The Project Gutenberg EBook of Grifters' Asteroid, by H. L. Gold

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Title: Grifters' Asteroid

Author: H. L. Gold

Release Date: June 4, 2020 [EBook #62324]

Language: English

Character set encoding: ASCII


Produced by Greg Weeks, Mary Meehan and the Online
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Harvey and Joe were the slickest con-men ever
to gyp a space-lane sucker. Or so they thought!
Angus Johnson knew differently. He charged them
five buckos for a glass of water—and got it!

[Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
Planet Stories May 1943.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]

Characteristically, Harvey Ellsworth tried to maintain his dignity, though his parched tongue was almost hanging out. But Joe Mallon, with no dignity to maintain, lurched across the rubbish-strewn patch of land that had been termed a spaceport. When Harvey staggered pontifically into the battered metalloy saloon—the only one on Planetoid 42—his tall, gangling partner was already stumbling out, mouthing something incoherent. They met in the doorway, violently.

"We're delirious!" Joe cried. "It's a mirage!"

"What is?" asked Harvey through a mouthful of cotton.

Joe reeled aside, and Harvey saw what had upset his partner. He stared, speechless for once.

In their hectic voyages from planet to planet, the pair of panacea purveyors had encountered the usual strange life-forms. But never had they seen anything like the amazing creature in that colonial saloon.

Paying no attention to them, it was carrying a case of liquor in two hands, six siphons in two others, and a broom and dustpan in the remaining pair. The bartender, a big man resembling the plumpish Harvey in build, was leaning negligently on the counter, ordering this impossible being to fill the partly-emptied bottles, squeeze fruit juice and sweep the floor, all of which the native did simultaneously.

"Nonsense," Harvey croaked uncertainly. "We have seen enough queer things to know there are always more."

He led the way inside. Through thirst-cracked lips he rasped: "Water—quick!"

Without a word, the bartender reached under the counter, brought out two glasses of water. The interplanetary con-men drank noisily, asked for more, until they had drunk eight glasses. Meanwhile, the bartender had taken out eight jiggers and filled them with whiskey.

Harvey and Joe were breathing hard from having gulped the water so fast, but they were beginning to revive. They noticed the bartender's impersonal eyes studying them shrewdly.

"Strangers, eh?" he asked at last.

"Solar salesmen, my colonial friend," Harvey answered in his usual lush manner. "We purvey that renowned Martian remedy, La-anago Yergis, the formula for which was recently discovered by ourselves in the ancient ruined city of La-anago. Medical science is unanimous in proclaiming this magic medicine the sole panacea in the entire history of therapeutics."

"Yeah?" said the bartender disinterestedly, polishing the chaser glasses without washing them. "Where you heading?"

"Out of Mars for Ganymede. Our condenser broke down, and we've gone without water for five ghastly days."

"Got a mechanic around this dumping ground you call a port?" Joe asked.

"We did. He came near starving and moved on to Titan. Ships don't land here unless they're in trouble."

"Then where's the water lead-in? We'll fill up and push off."

"Mayor takes care of that," replied the saloon owner. "If you gents're finished at the bar, your drinks'll be forty buckos."

Harvey grinned puzzledly. "We didn't take any whiskey."

"Might as well. Water's five buckos a glass. Liquor's free with every chaser."

Harvey's eyes bulged. Joe gulped. "That—that's robbery!" the lanky man managed to get out in a thin quaver.

The barkeeper shrugged. "When there ain't many customers, you gotta make more on each one. Besides—"

"Besides nothing!" Joe roared, finding his voice again. "You dirty crook—robbing poor spacemen! You—"

"You dirty crook!" Joe roared. "Robbing honest spacemen!"

Harvey nudged him warningly. "Easy, my boy, easy." He turned to the bartender apologetically. "Don't mind my friend. His adrenal glands are sometimes overactive. You were going to say—?"

