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*** START OF THIS PROJECT GUTENBERG EBOOK VIGORISH *** Produced by Greg Weeks, Bruce Albrecht, Mary Meehan and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team at http://www.pgdp.net VIGORISH By WALTER BUPP Illustrated by Petrizzo

[Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from Astounding Science Fiction June 1960. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]

If it "takes a thief to catch a thief" ... what does it take to catch a psi-gifted thief?

What do you hate and fear the most? I know a girl who gags and throws up at the mere sight of a bird. Poor kid, when she was a barefoot moppet she stepped on a fledgling robin in the grass. She hasn't gotten over the squish of it yet.

Birds don't trouble me. I can look at them all day. It takes snakes to give me the green shudders. I hate them.

She was getting better at them, I decided. This was the fourth one since breakfast and the roughest-looking of the lot. It was a diamondback rattler, and lay coiled on the rug at my feet. I turned my swivel chair slowly back to my desk and riveted my eyes to the blotter. Snakes are ghastly things. But there was no future in letting them shake me up.

I bent over in my swivel chair and swung my left arm like a flail just below this rattler's raised head. He struck at me, but late, and missed. The swipe I took at him should have swept him over, but he got his coils around me. When I heaved back up straight before my desk, he was as neatly wrapped around my forearm as a Western Union splice.

Enough of his tail was free to make that buzz that means "Look out!" About a foot of his business end stood up off my arm. His forked tongue flicked out over his horny lip, pink and dainty.

"Now, vanish!" I said to the snake. It didn't. Instead the door to my office opened, letting in a little more of the unmistakable smell of the hospital, as well as old Maragon, Grand Master of the Lodge. He was complaining and shaking a finger at me as he came toward my desk. He didn't jump more than a foot when he got a look at my arm. His shaggy gray eyebrows climbed way, way up his forehead in a mutely shouted question.

I wouldn't give the old goat the time of day. When I dead-panned him, he shrugged and lowered himself into the chair beside my desk.

"Thought you hated snakes, Lefty," he said.

"A guy could get used to almost anything, Grand Master," I said. "I found a cobra under my pillow when I rolled out of the sack this morning. A coral snake fell out of the folds of my towel when I went to take a shower. Somebody stashed a bushmaster here in my locker to meet me when I dressed for surgery. I'm getting almost fond of snakes."

Maragon semaphored doubt by squeezing his eyebrows down in a scowl. "Even real snakes?" he protested.

"It's the most artful hallucination I've ever experienced," I granted. "This snake has weight, a cold feel and a scratchy scaliness. This new witch of yours really knows her stuff. I just would have thought..." I dribbled off, raising my shoulders.

"Thought what, Lefty?"

"Oh," I said. "That it was somehow beneath the dignity of the Grand Master to drag himself down here to the hospital just to add a little conviction to the hallucination. I mean, working up a big entrance, and all this pretense of your seeing a snake."

His smile was a little weary. "Try a lift, Lefty," Maragon said.

He had finally overplayed his hand. Hallucinations don't respond to telekinesis—there's nothing there to lift. I fixed on the rattler's crouching head and lifted. The TK jerked the S-shaped curve out of his neck. I could feel his coils fight my lift. At some moment there I must have gotten the point that this snake was real.

I guess I was screaming and shaking it from me for five minutes after Maragon had unwrapped the coils from my arm.

"All right. All right. All right," I said to him, shaking my head. "So it had no fangs. You've still got me sold. I'll go to Nevada for you." I'd have gone clear to Hell to get away from that hallucinating witch he had working on me. I'd gotten used to hallucinations—but who can get used to the doubt that one of those dreadful visions is real? I'd had my lesson.

It served me right, of course. It had begun when Peno Rose had first visored me from Lake Tahoe. I had told him "No." Too busy, much too busy, with TK surgery at Memorial Hospital. It didn't mean a thing to me that some cross-roader with plenty of TK was stealing the Sky Hi Club's casino blind. But Peno had known me from my days on the Crap Patrol, and wasn't much impressed that I'd reached the thirty-third degree. He'd gotten the Senior United States senator from Nevada to put heat on the Lodge.

When Maragon first visored me on it, I simply refused to discuss it and switched off. That was the big mistake. I had an obligation to the Lodge for my TK training, and there was no honorable way I could turn my back on it. The Grand Master is a patient, if deadly, old goat, and he came after me in person.

I'd just walked out of surgery, and was still in mask and gown. The surgeon who had done the cutting while I had put TK clamps on the inaccessible arteries was at my side, breathing a sigh of relief that the patient hadn't died on the table. He'd still die, I figured, but not on the table. I'd felt the fluttery rasp of his heart muscle as it had strained against my lift. He didn't have too long.

"Thank God for a dry field," the scalpel surgeon said, politely holding out his left hand to me. I shook it with my left. That's why I hadn't done the cutting, too. There aren't any one-handed surgeons. My right arm looks fine. It just hasn't any strength. Old Maragon had told me once that my TK powers were a pure case of compensation for a useless arm. The surgeon dropped my hand. "You're the best, Wally Bupp," he said. He's too good a friend of mine to call me "Lefty" and remind me that I'm a cripple.

