Anson Drake sat quietly in the Flamebird Room of the Royal Gandyll Hotel, listening to the alien, but soothing strains of the native orchestra and sipping a drink. He knew perfectly well that he had no business displaying himself in public on the planet Thizar; there were influential Thizarians who held no love for a certain Earthman named Anson Drake.
It didn’t particularly bother Drake; life was danger and danger was life to him, and Anson Drake was known on half a hundred planets as a man who could take care of himself.
Even so, he wouldn’t have bothered to come if it had not been for the fact that Viron Belgezad was a pompous braggart.
Belgezad had already suffered at the hands of Anson Drake. Some years before, a narcotics gang had been smashed high, wide, and handsome on Thizar. Three men had died from an overdose of their own thionite drug, and fifty thousand credits of illicit gain had vanished into nowhere. The Thizarian police didn’t know who had done the job, and they didn’t know who had financed the ring.
But Belgezad knew that Anson Drake was the former, and Drake knew that Viron Belgezad was the latter. And each one was waiting his chance to get the other.
A week before, Drake had been relaxing happily on a beach on Seladon II, twelve light-years from Thizar, reading a newsfax. He had become interested in an article which told of the sentencing of a certain lady to seven years in Seladon Prison, when his attention was attracted by another headline.
VIRON BELGEZAD BUYS ALGOL NECKLACE
Thizar (GNS)--Viron Belgezad, wealthy Thizarian financier, has purchased the fabulous Necklace of Algol, it was announced today.
The necklace, made of matched Star Diamonds, is estimated to be worth more than a million credits, although the price paid by Belgezad is not known.
[Illustration: The coronation on Thizar was a thing of vast magnificence.]
Such an interesting bit seemed worthy of further investigation, so Drake had immediately booked passage on the first space liner to Thizar.
And thus it was that an immaculately dressed, broad-shouldered, handsome young man sat quietly in the Flamebird Room of Thizar’s flushiest hostelry surveying his surroundings with steady green eyes and wondering how he was going to get his hands on the Necklace of Algol.
The police couldn’t touch Belgezad, but Anson Drake could--and would.
“Hello, Drake,” said a cold voice at his elbow.
Drake turned and looked up into the sardonically smiling face of Jomis Dobigel, the heavy-set, dark-faced Thizarian who worked with Belgezad.
“Well, well,” Anson said, smiling, “if it isn’t Little Bo-Peep. How is the dope business? And how is the Big Dope Himself?”
Dobigel’s smile soured. “You’re very funny, Earthman. But we don’t like Earthmen here.”
“Do sit down, Dobbie, and tell me all about it. The last I heard--which was three hours ago--the government of Thizar was perfectly happy to have me here. In fact, they were good enough to stamp my passport to prove it.”
Dobigel pulled out a chair and sat down, keeping his hands beneath the table. “What are you doing here, Drake?” he asked in a cold voice.
“I couldn’t help it,” Drake said blandly. “I was drawn back by the memory of the natural beauties of your planet. The very thought of the fat, flabby face of old Belgezad, decorated with a bulbous nose that is renowned throughout the Galaxy, was irresistible. So here I am.”
Dobigel’s dark face grew even darker. “I know you, Drake. And I know why you’re here. Tomorrow is the date for the Coronation of His Serenity, the Shan of Thizar.”
“True,” Drake agreed. “And I wouldn’t miss it for all the loot in Andromeda. A celebration like that is worth traveling parsecs to see.”
Dobigel leaned across the table. “Belgezad is a Noble of the Realm,” he said slowly. “He’ll be at the Coronation. You know he’s going to wear the Necklace of Algol as well as anyone, and you--”
Suddenly, he leaned forward a little farther, his right hand stabbing out toward Drake’s leg beneath the table.
But Anson Drake was ready for him. Dobigel’s hand was a full three inches from Drake’s thigh when a set of fingers grasped his wrist in a viselike hold. Steely fingers bit in, pressing nerves against bone. With a gasp, Dobigel opened his hand. A small, metallic cylinder dropped out.
Drake caught it with his free hand and smiled. “That’s impolite, Dobbie. It isn’t proper to try to give your host an injection when he doesn’t want it.”
Casually, he put the cylinder against the arm which he still held and squeezed the little metal tube. There was a faint pop! Drake released the arm and handed back the cylinder. Dobigel’s face was white.
