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´╗┐Title: Grifters' Asteroid
Author: Gold, H. L. (Horace Leonard)
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 "Grifters' Asteroid" ***

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                          GRIFTERS' ASTEROID

                             By H. L. GOLD

             Harvey and Joe were the slickest con-men ever
            to gyp a space-lane sucker. Or so they thought!
            Angus Johnson knew differently. He charged them
             five buckos for a glass of water--and got it!

           [Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
                       Planet Stories May 1943.
         Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
         the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]


Characteristically, Harvey Ellsworth tried to maintain his dignity,
though his parched tongue was almost hanging out. But Joe Mallon, with
no dignity to maintain, lurched across the rubbish-strewn patch of land
that had been termed a spaceport. When Harvey staggered pontifically
into the battered metalloy saloon--the only one on Planetoid 42--his
tall, gangling partner was already stumbling out, mouthing something
incoherent. They met in the doorway, violently.

"We're delirious!" Joe cried. "It's a mirage!"

"What is?" asked Harvey through a mouthful of cotton.

Joe reeled aside, and Harvey saw what had upset his partner. He stared,
speechless for once.

In their hectic voyages from planet to planet, the pair of panacea
purveyors had encountered the usual strange life-forms. But never had
they seen anything like the amazing creature in that colonial saloon.

Paying no attention to them, it was carrying a case of liquor in two
hands, six siphons in two others, and a broom and dustpan in the
remaining pair. The bartender, a big man resembling the plumpish
Harvey in build, was leaning negligently on the counter, ordering this
impossible being to fill the partly-emptied bottles, squeeze fruit
juice and sweep the floor, all of which the native did simultaneously.

"Nonsense," Harvey croaked uncertainly. "We have seen enough queer
things to know there are always more."

He led the way inside. Through thirst-cracked lips he rasped:
"Water--quick!"

Without a word, the bartender reached under the counter, brought out
two glasses of water. The interplanetary con-men drank noisily, asked
for more, until they had drunk eight glasses. Meanwhile, the bartender
had taken out eight jiggers and filled them with whiskey.

Harvey and Joe were breathing hard from having gulped the water so
fast, but they were beginning to revive. They noticed the bartender's
impersonal eyes studying them shrewdly.

"Strangers, eh?" he asked at last.

"Solar salesmen, my colonial friend," Harvey answered in his usual
lush manner. "We purvey that renowned Martian remedy, _La-anago
Yergis_, the formula for which was recently discovered by ourselves in
the ancient ruined city of La-anago. Medical science is unanimous in
proclaiming this magic medicine the sole panacea in the entire history
of therapeutics."

"Yeah?" said the bartender disinterestedly, polishing the chaser
glasses without washing them. "Where you heading?"

"Out of Mars for Ganymede. Our condenser broke down, and we've gone
without water for five ghastly days."

"Got a mechanic around this dumping ground you call a port?" Joe asked.

"We did. He came near starving and moved on to Titan. Ships don't land
here unless they're in trouble."

"Then where's the water lead-in? We'll fill up and push off."

"Mayor takes care of that," replied the saloon owner. "If you gents're
finished at the bar, your drinks'll be forty buckos."

Harvey grinned puzzledly. "We didn't take any whiskey."

"Might as well. Water's five buckos a glass. Liquor's free with every
chaser."

Harvey's eyes bulged. Joe gulped. "That--that's robbery!" the lanky man
managed to get out in a thin quaver.

The barkeeper shrugged. "When there ain't many customers, you gotta
make more on each one. Besides--"

"Besides nothing!" Joe roared, finding his voice again. "You dirty
crook--robbing poor spacemen! You--"

[Illustration: _"You dirty crook!" Joe roared.
"Robbing honest spacemen!"_]

Harvey nudged him warningly. "Easy, my boy, easy." He turned to the
bartender apologetically. "Don't mind my friend. His adrenal glands are
sometimes overactive. You were going to say--?"

       *       *       *       *       *

The round face of the barkeeper had assumed an aggrieved expression.

