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´╗┐Title: Delayed Action
Author: De Vet, Charles V. (Charles Vincent), 1911-1997
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Delayed Action" ***

This book is indexed by ISYS Web Indexing system to allow the reader find any word or number within the document.



                         Transcriber's Note:


    This etext was produced from the September 1953 issue of Galaxy
    Science Fiction. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence
    that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.


     _This planet gave him the perfect chance to commit
      the perfect crime--only he couldn't remember just
      what it was he had committed._


                          [Illustration]


                            DELAYED ACTION


                         By CHARLES V. DeVET


                     Illustrated by DICK FRANCIS

       *       *       *       *       *



It was just a hunch. Johnson knew that, but his hunches had often paid
off in the past, and now he waited with a big man's patience. For five
hours he sat in the wooden stands, under the rumpled canvas the
concessionaires had put up to protect the tourists from Marlock's
yellow sun.

The sun was hot and soon Johnson's clothing was marked with large
soiled patches of sweat. Now and then a light breeze blew across the
stands from the native section and at each breath his nostrils
crinkled in protest at the acrid smell.

Marlock wasn't much of a planet. Its one claim to fame was its
widely advertised Nature's Moebius Strip. For eighteen months of the
year--nine months of sub-zero cold, and nine months of sultry,
sand-driven summer--the only outsiders to visit the planet came to buy
its one export, the fur of the desert ox. But during the two months of
fall and two months of spring the tourists poured in to gape at the
Strip.

Idly, for the hundredth time, Johnson let his gaze run over the
tourists lining up for their "thrill" journey out onto the Strip. Most
of them wouldn't go far; they only wanted to be able to say they'd
been on it. They would build up some pretty exciting stories about it
by the time they returned home.

There was no sign of Johnson's man.

       *       *       *       *       *

The party started out onto the Strip. At the first sensation of
giddiness women squealed and most of them turned back. Their men came
with them, secretly relieved at the excuse.

Johnson watched disinterestedly until only two remained: the young
couple he had designated in his mind as honeymooners. The girl had
grit. Perhaps more than the young fellow with her. He was affecting
bored bravado, laughing loudly as the girl hesitated, but white
streaks had appeared along his jawline and across his temples as he
waited his turn.

The young couple had gone far enough out now so that they were in the
first bend of the Strip's twisting dip. Already their bodies were
leaning sharply, as the mysterious gravity of the Strip held them
perpendicular with their pathway. From where he sat Johnson could read
nausea on their faces.

When they had followed the Strip around until they were leaning at a
35-degree angle, the girl seemed to lose her nerve. She stopped and
stood gripping the guide rope with both hands. The boy said something
to her, but she shook her head. He'd have to show his superiority now
by going on, but it wouldn't be for much farther, Johnson was willing
to wager.

The boy took three more steps and paused. Then his body bent in the
middle and he was sick. He'd had enough.

Both turned and hurried back. The crowd of tourists, watching or
waiting their turn, cheered. In a few minutes, Johnson knew, the kid
would be thinking of himself as a hero.

Suddenly Johnson straightened up, having spotted a new arrival, who
gripped a tan brief-case tightly under one arm, buying a ticket. He
had bulky shoulders and a black beard. Johnson's man had come.

When he saw the bearded man go out with the next bunch to brave the
Strip, Johnson rose and walked rapidly to the entrance. Elbowing his
way through, with a murmured apology, he joined the waiting group.

A thin-faced odd-job man opened the rope gate and they shuffled
through. The group must have walked fifty paces, with the bearded man
well up in front and Johnson somewhere in the middle, before Johnson's
stomach sent him its first warning of unrest. Most of those ahead had
stopped and Johnson threaded his way carefully past them.

Another twenty-five steps and he left the others behind. All except
the bearded man. He neither paused nor looked back.

Johnson's stomach had drawn up into a tight knot now, and his head was
beginning to feel light. There was a faint ringing in his ears.

By the time he reached the end of the guide rope, nausea was creeping
up from his stomach and into his throat. This was as far as it was
supposed to be safe to go; the advertising literature had it that here
was the point of no return. Up ahead his quarry was walking half
doubled over, weaving back and forth, as though he were intoxicated.
But he did not pause.

Johnson turned to look back, and felt his breakfast fighting to come
up. From his perspective, the ground and the spectators watching him
had swung to a position almost perpendicular to him. He felt that he
was about to slide off into space. A wave of vertigo swept over him,
his legs folded and he fell to the ground--sicker than he had ever
been before in his life. Now he knew why the man ahead never looked
back.

