Time in Advance
by William Tenn
Twenty minutes after the convict ship landed at the New York Spaceport, reporters were allowed aboard. They came boiling up the main corridor, pushing against the heavily armed guards who were conducting them, the feature-story men and byline columnists in the lead, the TV people with their portable but still heavy equipment cursing along behind.
As they went, they passed little groups of spacemen in the black-and-red uniform of the Interstellar Prison Service walking rapidly in the opposite direction, on their way to enjoy five days of planetside leave before the ship roared away once more with a new cargo of convicts.
The impatient journalists barely glanced at these drab personalities who were spending their lives in a continuous shuttle from one end of the Galaxy to the other. After all, the life and adventures of an IPS man had been done thousands of times, done to death. The big story lay ahead.
In the very belly of the ship, the guards slid apart two enormous sliding doors—and quickly stepped aside to avoid being trampled. The reporters almost flung themselves against the iron bars that ran from floor to ceiling and completely shut off the great prison chamber. Their eager, darting stares were met with at most a few curious glances from the men in coarse gray suits who lay or sat in the tiers of bunks that rose in row after sternly functional row all the way down the cargo hold. Each man clutched—and some caressed—a small package neatly wrapped in plain brown paper.
The chief guard ambled up on the other side of the bars, picking the morning’s breakfast out of his front teeth. “Hi, boys,” he said. “Who’re you looking for—as if I didn’t know?”
One of the older, more famous columnists held the palm of his hand up warningly. “Look, Anderson: no games. The ship’s been almost a half-hour late in landing and we were stalled for fifteen minutes at the gangplank. Now where the hell are they?”
Anderson watched the TV crews shoulder a place for themselves and their equipment right up to the barrier. He tugged a last bit of food out of one of his molars.
“Ghouls,” he muttered. “A bunch of grave-happy, funeral-hungry ghouls.” Then he hefted his club experimentally a couple of times and clattered it back and forth against the bars. “Crandall!” he bellowed. “Henck! Front and center!”
The cry was picked up by the guards strolling about, steadily, measuredly, club-twirlingly, inside the prison pen. “Crandall! Henck! Front and center!” It went ricocheting authoritatively up and down the tremendous curved walls. “Crandall! Henck! Front and center!”
Nicholas Crandall sat up cross-legged in his bunk on the fifth tier and grimaced. He had been dozing and now he rubbed a hand across his eyes to erase the sleep. There were three parallel scars across the back of his hand, old and brown and straight scars such as an animal’s claws might rake out. There was also a curious zigzag scar just above his eyes that had a more reddish novelty. And there was a tiny, perfectly round hole in the middle of his left ear which, after coming fully awake, he scratched in annoyance.
“Reception committee,” he grumbled. “Might have known. Same old goddam Earth as ever.”
He flipped over on his stomach and reached down to pat the face of the little man snoring on the bunk immediately under him. “Otto,” he called. “Blotto Otto—up and at ’em! They want us.”
Henck immediately sat up in the same cross-legged fashion, even before his eyes had opened. His right hand went to his throat where there was a little network of zigzag scars of the same color and size as the one Crandall had on his forehead. The hand was missing an index and forefinger.
“Henck here, sir,” he said thickly, then shook his head and stared up at Crandall. “Oh—Nick. What’s up?”
“We’ve arrived, Blotto Otto,” the taller man said from the bunk above. “We’re on Earth and they’re getting our discharges ready. In about half an hour, you’ll be able to wrap that tongue of yours around as much brandy, beer, vodka and rotgut whiskey as you can pay for. No more prison-brew, no more raisin-jack from a tin can under the bed, Blotto Otto.”
Henck grunted and flopped down on his back again. “In half an hour, but not now, so why did you have to go and wake me up? What do you take me for, some dewy, post-crime, petty-larceny kid, sweating out my discharge with my eyes open and my gut wriggling? Hey, Nick, I was dreaming of a new way to get Elsa, a brand-new, really ugly way.”
“The screws are in an uproar,” Crandall told him, still in a low, patient voice. “Hear them? They want us, you and me.”
Henek sat up again, listened a moment, and nodded. “Why is it,” he asked, “that only space-screws have voices like that?”
“It’s a requirement of the service,” Crandall assured him.
“You’ve got to be at least a minimum height, have a minimum education and with a minimum nasty voice of just the right ear-splitting quality before you can get to be a space-screw. Otherwise, no matter how vicious a personality you have, you are just plain out of luck and have to stay behind on Earth and go on getting your kicks by running down slowpoke ’copters driven by old ladies.”
A guard stopped below, banged angrily at one of the metal posts that supported their tier of bunks. “Crandall! Henck! You’re still convicts, don’t you forget that! If you don’t front-and-center in a double-time hurry, I’ll climb up there and work you over once more for old-time’s sake!”
“Yes, sir! Coming, sir!” they said in immediate, mumbling unison and began climbing down from bunk to bunk, each still clutching the brown-paper package that contained the clothes they had once worn as free men and would shortly be allowed to wear again.
“Listen, Otto.” Crandall leaned down as they climbed and brought his lips close to the little man’s ear in the rapid-fire, extremely low-pitched prison whisper. “They’re taking us to meet the television and news boys. We’re going to be asked a lot of questions. One thing you want to be sure to keep your lip buttoned about—”
“Television and news? Why us? What do they want with us?”
“Because we’re celebrities, knockhead! We’ve seen it through for the big rap and come out on the other side. How many men do you think have made it? But listen, will you? If they ask you who it is you’re after, you just shut up and smile. You don’t answer that question. Got that? You don’t tell them whose murder you were sentenced for, no matter what they say. They can’t make you. That’s the law.”
Henck paused a moment, one and a half bunks from the floor. “But, Nick, Elsa knows! I told her that day, just before I turned myself in. She knows I wouldn’t take a murder rap for anyone but her!”
“She knows, she knows, of course she knows!” Crandall swore briefly and almost inaudibly. “But she can’t prove it, you goddam human blotter! Once you say so public, though, she’s entitled to arm herself and shoot you down on sight—pleading self-defense. And till you say so, she can’t; she’s still your poor wife whom you’ve promised to love, honor and cherish. As far as the world is concerned—
The guard reached up with his club and jolted them both angrily across the back. They dropped to the floor and cringed as be snarled over them: “Did I say you could have a talk-party? Did I? If we have any time left before you get your discharge, I’m taking you cuties into the guardroom for one last big going-over. Now pick them up and put them down!”
They scuttled in front of him obediently, like a pair of chickens before a snapping collie. At the barred gate near the end of the prison hold, he saluted and said: “Pre-criminals Nicholas Crandall and Otto Henck, sir.”