The round face of the barkeeper had assumed an aggrieved expression.

"Folks are always thinkin' the other feller's out to do 'em," he said, shaking his head. "Lemme explain about the water here. It's bitter as some kinds of sin before it's purified. Have to bring it in with buckets and make it sweet. That takes time and labor. Waddya think—I was chargin' feller critters for water just out of devilment? I charge because I gotta."

"Friend," said Harvey, taking out a wallet and counting off eight five-bucko bills, "here is your money. What's fair is fair, and you have put a different complexion on what seemed at first to be an unconscionable interjection of a middleman between Nature and man's thirst."

The saloon man removed his dirty apron and came around the bar.

"If that's an apology, I accept it. Now the mayor'll discuss filling your tanks. That's me. I'm also justice of the peace, official recorder, fire chief...."

"And chief of police, no doubt," said Harvey jocosely.

"Nope. That's my son, Jed. Angus Johnson's my name. Folks here just call me Chief. I run this town, and run it right. How much water will you need?"

Joe estimated quickly. "About seventy-five liters, if we go on half rations," he answered. He waited apprehensively.

"Let's say ten buckos a liter," the mayor said. "On account of the quantity, I'm able to quote a bargain price. Shucks, boys, it hurts me more to charge for water than it does for you to pay. I just got to, that's all."

The mayor gestured to the native, who shuffled out to the tanks with them. The planetoid man worked the pump while the mayor intently watched the crude level-gauge, crying "Stop!" when it registered the proper amount. Then Johnson rubbed his thumb on his index finger and wetted his lips expectantly.

Harvey bravely counted off the bills. He asked: "But what are we to do about replenishing our battery fluid? Ten buckos a liter would be preposterous. We simply can't afford it."

Johnson's response almost floored them. "Who said anything about charging you for battery water? You can have all you want for nothing. It's just the purified stuff that comes so high."

After giving them directions that would take them to the free-water pool, the ponderous factotum of Planetoid 42 shook hands and headed back to the saloon. His six-armed assistant followed him inside.

"Now do you see, my hot-tempered colleague?" said Harvey as he and Joe picked up buckets that hung on the tank. "Johnson, as I saw instantly, is the victim of a difficult environment, and must charge accordingly."

"Just the same," Joe griped, "paying for water isn't something you can get used to in ten minutes."

In the fragile forest, they soon came across a stream that sprang from the igneous soil and splashed into the small pond whose contents, according to the mayor, was theirs for the asking. They filled their buckets and hauled them to the ship, then returned for more.

It was on the sixth trip that Joe caught a glimpse of Jupiter-shine on a bright surface off to the left. The figure, 750, with the bucko sign in front of it, was still doing acrobatics inside his skull and keeping a faint suspicion alive in him. So he called Harvey and they went to investigate.

Among the skimpy ground-crawling vines, they saw a long slender mound that was unmistakably a buried pipe.

"What's this doing here?" Harvey asked, puzzled. "I thought Johnson had to transport water in pails."

"Wonder where it leads to," Joe said uneasily.

"It leads to the saloon," said Harvey, his eyes rapidly tracing the pipe back toward the spaceport. "What I am concerned with is where it leads from."

Five minutes later, panting heavily from the unaccustomed exertion of scrambling through the tangle of planetorial undergrowth, they burst into the open—before a clear, sparkling pool.

Mutely, Harvey pointed out a pipe-end jutting under the water.

"I am growing suspicious," he said in a rigidly controlled voice.

But Joe was already on his knees, scooping up a handful of water and tasting it.

"Sweet!" he snarled.

They rushed back to the first pool, where Joe again tasted a sample. His mouth went wry. "Bitter! He uses only one pool, the sweet one! The only thing that needs purifying around here is that blasted mayor's conscience."

"The asteroidal Poobah has tricked us with a slick come-on," said Harvey slowly. His eyes grew cold. "Joseph, the good-natured artist in me has become a hard and merciless avenger. I shall not rest until we have had the best of this colonial con-man! Watch your cues from this point hence."

