Part III.

17 Feb

Recovery came rapidly to the injured one. He returned to his flat within a week and a half. Frequent visits to doctors were necessary, but he continually improved. No permanent scars remained. He became an active individual once again. But there was a traumatic memory left in his mind.

Phot went to police headquarters on Bowery Street, but was unable to identify his assailants in the mug books of photos. He looked through them in vain. None of the images of criminals rang a bell with him. No identification at all was possible.

The lawyer began his work at the Meun works, learning the ins and outs of both the company office and the production plant. Everyone in the firm was amazed at his diligence and dedication. He proved himself a quick study in all areas. Nothing seemed beyond his interest or desire to master. His interest in the work being done was insatiable. He absorbed everything with eagerness.

One day in autumn Kimon showed him a letter from the archfoe, Nestro Terion. “This is a challenge to a tournament of motorcycle racing at the new Rubber City Motordrome. One team is to race on their tires, the other on ours.”

“What’s in it for the winners?”

“A prize of five thousand argentins for the triumphant team, and a fortune worth of publicity for the maker of the winning tires. The eyes of the entire country will be focused on the outcome of the contest. Victory can win the favor of the entire public.”

“Are you going to accept this dare, Kimon?”

“Do I have any alternative?” the latter grinned.

That answered the question. Preparations for the race began at once.

Over the years, Rubber City witnessed numerous incidents of conflict between the Phrixian majority and the growing population of Gefirs.

Street fights between groups of children evolved into organized sport rivalries. The Phrixian game of criquet quickly became a favorite with the youth of the minority. Various Gefir businesses acted as sponsors of teams. Associated leagues soon formed. The champions of competition within and among each ethnic group faced each other at the end of the annual playing season, standing for their own people and fighting for supremacy in the sport.

Rivalry between the pair spread into more and more areas of life. The top card-players in each community calculated how to defeat their foes in tournaments of poque, penuckle, pitch, cinch, and casino. Those who were able to beat the other nationality were regarded as worthy representatives. One of the most popular figures in Gefir society was a powerful wrestler who could never be defeated in the ring by any Phrixian competitor.

Complaints arose within the older majority stratum that too many persons of migrant origins were entering the university in Rubber City and working in the professions of law and medicine. An informally enforced quota system developed and was put into operation, limiting the educational opportunities available to the newcomers.

Phrixians set up special organizations to oppose and block Gefir advancement. The cultural assimilation of the minority group based on immigration occurred, yet relics of the transported language and folkways continued to exist in families and in social life.

Patriotic and nativist ideologies and philosophies became popular among those who feared both the advancement and the amalgamation of the Gefirs.

The rubber tire industry was not isolated from these social tensions and rivalries. Conflict was ever-present between the old population and the newcomers in this important part of the Rubber City economy.

It was cool fall weather when the chauffeur-driven brougham brought Phot Aiton and the two Meuns to the newly constructed indoor race track far out on Wilbeth Road near the edge of the city.

The gleaming metallic roof of the huge structure was visible in all directions. A large crowd was gathering to witness this battle between the two caucho-producing rivals. Who would end up being the motorcycle champion? the city asked itself. Which ethnic group would enjoy bragging rights once the winners were known?

The three took reserved seats immediately behind the servicing station assigned their own Gefir team. Far across the circular track, Terion and his people were visible preparing for the racing set to come. Each side was trying to appear unconcerned with the other. Ignoring the enemy seemed a useful strategy to each contending camp. Each group was acting as if only they and their supporters were present.

Kimon sat on one side of his daughter and Phot on the other, so that the two males had to talk to each other past her, sitting in the middle between them.

“I have seen with my own eyes how the motorcycle reached its present state of speed and reliability,” declared the manufacturer. “At first, there was complete variability as to where the engine was located. Some machines had it in front of the steering hand in order to drive the front wheel. Others had it attached to the downward tube beneath the hand, either in front of or behind it. On some, the pillar tube carried the engine. For a few, it was even located above the back wheel. The situation was a confused and varied one. There was no consistency or universality. Everyone constructed their motorcycle their own original way. It was all wild and disorganized.

