By G. L. VANDENBURG
You can't be too suspicious when security is at stake. When everybody who is after a key military job wears a toupee, it is obviously a bald case of espionage.
A job as laboratory technician with the Army Weapons Development Center carried about as much prestige as a bat boy in a World Series.
George Fisher was a laboratory technician.
He was a shy but likeable fellow, a diligent worker and trustworthy. He didn't talk. He was rarely talked to. He had no burning ambition to push himself ahead in the world. Being an assistant to the brains was good enough for him. He had a commendable talent for minding his own business.
In a security job these qualities counted ahead of scientific knowledge.
One day George Fisher turned up dead. The initial shock and concern experienced by his superiors was soon overcome by the coroner's finding. Suicide.
Harry Payne was the Civilian Personnel Director of Fort Dickson. It was his job to find a replacement for George Fisher.
"Miss Conway!" Harry's voice lashed into the intercom.
There was an interminable pause. He cursed under his breath.
Then, "Yes, Mr. Payne?"
"Where the hell were you? Never mind. Bring me the file on George Fisher."
"George Fisher?" Miss Conway was in her favorite state of mind ... confusion. "But he's dead, isn't he?"
Harry let out a deep anguished groan. "Yes, Miss Conway, he's dead. That's why I want his file. That answer your question?"
"Yes, sir. Be there in a jiffy!"
Harry could tell she was bubbling over with smiles as she spoke. A few more centuries would pass, he thought, before they manufactured another broad as dumb as Miss Conway.
* * * * *
He stuffed his hands in his pockets and looked out the window. Across the parade ground he could see the Army Weapons Development Center. He had no idea what new bomb they might be working on behind those heavily guarded fences. He didn't care.
He was only concerned with the people who worked there. The rest of Fort Dickson used mostly Civil Service Personnel. But the barricaded security jungle across the parade grounds was more particular about its hired help. A person's record had to be spotless almost from the day of his conception ... or a person could not even gain entrance.
Harry had never been inside Weapons Development. He had once been to traffic court as a roaring juvenile eighteen years before. That was enough to bar him from even visiting. He realized, though, that the army couldn't afford to take chances.
Hiring new technicians required an arduous screening process. Harry loathed it. He was thankful that the personnel at Weapons Development were highly paid and usually permanent. He never had to hire more than one person a year.
Miss Conway swept into the office and handed Harry the folder.
"Thanks," he muttered.
"Don't mention it, boss."
Harry called after her as she went back toward the reception room.
"Stay by your desk, will you? The government may need you."
A muffled giggle was her only response.
Miss Conway was a civil service employee. She had been Harry's secretary for six months. Like most other civil service personnel, according to Harry's way of thinking she was a tower of inefficiency. His chief annoyance stemmed from the fact that the army had arbitrarily placed her in his office. He had been given no choice in the matter. It was one hell of a way to treat a personnel director, he thought.
He sat at his desk gloomily aware of the headaches he'd have to face in his quest for George Fisher's replacement. He opened the folder and glanced at the vital statistics.
Fisher, George—Age: 40—Weight: 160—Height: 5'9"—Eyes: Green—Hair: None—Complexion: Light—Date of Employment: 10/7/58—Date of Departure: 4/12/59—Reason: Suicide—etc., etc. Harry yawned. Statistics bored him.
He turned to a page marked "Qualifications" and started reading. The phrase "Education and experience in nuclear physics required," caught his eye. The requirement was no surprise to him. But whenever he saw it he took a few minutes off to indulge his curiosity. What was the big project at Weapons Development? He'd love to know. He wouldn't find out, of course. And the inability to find out naturally gave his imagination the widest latitude. His most persistent theory involved an atomic powered rocket capable of knocking the Russians' manned satellites out of space. The Russians were still ahead of everyone and their latest satellites were heavily armed. As usual they were lording it over the rest of the world. And the rest of the world had not come up with an effective answer to this challenge.
Harry closed the folder. He glanced at a list of technical schools. He would call each of them and ask them to submit a list of lab technicians. He would also look over the field of technicians still left in private enterprise.
The intercom buzzed.
"What is it, Miss Conway?"
"Miss Ralston is here."
"Who is Miss Ralston?"
"She has an appointment with you."
"An appointment!" Harry was baffled. "Who made it?"
"I did. I guess I forgot to tell you."
Harry closed his eyes and counted to ten. "Thank you, Miss Conway. Will you step into my office for a moment?" He tried to control his mounting anger.
She breezed into the office.
"Now, Miss Conway, will you please tell me who is this Miss Ralston?"
"She operates 'Ralston Personnel Consultants'. I think she wants to talk to you about the replacement for George Fisher. You know, the one who died."
"Yes, yes, I know. And you know, Miss Conway, we don't do business through agencies."
