Authors: Jack Vance
Tags: #Science Fiction, #General, #Adventure, #Fiction
“There’s Mr. May! He must have just returned! Mr. May!”
Acco May paused and turned his pale triangular face to the operator. May was a slender man of medium height, handsome in a tense metallic manner, though his mouth had a peculiar droop. His eyebrows rose in saturnine loops and his ears were very small, very close to his dark head.
“Yes, Jorge? What’s the trouble?”
“This gentleman has been winning regularly. I’m afraid he’s thrown a gimmick into the system.”
Acco May turned to Magnus Ridolph, looked him up and down. The quietly-garbed elderly man with white hair and short beard seemed eminently respectable.
“Nonsense,” said Acco May. “Lorango is gimmick-proof. Non-magnetic, non-everything. No limit. Let him play.” But he paused, watched as Magnus Ridolph replaced his chips on lime, diorite, flame and silver, and he raised his eyebrows at the stakes, 50,000 munits per ball.
The globe whirled, the balls swung, slowed, shouldered, stopped.
There was a pause while the house counted out the winnings, a great sigh as the tokens changed hands, 1,200,000 munits.
Acco May mounted the operator’s pedestal, scrutinized the globe, narrowly eyed Magnus Ridolph.
“Make your bets,” he said in a sharp voice.
Magnus Ridolph glanced at the globe, bet twenty tokens apiece on amethyst, zebra, white and fawn.
The globe whirled, the balls stopped.
Acco May’s drooping mouth twisted into a derisive smile.
“Make your bets.”
Magnus Ridolph bet ten tokens apiece on emerald, vermilion, harlequin, and aqua.
Acco May bit his lip. The operator whispered in his ear.
“Call the cashier’s desk,” said May.
After a moment a messenger returned breathless, handed May a small black leather bag. May counted out 24 packets of Commonwealth notes.
“There you are, my friend. Quite a killing.” Head slightly lowered, he turned a dark gaze on Magnus Ridolph.
Magnus Ridolph appeared to hesitate, fumbled with the chips in front of him.
“Are you going to play?”
Magnus Ridolph bet four ten-thousand-munit tokens on balls of little probability and lost. He did so again, and lost again. Acco May’s shoulders relaxed slightly.
Magnus Ridolph, glancing at the globe, blandly counted out 500,000 munits each on diamond, jet, teal and zebra. Acco May leaned forward, looked, turned, inspected the globe, turned back to Magnus Ridolph, straightened, suddenly turned, pushed the button.
A hundred people watched the balls in utter absorption. The globe slowed, stopped. The balls circled, slowed. Jet rode on top.
“Twelve million munits,” said Acco May between clenched teeth. He turned to the blond operator. “Close the machine. Get McNutt, tell him to look it over.” He turned slowly to Magnus Ridolph. “Will you come to my office? I haven’t that much cash on hand.”
Magnus Ridolph stared calmly into the set triangle-face.
“Just write me a check, if you please. I’ll wait here.”
Acco May turned on his heel. Ten minutes passed, and the crowd around the Lorango layout dissipated. Acco May returned. He handed a check to Magnus Ridolph.
“I’ll have to ask you not to cash this for three days. My balance is two or three million short.”
Magnus Ridolph nodded graciously. “Certainly, I’ll be glad to oblige.”
Acco May burnt him with a glance. Then bending his head closer he muttered: “What’s the pitch, brother? How’d you beat that game?”
Magnus Ridolph’s lips twitched. “Mathematics,” he said.
“Nonsense,” spat Acco May, suddenly, like a black cat.
Magnus Ridolph shrugged. “Every incident in the universe can be expressed in mathematical terms. Why do you imagine that so simple a device as your globe has escaped the contagion?”
Acco May’s mouth drooped lower than ever. “I’m no mathematician, brother—I run a gambling house. After this you stick to your game, I’ll stick to mine. In other words—don’t come back.”
Magnus Ridolph’s old lips curved thoughtfully. “Legally, you possess the right to bar me from your property.”
