It was Orley Mattup’s killing of the old lab technician that really made us hate him.
Mattup was a guard at the reactor installation at Bayless, Kentucky, where my friend Danny Hern and I were part of the staff when the Outsiders took everything over. In what god-forsaken mountain hole they had found Mattup, and how they got him to sell out to them, I don’t know. He was an authentic human, though. You can tell an Outsider.
Mattup and Danny and I were playing high-low-jack the night Uncle Pete was killed, sitting on the widewalk where Mattup had a view of the part of the station he was responsible for. High-low-jack is a back-country card game; Danny had learned it in northern Pennsylvania, where he came from, and Mattup loved the game, and they had taught it to me because the game is better three-handed. The evening sessions had been Danny’s idea--I think he figured it might give him a line on Mattup.
On the night in question, Mattup was on a week’s losing streak and was in a foul humor. He was superstitious, and he had called for a new deck twice that evening and walked around his seat four different times. His bidding was getting wilder.
“You’d better cool down,” Danny told him. “Thing to do is ride out the bad luck, not fight it.”
Orley picked his nose and looked at his cards, “Bid four,” he growled.
Four is the highest possible bid. Tim played his cards well and he had good ones. He had sewed up three of his points when we heard somebody moving around down on the reactor floor. It was old Uncle Pete Barker, one of the technicians.
“What you want down there?” bawled Mattup.
“Just left my cap by the control room,” said Uncle Pete, “and thought I’d go get it.”
“You keep the hell away from there,” grunted Mattup.
Uncle Pete stopped and stood gazing up at us. We went on playing. It was the last card of the hand, and would either win the game for Mattup or lose it for him. Orley slapped his card down; it was a crucial card, the jack. Danny took it with a queen and Mattup had lost the game.
I felt like clearing out. Mattup’s face was purple and his eyes looked like wolves’ eyes. He glared at Danny, making a noise in his throat, and then I saw his gaze leave Danny and go to something down by the reactor.
It was Uncle Pete, shuffling along toward the control room.
Mattup didn’t say a word. He stood up and unholstered the thing the Outsiders had given him and pointed it at Uncle Pete. There was a ringing in our ears and Uncle Pete began to twist. Something inside him twisted him, twisting inside his arms, his legs, head, trunk, even his fingers. It was only for a few seconds. Then the ringing stopped, and Uncle Pete sunk to the ground, and there was the silence and the smell.
Mattup made us leave the body there until we had played two more hands. Danny won one; he was a man with good nerves. When we were back in our room he said, “That did it--I’m going to get that guy.”
“I hate his big thick guts,” I said, buttoning my pajama shirt, “but how are you going to get him?”
“I’ll get him,” said Danny. “Meanwhile, we’ll keep playing cards.”
Things went on almost normally at the Bayless reactor. It was a privately-owned pool-type reactor, and we were sent samples of all sorts of material for irradiation from all over the country. Danny was one of the irradiation men; I generally handled controlling. The Outsiders had filled the place with telescreens and guards, and all mail was opened, but there was no real interference with the work. I began to worry a little about Danny. Almost every afternoon he spent an hour alone in our room, with the door closed.
Mattup kept getting worse; an animal with power. He used to go hunting with the damnable Outsider weapon, although the meat killed with it wasn’t fit to eat, and he used it on birds until there wasn’t one left anywhere near the plant. He never killed a bluebird, though. He said it was bad luck. Sometimes he drank moonshine corn liquor, usually alone, because the Outsiders wouldn’t touch it, but sometimes he made some of us drink with him, watching sharply to see we didn’t poison him and craftily picking his nose. When he was drunk he was abusive.
One night we were in our room, dead for sleep after a long game, and Danny said, “Let me show you something.”
He shuffled the cards, I cut, and he dealt me an ace, king, queen, jack, ten and deuce of spades. He shuffled again and dealt me the same in hearts.
“Watch as closely as you can,” he grinned. “See if you can catch me.”
“I’ve been practicing,” he said. “I’m going to get Mattup.”
“What good will it do to beat him in cards? You’ll only make him sore.” I was relieved to learn what Danny had been doing, alone in our room, but this card-sharp angle didn’t make much sense to me.
“Who says I’m going to beat him at cards?” smiled Danny. “By the way, did you hear the rumor? They’re going to break up the staff, Outsider policy, send us to Oak Ridge, Argonne, Shippingport, send new people down here.”
“That doesn’t leave you much time,” I said.
“Time enough,” said Danny.
The next night Mattup began a fantastic streak of luck. It seemed he couldn’t lose, and he was as unpleasant a winner as he was a loser.
“You boys don’t know what card-playin’ is,” he’d gloat. “Think you’re pretty smarty with all that science stuff but you can’t win a plain old card game. You know why you can’t beat me, boys?”
“Because you’re too smart, I guess,” said Danny.
“Well, yeah, and somethin’ else. I dipped my hands in spunk water, up on the mountain where you can never find it, and besides that I spit on ever’ card in this deck and wiped it off. Couldn’t lose now to save my life.”
“Maybe you’re right,” said Danny, and went on dealing.
In a few days the rumor of moving was confirmed; I was being sent to Oak Ridge, Danny to Argonne. Mattup kept winning, and “suggested” that we raise the stakes. By the day that we were to leave we owed him every cent we had.