"Oh, Miss Ralston doesn't run an agency. She told me. Her business is much more exclusive than that. She handles very highly specialized people. That's the reason why ..."
"I know. That's why you gave her an appointment with me," said the exasperated personnel director. "Well, you can go right back out and tell her I've canceled the appointment. This is a security job we're filling and ..."
* * * * *
Before Harry could utter another syllable his attention was drawn to the doorway. The view to the outer office was blocked by a bundle of curves. The most alluring female bombshell his eyes had ever beheld put everything important out of his mind.
"I didn't realize you were being so inconvenienced, Mr. Payne. I'm terribly sorry." Her eyes drooped. "I can take my business elsewhere." Miss Ralston's voice was just above a half whisper. The words came out warm and intoxicating.
"No, wait! Wait a minute, Miss Ralston." Harry was out of his chair and at the door. He took her arm. "Who said anything about inconvenience? Come in. Come in. That'll be all, Miss Conway. Thanks."
The secretary giggled and left. Miss Ralston sat down and lit a cigarette. Harry noticed she was wearing a beige knit suit with a neckline that spoke volumes. Every curve was in the right place. Every movement had another movement all its own.
Harry knew she was bound to talk business and he knew there wasn't much he could do for her in that direction. But at thirty-five, and eligible, he just couldn't let this woman leave his office. Harry Payne was a sucker for a gorgeous face. He knew it and he knew the gorgeous face knew it.
"Tell me, Miss Ralston, when did my secretary arrange this appointment for you?"
"I called yesterday."
Harry arched his eyebrows and smiled. "Yesterday? What prompted you to call me?"
"You're looking for a laboratory technician, aren't you?"
"What gave you that idea?" he asked, not caring in the slightest what gave it to her.
"I make it my business to comb the papers every day, Mr. Payne. I came across the news of George Fisher's suicide and called you. Simple as that."
"You don't waste any time."
She smiled and pursed her lips. "Do you?"
"I try not to."
"I have seven clients who would qualify for the job. I'd appreciate it if you'd see them."
"Well, as a matter of fact, Miss Ralston ..."
She leaned forward with an inquisitive "Yes?"
Harry cleared his throat. "As a matter of fact I'm not supposed to do business with civilian agencies."
"Mr. Payne," she smiled demurely, "do I look like an agency? Or do I look like a Personnel Consultant?"
* * * * *
Now there was an opening, Harry thought, but it might be best to avoid it. "You're working to get someone a job. It amounts to the same thing."
"I see. Then how do you go about hiring your new personnel?"
"I do the soliciting myself. Sorry, Miss Ralston, but I don't make the rules and regulations."
But the lady was undeterred. She crossed her legs and sank further into the easy chair. Her eyes sparkled at Harry.
"These clients of mine are all top men, Mr. Payne. Why couldn't I just leave you their names? You can still do the soliciting. I'd be happy to forego my regular commission on this job. Call it the value of prestige."
Harry recognized another opening and this time plunged in. "Suppose we talk it over later. There's a place at Fourth Avenue and Woodward called 'Maria's.' Best Italian food in captivity. I'm through at five. What about you?"
She didn't have to say anything. Her eyes told him he would be having an Italian dinner that night. And not alone. She rose and walked in front of his desk.
"I'm so glad we have something in common, Mr. Payne. I can't think well on an empty stomach either."
After walking her to the outer office he came back to his desk. He took a deep breath and loosened his tie. Dreams like Miss Ralston didn't materialize every day. For a first meeting he figured he hadn't fared too badly at all. And if this first date went well he was sure he'd be seeing a lot of this girl.
It did not escape Harry's mind that here was a girl who was in the habit of getting what she wanted. But why not? Her powers of persuasion were Grade-A. They were so good they presented him with one big problem. He had regulations. Army regulations. He couldn't violate them. Miss Ralston, it was obvious, was going to meet him solely for the purpose of getting a client a job. Would he be able to see her again after she knew he had no intention of hiring that client?
* * * * *
The following morning Harry entered the office to find his secretary unusually busy. She was pecking away furiously at the typewriter.
He handed her a sheet of paper and said, "Miss Conway, copy these names and addresses and when they ..."
"When they come in you'll see them at half-hour intervals." She smiled benignly. "Miss Ralston just called and told me. Pretty smart chick, huh, boss?"
Harry did a slow burn and ambled into his office. Miss Conway was right, of course, and that's what annoyed him. It had been quite a night. He wined and dined her. They did all the bright spots. And, wonder of wonders, on the first date they wound up at Paula Ralston's apartment. She was a captivating hostess, an exquisite dancer and something of a sorceress. After one kiss, an unforgettable one, Harry had agreed to interview her seven clients.
But all this was last night, Harry reminded himself. Today was a different matter. He was in the sanctity of his office now and capable of clearer thinking. Paula Ralston had accomplished the first phase of her mission. The next move was his. Seeing the clients, he rationalized, was not violating the regulations. And for the moment it satisfied her.
