Sirens Of Titan Part 5

Constant was flying his own helicopter, since all his servants had quit the night before. Constant was flying it badly. He set it down with a crash that sent shivers through the building.

He was arriving for a conference with Ransom K. Fern, President of Magnum Opus.

Fern waited for Constant on the thirty-first floor- a single, vast room that was Constant's office.

The office was spookily furnished, since none of the furniture had legs. Everything was suspended magnetically at the proper height. The tables and the desk and the bar and the couches were floating slabs. The chairs were tilted, floating bowls. And most eerie of all, pencils and pads were scattered at random through the air, ready to be s.n.a.t.c.hed by anyone who had an idea worth writing down.

The carpet was as green as gra.s.s for the simple reason that it was gra.s.s- living gra.s.s as lush as any putting green.

Malachi Constant sank from the heliport deck to his office in a private elevator. When the elevator door whispered open, Constant was startled by the legless furnishings, by the floating pencils and pads. He had not been in his office for eight weeks. Somebody had refurnished the place.

Ransom K. Fern, aging President of Magnum Opus, stood at a floor-to-ceiling window, looking out over the city. He wore his black Homburg hat and his black Chesterfield coat. He carried his whangee walking stick at port arms. He was exceedingly thin- always had been.

"A b.u.t.t like two beebees," Malachi Constant's father Noel had said of Fern. "Ransom K. Fern is like a camel who has burned up both his humps, and now he's burning up everything else but his hair and eye-b.a.l.l.s."

According to figures released by the Bureau of Internal Revenue, Fern was the highest-paid executive in the country. He had a salary of a flat million dollars a year- plus stock-option plans and cost-of-living adjustments.

He had joined Magnum Opus when he was twenty-two years old. He was sixty now.

"Some- somebody's changed all the furniture," said Constant.

"Yes," said Fern, still looking out over the city, "somebody changed it."

"You?" said Constant.

Fern sniffed, took his time about answering. "I thought we ought to demonstrate our loyalty to some of our own products."

"I- I never saw anything like it," said Constant. "No legs- just floating in air."

"Magnetism, you know," said Fern.

"Why- why I think it looks wonderful, now that I'm getting used to it," said Constant. "And some company we own makes this stuff?"

"American Levitation Company," said Fern. "You said to buy it, so we bought it."

Ransom K. Fern turned away from the window. His face was a troubling combination of youth and age. There was no sign in the face of any intermediate stages in the aging process, no hint of the man of thirty or forty or fifty who had been left behind. Only adolescence and the age of sixty were represented. It was as though a seventeen-year-old had been withered and bleached by a blast of heat.

Fern read two books a day. It has been said that Aristotle was the last man to be familiar with the whole of his own culture. Ransom K. Fern had made an impressive attempt to equal Aristotle's achievement. He had been somewhat less successful than Aristotle in perceiving patterns in what he knew.

The intellectual mountain had labored to produce a philosophical mouse- and Fern was the first to admit that it was a mouse, and a mangy mouse at that. As Fern expressed the philosophy conversationally, in its simplest terms: "You go up to a man, and you say, 'How are things going, Joe?' And he says, 'Oh, fine, fine- couldn't be better.' And you look into his eyes, and you see things really couldn't be much worse. When you get right down to it, everybody's having a perfectly lousy time of it, and I mean everybody. And the h.e.l.l of it is, nothing seems to help much."

This philosophy did not sadden him. It did not make him brood.

It made him heartlessly watchful.

It helped in business, too- for it let Fern a.s.sume automatically that the other fellow was far weaker and far more bored than he seemed.

Sometimes, too, people with strong stomachs found Fern's murmured asides funny.

His situation, working for Noel Constant and then Malachi, conspired nicely to make almost anything he might say bitterly funny- for he was superior to Constant pere pere and and fils fils in every respect but one, and the respect excepted was the only one that really mattered. The Constants- ignorant, vulgar, and brash- had copious quant.i.ties of dumb luck. in every respect but one, and the respect excepted was the only one that really mattered. The Constants- ignorant, vulgar, and brash- had copious quant.i.ties of dumb luck.

Or had had up to now.