For a moment Johnson wondered whether he should give up. But, even as
he debated, tenacity pulled him to his feet and forced him on.

And now something new was added to his vast discomfort. Tiny twinges
of pain, like small electric shocks, began shooting up his legs,
increasing in intensity with each step he took. The pain built up
until the rusty taste of blood in his mouth told him that he had
bitten into the flesh of his lower lip.

Johnson's only consolation now was the thought that the man ahead of
him must be suffering worse than he. At each step the pain increased
its tempo, and the sound within his head grew to a battering roar.
Although he felt himself at the last frayed ends of his vitality, he
managed to stagger on.

Abruptly he realized that he had very nearly overtaken the man ahead.
Through eyes glazed with pain, he saw the other, still standing, but
swaying with agony and sickness. The man seemed to be gathering his
resources for some supreme effort.

He tottered ahead two more steps, threw himself forward--and
disappeared!

If he paused now, Johnson knew he would never be able to move again.
Only will power and momentum carried him on. He stumbled and pitched
forward. A searing pain traced a path through his head and he felt
himself falling.

       *       *       *       *       *

He was certain that he had never lost consciousness. The ground came
up to meet him, and, with a last effort, he twisted his right shoulder
inward. His cheek slid along the dirt and he lay on his side without
strength. His legs pushed forward in a steady jerking movement as he
fought to quiet his quivering muscles.

Gradually a soothing lethargy bathed Johnson's body. His pains
vanished, and the sickness left his stomach.

But something was wrong--terribly wrong!

Slowly he climbed to his feet and stood looking about him. He was
still on the narrow arm of the Strip. On either side of him banks of
white clouds, with the consistency of thick smoke, billowed and curled
about the Strip--but somehow they left its pathway clear.

Johnson shook his head. The wrongness, he guessed, was in his own
mind. But he was unable to determine what it was. Desperately he
marshalled his scattered thoughts. Nothing. He took one groping step
in the direction from which he had come--and staggered back from a
wall of pain as tangible as a concrete structure.

He had no choice except to go forward. There was something he must do,
he realized, but what was it? With the question came the answer to
what was troubling him.

His memory was gone!

Or, at least, a great gap had been torn through it as though carved
out by a giant blade. Briefly, despair threatened to overwhelm him.

"Hold it!" Johnson spoke aloud, and the words sobered him.

All fears became worse when not looked at. He had to bring this
disaster out into the open where he could face it; where he could
assay the damage. He had always taken pride in having a logical mind,
with thought processes as clear and orderly as a bookkeeper's ledger.
Closing his eyes, he went swiftly over his recollections, placing each
in its appropriate column.

When he finished he found the balance extremely unfavorable, but not
hopeless. On the asset side he remembered: His name. Donald Johnson.
Right now he was on Nature's Moebius Strip, on the planet, Marlock.
There was some man he had been following.... The rest was on the
liability side of his balance sheet.

       *       *       *       *       *

His name remained: All other memory of his own identity was gone.
There was no recollection of his reason for being on Marlock, or whom
he had been following or why. That left him little with which to work.

On the other hand, he mused, he might never be able to get off the
Strip, so that didn't matter much. He doubted his ability to stand the
stress of penetrating that electric curtain again. His body had been
able to take the punishment the first time because the force had built
up gradually. Going back would be something else again.

Still he planned his next actions methodically--only in that way could
he retain his sanity. He would go forward for one hour, he decided--he
checked his wrist watch and discovered it had run down--and, if he
found nothing, he would return and take his chances on getting through
the curtain.

At the end of ten minutes he sighted land ahead of him. When he
stepped off the Strip, he stopped in amazement!

Somehow the Strip had doubled back on itself, and he had returned to
his starting place!

To his right was the rough wooden viewing platform, with its green
umbrella gone. The stands were empty, and not a person--tourist or
concessionaire--was in sight.

As Johnson stood, perplexed, he became aware of numbness spreading
over his body. He brought up his hands and watched them slowly turn
blue with cold. He realized then, in a burst of wonder, that winter
had come to Marlock. Yet it had been spring when he had gone out on
the Strip!

       *       *       *       *       *

"Good God, man!" the clerk exclaimed. "Have you been out in that cold
without a coat and hat? It must be thirty below."

