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Authors: The Plot Against Earth

Calvin M. Knox (6 page)

"Ten thousand,"
said the Morilaru inflexibly.

Earthman was pensive. As a thrifty Dargonid, he was expected to haggle; as an
investigator, he was interested only in making the incriminating purchase. But
if he gave in too easily, they might suspect him.

said, "You are stubborn men. Well, I stubborn can be with equality. Break
your price or P
elsewhere. If need be I will go to
the wholesale source for the stones."

Several of the Morilaru laughed at that. One
said, "You
a strong nose, Dargonid!" Another
scowled at the one who had spoken. Catton narrowed his eyes thoughtfully. That
was a useful bit of information. The strong odor of Skorg was proverbial in the
galaxy; were they implying that the hypnojewels came from there? Catton filed
the information away.

He rose. "Business I will
extortion no. I raise my offer to seven thousand two
hundred thrones. Will you be inflexible?"

"The price is ten thousand."

flicked his tongue back and forth in the Dargonid equivalent of a shrug.
"I argue not. Your price is too high. Thank you for your courtesies,"
he said to Nuuri.
"And to the rest of you, good

He edged toward the door, taking his time,
wondering if his bluff would be called.

his hand touched the doorknob a voice behind him said, "Wait."

Catton turned.

"Nine thousand five
hundred thrones."

"Eight thousand."

Dargonids would bargain for hours of your life!" the Morilaru spokesman
exclaimed. "Nine thousand is our lowest price. You've peeled a thousand
thrones off—
content with that."

was silent a long moment. At length he said, "We are hardly more than ten
percent apart. I offer you eight thousand five hundred as a meeting-ground."

Morilaru eyed each other, debating silently. They nodded. "Done," the
spokesman said. "When will you have the cash?"

you five hundred thrones as a binder. The rest
will I obtain at my bank within the hour. When will I receive the stone?"

Would you inspect it now?"

"I would indeed."

of the Morilaru knelt, peeled up a loose floorboard,
forth a small velvet pouch. He tossed it to Catton, who fumbled the catch
deliberately, then snatched the falling pouch with his other hand in a
desperate grab. The Dargonids had the reputation of clumsiness.

He snatched a glance at the Morilaru. They
seemed to be holding their breaths.

wary, Dargonid," the spokesman advised him. "You know the peril of
the stone."

I do," Catton replied. He undid the catch at the mouth of the pouch and let
the stone drop out onto the palm of his hand. He looked at it only long enough
to verify its identity, then returned it to the pouch and tossed it back to the

am satisfied. Herewith the binder; I'll return with the rest within the hour.
Remain you here."

counted out ten golden fifty-throne pieces from his moneybelt and handed them
across to the Morilaru. Then, bowing courteously, he withdrew from the room,
leaving Nuuri there with the hypnojewel smugglers.

made his way rapidly through the tangle of streets to the nearest bridge into
the eastern half of the city. After making sure no one had followed him, he
stepped into the first public communicator-booth he found, and dialed the
number of Pouin Beryaal.

the usual routine delays, Beryaal appeared on the tiny screen.

"Close your circuit," Catton
ordered. "This is important material."

"The circuit is sealed. Speak

"I've encountered a ring of hypnojewel
peddlers. They've agreed to sell me a stone for eighty-five hundred thrones. I
left five hundred as a binder and I'm supposedly on my way to the bank to get
the rest."

Beryaal's eyes widened. "Have you seen
the stone?"

"Yes. It's the real

suppose this accounts for the alteration in your face," Beryaal commented.
The screen, black-and-white, did not indicate Catton's color change.
"Very well.
Where can they be found?"

"A tavern called The Deeper Draught,
across the river on the Street of Cutpurses.
Upstairs, in the
furthermost room from the stairs."

"I'll have men there
in twenty minutes," Beryaal promised.






The arrest
went off smoothly enough. Catton and Pouin
Beryaal had agreed on the details before breaking the communicator contact.
Catton was to be allowed to escape; Nuuri would be arrested and later freed.

The Earthman went on to the Grand Bank of
Morilar and drew out eight thousand thrones from the special account placed
there for his use. The clerk frowned in confusion at the inexplicable sight of
a Dargonid drawing money from a Terran account, but the identification-placket
matched, and the teller had no choice but to hand Catton eight crisp
thousand-throne bills.

Catton took a cab across the bridge, left it
at the Street of Two Moons, and covered the rest of the way to The Deeper
Draught on foot. He was rapidly learning his way around the knotty maze of
streets in Dyelleran's Old Quarter. His mnemonic training stood him, as
always, in good stead in this city.

He had timed his excursion precisely. Unless
Beryaal's crime-detection men missed their cue, he would have three or four
minutes and no more before the arrest. He mounted the tavern stairs two at a
time and knocked m the prescribed manner on the door.

