Authors: Lloyd Biggle Jr.
Tags: #Science Fiction, #Space Opera, #adventure, #galaxy, #war
Table of Contents
To my most faithful readers
Ethel C. Biggle
Lloyd Biggle, Sr.
Copyright 1966 by Lloyd Biggle, Jr.
All rights reserved.
EBOOK EDITED BY KENNETH LLOYD BIGGLE
WITH THANKS TO DAVID DATTA
Whistling gusts of wind drove swirling snow against the glass with a hard, rattling sound. Jan Darzek, watching from his office window, thought that New York City had never experienced a more unlovely snowstorm. The powdery granules ricocheted from the window, performed looping acrobatics at the wind’s whimsy, and dove to a moist and grimy doom in the slush churned up by crawling traffic.
Ed Rucks, staring moodily from the next window, demanded, “Why
people insist on driving automobiles into Manhattan?”
Darzek grinned at him. “If taxicabs weren’t extinct, I’d say you were talking like a cabdriver.”
“I’m serious. In this enlightened year of 1988, when our fair city is peppered with trans-locals, and a person can go from anywhere to anywhere at the drop of a half dollar—”
“You’re thinking of the automobile as a means of transportation,” Darzek told him. “It isn’t, except incidentally. Its chief function is play. People drive cars because they like to drive them.”
“In Manhattan, in a snowstorm?”
“Automobiles fulfill a very important psychological need. In an age when man is completely at the mercy of the machine, he must have one machine all his own that he can pretend he’s the master of. His ego demands it. So he drives a car.”
Rucks said doubtfully, “Well, maybe.”
“I take it that you think we’re stumped.”
we’re stumped. I’ve never seen an accumulation of facts that added up to less.”
“I have,” Darzek said, “but I didn’t solve those cases, either.”
“Look,” Rucks said earnestly, “if you really want to identify these snoops, just turn Miss Schlupe loose on them. If she can’t find out who they are, they don’t exist.”
Darzek shook his head. “She’s a dear, and I don’t want anything to happen to her. If we get close to these people they may decide to play rough.”
“It’s them you should worry about. Honestly—Schluppy is the deadliest person I ever met. It’s her little-old-lady innocence that makes her so dangerous. People don’t believe it, even after it happens to them. Like on that Morris case. She gives the guy her cute little smile and says, ‘Excuse me,
Then she breaks his arm. Anyway, these jerks don’t play rough. They’re darned curious about Jan Darzek, but in a very gentlemanly way.”
“Perhaps. But I’m keeping Schluppy out of it. Couldn’t you get anything more from Jake Ennoff?”
Rucks shook his head. “It was just a routine inquiry, and he gave it the routine treatment. He thought maybe you’d applied for a loan, or credit, or something.”
“Credit! I’ll buy that crummy building where he has his office and throw him out!”
“Well, he didn’t know you were a rich Universal Trans stockholder until his men turned in their reports. He was paid to investigate you; he investigated you. It didn’t occur to him to check on the guy that ordered the investigation. Jake would investigate his own mother, no questions asked, if anyone was willing to pay cash in advance for it. I’ll carry on if you want me to, but as far as I’m concerned it’s obtaining money under false pretenses. I’ve done everything I could think of, and everything you could think of, and we don’t know any more than we did the day I started.”
“All right, Ed. Give Miss Schlupe your time, and she’ll write you a check. When I need you again I’ll call you.”
Miss Schlupe came in a few minutes later. She carefully rearranged an unruly lock of graying hair while she peered at him doubtfully over her spectacles. “Couldn’t they find out anything at all?”
Darzek shook his head. “They narrowed the field a little. Three of our unknowns were men from out-of-town detective agencies. Someone paid a lot of money for a full-scale blitz on Jan Darzek. I wonder if he got what he wanted.”
“What about Able-Baker-Charlie-Dog?”
“Those four are as anonymous as they were the day we first spotted them. It seems incredible that a dozen good men could investigate them for two weeks without learning a thing, but that’s what happened. Maybe they’re supernatural. They never go home; they just vanish.”