“Only a few years ago was any general agreement reached that the best engine position was low on the frame, just in front of the pedal gears.

“Electrical ignition was an enormous step forward. So were chain transmission gears. But where would motorcycling be today without strong clincher tires? I am proud of the contributions our company has made to this major advancement. Many police departments across the country have sent me letters in praise of how our clincher tires stand up to the sudden needs that come up in the pursuit chases to catch fleeing criminals.

“Look at our Rubber City Police Force, for instance. Where do they purchase the majority of their tires for police cycles? Only a small number of orders ever go to Terion Rubber, usually to prevent them from making charges of favoritism. Everywhere, our tires outclass theirs on motorcycle wheels, especially those used by law-enforcers. We are the clear champions in this particular part of the industry.”

“The drivers appear ready to start soon, father,” interrupted Katina. “We shall soon see how our boys do against theirs.”

Engines were ignited, then roared as the excited riders revved them up. A line of cycles was formed. The white flag went up and mad competition commenced. From the first second, the race was close and bitter. One side was ahead for a time, then lost its lead to a vehicle of the opposite team. But then a quick reversal of positions occurred again. The balance of fortune shifted again and again, back and forth. The result was up in the air till the race came to an end.

Excitement rose, until the audience in the covered stands was frenzied and ecstatic with emotion. The big question in contention was not one of individual superiority, but of company and ethnic reputation. Someone that day was going to win a degree of moral and psychological ascendance over the other. Who was it to be? wondered the several thousand observers who were present. Excitement soared on all sides. There was to be an important contest on the race track this day.

Which maker of tires was to be the one honored with the prize of public fame? Who was going to leave with pride?

Around and around the track sped the vehicles with rising suspense over what the final outcome would be. The fever of the standing crowd exploded in the last several laps. Everyone present rose to their feet to witness the finish of the race. Emotions climbed to dizzying heights. The crowd appeared crazed by the spectacle they were witnessing in front of them.

The two fastest motorcycles seemed to cross the finish line simultaneously.

Several moments were needed for the judges to evaluate the photo shots of the dramatic ending.

“Meun is the winner!” went up a loud, deafening cry. This was repeated over and over. “Trion is the loser!” began a second common shout. Hysteria gripped the roaring audience. Many people rose and shouted.

Phot and Katina both looked at Kimon. Then Katina turned to the lawyer.

“I knew this was going to happen,” she smiled and laughed. “My father does not double deal like the other side does. Honesty will be victorious in the end. I have never doubted that, Phot. My confidence in him has received affirmation today.”

“I only wish that all our troubles with that bully, Nestro Terion, could be ended so smoothly,” said Phot Aiton with a sigh.

At the end of that year, Meun Rubber came out with an exciting innovation: the straight side tire.

Kimon explained it to the guests at a reception he held at the Garden Grille on Locust Street. Reporters from the “Rubber City Pilot” were present and taking detailed notes. Phot and Katina sat directly behind the head of the rubber company which had developed and patented the advanced tire.

Meun pointed to a model tire cut in half so that the inside chamber was visible to all those attending the presentation.

“Notice how different our new model is from any clincher tire now being produced in our industry. The walls of this new tire do not curve inward as all previous types do. This results in a lack of pinching on the inner tube. There will be much more air space here than in the old clinchers. And we have also developed a new safety rim to fit it, making this tire quickly and easily detachable from the vehicle. This is a completely dismountable rim, held in place by six conveniently detachable belts.

“The new safety rim has reversible flanges and can serve on any existing make of tire. An inflated spare tire can rapidly be mounted in case of mishap or puncturing. Everything is fast, easy, and convenient. Meun Rubber, of course, will generously provide for the leasing of the straight side tire to any other producer in the field, without favor or prejudice.”

Kimon took a seat and the gathered audience stepped up to inspect the strange-looking tire and wheel. They had never seen anything like it before.

“This will be revolutionary if it works,” said a conservative banker.

“There will be a need for larger plant facilities,” noted a stockbroker. “Think of the migration of new labor into the city and what it will mean for our economic growth. Industry in Rubber City will explode.”

Phot looked across at Kimon and thought he knew what he was thinking.

