"You don't have to do that, Snead," Nick started to say.
"Just as soon kibitz," he insisted, drawing up a chair behind me as I took his seat. "You don't mind, neighbor?" he asked anxiously. I shook my head and yanked out my much-depleted wallet to pay for chips. It took all that the Lodge hadn't.
Four hands were enough. On the first, at stud, I had aces back to back and picked up a pair of sevens on the next two cards. Two pair, aces high, will win about ninety-nine out of a hundred stud hands. I chewed down on the panetella in my teeth and bet them like I had them. The tilt of my cigar showed just a little too much confidence as a way to convince some of the gamblers that I was bluffing. It must have been a good act, for three of them stayed with me all the way. None of them had much showing, and regardless of what their hole cards were, by the time we had our fifth cards, I had them all beaten.
It was raise against raise, but somebody finally called, and I turned over my ace in the hole. "Aces and sevens, gamblers," I grinned, reaching for the pot.
"I see the sevens," a fat-faced man across the table said around his cigar. "But what's this jazz about aces?"
So help me Hannah, my hole card was a two! I tried to cover it up. "You'll have to admit I bet them like aces," I said.
Somebody laughed, but not very hard.
I paid mighty close attention to what I was dealt the next hand, and turned down a drink to make sure I was cold sober. Unfortunately, I got all screwed up over what one of the other gamblers had. It had been a bunch of spinach when I'd been betting my pair against it, but it was one good-looking straight when he flipped the card in the hole.
The third hand I dropped out before the fourth card. After a gambler raked in that pot, my kibitzer asked me: "How much do you have to have on the first three cards to stay in the pot?"
"Any pair would convince me," I said. "Why?"
"What was the matter with the kings you had showing?" he asked. They were still on the table in front of me, king of hearts and king of clubs.
I scarcely dared bet the fourth hand. We had switched to three-card draw. I discarded two small diamonds, keeping a pair of nines and an ace for a kicker. On the draw I got one card that claimed to be the fourteen of eagles and one on which there was a message reading: "These hallucinations are sent to you with the courtesy of the Manhattan Chapter of the Lodge. Are you finding it practical?"
I threw the hand in and stood up, shaking. "Since when don't you bet a full house?" my kibitzer demanded, after the hand was won. He picked up what I had thrown in. The fourteen of eagles turned out to be a nine, and the card with the hallucination message the other ace.
"Got to confuse the other bettors," I said. "One of the fundamentals of poker."
There really weren't enough chips left in front of me to bother cashing in. I just left them lying there and wandered down to the street, flat broke.
Wally Bupp was right. I hadn't found it practical. All of a sudden I saw that it really didn't matter whether I were a psi or not. The important question had always been whether Lefty and the others were psis. If so, they might be on the level about my psi powers--which meant I was right back being a snake again. And if they weren't, it was a simple case of blackmail, which at least let me rejoin the human race. On that basis, I was in tough shape. Occam's razor has no answer for hallucinations. Either you've had them or you hadn't. I had. Nobody would change my mind on that score. That made Snead, and presumably Lefty, a psi. And me, too.
But--what if they were mistaken? Shari's tests looked conclusive to me. I saw that as the only way out. I had to insist on a test in their presence. And that meant I had to get in touch with Wally Bupp.
My kibitzer came stalking out of the building, gangling and gawky. "Didn't mean to spoil your luck, neighbor," he said.
"Don't give it a second thought, Snead," I said.
"Call me Mortimer," he said. "You mind a word of advice, neighbor?" he asked, bobbing his head around and grinning in a self-conscious way. "Next time, bet that fourteen. Highest card in the deck. Beats all the others!"
"You lousy snake!" I gasped. I'd learned better than to take a poke at him. Lefty had taught me my lesson on that one. Snead might turn out to be a TK as well as a hallucinator, and I wanted no more heart attacks.
He handed me a card. "There'll be somebody at this number all night, neighbor. Gamblers Anonymous."
