"It's important, Frank. I must find out what causes total loss of all hair."
The detective grunted. "Well, let's see, there are three or four diseases I know of. Some people claim it's hereditary. Sometimes a deficiency in the genes ..."
"Okay, Frank, that's enough."
"What do you want me to do about the girl?"
"Just as the man told you. Lay off. I'll call you tomorrow and let you know what this thing is all about."
He hung up the phone and paced in front of his sofa for several minutes. It was inconceivable that the seven men all had the same disease, the same gene deficiency or the same hereditary shortcomings. So his own answer must be much closer to the truth. He'd have to wait until morning to put it to a test. If he was right he would call Colonel Waters and dump the whole bizarre set-up right into the army's lap where it belonged.
Again he found himself hoping he was not right, and, more important, that Paula Ralston wasn't what he was beginning to think she was.
Miss Conway was already in when Harry arrived at the office. He managed a half smile for her.
"Miss Conway, two of the seven men are coming back this morning and ..."
"And Mr. Boles is the one who's getting the job."
"Who called you this time?" he asked with exasperation.
Harry's stomach muscles contracted. "Colonel Waters?"
"That's right. When you were gone yesterday the colonel dropped in to see you. He asked me if you were working on the replacement for George Fisher ... I told him you were right on the job. And I showed him the information sheets you had on all seven men."
"You did what!!"
"And Colonel Waters liked the man named Boles best of all. So I guess when Mr. Boles comes in you can tell him the job is his."
"You nitwit!" he bellowed. "You brainless, knuckleheaded ..." He stomped into his office, and slammed the door.
It was difficult for him to think clearly. He knew he had to make a move. And fast.
He stood by the window and gazed at the Weapons Development Center across the parade ground. The low gray buildings had a quiet peaceful aura about them. If it weren't for the guards marching in front of the great wire fences anyone might think the place was used for manufacturing can-openers, automobile parts, any one of a thousand harmless products.
But it wasn't. Weapons Development represented a vital link in the country's defense program. He no longer figured they were developing a weapon to counteract Soviet aggression. They were working on something far more important. He was just ninety percent sure of that.
Mr. Boles was the first to arrive. He sat in an easy chair which Harry had moved close to his desk in order to better observe the man.
"Mr. Boles, my secretary tells me Colonel Waters was looking at your qualifications yesterday and was very impressed. I gather from that that the job is yours."
"Thank you, sir."
Harry shoved his chair closer to him. The toupee was intact. So was the mustache.
"Now it'll take the government about two weeks to complete a security check-up."
He could see plainly now that the man was also wearing false eyebrows and had no beard. That did it.
"I understand, sir," Boles replied.
"So all I can tell you at the moment is that you'll be hearing from us as soon as possible." Harry got up thinking the interview was over.
Mr. Boles remained seated.
"Miss Ralston would like to see you, Mr. Payne."
"Oh, yes," Harry chuckled, "I'm going to see her this evening."
"She wants to see you now."
"Afraid I can't make it right now. I have a pile of work to do. Besides I'm expecting another client of hers. Have to let him know he didn't get the job."
"Mr. Chase is waiting for us downstairs in the car. You will come with me, Mr. Payne." The order was clear and firm.
Harry didn't like it. "I don't get it. What's so important that Miss Ralston has to see me ..."
He stopped at the sight of the gun leveled at his chest.
"When we pass your secretary's desk, you will tell her you are taking an early lunch. I will return you in an hour if you cooperate."
Harry Payne knew better than to argue.
Mr. Chase was seated behind the wheel of a blue sedan. Boles and Harry climbed into the back seat. They drove away from Fort Dickson toward the city.
The two men remained silent during the trip. Harry had plenty of time to think. Why this sudden move of Paula's? He must have done something to motivate it. But what?
The only person he had talked to was Frank Barnes and he hadn't divulged anything to him. She couldn't be sore because he had asked Frank to check on her. Routine investigation was part of his job. She knew that. He failed to come up with an answer. He was worried. He knew who the seven men were but he didn't know where they came from. It could have been any one of a million different places. Heaven only knew what kind of people they were.
The shades were drawn in Paula's apartment. There was no sign of her. But as soon as Harry entered the room he forgot about her anyway. His gaze rested upon the small, roundish man sitting in the contour chair, the bald man with no eyebrows and no beard.
"Please be seated, Mr. Payne." The man's tone was soft and courteous.
"Which one are you?" Harry asked.
The man was amused. "I am Mr. Thompson."
"Oh, yeah," said Harry, "you're the one who kept patting your skull. Couldn't you find one that fit you?"
Nobody was amused. Boles and Chase took positions on either side of Thompson. Their faces were drawn and sober. They resembled two bankrupt morticians.
"Where is the body beautiful?" Harry asked. "Or is she no longer the body beautiful?"
"Take a look for yourself." It was Paula's voice. The familiar sultriness was missing.
Harry swung around to see her emerge from the bedroom. "Well, well, well! If it isn't Miss Lonelyhearts. Mind if I ask why I'm here? I mean the gun and all?"
He had to be flippant. It was the only way he knew to conceal the terror he felt in their presence.
She sat beside him on the sofa. "Harry, you've disappointed me. You haven't been playing the game fair and square."