There would certainly be a mighty victory over Terion. That nemesis will have to beg for the right to make such straight sides. The fee charged him would be a high one, without doubt. There would be no mercy shown the evil bully of the rubber industry.

It was no wonder that the owner of the invention was beaming with joy that day.

It was a week later that Kimon told his vice-president and secretary a startling bit of news.

“Guess what? The mayor of Rubber City wishes to see me.”

“He has summoned you?”

“No, the man agrees to coming here to our office. I can only guess what it is that he wishes to discuss with me.”

Phot said nothing, since he realized his guess would be exactly the same as that of his employer.

The mayor, Clin Tisane, was a short, circular man of outgoing character who happened to be blind. His popularity with city voters had already given him five easy election victories. His voice was as sweet as that of a rossignol bird.

He arrived in his official automotive sedan. An aide guided the tubby man into the building, to the office of the company president.

Kimon had requested that Phot stay with him and set to memory all that might be said, proposed, or decided that day with the city official.

The mayor, in a heavy castor-wool storm coat, let his aide help take it off for him. He shook hands with Kimon, then with Phot. His smile was a constant, never disappearing for an instant.

The aide helped him to a large stuffed sofa chair especially brought in for the seating of the municipal magistrate.

Kimon took his own chair behind the quercus desk, while Phot sat in a plain aceran chair between the two principles. The aide stood behind his employer, as woodenly still as if he were not present at all.

“What can I do for you, Your Excellency?” began Meun most meekly.

The mayor cleared his throat with a grating sound, then spoke in a resoundingly loud tone.

“Our city is in grave peril. Rubber City is about to lose its biggest employer, unless action is taken at once. This has to do with the new species of tire that you have taken out a patent for.”

Tisane made himself as comfortable as he could, twitching about till he felt it right and proper to get down to business.

“This is it: Terion is going to shut down all his plants in the city and move his operations to a tropical land where he can get natural latex very cheaply and not have to contend with your patent for the new tire that is coming out. He claims that is the only way to avoid losses that will lead his company into bankruptcy. Your competitor is desperate and is willing to take a big gamble for the sake of business survival.

“The man told me all of this to my face, in my own office downtown in city hall. He held nothing back.”

A tense silence fell throughout the room.

“What is it you want me to do?” said the president of the company, lifting up his eyebrows.

“Let him use the invention for free.”

“For free?” gasped Kimon. “For nothing?”

“That is the only way he says that his enterprise can survive here in Rubber City. That way alone. There is no alternative, he argues.”

“He has argued with you, or you with him?”

The blind elected official, the incumbent mayor, nodded his dome-like head.

“He is adamant and refuses to budge from the demand for the patent.”

Kimon Meun made a sour face. “I must think about all you told me, sir. This is a very hard decision to make. It cannot be finalized in a minute or two. That is not at all possible.”

“Of course,” agreed Tisane in a soft tone of voice.

“Once I know what I intend to do, you shall be informed. For now, I cannot tell you anything more. I am most sorry, sir.”

“Thank you,” muttered the mayor as he lifted himself to his feet.

The aide took him by the hand and guided him out of the office.

Thinking, thinking, thinking. There was continuous, uninterrupted thinking in the office of the company president. At last, the latter summoned Phot to come in.

The two sat down, but neither spoke for a time. Finally, the older man announced what his decision was on the difficult subject facing them.

“Against my personal will, I have to surrender the patent to him. Otherwise, this city will suffer irreparable loss and misery.

“Can I allow thousands to starve on the street? Can I become the cause of untold suffering and decline? Since it is in my power to avert disaster, I would be guilty of moral treachery, of cowardice, should I refuse to do what I have the ability to accomplish.”

Phot’s face was now red. “But isn’t what Terion is doing nothing more than blackmail? He is saying that if he doesn’t receive the use of our tire free of cost, he is going to ruin the future of Rubber City?”

Kimon grimaced. “That cannot be helped. I am over a barrel, no doubt of that. All I can promise to myself and you is this: we will be revenged for this at some future point. The scoundrel will pay for this trick of his. Punishment for this deceit will surely fall on his sly head, believe me.”

“How shall we make Terion pay for this, sir?”

