What do you hate and fear the most? I know a girl who gags and throws up at the mere sight of a bird. Poor kid, when she was a barefoot moppet she stepped on a fledgling robin in the grass. She hasn’t gotten over the squish of it yet.
Birds don’t trouble me. I can look at them all day. It takes snakes to give me the green shudders. I hate them.
She was getting better at them, I decided. This was the fourth one since breakfast and the roughest-looking of the lot. It was a diamondback rattler, and lay coiled on the rug at my feet. I turned my swivel chair slowly back to my desk and riveted my eyes to the blotter. Snakes are ghastly things. But there was no future in letting them shake me up.
I bent over in my swivel chair and swung my left arm like a flail just below this rattler’s raised head. He struck at me, but late, and missed. The swipe I took at him should have swept him over, but he got his coils around me. When I heaved back up straight before my desk, he was as neatly wrapped around my forearm as a Western Union splice.
Enough of his tail was free to make that buzz that means “Look out!” About a foot of his business end stood up off my arm. His forked tongue flicked out over his horny lip, pink and dainty.
“Now, vanish!” I said to the snake. It didn’t. Instead the door to my office opened, letting in a little more of the unmistakable smell of the hospital, as well as old Maragon, Grand Master of the Lodge. He was complaining and shaking a finger at me as he came toward my desk. He didn’t jump more than a foot when he got a look at my arm. His shaggy gray eyebrows climbed way, way up his forehead in a mutely shouted question.
I wouldn’t give the old goat the time of day. When I dead-panned him, he shrugged and lowered himself into the chair beside my desk.
“Thought you hated snakes, Lefty,” he said.
“A guy could get used to almost anything, Grand Master,” I said. “I found a cobra under my pillow when I rolled out of the sack this morning. A coral snake fell out of the folds of my towel when I went to take a shower. Somebody stashed a bushmaster here in my locker to meet me when I dressed for surgery. I’m getting almost fond of snakes.”
Maragon semaphored doubt by squeezing his eyebrows down in a scowl. “Even real snakes?” he protested.
“It’s the most artful hallucination I’ve ever experienced,” I granted. “This snake has weight, a cold feel and a scratchy scaliness. This new witch of yours really knows her stuff. I just would have thought...” I dribbled off, raising my shoulders.
“Thought what, Lefty?”
“Oh,” I said. “That it was somehow beneath the dignity of the Grand Master to drag himself down here to the hospital just to add a little conviction to the hallucination. I mean, working up a big entrance, and all this pretense of your seeing a snake.”
His smile was a little weary. “Try a lift, Lefty,” Maragon said.
He had finally overplayed his hand. Hallucinations don’t respond to telekinesis--there’s nothing there to lift. I fixed on the rattler’s crouching head and lifted. The TK jerked the S-shaped curve out of his neck. I could feel his coils fight my lift. At some moment there I must have gotten the point that this snake was real.
I guess I was screaming and shaking it from me for five minutes after Maragon had unwrapped the coils from my arm.
“All right. All right. All right,” I said to him, shaking my head. “So it had no fangs. You’ve still got me sold. I’ll go to Nevada for you.” I’d have gone clear to Hell to get away from that hallucinating witch he had working on me. I’d gotten used to hallucinations--but who can get used to the doubt that one of those dreadful visions is real? I’d had my lesson.
It served me right, of course. It had begun when Peno Rose had first visored me from Lake Tahoe. I had told him “No.” Too busy, much too busy, with TK surgery at Memorial Hospital. It didn’t mean a thing to me that some cross-roader with plenty of TK was stealing the Sky Hi Club’s casino blind. But Peno had known me from my days on the Crap Patrol, and wasn’t much impressed that I’d reached the thirty-third degree. He’d gotten the Senior United States senator from Nevada to put heat on the Lodge.
When Maragon first visored me on it, I simply refused to discuss it and switched off. That was the big mistake. I had an obligation to the Lodge for my TK training, and there was no honorable way I could turn my back on it. The Grand Master is a patient, if deadly, old goat, and he came after me in person.
I’d just walked out of surgery, and was still in mask and gown. The surgeon who had done the cutting while I had put TK clamps on the inaccessible arteries was at my side, breathing a sigh of relief that the patient hadn’t died on the table. He’d still die, I figured, but not on the table. I’d felt the fluttery rasp of his heart muscle as it had strained against my lift. He didn’t have too long.
