“I take it,” Retief said, “that the casino is a front for his political activities.”
“He makes plenty off it. This PAFFL is a new kick. I never heard about it until maybe a couple months ago.”
Retief motioned toward a dark shed with an open door.
“We’ll stop here,” he said, “long enough to strip the gadgets off these uniforms.”
Illy, hands strapped behind his back, stood by and watched as Retief and Magnan removed medals, ribbons, orders and insignia from the formal diplomatic garments.
“This may help some,” Retief said, “if the word is out that two diplomats are loose.”
“It’s a breeze,” Illy said. “We see cats in purple and orange tailcoats all the time.”
“I hope you’re right,” Retief said. “But if we’re called, you’ll be the first to go, Illy.”
“You’re a funny kind of Nenni,” Illy said, eyeing Retief, “Toscin and Vug must be wonderin’ what happened to ‘em.”
“If you think I’m good at drowning people, you ought to see me with a knife. Let’s get going.”
“It’s only a little way now,” Illy said. “But you better untie me. Somebody’s liable to stick their nose in and get me killed.”
“I’ll take the chance. How do we get to the casino?”
“We follow this street. It twists around and goes under a couple tunnels. When we get to the Drunkard’s Stairs we go up and it’s right in front of us. A pink front with a sign like a big Luck Wheel.”
“Give me your belt, Magnan,” Retief said.
Magnan handed it over.
“Lie down, Illy,” Retief said.
The servant looked at Retief.
“Vug and Toscin will be glad to see me,” he said. “But they’ll never believe me.” He lay down. Retief strapped his feet together and stuffed a handkerchief in his mouth.
“Why are you doing that?” Magnan asked. “We need him.”
“We know the way. And we don’t need anyone to announce our arrival. It’s only on three-dee that you can march a man through a gang of his pals with a finger in his back.”
Magnan looked at the man. “Maybe you’d better, uh, cut his throat,” he said.
Illy rolled his eyes.
“That’s a very un-Nenni-like suggestion, Mr. Magnan,” Retief said. “If we have any trouble finding the casino, I’ll give it serious thought.”
There were few people in the narrow street. Shops were shuttered, windows dark.
“Maybe they heard about the coup,” Magnan said. “They’re lying low.”
“More likely, they’re at the palace picking up their knives.”
They rounded a corner, stepped over a man curled in the gutter snoring heavily and found themselves at the foot of a long flight of littered stone steps.
“The Drunkard’s Stairs are plainly marked,” Magnan sniffed.
“I hear sounds up there,” Retief said. “Sounds of merrymaking.”
“Maybe we’d better go back.”
“Merrymaking doesn’t scare me,” Retief said. “Come to think of it, I don’t know what the word means.” He started up, Magnan behind him.
At the top of the long stair a dense throng milled in the alley-like street.
A giant illuminated roulette wheel revolved slowly above them. A loudspeaker blared the chant of the croupiers from the tables inside. Magnan and Retief moved through the crowd toward the wide-open doors.
Magnan plucked at Retief’s sleeve. “Are you sure we ought to push right in like this? Maybe we ought to wait a bit, look around...”
“When you’re where you have no business being,” Retief said, “always stride along purposefully. If you loiter, people begin to get curious.”
Inside, a mob packed the wide, low-ceilinged room, clustered around gambling devices in the form of towers, tables and basins.
“What do we do now?” Magnan asked.
“We gamble. How much money do you have in your pockets?”
“Why ... a few credits.” Magnan handed the money to Retief. “But what about the man Zorn?”
“A purple cutaway is conspicuous enough, without ignoring the tables,” Retief said. “We’ve got a hundred credits between us. We’ll get to Zorn in due course, I hope.”
“Your pleasure, gents,” a bullet-headed man said, eyeing the colorful evening clothes of the diplomats. “You’ll be wantin’ to try your luck at the Zoop tower, I’d guess. A game for real sporting gents.”
“Why ... ah...” Magnan said.
“What’s a zoop tower?” Retief asked.
“Out-of-towners, hey?” The bullet-headed man shifted his dope-stick to the other corner of his mouth. “Zoop is a great little game. Two teams of players buy into the pot. Each player takes a lever; the object is to make the ball drop from the top of the tower into your net. Okay?”
“What’s the ante?”
“I got a hundred-credit pot workin’ now, gents.”
Retief nodded. “We’ll try it.”
The shill led the way to an eight-foot tower mounted on gimbals. Two perspiring men in trade-class pullovers gripped two of the levers that controlled the tilt of the tower. A white ball lay in a hollow in the thick glass platform at the top. From the center, an intricate pattern of grooves led out to the edge of the glass. Retief and Magnan took chairs before the two free levers.
“When the light goes on, gents, work the lever to jack the tower. You got three gears. Takes a good arm to work top gear. That’s this button here. The little knob controls what way you’re goin’. May the best team win. I’ll take the hundred credits now.”
Retief handed over the money. A red light flashed on, and Retief tried the lever.
It moved easily, with a ratcheting sound. The tower trembled, slowly tilted toward the two perspiring workmen pumping frantically at their levers. Magnan started slowly, accelerated as he saw the direction the tower was taking.
“Faster, Retief,” he said. “They’re winning.”
“This is against the clock, gents,” the bullet-headed man said. “If nobody wins when the light goes off, the house takes all.”
“Crank it over to the left,” Retief said.
“I’m getting tired.”
“Shift to a lower gear.”
The tower leaned. The ball stirred, rolled into a concentric channel. Retief shifted to middle gear, worked the lever. The tower creaked to a stop, started back upright.
“There isn’t any lower gear,” Magnan gasped. One of the two on the other side of the tower shifted to middle gear; the other followed suit. They worked harder now, heaving against the stiff levers. The tower quivered, moved slowly toward their side.
“I’m exhausted,” Magnan gasped. He dropped the lever, lolled back in the chair, gulping air. Retief shifted position, took Magnan’s lever with his left hand.
“Shift it to middle gear,” Retief said. Magnan gulped, punched the button and slumped back, panting.
“My arm,” he said. “I’ve injured myself.”
The two men in pullovers conferred hurriedly as they cranked their levers; then one punched a button and the other reached across, using his left arm to help.