“They may have been lucky.”
“I doubt it. Not for two weeks. The fact is that the trans-locals make it almost impossible to tail anyone in New York City. Well, I have two choices left. Either I hire a private army and go after them in a big way, or I ignore them.”
“You might try to kidnap one of them. I know a museum custodian. He’d loan us a thumbscrew overnight.”
Darzek smiled. “They really haven’t done anything except spend a lot of time and money investigating me. Maybe I should be flattered.” He turned to the window and looked dreamily at the wind-whipped snow. “Is there a Universal Trans terminal in Tahiti?”
Miss Schlupe sniffed. “You vacation more than you work. Sometimes I think you vacation
“That’s because you don’t leave anything for me to do.”
“Mrs. Arnold called. She wants you for dinner on Sunday.”
“I already have an engagement.”
“Oh, dear! Have I goofed again? There wasn’t anything on the calendar.”
“I just thought of it. A friend in Samarkand has misplaced his toupee. He wants me to help him look for it”
Miss Schlupe giggled. “Is Mrs. Arnold matchmaking again?”
“Her cousin is visiting her,” Darzek said gloomily. “The Arnolds had me over to meet her, without any warning to either of us, before the poor girl had time to unpack her bags. The way married people keep trying to marry off their friends is incontrovertible proof of the venerable adage that misery loves company.
“It isn’t Mrs. Arnold’s fault. A man who’s as handsome as you are has no business being a bachelor. Blame your blue eyes and your curly blond hair and your broad shoulders. Any woman who doesn’t try to marry you off is a traitress to her sex. Anyway, you shouldn’t talk like that. I know lots of people who are happily married.”
“You do not. You know lots of people who
happily married, but mere histrionics can’t disguise the fact that the state of matrimony has two basic flaws: husbands and wives. Every male has an innate talent for being a deplorable husband. Females match this with a truly astonishing aptitude for being wretched wives. What the human race needs is a third sex, neuter, with a boundless domestic capacity. Then either of the present sexes could marry it and be happy. If you think so highly of matrimony, why is it that you never married?”
“A Mr. Smith telephoned for an appointment. He wouldn’t say what he wanted.”
“Don’t change the subject. Why is it that you never married?”
“Nobody ever asked me,” Miss Schlupe said sadly. “Mr. Smith is on his way now.”
“He didn’t say.”
Darzek smiled. “John Smith?”
“I didn’t think to ask.”
“If his business brings him out in this weather, it must be urgent. Did he sound urgent?”
“He sounded like a dead fish.”
“I may not see him. If he was using a really original pseudonym, such as Rzeczywistosc—”
“Smith may be his name.”
“Mmm—I suppose it
possible. There must be someone somewhere whose real name is Smith, but the Smiths I meet professionally invariably turn out to be Joneses. Does Universal Trans have a terminal in Tahiti? I think I asked you that.”
Miss Schlupe closed the door quietly, leaving Darzek to commune with the storm.
He inventoried his detective agency’s current commitments. The poison pen letter writer would take at least another week. The employee who’d been tampering with the Arnado Company’s bookkeeping apparatus had been identified, and would be nabbed when he tried it again. The Murray Hill vending machine pirates were a problem for an engineer, but a boresome millionaire had insisted that Darzek take the job. He did, and turned it over to an engineer, who promised to have an answer for him shortly.
The other matters were trivial. With some help from Ed Rucks he could easily be free in two weeks. He stood looking out at the snow and thinking of Tahiti. He had never been to Tahiti. He wondered how he’d managed to overlook it.
Miss Schlupe knocked once and entered quickly, closing the door behind her. “There is no Universal Trans terminal in the South Sea Islands,” she announced. “The company confidently expects to establish one there no later than the fall of 1990.”
“Fine state of affairs,” Darzek grumbled. “The terminal on the moon starts operating next year and they’re making noises about putting one on Mars. How could they overlook Tahiti?”