The green eyes of the manufacturer seemed to darken some.

“I don’t know and can’t say as of today. But that rascal will try something and then I will have him in a trap that he cannot escape. It is sure to happen because the character of Terion is unchangeable. It will finally cause him to fall. The man’s own greed will lead to his destruction.”

Phot had a sudden idea. “If you wish, I can go to City Hall and tell Mayor Tisane.”

“Thank you,” replied Kimon. “That is fine of you. I would appreciate such a favor greatly. It would save me from a humiliating circumstance. If you can, come to our house tonight and share supper with us. We always enjoy having you home, my son.”

“I shall be there, then,” said the other with a smile. “We can talk over our plans for the new tire plant on Exchange Street. My hope is that we can start on construction early next spring, sir.”

“Yes,” agreed the president of the company. “Once the winter is past, we can begin to expand. If a business does not grow, it stagnates and falls behind. Decline comes when things become too stolid and fixed. Progress and advancement are the principles we live by. Always remember that, Phot. This enterprise of ours must always be moving ahead. It is just like life itself. Move on or be replaced. There is no other way, is there?”

Phot grinned, signaling that he understood, and quietly left.

Outside, a heavy snow continued to fall. The streets of the city were clogged. Snow-plowing autotrucks were unable to keep up with the white storm. Rubber City was under attack from nature. It was an invasion of white.

Every winter saw many cases of the grippe in the city, but this year experienced exceptional dimensions of illness from the beginning of the season of viral infection. Never had Rubber City seen anything like it.

Doctors and hospitals treated a cascading number of sick individuals. Entire families came down with the contagion. In the schools of Rubber City there was lower and lower attendance, till many of them had to be closed for the winter. Coughing and sneezing became warning signals to those fearing the spreading infection. The municipal health commission started to take actions to protect the community. Articles on the growing epidemic appeared in the two dailies, “The Pilot” and “The Journal”. Falling appearance of workers at industrial plants cut production drastically. A general sense arose that something unprecedented was happening, something undefined and transforming. The city was in full panic. A state of disaster led to total community distress.

When Phot awoke from sleep with a stubbornly hacking cough, he knew that it was more than a common cold. He telephoned to the office and informed the staff that he was taking the day off to visit a doctor with a downtown office. Rather than take a tramcar, Phot trudged through the snow-packed streets and sidewalks to reach his destination. Why spread whatever it was he was carrying? the suffering cougher said to him.

The waiting room of the office was packed with ill patients. All were sneezing, coughing, grumbling, and breathing heavily. Realizing that there was no medicine a physician could prescribe to help his condition, Phot decided that he had made a mistake to come here in the cold and snow. So, he walked back to his flat on College Street. Sleep and rest would be his self-treatment method. No use in seeing any overburdened doctor. A couple days of rest would make him feel better. He would overcome these germs with time.

But that did not happen. The second day in bed, he realized that his lungs were now affected. The situation was growing ever more serious. His pain was continual and unending. Nature had not yet begun its own cure.

The third day, he went out into the street, now almost empty.

Buying some food items at a corner grocery, he grabbed a newspaper to learn what was happening. Most of the front page dealt with what was now called the Grippe Pandemic. This strange new illness had spread to all reaches of the country. It threatened to become planet-wide in time.

There had never been any comparable epidemic in history. Public authorities appeared almost helpless. Depression grew universal.

City Dispensary was packed and had closed its doors to any new patients. The other hospitals were expected to be in the same situation by nightfall. Mayor Tisone had ordered the Drummers’ Hotel in downtown Rubber City to be evacuated by guests and residents so that physicians could send seriously ill patients there. Squads of nurses were dispatched about to take care of grippe victims. No one remembered any similar emergencies.

An article by a biological specialist announced that everyone was completely baffled by this odd, unusual microbium that appeared to be causing the pandemic. Nothing like it had ever before been seen in anyone’s microscope. It was something terrifyingly unique. There was no known defense against it.

Panic was rising in the population. Many people were now starting to wear mouth masks in public places. The mayor was considering proposing an ordinance making such a practice mandatory. He was asking the medical community to give him advice on what to do next.

Over a third of the police force was unable to work or go on duty.

