I stood in the shadows and looked across at the rundown lot with the windblown trash packed against the wire mesh barrier fence and the yellow glare panel that said HAUG ESCORT. There was a row of city-scarred hacks parked on the cracked ramp. They hadn’t suffered the indignity of a wash-job for a long time. And the two-story frame building behind them--that had once been somebody’s country house--now showed no paint except the foot-high yellow letters over the office door.
Inside the office a short broad man with small eyes and yesterday’s beard gnawed a cigar and looked at me.
“Portal-to-portal escort cost you two thousand C’s,” he said. “Guaranteed.”
“Guaranteed how?” I asked.
He waved the cigar. “Guaranteed you get into the city and back out again in one piece.” He studied his cigar. “If somebody don’t plug you first,” he added.
“How about a one-way trip?”
“My boy got to come back out, ain’t he?”
I had spent my last brass ten-dollar piece on a cup of coffee eight hours before, but I had to get into the city. This was the only idea I had left.
“You’ve got me wrong,” I said. “I’m not a customer. I want a job.”
“Yeah?” He looked at me again, with a different expression, like a guy whose new-found girl friend has just mentioned a price.
“You know Gra’nyauk?”
“Sure,” I said. “I grew up here.”
He asked me a few more questions, then thumbed a button centered in a ring of grime on the wall behind him. A chair scraped beyond the door; it opened and a tall bony fellow with thick wrists and an adams apple set among heavy neck tendons came in.
The man behind the desk pointed at me with his chin.
“Throw him out, Lefty.”
Lefty gave me a resentful look, came around the desk and reached for my collar. I leaned to the right and threw a hard left jab to the chin. He rocked back and sat down.
“I get the idea,” I said. “I can make it out under my own power.” I turned to the door.
“Stick around, mister. Lefty’s just kind of a like a test for separating the men from the boys.”
“You mean I’m hired?”
He sighed. “You come at a good time. I’m short of good boys.”
I helped Lefty up, then dusted off a chair and listened to a half-hour briefing on conditions in the city. They weren’t good. Then I went upstairs to the chart room to wait for a call.
It was almost ten o’clock when Lefty came into the room where I was looking over the maps of the city. He jerked his head.
A weasel-faced man who had been blowing smoke in my face slid off his stool, dropped his cigarette and smeared it under his shoe.
“You,” Lefty said. “The new guy.”
I belted my coat and followed him down the dark stairway, and out across the littered tarmac, glistening wet under the polyarcs, to where Haug stood talking to another man I hadn’t seen before.
Haug flicked a beady glance my way, then turned to the stranger. He was a short man of about fifty with a mild expressionless face and expensive clothes.
“Mr. Stenn, this is Smith. He’s your escort. You do like he tells you and he’ll get you into the city and see your party and back out again in one piece.”
The customer looked at me. “Considering the fee I’m paying, I sincerely hope so,” he murmured.
“Smith, you and Mr. Stenn take number 16 here.” Haug patted a hinge-sprung hood, painted a bilious yellow and scabbed with license medallions issued by half a dozen competing city governments.
Haug must have noticed something in Stenn’s expression.
“It ain’t a fancy-looking hack, but she’s got full armor, heavy-duty gyros, crash-shocks, two-way music and panic gear. I ain’t got a better hack in the place.”
Stenn nodded, popped the hatch and got in. I climbed in the front and adjusted the seat and controls to give me a little room. When I kicked over the turbos they sounded good.
“Better tie in, Mr. Stenn,” I said. “We’ll take the Canada turnpike in. You can brief me on the way.”
I wheeled 16 around and out under the glare-sign that read “HAUG ESCORT.” In the eastbound linkway I boosted her up to 90. From the way the old bus stepped off, she had at least a megahorse under the hood. Maybe Haug wasn’t lying, I thought. I pressed an elbow against the power pistol strapped to my side.
I liked the feel of it there. Maybe between it and old 16 I could get there and back after all.
“My destination,” Stenn said, “is the Manhattan section.”
That suited me perfectly. In fact, it was the first luck I’d had since I burned the uniform. I looked in the rear viewer at Stenn’s face. He still wore no expression. He seemed like a mild little man to be wanting into the cage with the tigers.
“That’s pretty rough territory, Mr. Stenn,” I said. He didn’t answer.