"Folks are always thinkin' the other feller's out to do 'em," he said,
shaking his head. "Lemme explain about the water here. It's bitter
as some kinds of sin before it's purified. Have to bring it in with
buckets and make it sweet. That takes time and labor. Waddya think--I
was chargin' feller critters for water just out of devilment? I charge
because I gotta."

"Friend," said Harvey, taking out a wallet and counting off eight
five-bucko bills, "here is your money. What's fair is fair, and you
have put a different complexion on what seemed at first to be an
unconscionable interjection of a middleman between Nature and man's
thirst."

The saloon man removed his dirty apron and came around the bar.

"If that's an apology, I accept it. Now the mayor'll discuss filling
your tanks. That's me. I'm also justice of the peace, official
recorder, fire chief...."

"And chief of police, no doubt," said Harvey jocosely.

"Nope. That's my son, Jed. Angus Johnson's my name. Folks here just
call me Chief. I run this town, and run it right. How much water will
you need?"

Joe estimated quickly. "About seventy-five liters, if we go on half
rations," he answered. He waited apprehensively.

"Let's say ten buckos a liter," the mayor said. "On account of the
quantity, I'm able to quote a bargain price. Shucks, boys, it hurts me
more to charge for water than it does for you to pay. I just got to,
that's all."

The mayor gestured to the native, who shuffled out to the tanks with
them. The planetoid man worked the pump while the mayor intently
watched the crude level-gauge, crying "Stop!" when it registered the
proper amount. Then Johnson rubbed his thumb on his index finger and
wetted his lips expectantly.

Harvey bravely counted off the bills. He asked: "But what are we to
do about replenishing our battery fluid? Ten buckos a liter would be
preposterous. We simply can't afford it."

Johnson's response almost floored them. "Who said anything about
charging you for battery water? You can have all you want for nothing.
It's just the purified stuff that comes so high."

After giving them directions that would take them to the free-water
pool, the ponderous factotum of Planetoid 42 shook hands and headed
back to the saloon. His six-armed assistant followed him inside.

"Now do you see, my hot-tempered colleague?" said Harvey as he and Joe
picked up buckets that hung on the tank. "Johnson, as I saw instantly,
is the victim of a difficult environment, and must charge accordingly."

"Just the same," Joe griped, "paying for water isn't something you can
get used to in ten minutes."

In the fragile forest, they soon came across a stream that sprang from
the igneous soil and splashed into the small pond whose contents,
according to the mayor, was theirs for the asking. They filled their
buckets and hauled them to the ship, then returned for more.

       *       *       *       *       *

It was on the sixth trip that Joe caught a glimpse of Jupiter-shine on
a bright surface off to the left. The figure, 750, with the bucko sign
in front of it, was still doing acrobatics inside his skull and keeping
a faint suspicion alive in him. So he called Harvey and they went to
investigate.

Among the skimpy ground-crawling vines, they saw a long slender mound
that was unmistakably a buried pipe.

"What's this doing here?" Harvey asked, puzzled. "I thought Johnson had
to transport water in pails."

"Wonder where it leads to," Joe said uneasily.

"It leads _to_ the saloon," said Harvey, his eyes rapidly tracing the
pipe back toward the spaceport. "What I am concerned with is where it
leads _from_."

Five minutes later, panting heavily from the unaccustomed exertion of
scrambling through the tangle of planetorial undergrowth, they burst
into the open--before a clear, sparkling pool.

Mutely, Harvey pointed out a pipe-end jutting under the water.

"I am growing suspicious," he said in a rigidly controlled voice.

But Joe was already on his knees, scooping up a handful of water and
tasting it.

"Sweet!" he snarled.

They rushed back to the first pool, where Joe again tasted a sample.
His mouth went wry. "Bitter! He uses only one pool, the sweet one! The
only thing that needs purifying around here is that blasted mayor's
conscience."

"The asteroidal Poobah has tricked us with a slick come-on," said
Harvey slowly. His eyes grew cold. "Joseph, the good-natured artist in
me has become a hard and merciless avenger. I shall not rest until we
have had the best of this colonial con-man! Watch your cues from this
point hence."