Chief Guard Anderson wiped the salute back at him carelessly. “These gentlemen want to ask you fellas a couple of questions. Won’t hurt you to answer. That’s all, O’Brien.”
His voice was very jovial. He was wearing a big, gentle, half-moon smile. As the subordinate guard saluted and moved away, Crandall let his mind regurgitate memories of Anderson all through this month-long trip from Proxima Centaurus. Anderson nodding thoughtfully as that poor Minelli—Steve Minelli, hadn’t that been his name?—was made to run through a gauntlet of club-swinging guards for going to the toilet without permission. Anderson chuckling just a moment before he’d kicked a gray-headed convict in the groin for talking on the chow-line. Anderson—
Well, the guy had guts, anyway, knowing that his ship carried two pre-criminals who had served out a murder sentence. But he probably also knew that they wouldn’t waste the murder on him, however viciously he acted. A man doesn’t volunteer for a hitch in hell just so he can knock off one of the devils.
“Do we have to answer these questions, sir?” Crandall asked cautiously, tentatively.
The chief guard’s smile lost the tiniest bit of its curvature. “I said it wouldn’t hurt you, didn’t I? But other things might. They still might, Crandall. I’d like to do these gentlemen from the press a favor, so you be nice and cooperative, eh?” He gestured with his chin, ever so slightly, in the direction of the guard-room and hefted his club a bit.
“Yes, sir,” Crandall said, while Henck nodded violently. “We’ll be cooperative, sir.”
Dammit, he thought, if only I didn’t have such a use for that murder! Let’s keep remembering Stephanson, boy, no one but Stephanson! Not Anderson, not O’Brien, not anybody else: the name under discussion is Frederick Stoddard Stephanson!
While the television men on the other side of the bars were fussing their equipment into position, the two convicts answered the preliminary, inevitable questions of the feature writers :
“How does it feel to be back?”
“Fine, just fine.”
“What’s the first thing you’re going to do when you get your discharge?”
“Eat a good meal.” (From Crandall.)
“Get roaring drunk.” (From Henck.)
“Careful you don’t wind up right behind bars again as a post-criminal.” (From one of the feature writers.) A good-natured laugh in which all of them, the newsmen, Chief Guard Anderson, and Crandall and Henck, participated.
“How were you treated while you were prisoners?”
“Oh, pretty good.” (From both of them, concurrent with a thoughtful glance at Anderson’s club.)
“Either of you care to tell us who you’re going to murder?”
“Either of you changed your mind and decided not to commit the murder?”
(Crandall looked thoughtfully up, while Henck looked thoughtfully down.) Another general laugh, a bit more uneasy this time, Crandall and Henck not participating.
“All right, we’re set. Look this way, please,” the television announcer broke in. “And smile, men—let’s have a really big smile.”
Crandall and Henck dutifully emitted big smiles, which made three smiles, for Anderson had moved into the cheerful little group.
The two cameras shot out of the grasp of their technicians, one hovering over them, one moving restlessly before their faces, both controlled, at a distance, by the little box of switches in. the cameramen’s hands. A red bulb in the nose of one of the cameras lit up.
“Here we are, ladies and gentlemen of the television audience,” the announcer exuded in a lavish voice. “We are on board the convict ship Jean Valjean, which has just landed at the New York Spaceport. We are here to meet two men—two of the rare men who have managed to serve all of a voluntary sentence for murder and thus are legally entitled to commit one murder apiece.
“In just a few moments, they will be discharged after having served out seven full years on the convict planets—and they will be free to kill any man or woman in the Solar System with absolutely no fear of any kind of retribution. Take a good look at them, ladies and gentlemen of the television audience—it might be you they are after!”
After this cheering thought, the announcer let a moment or two elapse while the cameras let their lenses stare at the two men in prison gray. Then he stepped into range himself and addressed the smaller man.
“What is your name, sir?” he asked.
“Pre-criminal Otto Henck, 525514,” Blotto Otto responded automatically, though not able to repress a bit of a start at the sir.
“How does it feel to be back?”
“Fine, just fine.”
“What’s the first thing you’re going to do when you get your discharge?”
Henck hesitated, then said, “Eat a good meal,” after a shy look at Crandall.
“How were you treated while you were a prisoner?”
“Oh, pretty good. As good as you could expect.”
“As good as a criminal could expect, eh? Although you’re not really a criminal yet, are you? You’re a pre-criminal.”
Henck smiled as if this were the first time he was hearing the term. “That’s right, sir. I’m a pre-criminal.”
“Want to tell the audience who the person is you’re going to become a criminal for?”
Henck looked reproachfully at the announcer, who chuckled throatily—and alone.
“Or if you’ve changed your mind about him or her?” There was a pause. Then the announcer said a little nervously: “You’ve served seven years on danger-filled, alien planets, preparing them for human colonization. That’s the maximum sentence the law allows, isn’t it?”
“That’s right, sir. With the pre-criminal discount for serving the sentence in advance, seven years is the most you can get for murder.”
“Bet you’re glad we’re not back in the days of capital punishment, eh? That would make the whole thing impractical, wouldn’t it? Now, Mr. Henck—or pre-criminal Henck, I guess I should still call you—suppose you tell the ladies and gentlemen of our television audience: What was the most horrifying experience you had while you were serving your sentence?”
“Well,” Otto Henck considered carefully. “About the worst of the lot, I guess, was the time on Antares VIII, the second prison camp I was in, when the big wasps started to spawn. They got a wasp on Antares VIII, see, that’s about a hundred times the size of—”
“Is that how you lost two fingers on your right hand?”
Henck brought his hand up and studied it for a moment. “No. The forefinger—I lost the forefinger on Rigel XII. We were building the first prison camp on the planet and I dug up a funny kind of red rock that had all sorts of little humps on it. I poked it, kind of—you know, just to see how hard it was or something-and the tip of my finger disappeared. Pow—just like that. Later on, the whole finger got infected and the medics had to cut it off.
“It turned out I was lucky, though; some of the men—the convicts, I mean—ran into bigger rocks than the one I found. Those guys lost arms, legs—one guy even got swallowed whole. They weren’t really rocks, see. They were alive—they were alive and hungry! Rigel XII was lousy with them. The middle finger—I lost the middle finger in a dumb kind of accident on board ship while we were being moved to—”
The announcer nodded intelligently, cleared his throat and said: `But those wasps, those giant wasps on Antares VIII—they were the worst?”
Blotto Otto blinked at him for a moment before he found the conversation again.