“The nearest terminal is Honolulu.”
“All right. I’m going to Tahiti if I have to swim. What are you smirking about?”
“Mr. Smith is waiting.”
“I won’t see him. I’m not taking on any more work.”
Miss Schlupe straightened her spectacles and frowned disapprovingly. “Really! And he walked all the way over here in the snow!”
“I don’t care if he skated over on his—what
you smirking about?”
“He looks as dead-fishy as he sounds.”
“Or dead-doggy?” Darzek went to his desk, seated himself, and announced grimly, “It’s cost me two thousand, seven hundred and forty-two dollars, plus whatever you paid Ed today, to not find out who this guy is and what he wants. It better be good. Send him in.”
Miss Schlupe smiled Smith-Dog into the room. He shuffled forward awkwardly, reached back to close the door, and seemed discomfited to find that Miss Schlupe had already done so. Darzek remained seated and coldly indicated a chair by his desk. He had seen Smith seven times previously, but never from closer than thirty feet. He watched narrowly while the man got himself settled on the edge of the chair.
Miss Schlupe was right. He looked like a dead fish.
“I understand,” Smith said, his eyes fixed unblinkingly on Darzek’s face, “that you undertake dangerous commissions for hire.”
“I suppose you could put it that way,” Darzek said peacefully. “I wouldn’t, but you may if you like.” He thought he had seen mounted fish with more expressive faces. The fish Smith resembled was not merely dead, it was petrified.
undertake dangerous commissions for hire?”
Without displaying a ripple of emotion Smith managed to convey the impression that he was dumbfounded.
“Occasionally one of my commissions turns out to be dangerous,” Darzek said. “When that happens I place it in the hands of the police at the earliest opportunity.”
Smith said slowly, “I was reliably informed that you undertook dangerous commissions for hire. I have such a commission for you, and I wanted to inquire as to your stipend, or fee.”
“I don’t undertake any kind of a commission without first knowing what it involves,” Darzek said. He had been trying to identify Smith’s accent, and he realized with a start that the man had none. His pronunciation was so precise that it sounded odd.
“Could you not at least give me some indication of your customary charges?”
Darzek shook his head. “They depend on the expenses I incur, on the time required, and to a considerable extent on the degree of ingenuity that I have to exert. I charge heavily for wear and tear on my brain. Without knowing what it is that you want, I can only say that I am an extremely expensive private detective.”
“I do not think that you would incur expenses,” Smith said. “The time required might be considerable.”
“What do you mean by ‘considerable’? Weeks, months—”
“Years,” Smith said flatly.
“With extensive travel, I suppose,” Darzek suggested with a smile.
“Yes, indeed. Very extensive travel.”
“And the commission would be dangerous?”
“Exceedingly dangerous. The odds would be overwhelmingly in favor of your losing your life.”
Darzek tilted back comfortably. “On the basis of that information I believe I can tentatively establish a fee, or stipend. I would require an advance payment of one million dollars. I would prefer small bills, ones, fives, and tens, though I wouldn’t mind a few twenties and an occasional fifty. When the job was finished to your entire satisfaction, I would then bill you for the balance of my fee. I couldn’t tell you ahead of time how much that would be, but I doubt that it would exceed another million.”
He had hoped to spark a glimmer of emotion in that disgustingly blank face, but he could detect none. Smith seemed to ponder the matter for a moment. Then he asked, “Isn’t that rather excessive?”
“Not to my way of thinking. I don’t know what your life is worth, but I value mine highly, and I think I have the right to set that valuation myself.”
“I was not questioning your right to your own valuation,” Smith said apologetically. “I fear, however, that the fee would vastly exceed my available resources. Is there any possibility that you could accept less? I can assure you that your services are urgently needed. Individuals with your qualifications are exceedingly difficult to find.”
“That’s why we’re so expensive,” Darzek said dryly.
“Yes. A million dollars in advance.” Smith nodded, then shook his head. He got unsteadily to his feet and turned to offer Darzek a limp, dry hand.