The Risk Profession
From: The Risk Profession
Mister Henderson called me into his office my third day back in
Tangiers. That was a day and a half later than I'd expected. Roving
claims investigators for Tangiers Mutual Insurance Corporation don't
usually get to spend more than thirty-six consecutive hours at home
Henderson was jovial but stern. That meant he was happy with the job I'd
just completed, and that he was pretty sure I'd find some crooked
shenanigans on this next assignment. That didn't please me. I'm
basically a plain-living type, and I hate complications. I almost wished
for a second there that I was back on Fire and Theft in Greater New
York. But I knew better than that. As a roving claim investigator, I
avoided the more stultifying paper work inherent in this line of work
and had the additional luxury of an expense account nobody ever
It made working for a living almost worthwhile.
When I was settled in the chair beside his desk, Henderson said, "That
was good work you did on Luna, Ged. Saved the company a pretty pence."
I smiled modestly and said, "Thank you, sir." And reflected to myself
for the thousandth time that the company could do worse than split that
saving with the guy who'd made it possible. Me, in other words.
"Got a tricky one this time, Ged," said my boss. He had done his
back-patting, now we got down to business. He peered keenly at me, or at
least as keenly as a round-faced tiny-eyed fat man can peer. "What do
you know about the Risk Profession Retirement Plan?" he asked me.
"I've heard of it," I said truthfully. "That's about all."
He nodded. "Most of the policies are sold off-planet, of course. It's a
form of insurance for non-insurables. Spaceship crews, asteroid
prospectors, people like that."
"I see," I said, unhappily. I knew right away this meant I was going to
have to go off-Earth again. I'm a one-gee boy all the way. Gravity
changes get me in the solar plexus. I get g-sick at the drop of an
* * *
"Here's the way it works," he went on, either not noticing my sad face
or choosing to ignore it. "The client pays a monthly premium. He can be
as far ahead or as far behind in his payments as he wants--the policy
has no lapse clause--just so he's all paid up by the Target Date. The
Target Date is a retirement age, forty-five or above, chosen by the
client himself. After the Target Date, he stops paying premiums, and we
begin to pay him a monthly retirement check, the amount determined by
the amount paid into the policy, his age at retiring, and so on. Clear?"
I nodded, looking for the gimmick that made this a paying proposition
for good old Tangiers Mutual.
"The Double R-P--that's what we call it around the office here--assures
the client that he won't be reduced to panhandling in his old age,
should his other retirement plans fall through. For Belt prospectors, of
course, this means the big strike, which maybe one in a hundred find.
For the man who never does make that big strike, this is something to
fall back on. He can come home to Earth and retire, with a guaranteed
income for the rest of his life."
I nodded again, like a good company man.
"Of course," said Henderson, emphasizing this point with an upraised
chubby finger, "these men are still uninsurables. This is a retirement
plan only, not an insurance policy. There is no beneficiary other than
the client himself."
And there was the gimmick. I knew a little something of the actuarial
statistics concerning uninsurables, particularly Belt prospectors. Not
many of them lived to be forty-five, and the few who would survive the
Belt and come home to collect the retirement wouldn't last more than a
year or two. A man who's spent the last twenty or thirty years on
low-gee asteroids just shrivels up after a while when he tries to live
It needed a company like Tangiers Mutual to dream up a racket like that.
The term "uninsurables" to most insurance companies means those people
whose jobs or habitats make them too likely as prospects for obituaries.
To Tangiers Mutual, uninsurables are people who have money the company
can't get at.
"Now," said Henderson importantly, "we come to the problem at hand." He
ruffled his up-to-now-neat In basket and finally found the folder he
wanted. He studied the blank exterior of this folder for a few seconds,
pursing his lips at it, and said, "One of our clients under the Double
R-P was a man named Jafe McCann."
"Was?" I echoed.
He squinted at me, then nodded at my sharpness. "That's right, he's
dead." He sighed heavily and tapped the folder with all those pudgy
fingers. "Normally," he said, "that would be the end of it. File closed.
However, this time there are complications."
Naturally. Otherwise, he wouldn't be telling me about it. But
Henderson couldn't be rushed, and I knew it. I kept the alert look on my
face and thought of other things, while waiting for him to get to the
"Two weeks after Jafe McCann's death," Henderson said, "we received a
cash-return form on his policy."