Acco May nodded. “You’re tooting right I do. Except I’m not referring to my legal rights.”
“Legality is the mathematics of social conduct,” said Magnus Ridolph. “It is equally as cogent as the mathematics of probability.”
Acco May turned away with a scornful sneer. “Keep it for the birds, professor. And don’t forget what I told you.”
Magnus Ridolph cashed in the chips he still held, 480,000 munits’ worth, and left the Hall.
At the Asia-Africa-Commonwealth Bank he deposited his cash winnings, though he retained the check. Then outside in the afternoon sunlight, he turned to the right, sauntered along hibiscus-bordered Kealihanu Avenue, past the Founder’s Grove to the esplanade overlooking the ocean. At a news-vendor he dialed for Commonwealth Current Progress and Sociological Events, found a seat on one of the benches and skimmed through the news to the thunder of the towering white surf.
But he arose after a moment, conscious of the fact that he had missed his lunch. Strolling down the esplanade to the Coral Garden Hotel, he took the elevator to the twentieth floor and the restaurant that occupied the balcony. Here he dined overlooking the vast panorama below, white-walled, blue-and-red-roofed Mylitta, with the wooded dales behind and the blue sunny sea ahead.
Over his coffee he returned to his news-sheet, and encountered an item in the Criminal Activities section.
AUTHORITIES ADMIT BAFFLEMENT
IN CALHOUN PIRACY CASE
Magnus Ridolph bent his old head, read the article. He vaguely recalled the facts of the case: the freighter
, laden with 1200 tons of bonded cargo, had been waylaid in space and boarded, with death resulting to four members of the crew. The remainder had been sealed into their quarters.
When at last they freed themselves, they found the cargo hold empty, the radio smashed, the engines disabled. They finally limped to a Space Survey station and there notified the T.C.I.
Magnus Ridolph finished his coffee, sat back in his chair with a cigar. Now as he glanced to the side he met eyes which furtively shifted, at a table where three men sat quietly over thimblefuls of
sang de Dieu
Letting his guileless blue gaze wander past the three, Magnus Ridolph settled more comfortably in his chair. Calmly he sat while the orange sun drifted, feather-silent, below the horizon. Dusk came quickly, and the balcony became a place of warm shadow, lighted here and there by the plangent tongues of candles.
Magnus Ridolph speculatively eyed the balcony rail. It was waist-high, smooth native hardwood. Two hundred feet below spread concrete pavement. Three men sat behind him, watching his movements. One of these wore a cloth hood under which Magnus Ridolph had glimpsed seal-smooth blond hair, long animal eyes.
Magnus Ridolph meditated. They would wait till he approached the rail; then would come a quick shove, and a fast departure. In the excitement no one would remember exactly what had occurred. Witnesses’ stories would conflict on every important point. Such a murder could be done with safety.
If he departed quietly, he still must walk a hundred yards of esplanade to Kealihanu Avenue.
The head-waiter appeared, conducting a young couple to a table by the rail where they could look out into the vast dreaming twilight.
Magnus Ridolph arose. From the corner of his eye he noted the tensing of the three men. Taking his half-full cup in one hand, a glass of water in the other, he stepped forward, flicked his wrists, doused the three thugs with coffee and water. He seized an edge to the table, pulled up, turned it over on the roaring men.
Quickly the anguished head-waiter was running forward, waving his arms. “What’s all this? Are you insane?” He seized Magnus Ridolph by the shoulder, but not before the white-bearded old man tossed a flaming candle upon a sprawled blond figure.
“Antone—Arthur—Paul!” bellowed the head-waiter, and three waiters hurried forward. “Lay hold of this mad-man, take him to the corridor while I call the police. Great heavens, what is to be next?” He righted the table, assisted the three gangsters to their seats.
“My apologies, sirs, I assure you that things like this are infrequent at the Cafe Ventique. Permit me to order you more liqueur.”
Magnus Ridolph was hustled away, and presently a brace of police officers took him into custody. The head-waiter volubly explained the offense, and demanded the severest of penalties. Magnus Ridolph leaned in unruffled dignity against the cashier’s desk, watched the three men march past with set faces.