"If you're referring to the private eye I put on you ..."
"I'm not, Harry. You put him on, we took him off. Those things even themselves out."
Harry shrugged. "Okay, I give up. What did I do wrong?"
"Show him, Mr. Thompson." She lit a cigarette and folded her legs under her.
Mr. Thompson reached into his pocket and produced a small object. He tossed it into Harry's lap. Harry examined it.
"Do you recognize it?" Mr. Thompson asked.
"It's a microphone," Harry replied.
"That's just what it is." Paula savagely flung her cigarette to the floor. Her own disguise, the one concealing her true, ruthless self, was gone. Her voice was cold and harsh. "How much do you know, Harry? How much?"
Harry folded his hands, rested his full weight on the arm of the sofa and crossed his legs. "How much is it worth to you?"
Paula's hand struck with fury across his face. His cheek went numb. Blood ran from an uneven gash left by the diamond in her ring. He took out his handkerchief and dabbed at the wound.
"You're real high class, aren't you, Paula? They don't make traitors as high class as you anymore."
She raised her hand and aimed for the other cheek. Thompson bolted out of his chair and grabbed her.
"I suggest you have a drink, Miss Ralston. Let us handle the rest."
Paula was furious. "He's not going to tell you anymore ..."
"We'll handle the rest!!"
Thompson didn't raise his voice. But there was a firmness, a deadly conviction in his inflection. Paula went for a drink.
Harry didn't like that. Paula had a temper. He could deal with her. But the others ... they displayed very little emotion. He had no idea how to handle them.
Thompson sat down again facing Harry.
"The fact is," he began gracefully, "we discovered this microphone and four others like it here in Miss Ralston's apartment. One in each room. Now we are very cautious people, Mr. Payne. We are quite certain no one knows our whereabouts. It is logical then that the microphones have not been here long. Miss Ralston's only visitors are ourselves and you. You have known her two days. So you are the only person who knows this apartment well enough to have planted these tell-tale devices in a hurry."
"Why should I want to plant them?"
"You took the trouble to have Miss Ralston investigated. But more than one means of investigation produces better results. The microphones were wired to a small radio which we located in the basement of this building. We have assumed that everything spoken into them was transmitted over the radio and recorded at your end. That makes sense, doesn't it?"
Harry was confused. "So far, so good."
"We want those recordings, Mr. Payne."
They seemed to be convinced the microphones were his. Only Harry knew it wasn't true. But to admit it might mean he wouldn't leave Paula's place alive. He derived no comfort from the knowledge that someone else was interested in Paula's activities. That wasn't helping him with his problem of the moment. He could see no clear way out. He had to keep stalling. And as long as they were so sure of themselves it might even be to his advantage to maintain a certain arrogance.
"I might as well tell you, Thompson, I have no intention of cooperating until I know a few facts about you and your friends. Like who you are, where you're from, what you're after ..."
"It is not necessary, in order to tell us where the recordings are," smiled Mr. Thompson, "that you know anything more about us."
"It isn't necessary," said Harry, "but I want to know."
Chase started to voice an objection but Harry broke in.
"And don't tell me you have more persuasive ways of making me talk. You can use force but it'll take time. Your time is valuable or you wouldn't have hustled me over here as fast as you did. So let's not waste your time. You tell me, then I'll tell you."
Thompson glanced at his two compatriots. Their faces registered dissatisfaction. Their silence said that Harry was right. Time was valuable. They would follow the path of least resistance.
"Our point of origin," Mr. Thompson began, "is Correylla, roughly seven-eighths the size of Earth, in the Syrybic Galaxy. It is approximately ... in your figures ... seventy-five trillion miles distant."
"Must be quite a trip." Harry tried to be placid.
Mr. Thompson was momentarily amused. "Travel through Time and Space is something we take for granted. The farthest corners of the Universe are ours for the reaching. That is the foremost reason for our visit to your Earth. You might call us Galactic Observers. You see, we already control the twelve inhabited planets in our own Galaxy. And at this time we have no desire to take on any more responsibility than that. But neither do we want interference from another Galaxy ... such as this one!"
Harry was surprised. "You're giving this world a lot of credit. We've barely moved off the Earth. What makes you think we could cause your people any trouble?"
"By merely projecting yourselves into space you have eliminated the major obstacle to space travel. Remember it took thousands of years for someone on your Earth to discover electricity. But observe the wonders you have accomplished with it in the relatively few years since it was discovered. The same principle applies to your conquest of space. We are not here to do you harm, Mr. Payne. It is merely our intention to warn you, when the time comes, of the dangers you face should you decide to venture too far."
"For people who intend no harm I'd say you and your friends are putting on quite an unconvincing show."
"I assure you, Mr. Payne, our visit to Earth was intended purely for observational purposes!"
"What do you mean, was?"
Thompson's face was grim. The easy chair that had accommodated his small, roundish frame so perfectly now appeared to be uncomfortable for him. A redness crept into his cheeks and spread over his smooth, tight scalp.
"The fact is that your government has known about us for six months. Our exact whereabouts has been a well guarded secret ... but they were informed of our presence here on Earth."
"Informed! But who could tell them ..."
Chase broke in impatiently. "We are wasting time! We must get those recordings!"