“Thank God for a dry field,” the scalpel surgeon said, politely holding out his left hand to me. I shook it with my left. That’s why I hadn’t done the cutting, too. There aren’t any one-handed surgeons. My right arm looks fine. It just hasn’t any strength. Old Maragon had told me once that my TK powers were a pure case of compensation for a useless arm. The surgeon dropped my hand. “You’re the best, Wally Bupp,” he said. He’s too good a friend of mine to call me “Lefty” and remind me that I’m a cripple.
It was Maragon who did that. I hadn’t noticed him, but somebody gave me the grip, and I looked around. He was back against the wall, short, gray and square. I gave his ear lobe a TK tug in return, harder, perhaps, than was necessary, and nodded for him to follow both of us to my office.
“We’ll have to talk about it, Lefty,” he said, as he closed the door against the smell of iodoform.
“No, we don’t,” I said. “I don’t care who is losing how much money at Peno Rose’s Sky Hi Club. Right here in this hospital people are dying. Ask old Thousand Cuts,” I went on, nodding to the scalpel surgeon. “We just pulled one out of the fire. When does this come in second best to saving the skin of some tinhorn gambler?”
“Your Lodge obligations come first,” he said quietly. “We have a replacement for you here. Here’s your ticket for Lake Tahoe,” he added, holding out an envelope from a travel agency.
“I’m staying here, Maragon,” I said. “I’m a TK surgeon. I’m all through tipping dice.”
“You may not find it practical,” he said, getting up to leave.
Well, I hadn’t. Three snakes inside my head had made me a sucker for the real one on my arm. Maragon had made his point. I might have reached the thirty-third degree, but I wasn’t quite as big a shot as I thought I was. I could feel that rattler on my arm all the way to Lake Tahoe.
Like any gambling house, the Sky Hi Club was a trap. Peno had tried to kid the public with a classy decor. It was a darned good copy of a nineteenth century ranch house. At the gambling tables everything was free--the liquor, the hors d’oeuvres, the entertainment. Everything, that is, but the gambling and the women. The casino was taking its cut. And the women--or should I be so sure?
You paid for your drinks if you stood up to the long mahogany bar. I turned my back to the rattle of cocktail shakers and chink of glasses, one heel hooked over the replica brass rail, and took a long careful look at the crap tables. There was a job for me at one of them. I began to shut out the distractions of sight and sound. I wanted nothing to dull my PSI powers.
A blond bombshell slithered down the bar and ground herself against my leg. “Wanna buy me a drink, honey?” she gasped. I smuggled a lift and slipped all four of her garters off the tops of her hose. A funny, stricken look replaced the erotic face she had made at me. She headed for dry dock.
B-girls usually work in pairs, so I looked down toward the other end of the polished mahogany. Sure enough, there was the brunette, frowning as she tried to figure why the blond bomber had high-tailed it out of there. I shook my head at her and she let it lie.
That should have cut out the last distraction. But no, I could see one more bimbo working her way through the laughing, drink-flushed crowd toward me. She had hair-colored hair, which was sort of out of character for a barroom hustler. I put plenty of TK on the heel of her right slipper, and she stepped right out of it. It might as well have been nailed to the floor. Nothing was going to discourage this one, I saw. I let her pick it off the floor, squeeze it back on her skinny foot, and come toward me.
This new babe leaned over toward me and stuck her nose up against mine. It was long, thin, and not a little red.
“Billy Joe!” she said, and sniffled loudly. “My darlin’ Billy!”
How near-sighted can you get? I don’t think there’s such a thing as a case of mistaken identity around a guy like me. I didn’t know her darlin’ Billy from Adam’s ox. But I’d have bet a pretty we didn’t look alike.
“You’re wasting it,” I told her, looking out over the crap tables. “It’s new, and different. But I’m not anybody’s darling.” A jerk of my head told her to move on.
But she sniffled and stayed put. I gave up and started through the press of gamblers toward the Cashier’s cage.
“Billy Joe!” this hustler moaned behind me, clawing at my jacket. “I knew I’d find you here. And I came sich a fer piece, Billy Joe! Don’t make me go off again, darlin’ Billy!”
