Clyde W. Snithian was a bald eagle of a man, dark-eyed, pot-bellied, with the large, expressive hands of a rug merchant. Round-shouldered in a loose cloak, he blinked small reddish eyes at Dan Slane's travel-stained six foot one.
"Kelly here tells me you've been demanding to see me." He nodded toward the florid man at his side. He had a high, thin voice, like something that needed oiling. "Something about important information regarding safeguarding my paintings."
"That's right, Mr. Snithian," Dan said. "I believe I can be of great help to you."
"Help how? If you've got ideas of bilking me...." The red eyes bored into Dan like hot pokers.
"Nothing like that, sir. Now, I know you have quite a system of guards here—the papers are full of it—"
"Damned busybodies! Sensation-mongers! If it wasn't for the press, I'd have no concern for my paintings today!"
"Yes sir. But my point is, the one really important spot has been left unguarded."
"Now, wait a minute—" Kelly started.
"What's that?" Snithian cut in.
"You have a hundred and fifty men guarding the house and grounds day and night—"
"Two hundred and twenty-five," Kelly snapped.
"—but no one at all in the vault with the paintings," Slane finished.
"Of course not," Snithian shrilled. "Why should I post a man in the vault? It's under constant surveillance from the corridor outside."
"The Harriman paintings were removed from a locked vault," Dan said. "There was a special seal on the door. It wasn't broken."
"By the saints, he's right," Kelly exclaimed. "Maybe we ought to have a man in that vault."
"Another idiotic scheme to waste my money," Snithian snapped. "I've made you responsible for security here, Kelly! Let's have no more nonsense. And throw this nincompoop out!" Snithian turned and stalked away, his cloak flapping at his knees.
"I'll work cheap," Dan called after him as Kelly took his arm. "I'm an art lover."
"Never mind that," Kelly said, escorting Dan along the corridor. He turned in at an office and closed the door.
"Now, as the old buzzard said, I'm responsible for security here. If those pictures go, my job goes with them. Your vault idea's not bad. Just how cheap would you work?"
"A hundred dollars a week," Dan said promptly. "Plus expenses," he added.
Kelly nodded. "I'll fingerprint you and run a fast agency check. If you're clean, I'll put you on, starting tonight. But keep it quiet."
* * *
Dan looked around at the gray walls, with shelves stacked to the low ceiling with wrapped paintings. Two three-hundred-watt bulbs shed a white glare over the tile floor, a neat white refrigerator, a bunk, an arm-chair, a bookshelf and a small table set with paper plates, plastic utensils and a portable radio—all hastily installed at Kelly's order. Dan opened the refrigerator, looked over the stock of salami, liverwurst, cheese and beer. He opened a loaf of bread, built up a well-filled sandwich, keyed open a can of beer.
It wasn't fancy, but it would do. Phase one of the plan had gone off without a hitch.
Basically, his idea was simple. Art collections had been disappearing from closely guarded galleries and homes all over the world. It was obvious that no one could enter a locked vault, remove a stack of large canvases and leave, unnoticed by watchful guards—and leaving the locks undamaged.
Yet the paintings were gone. Someone had been in those vaults—someone who hadn't entered in the usual way.
Theory failed at that point; that left the experimental method. The Snithian collection was the largest west of the Mississippi. With such a target, the thieves were bound to show up. If Dan sat in the vault—day and night—waiting—he would see for himself how they operated.
He finished his sandwich, went to the shelves and pulled down one of the brown-paper bundles. Loosening the string binding the package, he slid a painting into view. It was a gaily colored view of an open-air cafe, with a group of men and women in gay-ninetyish costumes gathered at a table. He seemed to remember reading something about it in a magazine. It was a cheerful scene; Dan liked it. Still, it hardly seemed worth all the effort....
He went to the wall switch and turned off the lights. The orange glow of the filaments died, leaving only a faint illumination from the night-light over the door. When the thieves arrived, it might give him a momentary advantage if his eyes were adjusted to the dark. He groped his way to the bunk.
So far, so good, he reflected, stretching out. When they showed up, he'd have to handle everything just right. If he scared them off there'd be no second chance. He would have lost his crack at—whatever his discovery might mean to him.
But he was ready. Let them come.
* * *
Eight hours, three sandwiches and six beers later, Dan roused suddenly from a light doze and sat up on the cot. Between him and the crowded shelving, a palely luminous framework was materializing in mid-air.
The apparition was an open-work cage—about the size and shape of an out-house minus the sheathing, Dan estimated breathlessly. Two figures were visible within the structure, sitting stiffly in contoured chairs. They glowed, if anything, more brightly than the framework.
