He frowned. "Four?" he repeated.
"Four knuckles," I gritted and started for him. The gun barrel rammed me in the kidney, harder than it had in the alley. They'd smuggled in some protection. I really slammed on the brakes, halfway across the desk. Lefty hadn't bothered to flinch, but sat there with his legs crossed, looking idly at his fingernails.
"Look behind you," he said.
I did. The gun eased off my kidney as I turned. There wasn't anybody there.
"TK," Lefty said. "I also used it to trip you up when you went for me in the alley, after I'd TK'd a left right in your gut. You're a hard guy to stop, Tex. But don't overdo it."
"Mere pain never stopped a guy who really meant it!" I went for him again.
Then it hit me. A deep and sickening pain throbbed from my breastbone down my left arm. The lights started to dim, and I sagged down on the desk.
"How'd that feel?" Lefty asked, apparently not expecting an answer. "I clamped your coronary artery shut for a few seconds. A post-mortem would never be able to tell it from the real thing if I held down tight."
His grin had a viciousness in it I hadn't seen before. He held out his hand. I struggled erect and handed my wallet to him. He only took out the big bills, and tossed it back across the desk to me. "Thanks," he said. "You'll get half of this back if you decide to join the Lodge within a week."
"What's all this about a Lodge?" I tried weakly. "What Lodge?"
"Why, this Lodge," Lefty said, waving a hand around loosely. "It's an organization of folks with psi powers. Guys like you and me, Tex."
"I'm no TK!" I growled. "I didn't manipulate those cards in any way."
"Funny you say that," he said, looking interested and leaning his elbows on the desk. "You're right. I hadn't actually bothered to stack the deck, Tex. Just kept a light TK touch on it to see if you were moving cards. You weren't, but you were hitting them right all the time. I haven't had time to tell Maragon the boys on the Crap Patrol were wrong. It wasn't telekinesis, Tex. It was precognition. You're a PC, Tex." He stood up and pointed toward the door. I was shaking so badly from the heart attack the snake had induced that I got up helplessly and allowed him to steer me out by the elbow.
"Remember," he said at the head of the steps that led down to the street. "You've got a week to make up your mind about joining the Lodge. In the meantime, don't gamble."
"Great," I said bitterly. "You sapped me down and rolled me for my poke, or the next thing to it. And now you tell me not to get in a game and try to get whole again. Why should you care?"
"You don't listen," he said sourly. "Look, psis are supermen, in spite of your sneers. And whether you like it or not, Tex, you've got some psi powers. Normals resent, fear and hate us. We can't afford to have you make a killing at a poker table and then get exposed as a 'snake.' We psis are a tiny minority. We all get blamed for things any one of us does."
"I'm a Normal," I said, a little hollowly.
"You're more fortunate than that," he assured me. "Just so you understand the origin and purpose of the Lodge. We find strength in union, strength to resist the pressure of the majority. And membership in the Lodge gives us control--control over psis like you who might bring the wrath of the Normal majority down on us by their shortsightedness."
I shook my head. "You don't have to dress it up like this," I protested. "This is blackmail or extortion, I'm not sure which. I'm not joining anything you bunch of creeps are a part of."
"You won't find that practical," he said, turning to go back inside. "And remember: stay away from cards."
You're supposed to have nightmares at night. I had mine the whole next day. No, I wasn't a TK, Lefty had said. I was a PC. You don't have anemia, Tex. It's leukemia!
I made a farce of trying to get some work done in the lab. After letting the third test tube slip through my fingers and shatter on the lab bench, I gave it up. How would you have acted if you had gotten that kind of news? That first gut-twisting admission that you really may be a snake! Then sharp awareness of what it means. A guillotine couldn't cut you off more sharply from Normal humanity. But the spirit struggles and refuses to accept it. You can't be a snake!
"Take action!" I said aloud, getting a worried look from my lab assistant, busy mopping up my last shattered culture. "Don't spin around like this. Do something!"
I did the only thing I could think of, and dialed Shari at her laboratory. She refused to accept the call at first. Finally she tore herself away from a "delicate experiment" long enough to look at me angrily in the screen.
"We don't have anything to say to each other," she said coldly. "There are delicate experiments--"
"Can you test me for psi powers?" I interrupted.
"To settle whether I have any," I snapped. "It's important to me."
"Not necessary," she said. "Do you think I'd be successful in the psi field if I weren't sensitive to this sort of thing? Don't worry, Tex. You're a Normal."
