Blote brought the carrier in high over the Snithian Estate, dropped lower and descended gently through the roof. The pale, spectral servants moving about their duties in the upper hall failed to notice the wraith-like cage passing soundlessly among them.
In the dining room, Dan caught sight of the girl—Snithian's daughter, perhaps—arranging shadowy flowers on a sideboard.
"Let me take it," Dan whispered. Blote nodded. Dan steered for the kitchen, guided the carrier to the spot on which he had first emerged from the vault, then edged down through the floor. He brought the carrier to rest and neutralized all switches in a shower of sparks and blue light.
The vault door stood open. There were pictures stacked on the bunk now, against the wall, on the floor. Dan stepped from the carrier, went to the nearest heap of paintings. They had been dumped hastily, it seemed. They weren't even wrapped. He examined the topmost canvas, still in a heavy frame; as though, he reflected, it had just been removed from a gallery wall—
"Let's look around for Snithian," Dan said. "I want to talk to him."
"I suggest we investigate the upper floors, Dan. Doubtless his personal pad is there."
"You use the carrier; I'll go up and look the house over."
"As you wish, Dan." Blote and the carrier flickered and faded from view.
Dan stooped, picked up the pistol he had dropped in the scuffle with Fiorello and stepped out into the hall. All was silent. He climbed stairs, looked into rooms. The house seemed deserted. On the third floor he went along a corridor, checking each room. The last room on the west side was fitted as a study. There was a stack of paintings on a table near the door. Dan went to them, examined the top one.
It looked familiar. Wasn't it one that Look said was in the Art Institute at Chicago?
There was a creak as of an un-oiled hinge. Dan spun around. A door stood open at the far side of the room—a connecting door to a bedroom, probably.
"Keep well away from the carrier, Mr. Slane," a high thin voice said from the shadows. The tall, cloaked figure of W. Clyde Snithian stepped into view, a needle-barreled pistol in his hand.
"I thought you'd be back," he piped. "It makes my problem much simpler. If you hadn't appeared soon, it would have been necessary for me to shift the scene of my operations. That would have been a nuisance."
* * *
Dan eyed the gun. "There are a lot more paintings downstairs than there were when I left," he said. "I don't know much about art, but I recognize a few of them."
"Copies," Snithian snapped.
"This is no copy," Dan tapped the top painting on the stack. "It's an original. You can feel the brush-work."
"Not prints, of course. Copies." Snithian whinnied. "Exact copies."
"These paintings are stolen, Mr. Snithian. Why would a wealthy man like you take to stealing art?"
"I'm not here to answer questions, Mr. Slane!" The weapon in Snithian's hand bugged. A wave of pain swept over Dan. Snithian cackled, lowering the gun. "You'll soon learn better manners."
Dan's hand went to his pocket, came out holding the automatic. He aimed it at Snithian's face. The industrialist froze, eyes on Dan's gun.
"Drop the gun." Snithian's weapon clattered to the floor. "Now let's go and find Kelly."
"Wait!" Snithian shrilled. "I can make you a rich man, Slane."
"Not by stealing paintings."
"You don't understand. This is more than petty larceny!"
"That's right. It's grand larceny. These pictures are worth thousands."
"I can show you things that will completely change your attitude. Actually, I've acted throughout in the best interests of humanity!"
Dan gestured with the gun. "Don't plan anything clever. I'm not used to guns. This thing will go off at the least excuse, and then I'd have a murder to explain."
"That would be an inexcusable blunder on your part!" Snithian keened. "I'm a very important figure, Slane." He crossed the deep-pile rug to a glass-doored cabinet. "This," he said, taking out a flat black box, "contains a fortune in precious stones." He lifted the lid. Dan stepped closer. A row of brilliant red gems nestled in a bed of cotton.
"Flawless—and perfectly matched." Snithian whinnied. "Perfectly matched. Worth a fortune. They're yours, if you cooperate."
"You said you were going to change my attitude. Better get started."
* * *
"Listen to me, Slane. I'm not operating independently. I'm employed by the Ivroy, whose power is incalculable. My assignment has been to rescue from destruction irreplaceable works of art fated to be consumed in atomic fire."
"What do you mean—fated?"
"The Ivroy knows these things. These paintings—all your art—are unique in the galaxy. Others admire but they cannot emulate. In the cosmos of the far future, the few surviving treasures of dawn art will be valued beyond all other wealth. They alone will give a renewed glimpse of the universe as it appeared to the eyes of your strange race in its glory."
