Someone behind me in the dark was toting a needle-ray. The impression came through so strong that I could almost read the filed-off serial number of the thing, but the guy himself I couldn't dig at all. I stopped to look back but the only sign of life I could see was the fast flick of taxicab lights as they crossed an intersection about a half mile back. I stepped into a doorway so that I could think and stay out of the line of fire at the same time.
The impression of the needle-ray did not get any stronger, and that tipped me off. The bird was following me. He was no peace-loving citizen because honest men do not cart weapons with the serial numbers filed off. Therefore the character tailing me was a hot papa with a burner charge labelled "Steve Hammond" in his needler.
I concentrated, but the only impression I could get would have specified ninety-eight men out of a hundred anywhere. He was shorter than my six-feet-two and lighter than my one-ninety. I could guess that he was better looking. I'd had my features arranged by a blocked drop kick the year before the National Football League ruled the Rhine Institute out because of our use of mentals and perceptives. I gave up trying--I wanted details and not an overall picture of a hotbird carrying a burner.
I wondered if I could make a run for it.
I let my sense of perception dig the street ahead, casing every bump and irregularity. I passed places where I could zig out to take cover in front of telephone poles, and other places where I could zag in to take cover beyond front steps and the like. I let my perception run up the block and by the time I got to the end of my range, I knew that block just as well as if I'd made a practise run in the daytime.
At this point I got a shock. The hot papa was coming up the sidewalk hell bent for destruction. He was a mental sensitive, and he had been following my thoughts while my sense of perception made its trial run up the street. He was running like the devil to catch up with my mind and burn it down per schedule. It must have come as quite a shock to him when he realized that while the mind he was reading was running like hell up the street, the hard old body was standing in the doorway waiting for him.
I dove out of my hiding place as he came close. I wanted to tackle him hard and ask some pointed questions. He saw me as I saw him skidding to an unbalanced stop, and there was the dull glint of metal in his right hand. His needle-ray came swinging up and I went for my armpit. I found time to curse my own stupidity for not having hardware in my own fist at the moment. But then I had my rod in my fist. I felt the hot scorch of the needle going off just over my shoulder, and then came the godawful racket of my ancient forty-five. The big slug caught him high in the belly and tossed him back. It folded him over and dropped him in the gutter while the echoes of my cannon were still racketing back and forth up and down the quiet street.
I had just enough time to dig his wallet, pockets, and billfold before the whole neighborhood was up and out. Sirens howled in the distance and from above I could hear the thin wail of a jetcopter. Someone opened a window and called: "What's going on out there? Cut it out!"
"Tea party," I called back. "Go invite the cops, Tommy."
The window slammed down again. He didn't have to invite the law. It arrived in three ground cruisers and two jetcopter emergency squads that came closing in like a collapsing balloon.
The leader of the squadron was a Lieutenant Williamson whom I'd never met before. But he knew all about me before the 'copter hit the ground. I could almost feel his sense of perception frisking me from the skin outward, going through my wallet and inspecting the Private Operator's license and my Weapon-Permit. I found out later that Williamson was a Rhine Scholar with a Bachelor's Degree in Perception, which put him head and shoulders over me. He came to the point at once.
"Any ideas about this, Hammond?"
I shook my head. "Nope," I replied. He looked at one of his men.
The other man nodded. "He's levelling," he said.
"Now look, Hammond," said the lieutenant pointedly, "You're clean and we know it. But hot papas don't go out for fun. Why was he trying to burn you?"
"I wouldn't know. I'm as blank as any perceptive when it comes to reading minds. I was hoping to collect him whole enough to ask questions, but he forced my hand." I looked to where some of the clean-up squad were tucking the corpse into a basket. "It was one of the few times I'd have happily swapped my perception for the ability to read a mind."
The lieutenant nodded unhappily. "Mind telling me why you were wandering around in this neighborhood? You don't belong here, you know."
"I was doing the job that most private eyes do. I was tailing a gent who was playing games off the reservation."
"You've gone into this guy's wallet, of course?"