“Not many tourists go there,” I went on. I wanted to pry a little information from him.
“I’m a businessman,” Stenn said.
I let it go at that. Maybe he knew what he was doing. For me, there was no choice. I had one slim lead, and I had to play it out to the end. I swung through the banked curves of the intermix and onto the turnpike and opened up to full throttle.
It was fifteen minutes before I saw the warning red lights ahead. Haug had told me about this. I slowed.
“Here’s our first roadblock, Mr. Stenn,” I said. “This is an operator named Joe Naples. All he’s after is his toll. I’ll handle him; you sit tight in the hack. Don’t say anything, don’t do anything, no matter what happens. Understand?”
“I understand,” Stenn said mildly.
I pulled up. My lights splashed on the spikes of a Mark IX tank trap. I set the parking jacks and got out.
“Remember what I told you,” I said. “No matter what.” I walked up into the beam of the lights.
A voice spoke from off to the side.
“Douse ‘em, Rube.”
I went back and cut the lights. Three men sauntered out onto the highway.
“Keep the hands away from the sides, Rube.”
One of the men was a head taller than the others. I couldn’t see his face in the faint red light from the beacon, but I knew who he was.
“Hello, Naples,” I said.
He came up to me. “You know me, Rube?”
“Sure,” I said. “The first thing Haug told me was pay my respects to Mr. Naples.”
Naples laughed. “You hear that, boys? They know me pretty good on the outside, ha?”
He looked at me, not laughing any more. “I don’t see you before.”
“My first trip.”
He jerked a thumb at the hack. “Who’s your trick?”
“A businessman. Name is Stenn.”
“Yeah? What kind business?”
I shook my head. “We don’t quiz the cash customers, Joe.”
“Let’s take a look.” Naples moved off toward the hack, the boys at his side. I followed. Naples looked in at Stenn. Stenn sat relaxed and looked straight ahead. Naples turned away, nodded to one of his helpers. The two moved off a few yards.
The other man, a short bullet-headed thug in a grease-spatted overcoat, stood by the hack, staring in at Stenn. He took a heavy old-style automatic from his coat pocket, pulled open the door. He aimed the gun at Stenn’s head and carefully squeezed the trigger.
The hammer clicked emptily.
“Ping,” he said. He thrust the gun back in his pocket, kicked the door shut and went over to join Naples.
“Okay, Rube,” Naples called.
I went over to him.
“I guess maybe you on the level,” he said. “Standard fee. Five hundred, Old Federal notes.”
I had to be careful now. I held a bland expression, reached in--slowly--took out my wallet. I extracted two hundred-C notes and held them out.
Naples looked at them, unmoving. The thug in the dirty overcoat moved up close, and suddenly swung the edge of his palm at my wrist. I was ready; I flicked my hand aside and chopped him hard at the base of the neck. He dropped.
I was still holding out the money.
“That clown isn’t worthy of a place in the Naples organization,” I said.
Naples looked down at the man, stirred him with his foot.
“A clown,” he said. He took the money and tucked it in his shirt pocket.
“Okay, Rube,” he said. “My regards to Haug.”
I got in the hack and moved up to the barrier. It started up, trundled aside. Naples was bending over the man I had downed. He took the pistol from the pocket of the overcoat, jacked the action and aimed. There was a sharp crack. The overcoat flopped once. Naples smiled over at me.
“He ain’t worthy a place in the Naples organization,” he said.
I waved a hand vaguely and gunned off down the road.
The speaker in my ear hummed.
I grunted an acknowledgement and a blurred voice said, “Smith, listen. When you cross the South Radial, pick up the Midwest Feed-off. Take it easy and watch for Number Nine Station. Pull off there. Got it?”
I recognized the voice. It was Lefty, Haug’s Number One boy. I didn’t answer.
“What was the call?” Stenn asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Nothing.”
The lights of the South Radial Intermix were in sight ahead now.
I slowed to a hundred and thought about it. My personal motives told me to keep going, my job as a paid Escort was to get my man where he wanted to go. That was tough enough, without detours. I eased back up to one-fifty, took the Intermix with gyros screaming, and curved out onto the thruway.
The speaker hummed. “What are you trying to pull, wise guy?” He sounded mad. “That was the South Radial you just passed up--”
“Yeah,” I said. “That’s right. Smitty takes ‘em there and he brings ‘em back. Don’t call us, we’ll call you.”