A knock sounded at the door to Phot’s flat. Who could it be?

He got up from bed and went into the sitting room to open it.

What a surprise it was for him to find Katina standing there.

She told him at once why she had come.

“Get a few clothes and come with me, the brougham and the driver are waiting on the street. You have to come home with me so care can be taken at once. No one is able to nurse themselves, Phot.”

The latter gasped for enough breath to speak.

“Thank you, thank you. But it isn’t necessary. I can get up and around. I’ve been caring for myself, so far. It is hard, but necessary.”

Katina looked troubled and shocked.

“I beg you to come with me,” she whispered. “Everything is at stake.”

The two stared at each other for a moment that seemed long to both of them. Then Phot began a series of uncontrollable coughs, each one more powerful than the previous one. On and on they proceeded, increasing in intensity.

When he was once again calmed down, he told her of his change of mind.

“Very well, I’ll be out in a minute,” the sick young man wheezed.

He managed to fill a suitcase quickly and soon left the flat with her.

They hurried to the vehicle outside and climbed inside.

When they arrived at the Meun residence, Phot was put to bed in the guest room that had been prepared for him by the house servants.

“Our family doctor will stop by to examine you this afternoon,” Katina told him once he was situated in the fourposter bed. “I will be the one in charge of the nursing duties, as best I can. There is no one else available.”

Phot tried to smile. “You shall be my personal nurse, Katina,” he mumbled with hard effort.

The physician could do little but prescribe sedative and cough syrup. For several days, the patient had no appetite and only swallowed broth. Almost every two hours, Katina took his temperature and marked it down on a lined chart. Her father appeared and tried to cheer him up each morning and in the evening when he came back from his office.

“We are barely scraping along at the factory,” Kimon informed him. “Over half of our people are home with the grippe. No new orders have come in for weeks now. All activity in Rubber City is at a standstill. The city is as deadlike as a cemetery.”

Newspapers were brought each day for the patient to read.

Mayor Tisane had proclaimed a state of extreme emergency. Citizens were advised to stay away from public places if at all possible. The hotels of the city had been commandeered for use by the medicos and nurses… “If you must go out, be sure to wear some sort of protective cloth over the mouth”, it was recommended. Drug stores were told to ration out their supplies so as to maximize the number of persons they could aid. Public meetings and gatherings were canceled or postponed. The city fell into a slumbering trance.

Every morning, Katina entered the guest room and asked Phot how did he feel, how was he doing.

Her face brightened with a glowing smile the day he announced that he felt stronger and had enjoyed a night of placid sleep.

“The sickness has peaked,” she informed him. “We have seen what is called the breaking point. From now on, recovery will accelerate. You shall be feeling better, dear Phot.”

He looked up at her but was still unable to form a smile.

“I owe everything to you. If I had stayed in my flat, I might have been dead by now. You saved my life, Katina. I know that for sure.”

“Don’t talk that way…”

She stopped talking and went about her simple nursing chores, taking his arm and feeling her patient’s pulse. This finished, she felt his forehead for fever.

“Yes, I believe you are getting much better,” she announced. “That is only my personal diagnosis, of course. But you are certainly improving.”

Phot decided to do something he had not foreseen. It came to him like a sudden inspiration from Kexato himself.

“Katina?”

“Yes?” she replied.

“I have to warn you of something.”

“Warn?” she said in sudden confusion, sensing some kind of trouble.

“As soon as I’m on my feet again, I intend to ask you for your hand in marriage,” he said in one rapid breath.

She felt her head swim and nearly lost her physical balance. This was something unpredictable that completely disconcerted her.

Phot, she could see, was finally smiling wanly at her. Yes, the patient had spoken to her in all seriousness. This was not a cruel trick of some sort.

She grinned with sudden, unexpected happiness.

“And I have a warning to make to you,” she said with an expressionless face.

“A warning?”

He stopped smiling, waiting for her to explain.

“I warn you, my dear, I might accept and say yes.”

Phot made a laughing sound in his throat as he went to get the breakfast she had prepared for him.

He had accomplished what he had never had the courage to dare before. The future course for both of them had been set that day. There would be no going back from the road they had chosen to take.

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