Fists clenched, the two returned to the saloon. But at the door they stopped and their fists unclenched.

"Thought you gents were leaving," the mayor called out, seeing them frozen in the doorway. "Glad you didn't. Now you can meet my son, Jed. Him and me are the whole Earthman population of Johnson City."

"You don't need any more," said Harvey, dismayed.

Johnson's eight-foot son, topped by a massive roof of sun-bleached hair and held up by a foundation that seemed immovable, had obviously been born and raised in low gravity. For any decent-sized world would have kept him down near the general dimensions of a man.

He held out an acre of palm. Harvey studied it worriedly, put his own hand somewhere on it, swallowed as it closed, then breathed again when his fingers were released in five units instead of a single compressed one.

"Pleased to meet you," piped a voice that had never known a dense atmosphere.

The pursuit of vengeance, Harvey realized, had taken a quick and unpleasant turn. Something shrewd was called for....

"Joseph!" he exclaimed, looking at his partner in alarm. "Don't you feel well?"

Even before the others could turn to him, Joe's practiced eyes were gently crossing. He sagged against the door frame, all his features drooping like a bloodhound's.

"Bring him in here!" Johnson cried. "I mean, get him away! He's coming down with asteroid fever!"

"Of course," replied Harvey calmly. "Any fool knows the first symptoms of the disease that once scourged the universe."

"What do you mean, once?" demanded Johnson. "I come down with it every year, and I ain't hankering to have it in an off-season. Get him out of here!"

"In good time. He can't be moved immediately."

"Then he'll be here for months!"

Harvey helped Joe to the counter and lifted him up on it. The mayor and his gigantic offspring were cowering across the room, trying to breathe in tiny, uncontaminating gasps.

"You'll find everything you want in the back room," Johnson said frantically, "sulfopyridine, mustard plasters, rubs, inhalers, suction cups—"

"Relics of the past," Harvey stated. "One medication is all modern man requires to combat the dread menace, asteroid fever."

"What's that?" asked the mayor without conviction.

Instead of replying, Harvey hurried outside to the ungainly second-hand rocket ship in the center of the shabby spaceport. He returned within a few minutes, carrying a bottle.

Joe was still stretched out on the bar, panting, his eyes slowly crossing and uncrossing. Harvey lifted the patient's head tenderly, put the bottle to his lips and tilted it until he was forced to drink. When Joe tried to pull away, Harvey was inexorable. He made his partner drink until most of the liquid was gone. Then he stepped back and waited for the inevitable result.

Joe's performance was better than ever. He lay supine for several moments, his face twisted into an expression that seemed doomed to perpetual wryness. Slowly, however, he sat up and his features straightened out.

"Are—are you all right?" asked the mayor anxiously.

"Much better," said Joe in a weak voice.

"Maybe you need another dose," Harvey suggested.

Joe recoiled. "I'm fine now!" he cried, and sprang off the bar to prove it.

Astonished, Johnson and his son drew closer. They searched Joe's face, and then the mayor timidly felt his pulse.

"Well, I'll be hanged!" Johnson ejaculated.

"La-anago Yergis never fails, my friend," Harvey explained. "By actual test, it conquers asteroid fever in from four to twenty-three minutes, depending on the severity of the attack. Luckily, we caught this one before it grew formidable."

The mayor's eyes became clouded mirrors of an inward conflict. "If you don't charge too much," he said warily, "I might think of buying some."

"We do not sell this unbelievable remedy," Harvey replied with dignity. "It sells itself."

"'Course, I'd expect a considerable reduction if I bought a whole case," said Johnson.

"That would be the smallest investment you could make, compared with the vast loss of time and strength the fever involves."

"How much?" asked the mayor unhappily.

"For you, since you have taken us in so hospitably, a mere five hundred buckos."