"My strange race?"
Snithian drew himself up. "I am not of your race." He threw his cloak aside and straightened.
Dan gaped as Snithian's body unfolded, rising up, long, three-jointed arms flexing, stretching out. The bald head ducked now under the beamed ceiling. Snithian chuckled shrilly.
"What about that inflexible attitude of yours, now, Mr. Slane?" he piped. "Have I made my point?"
"Yes, but—" Dan squeaked. He cleared his throat and tried again. "But I've still got the gun."
"Oh, that." An eight-foot arm snaked out, flicked the gun aside. "I've only temporized with you because you can be useful to me, Mr. Slane. I dislike running about, and I therefore employ locals to do my running for me. Accept my offer of employment, and you'll be richly rewarded."
"You already know of my presence here. If I can enlist your loyalty, there will be no need to dispose of you, with the attendant annoyance from police, relatives and busybodies. I'd like you to act as my agent in the collection of the works."
"Nuts to you!" Dan said. "I'm not helping any bunch of skinheads commit robbery."
"This is for the Ivroy, you fool!" Snithian said. "The mightiest power in the cosmos!"
"This Ivroy doesn't sound so hot to me—robbing art galleries—"
"To be adult is to be disillusioned. Only realities count. But no matter. The question remains: Will you serve me loyally?"
"Hell, no!" Dan snapped.
"Too bad. I see you mean what you say. It's to be expected, I suppose. Even an infant fire-cat has fangs."
"You're damn right I mean it. How did you get Manny and Fiorello on your payroll? I'm surprised even a couple of bums would go to work for a scavenger like you."
"I suppose you refer to the precious pair recruited by Blote. That was a mistake, I fear. It seemed perfectly reasonable at the time. Tell me, how did you overcome the Vegan? They're a very capable race, generally speaking."
"You and he work together, eh?" Dan said. "That makes things a little clearer. This is the collection station and Blote is the fence."
"Enough of your conjectures. You leave me no choice but to dispose of you. It's a nuisance, but it can't be helped. I'm afraid I'll have to ask you to accompany me down to the vault."
Dan eyed the door; if he were going to make a break, now was the time—
* * *
The whine of the carrier sounded. The ghostly cage glided through the wall and settled gently between Dan and Snithian. The glow died.
Blote waved cheerfully to Dan as he eased his grotesque bulk from the seat.
* * *
"Good day to you, Snithian," Blote boomed. "I see you've met Dan. An enterprising fellow."
"What brings you here, Gom Blote?" Snithian shrilled. "I thought you'd be well on your way to Vorplisch by now."
"I was tempted, Snithian. But I don't spook easy. There is the matter of some unfinished business."
"Excellent!" Snithian exclaimed. "I'll have another consignment ready for you by tomorrow."
"Tomorrow! How is it possible, with Manny and Fiorello lodged in the hoosegow?" Blote looked around; his eye fell on the stacked paintings. He moved across to them, lifted one, glanced at the next, then shuffled rapidly through the stack. He turned.
"What duplicity is this, Snithian!" he rumbled. "All identical! Our agreement called for limited editions, not mass production! My principals will be furious! My reputation—"
"Shrivel your reputation!" Snithian keened. "I have more serious problems at the moment! My entire position's been compromised. I'm faced with the necessity for disposing of this blundering fool!"
"Dan? Why, I'm afraid I can't allow that, Snithian." Blote moved to the carrier, dumped an armful of duplicate paintings in the cage. "Evidence," he said. "The confederation has methods for dealing with sharp practice. Come, Dan, if you're ready...."
"You dare to cross me?" Snithian hissed. "I, who act for the Ivroy?"
Blote motioned to the carrier. "Get in, Dan. We'll be going now." He rolled both eyes to bear on Snithian. "And I'll deal with you later," he rumbled. "No one pulls a fast one on Gom Blote, Trader Fourth Class—or on the Vegan Federation."
Snithian moved suddenly, flicking out a spidery arm to seize the weapon he had dropped, aim and trigger. Dan, in a wash of pain, felt his knees fold. He fell slackly to the floor. Beside him, Blote sagged, his tentacles limp.
"I credited you with more intelligence," Snithian cackled. "Now I have an extra ton of protoplasm to dispose of. The carrier will be useful in that connection."