Johnson was unable to answer. He had run from the Strip--luckily he
remembered its location in relation to the town--but it must have been
over a mile to the hotel. Now, as he stamped his feet and beat at his
sides with numbed hands, he breathed heavily, gasping great gulps of
air into his tortured lungs.

"Come and warm yourself," the clerk said, leading him over to a hot
water radiator.

Johnson made no protest. He let the heat penetrate until it scorched
the skin on his back. Only after the coldness left his body and was
replaced by a drowsy inertia did his attention return to the clerk.

"Did you ever see me before?" Johnson asked.

The clerk shook his head. "Not that I know of."

Any further investigation would have to wait until the next day,
Johnson decided. He was dead tired, and he had to have some sleep.
"Sign me up for a room, will you?" he asked.

Once up in his room, Johnson counted his money. One hundred and
fifty-four credits. Enough to buy winter clothing and pay his room and
board for a week. Maybe two. What would he do if he could learn
nothing about himself before then?

The next day Johnson left the hotel to buy warm clothes. The town's
only store was a half-block down the street--as he remembered it, one
of the big Interplanet Company stores.

Johnson waited until the storekeeper finished with two of the
hairy-eared natives before giving his order. As he paid for the
purchase, he asked: "Have you ever seen me before?"

The storekeeper glanced at him uneasily, and shifted his feet before
answering. "Am I supposed to have?"

Johnson ignored the question. "Where can I find the manager?" he
asked, slipping into the heavy coat the clerk held for him.

"Go up that stairway by the door," the clerk said. "You'll find him in
his office."

       *       *       *       *       *

The manager was an old man. Old and black, with the deep blackness
only an Earth-born Negro possesses. But his eyes retained their
youthful alertness.

"Come in and sit down," he told Johnson as he looked up and saw him
standing in the doorway.

Johnson walked over and took the chair at the manager's left. "I've
had an accident," he said, without preliminary, "and I seem to have
lost my memory. Do you, by any chance, know who I am?"

"Never saw you before in my life," the manager answered. "What's your
name?"

"Don Johnson."

"Well, at least you remember something," the old man said shrewdly.
"You didn't come during the last six months, if that'll help any.
There've been only two ships in that time. Both the Company's. I meet
all Company ships. If you came in during the tourist season I wouldn't
know."

"Where else could I make inquiries?"

"Son," the old man said kindly, "there's three Earthmen on Marlock,
that I know of--besides yourself, of course--the clerk at the hotel,
my storekeeper, and myself. If you started asking questions at the
hotel, you're at the end of the line now."

Something in Johnson's expression caused the old man to go on. "How
you fixed for money, son?"

Johnson drew a deep breath. "I've got enough to last me about two
weeks."

The manager hesitated, and carefully surveyed the ceiling with his
eyes before he spoke again. "I've always felt we Earthmen should stick
together," he said. "If you want a job, I'll find something for you to
do and put you on the payroll."

Twenty minutes later Johnson took the job--and twenty years later he
was still working for the Company. He worked for them until....

       *       *       *       *       *

Johnson was glad when the first twinge of fear came that it brought no
panic. Instead it washed through his body, sharpening his reflexes and
alerting his muscles for action.

He never ceased to wonder about this faculty he had acquired for
sensing the presence of danger. There was no doubt in his mind that it
had come into active function through the influence of his
environment. But it must have been an intrinsic part of him even
before that, waiting to be activated.

A moment before he had localized the source of his uneasiness--an
Earthman, following perhaps fifty paces behind him. The one quick
glance Johnson had allowed himself told him his follower was above
average in height, and lean--with the wiry, muscular command of
himself that marked him as a man capable of well-coordinated action.

He fought the rising force of the next "sand-blaster" boiling in from
the desert, until he was unable to take a step against it. Then he
moved behind a mud-packed arm projecting from the native dwelling at
his right. Every building had one of these protecting arms added on;
even the concrete buildings in the newer, Earth-built section of the
city conformed to the custom. The sandstorms raged intermittently on
Marlock through the entire nine month summer season, and could not be
ignored, either by visitors or natives.

Johnson huddled against the projection, but the sand whipped around
the corner and pounded at his back. Fine grains sifted through his
clothing and mingled with the clammy sweat of his body. He resisted
the frantic urge to scratch his itching, tormented skin, for he knew
the flesh would be rubbed raw in a minute and increase the irritation
to maddening proportions.