While I prefer to gamble for cash, I had reason while on a job for sticking to a known amount of chips. She stood there while I got a thousand dollars worth of ten-buck markers, looking at me with some kind of plea in her eyes. This again was not in the pattern. Most hustlers can’t keep their eyes off your chips.
She puppy-dogged behind me to the crap table I had decided needed my attention. It was crowded, but there’s always room for one more sucker. And still one more, for the sniffly girl with the hair-colored hair pressed in against my useless right arm when I elbowed my way in between the gamblers, directly across from the dealers.
“Billy Joe!” she said, just loud enough to hear over the chanting of the dealers and the excited chatter of the dice players. Billy Joe! What a corn-ball routine!
I took stock before beginning to lose my stack of chips. There were more than twenty gamblers of both sexes pressed up against the green baize of the crap layout. Three stick-men in black aprons that marked them for dealers were working on the other side or the table. We had at least one dealer too many for the crowd. That screamed out loud the table was having trouble. Big gambling layouts know within minutes if a table is not making its vigorish. A Nevada crap layout, with moderately heavy play, should make six per cent of the amount gambled on every roll. That’s its vigorish--its percentage. If the take falls below that, the suspicion is that the table is being taken to the cleaners by a crooked gambler, or “cross-roader.” The table I had picked was the only one in the Sky Hi Club’s casino with more than one stick-man working it.
The girl sniffled, and her long skinny arm reached around behind me to snag a couple sandwiches the size of postage stamps from a waiter’s tray. She wolfed them down, wiping at the end of her long nose with a wadded-up hunk of cambric. She’d done it before, and plenty, for her nose was red and sore. She made cow-eyes at me.
“Don’t say it,” I told her. “I’m not your darlin’ Billy.”
The dice were to my right--I’d get them after a couple more losers rolled. My unwanted hustler stood on that side of me, too. They never have any money of their own. I wasn’t about to give her any of mine.
I wanted to lose some dough in a hurry. I started playing field numbers, and TK’d the dice away from the field every time a gambler came out. Of course, I could have let the table’s six per cent vigorish take it away from me, but that would have taken longer.
Even with losing on every roll, the dice got around to me before I had lost the nine hundred I had set out to drop. I put four chips on the “Don’t Pass” side of the line, shook left-handed because of my weak right arm, and got ready to come out. Sniffles seized me. “Don’t Billy Joe!” she said suddenly. “You’ll lose!” She pushed my chips across the line to the “Pass” side. That burned me up.
“Get your hands off my chips,” I said, annoyed by bad gambling manners. Her face was all resignation and sadness. Well, not quite all. A lot of it was thin, red nose and buck teeth.
“You’ll lose, darlin’ Billy,” she said.
“Pull those chips back!” I said. Her eyebrows shrugged, but she did as I told her. I came out, and tipped the dice to eleven. I kept the dice, but lost my chips, which is what I wanted. Throwing six more down on the “Don’t Pass” side, I rattled the ivories in my left hand. Tears began to roll down her unhealthy cheeks.
“Lose!” she cried nasally, and sniffled. “Billy Joe! Listen to me, darlin’ Billy! You’ll lose!” Her eyes rolled up toward the top of her head as I ignored her and came out. Sniffles gasped, “Hit’s a seven!”
Well, that’s the number I’d tipped them to, but she called it before the dice stopped rolling. That left me thirteen chips. Half absent-mindedly, I put three of them on the “Pass” side of the line and tipped the dice to twelve. Mostly I was looking at this scarecrow beside me.
“Box cars!” one of the dealers called. “My future home.” But he wasn’t as quick as Sniffles. She had called the turn before the galloping dominoes had bounced from the backrail.
The box cars cost me the dice. The next gambler blew on them, cursed, and rolled. I didn’t bet, and spent the next couple rolls looking at her.
The girl was a mess. Some women have no style because they don’t even know what it means. Courturiers have taught them all to be lean and hungry-looking. This chicken was underfed in a way that wasn’t stylish. They call it malnutrition. Her strapless gown didn’t fit her, nor anybody within twenty pounds of her weight. She was all shoulder blades and collarbones. I suppose that a decent walk would have given her some charm--most of these hustlers have a regular Swiss Movement. But this thing had a gait that tied in with the slack way her skirt hung across her pelvic bones and hollered “White Trash!” at you.