I nodded. "Sure. He was Peter Rambaugh, age thirty, and----"
"Don't bother. I know the rest. I can add only one item that you may not know. Rampaugh was a paid hotboy, suspected of playing with Scarmann's mob."
"I've had no dealings with Scarmann, Lieutenant."
The Lieutenant nodded absently. It seemed to be a habit with him, probably to cover up his thinking-time. Finally he said, "Hammond, you're clean. As soon as I identified you I took a dig of your folder at headquarters. You're a bit rough and fast on that prehistoric cannon of yours, but----"
"You mean you can dig a folder at central files all the way from here?"
Here was a real esper for you. I've got a range of about two blocks for good, solid, permanent things like buildings and street-car tracks, but unfamiliar things get foggy at about a half a block. I can dig lethal machinery coming in my direction for about a block and a half because I'm a bit sensitive about such things. I looked at Lieutenant Williamson and said, "With a range like yours, how come there's any crime in this town at all?"
He shook his head slowly. "Crime doesn't out until it's committed," he said. "You'll remember how fast we got here after you pulled the trigger. But you're clean, Hammond. Just come to the inquest and tell all."
"I can go?"
"You can go. But just to keep you out of any more trouble, I'll have one of the jetcopters drop you off at home. Mind?"
"Nope. But isn't that more than the police are used to doing?"
He eyed me amusedly. "If I were a mental," he said, "I could read your mind and know that you were forming the notion of calling on Scarmann and asking him what-for. But since I'm only a mind-blank esper, all I can do is to fall back on experience and guesswork. Do I make myself clear?"
Lieutenant Williamson's guess-work and experience were us good as mental sensitivity, but I didn't think it wise to admit that I had been considering just exactly how to get to Scarmann. I was quickly and firmly convoyed home in a jetcopter but once I saw them take off I walked out of the apartment again.
I had more or less tacitly agreed not to go looking for Scarmann, but I had not mentioned taking a dig at the apartment of the dear departed, Peter Rambaugh.
Rambaugh's place was uptown and the front door was protected by an eight tumbler cylinder job that would have taxed the best of esper lockpicks. But there was a service entrance in back that was not locked and I took it. The elevator was a self-service job, and Rambaugh's back door was locked on a snaplatch that a playful kitten could have opened. I dug the place for a few minutes and found it clean, so I went in and took a more careful look.
The desk was not particularly interesting. Just papers and letters and unpaid bills. The dresser in the bedroom was the same, excepting for the bottom drawer. That was filled with a fine collection of needle-rays and stunguns and one big force blaster that could blow a hole in a brick wall. None of them had their serial numbers intact.
But behind a reproduction of a Gainsborough painting was a wall safe that must have been built before Rhine Institute discovered the key to man's latent abilities. Inside of this tin can was a collection of photographs that must have brought Rambaugh a nice sum in the months when the murder business went slack. I couldn't quite dig them clear because I didn't know any of the people involved, and I didn't try too hard because there were some letters and notes that might lead me into the answer to why Rambaugh was hotburning for me.
I fiddled with the dial for about fifteen minutes, watching the tumblers and the little wheels go around. Then it went click and I turned the handle and opened the door. I was standing there with both hands deep in Rambaugh's safe when I heard a noise behind me.
I whirled and slid aside all in one motion and my hand streaked for my armpit and came out with the forty five. It was a woman and she was carrying nothing more lethal than the fountain pen in her purse. She blanched when she saw my forty-five swinging towards her middle, but she took a deep breath when I halted it in midair.
"I didn't mean to startle you," she apologized.
"Startle, hell!" I blurted. "You scared me out of my shoes."
I dug her purse. Beside the usual female junk she had a wallet containing a couple of charge-account plates, a driver's license, and a hospital card, all made out to Miss Martha Franklin. Miss Franklin was about twenty-four, and she was a strawberry blonde with the pale skin and blue eyes that goes with the hair. I gathered that she didn't belong there any more than I did.
"I don't, Mr. Hammond," she said.
So Martha Franklin was a mental sensitive.
"I am," she told me. "That's how I came to be here."