"A cash-return form?" I'd never heard of such a thing. It didn't sound
like anything Tangiers Mutual would have anything to do with. We never
* * *
"It's something special in this case," he explained. "You see, this
isn't an insurance policy, it's a retirement plan, and the client can
withdraw from the retirement plan at any time, and have seventy-five per
cent of his paid-up premiums returned to him. It's, uh, the law in plans
such as this."
"Oh," I said. That explained it. A law that had snuck through the World
Finance Code Commission while the insurance lobby wasn't looking.
"But you see the point," said Henderson. "This cash-return form arrived
two weeks after the client's death."
"You said there weren't any beneficiaries," I pointed out.
"Of course. But the form was sent in by the man's partner, one Ab
Karpin. McCann left a hand-written will bequeathing all his possessions
to Karpin. Since, according to Karpin, this was done before McCann's
death, the premium money cannot be considered part of the policy, but as
part of McCann's cash-on-hand. And Karpin wants it."
"It can't be that much, can it?" I asked. I was trying my best to point
out to him that the company would spend more than it would save if it
sent me all the way out to the asteroids, a prospect I could feel coming
and one which I wasn't ready to cry hosannah over.
"McCann died," Henderson said ponderously, "at the age of fifty-six. He
had set his retirement age at sixty. He took out the policy at the age
of thirty-four, with monthly payments of fifty credits. Figure it out
I did--in my head--and came up with a figure of thirteen thousand and
two hundred credits. Seventy-five per cent of that would be nine
thousand and nine hundred credits. Call it ten thousand credits even.
I had to admit it. It was worth the trip.
"I see," I said sadly.
"Now," said Henderson, "the conditions--the circumstances--of McCann's
death are somewhat suspicious. And so is the cash-return form itself."
"There's a chance it's a forgery?"
"One would think so," he said. "But our handwriting experts have worn
themselves out with that form, comparing it with every other single
scrap of McCann's writing they can find. And their conclusion is that
not only is it genuinely McCann's handwriting, but it is McCann's
handwriting at age fifty-six."
"So McCann must have written it," I said. "Under duress, do you think?"
"I have no idea," said Henderson complacently. "That's what you're
supposed to find out. Oh, there's just one more thing."
I did my best to make my ears perk.
"I told you that McCann's death occurred under somewhat suspicious
"Yes," I agreed, "you did."
"McCann and Karpin," he said, "have been partners--unincorporated, of
course--for the last fifteen years. They had found small rare-metal
deposits now and again, but they had never found that one big strike all
the Belt prospectors waste their lives looking for. Not until the day
before McCann died."
"Ah hah," I said. "Then they found the big strike."
"And McCann's death?"
"Sure," I said. "What proof have we got?"
"None. The body is lost in space. And law is few and far between that
"So all we've got is this guy Karpin's word for how McCann died, is that
"That's all we have. So far."
"Sure. And now you want me to go on out there and find out what's
cooking, and see if I can maybe save the company ten thousand credits."
"Exactly," said Henderson.
* * * * *
The copter took me to the spaceport west of Cairo, and there I boarded
the good ship Demeter for Luna City and points Out. I loaded up on
g-sickness pills and they worked fine. I was sick as a dog.
By the time we got to Atronics City, my insides had grown resigned to
their fate. As long as I didn't try to eat, my stomach would leave me
Atronics City was about as depressing as a Turkish bath with all the
lights on. It stood on a chunk of rock a couple of miles thick, and it
looked like nothing more in this world than a welder's practice range.
From the outside, Atronics City is just a derby-shaped dome of
nickel-iron, black and kind of dirty-looking. I suppose a transparent
dome would have been more fun, but the builders of the company cities in
the asteroids were businessmen, and they weren't concerned with having
fun. There's nothing to look at outside the dome but chunks of rock and
the blackness of space anyway, and you've got all this cheap iron
floating around in the vicinity, and all a dome's supposed to do is keep
the air in. Besides, though the Belt isn't as crowded as a lot of people
think, there is quite a lot of debris rushing here and there, bumping
into things, and a transparent dome would just get all scratched up, not
to mention punctured.
From the inside, Atronics City is even jollier. There's the top level,
directly under the dome, which is mainly parking area for scooters and
tuggers of various kinds, plus the office shacks of the Assayer's
Office, the Entry Authority, the Industry Troopers and so on. The next
three levels have all been burned into the bowels of the planetoid.