“Oh. They sure were! They were used to laying their eggs in a kind of monkey they have on Antares VIII, see? It was real rough on the monkey, but that’s how the baby wasps got their food while they were growing up. Well, we get out there and it turns out that the wasps can’t see any difference between those Antares monkeys and human beings. First thing you know, guys start collapsing all over the place and when they’re taken to the dispensary for an X-ray, the medics see that they’re completely crammed—
“Thank you very much, Mr. Henck, but Herkimer’s Wasp has already been seen by and described to our audience at least three times in the past on the Interstellar Travelogue, which is carried by this network, as you ladies and gentlemen no doubt remember, on Wednesday evening from seven to seven-thirty P.M. terrestrial standard time. And now, Mr. Crandall, let me ask you, sir: How does it feel to be back?”
Crandall stepped up and was put through almost exactly the same verbal paces as his fellow prisoner.
There was one major difference. The announcer asked him if he expected to find Earth much changed. Crandall started to shrug, then abruptly relaxed and grinned. He was careful to make the grin an extremely wide one, exposing a maximum of tooth and a minimum of mirth.
“There’s one big change I can see already,” he said. “The way those cameras float around and are controlled from a little switchbox in the cameraman’s hand. That gimmick I wasn’t around the day I left. Whoever invented it must have been pretty clever.”
“Oh, yes?” The announcer glanced briefly backward. “You mean the Stephanson Remote Control Switch? It was invented by Frederick Stoddard Stephanson about five years ago—Was it five years, Don?”
“Six years,” said the cameraman. “Went on the market five years ago.”
“It was invented six years ago,” the announcer translated. “It went on the market five years ago.”
Crandall nodded. “Well, this Frederick Stoddard Stephanson must be a clever man, a very clever man.” And he grinned again into the cameras. Look at my teeth, he thought to himself. I know you’re watching, Freddy. Look at my teeth and shiver.
The announcer seemed a bit disconcerted. “Yes,” he said. “Exactly. Now, Mr. Crandall, what would you describe as the most horrifying experience in your entire… ”
After the TV men had rolled up their equipment and departed, the two pre-criminals were subjected to a final barrage of questions from the feature writers and columnists in search of odd shreds of color.
“What about the women in your life?”
“What books, what hobbies, what amusements filled your time?”
“Did you find out that there are no atheists on convict planets?”
“If you had the whole thing to do over again—”
As he answered, drably, courteously, Nicholas Crandall was thinking about Frederick Stoddard Stephanson seated in front of his luxurious wall-size television set.
Would Stephanson have clicked it off by now? Would he be sitting there, staring at the blank screen, pondering the plans of the man who had outlived odds estimated at ten thousand to one and returned after seven full, unbelievable years in the prison camps of four insane planets?
Would Stephanson be examining his blaster with sucked-in lips—the blaster that he might use only in an open-and-shut situation of self-defense? Otherwise, he would incur the full post-criminal sentence for murder, which, without the fifty per cent discount for punishment voluntarily undergone in advance of the crime, was as much as fourteen years in the many-pronged hell from which Crandall had just returned?
Or would Stephanson be sitting, slumped in an expensive bubblechair, glumly watching a still-active screen, frightened out of his wits but still unable to tear himself away from the well-organized program the network had no doubt built around the return of two—count ’em: two!—homicidal pre-criminals?
At the moment, in all probability, the screen was showing an interview with some Earthside official of the Interstellar Prison Service, an expansive public relations character who had learned to talk in sociology.
“Tell me, Mr. Public Relations,” the announcer would ask (a different announcer, more serious, more intellectual), “how often do pre-criminals serve out a sentence for murder and return?”
“According to statistics—” a rustle of papers at this point and a penetrating glance downward—“according to statistics, we may expect a man who has served a full sentence for murder, with the 50 per cent pre-criminal discount, to return only once in 11.7 years on the average.”
“You would say, then, wouldn’t you, Mr. Public Relations, that the return of two such men on the same day is a rather unusual situation?”
“Highly unusual or you television fellas wouldn’t be in such a fuss over it.” A thick chuckle here, which the announcer dutifully echoes.
“And what, Mr. Public Relations, happens to the others who don’t return?”
A large, well-fed hand gestures urbanely. “They get killed. Or they give up. Those are the only two alternatives. Seven years is a long time to spend on those convict planets. The work schedule isn’t for sissies and neither are the life-forms they encounter—the big man-eating ones as well as the small virus-sized types.
“That’s why prison guards get such high salaries and such long leaves. In a sense, you know, we haven’t really abolished capital punishment; we’ve substituted a socially useful form of Russian Roulette for it. Any man who commits or pre-commits one of a group of particularly reprehensible crimes is sent off to a planet where his services will benefit humanity and where he’s forced to take his chances on coming back in one piece, if at all. The more serious the crime, the longer the sentence and, therefore, the more remote the chances.”
“I see. Now, Mr. Public Relations, you say they either get killed or they give up. Would you explain to the audience, if you please, just how they give up and what happens if they do?”
Here a sitting back in the chair, a locking of pudgy fingers over paunch. “You see, any pre-criminal may apply to his warden for immediate abrogation of sentence. It’s just a matter of filling out the necessary forms. He’s pulled off work detail right then and there and is sent home on the very next ship out of the place. The catch is this: Every bit of time he’s served up to that point is canceled—he gets nothing for it.
“If he commits an actual crime after being freed, he has to serve the full sentence. If he wants to be committed as a pre-criminal again, he has to start serving the sentence, with the discount, from the beginning. Three out of every four pre-criminals apply for abrogation of sentence in their very first year. You get a bellyful fast in those places.”
“I guess you certainly do,” agrees the announcer. “What about the discount, Mr. Public Relations? Aren’t there people who feel that’s offering the pre-criminal too much inducement?”
The barest grimace of anger flows across the sleek face, to be succeeded by a warm, contemptuous smile. “Those are people, I’m afraid, who, however well-intentioned, are not well versed in the facts of modern criminology and penology. We don’t want to discourage pre-criminals; we want to encourage them to turn themselves in.
“Remember what I said about three out of four applying for abrogation of sentence in their very first year? Now these are individuals who were sensible enough to try to get a discount on their sentence. Are they likely to be foolish enough to risk twice as much when they have found out conclusively they can’t stand a bare twelve months of it? Not to mention what they have discovered about the value of human life, the necessity for social cooperation and the general desirability of civilized processes on those worlds where simple survival is practically a matter of a sweepstakes ticket.
“The man who doesn’t apply for abrogation of sentence? Well, he has that much more time to let the desire to commit the crime go cold—and that much greater likelihood of getting killed with nothing to show for it. Therefore, so few pre-criminals in any of the categories return to tell the tale and do the deed that the social profit is absolutely enormous! Let me give you a few figures.