As the "sand-blaster" lost its intensity, he came out from his shelter
and walked away as rapidly as the diminishing force of the wind would
permit. If he could reach his office before his stalker closed in, he
would be safe.

Suddenly a second Earthman, a short length of pipe in his right hand,
came out of a doorway across the street and ran toward him.

Johnson realized that here was the source of the warning his intuition
had sent--not the man behind him.

       *       *       *       *       *

For a brief instant, he weighed the situation. The man was equipped
for assault, but the chances were he was interested only in robbery.
Johnson could probably save himself a beating by surrendering his
money without resistance. He rejected the thought. A man had to live
with his pride, and his self-respect; they were more necessary than
physical well-being. Setting his shoulders firmly against the wall,
he waited.

The man slowed to a walk when he saw his intended victim on guard.
Johnson had the chance to observe him closely. He was a short and dark
man, heavy of bone, with the lower half of his face thickly bearded,
and sweat making a thin glistening film on his high cheekbones.

Abruptly a voice said, "I wouldn't touch him if I were you."

Johnson followed the gaze of his near-attacker to his left where the
lean man he had noted before stood with a flat blue pistol pointed in
their direction. He held the pistol like a man who knew how to use it.

"A gun!" the man in the street gasped. "Are you crazy?"

"Better put it away--fast," Johnson warned his ally. "If the native
police catch you with that gun, you're in bad trouble."

The lean man hesitated a moment, then shrugged and pocketed the gun.
But he kept his hand in the pocket. "I can still use it," he said, to
no one in particular.

[Illustration]

"Look, chum," the bearded thug grated. "You're evidently a stranger
here. Let me give you a tip. If you get caught using a gun, or even
having one on you, the police'll slap you in jail with an automatic
sentence of ten years. An Earthman couldn't stay alive in one of
their so-called jails for a year.

"Now I've got a little business to attend to with Mr. Johnson, and I
don't want any interference. So be smart and run along."

The smile never left the stranger's face. "Right now," he said, "I am
interested in seeing that Mr. Johnson remains in good health. If you
take another step toward him, I'll shoot. And, if I'm not successful
in evading the police afterwards, you won't be alive to know it."

"You're bluffing," the bearded man said. "I...."

"Let me point out something," Johnson interrupted. "Suppose he is
bluffing and doesn't use the gun: The odds are still two to one
against you. Are you sure you could handle both of us--even with the
help of that pipe?"

The man wasn't sure. He stood undecided, then his face showed black
frustration. He mouthed a few choice phrases through his beard, turned
and walked away.

       *       *       *       *       *

The lean man extended his hand. "My name's Alton Hawkes."

The rising whine of the next "sand-blaster" drowned out Johnson's
answer. He drew his new acquaintance into the shelter of a sand-arm.

As they hugged the corner, they felt a third body press against them.
The musky odor, mingled with the taint of old leather, told Johnson
that their companion was a native.

The storm eased its force and the two Earthmen raised their heads to
regard the corner's other occupant. He was a mahogany brown, almost
the exact color of the ankle-length leather skirt he wore. "Man, he
stinks!" Hawkes said.

Their visitor spread his hairy, wide-nostriled nose into the native
equivalent of a smile. His hairy ears twitched with pleasure and he
swelled his chest. "Blee strong all over," he said. "Want him guard?"

"Why not?" Johnson answered, glancing inquiringly at Hawkes. He
slipped a coin into the extended brown palm. "Guard us until we get to
the big-house section."

"Pale-smells be very safe," the native said.

They left their shelter as the wind died down and started toward the
taller buildings of the foreign section. "I must have said the right
thing when I said he stinks," Hawkes remarked.

"Telling a native that is the same thing, to him, as calling him
strong and virile," Johnson answered. "They admit, reluctantly, that
we foreigners have some good fighting qualities, but we're still
regarded as unmanly because of our weak odor. Their females wouldn't
look twice at either of us."

When they reached one of the few three-story structures in the city,
Johnson dismissed their guard. They entered the building and walked
down a short corridor and through a door lettered:

                         DONALD H. JOHNSON

                         District Manager

                     Interplanets Trade Company

"To be frank with you," Hawkes said, as he eased his lank body into
the chair Johnson offered, "I had planned to learn more about your
local activities before I introduced myself. However, I've found in
the past that my first judgment of a man is usually right, so I think
I'll get down to business immediately." He drew a set of papers from
an inside pocket and tossed them on the desk in front of Johnson. "I'm
a Company Secret Service man," he said.