She certainly was a determined girl. Anyone would think, watching her operate, that a lab technician was a job of world-shaking importance. What the hell, he shrugged, if the girl didn't look out for her own interests, she wouldn't have a successful business. There's only one way to keep clients happy and that's to keep them busy.
Besides, her maneuvering wasn't going to work anyway. He just couldn't hire any of them. His problem now was to stall her for a couple of days so he could keep seeing her. In the end he might possibly tell her the army had refused to accept any of them.
He glanced out the window and saw the Weapons Development Center across the parade ground. Business appeared to be going on as usual. Routine. Quiet. Cautious. High time I start thinking seriously about that replacement, he thought.
There was a knock at the door.
Miss Conway bounced in. "They've started to arrive. The first one is a Mister Thompson."
"Okay, let's get started. Send him in."
* * * * *
Thompson was a small, roundish man in his mid-forties. He remained quite at ease during the interview. Harry began the session in the usual dull manner, formulating his questions from the several sheets of information Mr. Thompson had brought with him.
It wasn't long before Harry detected something unusual about the man. But he couldn't determine what it was. He became more alert, more interested as the interview progressed.
"Where are you from originally, Mr. Thompson?"
"Oh, yes." He glanced at the written information. "I see you went to the University."
"Yes, sir. My practical experience is documented on the second sheet."
What was it about this guy? He was overly polite but that could hardly be considered strange. His answers were brief, to the point, even curt. That was just a personality trait, Harry supposed. Couldn't condemn a man for that.
"How long did you live in Chicago?"
"Twenty-one years, sir."
"Are you married?"
He had noted before that Mr. Thompson had a distracting habit of patting his hair. Now he knew why. He was wearing a toupee. Harry wondered if the poor guy was sensitive about it. If he was that conscious of it, it might account for his strange attitude.
"Thank you for coming in, Mr. Thompson. I'll submit your papers to Colonel Waters. If he has any further interest in you, don't be surprised if you receive a visit from a couple of Intelligence agents. That's routine for this job. I just tell you in advance so you won't worry."
"I understand," he said, rising and checking his toupee once more. "Many thanks to you, sir." He shook Harry's hand and left the room.
Harry glanced at the papers again. Mr. Thompson's background was impressive indeed. There didn't seem to be much question as to his ability. But what a queer duck he was!
The second applicant was a short, wiry man named Chase. Like his predecessor, he was brief and to the point with his answers. He let his qualification papers speak for themselves. He was formal and polite.
Midway through the interview Harry noticed that he too was wearing a toupee. If that wasn't the damnedest coincidence! Fortunately Mr. Chase didn't have the annoying habit of patting his head every thirty seconds. Harry guessed he either had a more expensive one or was just endowed with more confidence that it would not slip off.
The interview over, Mr. Chase offered his thanks and strolled out.
Harry had a few moments to himself before Paula's third client arrived. He thought about the first two men. Funny thing about toupees ... even the most expensive ones could always be detected. He couldn't quite understand why the two men wore them. They were often used by playboys, actors, self-styled over-age Romeos, people whose niche in society depends upon their looks. But not scientists or technicians. In fact Harry couldn't remember ever having known one such person who shunned his baldness in this manner. That didn't mean they had no right. But it did seem peculiar as hell.
* * * * *
By the time the third interview was over Harry Payne's curiosity was ablaze. Applicant number three, Mr. Boles, was not only wearing a toupee but had gone one step further. Just north of his mouth there was a mustache! A good-looking mustache, well groomed and shaped, but phoney as a wax banana.
For a moment he thought Paula Ralston might be perpetrating a joke of elaborate proportions. He rejected the idea as fast as it came to him. He didn't know the girl very well yet, but he knew her well enough to know she was strictly business. She wanted one of these men to get that job.
He flipped the intercom button for Miss Conway. She might be able to tell him ... indirectly.
"You wanted me, Mr. Payne?"
"Yes, Miss Conway. The three men who've already been in here ... have you noticed anything strange about them?"
Her eyebrows merged and spelled perplexity. She pursed her lips and gave the matter the gravest consideration. Then she concluded, "Yes, something very strange."
Harry was hopeful. "What was it?"
"None of them did very much talking. Strictly anti-social types."
Harry groaned, realizing he should have known better. "Thank you, Miss Conway. That's all."
"The fourth guy is waiting outside."
"Let him sit for a couple of minutes, then send him in."
He decided to put the whole matter out of his mind and get the interviews over as fast as possible. There were other, more serious duties to attend to. The toupee episode was probably nothing more than a crazy coincidence anyway. Strictly an item for Believe-It-Or-Not.