"Thanks," I said. "So you've told me. Now prove it to my satisfaction."
"We shut up shop at five o'clock," she said. "I'll be here for about an hour after that. My dinner date isn't until seven."
"Bet he doesn't gamble," I said, trying to win a little sympathy.
"You bet he doesn't" she sniffed.
Shari's laboratory was nothing more than a large windowless office that could be cut into two sound-proof parts with a movable partition. She had a whopper desk with full controls and other evidences of academic pelf. On a table against the short wall was her apparatus--if that's what you call decks of cards, a roulette wheel, a set of Rhine ESP cards, several dice and, so help me, a crystal ball.
Shari stood up behind her desk when I came in. It was something of a shock to find that her colorful peasant getup was antiseptically sheathed in a white laboratory coat. She was sure dressed for dirtier work than she would ever have to do in that lab.
Her first look at me was one of surprise, but it softened to one of concern, which might have been cheering on some other occasion. "What has happened, Tex?" she asked.
"Nothing," I said, keeping calm. "Not a thing."
"Outside of seeing a ghost, eh?" she said. "Stop grinding your teeth like that. You'll give me the creeps. Sit down. Sit down! Do you hear me? Relax!"
I guess I found the chair across from her at the desk. "Do I have psi powers?" I asked her. "Either TK or PC? Test me, Shari."
"What happened?" she insisted.
I shook my head. "I'd rather not talk about it--not until I know the result of your test," I said.
Shari thought about it for a while, tapping her desk with an irritated finger, and finally got a set of cards from the lab table against the wall. She shuffled them slowly on her desk blotter. "Cards are your strong point," she observed. "If you have any psi powers, they're most likely to show up with cards. I take it you will do your utmost to be right?"
"Who would double-cross himself?" I said tightly.
"Most people," Shari said. "When it comes to psi. But we'll assume, for a starter, that you are on the level." She stacked the cards in her hand. "We'll keep it simple," Shari suggested. "I'll deal the cards one at a time. All you have to do is tell me whether the next card will be red or black. Fair?"
"Sure," I said. "Deal!"
She was a lousy dealer. Or maybe it was because it was a one-handed operation. She was scoring my hits and misses with the little counter in her other hand.
She ran the deck ten times for me. I got thirty-eight right on my best attempt and thirty-seven wrong on my worst. In total, of five hundred and twenty chances, I was right on two hundred and seventy-three, or fifty-two point two per cent of the time, according to Shari's slide rule.
"Oh, no," I said dismally. "I do have a little edge on the cards!"
"As a statistician, you'll make a great biochemist," Shari said, putting the deck away. "That would only be true if I hadn't let you see your hits and misses as each deal proceeded. You made succeeding guesses in the knowledge of what had already been dealt. Actually, your score was below average for trained observers without psi powers." She heaved a sigh, which somehow seemed to be of relief. "And now, you crazy cowpoke," she said, "tell me what this is all about."
"I'm not a psi?" I demanded.
"Not if you were really trying," she said. "Were you?"
"You think I want to be a psi?" I demanded. I told her all that had happened the night before from the time Lefty had accused me of being a snake until he had let me out of the brownstone house and warned me against gambling.
Guess how Shari reacted. A big nothing!
"Well?" I asked, as she sat silent with her elbows on the edge of her desk and her chin propped up on her knuckles.
"You're really quite naive, aren't you, Tex?" she asked me. "Let me give you an objective statement of what happened to you last night."
She counted these things off on her fingers: "You won some money at poker. A gambler said you used TK to win. He took your winnings, and then some, away from you as the price of silence. He warned you not to gamble any more. He claimed he was part of an organization of psi personalities. Is that a fair statement?"
"Except for one thing," I said. "He used his psi powers on me in a pretty dramatic fashion."
"Try Occam's razor," she suggested.
She was getting insulting. "All right," I growled, feeling my face get red. "Prefer the simpler explanation, if you can find one. I was prodded in the back, both in the alley and in the office at the brownstone house. Something hit me in the gut and tripped me up. I had a heart seizure. What's simpler than TK in accounting for the fact this was done without a soul around?"
"I suppose I shouldn't be critical of you," she said. "It's not your field and you haven't been exposed to the lengths to which charlatans go, just to prove they are supermen. The simpler explanation is that there was someone else in the alley, carefully dressed in dull black to stay invisible in the darkness. The second prodding of a gun in your spine was pure suggestion--you'd been so well-sold by that time you were ready to believe anything."