Fists clenched, the two returned to the saloon. But at the door they
stopped and their fists unclenched.

"Thought you gents were leaving," the mayor called out, seeing them
frozen in the doorway. "Glad you didn't. Now you can meet my son, Jed.
Him and me are the whole Earthman population of Johnson City."

"You don't need any more," said Harvey, dismayed.

Johnson's eight-foot son, topped by a massive roof of sun-bleached hair
and held up by a foundation that seemed immovable, had obviously been
born and raised in low gravity. For any decent-sized world would have
kept him down near the general dimensions of a man.

He held out an acre of palm. Harvey studied it worriedly, put his own
hand somewhere on it, swallowed as it closed, then breathed again when
his fingers were released in five units instead of a single compressed
one.

"Pleased to meet you," piped a voice that had never known a dense
atmosphere.

The pursuit of vengeance, Harvey realized, had taken a quick and
unpleasant turn. Something shrewd was called for....

"Joseph!" he exclaimed, looking at his partner in alarm. "Don't you
feel well?"

Even before the others could turn to him, Joe's practiced eyes were
gently crossing. He sagged against the door frame, all his features
drooping like a bloodhound's.

"Bring him in here!" Johnson cried. "I mean, get him away! He's coming
down with asteroid fever!"

"Of course," replied Harvey calmly. "Any fool knows the first symptoms
of the disease that once scourged the universe."

"What do you mean, _once_?" demanded Johnson. "I come down with it
every year, and I ain't hankering to have it in an off-season. Get him
out of here!"

"In good time. He can't be moved immediately."

"Then he'll be here for months!"

Harvey helped Joe to the counter and lifted him up on it. The mayor and
his gigantic offspring were cowering across the room, trying to breathe
in tiny, uncontaminating gasps.

"You'll find everything you want in the back room," Johnson said
frantically, "sulfopyridine, mustard plasters, rubs, inhalers, suction
cups--"

"Relics of the past," Harvey stated. "One medication is all modern man
requires to combat the dread menace, asteroid fever."

"What's that?" asked the mayor without conviction.

Instead of replying, Harvey hurried outside to the ungainly second-hand
rocket ship in the center of the shabby spaceport. He returned within a
few minutes, carrying a bottle.

       *       *       *       *       *

Joe was still stretched out on the bar, panting, his eyes slowly
crossing and uncrossing. Harvey lifted the patient's head tenderly,
put the bottle to his lips and tilted it until he was forced to drink.
When Joe tried to pull away, Harvey was inexorable. He made his partner
drink until most of the liquid was gone. Then he stepped back and
waited for the inevitable result.

Joe's performance was better than ever. He lay supine for several
moments, his face twisted into an expression that seemed doomed
to perpetual wryness. Slowly, however, he sat up and his features
straightened out.

"Are--are you all right?" asked the mayor anxiously.

"Much better," said Joe in a weak voice.

"Maybe you need another dose," Harvey suggested.

Joe recoiled. "I'm fine now!" he cried, and sprang off the bar to prove
it.

Astonished, Johnson and his son drew closer. They searched Joe's face,
and then the mayor timidly felt his pulse.

"Well, I'll be hanged!" Johnson ejaculated.

"_La-anago Yergis_ never fails, my friend," Harvey explained. "By
actual test, it conquers asteroid fever in from four to twenty-three
minutes, depending on the severity of the attack. Luckily, we caught
this one before it grew formidable."

The mayor's eyes became clouded mirrors of an inward conflict. "If you
don't charge too much," he said warily, "I might think of buying some."

"We do not sell this unbelievable remedy," Harvey replied with dignity.
"It sells itself."

"'Course, I'd expect a considerable reduction if I bought a whole
case," said Johnson.

"That would be the smallest investment you could make, compared with
the vast loss of time and strength the fever involves."

"How much?" asked the mayor unhappily.

"For you, since you have taken us in so hospitably, a mere five hundred
buckos."