* * * * *
By two o'clock that afternoon the four remaining candidates had come and gone. And Harry Payne sat at his desk in the immediate aftermath questioning his sanity. All seven men wore toupees! It was incredible but true. And now the matter was one of deep and abiding concern to him. There was nothing funny about it. There was a touch of the macabre in it that rendered his flesh cold and weak.
He lit a cigarette and tried to pull his thoughts together. Seven men applying for the same job; seven men with one thing in common; seven men as bald as Doctor Cyclops. Harry had to abandon the notion that sheer coincidence brought these men together. That was too fantastic. They were brought together by design.
Their backgrounds varied in that they had all worked and come from different parts of the country. But those facts were only on paper. It was an odds-on bet they all knew each other. There was even something about the order in which they arrived at the office that indicated a pattern or an over-all plan. Numbers three, five and six had worn false mustaches.
If it was true the seven men were well acquainted then Paula Ralston could undoubtedly give him some answers. Harry had another dinner engagement with her at five o'clock. But this date, he told himself, would be different. He was going to be all business until he learned exactly what she was involved in.
He picked up the phone, got an outside line and dialed. Frank Barnes was a private detective. A good one. Harry was sure he could rely on him for a small favor.
A subdued, resonant voice answered on the other end.
"Frank, Harry Payne here."
"Harry! Where you been hiding?"
"I need a favor."
"Only time you ever call me, you ingrate."
"There's a dame called Paula Ralston. Runs a business called Ralston Personnel Consultants. How soon can you get anything on her?"
"How soon do you need it?"
"Today, if possible. You can call me at home. Any hour."
After promising Frank to meet him for lunch one day Harry sank into an easy chair and tried to shake the unnerving effect the seven men had had on him.
Maybe he shouldn't have called Frank. This might be something he should have informed the army about. No. They'd want to know what business he had seeing the seven men in the first place. He didn't have much of an answer for that one.
* * * * *
Driving along Woodward Street toward Fourth Avenue, Harry was beset with one nagging question. Why had Paula Ralston never brought any of her clients to see him before? He was the dispenser of over a hundred good jobs that offered high salaries. The answer was just as persistent as the question. Lab Technician was the only security job he handled. She was determined that one of her men get that job at any cost.
It wasn't a very pleasant thought. Harry didn't want to believe it. He didn't want to believe that Paula Ralston was going to mean trouble for him. And yet he knew that's exactly what she meant.
* * * * *
She was waiting for him at Maria's. She kissed him as he slipped into the booth beside her. Through four drinks and a six-course dinner he watched her smile. That smile could melt down the door on a bank vault. He noticed how she laughed at all of his wisecracks. When it was her turn to talk she talked about him. She offered a toast to their closer friendship, with special emphasis on the word "closer."
But she did not mention the seven men. That was the smart approach, Harry ventured. She'd save that until she got home and slipped into something more comfortable.
* * * * *
He stood alone in Paula's living room nursing a scotch on the rocks. The night before he had been too concerned about his progress with this latter-day Aphrodite to give a damn about the place she lived in. He glanced around the room. Every inch reeked of success. The furniture was sleek, modern, exquisitely contoured ... like its owner. There wasn't much question about it, Paula Ralston made a lot more dough than he did. But how? That was the question.
She came out of the bedroom and mixed herself a drink. She was a living dream in a black lace negligee. Transparent. It figured. A lot of things were beginning to figure.
"Shall I tell you a secret?" she asked.
"I didn't think you had any left." He couldn't take his eyes from the negligee.
"I think Mr. Chase and Mr. Boles are the best of the seven. I think they come closest to what you're looking for." She lifted her glass and clinked it against his.
Harry smiled. He wasn't looking at her anymore. It was more of an education to look through her. She was good. Damn good. She could lull you into believing the Grand Canyon was brimming over with silver dollars, all yours for the taking. It was next to impossible to doubt the sincerity in her face.
"I liked all seven of them," he said. "But since you know them better than I do I'll take your recommendation that Chase and Boles are the best."
She moved closer to him. He could feel the warmth of her body.
"We're making some progress, Harry. We've narrowed the field down to two candidates."
Harry kept her maneuvering. "Paula, I'm still faced with the problem of finding a way around the regulations. I can't hire either one of them until I solve that."
Nothing stopped this girl. Nothing even slowed her down. She moved still closer to him. "There's a way around anything if a man has the right incentive to look for it."
He knew what the right incentive was. He didn't have to go looking for that. He laid his drink down, put his arms around her and kissed her. They walked to the sofa. Paula stayed close to him, the ever thoughtful, loving female companion. She rubbed his back and neck and sprinkled him with soft moist kisses. She never mentioned her clients again. And Harry promised to hire one of them the following day.
* * * * *
He was anxious to get back to his apartment to find out if Frank Barnes had called. As he drove back along Woodward Street he couldn't put Paula out of his mind. He already had her character pegged. But what was she up to? What was her goal? She wasn't doing all this for a lousy commission. The stakes were bigger than that.
