tag as I was.

The men in black suits, on the other hand, were another matter altogether.

I slammed into the first after taking a wrong turn. He tried to grab me while I blinked the stars out of my eyes, but I recovered just in time to duck under his arms. Regrettably, the second was harder to elude. He seized me from behind while I was distracted by the first, then picked me up as easily as if I were a string bean. I liked to think I'd eaten more Mother Lodes than that.

The cavalry showed up after the man tossed me over his shoulder. At least the assistants looked like they could barely breathe.

I stuck out my chin. “I want to talk to Dr. Pauling.”

One of the assistants sneered. “He isn't here, silly girl.”

But I wasn't discouraged. “I have reason to think he is.”

At least that shut him up. He backed off just in time for Dr. Franks to turn the corner. Mama was hot on his heels.

“You will put her down this instant,” Mama hissed after sizing up the situation, “or I will gut you where you stand.”

Dr. Franks elbowed around her. “You will do no such thing. That child is a menace to society, and I insist that you restrain her.”

The man glanced at Mama, then Dr. Franks, then Mama again, then put me down. He must have been more afraid of Mama (and I couldn't say I blamed him).

Dr. Franks bristled. “If you won't detain her, then I demand that you expel them.”

The man checked with his partner, then mumbled, “Sorry, doc. I can't kick anyone out without Dr. Pauling's say-so.”

Dr. Franks's cheeks paled. For a second, maybe less, I actually felt sorry for him.

“Come with me,” the man said.

Me and Mama scurried after him, afraid of getting lost. Dr. Franks delayed for as long as he could, then, grudgingly, clomped after us. If he wanted Dr. Pauling to hear his side of the story, he had no choice but to follow.

The man led us through the labyrinth like a bloodhound on the scent. He never paused to get his bearings or even check his nose. His partner hemmed us in, probably to keep us from exploring.

Eventually, we arrived at an unfamiliar elevator. It smelled like pencil shavings, which reminded me of Daniel. He'd once drawn a dragon for me on the back of an old napkin, with two ketchup spots for eyes. The napkin was still tucked inside my sock drawer (along with my favorite seashell and a two-dollar bill that Grandpa Willy had passed down to me).

No one dared to speak as the elevator rattled upward. When the door opened again, I raised a hand to shield my eyes, since this floor was much brighter than the ones below it. Maybe Mother Nature had come up here to hide.

The man knocked on a door, then turned the shiny knob, revealing a small lobby with an even smaller desk. The room wasn't as fancy—after all, the doors had
knobs
—but the tulips made it friendlier. It only had one other door, which was firmly shut.

The secretary eyed us intently as the man explained the situation, but instead of pumping us for details, she invited us to sit. I was the only one who did, though I couldn't have said why. I thought the chairs looked comfy, and there really was no telling how long we'd have to wait.

But I'd barely gotten settled when another man opened the second door. “What is it?” he demanded. His suit was brown, not black, but he looked too young to be the man from the portrait.

“Three visitors for Dr. Pauling,” the secretary said.

“Dr. Pauling isn't taking visitors.”

“He'll want to take these ones.”

The man sighed. “Very well. But if this is another singing telegram, we might just have to fire you.”

I took that as my cue to barge into the room, which turned out to be a disappointment. I'd expected a smart office, with floor-to-ceiling bookcases and maybe a telescope, but except for a few men and a funny-looking model, it was perfectly empty.

“Dr. Pauling?” I asked.

One of the men looked up from the model. “Yes?” His nose was big and bulbous, and little tufts of hair were sprouting from his ears.

I folded my arms across my chest. “You have my cousin, and we want him back.”

“Your cousin?” Dr. Pauling asked.

I felt my cheeks redden. “Well, that was who he was supposed to be.”

Mama cleared her throat. “What my daughter means is that there's a boy downstairs whose well-being we feel liable for.”

I didn't know what “liable” meant, but Dr. Pauling clearly did, because he straightened up.

“He's been involved in an experiment,” Mama went on. “But the experiment's over now, and Dr. Franks won't let him go.”

Dr. Pauling raised his eyebrows. “Victor, care to explain?”

Dr. Franks waved that off. “They're obviously exaggerating,” he said, but even though he sounded sure, his almost-trembling knees betrayed him.

Dr. Pauling rubbed his jaw, then motioned us into the room. “Close the door,” he said, and the man in the brown suit closed it.

We arranged ourselves into a crooked line, with Dr. Franks on my left side and Mama on my right. The men looked us up and down, some with interest, some with the same unconcealed contempt Miss Fightmaster reserved for troublemakers and Charles Darwin. Still, I didn't look away. If I looked away, they might decide I wasn't serious, and I was as serious as sin.

“Now,” Dr. Pauling said, making himself comfortable (or as comfortable as you could make yourself in a room without a chair), “I'd like to hear this story one small detail at a time.”

Dr. Franks chuckled uneasily. “It is rather amusing.”

“I'm sure it is,” he said. “But I'd like to hear it from the girl.”

I resisted the urge to stick my tongue out. “Well, the whole thing started with Robby.”

“Who's Robby?” Dr. Pauling asked.

“My cousin,” I replied. “Except the experiment didn't go like Dr. Franks thought it would.”

“Do they ever?” he asked, smiling.

The other men snickered, except for Dr. Franks. He rocked back and forth like he had to use the bathroom.

“Anyway,” I said, “we have this Japanese man now, but Dr. Franks decided that we can't take him home.”

Dr. Pauling rubbed his eyes. “A Japanese man? Where'd
he
come from?”

“Forgive the intrusion,” Dr. Franks cut in, “but I don't think this line of questioning is strictly necessary—”

“Victor,” Dr. Pauling said, “as I already told you, I want to hear this from the girl.” He returned his attention to me. “So where did he come from, this Japanese man?”

“I don't know,” I said. “Japan?”

The other men snickered again, like I'd said something funny. Scientists were peculiar folks.

“Excuse me,” Mama said, “but we just want to know if he can hold the boy indefinitely.”

“Of course not,” Dr. Pauling said. “The Institute's not in the habit of incarcerating volunteers.” He arched an eyebrow at me. “But how do you know this Japanese man wants to go home with you?”

I thought back on those times when we locked eyes through the window. “I don't know,” I admitted. “But I know
I
want to take him, and it seems like that should count.”

This time, no one snickered. Dr. Pauling rubbed his jaw again and studied the model. At first, it had reminded me of a spiral staircase, but the more I stared at it, the more I decided that it looked like an exotic flower.

Finally, he glanced at Mama. “You support this rescue mission?”

Mama nodded. “Absolutely.”

Then he glanced at Dr. Franks. “And they signed the standard contract?”

Dr. Franks harrumphed. “Well, Mrs. Clausen did.”

“Who's Mrs. Clausen?” Dr. Pauling asked, then swiftly shook his head. “Oh, never mind. Don't tell me. I probably don't want to know.”

I snorted. “You're not kiddin'.”

Dr. Pauling mopped his forehead with an off-white handkerchief. “It sounds like we have no choice.”

Dr. Franks nearly leaped out of his lab coat. “Well, of course we have a choice! We can't concede the race to James and Francis!”

“We're not conceding
anything.
” Dr. Pauling gripped his shoulder. “Certainly your line of research isn't dependent on one subject.”

Dr. Franks started to answer, then changed his mind at the last second.

“You see? Things will work out.” Dr. Pauling glanced at me. “Was there anything else?”

I shook my head. “We're good.”

He held out his hand. “It's been a pleasure doing business.”

I grinned as I said, “Likewise.”

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