Johnson did not actually stagger back, but he gave the impression of
doing so. "F-four hundred," he offered.

"Not a red cent less than four seventy-five," Harvey said flatly.

"Make it four fifty," quavered Johnson.

"I dislike haggling," said Harvey.

The final price, however, was four hundred and sixty-nine buckos and
fifty redsents. Magnanimously, Harvey added: "And we will include,
_gratis_, an elegant bottle-opener, a superb product of Mercurian
handicraftsmanship."

Johnson stabbed out a warning finger. "No tricks now. I want a taste of
that stuff. You're not switching some worthless junk on me."

Harvey took a glass from the bar and poured him a generous sample. The
mayor sniffed it, grimaced, then threw it down his gullet. The ensuing
minute saw a grim battle between a man and his stomach, a battle which
the man gradually won.

"There ain't no words for that taste," he gulped when it was safe to
talk again.

"Medicine," Harvey propounded, "should taste like medicine." To Joe he
said: "Come, my esteemed colleague. We must perform the sacred task to
which we have dedicated ourselves."

With Joe stumbling along behind, he left the saloon, crossed the
clearing and entered the ship. As soon as they were inside, Joe dropped
his murderous silence and cried:

"What kind of a dirty trick was that, giving me poison instead of that
snake oil?"

"That was not poison," Harvey contradicted quietly. "It was _La-anago
Yergis_ extract, plus."

"Plus what--arsenic?"

"Now, Joseph! Consider my quandary when I came back here to manufacture
our specific for all known ailments, with the intention of selling
yonder asteroidal tin-horn a bill of medical goods--an entire case,
mind you. Was I to mix the extract with the water for which we had been
swindled to the tune of ten buckos a liter? Where would our profit have
been, then? No; I had to use the bitter free water, of course."

"But why use it on me?" Joe demanded furiously.

Harvey looked reprovingly at his gangling partner. "Did Johnson ask to
taste it, or did he not? One must look ahead, Joseph. I had to produce
the same _medicine_ that we will now manufacture. Thus, you were a
guinea pig for a splendid cause."

"Okay, okay," Joe said. "But you shoulda charged him more."

"Joseph, I promise you that we shall get back every redsent of which
that swindler cheated us, besides whatever other funds or valuables he
possesses. We could not be content with less."

"Well, we're starting all right," admitted Joe. "How about that thing
with six arms? He looks like a valuable. Can't we grab him off?"

Harvey stopped filling bottles and looked up pensively.

"I have every hope of luring away the profitable monstrosity.
Apparently you have also surmised the fortune we could make with him.
At first I purpose to exhibit him on our interplanetary tours with our
streamlined panacea; he would be a spectacular attraction for bucolic
suckers. Later, a brief period of demonstrating his abilities on the
audio-visiphone. Then our triumph--we shall sell him at a stupendous
figure to the zoo!"

       *       *       *       *       *

Joe was still dazed by that monetary vista when he and Harvey carried
the case of medicine to the saloon. The mayor had already cleared a
place of honor in the cluttered back room, where he told them to put it
down carefully. Then he took the elaborate bottle-opener Harvey gave
him, reverently uncorked a bottle and sampled it. It must have been at
least as good as the first; he gagged.

"That's the stuff, all right," he said, swallowing hard. He counted
out the money into Harvey's hand, at a moderate rate that precariously
balanced between his pleasure at getting the fever remedy and his pain
at paying for it. Then he glanced out to see the position of Jupiter,
and asked: "You gents eaten yet? The restaurant's open now."

Harvey and Joe looked at each other. They hadn't been thinking about
food at all, but suddenly they realized that they were hungry.

"It's only water we were short of," Harvey said apprehensively. "We've
got rations back at the ship."

"_H-mph!_" the mayor grunted. "Powdered concentrates. Compressed pap.
Suit yourselves. We treat our stomachs better here. And you're welcome
to our hospitality."

"Your hospitality," said Harvey, "depends on the prices you charge."