Johnson did not actually stagger back, but he gave the impression of doing so. "F-four hundred," he offered.

"Not a red cent less than four seventy-five," Harvey said flatly.

"Make it four fifty," quavered Johnson.

"I dislike haggling," said Harvey.

The final price, however, was four hundred and sixty-nine buckos and fifty redsents. Magnanimously, Harvey added: "And we will include, gratis, an elegant bottle-opener, a superb product of Mercurian handicraftsmanship."

Johnson stabbed out a warning finger. "No tricks now. I want a taste of that stuff. You're not switching some worthless junk on me."

Harvey took a glass from the bar and poured him a generous sample. The mayor sniffed it, grimaced, then threw it down his gullet. The ensuing minute saw a grim battle between a man and his stomach, a battle which the man gradually won.

"There ain't no words for that taste," he gulped when it was safe to talk again.

"Medicine," Harvey propounded, "should taste like medicine." To Joe he said: "Come, my esteemed colleague. We must perform the sacred task to which we have dedicated ourselves."

With Joe stumbling along behind, he left the saloon, crossed the clearing and entered the ship. As soon as they were inside, Joe dropped his murderous silence and cried:

"What kind of a dirty trick was that, giving me poison instead of that snake oil?"

"That was not poison," Harvey contradicted quietly. "It was La-anago Yergis extract, plus."

"Plus what—arsenic?"

"Now, Joseph! Consider my quandary when I came back here to manufacture our specific for all known ailments, with the intention of selling yonder asteroidal tin-horn a bill of medical goods—an entire case, mind you. Was I to mix the extract with the water for which we had been swindled to the tune of ten buckos a liter? Where would our profit have been, then? No; I had to use the bitter free water, of course."

"But why use it on me?" Joe demanded furiously.

Harvey looked reprovingly at his gangling partner. "Did Johnson ask to taste it, or did he not? One must look ahead, Joseph. I had to produce the same medicine that we will now manufacture. Thus, you were a guinea pig for a splendid cause."

"Okay, okay," Joe said. "But you shoulda charged him more."

"Joseph, I promise you that we shall get back every redsent of which that swindler cheated us, besides whatever other funds or valuables he possesses. We could not be content with less."

"Well, we're starting all right," admitted Joe. "How about that thing with six arms? He looks like a valuable. Can't we grab him off?"

Harvey stopped filling bottles and looked up pensively.

"I have every hope of luring away the profitable monstrosity. Apparently you have also surmised the fortune we could make with him. At first I purpose to exhibit him on our interplanetary tours with our streamlined panacea; he would be a spectacular attraction for bucolic suckers. Later, a brief period of demonstrating his abilities on the audio-visiphone. Then our triumph—we shall sell him at a stupendous figure to the zoo!"

Joe was still dazed by that monetary vista when he and Harvey carried the case of medicine to the saloon. The mayor had already cleared a place of honor in the cluttered back room, where he told them to put it down carefully. Then he took the elaborate bottle-opener Harvey gave him, reverently uncorked a bottle and sampled it. It must have been at least as good as the first; he gagged.

"That's the stuff, all right," he said, swallowing hard. He counted out the money into Harvey's hand, at a moderate rate that precariously balanced between his pleasure at getting the fever remedy and his pain at paying for it. Then he glanced out to see the position of Jupiter, and asked: "You gents eaten yet? The restaurant's open now."

Harvey and Joe looked at each other. They hadn't been thinking about food at all, but suddenly they realized that they were hungry.

"It's only water we were short of," Harvey said apprehensively. "We've got rations back at the ship."

"H-mph!" the mayor grunted. "Powdered concentrates. Compressed pap. Suit yourselves. We treat our stomachs better here. And you're welcome to our hospitality."

"Your hospitality," said Harvey, "depends on the prices you charge."