“Using the Lazarus Scale, it has been estimated that the decline in premeditated homicides alone, since the institution of the pre-criminal discount, has been forty-one per cent on Earth, thirty-three and a third per cent on Venus, twenty-seven per cent—”
Cold comfort, chillingly cold comfort, that would be to Stephanson, Nicholas Crandall reflected pleasurably, those forty-one per cents and thirty-three and a third per cents. Crandall’s was the balancing statistic: the man who wanted to murder, and for good and sufficient cause, one Frederick Stoddard Stephanson. He was a leftover fraction on a page of reductions and cancellations—he had returned, astonishingly, unbelievably, after seven years to collect the merchandise for which he had paid in advance.
He and Henck. Two ridiculously long long-shots. Henck’s’ wife Elsa—was she, too, sitting in a kind of bird-hypnotized-by-a-snake fashion before her television set, hoping dimly and desperately that some comment of the Interstellar Prison, Service official would show her how to evade her fate, how to get out from under the ridiculously rare disaster that was about to happen to her?
Well, Elsa was Blotto Otto’s affair. Let him enjoy it in his own way; he’d paid enough for the privilege. But Stepharson was Crandall’s.
Oh, let the arrogant bean-pole sweat, he prayed. Let me take my time and let him sweat!
The newsman kept squeezing them for story angles until a loudspeaker in the overhead suddenly cleared its diaphragm and announced:
“Prisoners, prepare for discharge! You will proceed to the ship warden’s office in groups of ten, as your name is called. Convict ship discipline will be maintained throughout. Arthur, Augluk, Crandall, Ferrara, Fu-Yen, Garfinkel, Gomez, Graham, Henck—”
A half hour later, they were walking down the main corridor of the ship in their civilian clothes. They showed their discharges to the guard at the gangplank, smiled still cringingly back at Anderson, who called from a porthole, “Hey, fellas, come back soon!” and trotted down the incline to the surface of a planet they had not seen for seven agonizing and horror-crowded years.
There were a few reporters and photographers still waiting for them, and one TV crew which had been left behind to let the world see how they looked at the moment of freedom.
Questions, more questions to answer, which they could afford to be brusque about, although brusqueness to any but fellow prisoners still came hard.
Fortunately, the newsmen got interested in another pre-criminal who was with them. Fu-Yen had completed the discounted sentence of two years for aggravated assault and battery. He had also lost both arms and one leg to a corrosive moss on Procyon III just before the end of his term and came limping down the gangplank on one real and one artificial leg, unable to grasp the handrails.
As he was being asked, with a good deal of interest, just how he intended to commit simple assault and battery, let alone the serious kind, with his present limited resources, Crandall nudged Henck and they climbed quickly into one of the many hovering gyrocabs. They told the driver to take them to a bar—any quiet bar—in the city.
Blotto Otto nearly went to nieces under the impact of actual free choice. “I can’t do it,” he whispered. “Nick, there’s just too damn much to drink!”
Crandall settled it by ordering for him. “Two double scotches,” he told the waitress. “Nothing else.”
When the scotch came, Blotto Otto stared at it with the kind of affectionate and wistful astonishment a man might show toward an adolescent son whom he saw last as a bubo in arms. He put out a gingerly, trembling hand.
“Here’s death to our enemies,” Crandall said, and tossed his down. He watched Otto sip slowly and carefully, tasting each individual drop.
“You’d better take it easy,” he warned. “Elsa might have no more trouble from you than bringing flowers every visiting day to the alcoholic ward.”
“No fear,” Blotto Otto growled into his empty glass. “I was weaned on this stuff. And, anyway, it’s the last drink I have until I dump her. That’s the way I’ve been figuring it, Nick: one drink to celebrate, then Elsa. I didn’t go through those seven years to mess myself up at the payoff.”
He set the glass down. “Seven years in one steaming hell after another. And before that, twelve years with Elsa. Twelve years with her pulling every dirty trick in the book on me, laughing in my face, telling me she was my wife and had me legally where she wanted me, that I was gonna support her the way she wanted to be supported and I was gonna like it. And if I dared to get off my knees and stand on my hind legs, pow, she found a way to get me arrested.
“The weeks I spent in the cooler, in the workhouse, until Elsa would tell the judge maybe I’d learned my lesson, she was willing to give me one more chance! And me begging for a divorce on my knees—hell, on my belly!—no children, she’s able-bodied, she’s young, and her laughing in my face. When she wanted me in the cooler, see, then she’s crying in front of the judge; but when we’re alone, she’s always laughing her head off to see me squirm.
“I supported her, Nick. Honest, I gave her almost every cent I made, but that wasn’t enough. She liked to see me squirm; she told me she did. Well, who’s squirming now?” He grunted deep in his throat. “Marriage—it’s for chumps!”
Crandall looked out of the open window he was sitting against, down through the dizzy, busy levels of Metropolitan New York.
“Maybe it is,” he said thoughtfully. “I wouldn’t know. My marriage was good while it lasted, five years of it. Then, all of a sudden, it wasn’t good any more, just so much rancid butter.”
“At least she gave you a divorce,” said Henck. “She didn’t take you.”
“Oh, Polly wasn’t the kind of girl to take anyone. A little mixed up, but maybe no more than I was. Pretty Polly, I called her; Big Nick, she called me. The starlight faded and so did I, I guess. I was still knocking myself out then trying to make a go out of the wholesale electronics business with Irv. Anyone could tell I wasn’t cut out to be a millionaire. Maybe that was it. Anyway, Polly wanted out and I gave it to her. We parted friends. I wonder, every once in a while, what she’s—”
There was a slight splashy noise, like a seal’s flipper making a gesture in the water. Crandall’s eyes came back to the table a moment after the green, melonlike ball had hit it. And, at the same instant, Henck’s hand had swept the ball up and hurled it through the window. The long, green threads streamed out of the ball, but by then it was falling down the side of the enormous building and the threads found no living flesh to take root in.
From the corner of his eye, Crandall had seen a man bolt out of the bar. By the way people kept looking back and forth fearfully from their table to the open doorway, he deduced that the man had thrown it. Evidently Stephanson had thought it worthwhile to have Crandall followed and neutralized.
Blotto Otto saw no point in preening over his reflexes. The two of them had learned to move fast a long time ago over a lot of dead bodies. “A Venusian dandelion bomb,” he observed. “Well, at least the guy doesn’t want to kill you, Nick. He just wants to cripple you.”