He faded off down the dark street. The card merely said: "Manhattan Chapter NO 5-5600"
Shari must have had a swell time at dinner with some guy who didn't gamble, because she didn't come home until nearly midnight. I know because I dialed her apartment every ten minutes until I got her face on the screen.
She was still dressed for dinner and had a sort of tiara over her thick tresses. "What is it?" she said.
"I'm not a psi?" I demanded.
"No!" she said. "Hasn't this gone--?"
"Well, then, am I crazy?" I cut in on her.
Her lips compressed. "It's a lot more likely," she decided. "Why?"
"Either I'm nuts," I told her. "Or those characters really are psis." She was reaching up to cut the image when I caught her interest. "Is there such a thing as a psi who can induce hallucinations?" I demanded.
"They've got me sold that they can do it," I said. "What does Occam's razor say about that?"
"You idiot!" she exploded. "They don't believe you are a PC any more than I do!" She was sure sensitive about my having any precognition!
"O.K.," I said. "Then you make them eat it. Aren't you the one who knows all about exposing charlatans?"
That was the right button. "Certainly," Shari said.
"I'll pick you up in ten minutes," I said.
"This is the pay-off," I said, and cut the image. I dialed the number Snead had given me.
"Manhattan Chapter," the Operator cartoon said.
"This is George Robertson," I said. "Mortimer Snead told me there'd be somebody there to talk to me. Maybe Lefty."
"Snead?" the cartoon said, frowning. "No one here by that--Oh! Wait a moment. Dr. Walter Bupp will talk to you," the cartoon said, and Wally's face appeared on the screen.
"It wasn't practical," I admitted.
"Six days early," he observed.
"Nuts," I said. "Look, you've got me convinced you are a psi. That Snead puts on a terrific show."
"Snead?" he frowned. "Oh!" He laughed. "Yeah," he agreed condescendingly. "He's red hot, every now and then."
"But you haven't sold me that I'm a PC," I growled. "I've been tested. I'm not. Now I want you to get off my back. You and the rest of them! Lay off!"
He shook his head. "The Lodge acts unilaterally on this," he said soberly. "You've got psi powers. You'll accept our direction in their use. Or else, Tex."
"All I ask is a fair test," I said desperately. "Under laboratory conditions."
He gave me an address. "Come any time," he said.
"That's me walking in," I told him.
Shari had to pay off the 'copter when we got there. It wasn't the brownstone I had seen the night before. This place was a medium-sized office building, say a hundred stories or so, quite new. There was no identification on its front other than the street number. The Directory in the silent and unpopulated lobby was names, all names. But Dr. Walter Bupp was one of them, in 7704. Shari and I rode the elevator to seventy-seven in chilly silence.
The corridor was dim, with its lights on night-time setting. Stronger light came from an open door quite a way down the hall. It had to be Bupp's office, and it was.
Wally certainly wasn't surprised to see Shari. He shook hands with her briefly, pushing his sharp chin out at her in his gamecock fashion. "Your mate?" he asked me.
"Certainly not," she told him. "We're ... uh ... colleagues at the University."
"That's not what Pheola says," he told her sourly, pointing to chairs we could take.
"Pheola?" Shari questioned.
"A powerful PC," Wally said. "She predicted you would accompany Tex tonight."
"Oh, really," Shari said scathingly.
"I was there," I told her. "She really did."
"Let's not be diverted by sideshows," Shari said. "We're here to measure the psi powers of Tex Robertson, not to talk over the reputed clairvoyance of some dim and misty character."
"Precognition," Wally corrected her. "Stick around, Dr. King. Pheola will be down a little later. She thinks Tex is something special."
That was not going to make a good interchange, so I cut in. "Dr. King is a professional in this field--" I started.
Wally waved a disgusted hand. "We know all about Dr. King and her field," he said. "Proving that psi powers don't exist, right, Dr. King?"
Shari bristled. It was hard to stay friendly in any talk with Bupp. "You know my field," she said, about twenty degrees below zero. "I accept any and all evidence, regardless what it proves! There's a lot of talk about psi powers, but precious little that can ever be detected under laboratory conditions!"