There was a long hum from the speaker. “Oh, a wiseacre,” it said finally. “Listen, rookie, you got a lot to learn. This guy is bankrolled. I seen the wad when he paid Haug off. So all right, we cut you in. Now, get this...”
He gave me detailed instructions. When he was finished, I said, “Don’t wait up for me.”
I took the speaker out of my ear and dropped it into the disposal slot. We drove along quietly for quite a while.
I was beginning to recognize my surroundings. This section of the turnpike had been opened the year before I left home. Except for the lack of traffic and the dark windows along the way it hadn’t changed.
I was wondering just what Lefty’s next move would be when a pair of powerful beams came on from the left, then pulled onto the highway, speeding up to pace me. I rocketed past before he had made full speed. I heard a loud spang, and glass chips scattered on my shoulder. I twisted and looked. A starred hole showed in the bubble, above the rear seat.
“Duck!” I yelled. Stenn leaned over, put his head down.
The beams were gaining on me. I twisted the rear viewer, hit the I/R switch. A three-ton combat car, stripped, but still mounting twin infinite repeaters. Against that, old 16 was a kiddie car. I held my speed and tried to generate an idea. What I came up with wasn’t good, but it was all I had.
A half a mile ahead there should be a level-split, one of those awkward ones that caused more than one pile-up in the first few months the turnpike was open. Maybe my playmates didn’t know about it.
They were about to overtake me now. I slowed just a little, and started fading to the right. They followed me, crowding my rear wheel. I heard the spang again, twice, but nothing hit me. I was on the paved shoulder now, and could barely see the faded yellow cross-hatching that warned of the abutment that divided the pavement ahead.
I held the hack in the yellow until the last instant, then veered right and cleared the concrete barrier by a foot, hit the down-curve at a hundred and eighty in a howl of gyros and brakes--and the thunderous impact of the combat car.
Then I was off the pavement, fighting the wheel, slamming through underbrush, then miraculously back on the hard surface and coasting to a stop in the clear.
I took a deep breath and looked back. The burning remains of the car were scattered for a quarter of a mile along the turnpike. That would have been me if I had gauged it wrong.
I looked at the canopy of the hack. Three holes, not a foot apart, right where a passenger’s head would be if he were sitting upright. Stenn was unconcernedly brushing glass dust from his jacket.
“Very neat, Mr. Smith,” he said. “Now shall we resume our journey?”
“Maybe it’s time you leveled with me, Stenn,” I said.
He raised his eyebrows at me slightly.
“When Joe Naples’ boy Friday pointed the gun at your head you didn’t bat an eyelash,” I said.
“I believe those were your instructions,” Stenn said mildly.
“Pretty good for a simple businessman. I don’t see you showing any signs of the shakes now, either, after what some might call a harrowing experience.”
“I have every confidence in your handling--”
“Nuts, Stenn. Those three holes are pretty well grouped, wouldn’t you say? The man that put them there was hitting where he was aiming. And he was aiming for you.”
“Why me?” Stenn looked almost amused.
“I thought it was a little shakedown crew, out to teach me a lesson,” I said. “Until I saw where the shots were going.”
Stenn looked at me thoughtfully. He reached up and took a micro-speaker from his ear.
“The twin to the one you rashly disposed of,” he said. “Mr. Haug was kind enough to supply it--for a fee. I must tell you that I had a gun in my hand as we approached the South Radial Intermix. Had you accepted the invitation to turn off, I would have halted the car, shot you and gone on alone. Happily, you chose to resist the temptation, for reasons of your own...” He looked at me inquiringly.
“Maybe I’m sap enough to take the job seriously,” I said.
“That may possibly be true,” Stenn said.
“What’s your real errand here, Stenn? Frankly, I don’t have time to get involved.”
“Really? One wonders if you have irons in the fire, Smith. But never mind. I shan’t pry. Are we going on?”
I gave him my stern penetrating look.
“Yeah,” I said. “We’re going on.”
In twenty minutes, we were on the Inner Concourse and the polyarcs were close together, lighting the empty sweep of banked pavement. The lights of the city sparkled across the sky ahead, and gave me a ghostly touch of the old thrill of coming home.