Level two is the Atronics plant, and a noisy plant it is. Level three is
the shopping and entertainment area--grocery stores and clothing stores
and movie theaters and bars--and level four is housing, two rooms and
kitchen for the unmarried, four rooms and kitchen plus one room for each
child for the married.
All of these levels have one thing in common. Square corners, painted
olive drab. The total effect of the place is suffocating. You feel like
you're stuck in the middle of a stack of packing crates.
Most of the people living in Atronics City work, of course, for
International Atronics, Incorporated. The rest of them work in the
service occupations--running the bars and grocery stores and so on--that
keep the company employees alive and relatively happy.
Wages come high in the places like Atronics City. Why not, the raw
materials come practically for free. And as for working conditions,
well, take a for instance. How do you make a vacuum tube? You fiddle
with the innards and surround it all with glass. And how do you get the
air out? No problem, boy, there wasn't any air in there to begin with.
At any rate, there I was at Atronics City. That was as far as Demeter
would take me. Now, while the ship went on to Ludlum City and Chemisant
City and the other asteroid business towns, my two suitcases and I
dribbled down the elevator to my hostelry on level four.
* * *
Have you ever taken an elevator ride when the gravity is practically
non-existent? Well, don't. You see, the elevator manages to sink faster
than you do. It isn't being lowered down to level four, it's being
What this means is that the suitcases have to be lashed down with the
straps provided, and you and the operator have to hold on tight to the
hand-grips placed here and there around the wall. Otherwise, you'd clonk
your head on the ceiling.
But we got to level four at last, and off I went with my suitcases and
the operator's directions. The suitcases weighed about half an ounce
each out here, and I felt as though I weighed the same. Every time I
raised a foot, I was sure I was about to go sailing into a wall. Local
citizens eased by me, their feet occasionally touching the iron pavement
as they soared along, and I gave them all dirty looks.
Level four was nothing but walls and windows. The iron floor went among
these walls and windows in a straight straight line, bisecting other
"streets" at perfect right angles, and the iron ceiling sixteen feet up
was lined with a double row of fluorescent tubes. I was beginning to
feel claustrophobic already.
The Chalmers Hotel--named for an Atronics vice-president--had received
my advance registration, which was nice. I was shown to a second-floor
room--nothing on level four had more than two stories--and was left to
unpack my suitcases as best I may.
I had decided to spend a day or two at Atronics City before taking a
scooter out to Ab Karpin's claim. Atronics City had been Karpin's and
McCann's home base. All of McCann's premium payments had been mailed
from here, and the normal mailing address for both of them was GPO
I wanted to know as much as possible about Ab Karpin before I went out
to see him. And Atronics City seemed like the best place to get my
But not today. Today, my stomach was very unhappy, and my head was on
sympathy strike. Today, I was going to spend my time exclusively in bed,
trying not to float up to the ceiling.
* * * * *
The Mapping & Registry Office, it seemed to me the next day, was the
best place to start. This was where prospectors filed their claims, but
it was a lot more than that. The waiting room of M&R was the unofficial
club of the asteroid prospectors. This is where they met with one
another, talked together about the things that prospectors discuss, and
made and dissolved their transient partnerships.
In this way, Karpin and McCann were unusual. They had maintained their
partnership for fifteen years. That was about sixty times longer than
most such arrangements lasted.
Searching the asteroid chunks for rare and valuable metals is basically
pretty lonely work, and it's inevitable that the prospectors will every
once in a while get hungry for human company and decide to try a team
operation. But, at the same time, work like this attracts people who
don't get along very well with human company. So the partnerships come
and go, and the hatreds flare and are forgotten, and the normal
prospecting team lasts an average of three months.
At any rate, it was to the Mapping & Registry Office that I went first.
And, since that office was up on the first level, I went by elevator.
Riding up in that elevator was a heck of a lot more fun than riding
down. The elevator whipped up like mad, the floor pressed against the
soles of my feet, and it felt almost like good old Earth for a second or
two there. But then the elevator stopped, and I held on tight to the
hand-grips to keep from shooting through the top of the blasted thing.
The operator--a phlegmatic sort--gave me directions to the M&R, and off
I went, still trying to figure out how to sail along as gracefully as
The Mapping & Registry Office occupied a good-sized shack over near the
dome wall, next to the entry lock. I pushed open the door and went on
The waiting room was cozy and surprisingly large, large enough to
comfortably hold the six maroon leather sofas scattered here and there
on the pale green carpet, flanked by bronze ashtray stands. There were
only six prospectors here at the moment, chatting together in two groups
of three, and they all looked alike. Grizzled, ageless, watery-eyed,
their clothing clean but baggy. I passed them and went on to the desk at
the far end, behind which sat a young man in official gray, slowly
turning the crank of a microfilm reader.
