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I crumpled the newspaper and tossed it in the general direction of the wire basket beside the park bench, pushed back a slightly frayed cuff, and took a look at my bare wrist. It was just habit; the watch was in a hock shop in Tupelo, Mississippi. It didn't matter. I didn't have to know what time it was.
Across the park most of the store windows were dark along the side street. There were no people in sight; they were all home now, having dinner. As I watched, the lights blinked off in the drug store with the bottles of colored water in the window; that left the candy and cigar emporium at the end of the line. I fidgeted on the hard bench and felt for a cigarette I didn't have. I wished the old boy back of the counter would call it a day and go home. As soon as it was dark enough, I was going to rob his store.
* * *
I wasn't a full-time stick-up artist. Maybe that's why that nervous feeling was playing around under my rib cage. There was really nothing to it. The wooden door with the hardware counter lock that would open almost as easily without a key as with one; the sardine-can metal box with the day's receipts in it. I'd be on my way to the depot with fare to Miami in my pocket ten minutes after I cracked the door. I'd learned a lot harder tricks than petty larceny back when I had a big future ahead with Army Intelligence. That was a long time ago, and I'd had a lot of breaks since then-none good.
I got up and took another turn around the park. It was a warm evening, and the mosquitoes were out. I caught a whiff of frying hamburger from the Elite Café down the street. It reminded me that I hadn't eaten lately. There were lights on at the Commercial Hotel and one in the ticket office at the station. The local police force was still sitting on a stool at the Rexall talking to the counter girl. I could see the .38 revolver hanging down in a worn leather holster at his hip. All of a sudden, I was in a hurry to get it over with.
I took another look at the lights. All the stores were dark now. There was nothing to wait for. I crossed the street, sauntered past the cigar store. There were dusty boxes of stogies in the window and piles of homemade fudge stacked on plates with paper doilies under them. Behind them, the interior of the store looked grim and dead. I looked around, then turned down the side street toward the back door-
A black sedan eased around the corner and pulled in to the curb. A face leaned over to look at me through lenses like the bottoms of Tabasco bottles. The hot evening air stirred, and I felt my damp shirt cold against my back.
"Looking for anything in particular, Mister?" the cop said.
I just looked at him.
"Passing through town, are you?" he asked.
For some reason I shook my head.
"I've got a job here," I said. "I'm going to work-for Mr. Foster."
"What Mr. Foster?" The cop's voice was wheezy, but relentless; a voice used to asking questions.
I remembered the ad-something about an adventure; Foster, Box 19. The cop was still staring at me.
"Box nineteen," I said.
He looked me over some more, then reached across and opened the door. "Better come on down to the station house with me, Mister," he said.
* * *
At Police Headquarters, the cop motioned me to a chair, sat down behind a desk, and pulled a phone to him. He dialed slowly, then swiveled his back to me to talk. There was an odor of leather and unwashed bedding. I sat and listened to a radio in the distance wailing a sad song.
It was half an hour before I heard a car pull up outside. The man who came through the door was wearing a light suit that was neither new nor freshly pressed, but had that look of perfect fit and taste that only the most expensive tailoring can achieve. He moved in a relaxed way, but gave an impression of power held in reserve. At first glance I thought he was in his middle thirties, but when he looked my way I saw the fine lines around the blue eyes. I got to my feet. He came over to me.
"I'm Foster," he said, and held out his hand. I shook it.
"My name is Legion," I said.
The desk sergeant spoke up. "This fellow says he come here to Mayport to see you, Mr. Foster."
Foster looked at me steadily. "That's right, Sergeant. This gentleman is considering a proposition I've made."
"Well, I didn't know, Mr. Foster," the cop said.
"I quite understand, Sergeant," Foster said. "We all feel better, knowing you're on the job."
"Well, you know," the cop said.
"We may as well be on our way then," Foster said. "If you're ready, Mr. Legion."
"Sure, I'm ready," I said. Mr. Foster said goodnight to the cop and we went out. On the pavement in front of the building I stopped.
"Thanks, Mr. Foster," I said. "I'll comb myself out of your hair now."