Malachi Constant had still to get it through his head that his luck was gone- every bit of it. He had still to get it through his head, despite the hideous news Fern had given him on the telephone.

"Gee," said Constant ingenuously, "the more I look at this furniture, the more I like it. This stuff should sell like hotcakes." There was something pathetic and repellent about Malachi Constant's talking business. It had been the same with his father. Old Noel Constant had never known anything about business, and neither had his son- and what little charm the Constants had evaporated the instant they pretended that their successes depended on their knowing their elbows from third base.

There was something obscene about a billionaire's being optimistic and aggressive and cunning.

"If you ask me," said Constant, "that was a pretty sound investment- a company that makes furniture like this."

"United Hotcake preferred," said Fern. United Hotcake preferred was a favorite joke of his. Whenever people came to him, begging for investment advice that would double their money in six weeks, he advised them gravely to invest in this fict.i.tious stock. Some people actually tried to follow his advice.

"Sitting on an American Levitation couch is harder than standing up in a birchbark canoe," said Fern dryly. "Throw yourself into one of these so-called chairs, and it will bounce you off the wall like a stone out of a slingshot. Sit on the edge of your desk, and it will waltz you around the room like a Wright brother at Kitty Hawk."

Constant touched his desk ever so lightly. It shuddered nervously.

"Well- they still haven't got all of the bugs out of it, that's all," said Constant.

"Truer words were never spoken," said Fern.

Constant now made a plea that he had never had to make before. "A guy is ent.i.tled to a mistake now and then," he said.

"Now and then?" said Fern, raising his eyebrows. "For three months you have made nothing but wrong decisions, and you've done what I would have said was impossible. You've succeeded in more than wiping out the results of almost forty years of inspired guessing."

Ransom K. Fern took a pencil from the air and broke it in two. "Magnum Opus is no more. You and I are the last two people in the building. Everyone else has been paid off and sent home."

He bowed and moved toward the door. "The switchboard has been arranged so that all incoming calls will come directly to your desk here. And when you leave, Mr. Constant, sir, remember to turn out the lights and lock the front door."

A history of Magnum Opus, Inc., is perhaps in order at this point.

Magnum Opus began as an idea in the head of a Yankee traveling salesman of copper-bottomed cook-ware. That Yankee was Noel Constant, a native of New Bedford, Ma.s.sachusetts. He was the father of Malachi.

The father of Noel, in turn, was Sylva.n.u.s Constant, a loom fixer in the New Bedford Mills of the Nattaweena Division of the Grand Republic Woolen Company. He was an anarchist, though he never got into any trouble about it, except with his wife.

The family could trace its line back through an illegitimacy to Benjamin Constant, who was a tribune under Napoleon from 1799 to 1801, and a lover of Anne Louise Germaine Necker, Baronne de Stael-Holstein, wife of the then Swedish amba.s.sador to France.

One night in Los Angeles, at any rate, Noel Constant got it into his head to become a speculator. He was thirty-nine at the time, single, physically and morally unattractive, and a business failure. The idea of becoming a speculator came to him as he sat all alone on a narrow bed in Room 223 of the Wilburhampton Hotel.

The most valuable corporate structure ever to be owned by one man could not have had humbler headquarters in the beginning. Room 223 of the Wilburhampton was eleven feet long and eight feet wide, and had neither telephone nor desk.

What it did have was a bed, a three-drawer dresser, old newspapers lining the drawers, and, in the bottom drawer, a Gideon Bible. The newspaper page that lined the middle drawer was a page of stock-market quotations from fourteen years before.

There is a riddle about a man who is locked in a room with nothing but a bed and a calendar, and the question is: How does he survive?

The answer is: He eats dates from the calendar and drinks water from the springs of the bed.

This comes very close to describing the genesis of Magnum Opus. The materials with which Noel Constant built his fortune were hardly more nourishing in themselves than calendar dates and bedsprings.

Magnum Opus was built with a pen, a check book, some check-sized Government envelopes, a Gideon Bible, and a bank balance of eight thousand, two hundred and twelve dollars.

The bank balance was Noel Constant's share in the estate of his anarchist father. The estate had consisted princ.i.p.ally of Government bonds.

And Noel Constant had an investment program. It was simplicity itself. The Bible would be his investment counselor.