“That would be Stephanson’s style,” Crandall agreed, as they paid their check and walked past the faces which were just now beginning to turn white. “He’d never do it himself. He’d hire a bully-boy. And he’d do the hiring through an intermediary just in case the bully-boy ever got caught and blabbed. But that still wouldn’t be safe enough: he wouldn’t want to risk a post-criminal murder charge.
“A dose of Venusian dandelion, he’d figure, and he wouldn’t have to worry about me for the rest of my life. He might even come to visit me in the home for incurables—like the way he sent me a card every Christmas of my sentence. Always the same message: ‘Still mad? Love, Freddy.’ ”
“Quite a guy, this Stephanson,” Blotto Otto said, peering around the entrance carefully before stepping out of the bar and onto the fifteenth level walkway.
“Yeah, quite a guy. He’s got the world by the tail and every once in a while, just for fun, he twists the tail. I learned how he operated when we were roommates way back in college, but do you think that did me any good? I ran into him just when that wholesale electronics business with Irv was really falling apart, about two years after I broke up with Polly.
“I was feeling blue and I wanted to talk to someone, so I told him all about how my partner was a penny-watcher and I was a big dreamer, and how between us we were turning a possible nice small business into a definite big bankruptcy. And then I got onto this remote-control switch I’d been fooling around with and how I wished I had time to develop it.”
Blotto Otto kept glancing around uneasily, not from dread of another assassin, but out of the unexpected sensation of doing so much walking of his own free will. Several passersby turned around to have another stare at their out-of-fashion knee-length tunics.
“So there I was,” Crandall went on. “I was a fool, I know, but take my word, Otto, you have no idea how persuasive and friendly a guy like Freddy Stephanson can be. He tells me he has this house in the country he isn’t using right now and there’s a complete electronics lab in the basement. It’s all mine, if I want it, as long as I want it, starting next week; all I have to worry about is feeding myself. And be doesn’t want any rent or anything—it’s for old time’s sake and because he wants to see me do something really big in the world.
“How smart could I be with a con-artist like that? It wasn’t till two years later that I realized he must have had the electronics lab installed the same week I was asking Irv to buy me out of the business for a couple of hundred credits. After all, what would Stephanson, the owner of a brokerage firm, be doing with an electronics lab of his own? But who figures such things when an old roommate’s so warm and friendly and interested in you?”
Otto sighed. “So he comes up to see you every few weeks. And then, about a month after you’ve got it all finished and working, he locks you out of the place and moves all your papers and stuff to another joint. And he tells you he’ll have it patented long before you can get it all down on paper again, and anyhow it was his place—he can always claim he was subsidizing you. Then he laughs in your face, just like Elsa. Huh, Nick?”
Crandall bit his lip as he realized how thoroughly Otto Henck must have memorized the material. How many times had they gone over each other’s planned revenge and the situations which had motivated it? How many times had they told and retold the same bitter stories to each other, elicited the same responses from each other, the same questions, the same agreements and even the very same disagreements?
Suddenly, he wanted to get away from the little man and enjoy the luxury of loneliness. He saw the sparkling roof of a hotel two levels down.
“Think I’ll move into that. Ought to be thinking about a place to sleep tonight.”
Otto nodded at his mood rather than at his state-ment. “Sure. I know just how you feel. But that’s pretty plush, Nick: The Capricorn-Ritz. At least twelve credits a day.”
“So what? I can live high for a week, if I want to. And with my background, I can always pick up a fast job as soon as I get low. I want something plush for tonight, Blotto Otto.”
“Okay, okay. You got my address, huh, Nick? I’ll be at my cousin’s place.”
“I have it, all right. Luck with Elsa, Otto.”
“Thanks, Luck with Freddy. Uh—so long.” The little man turned abruptly and entered a main street elevator. When the doors slid shut, Crandall found that he was feeling very uncomfortable. Henck had meant more to him than his own brother. Well, after all, he’d been with Henek day and night for a long time now. And he hadn’t seen Dan for—how long was it?—almost nine years.
He reflected on how little he was attached to the world, if you excluded the rather negative desire of removing Stephanson from it. One thing he should get soon was a girl—almost any girl.
But, come to think of it, there was something he needed even more.
He walked swiftly to the nearest drugstore. It was a large one, part of a chain. And there, featured prominently in the window, was exactly what he wanted.
At the cigar counter, he said to the clerk: “It’s pretty cheap. Do they work all right?”
The clerk drew himself up. “Before we put an item on sale, sir, it is tested thoroughly. We are the largest retail outlet in the Solar System—that’s why it’s so cheap.
“All right. Give me the medium-sized one. And two boxes of cartridges.”
With the blaster in his possession, he felt much more secure. He had a good deal of confidence—based on years of escaping creatures with hair-trigger nervous systems—in his ability to duck and wriggle and jump to one side. But it would he nice to be able to fight back. And how did he know how soon Stephanson would try again?
He registered under a false name, a ruse he thought of at the last moment. That it wasn’t worth much, as ruses went, he found out when the bellhop, after being tipped, said: “Thank you, Mr. Crandall. I hope you get your victim, sir.”
So he was a celebrity. Probably everyone in the world knew exactly what he looked like. All of which might make it a bit more difficult to get at Stephanson.
While he was taking a bath, he asked the television set to check through Information’s file on the man. Stephanson had been rich and moderately important seven years ago; with the Stephanson Switch—how do you like that, the Stephanson.
Switch!—he must be even richer now and much more important.
He was. The television set informed Crandall that in the last calendar month, there were sixteen news items relating to Frederick Stoddard Stephanson. Crandall considered, then asked for the most recent.
That was datelined today. “Frederick Stephanson, the president of the Stephanson Investment Trust and Stephanson Electronics Corporation, left early this morning for his hunting lodge in Central Tibet. He expects to remain there for at least—”
“That’s enough!” Crandall called through the bathroom door.
Stephanson was scared! The arrogant beanpole was frightened silly! That was something; in fact, it was a large part of the return on those seven years. Let him seethe in his own sweat for a while, until he found the actual killing, when it did come at last, almost welcome.
Crandall asked the set for the fresh news and was immediately treated to a bulletin about himself and how he had registered at the Capricorn-Ritz under the name of Alexander Smathers. “But neither is the correct name, ladies and gentlemen,” the playback rolled out unctuously. “Neither Nicholas Crandall nor Alexander Smathers is the right name for this man. There is only one name for that man—and that name is death! Yes, the grim reaper has taken up residence at the Ritz-Capricorn Hotel tonight, and only he knows which one of us will not see another sunrise. That man, that grim reaper, that deputy of death, is the only one among us who knows—”
“Shut up!” Crandall yelled, exasperated. He had almost forgotten the kind of punishment a free man was forced to endure.