I doused that feeling fast. After eight years there was nothing left there for me to come home to. The city had a lethal welcome for intruders; it wouldn’t be smart to forget that.
I didn’t see the T-Bird until his spot hit my eyes and he was beside me, crowding.
I veered and hit the brakes, with a half-baked idea of dropping back and cutting behind him, but he stayed with me. I had a fast impression of squealing metal and rubber, and then I was skidding to a stop up against the deflector rails with the T-Bird slanted across my prow. Its lid popped almost before the screech died away, and I was looking down the muzzles of two power pistols. I kept both hands on the wheel, where they could see them, and sat tight.
I wondered whose friends we had met this time.
Two men climbed out, the pistols in sight, and came up to the hack. The first one was a heavy-set Slavic type zipped into a tight G. I. weather suit. He motioned. I opened up and got out, not making any sudden movements. Stenn followed. A cold wind was whipping along the concourse, blowing a fine misty rain hard against my cheek. The polyarcs cast black shadows on gray faces.
The smaller man moved over to Stenn and crowded him back against the hack. The Slav motioned again, and I moved over by the T-Bird. He fished my wallet out and put it in his pocket without looking at it. I heard the other man say something to Stenn, and then the sound of a blow. I turned my head slowly, so as not to excite my watchdog. Stenn was picking himself up. He started going through his pockets, showing everything to the man with the gun, then dropping it on the ground. The wind blew cards and papers along until they soaked up enough water to stick. Stenn carried a lot of paper.
The gunny said something and Stenn started pulling off his coat. He turned it inside out, and held it out. The gunny shook his head, and motioned to my Slav. He looked at me, and I tried to read his mind. I moved across toward the hack. I must have guessed right because he didn’t shoot me. The Slav pocketed his gun and took the coat. Methodically, he tore the lining out, found nothing, dropped the ripped garment and kicked it aside. I shifted position, and the Slav turned and backhanded me up against the hack.
“Lay off him, Heavy,” the other hood said. “Maxy didn’t say nothing about this mug. He’s just a Escort.”
Heavy started to get his gun out again. I had an idea he was thinking about using it. Maybe that’s why I did what I did. As his hand dipped into his pocket, I lunged, wrapped an arm around him and yanked out my own artillery. I held onto a handful of the weather suit and dug the pistol in hard. He stood frozen. Heavy wasn’t as dumb as he looked.
His partner had backed a step, the pistol in his hand covering all of us.
“Drop it, Slim,” I said. “No hard feelings, and we’ll be on our way.”
Stenn stood absolutely motionless. He was still wearing his mild expression.
“Not a chance, mug,” the gunny said softly. No one moved.
“Even if you’re ready to gun your way through your pal, I can’t miss. Better settle for a draw.”
“Maxy don’t like draws, mister.”
“Stenn,” I said. “Get in the T-Bird. Head back the way we came, and don’t slow down to read any billboards.”
Stenn didn’t move.
“Get going,” I said. “Slim won’t shoot.”
“I employed you,” Stenn said, “to take care of the heroics.”
“If you’ve got any better ideas it’s time to speak up, Stenn. This is your only out, the way I see it.”
Stenn looked at the man with the gun.
“You referred to someone named ‘Maxy.’ Would that by any chance be Mr. Max Arena?”
Slim looked at him and thought about it.
“Could be,” he said.
Stenn came slowly over to the Slav. Standing well out of the line of fire, he carefully put a hand in the loose pocket of the weather suit and brought out the pistol. I saw Slim’s eyes tighten. He was having to make some tough decisions in a hurry.
Stenn moved offside, pistol in hand.
“Move away from him, Smith,” he said.
I didn’t know what he had in mind, but it didn’t seem like the time to argue. I moved back.
“Drop your gun,” he said.
I risked a glance at his mild expression.
“Are you nuts?”
“I came here to see Mr. Arena,” he said. “This seems an excellent opportunity.”
“Does it? I--”
“Drop it now, Smith. I won’t warn you again.”
I dropped it.
Slim swiveled on Stenn. He was still in an awkward spot.
“I want you to take me to Mr. Arena,” Stenn said. “I have a proposition to put before him.” He lowered the gun and handed it to Heavy.
It seemed like a long time until Slim lowered his gun.
“Heavy, put him in the back seat.” He motioned me ahead, watched me as he climbed in the T-Bird.