"And my heart attack?"
"I can think of ten poisons that would give you the symptoms," Shari said. "And don't tell me you let nothing pass your lips!" she burst out hotly as I started to speak. "I suppose you've never had a spray hypodermic? You'd never have felt it. Don't you see why they went to all this trouble?"
"Honestly," I said. "I can't. I'm simply not that important to anyone in the world."
"You're not," she said dryly. "But your eight thousand dollars was. I'd say if people can steal that much money and convince the victim he shouldn't go to the police, it was worth their while. You're not very likely to advertise the claim that you're a psi, are you?"
"No," I admitted.
"And," she said wearily, standing up. "There's always the angle that they'll con you by letting you into their imaginary 'Lodge' and extract some kind of dues out of you in return for keeping quiet about your so-called psi powers when you gamble. That would serve you right," she concluded.
"For what?" I demanded, beginning to feel pretty icy.
"Being such an easy mark, for one thing," Shari said. "And for seriously thinking that you might be a PC! That, I must confess, I find the most comical of all. You, Tex, a PC!"
"Why is that funnier than being a TK?" I demanded, getting up.
She waved her hand impatiently. "We see a little TK here in the lab right along," she said. "At least, there are those who seem to have a small genuine edge on the cards that we can explain no other way. It's small, but apparently exists. But precognition? That's not simply mechanical or kinetic, like TK. PC is something terrifyingly different." Her voice hushed as she said it. "It's a kind of sensitivity that has nothing to do with mere kinetics. It defies time!" She looked back at me. "I simply find it comical that you thought of yourself as sensitive to that degree."
"So I've been a fool," I mused.
"In a word, yes. You're a Normal. They suckered you, if you want the jargon."
"Wait till tonight!" I seethed, beginning to feel my anger grow as my fear dwindled. "Let them try to pin the psi label on me! I'll call their bluff!"
The TV-phone on Shari's desk rang, and she pressed the Accept key.
"Let me speak with Tex," a familiar aggressive voice said. It didn't sound as if it would stand for much nonsense.
Shari still had another look of surprise in her. "For you," she said, arching her romantic eyebrows, and turning the instrument around so I was facing the 'scope and screen.
Sure enough, it was Wally Bupp. "Don't do it, Tex," he warned me.
"Don't do what?"
"Don't play tonight. It won't be practical. We mean business."
"So do the laws of libel," I said. "One crack about my having psi powers--"
"Yeah, yeah," he interrupted. "You told us about the lawsuit," he said. "You've got six more days." I could see his hand come up to cut the image.
"Hey!" I said. "How'd you know where to reach me?"
His sharp face split in that vicious grin. "I forgot to tell you," he said. "Maragon is a clairvoyant, too." The image faded.
"See what I mean?" I said shakily to Shari. "They sure talk a good game. I didn't tell a soul I was coming here. How'd they catch me?"
"Occam's razor," she said. "How many wrong numbers did they try first? Come back to earth!"
"That snake Lefty still worries me," I admitted, going to the door. "Shari, I know I've acted nuts, but they nearly got me to flip! Thanks for helping me. I couldn't have stood it to know I was a snake. You got my mind back on the track again."
"Not enough to keep from going right back to the poker table," she observed.
There didn't seem any point to telling her how badly I needed the dough. Anyway, I had to prove a point. I was a Normal. I left.
There were already seven at the table when I got to Nick's after dinner. He didn't want to deal me in.
"Seven's a full table, huh, Tex?" he said.
"Not for stud, it isn't," I told him. "You can deal to ten gamblers."
"Dealer's choice tonight," he protested, while some of the gamblers eyed me curiously. "Can't deal to more than seven for three-card draw."
"I told you where I stood on this thing last night," I snapped.
"All right," Nick said warmly. "So maybe I'd like the whole stink to cool down a little, huh?"
"Not with my dough in it, Nick!" I told him, being pretty free with something I didn't have much of any more. "You'll deal me in tonight or I'll find another banker!"
A gink with a long, scrawny neck put down his highball and rose from the table. "Gosh, fellows," he said. "I'm sort of a fifth wheel around here, I guess. Here, neighbor," he insisted. "Take my place." He was all grins and teeth and bobbed his head around with a rural awkwardness.