In a way it was too bad she was going to have to settle for less than she bargained for. If her seven clients hadn't been so phoney she might have gotten away with it. But why was it necessary for them to be phoney? Why should a girl as shrewd as Paula send seven men in disguise to see ...
Disguise! Somehow that word threw a different light on the matter. The men had all been disguised in places where hair should grow. They were not bald. There was something abnormal about them. And Harry was ninety percent certain what it was. The answer was incredible. There was still a ten-percent margin for error. For Miss Paula Ralston's sake he hoped he was wrong.
* * * * *
Frank Barnes' message was waiting for him at the switchboard in the lobby. The word "urgent" was written on it.
He raced upstairs and picked up the phone. Frank answered on the first ring. He sounded like a man with a gun at his back.
"Harry, what the hell kind of a mess have you gotten yourself into?"
"Why? Something go wrong?"
"You bet your sweet life. An hour after you called me to check on that Ralston dame a guy came into the office and told me to lay off."
Harry was silent. And scared. His answer looked better all the time.
"What did the guy look like?"
"He looked important, Harry. And he meant business. He had a big bulge in his pocket and he made it very clear I'd be up to my funny bone in hot lead if I relayed any information about this girl to you."
"Frank, was the guy wearing a toupee?"
"A toupee, a hair piece!"
"How the hell should I know. I wasn't interested in his coiffure. He was wearing a black overcoat, he kept his hand on that bulge and he didn't care much for smiling. Harry, you in trouble with this dame?"
"What did you find out about her, Frank?"
"Between the time you called and the time the guy strolled into the office I found out she's only had this Personnel Consultant racket for about three months."
"You didn't learn anything else?"
"After I got warned I decided to wait'll I talked with you."
Harry was silent again. His mind was working.
"Frank, what causes baldness?"
"Baldness! Geez, Harry, you're in a fat mess of trouble and you're worrying about losing your hair?"
"It's important, Frank. I must find out what causes total loss of all hair."
The detective grunted. "Well, let's see, there are three or four diseases I know of. Some people claim it's hereditary. Sometimes a deficiency in the genes ..."
"Okay, Frank, that's enough."
"What do you want me to do about the girl?"
"Just as the man told you. Lay off. I'll call you tomorrow and let you know what this thing is all about."
He hung up the phone and paced in front of his sofa for several minutes. It was inconceivable that the seven men all had the same disease, the same gene deficiency or the same hereditary shortcomings. So his own answer must be much closer to the truth. He'd have to wait until morning to put it to a test. If he was right he would call Colonel Waters and dump the whole bizarre set-up right into the army's lap where it belonged.
Again he found himself hoping he was not right, and, more important, that Paula Ralston wasn't what he was beginning to think she was.
* * * * *
Miss Conway was already in when Harry arrived at the office. He managed a half smile for her.
"Miss Conway, two of the seven men are coming back this morning and ..."
"And Mr. Boles is the one who's getting the job."
"Who called you this time?" he asked with exasperation.
Harry's stomach muscles contracted. "Colonel Waters?"
"That's right. When you were gone yesterday the colonel dropped in to see you. He asked me if you were working on the replacement for George Fisher ... I told him you were right on the job. And I showed him the information sheets you had on all seven men."
"You did what!!"
"And Colonel Waters liked the man named Boles best of all. So I guess when Mr. Boles comes in you can tell him the job is his."
"You nitwit!" he bellowed. "You brainless, knuckleheaded ..." He stomped into his office, and slammed the door.
It was difficult for him to think clearly. He knew he had to make a move. And fast.
He stood by the window and gazed at the Weapons Development Center across the parade ground. The low gray buildings had a quiet peaceful aura about them. If it weren't for the guards marching in front of the great wire fences anyone might think the place was used for manufacturing can-openers, automobile parts, any one of a thousand harmless products.
But it wasn't. Weapons Development represented a vital link in the country's defense program. He no longer figured they were developing a weapon to counteract Soviet aggression. They were working on something far more important. He was just ninety percent sure of that.
* * * * *
Mr. Boles was the first to arrive. He sat in an easy chair which Harry had moved close to his desk in order to better observe the man.
"Mr. Boles, my secretary tells me Colonel Waters was looking at your qualifications yesterday and was very impressed. I gather from that that the job is yours."
"Thank you, sir."
Harry shoved his chair closer to him. The toupee was intact. So was the mustache.
"Now it'll take the government about two weeks to complete a security check-up."
He could see plainly now that the man was also wearing false eyebrows and had no beard. That did it.
"I understand, sir," Boles replied.
"So all I can tell you at the moment is that you'll be hearing from us as soon as possible." Harry got up thinking the interview was over.
Mr. Boles remained seated.
"Miss Ralston would like to see you, Mr. Payne."