“Nice friends you got, mug,” he said. The T-Bird started up, backed, and roared off toward the city. I stood under the polyarcs and watched the tail glare out of sight.
Max Arena was the man I had come to the city to find.
Old number 16 was canted against the deflector rail, one side shredded into curled strips of crumpled metal. I looked closer. Under the flimsy fairings, gray armor showed. Maybe there was more to Haug’s best hack than met the eye. I climbed in and kicked over the starter. The turbos sounded as good as ever. I eased the gyros in; she backed off the rail with a screech of ripped metal.
I had lost my customer, but I still had wheels.
The smart thing to do now would be to head back out the turnpike to Haug’s lot, turn in my badge and keep moving, south. I could give up while I was still alive. All I had to do was accept the situation.
I had a wide choice. I could sign on with the New Confeds, or the Free Texans, or any one of the other splinter republics trying to set up shop in the power vacuum. I might try to get in to one of the Enclaves and convince its Baron he needed another trained bodyguard. Or I could take a post with one of the king-pins in the city.
As a last resort I could go back and find a spot in the Naples organization. I happened to know they had a vacancy.
I was just running through mental exercises to hear myself think. I couldn’t settle for the kind of world I had found when I touched planet three months back, after eight years in deep space with Hayle’s squadron. When the Interim Administration shot him for treason, I burned my uniform and disappeared. My years in the Service had given me a tough hide and a knack for staying alive; my worldly assets consisted of the clothes I stood in, my service pistol and a few souvenirs of my travels. For two months I had been scraping along on the cash I had in my pocket, buying drinks for drifters in cheap bars, looking for a hint, any lead at all, that would give me a chance to do what had to be done. Max Arena was the lead. Maybe a dud lead--but I had to find out.
The city lights loomed just a few miles away. I was wasting time sitting here; I steered the hack out into the highway and headed for them.
Apparently Lefty’s influence didn’t extend far beyond the South Radial. The two roadblocks I passed in the next five miles took my money, accepted my story that I was on my way to pick up a fare, said to say hello to Haug and passed me on my way.
Haug’s sour yellow color scheme seemed to carry some weight with the town Organizations, too. I was well into the city, cruising along the third level Crossover, before I had any trouble. I was doing about fifty, watching where I was going and looking for the Manhattan Intermix, when a battered Gyrob four-seater trundled out across the fairway and stopped. I swerved and jumped lanes; the Gyrob backed, blocking me. I kicked my safety frame down and floor-boarded the hack, steering straight for him. At the last instant he tried to pull out of the way.
He was too late.
I clipped him across his aft quarter, and caught a glimpse of the underside of the car as it stood on its nose, slammed through the deflector and over the side. Old 16 bucked and I got a good crack across the jaw from the ill-fitting frame, and then I was screeching through the Intermix and out onto the Manhattan Third level.
Up ahead, the glare panels at the top of the Blue Tower reared up half a mile into the wet night sky. It wasn’t a hard address to find. Getting inside would be another matter.
I pulled up a hundred yards from the dark cave they used to call the limousine entrance and looked the situation over. The level was deserted--like the whole city seemed, from the street. But there were lights in the windows, level after level of them stretching up and away as far as you could see. There were plenty of people in the city--about ten million, even after the riots and the Food Scare and the collapse of legal government. The automated city supply system had gone on working, and the Kingpins, the big time criminals, had stepped in and set things up to suit their tastes. Life went on--but not out in the open. Not after dark.
I knew almost nothing about Arena. Judging from his employees, he was Kingpin of a prosperous outfit. The T-Bird was an expensive late model, and the two thugs handled themselves like high-priced talent. I couldn’t expect to walk into his HQ without jumping a few hurdles. Maybe I should have invited myself along with Stenn and his new friends. On the other hand, there were advantages to arriving unannounced.
It was a temptation to drive in, with the hack’s armor between me and any little surprises that might be waiting, but I liked the idea of staging a surprise of my own. I eased into drive and moved along to a parking ramp, swung around and down and stopped in the shadow of the retaining wall.
I set the brake and took a good look around. There was nothing in sight. Arena might have a power cannon trained on me from his bedroom window, for all I knew, but I had to get a toe into the water sometime. I shut down the turbo, and in the silence popped the lid and stepped out. The rain had stopped, and the moon showed as a bright spot on the high mist. I felt hungry and a little bit unreal, as though this were happening to somebody else.