"Oh, well," Wally Bupp grinned. "That's not so strange. All members of the Lodge are cautioned to stay away from laboratories. You've been testing Normals. What do you expect for results?"
"Then you show me!" she stormed.
"Go on with you," he grinned. "I thought it was Tex's powers you wanted tested. Mine are irrelevant."
"I thought so," she said triumphantly. "Charlatan!"
For a moment the grin flickered off his face and I tensed to catch Shari if she should start to drop. But I guess he thought better of it.
"Some other time," he said. "Let's get this over with. Make it simple. You may have some statistical objections to my technique tonight, but I'm not looking for fringe effects. If this hot-eyed swain of yours is any good at all, he'll bat a thousand." He got a deck of cards out of his desk drawer and fanned it out face up so that he could pluck the two of spades and the two of hearts from the deck. The rest he put back in his desk.
He put his hands under the desk, with the two cards in them, produced the cards again, face down, and laid them in a thin stack on the desk before all of us.
"What's on top?" he said. "Red or black?"
"How will you score?" Shari insisted. He scowled at her and tossed a squeeze counter across the desk.
"You score," he said. "It really isn't necessary. Tex will either be right all the time or it won't matter."
But before I could call the top card, the office door opened behind us. I looked around, expecting Pheola. Instead it was Milly with the down, down hose. Only this time she was decently dressed in a dark two-piece suit and wore make-up. She certainly was no more talkative than before, nor did Wally introduce her. Shari was perfectly equal to the occasion and looked through Milly with composure. This takes about three generations of overbreeding.
"Try it," Wally insisted. "What's on top?"
I hit it. Then I missed it. Then I hit three in a row. It wasn't fast work, because Wally hid the cards under his desk after each guess, shuffled the two cards around and then laid them before me again. This went on for about twenty minutes. At that point Shari spoke.
"That makes exactly three hundred tries," she said, looking at the counter in her hand. "Have you been keeping score, Mr. Bupp?"
"I thought you were."
"So I was," she snapped, throwing up her tiaraed head. He sure brought out the worst in people. "Tex has been right exactly one hundred and fifty times. He's never been more than five tries to the good in the whole series."
"Interesting," Wally said.
I took my first decent breath in the day. "This ought to let me off the hook," I said to him. "Are you convinced?"
He shrugged. "How about it, Milly?" he asked.
"A random sample," she said. "He doesn't want to score. He didn't try."
Shari was ready for that one. She turned and spoke to Milly: "You have ways of knowing what Tex was thinking?" she asked sweetly.
"Name any three!" Shari lashed at her furiously. The solid woman wasn't the least bit bowled over.
"Read his mind," she said matter-of-factly. "Just like I can tell that you're getting ready to screech 'Charlatan!' at me, and like you think I got a cast-iron girdle and homely shoes. Well, they're comfortable, dearie, which is more than you can say for those high-heeled slippers of yours. That left little toe of yours is killing you, dearie!"
Shari's lips moved, but her mouth was as empty of sound as her face was of blood. Milly had hit the bull's-eye.
"Everybody relax a moment," Wally said. "Tell me, Dr. King, what's your attitude toward PC?"
"I don't have any!" she snapped. "It's a phenomenon. I have as much attitude toward it as I do toward osmosis or toward peristalsis. None."
"Would you consider a person fortunate to possess the power of precognition?" Wally asked her.
Shari's head came up. "If there were such a thing," she said, much more quietly. "Yes. I should imagine that precognition would be a powerful talent."
"If you have no emotional bias against psi as such," he went on smoothly, "you'd be happy for Tex if he were a PC."
Her eyebrows drew together. She looked at me, veiling her violet eyes as if to hide her thoughts from us. "I would consider Tex quite fortunate. But only if you could show that such a thing really existed," she said more loudly.
"How about you, Tex?" Wally asked me.
"Nuts," I said. "You can't make me like the idea of being a snake, no matter how you dress it up." I shook my head. "Psi powers are the mark of a diseased mind, for my dough. They're pure poison. What have they ever done for you?" I insisted rudely.