       *       *       *       *       *

Johnson raised his eyebrows, but looked at the papers without comment.
He glanced up at Hawkes.

"Do you recognize either of the men in the pictures?" Hawkes asked,
when he saw that Johnson had no intention of speaking.

Unhurriedly Johnson picked up the papers and removed a rubber binder.
He pulled out two photos and laid them on the desk in front of him.
"The bearded one is the man who waylaid me," he said. "Of course."

"Look at both a little closer," Hawkes suggested, "and see if you
don't notice something else."

Johnson studied the pictures. "There's no doubt about the first," he
murmured. "Evidently I'm supposed to recognize the other also."
Abruptly he sat erect. "They're both the same man," he exclaimed.
"Only in the second picture he's clean-shaven."

Hawkes nodded. "There's a story about those two pictures," he said.
"But first, let me fill you in on some background. You know that
Interplanets has branches on more than a thousand worlds. Because of
this widespread operation it's particularly vulnerable to robbery. But
it would cost more than the Company's earnings to post adequate guards
on every station. And it would be impractical to depend on the
protection of the local governments, many of which are extremely
primitive. On the other hand, allowing themselves to be robbed with
impunity would be financial suicide."

Johnson nodded. "Of course."

"That," Hawkes continued, "is where the Company's Secret Service
comes in. It never lets up on the effort it will make to solve a
robbery and bring the perpetrators to justice. And it never quits,
once it begins an investigation. That policy has proven very effective
in discouraging thievery. During the Company's entire tenure there
have been less than a dozen unsolved thefts--and two of them occurred
right here on Marlock."

"I was a clerk with the Company at the time of the second," Johnson
said reminiscently. "Been with them about three years then. That must
have been over twenty years ago. I...." He paused and looked down. "I
remember," he said. "The picture without the beard.... That's the
thief. The photograph was taken by one of the automatic cameras set up
for just that purpose; we still use them. But they never found the
man."

"That's right," Hawkes agreed. "That robbery occurred a little over
twenty years ago. And the other picture you have was taken at the time
of the first robbery--approximately twenty-five years before that."

"But it isn't possible," Johnson protested. "These pictures are of the
same man. And there's obviously no twenty-five year spread in age
between them. Unless...."

"Unless one is the other's father, or a relative that resembles him
very closely?" Hawkes finished. "Look at the pictures again. There's
the same scar on both foreheads, the same pock-mark on the right
cheek; our special section has even made measurements of the
comparative sizes of the nose, ears and other features. There's no
possible doubt that the pictures are of the same man."

       *       *       *       *       *

"How do you explain it?" Johnson asked.

"I don't," Hawkes replied quietly. "That's one of the things I'm here
to learn. But did you notice this? The man we encountered this
afternoon was not only the same as the one on those pictures: he still
looks the same. We might, for the sake of argument, grant that a man's
appearance would change only slightly in twenty-five years. But when
you add another twenty-three on top of that--and he's still
unchanged...?"

"If you're certain that he's the man, why don't you arrest him?"
Johnson asked.

"Can we arrest a man apparently about thirty years old and accuse him
of a crime committed forty-eight years ago--or even twenty-three years
ago?"

"I suppose not," Johnson agreed. "What do you intend to do?"

"I haven't decided yet. First I'll have to learn more about the
situation here. You can help me with that. Right now I'd like to know
something about the native customs--especially in regard to legal
matters."

"Their laws are fairly simple," Johnson began. "There's no law against
stealing or taking by force anything you can get away with. That
sounds absurd by Earth standards, it prevents the amassing of more
goods than an individual needs, and makes for fairly equitable
distribution. If a native somehow acquires a sudden amount of
wealth--goods, in their case--he must hire guards to protect it.
Guarding is a major occupation. They do an especially big business
during the tourist seasons. In time the pay of the guards will eat up
any native's surplus. Either way--by loss or guard pay--the wealth is
soon redistributed."

"Can they even kill one another with impunity?"

"No. Their laws are rigid in that respect. In the process
of--relieving another of his property, they must neither break a major
bone, nor inflict permanent damage. If they disobey, they are tortured
to death in the public square."

Hawkes asked, "Who enforces their law?"

