The Project Gutenberg EBook of 4 1/2 B, Eros, by Malcolm Jameson

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Title: 4 1/2 B, Eros

Author: Malcolm Jameson

Release Date: April 18, 2020 [EBook #61863]

Language: English

Character set encoding: ISO-8859-1


Produced by Greg Weeks, Mary Meehan and the Online
Distributed Proofreading Team at

4-1/2B, EROS


"4-1/2B, Eros."... A strange code, but
grizzled space-trader Karns used it to
break the perilous Mercury-Venus Jinx.

[Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
Planet Stories Spring 1941.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]

"Makee chop chop. Kwei! Kwei!"

The two Venusian coolies squatted down between the shafts and with one quick motion elevated the sedan chair to shoulder height. Then they started off in a lazy run through the torrential downpour, splashing mud right and left as their sturdy yellow legs struck into the watery lane of muck that passes for a road in Venusberg. Captain Hank Karns, the Lone Trader, sank back in his seat and watched idly with mild blue eyes as first one grass hut and then another appeared momentarily through rifts of rain. There would be time enough to worry about Cappy Wilkerson's plight when he reached the administration building and found out more about the charges against him. No doubt it was just another shakedown, the effort of some minor official to pry loose a little more than the customary cumshaw.

Captain Karns had berthed his own old trading tub not an hour earlier and as he registered the arrival of his Swapper he noted that under the date of three days before there was the entry: "Wanderer, Captain Wilkerson, en route Mercury to Luna." After it was the notation in red: "Detained by order Collector of the Port; captain in custody."

Hank Karns thoughtfully pawed his long white beard. Cappy Wilkerson was a careful and upright man and a lifelong friend; what manner of charge could they have trumped up against him? That they were trumped up he took for granted, for the local government of autonomous Venus was notoriously corrupt and always had been. The Venusians themselves were the descendants of coolies brought centuries before from tropical Asia. They took little or no interest in government. Politics had, therefore, fallen into the hands of white adventurers, most of whom lived on Venus for the very good reason they were not wanted elsewhere. The Central Council of the loose Interplanetary Federation seldom interfered with them unless for acts so flagrant as to affect the Federation as a whole.

The old space merchant left his chair at the courtroom and squeezed through the crowd at the back just in time to hear the whack, whack, whack of the gavel marking the end of the trial. Standing defiantly in the prisoner's box was Cappy Wilkerson, his eyes flashing and his iron-gray mane thrown back. He looked like an indignant old lion brought to bay by a pack of jackals. The judge, a young man with a monocle and a stiff black pompadour, was dressed in a smart military uniform which made him appear anything but judicial. He was biting out his words as if what he was saying was inspired by personal venom.

"I have heard all you have had to say, including your filthy imputations as to the integrity of this court. Your guilt is so apparent that we need not trouble even to preserve the record of your silly and malicious allegations...."

Here the judge contemptuously tossed a sheaf of papers into a wastebasket.

"Therefore, bearing in mind not only your guilt but your contumacious conduct before me, I sentence you to five years at hard labor in such a one of our prison camps as the Director of Welfare and Beneficence may select.

"It is further directed that your ship, together with its illicit contents, be confiscated and sold at public auction in order to defray the cost of these proceedings. Marshal! Take him away."

Hank Karns was on his feet at once, elbowing and pushing his way forward through the departing throng of curiosity-seekers. His voice was shrill with indignation.

"Hey, you can't do that!" he yelled. Officials closed in on him at once, and the judge's face grew red with anger. "This is a court of law," he said, "and the decisions of the presiding judge are final. Now get out before I haul you up for contempt."

"Tarnation damn!" muttered Hank Karns as he turned and left the building. This was no ordinary shakedown. This called for action, and quick action, for it was unthinkable that his buddy should be carted off to the insect-infested, fever-ridden, infamous Great Swamp of Venus. White men lived but a few months there; a year, let alone five years, was as good as life.

A bulletin caught his eye, and as he read it he gasped. The paste that fastened it to the board was still wet, but the paper bore characteristics of printed type. It must have been prepared at least a day ago. It read:


One confiscated tube ship, the Wanderer, complete with fittings. The cargo of the same consisting of miscellaneous trade goods. Saturday. Inquire at Collector's Office for details.

"Phew!" gasped Hank Karns. "That was quick work. And planned." He turned and made his way to the Collector's Office.

The man at the front desk gaped at him woodenly.

"S'already sold," he said indifferently, the third time Karns put his question.

"But it says Saturday...."

"Okay—it says Saturday. So what?"