I wasn’t much flattered that she had tried to pick me up. People have a pretty accurate way of measuring their social station. And she thought she was what I’d go for. Well, I guess I don’t look like so much, either. I’d missed my share of meals when they might have put some height on me. My long, freckled face ends in a chin as sharp and pointed as her nose. And there’s always something about a cripple, even if my powerless right arm doesn’t exactly show.
My days on the Crap Patrol came back to me. That’s where the Lodge had found me, down on my knees in an alley, making the spots come up my way without even knowing I could do it. And when they’d convinced me I was really a TK, and started me on the training that finally led to the Thirty-third degree, they’d put me right back in those alleys, and cheap hotel rooms, watching for some other unknowing TK tipping the dice his way.
Did Sniffles have it? She wasn’t tipping dice, exactly, but she sure was calling the turn. She was tall, as well as skinny, and our eyes weren’t far apart. “Billy Joe,” she whispered above the racket of the gambler in the casino, putting her mouth close to my ear. “I told you, sugar. And now you lost. You lost!” Her perfume was cheap, but generous, and pretty well covered up her need for a bath.
“There’s some left,” I told her. “Show me how.” She hugged my arm to her skinniness. That’s all any of the hustlers ever want--to get their hands on your chips. They figure some of them will stick to their fingers.
The gambler next to me had won a dollar bet without my help. He acted mighty glad for a win--maybe it was a while since he’d hit it. I decided to give him a run of luck.
Now in charge of my chips, Sniffles called the turn on every roll. She was hot. It wasn’t just that she followed where the gambler next to me put his dough--she was ahead of him on pushing out the chips on half the rolls.
He quickly saw that my chips had stayed on the same side of the line each roll as his. He cursed me for a good luck mascot. “Stick with me, Lefty,” he said. “We’ll break the table!” I rammed a hard lift under his heart, and then, ashamed of myself, quit it. He turned pale before I took it off him.
“What’s the matter?” I asked him, supporting his sagging elbow, still mad at myself for acting so childish.
“Nothing, nothing,” he gasped, starting to recover. He’d only been dying, that’s all. But it came in second-best compared to holding the dice.
No point calling too much attention to him. I decided four passes were enough while he held the dice. What do you know, as he came out for the fifth time, Sniffles pulled my stack of chips to the “Don’t Pass” side of the line, while scraping at the chapped end of her skinny nose with the back of her free hand.
Like every compulsive gambler I’ve ever seen, the roller next to me was sure he was on a rampage. Four passes and he thought he had the dice licked. “Ride with me!” he yelled at Sniffles, who plainly had the management of my chips.
“No moah,” she said. “You’ll lose.”
Of course he did. I TK’d the one-two up. “Little Joe from Kokomo,” one of the stick-men called. They raked losing bets and paid winners with the speed of prestidigitators. “Roller keeps the dice,” the stick-man told my neighbor.
The gambler cursed and threw the dice to the roller on his left. He spat blame at Sniffles for not riding with him. He was one big clot of crushed misery. After all, hadn’t he wanted to lose? They all do. I couldn’t get very upset over his curses. So far he had lost one buck, net. And he’d had some action. So much for gamblers.
I kept control of the dice while each new gambler handled them. I was having a good night. Of course, by that time I had handled the dice, which always improves my TK grip. Every point I had TK’d came up. For all the perception I kept on the ivories, I could sense no other TK force at work, which after all was the whole reason for my gambling.
The interesting note was the way Sniffles handled my chips. Sometimes more sure than others, she occasionally let a winning stack ride. On other rolls, she keened and chanted oddly to herself, eyes closed, and pinched down most of the stock. But she was never on the wrong side of the “Pass” line. I kept track, not wanting my stack to build up past the thousand with which I had started. Most of all, I watched the skinny gal dope the dice, sniffle and wipe the end of her nose. She was one homely sharecropper, that was a fact, but she had a nice feel for Lady Luck. Or for what I planned next.
Wanting to come out with an even thousand, I adjusted the size of her last bet. When I won it, I pulled my chips off the table, which Sniffles didn’t resist. She used the lull to grab a handful of sandwiches from another waiter’s tray. A gambler at the far end of the table came out, calling loudly to the dice. The cubes made the length of the table, bounced off the rail and came to a stop dead center, between me and the three stick-men in the black aprons. That’s the instant when every eye is on the dice, trying to read the spots. And that’s when the dice jumped straight up off the baize, a good six-inch hop into the air, and came down Snake Eyes, the old signal. Wow! I’d had it!