"Well, if that's what's worrying you, you can stop worrying," answered the mayor promptly. "What's more, the kind of dinner I serve here you can't get anywhere else for any price."

Swiftly, Harvey conned the possibilities of being bilked again. He saw none.

"Let's take a look at the menu, anyhow, Joe," he said guardedly.

Johnson immediately fell into the role of "mine host."

"Come right in, gents," he invited. "Right into the dining room."

He seated them at a table, which a rope tied between posts made more or less private, though nobody else was in the saloon and there was little chance of company.

Genius, the six-armed native, appeared from the dingy kitchen with two menus in one hand, two glasses of water in another, plus napkins, silverware, a pitcher, plates, saucers, cups, and their cocktails, which were on the house. Then he stood by for orders.

Harvey and Joe studied the menu critically. The prices were phenomenally low. When they glanced up at Johnson in perplexity, he grinned, bowed and asked: "Everything satisfactory, gents?"

"Quite," said Harvey. "We shall order."

For an hour they were served amazing dishes, both fresh and canned, the culinary wealth of this planetoid and all the system. And the service was as extraordinary as the meal itself. With four hands, Genius played deftly upon a pair of mellow Venusian viotars, using his other two hands for waiting on the table.

"We absolutely must purchase this incredible specimen," Harvey whispered excitedly when Johnson and the native were both in the kitchen, attending to the next course. "He would make any society hostess's season a riotous success, which should be worth a great sum to women like Mrs. van Schuyler-Morgan, merely for his hire."

"Think of a fast one fast," Joe agreed. "You're right."

"But I dislike having to revise my opinion of a man so often," complained Harvey. "I wish Johnson would stay either swindler or honest merchant. This dinner is worth as least twenty buckos, yet I estimate our check at a mere bucko twenty redsents."

The mayor's appearance prevented them from continuing the discussion.

"It's been a great honor, gents," he said. "Ain't often I have visitors, and I like the best, like you two gents."

As if on cue, Genius came out and put the check down between Joe and Harvey. Harvey picked it up negligently, but his casual air vanished in a yelp of horror.

"What the devil is this?" he shouted.—"How do you arrive at this fantastic, idiotic figure—three hundred and twenty-eight buckos!"

Johnson didn't answer. Neither did Genius; he simply put on the table, not a fingerbowl, but a magnifying glass. With one of his thirty fingers he pointed politely to the bottom of the menu.

Harvey focused on the microscopic print, and his face went pasty with rage. The minute note read: "Services and entertainment, 327 buckos 80 redsents."

"You can go to hell!" Joe growled. "We won't pay it!"

Johnson sighed ponderously. "I was afraid you'd act like that," he said with regret. He pulled a tin badge out of his rear pocket, pinned it on his vest, and twisted his holstered gun into view. "Afraid I'll have to ask the sheriff to take over."

Johnson, the "sheriff," collected the money, and Johnson, the "restaurateur," pocketed it. Meanwhile, Harvey tipped Joe the sign to remain calm.

"My friend," he said to the mayor, and his tones took on a schoolmasterish severity, "your long absence from Earth has perhaps made you forget those elements of human wisdom that have entered the folk-lore of your native planet. Such as, for example: 'It is folly to kill a goose that lays golden eggs,' and 'Penny wise is pound foolish.'"

"I don't get the connection," objected Johnson.

"Well, by obliging us to pay such a high price for your dinner, you put out of your reach the chance of profiting from a really substantial deal. My partner and I were prepared to make you a sizable offer for the peculiar creature you call Genius. But by reducing our funds the way you have—"

"Who said I wanted to sell him?" the mayor interrupted. He rubbed his fingers together and asked disinterestedly: "What were you going to offer, anyhow?"

"It doesn't matter any longer," Harvey said with elaborate carelessness. "Perhaps you wouldn't have accepted it, anyway."

"That's right," Johnson came back emphatically. "But what would your offer have been which I would have turned down?"

