In Venusport, on payday-night, it is difficult to tell for certain where the town leaves off and the pink elephants begin. It is difficult to tell about other things, too. Spud Newlin had heard that a man could sometimes get rich overnight just tending bar on such occasions, and he was putting the rumor to the test. Not many bartenders had lasted long enough to find out.
The night had had a good start. Clock hands over the bar in the Spacebell registered 1:18 Venus-time, and considering, things were almost dull at the moment. The place had been jumping earlier, but hilarity had worn itself out, the dead had been removed and excitement dulled. No relatives or widows of the dead sportsmen had yet appeared; all corpses-elect had died clean, with the minimum of messy violence and, surprisingly, only three more or less innocent bystanders had been burned down in the proceedings. After shattering uproar, such calm was disturbing. Newlin was actually getting bored. Then she came in—and he was no longer bored. But, perversely, he resented the surge of interest that ran through him at sight of this out-of-place girl.
At a casual glance, she might seem ordinary, but Newlin was never superficial. Her kind of beauty was something to be sensed, not catalogued. It was part of the odd grace of movement, of the fine, angular features, of the curious emotion which dwelt upon them, sad and subdued. Even her costume was as out of place in the Spacebell as her mood; the dress was simply cut and expensive, but drab for the time and place. It clung about a slight, well-formed body in smoothly curved lines that seemed almost a part of her. Only her hands and eyes showed nervous tension.
At first he thought her eyes were cold, but it was something racial rather than personal. He noticed that they were large and luminous—like moonstones—with a pearly opaque glimmer as if only upper layers colored and reflected light. In their depths was an odd effect, like metalflakes drifting through ribboned moonlight with abysses of deepest shadow beyond. There was pain, trouble, and sadness in them, and behind that, fear—a desperate fear. You thought of wailing, haunted moonlight, and of dreadful things fled from in dreams.
Newlin's first thought was that she was one of the new-made widows, and was likely to be all too human about it. Later, when he had begun to doubt that she was all-human, her physical charms still went inside him and turned like a dull knife. He was no more immune to animal attraction than the next man, but in this particular woman there was something else even more intriguing and unpredictable. He felt a powerful impulse to do something to relieve her of that paralyzing supernatural dread.
A situation pregnant with violence was working up at one of the gaming tables but Newlin wilfully tore his attention from the mounting tension between the fat Martian gambler and an ugly character from Ganymede.
"Anything I can do for you, sister?"
Her smile was strange, thoughtful, preoccupied. "Yes," she told him. "There is something you can do for me. Unless your question was purely professional. If so, forget it. I need something stronger than the—the liquors you serve here."
Newlin grinned sourly. "You don't know our drinks. One sip and a mouse snarls at a snow-leopard. The question was not purely professional. Not my profession, anyhow. I don't know about yours. Or do I?"
Her head jerked on its slender stalk of neck. Pale eyes stared into his; her lips twisted in cold scorn.
"I don't think you do. And I'll do without your help. Perhaps you'd better go back to polishing glassware."
The rebuke failed to impress Newlin. He waited while her glance swung about the room, evaluating the place and its occupants in one quick sweep. Dissatisfied, she turned back to Newlin and again the moonstruck eyes probed and assessed him.
"Take your pick," he said sharply. "But don't judge them by their clothes. On Venus, a man in ragged space-leather may have heavy pockets. Now, take me—"
"I was told I could find Spud Newlin here. Point him out and I'll pay your fee—"
Newlin was suddenly cautious. "Yes, he's here—but what would a woman like you want with such a notorious—"
"I'm asking questions, not answering," she said calmly. "And I'm well aware of his failings. I selected him because of his ... his reputation. It's revolting, but even such a man may have uses. My requirements of him, and my reasons for the choice, I will discuss with him. No one else."
"Free advice, sister. Forget it, and get out of here. He's no good. Particularly bad, for a choice morsel like you."
"I'm used to making up my own mind. Where is he?"
Newlin shrugged. "You win. I'm Newlin. You take it from there."
Incredulity flooded her face and slowly drained away. "You! Yes, you could be Newlin. But you're working here. A famous man like you. Why?"
Newlin laughed easily. "It's very simple. I need money. If I can last through till morning, I'll have it. Now I'll ask the questions. You answer them. What do you want? Why me?"
A variety of expressions flowed over her mobile features.
"But—you could leave?" she faltered.