"B-but this is only Tuesday...."

"We have a Saturday every week, dodo. Now trot along and annoy somebody else for a change. I have work to do."

Hank Karns blinked. Why, Saturday was the day the Wanderer docked. These Venusians were getting raw. They must have sold her that very day!

"Who is that old man? Throw him out!"

Karns turned slowly and viewed the new speaker. He was a big man, with piercing black eyes and a hawk nose, and heavily bearded—a strange sight for super-tropical Venus where men kept clean shaven for coolness. But the man turned abruptly away and entered an inner office, slamming the door behind him. Hank Karns' eyes followed him all the way—they were fixed on the back of the fellow's neck. There, oddly enough, just above the shoulder line, peeped a line of color demarcation. Above the line, which was made visible by the fact that its wearer had pulled open his collar for comfort, the skin was the normal pallor usually seen on Venus; below, it was a mottled chocolate color.

"Didja hear what the collector said?" snarled the clerk. "Scram!"

Without a word, Hank Karns turned and left the office. He passed through the thronged corridors almost in a daze. There was Cappy Wilkerson, gone to the Swamp, virtually condemned to death. There was his ship sold, even before the trial which was to condemn it. And everywhere there was high-handed insolence, seemingly inspired by this overbearing man with the duplex complexion. What did it mean? And the fact that he could not yet place those sharp eyes and that predatory nose, though somewhere, sometime, he had encountered them before, puzzled Hank Karns still more. Something stank in Venus.

An hour later he sat morosely in a tiny tavern he had long known, hidden up the blind alley known as Artemis Lane. For half a century it had been familiar to him as the hangout for his kind.

"So you see how it is," the bartender was concluding. "At this rate there won't be any more. With all the old-timers dead or in the Swamp, how in hell can I keep running. No sir, this joint is for sale—for what it'll bring. Drink up and have another."

Captain Karns took the proffered drink from the grizzled tavern-keeper, but despite its cheering nature—for it was purest "comet-dew"—he took it glumly. Never in all his long and active life had he heard so much evil news at one sitting. Another of his old pals had come to grief, and all because he had touched at Mercury. Mercury, it appeared, was poison to all his tribe. The record was too consistent to be accounted for by coincidence. Coincidents do not occur in strings.

"And what makes it stink all the worse," persisted the indignant bartender, bitterly, "not a damn finger is lifted to stop the flow of trilibaine. The town is lousy with it. Half these natives stay hopped up all the time."

"I thought the Federals had cleaned that up ten years ago," commented Hank Karns.

"It's back," was the laconic retort.

Hank Karns said nothing. The fact that three of his buddies were languishing in the malarial swamps of Venus, continually subject to the indignities of brutal guards was uppermost in his mind. And besides that, two others—Bill Ellison and Jed Carter—had died on Mercury when their ships mysteriously blew up on the take-off. That, too, had an especial significance, for those two were the only members of the trader tribe who had any sort of reputation as fire-eaters. In their youth, of course, all of them had been bolder and more truculent, but as they gained in experience they learned that there is more to be gained by soft words than bluster. If Hank was to secure the release of his friends it must be by guile, the use of a cunning superior to that employed by their common enemies.

If he was to secure! There was no if about it. He must. For it was Bob Merrill and Ben Wilkerson who had once rescued him, Hank Karns, from an even more deadly situation. More than twenty years ago that had been, on far-off Io, and Hank Karns winced at the memory of it. On that occasion he had, through the machinations of the notorious Von Kleber gang, been convicted and sentenced as a pirate. Ten hateful and horror-filled days and nights he had spent in the mines of Sans Espérance, the Federal Penitentiary, digging radioactive ores. Two of his friendly competitors heard of it and pled for a new trial wherein it was shown that he had been sent up through perjured testimony to screen the trial of the real culprits. The wave of public opinion they started then did not subside until Von Kleber and his outlaws were put finally behind the bars.

No, there was no choice. Cappy Wilkerson and Cappy Merrill must be released and Ellison and Carter avenged. How? That remained to be seen.

"Wa-al," drawled Hank Karns, elaborately, now that his mind was made up, "I'll be seein' you. I'm taking a little trip into Mercury and back."

The bartender shook his head ominously.

"No fool like an old fool," he said, and he didn't laugh.

In the rain-lock, or the vestibule outside the bar, Karns stopped. He felt inside the lining of his vest and after much fumbling produced a dog-eared memorandum book. He ran through the yellowed pages until he found one covered with cryptic entries. They appeared as if made long ago, but several interlineations in various colored inks showed that amendments had been made from time to time since the original writing of them.