"Which one? The one we were going to make, or the one we can make now?"

"Either one. It don't make no difference. Genius is too valuable to sell."

"Oh, come now, Mr. Johnson. Don't tell me no amount of money would tempt you!"

"Nope. But how much did you say?"

"Ah, then you will consider releasing Genius!"

"Well, I'll tell you something," said the mayor confidentially. "When you've got one thing, you've got one thing. But when you've got money, it's the same as having a lot of things. Because, if you've got money, you can buy this and that and this and that and—"

"This and that," concluded Joe. "We'll give you five hundred buckos."

"Now, gents!" Johnson remonstrated. "Why, six hundred would hardly—"

"You haven't left us much money," Harvey put in.

The mayor frowned. "All right, we'll split the difference. Make it five-fifty."

Harvey was quick to pay out, for this was a genuine windfall. Then he stood up and admired the astonishing possession he had so inexpensively acquired.

"I really hate to deprive you of this unique creature," he said to Johnson. "I should imagine you will be rather lonely, with only your filial mammoth to keep you company."

"I sure will," Johnson confessed glumly. "I got pretty attached to Genius, and I'm going to miss him something awful."

Harvey forcibly removed his eyes from the native, who was clearing off the table almost all at once.

"My friend," he said, "we take your only solace, it is true, but in his place we can offer something no less amazing and instructive."

The mayor's hand went protectively to his pocket. "What is it?" he asked with the suspicion of a man who has seen human nature at its worst and expects nothing better.

"Joseph, get our most prized belonging from the communications room of the ship," Harvey instructed. To Johnson he explained: "You must see the wondrous instrument before its value can be appreciated. My partner will soon have it here for your astonishment."

Joe's face grew as glum as Johnson's had been. "Aw, Harv," he protested, "do we have to sell it? And right when I thought we were getting the key!"

"We must not be selfish, my boy," Harvey said nobly. "We have had our chance; now we must relinquish Fate to the hands of a man who might have more success than we. Go, Joseph. Bring it here."

Unwillingly, Joe turned and shuffled out.

On a larger and heavier world than Planetoid 42, Johnson's curiosity would probably have had weight and mass. He was bursting with questions, but he was obviously afraid they would cost him money. For his part, Harvey allowed that curiosity to grow like a Venusian amoeba until Joe came in, lugging a radio.

"Is that what you were talking about?" the mayor snorted. "What makes you think I want a radio? I came here to get away from singers and political speech-makers."

"Do not jump to hasty conclusions," Harvey cautioned. "Another word, and I shall refuse you the greatest opportunity any man has ever had, with the sole exceptions of Joseph, myself and the unfortunate inventor of this absolutely awe-inspiring device."

"I ain't in the market for a radio," Johnson said stubbornly.

Harvey nodded in relief. "We have attempted to repay our host, Joseph. He has spurned our generosity. We have now the chance to continue our study, which I am positive will soon reward us with the key to an enormous fortune."

"Well, that's no plating off our bow," Joe grunted. "I'm glad he did turn it down. I hated to give it up after working on it for three whole years."

He picked up the radio and began walking toward the door.

"Now, hold on!" the mayor cried. "I ain't saying I'll buy, but what is it I'm turning down?"

Joe returned and set the instrument down on the bar. His face sorrowful, Harvey fondly stroked the scarred plasticoid cabinet.

"To make a long story, Mr. Johnson," he said, "Joseph and I were among the chosen few who knew the famous Doctor Dean intimately. Just before his tragic death, you will recall, Dean allegedly went insane." He banged his fist on the bar. "I have said it before, and I repeat again, that was a malicious lie, spread by the doctor's enemies to discredit his greatest invention—this fourth dimensional radio!"

"This what?" Johnson blurted out.