"Oh, yes," Harry chuckled, "I'm going to see her this evening."
"She wants to see you now."
"Afraid I can't make it right now. I have a pile of work to do. Besides I'm expecting another client of hers. Have to let him know he didn't get the job."
"Mr. Chase is waiting for us downstairs in the car. You will come with me, Mr. Payne." The order was clear and firm.
Harry didn't like it. "I don't get it. What's so important that Miss Ralston has to see me ..."
He stopped at the sight of the gun leveled at his chest.
"When we pass your secretary's desk, you will tell her you are taking an early lunch. I will return you in an hour if you cooperate."
Harry Payne knew better than to argue.
* * * * *
Mr. Chase was seated behind the wheel of a blue sedan. Boles and Harry climbed into the back seat. They drove away from Fort Dickson toward the city.
The two men remained silent during the trip. Harry had plenty of time to think. Why this sudden move of Paula's? He must have done something to motivate it. But what?
The only person he had talked to was Frank Barnes and he hadn't divulged anything to him. She couldn't be sore because he had asked Frank to check on her. Routine investigation was part of his job. She knew that. He failed to come up with an answer. He was worried. He knew who the seven men were but he didn't know where they came from. It could have been any one of a million different places. Heaven only knew what kind of people they were.
The shades were drawn in Paula's apartment. There was no sign of her. But as soon as Harry entered the room he forgot about her anyway. His gaze rested upon the small, roundish man sitting in the contour chair, the bald man with no eyebrows and no beard.
"Please be seated, Mr. Payne." The man's tone was soft and courteous.
"Which one are you?" Harry asked.
The man was amused. "I am Mr. Thompson."
"Oh, yeah," said Harry, "you're the one who kept patting your skull. Couldn't you find one that fit you?"
Nobody was amused. Boles and Chase took positions on either side of Thompson. Their faces were drawn and sober. They resembled two bankrupt morticians.
"Where is the body beautiful?" Harry asked. "Or is she no longer the body beautiful?"
"Take a look for yourself." It was Paula's voice. The familiar sultriness was missing.
Harry swung around to see her emerge from the bedroom. "Well, well, well! If it isn't Miss Lonelyhearts. Mind if I ask why I'm here? I mean the gun and all?"
He had to be flippant. It was the only way he knew to conceal the terror he felt in their presence.
She sat beside him on the sofa. "Harry, you've disappointed me. You haven't been playing the game fair and square."
"If you're referring to the private eye I put on you ..."
"I'm not, Harry. You put him on, we took him off. Those things even themselves out."
Harry shrugged. "Okay, I give up. What did I do wrong?"
"Show him, Mr. Thompson." She lit a cigarette and folded her legs under her.
Mr. Thompson reached into his pocket and produced a small object. He tossed it into Harry's lap. Harry examined it.
"Do you recognize it?" Mr. Thompson asked.
"It's a microphone," Harry replied.
"That's just what it is." Paula savagely flung her cigarette to the floor. Her own disguise, the one concealing her true, ruthless self, was gone. Her voice was cold and harsh. "How much do you know, Harry? How much?"
Harry folded his hands, rested his full weight on the arm of the sofa and crossed his legs. "How much is it worth to you?"
Paula's hand struck with fury across his face. His cheek went numb. Blood ran from an uneven gash left by the diamond in her ring. He took out his handkerchief and dabbed at the wound.
"You're real high class, aren't you, Paula? They don't make traitors as high class as you anymore."
She raised her hand and aimed for the other cheek. Thompson bolted out of his chair and grabbed her.
"I suggest you have a drink, Miss Ralston. Let us handle the rest."
Paula was furious. "He's not going to tell you anymore ..."
"We'll handle the rest!!"
* * * * *
Thompson didn't raise his voice. But there was a firmness, a deadly conviction in his inflection. Paula went for a drink.
Harry didn't like that. Paula had a temper. He could deal with her. But the others ... they displayed very little emotion. He had no idea how to handle them.
Thompson sat down again facing Harry.
"The fact is," he began gracefully, "we discovered this microphone and four others like it here in Miss Ralston's apartment. One in each room. Now we are very cautious people, Mr. Payne. We are quite certain no one knows our whereabouts. It is logical then that the microphones have not been here long. Miss Ralston's only visitors are ourselves and you. You have known her two days. So you are the only person who knows this apartment well enough to have planted these tell-tale devices in a hurry."
"Why should I want to plant them?"
"You took the trouble to have Miss Ralston investigated. But more than one means of investigation produces better results. The microphones were wired to a small radio which we located in the basement of this building. We have assumed that everything spoken into them was transmitted over the radio and recorded at your end. That makes sense, doesn't it?"
Harry was confused. "So far, so good."
"We want those recordings, Mr. Payne."
