Joseph Heidel looked slowly around the dinner table at the five men, hiding his examination by a thin screen of smoke from his cigar. He was a large man with thick blond-gray hair cut close to his head. In three more months he would be fifty-two, but his face and body had the vital look of a man fifteen years younger. He was the President of the Superior Council, and he had been in that post--the highest post on the occupied planet of Mars--four of the six years he had lived here. As his eyes flicked from one face to another his fingers unconsciously tapped the table, making a sound like a miniature drum roll.
One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Five top officials, selected, tested, screened on Earth to form the nucleus of governmental rule on Mars.
Heidel’s bright narrow eyes flicked, his fingers drummed. Which one? Who was the imposter, the ringer? Who was the Martian?
Sadler’s dry voice cut through the silence: “This is not just an ordinary meeting then, Mr. President?”
Heidel’s cigar came up and was clamped between his teeth. He stared into Sadler’s eyes. “No, Sadler, it isn’t. This is a very special meeting.” He grinned around the cigar. “This is where we take the clothes off the sheep and find the wolf.”
Heidel watched the five faces. Sadler, Meehan, Locke, Forbes, Clarke. One of them. Which one?
“I’m a little thick tonight,” said Harry Locke. “I didn’t follow what you meant.”
“No, no, of course not,” Heidel said, still grinning. “I’ll explain it.” He could feel himself alive at that moment, every nerve singing, every muscle toned. His brain was quick and his tongue rolled the words out smoothly. This was the kind of situation Heidel handled best. A tense, dramatic situation, full of atmosphere and suspense.
“Here it is,” Heidel continued, “simply and briefly.” He touched the cigar against an ash tray, watching with slitted shining eyes while the ashes spilled away from the glowing tip. He bent forward suddenly. “We have an imposter among us, gentlemen. A spy.”
He waited, holding himself tense against the table, letting the sting of his words have their effect. Then he leaned back, carefully. “And tonight I am going to expose this imposter. Right here, at this table.” He searched the faces again, looking for a tell-tale twitch of a muscle, a movement of a hand, a shading in the look of an eye.
There were only Sadler, Meehan, Locke, Forbes, Clarke, looking like themselves, quizzical, polite, respecting.
“One of us, you say,” Clarke said noncommittally, his phrase neither a question nor a positive statement.
“That is true,” said Heidel.
“Bit of a situation at that,” said Forbes, letting a faint smile touch his lips.
“Understatement, Forbes,” Heidel said. “Understatement.”
“Didn’t mean to sound capricious,” Forbes said, his smile gone.
“Of course not,” Heidel said.
Edward Clarke cleared his throat. “May I ask, sir, how this was discovered and how it was narrowed down to the Superior Council?”
“Surely,” Heidel said crisply. “No need to go into the troubles we’ve been having. You know all about that. But how these troubles originated is the important thing. Do you remember the missionary affair?”
“When we were going to convert the Eastern industrial section?”
“That’s right,” Heidel said, remembering. “Horrible massacre.”
“Bloody,” agreed John Meehan.
“Sixty-seven missionaries lost,” Heidel said.
“I remember the Martian note of apology,” Forbes said. “‘We have worshipped our own God for two-hundred thousand years. We would prefer to continue. Thank you.’ Blinking nerve, eh?”
“Neither here nor there,” Heidel said abruptly. “The point is that no one knew those sixty-seven men were missionaries except myself and you five men.”
Heidel watched the faces in front of him. “One case,” he said. “Here’s another. Do you recall when we outlawed the free selection system?”
“Another bloody one,” said Sadler.
“Forty-eight victims in that case,” Heidel said. “Forty-eight honorable colonists, sanctioned by us to legally marry any couple on the planet, and sent out over the country to abolish the horrible free-love situation.”
“Forty-eight justices of the peace dead as pickerels,” Forbes said.
“Do you happen to remember that note of apology?” Heidel asked, a slight edge in his voice. He examined Forbes’ eyes.
“Matter of fact, yes,” said Forbes, returning Heidel’s stare steadily. “‘You love your way, we’ll love ours.’ Terribly caustic, what?”
“Terribly,” said Heidel. “Although that too is neither here nor there. The point again, no one except the six of us right here knew what those forty-eight men were sent out to do.”
Heidel straightened in his chair. The slow grating voice of Forbes had taken some of the sharpness out of the situation. He wanted to hold their attention minutely, so that when he was ready, the dramatics of his action would be tense and telling.
“There is no use,” he said, “in going into the details of the other incidents. You remember them. When we tried to install a free press, the Sensible Art galleries, I-Am-A-Martian Day, wrestling, and all the rest.”
“I remember the wrestling business awfully well,” said Forbes. “Martians drove a wrestler through the street in a yellow jetmobile. Had flowers around his neck and a crown on his head. He was dead, of course. Stuffed, I think...”
“All right,” snapped Heidel. “Each one of our efforts to offer these people a chance to benefit from our culture was snapped off at the bud. And only a leak in the Superior Council could have caused it. It is a simple matter of deduction. There is one of us, here tonight, who is responsible. And I am going to expose him.” Heidel’s voice was a low vibrant sound that echoed in the large dining room.
The five men waited. Forbes, his long arms crossed. Sadler, his eyes on his fingernails. Meehan, blinking placidly. Clarke, twirling his thumbs. Locke, examining his cigarette.
“Kessit!” Heidel called.
A gray-haired man in a black butler’s coat appeared.
“We’ll have our wine now,” Heidel said. There was a slight quirk in his mouth, so that his teeth showed between his lips. The butler moved methodically from place to place, pouring wine from a silver decanter.
“Now then, Kessit,” Heidel said, when the butler had finished, “would you be kind enough to fetch me that little pistol from the mantel over there?” He smiled outwardly this time. The situation was right again; he was handling things, inch by inch, without interruption.
He took the gun from the old man’s hands. “One thing more, Kessit. Would you please light the candles on the table and turn out the rest of the lights in the room. I’ve always been a romanticist,” Heidel said, smiling around the table. “Candlelight with my wine.”
“Oh, excellent,” said Locke soberly.
“Quite,” said Forbes.
Heidel nodded and waited while the butler lit the candles and snapped off the overhead lights. The yellow flames wavered on the table as the door closed gently behind the butler.
“Now, then,” Heidel said, feeling the tingling in his nerves. “This, gentlemen, is a replica of an antique of the twentieth century. A working replica, I might add. It was called a P-38, if my memory serves me.” He held the pistol up so that the candlelight reflected against the glistening black handle and the blue barrel.
There was a polite murmur as the five men stretched forward to look at the gun in Heidel’s hands.
“Crude,” Sadler said.
“But devilish-looking,” Forbes added.
“My hobby,” Heidel said. “I would like to add that not only do I collect these small arms, but I am very adept at using them. Something I will demonstrate to you very shortly,” he added, grinning.
“Say now,” nodded Meehan.
“That should be jolly,” Forbes said, laughing courteously.
“I believe it will at that,” Heidel said. “Now if you will notice, gentlemen,” he said touching the clip ejector of the pistol and watching the black magazine slip out into his other hand. “I have but five cartridges in the clip. Just five. You see?”
They all bent forward, blinking.
“Good,” said Heidel, shoving the clip back into the grip of the gun. He couldn’t keep his lips from curling in his excitement, but his hands were as steady as though his nerves had turned to ice.
The five men leaned back in their chairs.
“Now then, Meehan,” he said to the man at the opposite end of the table. “Would you mind moving over to your left, so that the end of the table is clear?”
“Oh?” said Meehan. “Yes, of course.” He grinned at the others, and there was a ripple of amusement as Meehan slid his chair to the left.