Read Calvin M. Knox Online

Authors: The Plot Against Earth

Calvin M. Knox (4 page)

there," Catton said. The Morilaru woman
grinned at him slyly and blanked the screen. Catton stared in puzzlement at
the dying pattern of light for a moment, then shrugged and clicked the switch.
The Five Planets, tomorrow at noon. It was a date.

, capital city of Morilar, shared one
characteristic with many other capital cities througout the galaxy: the
contrast between the district of official buildings and the slums was extreme.
Dyelleran was divided by the River Mhorn, which pursued an east-to-west course
through the city on its tortuous path to the sea. The river was bridged twenty
times within the city proper, but there was no real bond between the two halves
of Dyelleran. The contrast between the east bank, on which the government
buildings and the best residential areas were situated, and the west bank, or
Old Quarter, was extraordinary.

It was mid-morning when Catton crossed the
bridge into the Old Quarter. The moment he stepped from his cab he knew this
was a considerably different neighborhood from the serene and architecturally
impressive governmental half of the city. The streets were crooked and paved
with cobblestones; a nasty stink of rotting vegetables hung in the air, and
sleeping Morilaru huddled in the doorways. The heat, which had been annoying on
the other side of the river, was impossible here. Droning mosquito-like insects
hovered in greedy clouds.

The Street of the Two Moons turned out to be
one of the widest in the entire district: that is, vehicles could pass
comfortably in both directions. The old houses that lined the street tilted
crazily in all angles and directions. Some of them, Catton guessed, were more
than a thousand years
and still used as dwellings.

He had checked the city
directory and discovered that

number of The Five Planets was 63, Street of
the Two Moons, but the information did Catton little good; no house numbers
were apparent on any of the buildings. But he had no difficulty finding the
tavern. A huge grimy banner dangled out over the street, moving fitfully in the
faint breeze, and emblazoned on the tattered cloth Catton saw five
brightly-colored worlds arranged in a loose circle. He quickened his pace.

tavern door was no fancy electronic affair; it was a simple slab of solid wood.
Catton dragged it open and stepped inside.

place was dark, according to the universal custom of taverns. Along the left
wall was the bar, manned by a dour-looking bald old Morilaru; tables were
scattered at irregular intervals throughout the dimly-lit, low-roofed room.
Only four people, all Morilaru, were in the tavern as Catton entered. All four
turned to stare at him.

girl was sitting at the table closest to the door. A mug of wine was in her
hand, and another was on the table, evidently having been poured for him. He
walked over and looked down, trying to be certain she was the one he had spoken
to the night before. It was often not easy to tell one Morilaru from another.

"Nuuri Gryain?"
he asked.

smiled at him, showing flashing white teeth. "Sit down, Catton. I've
already ordered a drink for you. I hope you like our wine."

pulled out the seat, lowered himself into it, and cradled the wine mug in his
big hands. The
mug was of yellow clay, and refreshingly cool
to the touch in the hothouse atmosphere. He looked closely at her.

"Who are you?" he asked.

with a grudge.
That's all."

"What kind of grudge?"

"A grudge against a certain man,"
she said. "That doesn't concern you. Let's say I'm interested in seeing
justice get done.
My own kind of justice."

Calmly, Catton lifted the wine to his lips.
The liquid was cool, faintly bitter. He allowed about half a spoonful to enter
his mouth, and he held it there, without swallowing it, as he tasted it.

on," she said. "It's safe to swallow. The wine isn't drugged or
poisoned, Catton."

swallowed the half spoonful. "Why should I trust you? The wine was on the
table when I came in. You might easily have doctored it."

you want me to drink the rest of your wine?" she asked. "Or wouldn't
you trust that either?"

'There are drugs that
a Terran metabolism but not a Morilaru one," he said, grinning. "But
111 take my chances. The first mouthful didn't kill me." He took a deeper
sip: the wine was good. He set the mug down half empty. "Suppose you
start telling me why you wanted to see me."

She locked her fingers together. Like most of
her race, she was long and thin—spidery, that was the way most Morilaru looked
to Catton. But there was a strange grace about her. Her red-hued eyes sparkled
oddly, and her gaunt cheekbones had a way of highlighting the subtle colors of
her skin. She wore the green crest of maidenhood in her lustrous black hair.

said, "You're here to investigate the traffic in hypnojewels,
Earthman." It was not a question but a flat declarative statement."

"How do you know that?" Catton

spike-tipped shoulders lifted lightly in a shrug. "I've had access to the
information. Let's leave it at that, shall we?"

"For the moment.
All right: I'm investigating hypno-jewel traffic. What do you want to
tell me?"

"I can help you uncover a ring of
hypnojewel smugglers,

I'm volunteering my services as a go-between. Think you're interested?"

He tapped the table. "You've got a
price. What is it?"

"No price. I just want to see this bunch
put in jail, that's all."

"Simple as that,

As simple as that."

"All right," Catton said.
"I'll go along with you, maybe. How do you plan to work this

to the place where you can make contact with these people," she said.
"We can fob you off as a would-be purchaser of a hypnojewel. I think we
can do it convincingly. The transaction can take place, and then you can crack
down, once you have the incriminating evidence. Does it sound okay?"

For a moment Catton made no answer. Then he
said in a soft voice, "You're selling out some friends of yours, aren't
you, Nuuri? Why?"

"What does that matter to you? You
Earthmen are only interested in results.
In smashing the
illegal smuggling trade.
Isn't that right?"


"Very well.
I'm offering you a chance to uncover something
big—and you're asking questions."