"It is I, Karlsrunig,
the Dargonid. Let me in!"

The door swung back. Catton nodded in
satisfaction. All of the Morilaru were still there, a tense, narrow-eyed-
group. Nuuri looked particularly nervous. Catton said, "I have the cash.
Take the stone from its hiding-place."

"Show us the money."

riffled the eight bills in front of them. The stone was produced. Catton said
slowly, "Seven thousand five hundred thrones?"

deal was closed at eighty-five hundred," the Morilaru reminded him.
"Would you bargain now?"

smiled. "Force of habit solely, friends. Let me have the stone."

the agreed sum?"

is my money. Eight thousand, plus the five hundred you have already.
The stone!"

Catton extended the eight
bills, and at the same time reached out a hand for the pouch. The timing of the
crime-detection men was extraordinary. Catton and the Morilaru were frozen for
moment in a little tableau, each with one hand on the money and one on
the pouch, when the door exploded inward. A bright purple flash of light told
Catton that the transaction was preserved on film, as indisputable evidence. A
moment later, after an abortive exchange of shots, the arrest was concluded.
One Morilaru
his body gone above
the chest.
The others, as well as Nuuri and Catton, held
hands high in the air.

have that pouch
," said the crime-detection
group's leader. He snatched it, opened it wide enough to ascertain that it held
a hypnojewel, and pocketed it. "All right, come along, all of you."

As they reached the street Catton felt the
handcuffs that bound him suddenly loosen and drop away; they had been set, by
prearrangement, for only three minutes.

out of the middle of the group of captives, cut sharply to his left, and
streaked for
garbage-bordered alleyway. The
crime-detection men shouted sharply; one dashed after him, firing a blaster
burst that nearly seared Catton's shoulder. The Earthman ducked into a
beckoning doorway and crouched there a few minutes. He peeped out, finally, and
saw that the captives had been taken away. One of Beryaal's men had remained
behind, ostensibly to search for the escaped Dargonid, for the sake of appearances.

Catton emerged from the alley, grinning
wryly. "Your idea of pretense is a little grim, brother. That shot of
yours nearly hit me."

'The aim was faulty. I apologize."

"Where are the

"Taken to the Crime Office for interrogation.
I am officially to report that you were
killed attempting escape. The girl will be released after questioning."

"How about the
"Intensive probing."

"All right.
Consider me killed attempting
escape. I'm going to get this paint taken off me now."

He made his way through the back streets to
the shop of the old Morilaru, which he found with a relatively small amount of
difficulty. The old man was dozing again. Catton woke him and said, "Turn
me into an Earthman again. The disguise has done its job."

Carton stripped and let the dye-remover be
applied; in ten minutes he was once again himself. He gave the old man a
one-throne piece, as promised, and then, grinning conspiratorially, said,
"Here's another throne for you. But don't tell Nuuri I gave it to

"My deepest gratitude," murmured
the Morilaru.

Catton was happy to be rid of the layer of
coloring, the contact lenses, and all the rest. An Earthman again, he hurried
to the Street of the Two Moons and hired a cab there to take him to the offices
of the Interworld Commission on Crime.

En route, he had time to think about Estil
Seeman. The girl had run away, or perhaps she had been abducted by Doveril—but
where might they be? Catton thought he knew. The hint dropped by one of the
hypnojewel smugglers seemed to indicate that the source of supply for the gems
was somewhere on Skorg. It was possible that Doveril might have fled there
with Estil. Perhaps, he thought, it would be profitable for him to go there as
well—ostensibly investigating the hypnojewel trade, less ostensibly searching
for the missing girl, and actually observing for Earth's purposes the second
most important world in the Morilar-Skorg-Arenadd axis.

This time, when he arrived at Number Eleven
in the Street of Government, he had no difficulty gaining entry to the offices
of the Interworld Commission on Crime. He was, after all, a member of that
Commission now himself. He went directly to Pouin Beryaal's office. Beryaal was
not there, but Ennid Uruod, the flabby Arenaddin member of the Commission, was.

"Where's Beryaal?" Carton asked.

"Interrogating the
and eMerikh enjoy such torments; my stomach is weaker."
about the girl?"

Uruod lifted a fat-encased arm and pointed to
an adjoining office. "In there, waiting for you. They've finished
questioning her."

Catton thanked the Arenaddin and passed
through the doorway into the next office. Nuuri was there,
looking tense and troubled. But she managed a
smile as he entered.

"They've officially released me,"
she said.

"How about the

shrugged. "They'll get the usual fate.
until their minds crack.
I pity them."

"You betrayed
them," Catton reminded her bleakly.

She showed no sign of emotion. "I was
betraying only Doveril. The rest were incidental. But Doveril is free, and they
are downstairs in the interrogation chamber."

"They'll pick up
Doveril eventually," Catton said.

"This is doubtful. By now he's probably
hundreds of light-years from here."

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