“TK!” somebody yelled. He might as well have screamed, “Fire!” the way that mob of gamblers scuttled away from the table.
“No dice,” one of the dealers said automatically. He raked the hopping cubes sadly to him with his hoe-shaped dice-stick.
I made a break for it with the rest of the crowd, trying to keep my eye on Sniffles. But she had the sure-loser’s touch of slipping away from any authority. She vanished into the milling mob. My last glimpse had been of a skinny arm reaching up to pluck some more free _hors d’oeuvres_ from a tray as she fled.
I should have saved myself the trouble. They had a bouncer on each of my elbows before I had moved five feet. They carried more than dragged me into a private dining room behind the bar. It went along with the ersatz rustic decor of the rest of the Sky Hi Club. There was sawdust on the genuine wood floor, big brass spittoons and a life-sized oil-color of a reclining nude, done with meaty attention to detail, behind a small mahogany topped bar. Stacks of clean glasses vied for space with labeled bottles on the back-bar.
One of the stick-men followed us into the room, taking his apron off as he closed the door behind him, shutting out the roaring clatter of the casino. “Cross-roader!” he hissed at me. I should have known what was coming, but I missed it. He slapped me hard across the face, saving his knuckles, but not doing my jaw a whole lot of good. I would have fallen clean over, but the bouncers were still tight on my elbows.
“Wait!” I tried to say, but he cuffed me with the other hand, harder, if that were possible. This is the moment when you have to stop and think. A Blackout is quite effective--it’s hard to hit what you can’t see. And there’s something mighty unnerving about being stricken suddenly blind.
Oh, face it, I suppose the real reason I felt for the arteries supplying blood to his retinas was that so few TK’s can do it. I clamped down tight, and his lights went out. He cried out in fright, and both hands came groping up in front of him, his fingers trembling.
“I’m blind!” he said, not able to believe it. He began to lose his balance.
I felt one of the bouncers go for his sap. “Try it, you gorilla,” I told him, wrenching around, now that I was free on his side. “Try it and I’ll rip the retinas off your eyeballs the way you’d skin a peach!” He recoiled as though I were a Puff Adder. The other bouncer let go of me, too. I skidded in the slippery sawdust, scared half to death, but got my back against a wall just as the stick-man who had slugged me lost his orientation completely and fell to his knees in the sawdust. It would be some minutes before his vision started dribbling back.
The click of the door latch broke the silence. One of the other stick-men eased himself in, holding the door only wide enough to squeeze past the jamb. Don’t give the suckers a peek at the seamy side. They might just take their money to the next clip joint down the street.
He didn’t look like the others, somehow. He was older, for one thing. Perhaps it was his nearly bald scalp, perhaps the thick, bookish glasses in heavy brown frames. “What’s that?” he asked mildly, poking a finger at the dealer kneeling in the sawdust on the floor. My Blackout victim was reaching out, trying to find something he could use to raise himself to his feet. His face was frozen in a fierce, unseeing stare as he mentally screamed at his eyes to see, see, see!
“Blackout!” one of the bouncers told the second stick-man in a muffled voice.
Sharp eyes fired a quick, surprised look at me. “Well,” said the bald dealer. “Good evening, Brother.” I had a surge of relief. The strong-arm stuff was over. This was the casino’s TK.
“What kept you, Brother?” I said, sounding a little sore. “These characters were going to kick my teeth out.”
His grin had a taste of viciousness. “I did give them a little time,” he agreed. “How was I to know?” He looked calmly at them over the tops of his glasses. “You can go now,” he said, like a schoolmarm dismissing class.
The gorillas helped the blindly staring dealer to his feet, brushing at the sawdust that clung to his clothing, and had him presentable by the time they led him through the door. They seemed glad to get away.
“The Blackout,” the TK said musingly to me. “You hear about it, and the Psiless cringe when they think it might happen to them. But you don’t see it every day. You’re in the Lodge, of course?” he added.
“Of course,” I said coldly.