He looked up at my approach. I flashed my company identification and
asked to speak to the manager. He went away, came back, and ushered me
into an office which managed to be Spartan and sumptuous at the same
time. The walls had been plastic-painted in textured brown, the iron
floor had been lushly carpeted in gray, and the desk had been covered
with a simulated wood coating.
The manager--a man named Teaking--went well with the office. His face
and hands were spare and lean, but his uniform was immaculate, covered
with every curlicue the regulations allowed. He welcomed me politely,
but curiously, and I said, "I wonder if you know a prospector named Ab
"Karpin? Of course. He and old Jafe McCann--pity about McCann. I hear he
"Yes, he did."
"And that's what you're here for, eh?" He nodded sagely. "I didn't know
the Belt boys could get insurance," he said.
"It isn't exactly that," I said. "This concerns a retirement plan,
and--well, the details don't matter." Which, I hoped, would end his
curiosity in that line. "I was hoping you could give me some background
on Karpin. And on McCann, too, for that matter."
He grinned a bit. "You saw the men sitting outside?"
"Then you've seen Karpin and McCann. Exactly the same. It doesn't matter
if a man's thirty or sixty or what. It doesn't matter what he was like
before he came out here. If he's been here a few years, he looks exactly
like the bunch you saw outside there."
"That's appearance," I said. "What I was looking for was personality."
"Same thing," he said. "All of them. Close-mouthed, anti-social,
fiercely independent, incurably romantic, always convinced that the big
strike is just a piece of rock away. McCann, now, he was a bit more
realistic than most. He'd be the one I'd expect to take out a retirement
policy. A real pence-pincher, that one, though I shouldn't say it as
he's dead. But that's the way he was. Brighter than most Belt boys when
it came to money matters. I've seen him haggle over a new piece of
equipment for their scooter, or some repair work, or some such thing,
and he was a wonder to watch."
"And Karpin?" I asked him.
"A prospector," he said, as though that answered my question. "Same as
everybody else. Not as sharp as McCann when it came to money. That's why
all the money stuff in the partnership was handled by McCann. But Karpin
was one of the sharpest boys in the business when it came to mineralogy.
He knew rocks you and I never heard of, and most times he knew them by
sight. Almost all of the Belt boys are college grads--you've got to know
what you're looking for out here and what it looks like when you've
found it--but Karpin has practically all of them beat. He's sharp."
* * *
"Sounds like a good team," I said.
"I guess that's why they stayed together so long," he said. "They
complemented each other." He leaned forward, the inevitable prelude to a
confidential remark. "I'll tell you something off the record, Mister,"
he said. "Those two were smarter than they knew. Their partnership was
never legalized, it was never anything more than a piece of paper. And
there's a bunch of fellas around here mighty unhappy about that today.
Jafe McCann is the one who handled all the money matters, like I said.
He's got IOU's all over town."
"And they can't collect from Karpin?"
He nodded. "Jafe McCann died just a bit too soon. He was sharp and
cheap, but he was honest. If he'd lived, he would have repaid all his
debts, I'm sure of it. And if this strike they made is as good as I
hear, he would have been able to repay them with no trouble at all."
I nodded, somewhat impatiently. I had the feeling by now that I was
talking to a man who was one of those who had a Jafe McCann IOU in his
pocket. "How long has it been since you've seen Karpin?" I asked him,
wondering what Karpin's attitude and expression was now that his partner
"Oh, Lord, not for a couple of months," he said. "Not since they went
out together the last time and made that strike."
"Didn't Karpin come in to make his claim?"
"Not here. Over to Chemisant City. That was the nearest M&R to the
"Oh." That was a pity. I would have liked to have known if there had
been a change of any kind in Karpin since his partner's death. "I'll
tell you what the situation is," I said, with a false air of
truthfulness. "We have some misgivings about McCann's death. Not
suspicions, exactly, just misgivings. The timing is what bothers us."
"You mean, because it happened just after the strike?"
"That's it," I answered frankly.