"One of the clans. Its members are supported in their duties by all
the others. And there's a permanent open season on murderers. Anyone,
police or civilian may revenge a victim."

"How about the law against carrying firearms?"

"With them, intent is tantamount to commission," Johnson replied.
"Only foreigners are ever foolish enough to be caught armed. However,
all native laws apply to them also. The only concession the Company
has been able to force is that a foreign offender isn't tortured: He's
put in jail for ten years. None ever live to come out."

"I see," Hawkes said. "Interesting. However, the immediate situation
is this. I've been sent here because the Service received reports that
our bearded friend had made another appearance. And we believe it's
safe to assume that he's here to attempt a third robbery. Right now
we'll have to pass over his trick of longevity. Our problem is to
catch him in the act. When do you think he'll make his play?"

"It'll have to be some time before tomorrow noon," Johnson answered.
"Under our setup we accept furs from the natives whenever they're
brought in. But we pay off only once a year. That way I'm not burdened
with guarding money the whole year around. I have well over fifty
thousand credits in the safe now. And tomorrow I begin paying off."

"Then we'll have to be ready for him," Hawkes said, "though I don't
expect him until tonight. Probably just about the time you're ready to
close. He'll need you to open the safe. I can count on your help?"

Johnson nodded.

       *       *       *       *       *

That night as they waited in his office, Johnson turned to Hawkes.
"I've been giving some thought to what you told me this afternoon
about the robberies. I have a theory that might account for some of
the things we don't understand."

"Yes?" Hawkes looked closely at Johnson.

"You've probably heard of our tourist attraction called Nature's
Moebius Strip? As far as we know, no one has ever gone beyond a
certain point--and returned. Suppose there's a time flaw at that
point--and the bearded man has somehow learned about it. Suppose
anyone completing the Moebius circle, and returning, finds--say,
twenty years have elapsed, while to him only a few minutes have
passed?"

"Go on." Hawkes leaned forward intently.

[Illustration]

"He makes his first holdup," Johnson continued, "and goes around the
Strip. When he comes out twenty years later they're no longer looking
for him. He leaves Marlock, and during the next five years he goes
through the money he stole. He returns and repeats the process. This
time the money lasts only three years. Now he's back to try it again.
Do you see how that would tie everything up in a neat little package?"

[Illustration]

Hawkes smiled, as he relaxed and sat back. "A bit too neat," he said.
"Also, you don't have an ounce of concrete evidence to back up your
theory."

"That's right. I don't," Johnson agreed.

Outside the door a board creaked. Johnson glanced quickly across the
room to where Hawkes sat with a pistol on his lap. Hawkes' eyebrows
raised, but he made no sound.

       *       *       *       *       *

Suddenly the door was kicked open and the black-bearded stranger stood
framed in the doorway. "Raise 'em!" he barked. The gun in his hand was
aimed at Johnson.

The man took two steps into the room. Hawkes shifted slightly in his
chair and the gunman's head swiveled in his direction. The slug from
Hawkes' pistol made a small blue hole in the upper left corner of his
forehead.

The thug's face tipped up, shocked and unbelieving. He swayed slowly
before he fell backward, his body rigid. His fur cap flew from his
head as he struck the floor.

"I thought we'd better play it safe," Hawkes said as he rose and
walked over to the fallen man. He slipped his gun into his pocket
before he bent and picked up the cap at his feet. He dropped it over
the upturned face.

For a long moment the silence held thin as the two men looked at each
other. Hawkes stood, wiping his right hand on his trouser leg. Johnson
toyed idly with the gun he had picked up from the desk in front of
him.

Finally Hawkes let his body sag into a chair at Johnson's right. "This
is always a dirty business," he said sourly.

Johnson sat down also. "Did you notice the look on his face when he
saw you, and you shot him?" he asked, abstractedly turning the pistol
in his hand. "Funny thing. In that half-second before he fell an
article I read somewhere flashed into my mind. It seems that during
the French Revolution a certain doctor got to wondering just how long
a man's brain remained active after his head had been cut off. He
persuaded some of his friends who were due to be guillotined to
cooperate in a series of tests. Each man was to keep blinking his
eyes as long as possible after his head left his body, as a sign that
he was still conscious. The doctor counted as high as six winks."

"Very interesting, I'm sure," Hawkes said guardedly. "But a bit
morbid, isn't it?"

"I was wondering," Johnson went on as though he had not heard the
other, "whether he was still conscious for that instant after you shot
him. And if that brought the look of surprise to his face."