They seemed to be convinced the microphones were his. Only Harry knew it wasn't true. But to admit it might mean he wouldn't leave Paula's place alive. He derived no comfort from the knowledge that someone else was interested in Paula's activities. That wasn't helping him with his problem of the moment. He could see no clear way out. He had to keep stalling. And as long as they were so sure of themselves it might even be to his advantage to maintain a certain arrogance.
"I might as well tell you, Thompson, I have no intention of cooperating until I know a few facts about you and your friends. Like who you are, where you're from, what you're after ..."
"It is not necessary, in order to tell us where the recordings are," smiled Mr. Thompson, "that you know anything more about us."
"It isn't necessary," said Harry, "but I want to know."
Chase started to voice an objection but Harry broke in.
"And don't tell me you have more persuasive ways of making me talk. You can use force but it'll take time. Your time is valuable or you wouldn't have hustled me over here as fast as you did. So let's not waste your time. You tell me, then I'll tell you."
Thompson glanced at his two compatriots. Their faces registered dissatisfaction. Their silence said that Harry was right. Time was valuable. They would follow the path of least resistance.
"Our point of origin," Mr. Thompson began, "is Correylla, roughly seven-eighths the size of Earth, in the Syrybic Galaxy. It is approximately ... in your figures ... seventy-five trillion miles distant."
"Must be quite a trip." Harry tried to be placid.
Mr. Thompson was momentarily amused. "Travel through Time and Space is something we take for granted. The farthest corners of the Universe are ours for the reaching. That is the foremost reason for our visit to your Earth. You might call us Galactic Observers. You see, we already control the twelve inhabited planets in our own Galaxy. And at this time we have no desire to take on any more responsibility than that. But neither do we want interference from another Galaxy ... such as this one!"
* * * * *
Harry was surprised. "You're giving this world a lot of credit. We've barely moved off the Earth. What makes you think we could cause your people any trouble?"
"By merely projecting yourselves into space you have eliminated the major obstacle to space travel. Remember it took thousands of years for someone on your Earth to discover electricity. But observe the wonders you have accomplished with it in the relatively few years since it was discovered. The same principle applies to your conquest of space. We are not here to do you harm, Mr. Payne. It is merely our intention to warn you, when the time comes, of the dangers you face should you decide to venture too far."
"For people who intend no harm I'd say you and your friends are putting on quite an unconvincing show."
"I assure you, Mr. Payne, our visit to Earth was intended purely for observational purposes!"
"What do you mean, was?"
* * * * *
Thompson's face was grim. The easy chair that had accommodated his small, roundish frame so perfectly now appeared to be uncomfortable for him. A redness crept into his cheeks and spread over his smooth, tight scalp.
"The fact is that your government has known about us for six months. Our exact whereabouts has been a well guarded secret ... but they were informed of our presence here on Earth."
"Informed! But who could tell them ..."
Chase broke in impatiently. "We are wasting time! We must get those recordings!"
The interruption was dismissed with a wave of Thompson's hand.
"Your government was informed by George Fisher."
"George Fisher!" Harry gulped.
"You see, Mr. Fisher ... that wasn't really his name, you understand ... was one of us ... a member of our observation team. After we arrived here ... well, you might say he defected, gave your government the benefit of his somewhat limited knowledge."
Harry whistled. "And because of him your mission is no longer observational."
"That remains to be seen."
Harry leaned forward on the sofa. "You have any ideas, Mr. Thompson, about why he defected? I'm curious to know why a man is unhappy enough with his own lot to run away and put himself in the hands of a civilization that is in every way alien to him."
Thompson's answer was brief and deliberately ambiguous. "Mr. Fisher was a traitor. What more can be said of him?"
"So he didn't commit suicide," Harry muttered.
"That's right, Mr. Payne."
"I take it you're not sure of how much Fisher told the government before you got to him."
"Mr. Fisher's limitations were familiar to us. It is the potential of your own scientists now that they have his information that we are most concerned with."
Keep stalling, Harry reminded himself ... keep speculating, guessing, theorizing, anything for time.
"So you know the project that Weapons Development is working on but you don't know how much progress has been made. And you want to place one of your own people in there to find out."
"Thanks to you, we have succeeded in doing just that." Thompson smiled with satisfaction, having kept his part of a bargain. "Now about those recordings...."
"I'm not through asking questions."
"But I'm through answering them, Mr. Payne. Tell us where the recordings are."
* * * * *
Harry studied the clean, smooth surface of Thompson's face. There was a gentleness in his large, round eyes. There was also an unfriendliness. Harry had to keep stalling. He knew any answer he gave them would shorten his life expectancy by about thirty-five years.
"You've gotten me into a mess of trouble, Mr. Thompson. I think you owe me a little more. My memory might prove clearer if I knew what was going on at Weapons Development."
Thompson glanced at his two companions. They showed no sign of dissent.
