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The Cat Who Walked Through Walls

Robert A. Heinlein

  The Cat Who Walked Through Walls

  Robert A. Heinlein

  Robert A. Heinlein

  The Cat Who Walked Through Walls

  BOOK one - Indifferent Honest


  "Whatever you do, you'll regret it."

  ALLAN McLEOD GRAY 1905-1975

  "We need you to kill a man."

  This stranger glanced nervously around us. I feel that a crowded restaurant is no place for such talk, as a high noise level gives only limited privacy.

  I shook my head. "I'm not an assassin. Killing is more of a hobby with me. Have you had dinner?"

  "I'm not here to eat. Just let me-"

  "Oh, come now. I insist." He had annoyed me by interrupting an evening with a delightful lady; I was paying him back in kind. It does not do to encourage bad manners; one should retaliate, urbanely but firmly.

  That lady, Gwen Novak, had expressed a wish to spend a penny and had left the table, whereupon Herr Nameless had materialized and sat down uninvited. I had been about to tell him to leave when he mentioned a name. Walker Evans.

  There is no "Walker Evans."

  Instead, that name is or should be a message from one of six people, five men, one woman, a code to remind me of a debt. It is conceivable that an installment payment on that ancient debt could require me to kill someone-possible but unlikely.

  But it was not conceivable that I would kill at the behest of a stranger merely because he invoked that name.

  While I felt obliged to listen, I did not intend to let him ruin my evening. Since he was sitting at my table, he could bloody well behave like an invited guest. "Sir, if you don't want a full dinner, try the after-theater suggestions. The lapin ragout on toast may be rat rather than rabbit but this chef makes it taste like ambrosia."

  "But I don't want-"

  "Please." I looked up, caught my waiter's eye. "Morris."

  Morris was at my elbow at once. "Three orders of lapin ragout, please. Moms, and ask Hans to select a dry white wine for me."

  "Yes, Dr. Ames."

  "Don't serve until the lady returns, if you please."

  "Certainly, sir."

  I waited until the waiter had moved away. "My guest will be returning soon. You have a brief time to explain yourself in private. Please start by telling me your name."

  "My name isn't important. I-"

  "Come, sir! Your name. Please."

  "I was told simply to say 'Walker Evans.'"

  "Good as far as it goes. But your name is not Walker Evans and I do not traffic with a man who won't give his name. Tell me who you are, and it would be well to have an ID that matches your words."

  "But- Colonel, it's far more urgent to explain who must die and why you are the man who must kill him! You must admit that!"

  "I don't have to admit anything. Your name, sir! And your ID. And please do not call me 'Colonel'; I am Dr. Ames." I had to raise my voice not to be drowned out by a roll of drums;

  the late evening show was starting. The lights lowered and a spotlight picked out the master of ceremonies.

  "All right, all right!" My uninvited guest reached into a pocket, pulled out a wallet. "But Tolliver must die by noon Sunday or we'll all be dead!"

  He flipped open the wallet to show me an ID. A small dark spot appeared on his white shirt front. He looked startled, then said softly, "I'm very sorry," and leaned forward. He seemed to be trying to add something but blood gushed from his mouth. His head settled down onto the tablecloth.

  I was up out of my chair at once and around to his right side. Almost as swiftly Moms was at his left side. Perhaps Morris was trying to help him; I was not-it was too late. A four-millimeter dart makes a small entry hole and no exit wound;

  it explodes inside the body. When the wound is in the torso, death follows abruptly. What I was doing was searching the crowd-that and one minor chore.

  While I was trying to spot the killer, Morris was joined by the headwaiter and a busman. The three moved with such speed and efficiency that one would have thought that having a guest killed at a table was something they coped with nightly. They removed the corpse with the dispatch and unobtrusiveness of Chinese stagehands; a fourth man flipped up the tablecloth, removed it and the silver, was back at once with a fresh cloth, and laid two places.