       *       *       *       *       *

Hawkes turned in his chair to face Johnson fully. "You're driving at
something," he said sharply. "Get to the point."

"Personally I've wondered at a few things about you myself," Johnson
said. He held the gun steadily in his hand now, no longer pretending
to play with it. "I told you that our second robbery occurred while I
was a clerk with the Company," he went on. "They jerked me in to the
Home Office, and for a while I had a pretty rough time.... You know,
when I joined the Company, I was an amnesiac. I remembered my name,
but that's about all...."

"No, I didn't know," Hawkes muttered, growing slightly paler.

"I learned then from the Home Office that I had been a member of their
Secret Service some twenty years earlier. I'd been sent here to
investigate the first robbery. And I had disappeared. Naturally, they
had suspected me.

"However, they had no evidence, and when I reappeared twenty years
later they played it smart by just waiting, instead of arresting me.
When the second robbery occurred, they closed in.

"The only thing that saved me was the fact that tests proved my memory
was really gone, and that I had told the truth--as I knew it. From the
few scraps of information I retained--about being out on the Moebius
Strip--they and I arrived at the theory I mentioned a short time ago.
I was sent back here to wait. The Company never gives up. Remember?"

"Are you insinuating that I was in cahoots with this fellow here?"
Hawkes asked harshly.

"I'd say it was more than an insinuation," Johnson replied. "You made
several other slips. In the first place, Secret Service men are
usually better informed about a situation they're investigating than
you seemed to be. Also, those identification papers you showed me were
faked."

       *       *       *       *       *

The skin along the bridge of Hawkes' nose had drawn tight, and now his
lips grew narrower. "In that case, why did I save you from that man
this afternoon?" he asked. "And why would I shoot him now?"

"Your saving me was an act, to get into my confidence. You shot him so
you wouldn't have to split the loot. I figure you were in with him on
the second robbery also. There had to be someone because his memory
would be gone, when he came off the Strip. But you weren't satisfied.
Together you decided to pull off another robbery while you were here
and double the spoils. Then you decided you wanted it all for yourself
and you shot him."

"There's one big flaw in your reasoning," Hawkes pointed out. "How did
I plan to get away? The only ships leaving here for several months
belong to the Company. Do you think I'd be foolish enough to expect
them to let me slip out on one of their ships?"

"No. I think you intended to go out on the Strip yourself."

"All right then," Hawkes countered. "You admitted that this was a
two-man job. How could I protect myself when I returned, if I knew in
advance that I wouldn't know who I was, let alone what I had done?"

"I'll come back to that in a minute," Johnson said. "But now I'd
advise you to drop your gun on the floor and give yourself up. You've
got nothing to gain by carrying on the bluff. You know I'll never let
you get to the Strip. And, once I put you on the ship, the Company
will take over."

       *       *       *       *       *

Hawkes' shoulders drooped. Finally he smiled raggedly. "There's no use
my arguing any longer," he said. "But you've made the mistake of
underestimating me, my friend. I've lost my gamble. That's all. You
have nothing on me. I'm not as ignorant of native law as I may have
pretended. Granted, I am carrying a lethal weapon. But I'm on private
property. That's legal. I shot a man. But only in defense of my own
life. His gun on the floor will prove he came in armed. So I'm clean
as far as the natives are concerned. Right?"

Johnson nodded.

"And, as for the Company, what will they hold me for? They can't prove
any connection between me and him." Hawkes indicated the man on the
floor. "And this robbery--it never actually came off. Earth laws don't
allow prosecution for intent. Now, where does that leave you?"

Johnson stood up. "You're right--as far as you went," he said. "But,
returning to your earlier question about one man pulling this job, I
asked myself how I would do it, if it had to be done alone. And I
found a way. You'd probably figure the same one. Now I'll take that
paper in your pocket. It will serve very well as a confession."

Suddenly Hawkes' right hand streaked toward a side pocket. Johnson
leaned forward and brought the flat of his gun across the other's
temple.

As Hawkes sagged, Johnson ripped open his coat and took out a sealed
envelope. He removed a sheet of paper and read:

     _This has been written for my own information. My name is
     Alton Hawkes. I have robbed the Interplanets Company and
     gone out on the Strip with the money. When I read this my
     memory will be gone and twenty years will have elapsed._

                                                     --CHARLES V. DE VET

       *       *       *       *       *





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