"Well, if that's what's worrying you, you can stop worrying," answered
the mayor promptly. "What's more, the kind of dinner I serve here you
can't get anywhere else for any price."

Swiftly, Harvey conned the possibilities of being bilked again. He saw
none.

"Let's take a look at the menu, anyhow, Joe," he said guardedly.

Johnson immediately fell into the role of "mine host."

"Come right in, gents," he invited. "Right into the dining room."

He seated them at a table, which a rope tied between posts made more or
less private, though nobody else was in the saloon and there was little
chance of company.

Genius, the six-armed native, appeared from the dingy kitchen with
two menus in one hand, two glasses of water in another, plus napkins,
silverware, a pitcher, plates, saucers, cups, and their cocktails,
which were on the house. Then he stood by for orders.

Harvey and Joe studied the menu critically. The prices were
phenomenally low. When they glanced up at Johnson in perplexity, he
grinned, bowed and asked: "Everything satisfactory, gents?"

"Quite," said Harvey. "We shall order."

For an hour they were served amazing dishes, both fresh and canned, the
culinary wealth of this planetoid and all the system. And the service
was as extraordinary as the meal itself. With four hands, Genius played
deftly upon a pair of mellow Venusian _viotars_, using his other two
hands for waiting on the table.

"We absolutely must purchase this incredible specimen," Harvey
whispered excitedly when Johnson and the native were both in the
kitchen, attending to the next course. "He would make any society
hostess's season a riotous success, which should be worth a great sum
to women like Mrs. van Schuyler-Morgan, merely for his hire."

"Think of a fast one fast," Joe agreed. "You're right."

"But I dislike having to revise my opinion of a man so often,"
complained Harvey. "I wish Johnson would stay either swindler or honest
merchant. This dinner is worth as least twenty buckos, yet I estimate
our check at a mere bucko twenty redsents."

The mayor's appearance prevented them from continuing the discussion.

"It's been a great honor, gents," he said. "Ain't often I have
visitors, and I like the best, like you two gents."

As if on cue, Genius came out and put the check down between Joe and
Harvey. Harvey picked it up negligently, but his casual air vanished in
a yelp of horror.

"What the devil is this?" he shouted.--"How do you arrive at this
fantastic, idiotic figure--_three hundred and twenty-eight buckos_!"

       *       *       *       *       *

Johnson didn't answer. Neither did Genius; he simply put on the table,
not a fingerbowl, but a magnifying glass. With one of his thirty
fingers he pointed politely to the bottom of the menu.

Harvey focused on the microscopic print, and his face went pasty with
rage. The minute note read: "Services and entertainment, 327 buckos 80
redsents."

"You can go to hell!" Joe growled. "We won't pay it!"

Johnson sighed ponderously. "I was afraid you'd act like that," he said
with regret. He pulled a tin badge out of his rear pocket, pinned it on
his vest, and twisted his holstered gun into view. "Afraid I'll have to
ask the sheriff to take over."

Johnson, the "sheriff," collected the money, and Johnson, the
"restaurateur," pocketed it. Meanwhile, Harvey tipped Joe the sign to
remain calm.

"My friend," he said to the mayor, and his tones took on a
schoolmasterish severity, "your long absence from Earth has perhaps
made you forget those elements of human wisdom that have entered the
folk-lore of your native planet. Such as, for example: 'It is folly
to kill a goose that lays golden eggs,' and 'Penny wise is pound
foolish.'"

"I don't get the connection," objected Johnson.

"Well, by obliging us to pay such a high price for your dinner, you put
out of your reach the chance of profiting from a really substantial
deal. My partner and I were prepared to make you a sizable offer for
the peculiar creature you call Genius. But by reducing our funds the
way you have--"

"Who said I wanted to sell him?" the mayor interrupted. He rubbed his
fingers together and asked disinterestedly: "What were you going to
offer, anyhow?"

"It doesn't matter any longer," Harvey said with elaborate
carelessness. "Perhaps you wouldn't have accepted it, anyway."