The private phone circuit on the television screen lit up.
He dried himself, hurried into clothes and asked, “Who’s calling?”
“Mrs. Nicholas Crandall,” said the operator’s voice.
He stared at the blank screen for a moment, absolutely thunderstruck. Polly! Where in the world had she come from? And how did she know where he was? No, the last part was easy—he was a celebrity.
“Put her on,” he said at last.
Polly’s face filled the screen. Crandall studied her quizzically. She’d aged a bit, but possibly it wasn’t obvious at anything but this magnification.
As if she realized it herself, Polly adjusted the controls on her set and her face dwindled to life-size, the rest of her body as well as her surroundings coming into the picture. She was evidently in the living room of her home; it looked like a low-to-middle-income-range furnished apartment. But she looked good—awfully good. There were such warm memories …
“Hi, Polly. What’s this all about? You’re the last person I expected to call me.”
“Hello, Nick.” She lifted her hand to her mouth and stared over its knuckles for some time at him. Then: “Nick. Please. Please don’t play games with me.”
He dropped into a chair. “Huh?”
She began to cry. “Oh, Nick! Don’t! Don’t be that cruel! I know why you served that sentence those seven years. The moment I heard your name today, I knew why you did it. But, Nick, it was only one man—just one man, Nick!”
“Just one man what?”
“It was just that one man I was unfaithful with. And I thought he loved me, Nick. I wouldn’t have divorced you if I’d known what he was really like. But you know, Nick, don’t you? You know how much he made me suffer. I’ve been punished enough. Don’t kill me, Nick! Please don’t kill me!”
“Listen, Polly,” he began, completely confused. “Polly girl, for heaven’s sake—”
“Nick!” she gulped hysterically. “Nick, it was over eleven years ago—ten, at least. Don’t kill me for that, please, Nick! Nick, truly, I wasn’t unfaithful to you for more than a year, two years at the most. Truly, Nick! And, Nick, it was only that one affair—the others didn’t count. They were just—just casual things. They didn’t matter at all, Nick! But don’t kill me! Don’t kill me!” She held both hands to her face and began rocking back and forth, moaning uncontrollably.
Crandall stared at her for a moment and moistened his lips. Then he said, “Whew!” and turned the set off. He leaned back in his chair. Again he said, “Whew!” and this time it hissed through his teeth.
Polly! Polly had been unfaithful during their marriage. For a year—no, two years! And—what had she said?—the others, the others had just been casual things!
The woman he had loved, the woman he suspected he had always loved, the woman he had given up with infinite regret and a deep sense of guilt when she had come to him and said that the business had taken the best part of him away from her, but that since it wasn’t fair to ask him to give up something that obviously meant so much to him.
Pretty Polly. Polly girl. He’d never thought of another woman in all their time together. And if anyone, anyone at all, had ever suggested—had so much as hinted —he’d have used a monkey wrench on the meddler’s face. He’d given her the divorce only because she’d asked for it, but he’d hoped that when the business got on its feet and Irv’s bookkeeping end covered a wider stretch of it, they might get back together again. Then, of course, business grew worse, Irv’s wife got sick and he put even less time in at the office and—
“I feel,” he said to himself numbly, “as if I’ve just found out for certain that there is no Santa Claus. Not Polly, not all those good years! One affair! And the others were just casual things!”
The telephone circuit went off again. “Who is it?” he snarled.
“Mr. Edward Ballaskia.”
“What’s he want?” Not Polly, not Pretty Polly!
An extremely fat man came on the sceen. He looked to right and left cautiously. “I must ask you, Mr. Crandall, if you are positive that this line isn’t tapped.”
“What the hell do you want?” Crandall found himself wishing that the fat man were here in person. He’d love to sail into sombody right now.
Mr. Edward Ballaskia shook his head disapprovingly, his jowls jiggling slowly behind the rest of his face. “Well, then, sir, if you won’t give me your assurances, I am forced to take a chance. I am calling, Mr. Crandall, to ask you to forgive your enemies, to turn the other cheek. I am asking you to remember faith, hope and charity—and that the greatest of these is charity. In other words, sir, open your heart to him or her you intended to kill, understand the weaknesses which caused them to give offenses—and forgive them.”
“Why should I?” Crandall demanded.
“Because it is to your profit to do so, sir. Not merely morally profitable—although let us not overlook the life of the spirit—but financially profitable. Financially profitable, Mr. Crandall.”
“Would you kindly tell me what you are talking about?”
The fat man leaned forward and smiled confidentially. “If you can forgive the person who caused you to go off and suffer seven long, seven miserable years of acute discomfort, Mr. Crandall, I am prepared to make you a most attractive offer. You are entitled to commit one murder. I desire to have one murder committed. I am very wealthy. You, I judge—and please take no umbrage, sir—are very poor.
“I can make you comfortable for the rest of your life, extremely comfortable, Mr. Crandall, if only you will put aside your thoughts, your unworthy thoughts, of anger and personal vengeance. I have a business competitor, you see, who has been—”
Crandall turned him off. “Go serve your own seven years,” he venomously told the blank screen. Then, suddenly, it was funny. He lay back in the chair and laughed his head off.
That butter-faced old slob! Quoting religious texts at him!
But the call had served a purpose. Somehow it put the scene with Polly in the perspective of ridicule. To think of the woman sitting in her frowsy little apartment, trembling over her dingy affairs of more than ten years ago! To think she was afraid he had bled and battled for seven years because of that!
He thought about it for a moment, then shrugged. “Well, anyway, I bet it did her good.”
And now he was hungry.
He thought of having a meal sent up, just to avoid a possible rendezvous with another of Stephanson’s ball-throwers, but decided against it. If Stephanson was really hunting him seriously, it would not be much of a job to have something put into the food he was sent. He’d be much safer eating in a restaurant chosen at random.
Besides, a few bright lights, a little gaiety, would be really welcome. This was his first night of freedom—and he had to wash that Polly taste out of his mouth.
He checked the corridor carefully before going out. There was nothing, but the action reminded him of a tiny planet near Vega where you made exactly the same precautionary gesture every time you emerged from one of the tunnels formed by the long, parallel lines of moist, carboniferous ferns.
Because if you didn’t—well, there was an enormous leech-like mollusc that might be waiting there, a creature which could flip chunks of shell with prodigious force. The shell merely stunned its prey, but stunned it long enough for the leech to get in close.
And that leech could empty a man in ten minutes flat.