Halfway down was the group P2, and what followed had been twice changed. The line that stood in lieu of them read: "Vbg—wickerware—4-1/2B, Eros." Hank Karns read the line through two or three times, then snapped the book shut and replaced it in its hiding place. He carefully buckled up his slicker and jammed his sou'wester tight upon his head. Then he stepped forth into the steamy drizzle of Artemis Lane.

He sloshed his way through mud and water until he came to the main drag. He turned to the right and splashed along until he came to the corner where Erosville Road turned off. He took the turn and plugged along for four blocks of its twisting, boggy length. A dozen steps farther on he lifted his eyes and peered from beneath dripping brows at the signs about. Across the street was what he sought—a sagging awning crudely painted with the legend; "An Shirgar—Dealer in Native Basketry." On the bedewed window below was another, "Hir Spak Anglass."

Hank Karns stopped under the awning long enough to squish some of the water out of his shoes, then he entered. A swarthy, turbanned Venusian met him, rubbing his hands together obsequiously and bowing jerkily at every step.

"Yiss, milord. Valcom to mizrable shop. Vat vishes milord?"

"Wickerware," said Hank Karns, tartly, for him. "For export."

"Ah," breathed the representative of An Shirgar. "Zhipluds, eh? You pay?" Captain Karns shook his head, and pointed to the private door at the back.

"Ah, vickware. No pay. Maybe boss ut see, eh?"

"Yep, trot him out," said Hank Karns, and began fingering the clever basketware of the Venutian hillmen. He knew it would be quite a while before the Earth-man came, if this was operated like the Callistan branch had been, twenty years before. After a time, without quite knowing how he knew, he was aware that someone else was in the showroom, studying him from a distance.

"Howdy," he said, turning around. "I kinda wanted to finance a deal that's too big for me to swing—is this the place?"

"Might be," said the man non-committally. He was a typical Terrestrian business man, not much over thirty, baldish, and plainly not given to foolishness. "I don't touch anything as a rule unless I see a profit in it. And no chance of loss. What is your collateral?"

Hank Karns mentioned his ship. The man snorted, and started to turn away. "You're wasting time."

"I got a ring, too. It's a—well—sorta heirloom."

The man came back. He was still not interested, but he took the ring Karns offered him and weighed it in his hand. Then he applied a loup to his eye and examined it closely.

"You've hocked this before?"

"Yes," chuckled Hank Karns. "And got it back, too."

"Hmmm," said the man. "It looks genuine. What do you want?"

"I—uh—am dropping into Mercury to do a little trading. When I get back I might want to buy a chair or so—mebbe a houseful of stuff—and just wanted to be sure my credit was good."

"You speak in riddles, my friend," said the man with a curious, tight little smile. He was tossing the ring thoughtfully all the while.

"I'm only a lone trader," said Hank Karns, wistfully, "and don't know no better. Supposing you keep the ring while I'm gone—to appraise it, so to speak. All I want to know is who to call for when I get back. If I get back."

The man pocketed the ring.

"Where will the call come from?"

"I dunno. Space, mebbe. Jail, mebbe."

"My radio call is care assistant dockmaster, Venusberg sky-yard. Mention berth twenty-three somehow. As to the jail angle, I do not as a general thing do business with people in jail. In that event, I might send you a lawyer, in consideration of this ring. Tell Rashab, the night turn-key—you'll know him by the double scar on his chin—that you want to see Mr. Brown. I can't guarantee he'll go, but if he does, bear in mind he's a very cagy fellow and that Venusberg jail is studded with dictaphones and scanners. If what you have in mind smacks at all of illegality, it's likely he'll walk out on you."

"Yep," snapped Hank Karns, beginning to shut the clasps on his slicker, "I'll remember. Only I don't think it'll be a lawyer I'll need. If the joint is lousy with spy-machines, what I'll want is an old friend—a man of my type."

The man, whatever his name was, for he had still not given it, laughed outright for the first time. He slapped the Lone Trader on the back.

"Men of your type, you old humbug, are extinct as the horse."

Hank Karns looked up to laugh back at him, but he was gone. In his place stood the turbanned Venutian, still doing washing motions with his hands.

"Milord no like vickvare? Milord go now?"

"My Lord, yes. I go now."

Karns jammed on his sou'wester, took a deep breath, and pushed open the door. A half hour later he was making ready for the take-off for Mercury. It was a shot in the dark, but it was a chance he had to take.

"To hell with that," thought Hank Karns. Then briskly to the boy he had brought with him this trip as a general utility man, "Hey, Billy, look alive! Bear a hand with getting them there rakes stowed!"