“Please,” he said, waving a hand at me. “Don’t take it so big. So am I.” From five feet apart we exchanged the grip, the tactile password impossible for the Psiless to duplicate--just a light tug at each other’s ear lobes, but perfect identification as TK’s. “I’m Fowler Smythe,” he said. “Twenty-fifth degree,” he added, flexing his TK muscles. “What is it, buster? You on Crap Patrol?”
I paused before I answered. Twenty-fifth degree? Since when could a gambling casino afford a full-time Twenty-fifth? TK’s in the upper degrees come high. I had already figured my fee at a hundred thousand a day, if I straightened out the casino’s losses to the cross-roader.
“Wally Bupp,” I said at last, deciding there was no point to trying some cover identity. My gimpy right wing was a dead giveaway. “Thirty-third degree,” I added.
He had a crooked grin, out of place beneath his scholarly glasses. “I’ve heard of Wally Bupp,” he admitted. Well, he should have. There aren’t so many Thirty-thirds hanging around. “And you are young, smug and snotty enough to play the part,” he concluded without heat. “Still, that’s all it might be, just play-acting, with Barney going through the motions of being blind. You could be outside the Lodge, sonny. Any cross-roader who can tip dice the way you were working them can twitch an ear. Let’s see some credentials.”
He scuffed through the sawdust to the bar and took a stack of silver dollars from his apron. He held them, dealerwise, in the palm of his hand, with his fingertips down, so that they were a column surrounded by a fence of fingers.
“How many?” he asked.
I shrugged. “The whole stack, Smythe,” I told him. His eyebrows went halfway up his tall, tall forehead. But he put them all down on the bar top, about twenty-five silver dollars. “Show me,” I said.
He ran his fingertips down the side of the stack of silver. Another tactile. Well, he certainly wasn’t much of a perceptive, or he would have been able to handle the Blackout himself. He closed his eyes for the hard lift. Some do that. The coins came up off the mahogany an inch or so, and made a solid smack when the lift broke and he dropped them back. Not very impressive work for a Twenty-fifth degree. The coins spilled over.
I used the excuse of straightening up the stack to get a touch, myself. I could have done it visually, of course, or I could have straightened them up with TK, but touch helps my grip. I took a good look at the door to the main casino, a heavy job of varnished native cedar. Just to show him, I turned my back on the bar, leaning against it with one foot on the brass rail. The lift was as clean as I’ve ever managed. Anger, fear, any strong emotion, is a big help. They came up all together, staying in a stack, and I could perceive that they hung in the air behind me, a good foot clear of the bar, and about twenty feet from the door to the casino. In a smug show of control, I dealt the cartwheels off the top of the stack, one at a time, and fired them hard. Each one snapped away from the hovering stack, like a thrown discus. My perception was of the best. Each coin knifed into the soft cedar of the door, burying itself about halfway. My best sustained lift, I suppose is about two hundred times the weight of a silver dollar. But with the lift split by the need to keep the stack together, about twenty gees was all the shove I gave the cartwheels. Still, you might figure out how fast those cartwheels were traveling after moving twenty feet across the bar at an acceleration of twenty gees.
Smythe gasped. I doubted he had ever seen better, even in the controlled conditions of Lodge Meeting. “A little something to remember me by,” I said, as I opened the silver-studded door. “Now let’s see the boss.”
“You’re a TK bruiser,” he said, impressed. “If you hit Barney’s eyes like that, he’s a Blind Tom for fair.”
“Hardly,” I sniffed. “You ought to know that no respectable TK would lay a lift on a retina. I just squeezed off a couple of small arteries. He’s back in business already, I’d say.”
Had I mentioned the rustic decor of the Sky Hi Club? When Las Vegas had deteriorated to the point where it would turn most stomachs, the better clubs migrated up among the tall pines, along the shores of Lake Tahoe. And in place of the dated chromium glitter of Vegas, they had reached way back to the “Good old days” for styling. The Sky Hi Club was typical. The outside was all hand-hewn logs. The inside had a low, rough-beamed ceiling, and a sure-enough genuine wood floor. The planks were random-width, tree nailed to the joists. Even the help was dressed up like a lot of cow-pokes, whatever cow-pokes were.