There are those who have concluded, after studying Noel Constant's investment pattern, that he was either a genius or had a superb system of industrial spies.

He invariably picked the stock market's most brilliant performers days or hours before their performances began. In twelve months, rarely leaving Room 223 in the Wilburhampton Hotel, he increased his fortune to a million and a quarter.

Noel Constant did it without genius and without spies.

His system was so idiotically simple that some people can't understand it, no matter how often it is explained. The people who can't understand it are people who have to believe, for their own peace of mind, that tremendous wealth can be produced only by tremendous cleverness.

This was Noel Constant's system: He took the Gideon Bible that was in his room, and he started with the first sentence in Genesis.

The first sentence in Genesis, as some people may know, is: "In the beginning G.o.d created the heaven and the earth." Noel Constant wrote the sentence in capitalletters, put periods between the letters, divided the letters into pairs, rendering the sentence as follows: "I.N., T.H., E.B., E.G., I.N., N.I., N.G., G.O., D.C., R.E., A.T., E.D., T.H., E.H., E.A., V.E., N.A., N.D., T.H., E.E., A.R., T.H."

And then he looked for corporations with those initials, and bought shares in them. His rule at the beginning was that he would own shares in only one corporation at a time, would invest his whole nest-egg in it, and would sell the instant the value of his shares had doubled.

His very first investment was International Nitrate. After that came Trowbridge Helicopter, Electra Bakeries, Eternity Granite, Indiana Novelty, Norwich Iron, National Gelatin, Granada Oil, Del-Mar Creations, Richmond Electroplating, Anderson Trailer, and Eagle Duplicating.

His program for the next twelve months was this: Trowbridge Helicopter again, ELCO Hoist, Engineering a.s.sociates, Vickery Electronics, National Alum, National Dredging, Trowbridge Helicopter again.

The third time he bought Trowbridge Helicopter, he didn't buy a piece of it. He bought the whole thing- lock, stock, and barrel.

Two days after that, the company landed a long-term Government contract for intercontinental ballistic missiles, a contract that made the company worth, conservatively, fifty-nine million dollars. Noel Constant had bought the company for twenty-two million.

The only executive decision he ever made relative to the company was contained in an order written on a picture postcard of the Wilburhampton Hotel. The card was addressed to the president of the company, telling him to change the name of the company to Galactic s.p.a.cecraft, Inc., since the company had long since outgrown both Trowbridges and helicopters.

Small as this exercise of authority was, it was significant, for it showed that Constant had at last become interested in something he owned. And, though his holdings in the firm had more than doubled in value, he did not sell them all. He sold only forty-nine per cent of them.

Thereafter, he continued to take the advice of his Gideon Bible, but he kept big pieces of any firm he really liked.

During his first two years in Room 223 of the Wilburhampton, Noel Constant had only one visitor. That visitor did not know he was rich. His one visitor was a chambermaid named Florence Whitehill, who spent one night out of ten with him for a small, flat fee.

Florence, like everyone else in the Wilburhampton, believed him when he said he was a trader in stamps. Personal hygiene was not Noel Constant's strongest suit. It was easy to believe that his work brought him into regular contact with mucilage.

The only people who knew how rich he was were employees of the Bureau of Internal Revenue and of the august accounting firm of Clough and Higgins.

Then, after two years, Noel Constant received his second visitor in Room 223.

The second visitor was a thin and watchful blue-eyed man of twenty-two. He engaged Noel Constant's serious attention by announcing that he was from the United States Bureau of Internal Revenue.

Constant invited the young man into his room, motioned for him to sit on the bed. He himself remained standing.

"They sent a child, did they?" said Noel Constant.

The visitor was not offended. He turned the gibe to his own advantage, using it in an image of himself that was chilling indeed. "A child with a heart of stone and a mind as quick as a mongoose, Mr. Constant," he said. "I have also been to Harvard Business School."

"That may be so," said Constant, "but I don't think you can hurt me. I don't owe the Federal Government a dime."

The callow visitor nodded. "I know," he said. "I found everything in apple-pie order."

The young man looked around the room. He wasn't surprised by its squalor. He was worldly enough to have expected something diseased.