Once he’d been hit by a fragment of shell, and while he’d been lying there, Henck— Good old Blotto Otto! Cranda smiled. Was it possible that the two of them would look back on those hideous adventures, one day, with actual nostalgia, the kind of beery, pleasant memories that soldiers develop after even the ugliest of wars? Well, and if they die they hadn’t gone through them for the sake of fat cats lik Mr. Edward Ballaskia and his sanctified dreams of evil.
Nor, when you came right down to it, for dismal little frightened trollops like Polly.
Frederick Stoddard Stephanson. Frederick Stoddard—Somebody put an arm on his shoulder and he came to, realizing that he was halfway through the lobby.
“Nick,” said a rather familiar voice.
Crandall squinted at the face at the end of the arm. The slight, pointed beard—he didn’t know anyone with a bears like that, but the eyes looked so terribly familiar … .
“Nick,” said the man with the beard. “I couldn’t do it.”
Those eyes—of course, it was his younger brother!
“Dan!” he shouted.
“It’s me all right. Here.” Something clattered to the floor Crandall looked down and saw a blaster lying on the rug, larger and much more expensive blaster than the one be was carrying. Why was Dan toting a blaster? Who was after Dan?
With the thought, there came half-understanding. Am there was fear—fear of the words that might come pouring out of the mouth of a brother whom he had not seen for all these years …
“I could have killed you from the moment you walked into the lobby,” Dan was saying. “You weren’t out of the sights for a second. But I want you to know, Nick, that the post-criminal sentence wasn’t the reason I froze on the firing button.”
“No?” Crandall asked in a breath that was exhaled slowly through a retroactive lifetime.
“I just couldn’t stand adding any more guilt about you. Ever since that business with Polly—”
“With Polly. Yes, of course, with Polly.” Something seemed to hang like a weight from the point of his jaw; it pulled his head down and his mouth open. “With Polly. That business with Polly.”
Dan punched his fist into an open palm twice. “I knew you’d come looking for me sooner or later. I almost went crazy waiting—and I did go nearly crazy with guilt. But I never figured you’d do it this way, Nick. Seven years to wait for you to come back!”
“That’s why you never wrote to me, Dan?”
“What did I have to say? What is there to say? I thought I loved her, but I found out what I meant to her as soon as she was divorced. I guess I always wanted what was yours because you were my older brother, Nick. That’s the only excuse I can offer and I know exactly what it’s worth. Because I know what you and Polly had together, what I broke up as a kind of big practical joke. But one thing, Nick: I won’t kill you and I won’t defend myself. I’m too tired. I’m too guilty. You know where to find me. Anytime, Nick.”
He turned and strode rapidly through the lobby, the metal spangles that were this year’s high masculine fashion glittering on his calves. He didn’t look back, even when he was walking past the other side of the clear plastic that enclosed the lobby.
Crandall watched him go, then said “Hm” to himself in a lonely kind of way. He reached down, retrieved the other blaster and went out to find a restaurant.
As he sat, poking around in the spiced Venusian food that wasn’t one-tenth as good as he had remembered it, he kept thinking about Polly and Dan. The incidents—he could remember incidents galore, now that he had a couple of pegs on which to hang them. To think he’d never suspected—but who could suspect Polly, who could suspect Dan?
He pulled the prison discharge out of his pocket and studied it. Having duly served a maximum penalty of seven years, discounted from fourteen years, Nicholas Crandall is herewith discharged in a pre-criminal status.
—to murder his ex-wife, Polly Crandall?
—to murder his younger brother, Daniel Crandall?
But they hadn’t found it so ridiculous. Both of them, so blissfully secure in their guilt, so egotistically certain that they and they alone were the objects of a hatred intense enough to endure the worst that the Galaxy had to offer in order to attain vengeance—why, they had both been so positive that their normal and already demonstrated cunning had deserted them and they had completely misread the warmth in his eyes! Either one could have switched confessions in mid-explanation. If they had only not been so preoccupied with self and had noted his astonishment in time, either or both of them could still be deceiving him!
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw that a woman was standing near his table. She had been reading his discharge over his shoulder. He leaned back and took her in while she stood and smiled at him.
She was fantastically beautiful. That is, she had everything a woman needs for great beauty—figure, facial structure, complexion, carriage, eyes, hair, all these to perfection—but she had those other final touches that, as in all kinds of art, make the difference between a merely great work and an all-time masterpiece. Those final touches included such things as sufficient wealth to create the ultimate setting in coiffure and gown, as well as the single Saturnian paeaea stone glowing in priceless black splendor between her breasts. Those final touches included the substantial feminine intelligence that beat in her steady eyes; and the somewhat overbred, overin-dulged, overspoiled quality mixed in with it was the very last piquant fillip of a positively brilliant composition in the human medium.
“May I sit with you, Mr. Crandall?” she asked in a voice of which no more could be said than that it fitted the rest of her.
Rather amused, but more exhilarated than amused, he slid over on the restaurant couch. She sat down like an empress taking her throne before the eyes of a hundred tributary kings.
Crandall knew, within approximate limits, who she was and what she wanted. She was either a reigning post-debutante from the highest social circles in the System, or a theatrical star newly arrived and still in a state of nova.
And he, as a just-discharged convict, with the power of life and death in his hands, represented a taste she had not yet been able to indulge but was determined to enjoy.
Well, in a sense it wasn’t flattering, but a woman like this could only fall to the lot of an ordinary man in very exceptional circumstances; he might as well take advantage of his status. He would satisfy her whim, while she, on his first night of freedom—
“That’s your discharge, isn’t it?” she asked and looked at it again. There was a moistness about her upper lip as she studied it—what a strange, sense-weary patina for one so splendidly young!
“Tell me, Mr. Crandall,” she asked at last, turning to him with the wet pinpoints on her lip more brilliant than ever. “You’ve served a pre-criminal sentence for murder. It is true, is it not, that the punishment for murder and the most brutal, degraded rape imaginable are exactly the same?”
After a long silence, Crandall called for his check and walked out of the restaurant.
He had subsided enough when he reached the hotel to stroll with care around the transparent lobby housing. No one who looked like a Stephanson trigger man was in sight, although Stephanson was a cautious gambler. One attempt having failed, he’d be unlikely to try another for some time.
But that girl! And Edward Ballaskia!
There was a message in his box. Someone had called, leaving only a number to be called back.
Now what? he wondered as be went back up to his room. Stephanson making overtures? Or some unhappy mother wanting him to murder her incurable child?
He gave the number to the set and sat down to watch the screen with a good of curiosity.
It flickered—a face took shape on it. Crandall barely restrained a cry of delight. He did have a friend in this city from pre-convict days. Good old dependable, plodding, Irv. His old partner.