"So that's Mercury," exclaimed Billy Hatch, four days later, as he stared goggle-eyed into the visiplate. This was his first interplanetary trip.

"Yep," said Karns, "That's her, the doggonedest planet barrin' none in the whole dad-frazzled system. After you've been here you can tell 'em you've seen wind blow, and I mean blow. That's what them rakes is for. To get around you lie down on your belly and pull yourself along by them. It's a helluva place. The sun on your back'd fry you, 'cepting there's always a ice-cold hurricane cooling you off."

"How can that be, cap'n?"

"Convection's the ten-sol word for it. It's cause she's sizzling hot on one side and colder'n the underside of a iceberg on t'other. The wind goes straight up over the desert and comes straight down over the back side glaciers. Then it scoots for the desert again—and how! Nobody could live an hour in any part of the place if it warn't for the temp'rate strip, and that's cockeyed enough. You gotta steady, hundred-two-hundred-mile wind going straight into the sun, for that's right down to the horizon. In the lee of a house you burn up, in the shade of it you'd freeze solid in five minutes. And the houses have to be stone and streamlined."

Hank Karns kept a watchful eye on the terrain coming up to meet them. Mooring a ship in that wind required the utmost art.

"As I told you, itsa helluva place. Nuthing grows there but a sort of grass and some moss. The only animals is varmints, like the cangrela and the trocklebeck. It's cangrela claws and trocklebeck hides we trade for."

Billy Hatch listened, wide-eyed. This was romance.

"The trocklebeck is a critter something on the order of a armadillo, only it's got horns and big claws to hang onto the ground. It grazes, with its head allus into the wind. The cangrela is built along the lines of a crab and has claws, too. It crawls up behind the trocklebeck and kills 'em while they're feeding. Trocklebeck scales and cangrela claws are both harder'n hell. They use 'em in machinery."

"Oh," said Billy Hatch.

"But you better git forrard there and tend to them grapples, 'cause a-gitting hold of the ground here is ticklish business. Ef we miss it's just too bad. We'll roll over and over for miles and miles, like as not."

Hank Karns said no more for a time. As a matter of fact, he was far from ready to land. He had deliberately come up on the wrong side of the planet for making the landing at Sam Atkins' little trading store. He wanted to give it a general bird's-eye view. It was in a valley scooped out by the wind that he saw the first sign of a major alteration. Behind a huge artificial wind-break lay a group of new buildings, and one of them was dome-topped with a squat chimney. A matter of ten miles farther away was another new house and a small warehouse behind it. Just over the next low ridge lay Atkins' place.

"Standby," warned Hank Karns, as he brought the ship's nose into the hurricane and began losing altitude. "Don't let go 'til I tell you—and that'll be when we're practically down."

Just as the keel kissed the ground, Karns gave the signal and the anchors fell. At the same instant he cut his rockets and the ship began falling away to leeward, dragging her anchors behind. In a moment they grabbed, pulled loose and grabbed again. That time they held. Karns released a long pent-up sigh. It was a perfect landing. Sam Atkins' house lay but a bare hundred yards on the quarter.

There was still the business of shooting a wire over the trading post and making it fast at both ends, Atkins coming out to do his share. Then Captain Karns slid down the wire to the shack and allowed himself to be hauled in by the trading post keeper.

"I'm glad to see you, Cap'n, and sorry at the same time," was his greeting from Sam Atkins. Atkins was a grumpy sort and a self-made hermit. He seemed to enjoy the solitude of windswept Mercury and the tedious, strenuous work of snaring cangrelas.

"How come sorry, Sam?" asked Hank Karns, as innocently as if he had never visited Venus.

Atkins looked mournfully at him and jerked a thumb eastward.

"I've got neighbors—bad ones. Whatever you do, don't go over there. They'll trick you somehow. They don't want outsiders coming here, they've got a ship of their own that makes a trip every week or so."

Hank Karns raised his eyebrows.

"Trocklebecks must be breeding faster'n they used to," he observed. "Mercury never produced enough to justify more than two trips a year, if that."

"Trocklebecks," stated Atkins, "are practically extinct. And the cangrelas are starving. I doubt if I could scare up four cases of prime claws to save my soul. It's pagras that's doing it. The place is crawling with them. They bite the trockelbecks and they curl up and die."

"Mmm," commented Hank Karns. He remembered those serpents well. They were originally a Venusian beast—a variety of dragon, and extremely venomous. They were really legged snakes, having thirty-six pairs of taloned legs and crab-like claws near the head, but the body was slender, rarely exceeding a yard in girth, for all their thirty-foot lengths.