I moved over to the side of the parking slab, clambered over the deflector rail and studied the shadows under the third level roadway. I could barely make out the catwalks and service ways. I was wondering whether to pull off my hard-soled shoes for the climb when I heard footsteps, close. I gauged the distance to the hack, and saw I couldn’t make it. I got back over the rail and waited.
He came into sight, rangy, shock-haired and preternaturally thin in tight traditional dress.
When he got close I saw that he was young, in his early twenties at most. He would be carrying a knife.
“Hey, Mister,” he whined. “Got a cigarette?”
“Sure, young fellow,” I said, sounding a little nervous. I threw in a shaky laugh to help build the picture. I took a cigarette from a pack, put the pack back in my pocket, held the weed out. He strutted up to me, reached out and flipped the cigarette from my fingers. I edged back and used the laugh again.
“Hey, he liked that,” the punk whined. “He thinks that’s funny. He got a sense of humor.”
“Heh, heh,” I said. “Just out getting a little air.”
“Gimme another cigarette, funny man.”
I took the pack out, watching. I got out a cigarette and held it gingerly, arm bent. As he reached for it, I drew back. He snatched for it. That put him in position.
I dropped the pack, clenched my two hands together, ducked down and brought them up hard under his chin. He backflipped, rolled over and started crawling.
I let him go.
I went over the rail without stopping to think it over and crossed the girder to the catwalk that ran under the boulevard above. I groped my way along to where the service way branched off for the Blue Tower, then stopped and looked up. A strip of luminous sky showed between the third level and the facade of the building. Anybody watching from the right spot would see me cross, walking on the narrow footway. It was a chance I’d have to take. I started to move out, and heard running feet. I froze.
The feet slid to a stop on the level above, a few yards away.
“What’s up, Crackers?” somebody growled.
“The mark sapped me down.”
That was interesting. I had been spotted and the punk had been sent to welcome me. Now I knew where I stood. The opposition had made their first mistake.
“He was starting to cross under when I spot him,” Crackers went on, breathing heavily. “He saps me and I see I can’t handle him and I go for help.”
Someone answered in a guttural whisper. Crackers lowered his voice. It wouldn’t take long now for reinforcements to arrive and flush me out. I edged farther and chanced a look. I saw two heads outlined above. They didn’t seem to be looking my way, so I started across, walking silently toward a narrow loading platform with a wide door opening from it.
Below me, a lone light reflected from the wet pavement of the second level, fifty feet down; the blank wall of the Blue Tower dropped past it sheer to the glistening gutters at ground level. Then I was on the platform and trying the door.
It didn’t open.
It was what I should have expected. Standing in the full light from the glare panel above the entry, I felt as exposed as a fan-dancer’s navel. There was no time to consider alternatives. I grabbed my power pistol, flipped it to beam fire and stood aside with an arm across my face. I gave the latch a blast, then kicked the door hard. It was solid as a rock. Behind and above me, I heard Crackers yell.
I beamed the lock again, tiny droplets of molten metal spattering like needles against my face and hand. The door held.
“Drop it and lift ‘em, mug,” a deep voice yelled. I twisted to look up at the silhouettes against the deflector rail. I recognized the Slavic face of the man called Heavy. So he could talk after all.
“You’re under my iron, mug,” he called. “Freeze or I’ll burn you.”
I believed him, but I had set something in motion that couldn’t stop now. There was nothing to go back to; the only direction for me was on the way I was headed--deeper into trouble. I was tired of being the mouse in a cat’s game. I had taken the initiative and I was keeping it.
I turned, set the power pistol at full aperture, and poured it to the armored door. Searing heat reflected from the barrier, smoke boiled, metal melted and ran. Through the stink of burning steel, I smelled scorched hair--and felt heat rake the back of my neck and hands. Heavy was beaming me at wide aperture, but the range was just too far for a fast kill. The door sagged and fell in. I jumped through the glowing opening, hit the floor and rolled to damp out my smouldering coat.
I got to my feet. There was no time now to stop and feel the pain of my burns. They would expect me to go up--so I would go down. The Blue Tower covered four city blocks and was four hundred stories high. There was plenty of room in it for a man to lose himself.