“I imagine that was twelve-hour poison,” Drake said kindly. “If you hurry, old Belgezad will give you the antidote. It will be painful, but--” He shrugged.
“And by the way, Brother Dobigel,” he continued, “let me give you some advice. The next time you try to get near a victim with one of those things, don’t do it by talking to him about things he already knows. It doesn’t distract him enough.”
Dobigel stood up, his fists clenched. “I’ll get you for this, Drake.” Then he turned and stalked off through the crowd.
No one had noticed the little by-play. Drake smiled seraphically and finished his drink. Dobigel was going to be uncomfortable for a while. Twelve-hour poison was a complex protein substance that could be varied in several thousand different ways, and only an antidote made from the right variation would work for each poison. If the antidote wasn’t given, the victim died within twelve hours. And even if the antidote was given, getting over poison wasn’t any fun at all.
Reflecting happily on the plight of Jomis Dobigel, Anson Drake paid his bill, tipped the waiter liberally, and strolled out of the Flamebird Room and into the lobby of the Royal Gandyll Hotel. The Coronation would begin early tomorrow, and he didn’t want to miss the beginning of it. The Shan’s Coronation was the affair of Thizar.
He went over to the robot newsvender and dropped a coin in the slot. The reproducer hummed, and a freshly-printed newsfax dropped out.
He headed for the lift tube, which whisked him up to his room on the eighty-first floor. He inserted his key in the lock and pressed the button on the tip. The electronic lock opened, and the door slid into the wall. Before entering, Drake took a look at the detector on his wrist. There was no sign of anything having entered the room since he had left it. Only then did he go inside.
With one of the most powerful financiers on Thizar out after his blood, there was no way of knowing what might happen, and therefore no reason to take chances.
There were some worlds where Anson Drake would no more have stayed in a public hotel than he would have jumped into an atomic furnace, especially if his enemy was a man as influential as Belgezad. But Thizar was a civilized and reasonably well policed planet; the police were honest and the courts were just. Even Belgezad couldn’t do anything openly.
Drake locked his door, sang to himself in a pleasant baritone while he bathed, put on his pajamas, and lay down on his bed to read the paper.
It was mostly full of Coronation news. Noble So-and-So would wear such-and-such, the Archbishop would do thus-and-so. There was another item about Belgezad; his daughter was ill and would be unable to attend. Bloody shame, thought Drake. Too bad Belgezad isn’t sick--or dying.
There was further mention of the Necklace of Algol; it was second only to the Crown Jewels of the Shan himself. The precautions being taken were fantastic; at a quick guess, about half the crowd would be policemen.
The door announcer chimed. Drake sat up and punched the door TV. The screen showed the face of a girl standing at his door. Drake smiled in appreciation. She had dark brown hair, brown eyes, and a smooth, tanned complexion. It was a beautiful face, and it showed promise of having a body to match.
“Who, may I ask, is calling on a gentleman at this ungodly hour, and thus compromising her reputation and fair name?”
The girl smiled, showing even, white teeth, and her eyes sparkled, showing flickers of little golden flames against the brown. “I see I’ve found the right room,” she said. “That voice couldn’t belong to anyone but Anson Drake.” Then she lowered her voice and said softly: “Let me in. I’m Norma Knight.”
Drake felt a tingle of psychic electricity flow over his skin; there was a promise of danger and excitement in the air. Norma Knight was known throughout this whole sector of the Galaxy as the cleverest jewel thief the human race had ever spawned. Drake had never met her, but he had definitely heard of her.
He touched the admission stud, and the door slid silently aside. There was no doubt about it, her body did match her face.
“Do come in, Norma,” he said.
She stepped inside, and Drake touched the closing button. The door slid shut behind her.
She stood there for a moment, looking at him, and Drake took the opportunity to study the girl more closely. At last, she said: “So you’re Anson Drake. You’re even better looking than I’d heard you were. Congratulations.”
“I have a good press agent,” Drake said modestly. “What’s on your mind?” He waved his hand at a nearby chair.
“The same thing that’s on yours, I suspect,” she said. “Do you have a drink to spare?”
Drake unlimbered himself from the bed, selected a bottle from the menu and dialed. The robot bellhop whirred, a chute opened in the wall, and a bottle slid out. Drake poured, handed the tumbler to the girl, and said: “This is your party; what do you have in mind?”