This ersatz ranch-house was owned by two completely unlovelies. Peno Rose, who had used his political leverage to get me on the job, I had known since he’d been a policy number runner on the lower East Side. His partner, Simonetti, was something else, but somehow I wasn’t looking forward to meeting him any more than I was to seeing Rose again.
I guess it’s the filth within these croupier types that makes them surround themselves with the aseptic immaculacy of iridium and glass. Their office was in a penthouse perched on the slanting roof shakes of the casino. It was big as a squash court, and as high and as square. Every wall was glass. It couldn’t have been in greater contrast to the contrived hominess of the casino if they’d thought about it for a year. Then, for the last twist, the furnishings were straight out of the old Southwest--Navajo rugs, heavy, Spanish oak desks, and a pair of matching couches or divans of whole steer leather stretched over oak frames.
Peno Rose came quickly toward me the moment Fowler Smythe showed me into the office, spurs jingling. “Hey! There he is! The boy they had to rule off the track! How’s a boy, Lefty? Long time no see.” He had his hand stuck way out ahead of him. His sharp, dried-out features repelled me twice as much as they had ten years before. That hatchet face of his was gashed with what he thought was a smile. I’ve seen sharks with a pleasanter gape. Naturally, I didn’t take his hand.
“Hi, Peno,” I said. He jerked his hand back and straightened up. He snapped the hole in his face shut.
“My partner,” he said, waving his hand at the dark-skinned gent standing over against one of the fumed oak desks. “Sime, meet Lefty Bupp, the hottest TK artist with dice in the whole damned country!”
Simonetti leaned against the desk. He drew a zipper open in his fancy blouse, dragged out the Bull Durham and started to roll his own. They watch too much TV. It makes terrible hams of them all. He spat on the floor.
“A living doll,” I said. I took a better look at this honey. Face it, he was an oily snake, cleaned up as much as possible, but not enough. No amount of dude ranch duds, gold spurs or Indian jewelry could hide his stiletto mentality. He was just a Tenderloin hoodlum with some of the scum scraped off. Well, I should know. So was I.
Simonetti finished licking the seam of his roach. He came forward as he lit it and blew too much smoke in my face. “What you doing here?” he said in a husky voice. “I told Rose no dice. We need another TK like we need a hole in the head.”
“You think I want to be in this trap?” I snapped at him. “Say the word, Tex, and I’m gone.”
“You’re fired,” he said huskily. “Scram!”
I started for the door, glad to be rid of the lot of them. Peno Rose beat me to it. He showed me several rows of teeth, the way sharks will. “Half of this joint is mine,” he snarled, holding a hand lightly against my chest. He knew me better than to push. “My half is hiring you.”
The whiff of garlic over my shoulder told me that Simonetti had followed me, too. He didn’t have any reservations about grabbing me and twisting me around and giving me a real face-full.
“If you know what’s good for you, you’ll get out of here.”
“Freak?” I said, laying it on his mitral valve. After his heart had missed about eight beats, he started to sink, and I quit the lift. “Be polite, Simonetti,” I said to the panic in his yellowish face. “Next time I’ll pinch down tight. The coroner will call it heart failure. Tough.”
He wanted his stiletto. He needed it. He was sorry he had ever quit carrying it. A couple seconds of reflection told him I was too tough for him. He went for his partner, his face darkening with rage now that his heart could get some blood to it. He had his hands out, for Rose’s throat, I guess. For my dough it took guts to put fingers that close to all those teeth. But he never got a chance to try it. An ashtray, one of those things with a shot-loaded cloth bag under it, flew off a desk, smacked him in the back of the head, and dropped to the floor with a thump.
It wasn’t a hard blow, but an upsetting one. Fowler Smythe grinned at him from where he was sitting in one of the leather divans. “Sit down and shut up, Sime,” he suggested coolly.
Simonetti sagged with defeat. “Look, Rose,” he gasped. “I want out. Bad enough that our losses can’t be stopped by this creep Smythe. Now you drag in another TK. Buy me out!”
“What’s a business worth that’s losing its shirt?” Rose sneered. “We were in clover, you fool, till this cross-roader got to us. This is our only chance to get even.”
That finished Simonetti. He went back to his desk and slumped against it, scowling at the points of his handtooled boots.
Rose looked over at me. “Let’s make sense,” he said quietly. “We watched you on the TV monitor from the time you came in.”
