* * * * *
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."