"I'm closing up shop here," said the gloomy Atkins next. "You can take the pick of what I own if you'll set me down at the next stop you make."

"Now you just keep your shirt on, Sam Atkins," replied Hank Karns, "I'm not a-doing anything of the damn kind. I'm going over and have a talk with those gents in the next valley...."

Sam Atkins glared at him.

"No fool like an old fool," he remarked, hopelessly.

Hank Karns chuckled.

"Seems folks are agreed pretty well about me. But let's eat, so I can get along my way."

Unmooring and getting in the anchors was a troublesome job with only a green boy for a helper, but Hank Karns managed it. At that it was a much easier maneuver to move the ship that mile over the ridge than to try to crawl it in the teeth of a permanent typhoon. Moreover, if there was cargo to take aboard—and Hank Karns felt sure there would be—the ship would have to be moved anyhow. So he took off, circumnavigated the planet, and came up again, this time to the little office building and warehouse next to Atkins' shack. He took good care not to go near the other group of buildings.

As he descended, casting about for a good spot to fling out his grapnels he kept a sharp eye out for signs of life about the buildings. All he saw was a couple of bronzed men, both bald as billiard balls, working over some object in the lee of the warehouse. Upon sighting the descending spaceship one went inside the warehouse and the other caught hold of the guide-wire and let himself be blown down to what appeared to be the office building. The man had on a heavily quilted suit of gray material—quilted so that if he lost his hold and was blown away, he would not bruise himself to death along the ground.

On the fourth try, Hank Karns managed to ground his ship not far from the office door. This time he landed to leeward and had to make his way up-wind by crawling, assisted by a Mercurian "staff," or one of the rakes among his trade goods. As he crawled, he observed he was being watched from a loophole beside the door. But as he drew himself erect, the door opened and a man came out to greet him.

"Hello, Captain," said the man, cordially, "we're very glad to see you. Come in and rest yourself." The man, Karns observed, was dressed in a heavily quilted suit and was breathing heavily. But he had a full head of hair and a luxuriant mustache.

"Howdy, yourself," returned the Lone Trader. "Phew! It's shore dusty hereabouts—I've heard of the place but I never seen it. The far Trojans is my bailiwick and the asteroids in that corner...."

"Really?" said the man, helping his visitor through the door. The office was a single room, and no one else was in it. There was a bottle of voilet-hued liquor on the table and two glasses. "Have a drink? This is home brew—our Mercurian version of comet-dew—made from flowers that grow under the glacier lips."

"Don't care ef I do," remarked Karns, and sat down in the seat indicated. "As I was saying, I thought I'd look in on this place, seeing as how I had to make the perihelion hop home. Have to git home to see my oldest grandchild married."

"Wouldn't be interested in a bit of cargo, would you?" asked the man. "Our own ship is overdue, and I have some freight for Venus."

"I'm allus interested in a bit of cargo," said Karns, "but this trip I can't stop by Venus—time's too short."

"Oh, well," said his host, indifferently, "it doesn't matter about that. I was thinking of shipping some boxes of claws and hides to our agent at Venusberg for sale there. We are a new company and have no outlets on Terra yet, unless you wanted to speculate on your own account and buy them outright."

"Speculation's my business," said Hank Karns, serene and bland. And added, with just a touch of foxiness, "ef the buying price is right."

"Oh, we won't quarrel about that," laughed the man. "The hides are a by-product with us—this is a pharmaceutical outfit. We make a preparation from the hormones of these beasts. You can have the horns at almost any price."

They spent the better part of an hour in good natured haggling, the child-like old man raising first one trivial objection after another to win small advantages—chiefly in the matter of valuation of the various items of trade goods he had to offer. None of the lone traders ever dealt in cash. The Swapper was most appropriately named.

At last they shook on the bargain—and a bargain it most obviously was from the trader's point of view. Mr. Raoul Dement, or so the company man styled himself, presented the visiting captain two flasks of the violet liquor after the old custom of the trade.

"Nice stuff," observed Hank Karns, licking his lip. "The best I ever."

"There's twelve cases of it in the warehouse," said Dement, with a wink. "Now, if you were the smuggling sort, there would be a nice profit for you. But, of course...."

"Hell," exploded Hank Karns, "running comet-dew's no sin. Wisht I had a decimo for every gallon I've hauled. Once in a coon's age I get stuck with a little fine, but shucks—the customer'll allus pay that for you."

There followed more dickering, but the upshot of it was that Hank Karns signed up for everything that had been offered him.