And then, just as he was about to shout an enthusiastic had greeting, he locked it inside his mouth. Too many things had happened today. And there was something about expression on Irv’s face …
“Listen, Nick,” Iry said heavily at last. “I just want to ask you one question.”
“What’s that, Irv?” Crandall kept himself rock-steady.
“How long have you known? When did you find out?”
Crandall ran through several possible answers in his mind, finally selecting one. “A long time now, Irv. I just wasn’t in a position to do anything about it.”
Irv nodded. “That’s you. Well listen, I’m not going to plead with you. I know that after seven years of what you’ve gone through, pleading isn’t going to do me any good. But, believe me or not, I didn’t start dipping into the till very much until my wife got sick. My personal funds were exhausted. I couldn’t borrow any more, and you were too busy with your own domestic troubles to be bothered. Then, when business started to get better I wanted to prevent a sudden large discrepancy on the books.”
“So I continued milking the business, not for hospital expenses any more and not to deceive you, Nick—really!—but just so you wouldn’t find out how much I’d taken from it before. When you came to me and said you were completely discouraged and wanted out—well, there I’ll admit I was a louse. I should have told you. But after all, we hadn’t been doing too well as partners and I saw a chance to get the whole business in my name and on its feet, so I—I—”
“So you bought me out for three hundred and twenty credits,” Crandall finished for him. “How much is the firm worth now, Irv?”
The other man averted his, eyes. “Close to a million. But listen, Nick, business has been terrific this past year in the wholesale line. I didn’t cheat you out of all that! Listen, Nick—”
Crandall blew a snort of grim amusement through his nostrils. “What is it, Irv?”
Iry drew out a clean tissue and wiped his forehead. “Nick,” he said, leaning forward and trying hard to smile winningly. “Listen to me, Nick! You forget about it, you stop hunting me down, and I’ve got a proposition for you. I need a man with your technical know-how in top management. I’ll give you a twenty per cent interest in the business, Nick—no, make it twenty-five per cent. Look, I’ll go as high as thirty per cent—thirty-five per cent—”
“Do you think that would make up for those seven years?”
Irv waved trembling, conciliatory hands. “No, of course not, Nick. Nothing would. But listen, Nick. I’ll make it forty-five per—”
Crandall shut him off. He sat for a while, then got up and walked around the room . He stopped and examined his blasters, the one he’d purchased earlier and the one he’d gotten from Dan. He took out his prison discharge and read it through carefully. Then he shoved it back into the tunic pocket.
He notified the switchboard that he wanted a long-distance Earthside call put through.
“Yes, sir. But there’s a gentleman to see you, sir. A Mr. Otto Henck.”
“Send him up. And put the call in on my screen as soon as it goes through, please, Miss.”
A few moments later, Blotto Otto entered his room. He was drunk, but carried it, as he always did, remarkably well.
“What do you think, Nick? What the hell do you—”
“Sh-h-h,” Crandall warned him. “My call’s coming in.”
The Tibetan operator said, “Go ahead, New York,” and Frederick Stoddard Stephanson appeared on the screen. The man had aged more than any of the others Crandall had seen tonight. Although you never could tell with Stephanson: he always looked older when he was working out a complex deal.
Stephanson didn’t say anything; he merely pursed his lips at Crandall and waited. Behind him and around him was a TV Spectacular’s idea of a hunting lodge.
“All right, Freddy,” Crandall said. “What I have to say won’t take long. You might as well call off your dogs and stop taking chances trying to kill and/or injure me. As of this moment, I don’t even have a grudge against you.”
“You don’t even have a grudge—” Stephanson regained his rigid self-control. “Why not?”
“Because—oh, because a lot of things. Because killing you just wouldn’t be seven hellish years of satisfaction, now that I’m face to face with it. And because you didn’t do any more to me than practically everybody else has done—from the cradle, for all I know. Because I’ve decided I’m a natural born sucker: that’s just the way I’m constructed. All you did was take your kind of advantage of my kind of construction.”
Stephanson leaned forward, peered intently, then relaxed and crossed his arms. “You’re actually telling the truth!”
“Of course I’m telling the truth! You see these?” He held up the two blasters. “I’m getting rid of these tonight. From now on, I’ll be unarmed. I don’t want to have the least thing to do with weighing human life in the balance.”
The other man ran an index nail under a thumb nail thoughtfully a couple of times. “I’ll tell you what,” he said. “If you mean what you say—and I think you do— maybe we can work out something. An arrangement, say, to pay you a bit —We’ll see.”
“When you don’t have to?” Crandall was astonished. “But why didn’t you make me an offer before this?”
“Because I don’t like to be forced to do anything. Up to now, I was fighting force with more force.”
Crandall considered the point. “I don’t get it. But maybe that’s the way you’re constructed. Well, we’ll see, as you said.”
When he rose to face Henek, the little man was still shaking his head slowly, dazedly, intent only on his own problem. “What do you think, Nick? Elsa went on a sightseeing jaunt to the Moon last month. The line to her oxygen helmet got clogged, see, and she died of suffocation before they could do anything about it. Isn’t that a hell of thing, Nick? One month before I finish my sentence—she couldn’t wait one lousy little month! I bet she died laughing at me!”
Crandall put his arm around him. “Let’s go out for a walk, Blotto Otto. We both need the exercise.”
Funny how the capacity for murder affected people, he thought. There was Polly’s way—and Dan’s. There was old Irv bargaining frantically but still shrewdly for his life. Mr. Edward Ballaskia—and that girl in the restaurant. And there was Freddy Stephanson, the only intended victim—and the only one who wouldn’t beg.
He wouldn’t beg, but he might be willing to hand out largesse. Could Crandall accept what amounted to charity from Stephanson? He shrugged. Who knew what he or anyone else could or could not do?
“What do we do now, Nick?” Blotto Otto was demanding petulantly once they got outside the hotel. “That’s what I want to know—what do we do?”
“Well, I’m going to do this,” Crandall told him, taking a blaster in each hand. “Just this.” He threw the gleaming weapons, right hand, left hand, at the transparent window walls that ran around the luxurious lobby of the Ritz-Capricorn. They struck
thunk and then thunk again. The windows crashed down in long, pointed daggers. The people in the lobby swung around with their mouths open.
A policeman ran up, his badge jingling against his metallic uniform. He seized Crandall.
“I saw you! I saw you do that! You’ll get thirty days for it!”
“Hm,” said Crandall. “Thirty days?’ He pulled his prison discharge out of his pocket and handed it to the policeman. “I tell you what we’ll do, officer— Just punch the proper number of holes in this document or tear off what seems to you a proportionately sized coupon. Either or both. Handle it any way you like.”