He shook his head. "I wouldn't get too excited about that, if I were
you," he said. "It wouldn't be the first time it's happened. A man makes
the big strike after all, and he gets so excited he forgets himself for
a minute and gets careless. And you only have to be careless once out
"That may be it," I said. I got to my feet, knowing I'd picked up all
there was from this man. "Thanks a lot for your cooperation," I said.
"Any time," he said. He stood and shook hands with me.
I went back out through the chatting prospectors and crossed the echoing
cavern that was level one, aiming to rent myself a scooter.
* * * * *
I don't like rockets. They're noisy as the dickens, they steer hard and
drive erratically, and you can never carry what I would consider a
safe emergency excess of fuel. Nothing like the big steady-g
interplanetary liners. On those I feel almost human.
The appearance of the scooter I was shown at the rental agency didn't do
much to raise my opinion of this mode of transportation. The thing was a
good ten years old, the paint scraped and scratched all over its
egg-shaped, originally green-colored body, and the windshield--a silly
term, really, for the front window of a craft that spends most of its
time out where there isn't any wind--was scratched and pockmarked to the
point of translucency by years of exposure to the asteroidal dust.
The rental agent was a sharp-nosed thin-faced type who displayed this
refugee from a melting vat without a blush, and still didn't blush when
he told me the charges. Twenty credits a day, plus fuel.
I paid without a murmur--it was the company's money, not mine--and paid
an additional ten credits for the rental of a suit to go with it. I
worked my way awkwardly into the suit, and clambered into the driver's
seat of the relic. I attached the suit to the ship in all the necessary
places, and the agent closed and spun the door.
Most of the black paint had worn off the handles of the controls, and
insulation peeked through rips in the plastic siding here and there. I
wondered if the thing had any slow leaks and supposed fatalistically
that it had. The agent waved at me, stony-faced, the conveyor belt
trundled me outside the dome, and I kicked the weary rocket into life.
The scooter had a tendency to roll to the right. If I hadn't kept
fighting it back, it would have soon worked up a dandy little spin. I
was spending so much time juggling with the controls that I practically
missed a couple of my beacon rocks, and that would have been just too
bad. If I'd gotten off the course I had carefully outlined for myself,
I'd never have found my bearings again, and I would have just floated
around amid the scenery until some passerby took pity and towed me back
But I managed to avoid getting lost, which surprised me, and after four
nerve-wracking hours I finally spotted the yellow-painted X of a
registered claim on a half-mile-thick chunk of rock dead ahead. As I got
closer, I spied a scooter parked near the X, and beside it an inflated
portable dome. The scooter was somewhat larger than mine, but no newer
and probably even less safe. The dome was varicolored, from repeated
This would be the claim, and this is where I would find Karpin, sitting
on his property while waiting for the sale to go through. Prospectors
like Karpin are free-lance men, working for no particular company. They
register their claims in their own names, and then sell the rights to
whichever company shows up first with the most attractive offer. There's
a lot of paperwork to such a sale, and it's all handled by the company.
While waiting, the smart prospector sits on his claim and makes sure
nobody chips off a part of it for himself, a stunt that still happens
now and again. It doesn't take too much concentrated explosive to make
two rocks out of one rock, and a man's claim is only the rock with his X
I set the scooter down next to the other one, and flicked the toggle for
the air pumps, then put on the fishbowl and went about unattaching the
suit from the ship. When the red light flashed on and off, I spun the
door, opened it, and stepped out onto the rock, moving very cautiously.
It isn't that I don't believe the magnets in the boot soles will work,
it's just that I know for a fact that they won't work if I happen to
raise both feet at the same time.
I clumped across the crude X to Karpin's dome. The dome had no viewports
at all, so I wasn't sure Karpin was aware of my presence. I rapped my
metal glove on the metal outer door of the lock, and then I was sure.
But it took him long enough to open up. I had just about decided he'd
joined his partner in the long sleep when the door cracked open an inch.
I pushed it open and stepped into the lock, ducking my head. The door
was only five feet high, and just as wide as the lock itself, three
feet. The other dimensions of the lock were: height, six feet six;
width, one foot. Not exactly room to dance in.
* * *
When the red light high on the left-hand wall clicked off, I rapped on
the inner door. It promptly opened, I stepped through and removed the
Karpin stood in the middle of the room, a small revolver in his hand.
"Shut the door," he said.
I obeyed, moving slowly. I didn't want that gun to go off by mistake.