At police headquarters Magnus Ridolph called the T.C.I. station, asked for Commander Efrem.
“Magnus Ridolph!” barked the commander, peering at the bland features on his telescreen. “What are you doing in jail?”
“I have been arrested for hooliganism,” said Magnus Ridolph.
“What’s that?” The commander’s jaw tightened. “Who’s responsible? Let me talk to the lieutenant, I’ll straighten him out.”
An hour later Magnus Ridolph, sitting at his ease, had told his story to Commander Efrem, a small thin man with a very lean dark face, a jaw jutting forward like a plow.
“We’ve finally got a lead on Acco May, ourselves,” said the commander. “We’re trying to link him to the Calhoun piracy. There’s positive identification of a photograph from several of the crew, but his alibi is good. Sanatoris Beta is three-hundred-eighty light-years away. The hold-up took place exactly—let’s see, twelve and a half days ago.”
He then pointed out that the fastest a ship can go in free space,
, is 42½ light-years a day, which totaled almost nine days, with a rock-bottom minimum of two days acceleration and two days deceleration.
“That makes it thirteen days from here to there at the absolute minimum,” the commander went on. “But Acco May came in out of space today, which is a day early. If he was in on the Calhoun piracy, he couldn’t have made the journey until tonight, at the very earliest.”
Magnus Ridolph rubbed his white beard slowly. “A crime was committed at a distance of thirteen days,” Ridolph said. “You suspect a man who arrives twelve days after the crime is committed. Four possibilities present themselves. First, you have mistaken the time of the crime.”
“No, that’s been definitely established.”
“Second, May’s ship travels faster than light-speed squared divided by
cubed. Very unlikely. Third, Acco May is innocent of the crime.”
Commander Efrem sat suddenly straight in his chair, hands clenched on his desk. He sighed, slowly relaxed. He lighted a cigarette.
“I’m afraid that’s about the size of it. Acco May is innocent of this crime. But he’s done plenty of other things—the massacre of the Port Miranda natives, a dozen murders, traffic in women, narcotics, smuggling, practically every felony on the books.”
“Including conspiracy to commit murder,” said Magnus Ridolph. “I was to be the victim.” He opened his eyes wide, touched his chest gravely. “Me!”
Commander Efrem grinned. “And now you want his hide too?”
Magnus Ridolph tapped his fingers gently on the arm of his chair. “‘The wine of revenge tastes richest to the vain.’ Revenge is essentially a selfish gratification for which I have little taste. However, I agree with you that the criminal career of Acco May has proceeded to an intolerable length.”
Commander Efrem nodded soberly, a hint of a smile on his thin mouth. “In other words, you want his hide.”
When he left the police station, Magnus Ridolph resisted the temptation to visit the Lorango globe. Instead he passed under the arch into the ante-room to Acco May’s office.
An exquisite red-haired girl receptionist was stroking a yellow kitten which walked back and forth on her desk with a tautly raised tail. She looked up at the old man with little interest.
“Magnus Ridolph to see Acco May,” the scientist said. He scratched the kitten under the chin while the girl spoke into the microphone. She motioned him to a white panel in the dark hardwood wall. As he stepped forward it opened, revealing Acco May sitting cross-legged on a leather-upholstered couch. He looked up, nodded as Magnus Ridolph stepped forward.
“Sit down.” Magnus Ridolph did so. “To what do I owe this honor?”
Magnus Ridolph looked at him without expression.
“I’m trying to prove you guilty of the
Acco May snorted, then laughed in real amusement.
“Not a chance. I’ve been nowhere near Sanatoris for years.”
“Can you prove it? Survivors of the Calhoun identify your picture absolutely.”
May shrugged. “They’re wrong. I wasn’t there.”
“You were away from here while the piracy occurred. Where were you?”
Acco May’s mouth hardened. “What’s it to you?”
“At the moment I represent the Terrestrial Corps of Investigation.” He reached forward, handed Acco May a card. May read it, contemptuously handed it back.