"That's right," Johnson came back emphatically. "But what would your
offer have been which I would have turned down?"

"Which one? The one we were going to make, or the one we can make now?"

"Either one. It don't make no difference. Genius is too valuable to
sell."

"Oh, come now, Mr. Johnson. Don't tell me no amount of money would
tempt you!"

"Nope. But how much did you say?"

"Ah, then you will consider releasing Genius!"

"Well, I'll tell you something," said the mayor confidentially. "When
you've got one thing, you've got one thing. But when you've got money,
it's the same as having a lot of things. Because, if you've got money,
you can buy this and that and this and that and--"

"This and that," concluded Joe. "We'll give you five hundred buckos."

"Now, gents!" Johnson remonstrated. "Why, six hundred would hardly--"

"You haven't left us much money," Harvey put in.

The mayor frowned. "All right, we'll split the difference. Make it
five-fifty."

Harvey was quick to pay out, for this was a genuine windfall. Then he
stood up and admired the astonishing possession he had so inexpensively
acquired.

"I really hate to deprive you of this unique creature," he said to
Johnson. "I should imagine you will be rather lonely, with only your
filial mammoth to keep you company."

"I sure will," Johnson confessed glumly. "I got pretty attached to
Genius, and I'm going to miss him something awful."

Harvey forcibly removed his eyes from the native, who was clearing off
the table almost all at once.

"My friend," he said, "we take your only solace, it is true, but in his
place we can offer something no less amazing and instructive."

The mayor's hand went protectively to his pocket. "What is it?" he
asked with the suspicion of a man who has seen human nature at its
worst and expects nothing better.

"Joseph, get our most prized belonging from the communications room of
the ship," Harvey instructed. To Johnson he explained: "You must see
the wondrous instrument before its value can be appreciated. My partner
will soon have it here for your astonishment."

Joe's face grew as glum as Johnson's had been. "Aw, Harv," he
protested, "do we have to sell it? And right when I thought we were
getting the key!"

"We must not be selfish, my boy," Harvey said nobly. "We have had our
chance; now we must relinquish Fate to the hands of a man who might
have more success than we. Go, Joseph. Bring it here."

Unwillingly, Joe turned and shuffled out.

       *       *       *       *       *

On a larger and heavier world than Planetoid 42, Johnson's curiosity
would probably have had weight and mass. He was bursting with
questions, but he was obviously afraid they would cost him money. For
his part, Harvey allowed that curiosity to grow like a Venusian amoeba
until Joe came in, lugging a radio.

"Is that what you were talking about?" the mayor snorted. "What makes
you think I want a radio? I came here to get away from singers and
political speech-makers."

"Do not jump to hasty conclusions," Harvey cautioned. "Another word,
and I shall refuse you the greatest opportunity any man has ever had,
with the sole exceptions of Joseph, myself and the unfortunate inventor
of this absolutely awe-inspiring device."

"I ain't in the market for a radio," Johnson said stubbornly.

Harvey nodded in relief. "We have attempted to repay our host, Joseph.
He has spurned our generosity. We have now the chance to continue our
study, which I am positive will soon reward us with the key to an
enormous fortune."

"Well, that's no plating off our bow," Joe grunted. "I'm glad he did
turn it down. I hated to give it up after working on it for three whole
years."

He picked up the radio and began walking toward the door.

"Now, hold on!" the mayor cried. "I ain't _saying_ I'll buy, but what
is it I'm turning down?"

Joe returned and set the instrument down on the bar. His face
sorrowful, Harvey fondly stroked the scarred plasticoid cabinet.

"To make a long story, Mr. Johnson," he said, "Joseph and I were among
the chosen few who knew the famous Doctor Dean intimately. Just before
his tragic death, you will recall, Dean allegedly went insane." He
banged his fist on the bar. "I have said it before, and I repeat again,
that was a malicious lie, spread by the doctor's enemies to discredit
his greatest invention--this fourth dimensional radio!"

"This what?" Johnson blurted out.