"Who are you?" Karpin demanded. The M&R man had been right. Ab Karpin
was a dead ringer for all those other prospectors I'd seen back at
Atronics City. Short and skinny and grizzled and ageless. He could have
been forty, and he could have been ninety, but he was probably somewhere
the other side of fifty. His hair was black and limp and thinning,
ruffled in little wisps across his wrinkled pate. His forehead and
cheeks were lined like a plowed field, and were much the same color. His
eyes were wide apart and small, so deep-set beneath shaggy brows that
they seemed black. His mouth was thin, almost lipless. The hand holding
the revolver was nothing but bones and blue veins covered with taut
He was wearing a dirty undershirt and an old pair of trousers that had
been cut off raggedly just above his knobby knees. Faded slippers were
on his feet. He had good reason for dressing that way, the temperature
inside the dome must have been nearly ninety degrees. The dome wasn't
reflecting away the sun's heat as well as it had when it was young.
I looked at Karpin, and despite the revolver and the tense expression on
his face, he was the least dangerous-looking man I'd ever run across.
All at once, the idea that this anti-social old geezer had the drive or
the imagination to murder his partner seemed ridiculous.
Apparently, I spent too much time looking him over, because he said
again, "Who are you?" And this time he motioned impatiently with the
"Stanton," I told him. "Ged Stanton, Tangiers Mutual Insurance. I have
identification, but it's in my pants pocket, down inside this suit."
"Get it," he said. "And move slow."
"Right you are."
I moved slow, as per directions, and peeled out of the suit, then
reached into my trouser pocket and took out my ID clip. I flipped it
open and showed him the card bearing my signature and picture and right
thumb-print and the name of the company I represented, and he nodded,
satisfied, and tossed the revolver over onto his bed. "I got to be
careful," he said. "I got a big claim here."
"I know that," I told him. "Congratulations for it."
"Thanks," he said, but he still looked peevish. "You're here about
Jafe's insurance, right?"
"That I am."
"Don't want to pay up, I suppose. That doesn't surprise me."
Blunt old men irritate me. "Well," I said, "we do have to investigate."
"Sure," he said. "You want some coffee?"
"You can sit in that chair there. That was Jafe's."
I settled gingerly in the cloth-and-plastic foldaway chair he'd pointed
at, and he went over to the kitchen area of the dome to start coffee. I
took the opportunity to look the dome over. It was the first portable
dome I'd ever been inside.
* * *
It was all one room, roughly circular, with a diameter of about fifteen
feet. The sides went straight up for the first seven feet, then curved
gradually inward to form the roof. At the center of the dome, the
ceiling was about twelve feet high.
The floor of the room was simply the asteroidal rock surface, not
completely level and smooth. There were two chairs and a table to the
right of the entry lock, two foldaway cots around the wall beyond them,
the kitchen area next and a cluttered storage area around on the other
side. There was a heater standing alone in the center of the room, but
it certainly wasn't needed now. Sweat was already trickling down the
back of my neck and down my forehead into my eyebrows. I peeled off my
shirt and used it to wipe sweat from my face. "Warm in here," I said.
"You get used to it," he muttered, which I found hard to believe.
He brought over the coffee, and I tasted it. It was rotten, as bitter as
this old hermit's soul, but I said, "Good coffee. Thanks a lot."
"I like it strong," he said.
I looked around at the room again. "All the comforts of home, eh? Pretty
"Sure," he said sourly. "How about getting to the point, Mister?"
There's only one way to handle a blunt old man. Be blunt right back.
"I'll tell you how it is," I said. "The company isn't accusing you of
anything, but it has to be sure everything's on the up and up before it
pays out any ten thousand credits. And your partner just happening to
fill out that cash-return form just before he died--well, you've got to
admit it is a funny kind of coincidence."
"How so?" He slurped coffee, and glowered at me over the cup. "We made
this strike here," he said. "We knew it was the big one. Jafe had that
insurance policy of his in case he never did make the big strike. As
soon as we knew this was the big one, he said, 'I guess I don't need
that retirement now,' and sat right down and wrote out the cash-return.
Then we opened a bottle of liquor and celebrated, and he got himself
The way Karpin said it, it sounded smooth and natural. Too smooth and
natural. "How did this accident happen anyway?" I asked him.
"I'm not one hundred per cent sure of that myself," he said. "I was
pretty well drunk myself by that time. But he put on his suit and said
he was going out to paint the X. He was falling all over himself, and I
tried to tell him it could wait till we'd had some sleep, but he
wouldn't pay any attention to me."