The girl took a sip of her drink before she answered. Then she looked up at Drake with her deep brown eyes. “Two things. One: I have no intention or desire to compete with Anson Drake for the Necklace of Algol. Both of us might end up in jail with nothing for our pains.
“Two: I have a foolproof method for getting the necklace, but none for getting it off the planet. I think you probably have a way.”
Drake nodded. “I dare say I could swing it. How does it happen that you don’t have an avenue of disposal planned?”
She looked bleak for a moment. “The man who was to help me decided to back out at the last minute. He didn’t know what the job was, and I wouldn’t tell him because I didn’t trust him.”
“And you trust me?”
Her eyes were very trustful. “I’ve heard a lot about you, Drake, and I happen to know you never doublecross anyone unless they doublecross you first.”
“Trade about is fair play, to quote an ancient maxim,” Drake said, grinning. “And I am a firm believer in fair play.
“But that’s neither here nor there. The point is: what do you have to offer? Why shouldn’t I just pinch the gems myself and do a quick flit across the Galaxy? That would give me all the loot.”
She shook her head. “Belgezad is on to you, you know. He knows you’re here. His own private police and the Shan’s own Guard will be at the Coronation to protect all that jewelry.” She cocked her pretty head to one side and looked at him. “What’s between you and Belgezad, anyway?”
“I stole his toys when he was a child,” said Drake, “and he hasn’t trusted me since. How do you propose to get the Necklace of Algol if I can’t?”
She smiled and shook her head slowly. “That would be telling. You let me take care of my part, and I’ll let you take care of yours.”
Drake shook his head--not so slowly. “Absolutely not. We either work together or we don’t work at all.”
The girl frowned in thought for a moment, and then reached into the belt pouch at her side and pulled out a square of electro-engraved plastic. She handed it to Drake.
Underneath all the flowery verbiage, it boiled down to an invitation to attend the post-Coronation reception. It was addressed to “Miss Caroline Smith” and was signed and sealed by the Shan of Thizar himself.
“I’m ‘Caroline Smith’,” she said. “I’ve managed to get in good with the family of Belgezad, and he wangled the invitation.
“Now, the plan is this: Right after the Invocation, while the new Shan is being prepared in his special Coronation Robes, the Nobles have to change their uniforms from red to green. Belgezad will go into his suite in the Palace to change. He’ll be accompanied by two guards. One will stay on the outside, the other will help Belgezad dress. I’ve got the room next to his, and I’ve managed to get the key that unlocks the door between them. I’ll use this--” She pulled a small globe of metal from her belt pouch. “It’s a sleep-gas bomb. It’ll knock them out for at least twenty minutes. No one will come in during that time, and I’ll be able to get the necklace and get out of the palace before they wake up.”
“They’ll know you did it,” Drake pointed out. “If you’re still missing when they come to, the thief’s identity will be obvious.”
She nodded. “That’s where you come in. I’ll simply go out into the garden and throw it over the wall to you. We’ll meet here afterwards.”
Drake thought it over and smiled devilishly. “It sounds fine. Now let’s co-ordinate everything.”
They went over the whole plot again, this time with a chart of the palace to mark everything out and a time schedule was arranged. Then they toasted to success and the girl left.
When she was gone, Anson Drake smiled ruefully to himself and opened a secret compartment in his suitcase. From it, he removed a long strand of glittering jewels.
“A perfect imitation,” Drake said. “And you’re very pretty. It’s a shame I won’t be able to hang you around the neck of Belgezad in place of the real Necklace of Algol.”
But his original plan had been more dangerous than the present one, and Anson Drake was always ready to desert a good plan for a better one.
Coronation Day dawned bright and clear, and the festivities began early. There were speeches and parades and dancing in the streets. A huge fleet of high-flying rockets rumbled high in the stratosphere, filling the sky with the white traceries of their exhausts. For all of Thizar, it was a holiday, a day of rejoicing and happiness. Cheers for the Shan filled the streets, and strains of music came from the speakers of the public communications system.
Anson Drake missed most of the fun; he was too busy making plans. The day passed as he worked.
Thizar’s sun began to set as the hour for the actual Crowning of the Shan approached. At the proper time, Drake was waiting in the shadows outside the palace walls. There were eyes watching him, and he knew it, but he only smiled softly to himself and waited.
It was the girl, on the other side of the wall.