“Sure,” I said.
“What about it?” he demanded.
I shrugged. “I had my way with the dice, Peno. I dropped nine yards as fast as I could, then won it back. The spots came up for me every single roll but two, when I had my eye on something else.”
He snickered. “We saw her,” he said.
“How about it, Fowler?” I asked my Lodge Brother. “Was a worker tipping the dice tonight?”
“I never felt it,” he said. “But the table had dropped nearly forty grand during the shift, which was about over when you started to play. He’s too good for me, Wally.”
“But you felt my lifts,” I protested. “You called ‘TK’ on the table.”
Smythe shrugged and took off his glasses. “I thought I felt you tipping when you first came to the layout,” he said, waving them around. I nodded confirmation. “But it was smooth work, and I could hardly be sure. Most of these maverick TK’s strong-arm the dice, and they skid across the layout with their spots up. You’re way ahead of that--you don’t touch them till the final few tumbles. And then, you were losing, and I couldn’t see that the table was being hit.”
“I thought it was the smart move.” I explained. “I was still controlling the dice, and if there’d been a cross-roader working, I should have felt him skidding them.”
Smythe nodded. “Of course,” he added. “I could feel you more clearly after you got the dice, and later, while that scarecrow with you was handling your chips. You were building a stack. So I fingered you.”
“Careful,” I said sourly. “You’re talking about the woman I love.”
There was a strained moment of silence, and then they all laughed. She’d been a sight, all right.
Simonetti came back alive with that one. His husky voice cut in on the laughter. “Where does that bag fit?” he demanded.
“No idea,” I said truthfully. “A random factor. I don’t think she fits.”
“Something has to fit!” he yelled in his oversized whisper. “How about the way our losses follow Curley Smythe around from table to table?”
This was something. “The table you watch is the one that gets hit?” I asked Smythe.
He blushed, clear to the top of his bald head. “A subtle, nasty operator,” he said gruffly. “And he’s had the gall to stick it in me pretty badly, Wally. What Sime says is true.”
Well, this we wouldn’t stand for. I didn’t give a care if every gambling house in Nevada went broke. But Smythe was in the Lodge. And it finally made sense that the Lodge had sent me to bail him out. I gave old Maragon my mental apology. The Grand Master wouldn’t stand still for anybody’s making a fool out of the Lodge. Still: “Nobody that good is out of captivity,” I snapped. “I don’t believe it. It’s not TK that’s robbing you.”
“Oh, ridiculous,” Rose said, showing his teeth. “Gambling is our business, Lefty. Don’t you think we could spot any of the ordinary kinds of cross-roading? This is TK, and it has real voltage. We can’t spot it. We’ve got to have Psi power do it for us.”
“Maybe,” I agreed. “But no TK can do it if Smythe can’t. Have you tried a PC?”
Simonetti grabbed a piece of the heavens in rage. “No!” he yelled in his loud whisper. “None of your crystal-ball witches in here!”
I knew how he felt. PC’s give me the colly-wobbles, too.
“What’s the matter with precognition?” I asked him. “If this crook has got you stuck, Rose is right. Only Psi force will get you out of this jam. If you know in advance where this operator is going to hit you, you can nail him. There’s a dozen techniques.”
Peno Rose looked at me from under lowered brows. “Are you a PC, Lefty?” he asked me.
“No,” I said shortly. The Lodge had proved that several times, in spite of my strong feelings that I had flashes of precognition. Why should I resent not having PC? How many Psi personalities have more than one power? Not many. And as for precognition, as Simonetti said, more than their fair share is possessed by wild-looking women. Like Sniffles, I thought suddenly.
“Well,” Rose said, turning back to his partner. “Let Sime and me talk it over. Maybe we should get a PC.”
“Nuts,” Simonetti told him.
“I’ll think it over, too,” I said. “See you tomorrow.” I turned to go. Simonetti and Smythe followed me out, each for his own reasons, I guess, leaving Rose behind in the cube of glass on the roof, looking like he was going to turn belly-up and take a bite out of the PBX on his desk.
I wasn’t exactly shadowed, but I knew somebody had his eye on me as I wandered about the crowded casino, looking for Sniffles. As far as I could make out, she had vamoosed without trying to hustle another sucker. Her percentage of my winnings had certainly been a disappointment to her.