"In simple terms," clarified Harvey, "the ingenious doctor discovered that the yawning chasm between the dimensions could be bridged by energy of all quanta. There has never been any question that the inhabitants of the super-dimension would be far more civilized than ourselves. Consequently, the man who could tap their knowledge would find himself in possession of a powerful, undreamt-of science!"

The mayor looked respectfully at the silent box on the bar.

"And this thing gets broadcasts from the fourth dimension?"

"It does, Mr. Johnson! Only charlatans like those who envied Doctor Dean's magnificent accomplishments could deny that fact."

The mayor put his hands in his pockets, unswiveled one hip and stared thoughtfully at the battered cabinet.

"Well, let's say it picks up fourth dimensional broadcasts," he conceded. "But how could you understand what they're saying? Folks up there wouldn't talk our language."

Again Harvey smashed his fist down. "Do you dare to repeat the scurvy lie that broke Dean's spirit and drove him to suicide?"

Johnson recoiled. "No—no, of course not. I mean, being up here, I naturally couldn't get all the details."

"Naturally," Harvey agreed, mollified. "I'm sorry I lost my temper. But it is a matter of record that the doctor proved the broadcasts emanating from the super-dimension were in English! Why should that be so difficult to believe? Is it impossible that at one time there was communication between the dimensions, that the super-beings admired our language and adopted it in all its beauty, adding to it their own hyper-scientific trimmings?"

"Why, I don't know," Johnson said in confusion.

"For three years, Joseph and I lost sleep and hair, trying to detect the simple key that would translate the somewhat metamorphosed broadcasts into our primitive English. It eluded us. Even the doctor failed. But that was understandable; a sensitive soul like his could stand only so much. And the combination of ridicule and failure to solve the mystery caused him to take his own life."

Johnson winced. "Is that what you want to unload on me?"

"For a very good reason, sir. Patience is the virtue that will be rewarded with the key to these fourth dimensional broadcasts. A man who could devote his life to improving this lonely worldlet is obviously a person with unusual patience."

"Yeah," the mayor said grudgingly, "I ain't exactly flighty."

"Therefore, you are the man who could unravel the problem!"

Johnson asked skeptically: "How about a sample first?"

Harvey turned a knob on the face of the scarred radio. After several squeals of spatial figures, a smooth voice began:

"There are omnious pleajes of moby-hailegs in sonmirand which, howgraismon, are notch to be donfured miss ellasellabell in either or both hagasanipaj, by all means. This does not refly, on the brother man, nat or mizzafil saces are denuded by this ossifaligo...."

Harvey switched off the set determinedly.

"Wait a minute!" Johnson begged. "I almost got it then!"

"I dislike being commercial," said Harvey, "but this astounding device still belongs to us. Would we not be foolish to let you discover the clue before purchasing the right to do so?"

The mayor nodded indecisively, looking at the radio with agonized longing. "How much do you want?" he asked unhappily.

"One thousand buckos, and no haggling. I am not in the mood."

Johnson opened his mouth to argue; then, seeing Harvey's set features, paid with the worst possible grace.

"Don't you think we ought to tell him about the batteries, Harv?" Joe asked.

"What about the batteries?" demanded Johnson with deadly calm.

"A very small matter," Harvey said airily. "You see, we have been analyzing these broadcasts for three years. In that time, of course, the batteries are bound to weaken. I estimate these should last not less than one Terrestrial month, at the very least."

"What do I do then?"

Harvey shrugged. "Special batteries are required, which I see Joseph has by chance brought along. For the batteries, the only ones of their kind left in the system, I ask only what they cost—one hundred and ninety-nine buckos, no more and, on the other hand, no less."

Johnson was breathing hard, and his hand hovered dangerously near his gun. But he paid the amount Harvey wanted.

Moreover, he actually shook hands when the two panacea purveyors collected their six-armed prize and said goodbye. Before they were outside, however, he had turned on the radio and was listening tensely to a woman's highly cultured, though rather angry voice, saying:

"Oh, you hannaforge are all beasa-taga-sanimort. If you rue amount it, how do you respench a pure woman to ansver go-samak—"

"I'll get it!" they heard Johnson mutter.