"Bon voyage," said Mr. Dement. "If you ever pass this way again, drop in and visit."

"Sure will," said Hank Karns, looking his man in the eye. He was interested in his host's forehead. About an inch from the right temple there was a slight depression—the ineradicable scar of an old skull injury.

Mercury was still a big disk behind when the Swapper straightened out on her earthward trajectory.

"Step alive there, Billy, we got lots to do."

All the blandness, all the gullibility and child-like faith were gone from Hank Karns' face now. He looked much more like work-ridden gnome than an emaciated Santa Claus. For they had unpacked every case and strewn its contents on the deck, looking for contraband of a more serious nature than the harmless comet-dew. But no case contained anything except what the invoice declared. Hank left the job of repacking to the boy and went about a minute search of the ship itself.

In that he was not a moment too soon. Behind the control board—hidden under the vine-like mass of electric leads—were two thermobombs. Their detonating coils were already hot. The control board was divided into three panels, each controlling an opposite pair of the six tubes which were arranged hexagonally about the stern. Two of the panels were about to be ruined by fire.

Hank Karns' first impulse was to snatch the bombs loose and let them burn out harmlessly on the deck, but suddenly he checked it. Instead he withdrew his hand and stuck his blistered fingers in his mouth. Then he shouted a warning to Billy Hatch.

"Hey! Stand by for a blast. Bring an extinguisher, quick!"

The boy ran up, but nothing happened for several minutes. Then the two boards flashed fire. They put the fire out, but the damage was done. The Swapper was not nearly up to acceleration. She could never get to Earth at that velocity. She would have to limp into Venus on her two remaining tubes and have yard electricians renew her wiring.

"Pretty neat," said Hank Karns, admiringly, contemplating his ruined controls.

"I did the best I could, Cap'n," said Billy, modestly, thinking the compliment was meant for him.

"You did all right, son," said the skipper. "Supposing you turn in now. I'll do what's left."

Hank Karns did not at once change course for Venus. He was still unsatisfied that he knew all he should know about his ship and its seemingly innocuous cargo. It was too obvious to miss that Dement had ordered the bombs planted to ensure the Swapper's going into Venus. It was an easy guess that the suggestion to take liquor on board was a device to ensure the ship's arrest and the confiscation that was sure to follow, Venusian courts being what they were. But to Hank Karns' suspicious mind there was much more to it than that. In the first place, he could have obviated both. He could have snatched the bombs before they exploded, and he could yet jettison the liquor. Moreover, if the mere elimination of all visitors to Mercury was what they were after, those bombs could just as well have been of feroxite and designed to destroy the ship entirely, as was done in the case of the openly hostile Merrill and Carter. No, the master plot required the Swapper to go into Venus and be done away with there. Why? He thought that over.

Suddenly he arose and unlocked his little safe. From its lead container he withdrew a small pellet of radium and set up his fluoroscope. Then he dragged out one of the trockelbeck hides. He searched it systematically from horn to stubby tail, from the scaly back to the claws of the feet. Then he put his fluoroscope away. Grinning into his beard, he went aft and got a pair of pliers, a hammer and a cold chisel.

One of the horns came away as he screwed it off. He knew already from its fluorescence that it was hollowed out and filled with some substance, but he wanted to make sure. He shook the pale green powder inside out into his palm and sniffed it. Yes, that was it. There was the unmistakable odor of crushed cherries and the sickish sweetness of the hashish of the skies—trilibaine! Ah, now he was getting somewhere. And as he split a few back scales at random he found that each had a few grams of the insidious drug within it. One such hide would supply a retail peddler for many months, each scale a separate delivery.

He delayed no longer. He shifted his course toward Venus and at the same time sat down to his radio key. He sent:

"URGENT: Venusberg Sky Yard. Attention assistant dockmaster. Four tubes disabled account switchboard fire. Please reserve for me berth twenty-three. Litigation in prospect. Can you recommend lawyer? (signed) Hank Karns, captain, TS Swapper."

"Well," he said to himself as he carefully swept up the tell-tale green dust from the deck and added it to the bundle of broken scales and neatly bored and threaded horns preparatory to firing it all through the garbage tube into his wake, "I've shot my wad. Now let's see how smart Mr. Brown turns out to be."

He learned very soon that the thermobombs were but an added precaution. He had not been waiting more than a couple hours when his loudspeaker began to buzz. He glanced at it in surprise, as he was still a long way from Venus. The message began coming through, harsh and peremptory, "Lay to, Swapper, to receive a boarding party. Lay to, or take the consequences. Sky-guard calling. Lay to!"