  I sat back down. I had not been able to spot a probable killer; I did not even note anyone displaying a curious lack of curiosity about the trouble at my table. People had stared, but when the body was gone, they quit staring and gave attention to the show. There were no screams or expressions of horror;

  it seemed as if those who had noticed it thought that they were seeing a customer suddenly ill or possibly taken by drink.

  The dead man's wallet now rested in my left jacket pocket.

  When Gwen Novak returned I stood up again, held her chair for her. She smiled her thanks and asked, "What have I missed?"

  "Not much. Jokes old before you were born. Others that were old even before Neil Armstrong was bom."

  "I like old jokes, Richard. With them I know when to laugh."

  "You've come to the right place."

  I too like old jokes; I like all sorts of old things-old friends, old books, old poems, old plays. An old favorite had started our evening: Midsummer Night's Dream presented by Halifax Ballet Theater with Luanna Pauline as Titania. Low-gravity ballet, live actors, and magical holograms had created a fairyland Will Shakespeare would have loved. Newness is no virtue.

  Shortly music drowned out our host's well-aged wit; the chorus line undulated out onto the dance floor, sensuously graceful in half gravity. The ragout arrived and with it the wine. After we had eaten Gwen asked me to dance. I have this trick leg but at half gee I can manage the classic slow dances- waltz, frottage glide, tango, and so forth. Gwen is a warm, live, fragrant bundle; dancing with her is a Sybaritic treat.

  It was a gay ending to a happy evening. There was still the matter of the stranger who had had the bad taste to get himself killed at my table. But, since Gwen seemed not to be aware of the unpleasant incident, I had tabled it in my mind, to be dealt with later. To be sure I was ready any moment for that tap on the shoulder... but in the meantime I enjoyed good food, good wine, good company. Life is filled with tragedy;

  if you let it overwhelm you, you cannot enjoy life's innocent pleasures.

  Gwen knows that my leg won't take much dancing; at the first break in the music she led us back to our table. I signaled Morris for the check. He produced it out of midair; I dialed my credit code into it, set it for standard gratuity plus half, added my thumbprint.

  Morris thanked me. "A nightcap, sir? Or a brandy? Perhaps the lady would enjoy a liqueur? Compliments of Rainbow's End." The owner of the restaurant, an ancient Egyptian, believed in good measure-at least to his regulars; I'm not sure how tourists from dirtside were treated.

  "Gwen?" I queried, expecting her to refuse-Gwen's drinking is limited to one glass of wine at meals. One.

  "A Cointreau would be pleasant. I would like to stay and listen to the music a while."

  "Cointreau for the lady," Morris noted. "Doctor?"

  "Mary's Tears and a glass of water, please. Moms."

  When Morris left, Gwen said quietly, "I needed time to speak with you, Richard. Do you want to sleep at my place tonight? Don't be skittish; you can sleep alone."

  "I am not all that fond of sleeping alone." I clicked over the possibilities in my mind. She had ordered a drink she did not want in order to make me an offer that did not fit. Gwen is a forthright person; I felt that had she wished to sleep with me she would have said so-she would not have played getaway-closer about it.

  Therefore she had invited
me to sleep in her compartment because she thought it to be unwise or unsafe for me to sleep in my own bed. Therefore-

  "You saw it."

  "From a distance. So I waited until things quieted down before returning to the table. Richard, I'm not sure what happened. But if you need a place to lie doggo-be my guest!"

  "Why, thank you, my dear!" A friend who offers help without asking for explanations is a treasure beyond price. "Whether I accept or not, I am in your debt. Mmm, Gwen, I too am unsure what happened. The total stranger who gets himself killed while he's trying to tell you something- A clich6, a tired cliche. If I plotted a story that way today, my guild would disown me." I smiled at her. "In its classic form you would turn out to be the killer... a fact that would develop slowly while you pretended to help me search. The sophisticated reader would know from chapter one that you did it, but I, as the detective, would never guess what was as plain as the nose on your face. Correction: on my face."

  "Oh, my nose is plain enough; it's my mouth that men remember. Richard, I am not going to help you hang this on me; I simply offered you a hideout. Was he really killed? I couldn't be sure."