"In simple terms," clarified Harvey, "the ingenious doctor discovered
that the yawning chasm between the dimensions could be bridged by
energy of all quanta. There has never been any question that the
inhabitants of the super-dimension would be far more civilized than
ourselves. Consequently, the man who could tap their knowledge would
find himself in possession of a powerful, undreamt-of science!"

The mayor looked respectfully at the silent box on the bar.

"And this thing gets broadcasts from the fourth dimension?"

"It does, Mr. Johnson! Only charlatans like those who envied Doctor
Dean's magnificent accomplishments could deny that fact."

The mayor put his hands in his pockets, unswiveled one hip and stared
thoughtfully at the battered cabinet.

"Well, let's say it picks up fourth dimensional broadcasts," he
conceded. "But how could you understand what they're saying? Folks up
there wouldn't talk our language."

Again Harvey smashed his fist down. "Do you dare to repeat the scurvy
lie that broke Dean's spirit and drove him to suicide?"

Johnson recoiled. "No--no, _of course not_. I mean, being up here, I
naturally couldn't get all the details."

"Naturally," Harvey agreed, mollified. "I'm sorry I lost my temper.
But it is a matter of record that the doctor proved the broadcasts
emanating from the super-dimension were in English! Why should that be
so difficult to believe? Is it impossible that at one time there was
communication between the dimensions, that the super-beings admired
our language and adopted it in all its beauty, adding to it their own
hyper-scientific trimmings?"

"Why, I don't know," Johnson said in confusion.

"For three years, Joseph and I lost sleep and hair, trying to detect
the simple key that would translate the somewhat metamorphosed
broadcasts into our primitive English. It eluded us. Even the doctor
failed. But that was understandable; a sensitive soul like his could
stand only so much. And the combination of ridicule and failure to
solve the mystery caused him to take his own life."

Johnson winced. "Is that what you want to unload on me?"

"For a very good reason, sir. Patience is the virtue that will be
rewarded with the key to these fourth dimensional broadcasts. A man who
could devote his life to improving this lonely worldlet is obviously a
person with unusual patience."

"Yeah," the mayor said grudgingly, "I ain't exactly flighty."

"Therefore, you are the man who could unravel the problem!"

Johnson asked skeptically: "How about a sample first?"

       *       *       *       *       *

Harvey turned a knob on the face of the scarred radio. After several
squeals of spatial figures, a smooth voice began:

"There are omnious pleajes of moby-hailegs in sonmirand which,
howgraismon, are notch to be donfured miss ellasellabell in either or
both hagasanipaj, by all means. This does not refly, on the brother
man, nat or mizzafil saces are denuded by this ossifaligo...."

Harvey switched off the set determinedly.

"Wait a minute!" Johnson begged. "I almost got it then!"

"I dislike being commercial," said Harvey, "but this astounding device
still belongs to us. Would we not be foolish to let you discover the
clue before purchasing the right to do so?"

The mayor nodded indecisively, looking at the radio with agonized
longing. "How much do you want?" he asked unhappily.

"One thousand buckos, and no haggling. I am not in the mood."

Johnson opened his mouth to argue; then, seeing Harvey's set features,
paid with the worst possible grace.

"Don't you think we ought to tell him about the batteries, Harv?" Joe
asked.

"What about the batteries?" demanded Johnson with deadly calm.

"A very small matter," Harvey said airily. "You see, we have been
analyzing these broadcasts for three years. In that time, of course,
the batteries are bound to weaken. I estimate these should last not
less than one Terrestrial month, at the very least."

"What do I do then?"

Harvey shrugged. "Special batteries are required, which I see Joseph
has by chance brought along. For the batteries, the only ones of their
kind left in the system, I ask only what they cost--one hundred and
ninety-nine buckos, no more and, on the other hand, no less."

Johnson was breathing hard, and his hand hovered dangerously near his
gun. But he paid the amount Harvey wanted.