Hank Karns cut his rockets and went to the airlock to await the arrival of the cruiser. It was not long in coming.

Two smartly uniformed young officers sprang in.

"Let's see your manifest," ordered one, curtly, while the other headed for the hold. In a moment the second came back with two flasks of the pale violet comet-dew.

"The old boy is lousy with the stuff," he reported to the other. "Cases and cases of it."

"Yes," said the first, "and not a damn word about it in the manifest. This makes the second one of these old coots we've hauled up this month—what do you say, shall we call this one conspiracy?"

"Why not?" countered the other.

Karns said nothing beyond the usual blustering protests that would be expected of him. Then he lapsed into silence as the two took over after ordering their own vessel to proceed.

They did not go to the commercial sky-yard, but to the official one. Other officers met them, and Hank Karns was led straight away to jail. He protested every step of the way, demanding to be taken before the Terrestrial resident commissioner, or to be booked in the usual way. Both those demands were refused, whereupon he asked for a lawyer.

"Don't kid yourself, old man," said one of his guards. "You're in Venus now. Here you are."

Ray-gun levelled, the guard shoved Hank stumblingly forward. He staggered and nearly fell, striking his head against the barred window. Outside he could see the form of a spaceship. But it was not the Swapper. The guard laughed and swaggered out.

There he was. There was no question about that. The barred door slammed behind his departing escort with an air of utter finality.

"Hi-ya, pop!" screamed some hoodlum down the corridor. "Whatcha in for?"

After that nothing happened. Hank Karns looked about him at his cramped cell and settled down to make the best of it. It would be tiresome, locked up alone this way, but in a day or so perhaps the mysterious Mr. Brown would put in his appearance.

The next day came, but no Mr. Brown. However, early in the morning another visitor came in his place. Karns heard footsteps approaching and the jangle of keys. His door was flung open and a tall stranger stepped in. The man was quite old and clad in the blue uniform, faded and patched, of a space skipper. He was obviously a lone trader, but if he was, he was the only one in the universe that Hank Karns did not know. For this man, with his beetling gray eyebrows and hard steely eyes beneath, he had never laid eyes on before.

"Two minutes, no more," warned the guard, and stood back in the corridor where he could both see and hear.

"Howdy Hank," said the newcomer. "Danged if it ain't gitting so that Tom Bagley spends half his time bailing you out or paying fines. Why, I'd hardly landed here but what I heard you'd been slung into the calaboose again, and I says to myself, says I...."

"Yeah, Tom, I know," said Hank Karns, penitently, trying not to look at the eavesdropping guard. Inwardly he was seething with doubt and curiosity. Could it be that this was some minion of the collector trying to trick him, or was he acting for Mr. Brown? He remembered telling the fellow in the wickerware place that what he really needed was a man of his own type. Maybe they had found one. At any rate, he chose to pretend he knew him.

"Anyhow," went on the stranger, "I looked up a feller named Brown that I know here and asked him what to do. He said things looked pretty black and his advice was to plead guilty and say nothing. Might get off with a fine or something. And that he had a little money of yours. He got me this pass, but said he couldn't work it twice. Now tell me, Hank, what do you want me to do? I gotta get out of here for Mercury in a day or so."

Hank Karns looked at the man steadily for a moment. He was on the spot. The man was evidently from Brown, but he knew neither of them personally. But worse, the guard was listening to every word, and there were doubtless dictaphones as well. But the two minutes were running out and there would not be a second visit.

"I'll tell you, Tom, there isn't but one thing you can do. I'll have to take my medicine, I guess, but I hate like everything to lose them trocklebeck hides and horns. The critters is dying off—poisoned by pagras. Them danged snakes are all over Mercury. You might not have money enough to buy 'em in, but sorta keep track of 'em, won't you? They're not worth much now, but they'll be mighty valuable some day. There's a man here from Io that'll pay a good price for 'em, ef you can find him."

"Time's up," snapped the guard, coming forward.

"All right, you old scalawag," said the phony trader captain, jovially, "I'll do my best. But watch your step with that jedge. He's tough."

"I know," said Hank Karns, despondently, and settled his face in his hands.

The door slammed and the footsteps withdrew, ringing emptily down the metal passage.

Dreary day followed dreary day. Time after time Karns heard footsteps ringing in the corridor, and as often he heard the rattle of keys as some door was opened and another unfortunate was ordered out to meet his doom—the sentence that was to change his state from slow dry rot to the swift wet rot of the Swamp. But it was never Karns' door.