"I'm esper. You'll have to explain in words of one syllable because I can't read you."
"I was not far away when you cut loose with that field-piece of yours," she said flatly. "So I read your intention to come here. I've been following you at mental range ever since."
"Because there is something in that safe I want very much."
I looked at her again. She did not look the type to get into awkward situations. She colored slightly and said, "One indiscretion doesn't make a tramp, Mr. Hammond."
I nodded. "Want it intact or burned?" I asked.
"Burned, please," she said, smiling weakly at me for my intention. I smiled back.
On my way to Rambaugh's bedroom I dug the rest of the thug's safe but there wasn't anything there that would give me an inkling of why he was gunning for me. I came back with one of his needle-rays and burned the contents of the safe to a black char. I stirred up the ashes with the nose of the needier and then left it in the safe after wiping it clean on my handkerchief.
"Thank you, Mr. Hammond," she said quietly. "Maybe I can answer your question. Rambaugh was probably after you because of me."
"I've been paying Rambaugh blackmail for about four years. This morning I decided to stop it, and looked your name up in the telephone book. Rambaugh must have read me do it."
"Ever think of the police?" I suggested.
"Of course. But that is just as bad as not paying off. You end up all over the front pages anyway. You know that."
"There's a lot of argument on both sides," I supposed. "But let's finish this one over a bar. We're crowding our luck here. In the eyes of the law we're just a couple of nasty break-ins."
"Yes," she said simply.
We left Rambaugh's apartment together and I handed Martha into my car and took off.
It struck me as we were driving that mental sensitivity was a good thing in spite of its limitations. A woman without mental training might have every right to object to visiting a bachelor apartment at two o'clock in the morning. But I had no firm plans for playing up to Martha Franklin; I really wanted to talk this mess out and get it squared away. This she could read, so I was saved the almost-impossible task of trying to convince an attractive woman that I really had no designs upon her beautiful white body. I was not at all cold to the idea, but Martha did not seem to be the pushover type.
"Thank you, Steve," she said.
"Thanks for nothing," I told her with a short laugh. "Them's my sentiments."
"I like your sentiments. That's why I'm here, and maybe we can get our heads together and figure something out."
I nodded and went back to my driving, feeling pretty good now.
A man does not dig his own apartment. He expects to find it the way he left it. He digs in the mailbox on his way towards it, and he may dig in his refrigerator to see whether he should stop for beer or whatever else, because these things save steps. But nobody really expects to find trouble in his own home, especially when he is coming in at three o'clock in the morning with a good looking woman.
They were smart enough to come with nothing deadly in their hands. So I had no warning until they stepped out from either side of my front door and lifted me into my living room by the elbows. They hurled me into an easy chair with a crash. When I stopped bouncing, one of the gorillas was standing in front of me, about as tall as Washington Monument as seen from the sidewalk in front. He was looking at my forty-five with careful curiosity.
"What gives?" I demanded.
The crumb in front of me leaned down and gave me a back-and-forth that yanked my head around. I didn't say anything, but I thought how I'd like to meet the buzzard in a dark alley with my gun in my fist.
Martha said, "They're friends of Rambaugh, Steve. And they're a little afraid of that prehistoric cannon you carry."
The bird in front of Martha gave her a one-two across the face. That was enough for me. I came up out of my chair, lifting my fist from the floor and putting my back and thigh muscles behind it. It should have taken his head off, but all he did was grunt, stagger back, dig his heels in, and then come back at me with his head down. I chopped at the bridge of his nose but missed and almost broke my hand on his hard skull. Then the other guy came charging in and I flung out a side-chop with my other hand and caught him on the wrist.
But Rhine training can't do away with the old fact that two big tough men can wipe the floor with one big tough man. I didn't even take long enough to muss up my furniture.
I had the satisfaction of mashing a nose and cracking my hand against a skull again before the lights went out. When I came back from Mars, I was sitting on a kitchen chair facing a corner. My wrists and ankles were taped to the arms and legs of the chair.