Then the sound of giant feet crossing the barroom floor reached their ears, and a shrill question: "What's that, Papa?"

"A fortune, Jed! Those fakers are damned fools, selling us a thing like—"

Joe gazed at Harvey admiringly. "Another one sold? Harv, that spiel pulls them in like an ether storm!"

Together with the remarkable planetoid man, they reached the ship. Above them, dark, tumbling shapes blotted out the stars and silently moved on. Joe opened the gangway door.

"Come on in, pal," he said to Genius. "We're shoving off."

The planetoid man grinned foolishly. "Can't go arong with you," he said with an apologetic manner. "I rike to, but pressure fratten me out if I go."

"What in solar blazes are you talking about?" Harvey asked.

"I grow up on pranetoid," Genius explained. "On big pranet, too much pressure for me."

The two salesmen looked narrowly at each other.

"Did Johnson know that when he sold you?" Joe snarled.

"Oh, sure." The silly grin became wider than ever. "Peopre from Earth buy me rots of times. I never reave pranetoid, though."

"Joseph," Harvey said ominously, "that slick colonist has put one over upon us. What is our customary procedure in that event?"

"We tear him apart," Joe replied between his teeth.

"Not Mister Johnson," advised Genius. "Have gun and badge. He shoot you first and then rock you up in prison."

Harvey paused, his ominous air vanishing. "True. There is also the fact, Joseph, that when he discovers the scrambled rectifier in the radio we sold him, he will have been paid back in full for his regrettable dishonesty."

Unwillingly, Joe agreed. While Genius retreated to a safe distance, they entered the ship and blasted off. Within a few minutes the automatic steering pilot had maneuvered them above the plane of the asteroid belt.

"I got kind of dizzy," Joe said, "there were so many deals back and forth. How much did we make on the sucker?"

"A goodly amount, I wager," Harvey responded. He took out a pencil and paper. "Medicine, 469.50; radio, 1,000; batteries, 199. Total—let's see—1668 buckos and 50 redsents. A goodly sum, as I told you."

He emptied his pockets of money, spread it out on the astrogation table and began counting. Finished, he looked up, troubled.

"How much did we have when we landed, Joseph?"

"Exactly 1668 buckos," Joe answered promptly.

"I can't understand it," said Harvey. "Instead of double our capital, we now have only 1668 buckos and 50 redsents!"

Feverishly, he returned to his pencil and paper.

"Drinking water, 790; battery water, free; meal, 328; planetoid man, 550. Total: 1668 buckos!" He stared at the figures. "We paid out almost as much as we took in," he said bitterly. "Despite our intensive efforts, we made the absurd sum of fifty redsents."

"Why, the dirty crook!" Joe growled.

But after a few moments of sad reflection, Harvey became philosophical. "Perhaps, Joseph, we are more fortunate than we realize. We were, after all, completely in Johnson's power. The more I ponder, the more I believe we were lucky to escape. And, anyhow, we did make fifty redsents on the swindler. A moral victory, my boy."

Joe, who had been sunk desparingly into a chair, now stood up slowly and asked: "Remember that bottle-opener we gave him?"

"Certainly," Harvey explained. "What about it?"

"How much did it cost us?"

Harvey's eyebrows puckered. Suddenly he started laughing. "You're right, Joseph. We paid forty-six redsents for it on Venus. So, after all that transacting of business, we made four redsents!"

"Four redsents, hell!" Joe snapped. "That was the sales tax!"

He glared; then a smile lifted his mouth. "You remember those yokels on Mars' Flatlands, and the way they worshipped gold?"

"Goldbricks!" Harvey said succinctly.

Grinning, Joe set the robot-controls for Mars.

End of the Project Gutenberg EBook of Grifters' Asteroid, by H. L. Gold


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