“I backed out of the house, away from the flames, and just as I went out the door I saw the stairs inside start to go up like a torch.” He fell silent.
Jan occupied herself for a few moments in looking thoughtful. Then she asked encouragingly: “There’s more?”
“A little more. Yes. The neighbor lady, who had been running across the yard to keep me from going into the house? Well, she was still running across the yard when I came out. She ran up to me and grabbed me a moment later, and pulled me back farther from the burning house.
“She said: ‘Where’s your mother?’ and I said: ‘She isn’t home.’ Later, quite a long time later, someone asked me how I’d known that. I don’t remember what I answered.”
Frowning lightly, Jan asked an unexpected question. “How big were these yards? I mean specifically the one the lady was running across.”
“Not all that big. I couldn’t possibly have had time to go inside, and search the entire house, and come running out of it again before the neighbor lady arrived on our doorstep. And yet that’s exactly what I did. As I remember it.”
Jan’s smile was conspiratorial, but it looked honest. “And now there are two of us who know you did.”
Coming out of the Italian restaurant some indeterminate time later, emerging into the mild spring night, Jerry had put strange memories out of his mind. He felt suddenly inspired to burst into song, if only in a muted way.
But after singing only a few words he came to a sudden stop. “What’re we going to do tomorrow? But never mind that, what’re we going to do now?” He felt enthusiastic, ready to explore new worlds. Had he had too much to drink? No, hardly that. Not really. Just one martini and a little wine.
” ‘Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,’ ” Jan quoted brightly, ” ‘creeps in this petty pace from day to day—’ ”
“You’re quoting again. You definitely have a habit of doing that.”
“When one works constantly with Dr. Pilgrim, one tends to get into the habit.” Jan gave no sign of having been at all affected by the wine she had consumed.
“I suppose one might do that, if one has any stock of quotations at all upon which to draw. Of course if one is studying for a degree in computer science, and trying to hold down a job at the same time, one hasn’t had time to read all those books that one is supposed to read.”
Dr. Pilgrim’s assistant shook her head, sighing tolerantly. Somehow she and Jerry had come to be holding hands as they strolled the city street. There were only a few passers-by. Spring moths swarmed the brilliant street lamps.
“This is a bank building,” said Jan suddenly, tugging at Jerry’s hand, bringing him almost to a stop in front of what was indubitably a bank. “Springfield has little banks. Chicago has big ones where you can find what you need no matter what. If you really need a bank, Jerry, I think a man in your situation should look for one in Chicago. Remember that.”
“Is that Walt Whitman too? Or I suppose Lincoln recommended Chicago banks.”
“Lincoln had some interesting ideas on banking. But that’s beside the point.”
“Jan.” Now Jerry did come to a full stop. “Did you have a whole lot more to drink than I did, or what?”
“Oh no. Oh, no, no, no.” She was vastly, but apparently soberly, amused.
“Then I don’t get it. What you were saying about the banks. There must have been something I missed, or…”
“Don’t worry about it now. Maybe someday you’ll want to remember it.” She smiled as if she were pleased with him.
Whatever. They strolled on. “Jan, what’re we going to do tomorrow, really? I don’t want to screw up my chances for this job, I think I’ll like it. I mean even apart from the financial… Hey, Pilgrim was going to see us again tonight, isn’t that what he said?”
“Yes, I think he will.”
“Do you think I’m too drunk to see the boss tonight? I am feeling a little light-headed.”
“Not this once,” she assured him, taking his hand again. “This once it will be perfectly all right.”
“At least I don’t have t’drive anywhere tonight. And there’s no hurry, is there? It’s days and days before I have to get back to Chicago.” He paused to glare sympathetically at the silhouette of the Great Emancipator, here confined to a window as part of his twentieth-century career in advertising.
“We’ll do our best to keep you busy.”
“I bet you will.”
“Look,” said Jan, looking ahead herself and gesturing lightly in that direction.
About five parking spaces ahead of them, nestled up to the metered curb, was the unmarked Foundation van. Dr. Pilgrim was in it, or at least most of him was, for he was sticking his dark curly head out of one of the side windows. A moment later he had slid quickly from the vehicle and was approaching on foot.
To Jerry’s relief, the boss looked reassuringly tolerant of his employees’ condition. Maybe, Jerry thought hopefully, he and Jan didn’t look as intoxicated as he was beginning to feel. He really didn’t deserve to feel like this, he hadn’t taken that much wine…
Pilgrim appeared almost but not quite ready to join them in their revelry. “Some people here who would like to talk to you, Jerry,” he said, after a quick exchange of looks with Jan. “One more little item to be taken care of before you retire to a well-earned rest. Are you game for one more small adventure? But of course you are.”
“Some people?” asked Jerry. “Who?”
“My backers. You have already spoken with one of them, this most attractive lady, on the phone.” Pilgrim was holding open the side door of the van for Jerry to get in. “The gentleman is Mr. Helpman.” At least the name sounded like that to Jerry.
Jerry got in, taking the nearest empty seat, a captain’s chair approximately amidships. In the chair beside his own there waited a youthful-looking lady he had never seen before, a well-proportioned and well-dressed lady who looked as if she would be tall when she stood up, and who was definitely attractive, though her face just now was mainly in shadow. Meanwhile from one of the seats in the far rear a black man of indeterminate age, well-dressed in suit and tie, was looking at Jerry with an air of hope.
Pilgrim, still outside on the sidewalk, slid shut the door through which Jerry had gone aboard, leaving him in the van with the two strangers. At the same time the lady at his side asked him: “How are they treating you so far?”
“All right. Fine.” Then he scowled at his questioner. “Excuse me, but who are you?'”
“My name is Olivia. You spoke with me on the phone.”
“Yeah. I thought I could recognize your voice. But I still don’t understand—”
“All will be explained to you eventually. Provided—” Olivia sighed. It was a worried sound, or maybe she was only tired. “Have they talked to you about going on a trip?” In the back seat Mr. Helpman nodded silently, seconding the question.
“Trip? No, I understood that we were going to be working here around Springfield.” Jerry noted with satisfaction that he was still capable of plain, coherent speech.
“Fine. That’s fine.” Olivia swiveled her chair, turning her back to confer with Helpman momentarily, in whispers so low that Jerry could not hear them.
Then she faced Jerry again. “You may tell Dr. Pilgrim that his project has my provisional approval. And good luck to you.” With a last hard-to-interpret look at Jerry, and a quick decisive movement, the lady called Olivia opened the door on the street side and got out. Helpman followed her quickly, slamming the door behind him.
For a few moments Jerry, feeling befuddled, had the whole interior of the van to himself. He supposed he might have been able to use the time to good advantage, thinking, if he had known where to start. But the whole business was so—
—and then Pilgrim and Jan were back, piling into the van, Jan taking the captain’s chair where Olivia had been, while Pilgrim settled himself in the driver’s seat.
They were both looking at Jerry with concern. “Well?” Pilgrim demanded.
“Well, she said to tell you that whatever you’re doing has her provisional approval. Is she your banker, maybe?”
Pilgrim, relieved by the message, nodded with an odd smile. “In a manner of speaking she is.” He faced forward and got the engine started.
“I can walk back to the hotel from here,” said Jerry.
Jan, having taken Olivia’s place in the luxurious armchair beside him, shook her head. She said: “There’s just one more thing we’d like to show you tonight.”