"I've been over your income-tax reports for the past two years," he said, "and, by my calculations, you are the luckiest man who ever lived."

"Lucky?" said Noel Constant.

"I think so," said the young visitor. "Don't you you think so? For instance- what does ELCO Hoist Company manufacture?" think so? For instance- what does ELCO Hoist Company manufacture?"

"ELCO Hoist?" said Noel Constant blankly.

"You owned fifty-three per cent of it for a period of two months," said the young visitor.

"Why- hoists- things for lifting various articles," said Noel Constant stuffily. "And various allied products."

The young visitor's smile made cat's whiskers under his nose. "For your information," he said, "ELCO Hoist Company was a name given by the Government in the last war to a top-secret laboratory that was developing underwater listening gear. After the war, it was sold to private enterprise, and the name was never changed- since the work was still top secret, and the only customer was still the Government.

"Suppose you tell me," said the young visitor, "what it was you learned about Indiana Novelty that made you think it was a shrewd investment? Did you think they made little party poppers with paper hats inside?"

"I have to answer these questions for the Bureau of Internal Revenue?" said Noel Constant. "I have to describe every company I owned in detail, or I can't keep the money?"

"I was simply asking for my own curiosity. From your reaction, I gather that you haven't the remotest idea what Indiana Novelty does. For your information, Indiana Novelty manufactures nothing, but holds certain key patents on tire-recapping machinery."

"Suppose we get down to the Bureau of Internal Revenue business," said Noel Constant curtly.

"I'm no longer with the Bureau," said the young visitor. "I resigned my one hundred-and-fourteen-dollar-a-week job this morning in order to take a job making two thousand dollars a week."

"Working for whom?" said Noel Constant.

"Working for you," said the young man. He stood, held out his hand. "Ransom K. Fern is the name," he said.

"I had a professor in the Harvard Business School," said young Fern to Noel Constant, "who kept telling me that I was smart, but that I would have to fina my boy fina my boy, if I was going to be rich. He wouldn't explain what he meant. he said I would catch on sooner or later. I asked him how I could go looking for my boy, and he suggested that I work for the Bureau of Internal Revenue for a year or so.

"When I went over your tax returns, Mr. Constant, it suddenly came to me what it was he meant. He meant I was shrewd and thorough, but I wasn't remarkably lucky. I had to find somebody who had luck in an astonishing degree- and so I have."

"Why should I pay you two thousand dollars a week?" said Noel Constant. "You see my facilities and my staff here, and you know what I've done with them."

"Yes-" said Fern, "and I can show you where you should have made two hundred million where you made only fifty-nine. You know absolutely nothing about corporate law or tax law- or even commonsense business procedure."

Fern thereupon proved this to Noel Constant, father of Malachi- and Fern showed him an organizational plan that had the name Magnum Opus, Incorporated. It was a marvelous engine for doing violence to the spirit of thousands of laws without actually running afoul of so much as a city ordinance.

Noel Constant was so impressed by this monument to hypocrisy and sharp practice that he wanted to buy stock in it without even referring to his Bible.

"Mr. Constant, sir," said young Fern, "don't you understand? Magnum Opus is you, with you as chairman of the board, with me as president.

"Mr. Constant," he said, "right now you're as easy for the Bureau of Internal Revenue to watch as a man on a street corner selling apples and pears. But just imagine how hard you would be to watch if you had a whole office building jammed to the rafters with industrial bureaucrats- men who lose things and use the wrong forms and create new forms and demand everything in quintuplicate, and who understand perhaps a third of what is said to them; who habitually give misleading answers in order to gain time in which to think, who make decisions only when forced to, and who then cover their tracks; who make perfectly honest mistakes in addition and subtraction, who call meetings whenever they feel lonely, who write memos whenever they feel unloved; men who never throw anything away unless they think it could get them fired. A single industrial bureaucrat, if he is sufficiently vital and nervous, should be able to create a ton of meaningless papers a year for the Bureau of Internal Revenue to examine. In the Magnum Opus Building, we will have thousands of them! And you and I can have the top two stories, and you can go on keeping track of what's really going on the way you do now." He looked around the room. "How do you keep track now, by the way- writing with a burnt match on the margins of a telephone directory?"

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