"Very well, Mr. Payne. For some years now our people have been working on a method of reversing the polarity of the atom. We have tried to create an electro-magnetic field which would repel rather than attract. Once we are able to accomplish this we can develop an instrument capable of disturbing the molecular structure of any object in the universe."
"In other words ..." Harry frowned at him, "a weapon capable of disintegration?"
Harry sat there, stunned. A few moments seemed hardly enough to digest the knowledge that Weapons Development was working on the most incredibly advanced weapon of all time. And Mr. Thompson and company were out to sabotage it. Their people could not afford to allow another world to beat them to the punch. Who controlled this weapon controlled the universe. Stalling the aliens was more important than ever now. He couldn't heighten the danger to his own life. It wasn't worth a lead nickel anyway. If it had been, Thompson wouldn't have consented to tell him this much.
Someone else had wired Paula's apartment. It was reasonable to assume it was someone on his side.
"The recordings, please!!" Boles was becoming very impatient.
Harry looked up and found a gun at his head. "The recordings are at my office," he lied.
Thompson walked to the telephone table and brought the instrument to him. "You will call your secretary," he said, "and tell her you have been detained at lunch. You are sending Mr. Chase to pick up the recordings."
Harry glanced around the room. Paula was sulking at the bar near the door. Drowning her conscience, he thought. They must have paid her a fortune to sell out her own people. Boles and Chase both had their guns poised. Thompson picked up the receiver and extended it to him.
There was no way out, no stalling them any longer. To make a break for it would be suicidal. In the state of confusion his mind was in, he could think of only one thing to do. When he reached Miss Conway, he would have to warn her somehow—a few desperate words and pray that she would be alert enough to realize he was in trouble and get the information to the authorities.
* * * * *
He took the phone and dialed. He gave the Fort Dickson operator his office extension. He waited. The phone rang. It rang again. Then three more times. Damn that girl! Her coffee breaks were extended vacations!
Finally the phone was picked up. But the voice that answered was male.
"Who is this?" Harry demanded.
The voice replied, "Colonel Waters."
"This is Harry. I'm at Paula Ralston's apartment ... emergency...!"
The three men were on top of him. Chase smashed the butt of his gun across Harry's knuckles. The receiver fell to the floor. Harry let out a pained groan as Boles' gun butt struck him on the temple. Thompson replaced the receiver. Harry was on the floor. He put his hands to his head for protection as Chase savagely kicked at him. His vision blurred but he managed to see that Paula was still at the bar sipping a drink, sadistically enjoying the whole show.
"He's no longer any use to us," Thompson declared. "You may do your job!"
Harry shook his head, fighting to stay conscious. His vision cleared long enough to see Chase and Boles standing over him, their guns pointed at either side of his head.
There was a volley of deafening shots. There was smoke, voices, people running in every direction. More gunfire. Glass shattering. Furniture knocked over.
But Harry felt no pain.
When he looked again Chase and Boles were no longer to be seen. He caught a glimpse of Thompson running for another position of cover. A final gunshot brought him to the floor.
Harry struggled to a sitting position. Then he saw Chase and Boles dead on the floor beyond the sofa. Half a dozen soldiers were in the process of subduing a swearing, clawing Paula Ralston.
And in the doorway he saw Miss Conway.
She looked incongruous as hell with a smouldering revolver in her hand. She crossed the room and knelt beside him. She pulled him around to let his head rest on the sofa.
"Harry! Harry," she whispered, brushing his hair back, "are you hurt badly? What did they do to you?"
He tried to get up.
"You stay right where you are, honey." Her voice was soothing and gentle. There was a soft, compassionate light in her eyes. No longer that dumb stare. She leaned over and kissed him. "There. You're going to be all right."
"What the hell are you doing here?" Harry bellowed.
"Now you just sit back and relax. I'm just doing my job."
"Your jo ..." A low steady wail rolled off his lips. "Oh, no! Say it isn't so. Tell me I'm really dead. I know I deserve to be."
"I may be the world's lousiest secretary, but I'm considered not bad in the counter-intelligence department."
Harry repeated the wail.
"We were afraid from the time George Fisher turned himself over to the government," she continued, "that his days were numbered. But the longer he remained alive the more apprehensive his people would become. We figured one day they'd make a wrong move. And that would be their big mistake. Well, their move was to kill George Fisher and try to get one of their own agents into Weapons Development. That meant exposing themselves. It also meant you had to be watched ... among others. That's where I came in."
"And playing it about as dumb as I've ever seen."
She laughed. "Sounds like I played the part a little too convincingly."
She stood up and helped him to his feet. "You're coming with me."
"Where to? Hey, what are you doing?"
"There's something about this place that I don't like. I'm no sultry brunette, but I'm not a dumb blonde either." She kissed him, then took a last look at Paula's place and led him out the door.
This etext was produced from Amazing Stories November 1959. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed. Minor spelling and typographical errors have been corrected without note.