A faint sound cut into the stillness—a descending whine. The cage moved jerkily, settling toward the floor. Long blue sparks jumped, crackling, to span the closing gap; with a grate of metal, the cage settled against the floor. The spectral men reached for ghostly switches....
The glow died.
Dan was aware of his heart thumping painfully under his ribs. His mouth was dry. This was the moment he'd been planning for, but now that it was here—
Never mind. He took a deep breath, ran over the speeches he had prepared for the occasion:
Greeting, visitors from the Future....
Hopelessly corny. What about: Welcome to the Twentieth Century....
No good; it lacked spontaneity. The men were rising, their backs to Dan, stepping out of the skeletal frame. In the dim light it now looked like nothing more than a rough frame built of steel pipe, with a cluster of levers in a console before the two seats. And the thieves looked ordinary enough: Two men in gray coveralls, one slender and balding, the other shorter and round-faced. Neither of them noticed Dan, sitting rigid on the cot. The thin man placed a lantern on the table, twiddled a knob. A warm light sprang up. The visitors looked at the stacked shelves.
"Looks like the old boy's been doing all right," the shorter man said. "Fathead's gonna be pleased."
"A very gratifying consignment," his companion said. "However, we'd best hurry, Manny. How much time have we left on this charge?"
"Plenty. Fifteen minutes anyway."
The thin man opened a package, glanced at a painting.
"Ah, magnificent. Almost the equal of Picasso in his puce period."
Manny shuffled through the other pictures in the stack.
"Like always," he grumbled. "No nood dames. I like nood dames."
"Look at this, Manny! The textures alone—"
Manny looked. "Yeah, nice use of values," he conceded. "But I still prefer nood dames, Fiorello."
"And this!" Fiorello lifted the next painting. "Look at that gay play of rich browns!"
"I seen richer browns on Thirty-third Street," Manny said. "They was popular with the sparrows."
"Manny, sometimes I think your aspirations—"
"Whatta ya talkin? I use a roll-on." Manny, turning to place a painting in the cage, stopped dead as he caught sight of Dan. The painting clattered to the floor. Dan stood, cleared his throat. "Uh...."
"Oh-oh," Manny said. "A double-cross."
"I've—ah—been expecting you gentlemen," Dan said. "I—"
"I told you we couldn't trust no guy with nine fingers on each hand," Manny whispered hoarsely. He moved toward the cage. "Let's blow, Fiorello."
"Wait a minute," Dan said. "Before you do anything hasty—"
"Don't start nothing, Buster," Manny said cautiously. "We're plenty tough guys when aroused."
"I want to talk to you," Dan insisted. "You see, these paintings—"
"Paintings? Look, it was all a mistake. Like, we figured this was the gent's room—"
"Never mind, Manny," Fiorello cut in. "It appears there's been a leak."
Dan shook his head. "No leak. I simply deduced—"
"Look, Fiorello," Manny said. "You chin if you want to; I'm doing a fast fade."
"Don't act hastily, Manny. You know where you'll end."
"Wait a minute!" Dan shouted. "I'd like to make a deal with you fellows."
"Ah-hah!" Kelly's voice blared from somewhere. "I knew it! Slane, you crook!"
* * *
Dan looked about wildly. The voice seemed to be issuing from a speaker. It appeared Kelly hedged his bets.
"Mr. Kelly, I can explain everything!" Dan called. He turned back to Fiorello. "Listen, I figured out—"
"Pretty clever!" Kelly's voice barked. "Inside job. But it takes more than the likes of you to out-fox an old-timer like Eddie Kelly."
"Perhaps you were right, Manny," Fiorello said. "Complications are arising. We'd best depart with all deliberate haste." He edged toward the cage.
"What about this ginzo?" Manny jerked a thumb toward Dan. "He's on to us."
"Can't be helped."
"Look—I want to go with you!" Dan shouted.
"I'll bet you do!" Kelly's voice roared. "One more minute and I'll have the door open and collar the lot of you! Came up through a tunnel, did you?"
"You can't go, my dear fellow," Fiorello said. "Room for two, no more."
Dan whirled to the cot, grabbed up the pistol Kelly had supplied. He aimed it at Manny. "You stay here, Manny! I'm going with Fiorello in the time machine."
"Are you nuts?" Manny demanded.
"I'm flattered, dear boy," Fiorello said, "but—"
"Let's get moving. Kelly will have that lock open in a minute."
"You can't leave me here!" Manny spluttered, watching Dan crowd into the cage beside Fiorello.
"We'll send for you," Dan said. "Let's go, Fiorello."
The balding man snatched suddenly for the gun. Dan wrestled with him. The pistol fell, bounced on the floor of the cage, skidded into the far corner of the vault. Manny charged, reaching for Dan as he twisted aside; Fiorello's elbow caught him in the mouth. Manny staggered back into the arms of Kelly, bursting red-faced into the vault.