  "Eh?" I was saved from answering too quickly by Morris's arrival with our liqueurs. When he left, I answered, "I had not thought about any other possibility. Gwen, he was not wounded. Either he was killed almost instantly... or it was faked. Could it be faked? Certainly. If shown on holo, it could be done in real time with only minor props." I mulled it over. Why had the restaurant staff been so quick, so precise, in covering it up? Why had I not felt that tap on the shoulder? "Gwen, I'll take you up on that offer. If the proctors want me, they'll find me. But I would like to discuss this with you in greater detail than we can manage here, no matter how carefully we keep our voices down."

  "Good." She stood up. "I won't be long, dear." She headed for the lounges.

  As I stood up Morris handed me my stick and I leaned on it as I followed her toward the lounges. I don't actually have to use a cane-I can even dance, as you know-but using a cane keeps my bad leg from getting too tired.

  When I came out of the gentlemen's lounge, I placed myself in the foyer, and waited.

  And waited.

  Having waited long past what is reasonable I sought out the maitre d'h6tel. 'Tony, could you please have some female member of your staff check the ladies' lounge for Mistress Novak? I think that it is possible that she may have become ill, or be in some difficulty."

  "Your guest. Dr. Ames?"


  "But she left twenty minutes ago. I ushered her out myself."

  "So? I must have misunderstood her. Thank you, and good night."

  "Good night. Doctor. We look forward to serving you again."

  I left Rainbow's End, stood for a moment in the public corridor outside it-ring thirty, half-gravity level, just clockwise from radius two-seventy at Petticoat Lane, a busy neighborhood even at one in the morning. I checked for proctors waiting for me, halfway expecting to find Gwen already in custody.

  Nothing of the son. A steady flow of people, mostly groundhogs on holiday by their dress and behavior, plus pullers for grimp shops, guides and ganders, pickpockets and priests. Golden Rule habitat is known systemwide as the place where anything is for sale and Petticoat Lane helps to support that reputation insofar as fleshpots are concerned. For more sober enterprises you need only go clockwise ninety degrees to Threadneedle Street.

  No sign of proctors, no sign of Gwen.

  She had promised to meet me at the exit. Or had she? No, not quite. Her exact words were, "I won't be long, dear." I had inferred that she expected to find me at the restaurant's exit to the street.

  I've heard all the old chestnuts about women and weather, La donna e mobile, and so forth-I believe none of them. Gwen had not suddenly changed her mind. For some reason- some good reason-she had gone on without me and now would expect me to join her at her home.

  Or so I told myself.

  If she had taken a scooter, she was there already; if she had walked, she would be there soon-Tony had said, 'Twenty minutes ago." There is a scooter booth at the intersection of ring thirty and Petticoat Lane. I found an empty, punched in ring one-oh-five, radius one-thirty-five, six-tenths gravity, which would take me as close as one can get by public scooter to Gwen's compartment.

  Gwen lives in Gretna Green, just off Appian Way where it crosses the Yellow Brick Road-which means nothing to anyone who has never visited Golden Rule habitat. Some public relations "expert" had decided that habitants would feel more at home if surrounded by place names familiar from dirtside. There is even (don't retch) a "House at Pooh Comer." What I punched in were coordinates of the main cylinder: 105, 135, 0.6.

  The scooter's brain, off somewhere near ring ten, accepted those coordinates and waited; I punched in my credit code and took position, crouched against acceleration pads.

  That idiot brain took an insultingly long time to decide that my credit was good-then placed a web around me, tightened it, closed the capsule and whuff'! bing! barn! we were on our way... then a fast float for three kilometers from ring thirty to ring one-oh-five, then barn! bing! whuff! I was in Gretna Green. The scooter opened.

  For me such service is well worth the fare. But the Manager had been warning us the past two years that the system does not pay its way; either use it more or pay more per trip, or the hardware will be salvaged and the space rented out. I hope they work out a solution; some people need this service. (Yes, I know; Laffer theory will always give two solutions to such a problem, a high and a low-except where the theory states that both solutions are the same... and imaginary. Which might apply here. It may be that a scooter system is too expensive for a space habitat at the present state of engineering art.)

