The Design

A short story by John Sladek

ANDREWS is to write a biography of Bruggs, the famous designer of bridges. Logically, the place to start would be with Oursler, a sociologist who was his best friend at school. But some quarrel in their youth made Oursler leave engineering, and estranged the two men for life. Andrews is reluctant to approach Oursler and puts off interviewing him.
    Instead he speaks to Bruggs’ secretary, Priscilla, and to his aide, Chandler. Was the bachelor Bruggs intimate with his pretty secretary? No, he never made a pass, but he did act astonishingly jealous. Once, because she gave Chandler a small gift Bruggs beat him and threw him down a flight of stairs.
    The gift meant only that Priscilla felt sorry for poor Chandler, whose wife had cuckolded him with a middle-aged man named Rent. Doris Chandler flaunted her affair before her husband for over a year, then finally went to live with Rent in Switzerland. On a hunch, Andrews goes to see them, hoping they can clear up the rumored connection of Bruggs with a gambling czar named Gordon.
    Rent is an old, withered person whose only living heir is his stepson, Reverend Queen. Queen finds it scandalous that his stepfather should be suspected, as he is, of murdering the Zurich banker, Straud.
    Doris now works for a Swiss lawyer named Enderby, who is also a suspect in the Straud case. Enderby is the mentor and kindly advisor of still a third suspect the youthful and homosexual Trell. The lawyer visits him daily.
     Interviewing Trell, Andrews learns that Enderby has been using his visits to the young man to see Trell’s sister Fran. It is evident that Enderby loves her, yet, perhaps because he is her brother’s legal guardian, he does not declare it.
    Andrews learns more of Fran from her close friend and confidant the mannish actress, Victoria Staton. While admitting she had once a lesbian flirtation with Fran’s sister Ursula, “Victorio”, as she calls herself, protests she has only platonic regard for Fran herself.
    Fran is now deep in debt to Gordon, head of the gambling syndicate. Victoria has already made one unsuccessful attempt to assassinate him. Now he is in Paris, trying to persuade one Irma Hathaway to become his mistress. Andrews finds him.
    Gordon says little of the others, but denies he wants Irma Hathaway for a mistress. He wants only to find out more about her; is she, like Victoria, a British spy? Assisting him is the woman he loves, Hera, who is spying on Irma, posing as a maid.
    Back in Switzerland, Andrews learns that Irma is indeed an agent but she is working for the American, Johnson. He phones Johnson, who invites him over for the weekend.
    Ursula is present and Johnson informs everyone that he is her real father. Now he feigns homosexuality, flirting with the young Russian Ursula loves, Yoniski. Yoniski has brought along his sister Kathia, and when he fails with the brother, Johnson pretends passion for this armless girl. No one is fooled by Johnson, and finally he tells the truth­ that he is married to Victoria Staton, and loves her.
    Kathia and her brother have come to Switzerland with their father, the well-known physicist Xerov, who believes he has cancer. He wishes to consult the popular specialist, Linder.
    Unannounced, Dr. Linder appears, full of good humor and anecdotes. Some days past. he says, he was approached by a man named Menkov, a secret police agent who had trailed Xerov from Moscow and lost him at the airport in Berne. He suspected Linder “knew Xerov’s whereabouts. and offered a considerable bribe for the information.
Ironically, Xerov is quite well physically, though “neurotic squared” says Dr. Linder. “Neurotic cubed”. But it is Menkov who has the cancer. Linder persuaded him to try surgery, and now Menkov is in the local hospital. only three rooms (though he doesn’t know it) from the malingering Xerov.
    To Andrews. Menkov confesses he has become the protector of a young girl named Wendy, an orphan who has also become a suspect in the Straud murder. He brought up the child under great difficulty, being utterly ignored by his wealthy cousin in London Nora Chamberlin. Nora detests children and animals. but likes machines. Her only friend. as far as Menkov knows. is Priscilla. Bruggs’ secretary.
   In London. Andrews meets Nora. a great red-faced angry woman who once had a barroom brawl with Rent’s heir. young Reverend Queen. Nora is now engaged in suing Priscilla for “alienation of Bruggs’ affections”, though she has never commanded them. She refuses to talk any more to Andrews. or to anyone but her friend. Oursler.

   Andrews realizes he must rely on the sociologist’s information.  He telephones Priscilla and asks if she would like to go with him to see Oursler. but she wants no contact with any enemy of Bruggs. Finally Andrews calls Oursler. who promises to come to see him the same evening.
    The evening newspaper contains another turn of the screw: Xerov. against the protests of his son. invites little Wendy to visit him in the hospital. He locks his son in a closet and tries to rape the orphan. but Wendy is saved by Reverend Queen. Now Xerov and Yoniski have been added to the list of the suspected murderers of Straud.
   Who killed Straud? There are no clues to the stabbing, and each of the six suspects. (Enderby, Rent. Wendy, Xerov. Yoniski and Trell) has plenty of motive and opportunity. In trying to puzzle it out on a piece of paper. Andrews comes up with an interesting diagram of the relationships of the people he has met. It looks like a bridge, with missing braces:

Buy Ambit 35 for the diagram.

   DS seems to indicate that Doris is yet another suspect for Straud’s deat, so Andrews
adds that brace.
   Oursler comes into the room. notices the paper on the desk. and laughs. “It was not a good design,” he says. “but it was mine. Bruggs stole it from me, back in engineering school, fifty years ago. Now I have it back.”
   He takes a gun from his pocket, hesitates, then shoots Andrews. Andrews tries to
speak the name of this ex-wife, Hera, but no sound comes. He dies. Oursler draws OA.

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