"I could, but I won't. This isn't charity night, kid. So go home and come back another time. Tomorrow."
"Tomorrow won't do. Maybe I've chosen the wrong man, but there's no time for second chances. I wanted a man with courage, a man used to living dangerously and going his own way, a man who wouldn't ask questions and would do anything for money. You sounded like something out of the old books; a rogue; a rebel."
Newlin sighed. Did it show so much? From the gutter that spawned him, he had fought and gouged and elbowed his way up. To him all men were enemies. As a spacebum, he had explored the raw, expanding frontiers as Man surged from planet to planet. As a hunted outlaw he had existed perilously on the twilight fringes of civilization. Ruthless and savage, a thief and despoiler, a criminal and adventurer, he had found his way back to Earth, Mars, Venus and wrested a niche of sorts within the citadels he had attempted to overthrow. Despite the brittle amnesty, he knew that authority awaited only a single slip to deal with him according to their views. But in the bitterness of ultimate disillusions, he had found the fountainhead as lacking in civilization and sanity as its furthest ripples. He longed, now, only for the final gesture of rejection. Escape....
"I had expected more of Newlin," said the girl.
His reply was a short, bitter laugh. "So had I. My character is as corrupt as the rest of mankind. Poverty is undignified and degrading; it poisons virtue and debases the outlook. Without money a man cannot claim his birthright of freedom; getting money he loses his independence and his character."
"You think money would make you free?" the girl asked.
"Not of itself." Newlin scowled. "With money, a free man can be free; a slave with money is still a slave. Perhaps I want to learn for myself which I am. I want enough to pay for a spaceship, the best to be had. A one-man ship in which I can escape this madhouse and venture alone—beyond Pluto. Such a plan requires money, so I work in the Spacebell. Between wages, tips, graft and my winnings, I may have half enough, by dawn. If I live that long."
The girl nodded, then spoke contemptuously, "I can pay very generously. You can set your own price. Enough even for your spaceship. But what do you expect to find—beyond Pluto?"
"Myself, first. After that, who knows? This solar system is a vast pesthouse. I am contaminated by fools, moneygrubbers, sheep and the corrupt authorities that rule them. What else I find isn't important if I find myself. Even death."
Newlin's eyes burned with a hot glare of fanaticism. Dread sprang into the girl's heart. Always with these people there was this fear, this panic-desire to escape, always an urge to destruction coupled with eery mysticism, compulsions, conflicts—and always the final delusion of personal sanity in the atmosphere of chaos. Some of Newlin's words found echo in herself, but she checked a momentary sympathy. The system was mad, true—but how sane was Newlin? How sane and trustworthy? He could be a dangerous tool in her unskilled, frightened hands.
She had chosen him on the basis of his reputation. From his police record, and other documents. A capable man, courageous and self-reliant, ingenious, but a person of tensions and conflicts, a man of violence, unpredictable, torn by contradictory impulses, a savage but not without kindness and generosity. For her purposes, he might do as well as any other. At worst a man, cast in heroic mold. Quickly, but not without revulsions and reservations, she made her fateful decision.
"For a man of your talents," she said, "the task should be simple. I want you to break into a building and bring me something. There is danger you would not understand. If you fail, death for both of us. For success, you set the price. Are you interested?"
Newlin laughed cynically. "You promise the moon if I can steal it for you, nothing if I can't?"
"No such shrewd bargaining," the girl murmured uneasily. "But name the amount you hoped to make here. I will match it now—and double it if you accomplish my errand."
"Fair enough," said Newlin. "But keep your money. I'll case the job first. Pay me later—if I don't change my mind again."
Ducking behind the bar, he shed his apron and buzzed for the stand-in bartender. Ed Careld forsook his interminable game of Martian chess and appeared to take over.
"Seems quiet," he said. "What's up?"
"Nothing," Newlin told him. "Private business. I may not be back. Keep an eye on Table Three."
Careld nodded, eyed the gamblers at Table Three dubiously. He tied his apron carefully and sidled toward the table to oversee the situation and clamp down a lid if necessary. Table Three picked that moment to erupt in profane violence. Three languages splashed pungently in dispute which passed quickly to a climax of crisscrossed heat-beam brilliance. Marksmanship was poor; both the fat Martian and his adversary from Ganymede survived, and only two questionable kibitzers blazed into sudden oblivion. Careld swept up the corpses into neat piles of ash, then tried to warn the combatants against further displays of short temper.