It was Maragon who did that. I hadn't noticed him, but somebody gave me the grip, and I looked around. He was back against the wall, short, gray and square. I gave his ear lobe a TK tug in return, harder, perhaps, than was necessary, and nodded for him to follow both of us to my office.

"We'll have to talk about it, Lefty," he said, as he closed the door against the smell of iodoform.

"No, we don't," I said. "I don't care who is losing how much money at Peno Rose's Sky Hi Club. Right here in this hospital people are dying. Ask old Thousand Cuts," I went on, nodding to the scalpel surgeon. "We just pulled one out of the fire. When does this come in second best to saving the skin of some tinhorn gambler?"

"Your Lodge obligations come first," he said quietly. "We have a replacement for you here. Here's your ticket for Lake Tahoe," he added, holding out an envelope from a travel agency.

"I'm staying here, Maragon," I said. "I'm a TK surgeon. I'm all through tipping dice."

"You may not find it practical," he said, getting up to leave.

Well, I hadn't. Three snakes inside my head had made me a sucker for the real one on my arm. Maragon had made his point. I might have reached the thirty-third degree, but I wasn't quite as big a shot as I thought I was. I could feel that rattler on my arm all the way to Lake Tahoe.

Like any gambling house, the Sky Hi Club was a trap. Peno had tried to kid the public with a classy decor. It was a darned good copy of a nineteenth century ranch house. At the gambling tables everything was free—the liquor, the hors d'oeuvres, the entertainment. Everything, that is, but the gambling and the women. The casino was taking its cut. And the women—or should I be so sure?

You paid for your drinks if you stood up to the long mahogany bar. I turned my back to the rattle of cocktail shakers and chink of glasses, one heel hooked over the replica brass rail, and took a long careful look at the crap tables. There was a job for me at one of them. I began to shut out the distractions of sight and sound. I wanted nothing to dull my PSI powers.

A blond bombshell slithered down the bar and ground herself against my leg. "Wanna buy me a drink, honey?" she gasped. I smuggled a lift and slipped all four of her garters off the tops of her hose. A funny, stricken look replaced the erotic face she had made at me. She headed for dry dock.

B-girls usually work in pairs, so I looked down toward the other end of the polished mahogany. Sure enough, there was the brunette, frowning as she tried to figure why the blond bomber had high-tailed it out of there. I shook my head at her and she let it lie.

That should have cut out the last distraction. But no, I could see one more bimbo working her way through the laughing, drink-flushed crowd toward me. She had hair-colored hair, which was sort of out of character for a barroom hustler. I put plenty of TK on the heel of her right slipper, and she stepped right out of it. It might as well have been nailed to the floor. Nothing was going to discourage this one, I saw. I let her pick it off the floor, squeeze it back on her skinny foot, and come toward me.

This new babe leaned over toward me and stuck her nose up against mine. It was long, thin, and not a little red.

"Billy Joe!" she said, and sniffled loudly. "My darlin' Billy!"

How near-sighted can you get? I don't think there's such a thing as a case of mistaken identity around a guy like me. I didn't know her darlin' Billy from Adam's ox. But I'd have bet a pretty we didn't look alike.

"You're wasting it," I told her, looking out over the crap tables. "It's new, and different. But I'm not anybody's darling." A jerk of my head told her to move on.

But she sniffled and stayed put. I gave up and started through the press of gamblers toward the Cashier's cage.

"Billy Joe!" this hustler moaned behind me, clawing at my jacket. "I knew I'd find you here. And I came sich a fer piece, Billy Joe! Don't make me go off again, darlin' Billy!"

While I prefer to gamble for cash, I had reason while on a job for sticking to a known amount of chips. She stood there while I got a thousand dollars worth of ten-buck markers, looking at me with some kind of plea in her eyes. This again was not in the pattern. Most hustlers can't keep their eyes off your chips.

She puppy-dogged behind me to the crap table I had decided needed my attention. It was crowded, but there's always room for one more sucker. And still one more, for the sniffly girl with the hair-colored hair pressed in against my useless right arm when I elbowed my way in between the gamblers, directly across from the dealers.

"Billy Joe!" she said, just loud enough to hear over the chanting of the dealers and the excited chatter of the dice players. Billy Joe! What a corn-ball routine!

I took stock before beginning to lose my stack of chips. There were more than twenty gamblers of both sexes pressed up against the green baize of the crap layout. Three stick-men in black aprons that marked them for dealers were working on the other side or the table. We had at least one dealer too many for the crowd. That screamed out loud the table was having trouble. Big gambling layouts know within minutes if a table is not making its vigorish. A Nevada crap layout, with moderately heavy play, should make six per cent of the amount gambled on every roll. That's its vigorish—its percentage. If the take falls below that, the suspicion is that the table is being taken to the cleaners by a crooked gambler, or "cross-roader." The table I

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