"I just want to know what you stand to
gain personally out of this," Catton said.

girl took a deep draught of her wine. "Ill
it out for you simply. I was in love with one of the members of this group. He
is not in love with me. He claims to be in love with another woman, and he also
says now that he's going to run away with her as soon as the proceeds from the
next hypnojewel deal come in. I'm just angry enough at him to want to turn the
whole bunch in to the law. Now do you get it, Earthman? Now do you see the

Pure green jealousy."

"Call it whatever you want. But Doveril
thought he could grind me into the dirt, and I want him to find out he isn't
going to get away with it."

Catton felt a pang of painful surprise.

I shouldn't have let that slip. But that's his name, as long as I've dropped it
out. He's the head of the group. He earns his keep as a music-teacher, right
now. Maybe you've seen him around the Embassy. He teaches music to the
Ambassador's brat."

nodded, shutting his eyes for an instant. He was not ordinarily susceptible to
emotional distress, but he felt deeply saddened now. Poor Estil was going to be
in for the nastiest jolt of her young life.

me," Catton said. "This woman who's taken your place in his
affections—you know who she is?"

And it's a good thing, too. I'd scratch her eyes out!" There was snapping
fire in Nuuri's voice. Catton thought he understood the alien girl completely,
at that moment: sensual, highly emotional, eager for revenge. He felt relieved
that she did not know the actual identity of her hated rival.

not sure I care for your motives in this business," Catton said. "But
the end result is what matters, and I'm anxious to see the hypnojewel trade
rooted out. When will you take me to these people?"

"Whenever you want.
Tomorrow's a good day."

enough," he said.
"Tomorrow, then.
Suppose I
meet you here, at this time."

How about another drink,

Catton shook his head. "One's enough,
thanks." He rose and dropped a coin on the table. "This ought to take
care of the drink I had. Ill
you tomorrow, right
here. Don't change your mind overnight."

"I won't," she said vehemently.
"Don't worry about that."

Catton stepped from the dimness of the tavern
to the bright searing heat of the street in early afternoon. There was no cab
in sight; he walked down to the foot of the Street of the Two Moons, breathing
shallowly to keep from retching at the filth all about him.

He would have to tell Estil, of course. He
wondered how she would take it.
Badly, no doubt.
was in for an emotional wrench. But at least she had already had misgivings
about Doveril, so it wouldn't be a total shock to her to learn of his criminal
activities. And, in any event, finding out now would save her from making a
mistake of life-shattering consequences. In a few months she would probably
forget all about the impecunious, fast-talking music teacher.

walked eastward toward the newer section of the city. He crossed the bridge on
foot, stopping once to peer down at the sluggish, dirty water, coated with
bright oil slicks, and at the men working on the barges that passed beneath
the bridge. They worked stripped to the waist, tall fleshless purple beings
looked almost but not quite human, and they didn't seem
to object to the killing heat. Probably, he thought, Morilaru who visit Earth
are astonished at our ability to function in such a dread chill. It was all a
matter of viewpoint.

was a public communicator-booth at the eastern end of the bridge. It was time,
Catton decided, to report to Pouin Beryaal.

He entered the booth and clicked the door
shut behind him. Fishing an octagonal ten-unit coin from his change-purse, Catton
placed it in the appropriate slot and punched the number of the Interworld
Commission on Crime.

was a moment's pause; then, on the tiny screen of the communicator, the blurred
image of a Morilaru female appeared.

"Office of the Interworld Commission on Crime.
Your party, please?"

"This is Lloyd Carton. I'd like to talk
to Pouin Beryaal, if he's in."

"Just one moment, please."

waited, reflecting on the universal similarity of receptionists and switchboard
operators all over the galaxy. A few seconds later, the angular, austere face
of the chairman of the Commission appeared.


afternoon, Pouin Beryaal. I'm calling from a public communicator just over the
bridge from the Old Quarter."

"Are you out slumming
today?" Beryaal asked sardonically.

"I've been conducting a little

"So soon?
And without consulting

"Someone phoned me last night and said
she had some information that would interest me. We made a date today in a
tavern over on the other side of the river. Seems she's had a love-spat with
her boyfriend, who's a hypnojewel smuggler, and to get even with him she wants
to expose the whole ring. I'm seeing her again tomorrow."

Beryaal chuckled. "You Earthmen certainly waste little time in beginning
an investigation."

still not fully convinced she's going to go through with it. She says she means
it, but maybe she'll lass and make up with him tonight. Ill
you posted on further developments."

kind of you," Beryall said. "I'll tell our colleagues of your
progress. We hope to see you again in our office soon—there is a room provided
for your use now. Is there anything further you wish to report?"

"Not just now," Catton said. He
broke contact and left the booth.

Catching a cab as it came thrumming across
the bridge, he returned to the Embassy. There, he was surprised to find a
cluster of the green vehicles of the local police parked outside the building.
Morilaru police were everywhere,
over the
Embassy grounds like a swarm of buzzing insects.

Catron entered the Embassy gates. A policeman stopped him and said rougly:
"Where are you going, Earth-man?"

"I'm residing at the
Embassy. What's going on here?"

"We will ask the questions. Proceed

obediendy entered the building. Half a dozen members of the Embassy staff were
clustered in an anxious little knot in the lobby. Catton approached them.

someone please tell me what all the fuss is about?" he demanded.

It was the Ambassador's cook who answered.
"It's Miss Estil—Ambassador Seeman's daughter."

caught his breath sharply. Was he too late? Had the litde fool decided to run
off with her Morilaru lover anyway, without waiting for information about him?

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