Moreover, he actually shook hands when the two panacea purveyors
collected their six-armed prize and said goodbye. Before they were
outside, however, he had turned on the radio and was listening tensely
to a woman's highly cultured, though rather angry voice, saying:

"Oh, you hannaforge are all beasa-taga-sanimort. If you rue amount it,
how do you respench a pure woman to ansver go-samak--"

"I'll get it!" they heard Johnson mutter.

Then the sound of giant feet crossing the barroom floor reached their
ears, and a shrill question: "What's that, Papa?"

"A fortune, Jed! Those fakers are damned fools, selling us a thing
like--"

Joe gazed at Harvey admiringly. "Another one sold? Harv, that spiel
pulls them in like an ether storm!"

Together with the remarkable planetoid man, they reached the ship.
Above them, dark, tumbling shapes blotted out the stars and silently
moved on. Joe opened the gangway door.

"Come on in, pal," he said to Genius. "We're shoving off."

The planetoid man grinned foolishly. "Can't go arong with you," he said
with an apologetic manner. "I rike to, but pressure fratten me out if I
go."

"What in solar blazes are you talking about?" Harvey asked.

"I grow up on pranetoid," Genius explained. "On big pranet, too much
pressure for me."

The two salesmen looked narrowly at each other.

"Did Johnson know that when he sold you?" Joe snarled.

"Oh, sure." The silly grin became wider than ever. "Peopre from Earth
buy me rots of times. I never reave pranetoid, though."

"Joseph," Harvey said ominously, "that slick colonist has put one over
upon us. What is our customary procedure in that event?"

"We tear him apart," Joe replied between his teeth.

"Not Mister Johnson," advised Genius. "Have gun and badge. He shoot you
first and then rock you up in prison."

Harvey paused, his ominous air vanishing. "True. There is also the
fact, Joseph, that when he discovers the scrambled rectifier in
the radio we sold him, he will have been paid back in full for his
regrettable dishonesty."

       *       *       *       *       *

Unwillingly, Joe agreed. While Genius retreated to a safe distance,
they entered the ship and blasted off. Within a few minutes the
automatic steering pilot had maneuvered them above the plane of the
asteroid belt.

"I got kind of dizzy," Joe said, "there were so many deals back and
forth. How much did we make on the sucker?"

"A goodly amount, I wager," Harvey responded. He took out a pencil and
paper. "Medicine, 469.50; radio, 1,000; batteries, 199. Total--let's
see--1668 buckos and 50 redsents. A goodly sum, as I told you."

He emptied his pockets of money, spread it out on the astrogation table
and began counting. Finished, he looked up, troubled.

"How much did we have when we landed, Joseph?"

"Exactly 1668 buckos," Joe answered promptly.

"I can't understand it," said Harvey. "Instead of double our capital,
we now have only 1668 buckos and 50 redsents!"

Feverishly, he returned to his pencil and paper.

"Drinking water, 790; battery water, free; meal, 328; planetoid man,
550. Total: 1668 buckos!" He stared at the figures. "We paid out almost
as much as we took in," he said bitterly. "Despite our intensive
efforts, we made the absurd sum of fifty redsents."

"Why, the dirty crook!" Joe growled.

But after a few moments of sad reflection, Harvey became philosophical.
"Perhaps, Joseph, we are more fortunate than we realize. We were,
after all, completely in Johnson's power. The more I ponder, the more
I believe we were lucky to escape. And, anyhow, we did make fifty
redsents on the swindler. A moral victory, my boy."

Joe, who had been sunk desparingly into a chair, now stood up slowly
and asked: "Remember that bottle-opener we gave him?"

"Certainly," Harvey explained. "What about it?"

"How much did it cost us?"

Harvey's eyebrows puckered. Suddenly he started laughing. "You're
right, Joseph. We paid forty-six redsents for it on Venus. So, after
all that transacting of business, we made four redsents!"

"Four redsents, hell!" Joe snapped. "That was the sales tax!"

He glared; then a smile lifted his mouth. "You remember those yokels on
Mars' Flatlands, and the way they worshipped gold?"

"_Goldbricks!_" Harvey said succinctly.

Grinning, Joe set the robot-controls for Mars.





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