I dug around. They had Martha taped to another chair in the opposite corner, and the two gorillas were standing in the middle of the room, obviously trying to think.
So was I. There was something that smelled about this mess. Peter Rambaugh was a mental, and he should have been sensitive enough to keep his take low enough so that it wouldn't drive Martha into thinking up ways and means of getting rid of him. Even so, he shouldn't have been gunning for me, unless there was a lot more to this than I could dig.
"What gives?" I asked sourly.
There was no answer. The thug with my forty-five took out the clip and removed a couple of slugs.
He went into the kitchen and found my pliers and came back teasing one of the slugs out of its casing. The other bird lit a cigarette.
The bird with the cartridge poured the powder from the shell into the palm of my hand. I knew what was coming but I couldn't wiggle my fingers much, let alone turn my hand over to dump out the stuff. The other guy planted the end of the cigarette between my middle fingers and I had to squeeze hard to keep the hot end up. My fingers began to ache almost immediately, and I was beginning to imagine the flash of flame and the fierce wave of pain that would strike when my tired hand lost its pep and let the cigarette fall into that little mound of powder.
"Stop it," said Martha. "Stop it!"
"What do they want?" I gritted.
"They won't think it," she cried.
The bright red on the end of the cigarette grayed with ash and I began to wonder how long it would be before a fleck of hot ash would fall. How long it would take for the ash to grow long and top-heavy and then to fall into the powder. And whether or not the ash would be hot enough to touch it off. I struggled to keep my hands steady, but they were trembling. I felt the cigarette slip a bit and clamped down tight again with my aching fingers.
Martha pleaded again: "Stop it! Let us know what you want and we'll do it."
"Anything," I promised rashly.
Even if I managed to hold that deadly fuse tight, it would eventually burn down to the bitter end. Then there would be a flash, and I'd probably never hold my hand around a gun butt again. I'd have to go looking for this pair of lice with my gun in my left. If they didn't try the same trick on my other hand. I tried to shut my mind on that notion but it was no use. It slipped. But the chances were that this pair of close-mouthed hotboys had considered that idea before.
"Can you dig 'em Martha?"
"Yes, but not deep enough. They're both concentrating on that cigarette and making mental bets when it will--"
Her voice trailed off. A wisp of ash had dropped and my mental howl must have been loud enough to scorch their minds. It was enough to stop Martha, at any rate. But the wisp of ash was cold and nothing happened except my spine got coldly wet and sweat ran down my face and into my mouth. The palm of my hand was sweating too, but not enough to wet the little pile of powder.
"Look," I said in a voice that sounded like a nutmeg grater, "Rambaugh was a louse and he tried to kill me first. If it's revenge you want--why not let's talk it over?"
"They don't care what you did to Rambaugh," said Martha.
"They didn't come here to practice torture," I snapped. "They want something big. And the only guy I know mixed up with Peter Rambaugh is Scarmann, himself."
"Scarmann?" blurted Martha.
Scarmann was a big shot who lived in a palace about as lush as the Taj Mahal, in the middle of a fenced-in property big enough to keep him out of the mental range of most peepers. Scarmann was about as big a louse as they came but nobody could put a finger on him because he managed to keep himself as clean as a raygunned needle. I was expecting a clip on the skull for thinking the things I was thinking about Scarmann, but it did not come. These guys were used to having people think violence at their boss. I thought a little harder. Maybe if I made 'em mad enough one of them would belt me on the noggin and put me out, and then I'd be cold when that cigarette fell into the gunpowder and ruined my hand.
I made myself a firm, solid promise that if, as, and when I got out of this fix I would find Scarmann, shove the nose of my automatic down his throat through his front teeth and empty the clip out through the top of his head.
Then the hotboy behind me lifted the cigarette from my fingers very gently and squibbed it out in the ashtray, and I got the pitch.
This is the way it is done in these enlightened days. Rhine Institute and the special talents that Rhine developed should and could have made the world a better, brighter place to live in. But I've heard it said and had it proved that the minute someone comes up with something good, there are a lot of buzzards who turn it bad and make it a foul, rotten medium for their lousy way of life.