Foster had his hand on the door of a deceptively modest-looking cabriolet. I could smell the solid leather upholstery from where I stood.
"Why not come along to my place, Legion," he said. "We might at least discuss my proposition."
I shook my head. "I'm not the man for the job, Mr. Foster," I said. "If you'd like to advance me a couple of bucks, I'll get myself a bite to eat and fade right out of your life."
"What makes you so sure you're not interested?"
"Your ad said something about adventure. I've had my adventures. Now I'm just looking for a hole to crawl into."
"I don't believe you, Legion." Foster smiled at me, a slow, calm smile. "I think your adventures have hardly begun."
I thought about it. If I went along, I'd at least get a meal-and maybe even a bed for the night. It was better than curling up under a tree.
"Well," I said, "a remark like that demands time for an explanation." I got into the car and sank back in a seat that seemed to fit me the way Foster's jacket fit him.
"I hope you won't mind if I drive fast," Foster said. "I want to be home before dark." We started up and wheeled away from the curb like a torpedo sliding out of the launching tube.
* * *
I got out of the car in the drive at Foster's house, and looked around at the wide clipped lawn, the flower beds that were vivid even by moonlight, the line of tall poplars and the big white house.
"I wish I hadn't come," I said. "This kind of place reminds me of all the things I haven't gotten out of life."
"Your life's still ahead of you," Foster said. He opened the slab of mahogany that was the front door, and I followed him inside. At the end of a short hall he flipped a switch that flooded the room before us with soft light. I stared at an expanse of pale grey carpet about the size of a tennis court, on which rested glowing Danish teak furniture upholstered in rich colors. The walls were a rough-textured grey; here and there were expensively framed abstractions. The air was cool with the heavy coolness of air conditioning. Foster crossed to a bar that looked modest in the setting, in spite of being bigger than those in most of the places I'd seen lately.
"Would you care for a drink?" he said.
I looked down at my limp, stained suit and grimy cuffs.
"Look, Mr. Foster," I said. "I just realized something. If you've got a stable, I'll go sleep in it-"
Foster laughed. "Come on; I'll show you the bath."
* * *
I came downstairs, clean, showered, and wearing a set of Foster's clothes. I found him sitting, sipping a drink and listening to music.
"The Liebestod," I said. "A little gloomy, isn't it?"
"I read something else into it," Foster said. "Sit down and have a bite to eat and a drink."
I sat in one of the big soft chairs and tried not to let my hand shake as I reached for one of the sandwiches piled on the coffee table.
"Tell me something, Mr. Legion," Foster said. "Why did you come here, mention my name-if you didn't intend to see me?"
I shook my head. "It just worked out that way."
"Tell me something about yourself," Foster said.
"It's not much of a story."
"Still, I'd like to hear it."
"Well, I was born, grew up, went to school-"
"University of Illinois."
"What was your major?"
Foster looked at me, frowning slightly.
"It's the truth," I said. "I wanted to be a conductor. The army had other ideas. I was in my last year when the draft got me. They discovered I had what they considered an aptitude for intelligence work. I didn't mind it. I had a pretty good time for a couple of years."
"Go on," Foster said. Well, I'd had a bath and a good meal. I owed him something. If he wanted to hear my troubles, why not tell him?
"I was putting on a demonstration. A defective timer set off a charge of H-E fifty seconds early on a one-minute setting. A student was killed; I got off easy with a busted eardrum and a pound or two of gravel embedded in my back. When I got out of the hospital, the army felt real bad about letting me go-but they did. My terminal leave pay gave me a big weekend in San Francisco and set me up in business as a private investigator.
"I had enough left over after the bankruptcy proceedings a few months later to get me to Las Vegas. I lost what was left and took a job with a casino operator name Gonino.
"I stayed with Gonino for nearly a year. Then one night a visiting bank clerk lost his head and shot him eight times with a .22 target pistol. I left town the same night.
"After that I sold used cars for a couple of months in Memphis; then I made like a life guard at Daytona; baited hooks on a thirty-foot tuna boat out of Key West; all the odd jobs with low pay and no future. I spent a couple of years in Cuba; all I got out of that was two bullet scars on the left leg, and a prominent position on a CIA blacklist.
