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Jason dinAlt sprawled in soft luxury on the couch, a large frosty stein held limply in one hand. His other hand rested casually on a pillow. The gun behind the pillow was within easy reach of his fingers. In his line of work, he never took chances.
It was all highly suspicious. Jason didn't know a soul on this planet. Yet the card sent by service tube from the hotel desk had read: Kerk Pyrrus would like to see Jason dinAlt. Blunt and to the point. He signaled the desk to send the man up, then lowered his fingers a bit until they brushed the gun butt. The door slid open, and his visitor stepped through.
A retired wrestler. That was Jason's first thought. Kerk Pyrrus was a gray-haired rock of a man, his body seemingly chiseled out of flat slabs of muscle. Then Jason saw the gun strapped to the inside of the other man's forearm, and he let his fingers drop casually behind the pillow.
"I'd appreciate it," Jason said, "if you'd take off your gun while you're in here."
The other man stopped and scowled down at the gun as if he were seeing it for the first time.
"No, I never take it off." He seemed mildly annoyed by the suggestion.
Jason had his fingers on his own gun when he said, "I'm afraid I'll have to insist. I always feel a little uncomfortable around people who wear guns." He kept talking to distract attention while he pulled out his gun. Fast and smooth.
He could have been moving in slow motion for all the difference it made. Kerk Pyrrus stood rock still while the gun came out, while it swung in his direction. Not until the very last instant did he act. When he did, the motion wasn't visible. First his gun was in the armholster--then it was aimed between Jason's eyes. It was an ugly, heavy weapon with a pitted front orifice that showed plenty of use.
And Jason knew if he swung his own weapon up a fraction of an inch more he would be dead. He dropped his arm carefully, and Kerk flipped his own gun back in the holster with the same ease he had drawn it.
"Now," the stranger said, "if we're through playing, let's get down to business. I have a proposition for you."
Jason downed a large mouthful from the mug and bridled his temper. He was fast with a gun--his life had depended on it more than once--and this was the first time he had been outdrawn. It was the offhand, unimportant manner it had been done that irritated him.
"I'm not prepared to do business," he said acidly. "I've come to Cassylia for a vacation, get away from work."
"Let's not fool each other, dinAlt," Kerk said impatiently. "You've never worked at an honest job in your entire life. You're a professional gambler, and that's why I'm here to see you."
Jason forced down his anger and threw the gun to the other end of the couch so he wouldn't be tempted to commit suicide. He had hoped no one knew him on Cassylia and was looking forward to a big kill at the Casino. He would worry about that later. This weight-lifter type seemed to know all the answers. Let him plot the course for a while and see where it led.
"All right. What do you want?"
Kerk dropped into a chair that creaked ominously under his weight, and dug an envelope out of one pocket. He flipped through it quickly and dropped a handful of gleaming Galactic Exchange notes onto the table. Jason glanced at them--then sat up suddenly.
"What are they--forgeries?" he asked, holding one up to the light.
"They're real enough," Kerk told him, "I picked them up at the bank. Exactly twenty-seven bills--or twenty-seven million credits. I want you to use them as a bankroll when you go to the Casino tonight. Gamble with them and win."
They looked real enough--and they could be checked. Jason fingered them thoughtfully while he examined the other man.
"I don't know what you have in mind," he said. "But you realize I can't make any guarantees. I gamble--but I don't always win...."
"You gamble--and you win when you want to," Kerk said grimly. "We looked into that quite carefully before I came to you."
"If you mean to say that I cheat--" Carefully, Jason grabbed his temper again and held it down. There was no future in getting annoyed.
Kerk continued in the same level voice, ignoring Jason's growing anger. "Maybe you don't call it cheating, frankly I don't care. As far as I'm concerned you could have your suit lined with aces and electromagnets in your boots. As long as you won. I'm not here to discuss moral points with you. I said I had a proposition.
"We have worked hard for that money--but it still isn't enough. To be precise, we need three billion credits. The only way to get that sum is by gambling--with these twenty-seven million as bankroll."
"And what do I get out of it?" Jason asked the question coolly, as if any bit of the fantastic proposition made sense.
"Everything above the three billion you can keep, that should be fair enough. You're not risking your own money, but you stand to make enough to keep you for life if you win."
"And if I lose--?"
Kerk thought for a moment, not liking the taste of the idea. "Yes--there is the chance you might lose, I hadn't thought about that."
He reached a decision. "If you lose--well I suppose that is just a risk we will have to take. Though I think I would kill you then. The ones who died to get the twenty-seven million deserve at least that." He said it quietly, without malice, and it was more of a promise than a threat.
Stamping to his feet Jason refilled his stein and offered one to Kerk who took it with a nod of thanks. He paced back and forth, unable to sit. The whole proposition made him angry--yet at the same time had a fatal fascination. He was a gambler and this talk was like the taste of drugs to an addict.
Stopping suddenly, he realized that his mind had been made up for some time. Win or lose--live or die--how could he say no to the chance to gamble with money like that! He turned suddenly and jabbed his finger at the big man in the chair.
"I'll do it--you probably knew I would from the time you came in here. There are some terms of my own, though. I want to know who you are, and who they are you keep talking about. And where did the money come from. Is it stolen?"
Kerk drained his own stein and pushed it away from him.
"Stolen money? No, quite the opposite. Two years work mining and refining ore to get it. It was mined on Pyrrus and sold here on Cassylia. You can check on that very easily. I sold it. I'm the Pyrric ambassador to this planet." He smiled at the thought. "Not that that means much, I'm ambassador to at least six other planets as well. Comes in handy when you want to do business."
Jason looked at the muscular man with his gray hair and worn, military cut clothes, and decided not to laugh. You heard of strange things out in the frontier planets and every word could be true. He had never heard of Pyrrus either, though that didn't mean anything. There were over thirty-thousand known planets in the inhabited universe.
"I'll check on what you have told me," Jason said. "If it's true, we can do business. Call me tomorrow--"
"No," Kerk said. "The money has to be won tonight. I've already issued a check for this twenty-seven million, it will bounce as high as the Pleiades unless we deposit the money in the morning, so that's our time limit."
With each moment the whole affair became more fantastic--and more intriguing for Jason. He looked at his watch. There was still enough time to find out it Kerk was lying or not.
"All right, we'll do it tonight," he said. "Only I'll have to have one of those bills to check."
Kerk stood up to go. "Take them all, I won't be seeing you again until after you've won. I'll be at the Casino of course, but don't recognize me. It would be much better if they didn't know where your money was coming from or how much you had."
Then he was gone, after a bone-crushing handclasp that closed on Jason's hand like vise jaws. Jason was alone with the money. Fanning the bills out like a hand of cards he stared at their sepia and gold faces, trying to get the reality through his head. Twenty-seven million credits. What was to stop him from just walking out the door with them and vanishing. Nothing really, except his own sense of honor.
Kerk Pyrrus, the man with the same last name as the planet he came from, was the universe's biggest fool. Or he knew just what he was doing. From the way the interview had gone the latter seemed the better bet.
"He knows I would much rather gamble with the money than steal it," he said wryly.
Slipping a small gun into his waistband holster and pocketing the money he went out.