* * * * *
"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--