"Manny!" Fiorello released his grip on Dan, lunged to aid his companion. Kelly passed Manny to one of three cops crowding in on his heels. Dan clung to the framework as Fiorello grappled with Kelly. A cop pushed past them, spotted Dan, moved in briskly for the pinch. Dan grabbed a lever at random and pulled.
Sudden silence fell as the walls of the room glowed blue. A spectral Kelly capered before the cage, fluorescing in the blue-violet. Dan swallowed hard and nudged a second lever. The cage sank like an elevator into the floor, vivid blue washing up its sides.
Hastily he reversed the control. Operating a time machine was tricky business. One little slip, and the Slane molecules would be squeezing in among brick and mortar particles....
But this was no time to be cautious. Things hadn't turned out just the way he'd planned, but after all, this was what he'd wanted—in a way. The time machine was his to command. And if he gave up now and crawled back into the vault, Kelly would gather him in and pin every art theft of the past decade on him.
It couldn't be too hard. He'd take it slowly, figure out the controls....
* * *
Dan took a deep breath and tried another lever. The cage rose gently, in eerie silence. It reached the ceiling and kept going. Dan gritted his teeth as an eight-inch band of luminescence passed down the cage. Then he was emerging into a spacious kitchen. A blue-haloed cook waddled to a luminous refrigerator, caught sight of Dan rising slowly from the floor, stumbled back, mouth open. The cage rose, penetrated a second ceiling. Dan looked around at a carpeted hall.
Cautiously he neutralized the control lever. The cage came to rest an inch above the floor. As far as Dan could tell, he hadn't traveled so much as a minute into the past or future.
He looked over the controls. There should be one labeled "Forward" and another labeled "Back", but all the levers were plain, unadorned black. They looked, Dan decided, like ordinary circuit-breaker type knife-switches. In fact, the whole apparatus had the appearance of something thrown together hastily from common materials. Still, it worked. So far he had only found the controls for maneuvering in the usual three dimensions, but the time switch was bound to be here somewhere....
Dan looked up at a movement at the far end of the hall.
A girl's head and shoulders appeared, coming up a spiral staircase. In another second she would see him, and give the alarm—and Dan needed a few moments of peace and quiet in which to figure out the controls. He moved a lever. The cage drifted smoothly sideways, sliced through the wall with a flurry of vivid blue light. Dan pushed the lever back. He was in a bedroom now, a wide chamber with flouncy curtains, a four-poster under a flowered canopy, a dressing table—
The door opened and the girl stepped into the room. She was young. Not over eighteen, Dan thought—as nearly as he could tell with the blue light playing around her face. She had long hair tied with a ribbon, and long legs, neatly curved. She wore shorts and carried a tennis racquet in her left hand and an apple in her right. Her back to Dan and the cage, she tossed the racquet on a table, took a bite of the apple, and began briskly unbuttoning her shirt.
Dan tried moving a lever. The cage edged toward the girl. Another; he rose gently. The girl tossed the shirt onto a chair and undid the zipper down the side of the shorts. Another lever; the cage shot toward the outer wall as the girl reached behind her back....
Dan blinked at the flash of blue and looked down. He was hovering twenty feet above a clipped lawn.
He looked at the levers. Wasn't it the first one in line that moved the cage ahead? He tried it, shot forward ten feet. Below, a man stepped out on the terrace, lit a cigarette, paused, started to turn his face up—
Dan jabbed at a lever. The cage shot back through the wall. He was in a plain room with a depression in the floor, a wide window with a planter filled with glowing blue plants—
The door opened. Even blue, the girl looked graceful as a deer as she took a last bite of the apple and stepped into the ten-foot-square sunken tub. Dan held his breath. The girl tossed the apple core aside, seemed to suddenly become aware of eyes on her, whirled—
With a sudden lurch that threw Dan against the steel bars, the cage shot through the wall into the open air and hurtled off with an acceleration that kept him pinned, helpless. He groped for the controls, hauled at a lever. There was no change. The cage rushed on, rising higher. In the distance, Dan saw the skyline of a town, approaching with frightful speed. A tall office building reared up fifteen stories high. He was headed dead for it—
He covered his ears, braced himself—
With an abruptness that flung him against the opposite side of the cage, the machine braked, shot through the wall and slammed to a stop. Dan sank to the floor of the cage, breathing hard. There was a loud click! and the glow faded.
With a lunge, Dan scrambled out of the cage. He stood looking around at a simple brown-painted office, dimly lit by sunlight filtered through elaborate venetian blinds. There were posters on the wall, a potted plant by the door, a heap of framed paintings beside it, and at the far side of the room a desk. And behind the desk—Something.