"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!"
The interruption was dismissed with a wave of Thompson's hand.
"Your government was informed by George Fisher."
"George Fisher!" Harry gulped.
"You see, Mr. Fisher ... that wasn't really his name, you understand ... was one of us ... a member of our observation team. After we arrived here ... well, you might say he defected, gave your government the benefit of his somewhat limited knowledge."
Harry whistled. "And because of him your mission is no longer observational."
"That remains to be seen."
Harry leaned forward on the sofa. "You have any ideas, Mr. Thompson, about why he defected? I'm curious to know why a man is unhappy enough with his own lot to run away and put himself in the hands of a civilization that is in every way alien to him."
Thompson's answer was brief and deliberately ambiguous. "Mr. Fisher was a traitor. What more can be said of him?"
"So he didn't commit suicide," Harry muttered.
"That's right, Mr. Payne."
"I take it you're not sure of how much Fisher told the government before you got to him."
"Mr. Fisher's limitations were familiar to us. It is the potential of your own scientists now that they have his information that we are most concerned with."
Keep stalling, Harry reminded himself ... keep speculating, guessing, theorizing, anything for time.
"So you know the project that Weapons Development is working on but you don't know how much progress has been made. And you want to place one of your own people in there to find out."
"Thanks to you, we have succeeded in doing just that." Thompson smiled with satisfaction, having kept his part of a bargain. "Now about those recordings...."
"I'm not through asking questions."
"But I'm through answering them, Mr. Payne. Tell us where the recordings are."
Harry studied the clean, smooth surface of Thompson's face. There was a gentleness in his large, round eyes. There was also an unfriendliness. Harry had to keep stalling. He knew any answer he gave them would shorten his life expectancy by about thirty-five years.
"You've gotten me into a mess of trouble, Mr. Thompson. I think you owe me a little more. My memory might prove clearer if I knew what was going on at Weapons Development."
Thompson glanced at his two companions. They showed no sign of dissent.
"Very well, Mr. Payne. For some years now our people have been working on a method of reversing the polarity of the atom. We have tried to create an electro-magnetic field which would repel rather than attract. Once we are able to accomplish this we can develop an instrument capable of disturbing the molecular structure of any object in the universe."
"In other words ..." Harry frowned at him, "a weapon capable of disintegration?"
Harry sat there, stunned. A few moments seemed hardly enough to digest the knowledge that Weapons Development was working on the most incredibly advanced weapon of all time. And Mr. Thompson and company were out to sabotage it. Their people could not afford to allow another world to beat them to the punch. Who controlled this weapon controlled the universe. Stalling the aliens was more important than ever now. He couldn't heighten the danger to his own life. It wasn't worth a lead nickel anyway. If it had been, Thompson wouldn't have consented to tell him this much.
Someone else had wired Paula's apartment. It was reasonable to assume it was someone on his side.
"The recordings, please!!" Boles was becoming very impatient.
Harry looked up and found a gun at his head. "The recordings are at my office," he lied.
Thompson walked to the telephone table and brought the instrument to him. "You will call your secretary," he said, "and tell her you have been detained at lunch. You are sending Mr. Chase to pick up the recordings."
Harry glanced around the room. Paula was sulking at the bar near the door. Drowning her conscience, he thought. They must have paid her a fortune to sell out her own people. Boles and Chase both had their guns poised. Thompson picked up the receiver and extended it to him.
There was no way out, no stalling them any longer. To make a break for it would be suicidal. In the state of confusion his mind was in, he could think of only one thing to do. When he reached Miss Conway, he would have to warn her somehow--a few desperate words and pray that she would be alert enough to realize he was in trouble and get the information to the authorities.
He took the phone and dialed. He gave the Fort Dickson operator his office extension. He waited. The phone rang. It rang again. Then three more times. Damn that girl! Her coffee breaks were extended vacations!
Finally the phone was picked up. But the voice that answered was male.
"Who is this?" Harry demanded.
The voice replied, "Colonel Waters."
"This is Harry. I'm at Paula Ralston's apartment ... emergency...!"
The three men were on top of him. Chase smashed the butt of his gun across Harry's knuckles. The receiver fell to the floor. Harry let out a pained groan as Boles' gun butt struck him on the temple. Thompson replaced the receiver. Harry was on the floor. He put his hands to his head for protection as Chase savagely kicked at him. His vision blurred but he managed to see that Paula was still at the bar sipping a drink, sadistically enjoying the whole show.
"He's no longer any use to us," Thompson declared. "You may do your job!"
Harry shook his head, fighting to stay conscious. His vision cleared long enough to see Chase and Boles standing over him, their guns pointed at either side of his head.
There was a volley of deafening shots. There was smoke, voices, people running in every direction. More gunfire. Glass shattering. Furniture knocked over.
But Harry felt no pain.
When he looked again Chase and Boles were no longer to be seen. He caught a glimpse of Thompson running for another position of cover. A final gunshot brought him to the floor.
Harry struggled to a sitting position. Then he saw Chase and Boles dead on the floor beyond the sofa. Half a dozen soldiers were in the process of subduing a swearing, clawing Paula Ralston.
And in the doorway he saw Miss Conway.
She looked incongruous as hell with a smouldering revolver in her hand. She crossed the room and knelt beside him. She pulled him around to let his head rest on the sofa.
"Harry! Harry," she whispered, brushing his hair back, "are you hurt badly? What did they do to you?"
He tried to get up.
"You stay right where you are, honey." Her voice was soothing and gentle. There was a soft, compassionate light in her eyes. No longer that dumb stare. She leaned over and kissed him. "There. You're going to be all right."
"What the hell are you doing here?" Harry bellowed.
"Now you just sit back and relax. I'm just doing my job."
"Your jo ..." A low steady wail rolled off his lips. "Oh, no! Say it isn't so. Tell me I'm really dead. I know I deserve to be."
"I may be the world's lousiest secretary, but I'm considered not bad in the counter-intelligence department."
Harry repeated the wail.
"We were afraid from the time George Fisher turned himself over to the government," she continued, "that his days were numbered. But the longer he remained alive the more apprehensive his people would become. We figured one day they'd make a wrong move. And that would be their big mistake. Well, their move was to kill George Fisher and try to get one of their own agents into Weapons Development. That meant exposing themselves. It also meant you had to be watched ... among others. That's where I came in."
"And playing it about as dumb as I've ever seen."
She laughed. "Sounds like I played the part a little too convincingly."
She stood up and helped him to his feet. "You're coming with me."
"Where to? Hey, what are you doing?"
"There's something about this place that I don't like. I'm no sultry brunette, but I'm not a dumb blonde either." She kissed him, then took a last look at Paula's place and led him out the door.