"After that things got tough. A man in my trade can't really hope to succeed in a big way without the little blue card in the plastic cover to back his play. I was headed south for the winter, and I picked Mayport to run out of money."
I stood up. "I sure enjoyed the bath, Mr. Foster, and the meal, too-I'd like real well to get into that bed upstairs and have a night's sleep just to make it complete; but I'm not interested in the job." I turned away and started across the room.
"Legion," Foster said. I turned. A beer bottle was hanging in the air in front of my face. I put a hand up fast and the bottle slapped my palm.
"Not bad set of reflexes for a man whose adventures are all behind him," Foster said.
I tossed the bottle aside. "If I'd missed, that would have knocked my teeth out," I said angrily.
"You didn't miss-even though you're weaving a little from the beer. And a man who can feel a pint or so of beer isn't an alcoholic-so you're clean on that score."
"I didn't say I was ready for the rummy ward," I said. "I'm just not interested in your proposition-whatever it is."
"Legion," Foster said, "maybe you have the idea I put that ad in the paper last week on a whim. The fact is, I've been running it-in one form or another-for over eight years."
I looked at him and waited.
"Not only locally-I've run it in the big-city papers, and in some of the national weekly and monthly publications. All together, I've had perhaps fifty responses."
Foster smiled wryly. "About three quarters of them were from women who thought I wanted a playmate. Several more were from men with the same idea. The few others were hopelessly unsuitable."
"That's surprising," I said. "I'd have thought you'd have brought half the nuts in the country out of the woodwork by now."
Foster looked at me, not smiling. I realized suddenly that behind the urbane façade there was a hint of tension, a trace of worry in the level blue eyes.
"I'd like very much to interest you in what I have to say, Legion. I think you lack only one thing-confidence in yourself."
I laughed shortly. "What are the qualifications you think I have? I'm a jack-of-no-trades-"
"Legion, you're a man of considerable intelligence and more than a little culture; you've traveled widely and know how to handle yourself in difficult situations-or you wouldn't have survived. I'm sure your training includes techniques of entry and fact-gathering not known to the average man; and perhaps most important, although you're an honest man, you're capable of breaking the law-when necessary."
"So that's it," I said.
"No, I'm not forming a mob, Legion. As I said in the ad-this is an unusual adventure. It may-probably will-involve infringing various statutes and regulations of one sort or another. After you know the full story I'll leave you to judge whether it's justifiable."
If Foster was trying to arouse my curiosity, he was succeeding. He was dead serious about whatever it was he was planning. It sounded like something no one with good sense would want to get involved in-but on the other hand, Foster didn't look like the sort of man to do anything foolish...
"Why don't you tell me what this is all about?" I said. "Why would a man with all this-" I waved a hand at the luxurious room-"want to pick a hobo like me out of the gutter and talk him into taking a job?"
"Your ego has taken a severe beating, Legion-that's obvious. I think you're afraid that I'll expect too much of you-or that I'll be shocked by some disclosure you may make. Perhaps if you'd forget yourself and your problems for the moment, we could reach an understanding-"
"Yeah," I said. "Just forget my problems..."
"Chiefly money problems, of course. Most of the problems of this society involve the abstraction of values that money represents."
"Okay," I said. "I've got my problems, you've got yours. Let's leave it at that."
"You feel that because I have material comfort, my problems must of necessity be trivial ones," Foster said. "Tell me, Mr. Legion: have you ever known a man who suffered from amnesia?"
* * *
Foster crossed the room to a small writing desk, took something from a drawer, then looked at me.
"I'd like you to examine this," he said.
I went over and took the object from his hand. It was a small book, with a cover of drab-colored plastic, unornamented except for an embossed design of two concentric rings. I opened the cover. The pages were as thin as tissue, but opaque, and covered with extremely fine writing in strange foreign characters. The last dozen pages were in English. I had to hold the book close to my eyes to read the minute script:
January 19, 1710.
Excerpted from Legions of Space by Keith Laumer Copyright © 2004 by Baen Books. Excerpted by permission.
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