Then at last came the day when guards took him to the identical court where Wilkerson had been tried. The evidence was brief and to the point. He was apprehended trying to sneak into Venus when his clearance papers called for Terra as his destination. He had on board eight cases of illicit liquor. He had no acceptable explanation. Guilty. Two years in the Swamp and the loss of his ship was the sentence. Then they took him back to his cell to await the next caravan to the penal camps.

The second stretch of waiting was harder to take than the first, for he had placed the enigmatic collector now in his memory. The man was Von Kleber, thought to have died many years ago in the uranium mines of Sans Espérance. Karns knew him to be a convict from the fact that he had grafted new skin on his face and head so that the burns and baldness caused by radioactivity would not show. But that he was the notorious Von Kleber himself had not occurred to him. And with that recognition came the other. Raoul Dement was the man known as Frenchy the Hop, vice-president of the Von Kleber ring. It was he who had operated the narcotic racket while the big boss turned his attention to such other lines as piracy, white-slaving and smuggling in general. If such men could flourish unchecked in the well-policed Jovian satellites for more than a decade, it was hopeless to expect to dislodge them from their place on corrupt and autonomous Venus.

And so time dragged on and Hank Karns sat, awaiting the day when he would be taken away to the Swamp. He wondered apathetically whether he would be sent to the same camp where Wilkerson and Hildreth were. But at last there came a day when footsteps rang again in the corridors and he heard doors being opened and men taken away. Finally men stopped before his own cell and called him forth. Between two soldiers they marched him away.

To his surprise they took him first to the street, where three sedan chairs were waiting. The guards very politely indicated that Karns was to get in the middle one and they took the others. Hank clambered in and they set off. Shortly they drew up before the courthouse.

He was met inside by a tall, slender man of nearly his own age who wore the uniform of Chief Inspector of the Interplanetary F.B.I.

"How are you, Captain?" he said cheerily. "Sorry you had such a long stay in jail, but we'll try to make that up to you. Come in here and let me show you something?"

Hank Karns looked at the inspector in amazement. He was Frank Haynes, the man who had broken the Von Kleber case years before. There had been a time when they worked closely together on the information that Karns furnished when he was released from Sans Espérance. He said nothing in reply, though, as Haynes was leading the way into the courtroom. In the dock were two baldheaded prisoners—Von Kleber, erstwhile Collector of the Port, and Mr. Dement, manager of the Mercurian drug works. The judge was a new one—a judge who looked like a judge should look.

"There they are, thanks to you," said Haynes, pointing. "Two as clever criminals as ever plagued the system. We've been a long time catching them. But their career is over now.

"Our local operative, known as Brown to you, has been trying for months to locate the source of the trilobaine flood but without avail. The Venusian authorities blocked him at every turn but there was nothing we could do about that unless we could hang a Federal offense on them. It was you who did that for us. I am very glad I gave you that identification ring after our cleanup on Callisto and the list of the secret addresses of our agents. I felt then that you were a man of discretion and would not abuse its privileges and today I most certainly am more than justified. When I interviewed you in your cell...."


Inspector Haynes grinned at Hank's surprise.

"Pretty effective disguise, eh? Well, as I was about to say—you gave me all the tips that were needed. First of all, your mention of the scourge of pagras told me it was trilobaine you had aboard, for that is a distillation of pagra venom. That gave us jurisdiction. I attended the secret auction and tried to bid. Everything in the ship went for a song to Von Kleber's pals, but when I went to bid on the trocklebeck hides I ran into stiff opposition. They were not to be had at any price. So I stopped bidding.

"Our operatives trailed those hides through five sets of owners before we came to the Collector himself. Early this morning we made our raid and took in all their supplies of drugs and twenty-five of their peddlers. Previously we had raided Mercury and those men came in about an hour ago. They had quite a thriving little business, and why we didn't think of their method of smuggling in the trilobaine before this I'll never know. We knew, of course, that it must be coming in the ships that they confiscated. That much we were sure of. But we couldn't prove a damn thing until we knew how. Thanks to you, the ring is busted now, and we can do something for those poor devils who were innocently duped into being carriers of the drug. Runners have already been sent to the Swamp to bring back your friends. And there you are. You'll find your old Swapper in the Yard, completely overhauled and stocked to the gunwales with grade A trade goods."

Hank Karns, trader, tugged at his grizzled beard and looked rather sheepishly at the floor.

"Dag it all," he said "that's fine enough. But gosh, I sure hated to make a damfool of myself in front of everybody thataway."

Inspector Haynes broke into laughter and crossed over and slapped him on the back.

"You old liar. You loved it!"

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