  It was an easy walk to Gwen's compartment: downstairs to seven-tenths gravity, fifty meters "forward" to her number-I rang.

  Her door answered, "This is the recorded voice of Gwen Novak. I've gone to bed and am, I hope, happily asleep. If your visit is truly an emergency, deposit one hundred crowns via your credit code. If I agree that waking me is justified, I will return your money. If I disagree-laugh, chortle, chuckle!- I'll spend it on gin and keep you out anyhow. If your call is not an emergency, please record a message at the sound of my scream."

  This was followed by a high scream which ended abruptly as if a hapless wench had been choked to death.

  Was this an emergency? Was it a hundred-crown emergency? I decided that it was not any sort of emergency, so I recorded:

  "Dear Gwen, this is your fairly-faithful swain Richard speaking. Somehow we got our wires crossed. But we can straighten it out in the morning. Will you call me at my digs when you wake up? Love and kisses, Richard the Lion-Hearted."

  I tried to keep my not-inconsiderable irk out of my voice. I felt badly used but underlying it was a conviction that Gwen would not intentionally mistreat me; it had to be an honest mixup even though I did not now understand it.

  Then I went home whuff! bing! barn!... barn! bing! whuff!

  I have a deluxe compartment with bedroom separate from the living room. I let myself in, checked for messages in the terminal-none-set it for sleep conditions both for door and terminal, hung up my cane, and went into the bedroom.

  Gwen was asleep in my bed.

  She looked sweetly peaceful. I backed out quietly, moved noiselessly in undressing, went into the 'fresher, closed the door-soundproof; I said it was a deluxe setup. Nevertheless I made as little noise as possible in refreshing myself for bed, as "soundproof" is a hope rather than a certainty. When I was as sanitary and odorless as a male hairless ape can manage short of surgery, I went quietly back into my bedroom and got most cautiously into bed. Gwen stirred, did not wake.

  At some hour when I was awake in the night, I switched off the alarm. But I woke up about my usual time, as my bladder can't be switched off. So I got up, took care of it, refreshed for the day, decided that I wanted to live, slid into a coverall, went silently into the living room, a
nd opened the buttery, considered my larder. A special guest called for a special breakfast.

  I left the connecting door open so that I could keep an eye on Gwen. I think it was the aroma of coffee that woke her.

  When I saw that her eyes were open, I called out, "Good morning, beautiful. Get up and brush your teeth; breakfast is ready."

  "I did brush my teeth, an hour ago. Come back to bed."

  "Nymphomaniac. Orange juice or black cherries or both?"

  "Uh... both. Don't change the subject. Come here and meet your fate like a man."

  "Eat first."

  "Coward. Richard is a sissy, Richard is a sissy!"

  "An utter coward. How many waffles can you eat?"

  "Uh ... decisions! Can't you unfreeze them one at a time?"

  "These are not frozen. Only minutes ago they were alive and singing; I killed 'em and skun 'em myself. Speak up, or I'll eat all of them."

  "Oh, the pity and the shame of it all!-turned down for waffles. Nothing left but to enter a monastery. Two."

  "Three. You mean 'nunnery.'"

  "I know what I mean." She got up, went into the refresher, was out quickly, wearing one of my robes. Pleasant bits of Gwen stuck out here and there. I handed her a glass of juice;

  she paused to gulp twice before she spoke. "Gurgle, gurgle. My, that's good. Richard, when we're married, are you going to get breakfast for me every morning?"

  "That inquiry contains implied assumptions I am not willing to stipulate-"

  "After I trusted you and gave all!"

  "-but, without stipulation, I will concede that I would just as lief get breakfast for two as for one. Why do you assume that I'm going to marry you? What inducements do you offer? Are you ready for a waffle?"

  "See here, mister, not all men are fussy about marrying grandmothers! I've had offers. Yes, I'm ready for a waffle."

  "Pass your plate." I grinned at her. "'Grandmother' my missing foot. Not even if you had started your first child at menarche, then your offspring had whelped just as promptly."