"So he went out," I said.
He nodded. "He went out first. After a couple minutes, I got lonesome in
here, so I suited up and went out after him. It happened just as I was
going out the lock, and I just barely got a glimpse of what happened."
* * *
He attacked the coffee again, noisily, and I prompted him, saying, "What
did happen, Mister Karpin?"
"Well, he was capering around out there, waving the paint tube and such.
There's a lot of sharp rock sticking out around here. Just as I got
outside, he lost his balance and kicked out, and scraped right into some
of that rock, and punctured his suit."
"I thought the body was lost," I said.
He nodded. "It was. The last thing in life Jafe ever did was try to
shove himself away from those rocks. That, and the force of air coming
out of that puncture for the first second or two, was enough to throw
him up off the surface. It threw him up too high, and he never got back
My doubt must have showed in my face, because he added, "Mister, there
isn't enough gravity on this place to shoot craps with."
He was right. As we talked, I kept finding myself holding unnecessarily
tight to the arms of the chair. I kept having the feeling I was going to
float out of the chair and hover around up at the top of the dome if I
were to let go. It was silly of course--there was some gravity on that
planetoid, after all--but I just don't seem to get used to low-gee.
Nevertheless, I still had some more questions. "Didn't you try to get
his body back? Couldn't you have reached him?"
"I tried to, Mister," he said. "Old Jafe McCann was my partner for
fifteen years. But I was drunk, and that's a fact. And I was afraid to
go jumping up in the air, for fear I'd go floating away, too."
"Frankly," I said, "I'm no expert on low gravity and asteroids. But
wouldn't McCann's body just go into orbit around this rock? I mean, it
wouldn't simply go floating off into space, would it?"
"It sure would," he said. "There's a lot of other rocks out here, too,
Mister, and a lot of them are bigger than this one and have a lot more
gravity pull. I don't suppose there's a navigator in the business who
could have computed Jafe's course in advance. He floated up, and then he
floated back over the dome here and seemed to hover for a couple
minutes, and then he just floated out and away. His isn't the only body
circling around the sun with all these rocks, you know."
I chewed a lip and thought it all over. I didn't know enough about
asteroid gravity or the conditions out here to be able to say for sure
whether Karpin's story was true or not. Up to this point, I couldn't
attack the problem on a fact basis. I had to depend on feeling now,
the hunches and instincts of eight years in this job, hearing some
people tell lies and other people tell the truth.
And my instinct said Ab Karpin was lying in his teeth. That dramatic
little touch about McCann's body hovering over the dome before
disappearing into the void, that sounded more like the embellishment of
fiction than the circumstance of truth. And the string of coincidences
were just too much. McCann just coincidentally happens to die right
after he and his partner make their big strike. He happens to write out
the cash-return form just before dying. And his body just happens to
float away, so nobody can look at it and check Karpin's story.
* * *
But no matter what my instinct said, the story was smooth. It was smooth
as glass, and there was no place for me to get a grip on it.
What now? There wasn't any hole in Karpin's story, at least none that I
could see. I had to break his story somehow, and in order to do that I
had to do some nosing around on this planetoid. I couldn't know in
advance what I was looking for, I could only look. I'd know it when I
found it. It would be something that conflicted with Karpin's story.
And for that, I had to be sure the story was complete. "You said McCann
had gone out to paint the X," I said. "Did he paint it?"
Karpin shook his head. "He never got a chance. He spent all his time
dancing, up till he went and killed himself."
"So you painted it yourself."
"And then you went on into Atronics City and registered your claim, is
that the story?"
"No. Chemisant City was closer than Atronics City right then, so I went
there. Just after Jafe's death, and everything--I didn't feel like being
alone any more than I had to."
"You said Chemisant City was closer to you then," I said. "Isn't it
"Things move around a lot out here, Mister," he said. "Right now,
Chemisant City's almost twice as far from here as Atronics City. In
about three days, it'll start swinging in closer again. Things keep
shifting around out here."
"So I've noticed," I said. "When you took off to go to Chemisant City,
didn't you make a try for your partner's body then?"
He shook his head. "He was long out of sight by then," he said. "That
was ten, eleven hours later, when I took off."
"Why's that? All you had to do was paint the X and take off."
"Mister, I told you. I was drunk. I was falling down drunk, and when I
saw I couldn't get at Jafe, and he was dead anyway, I came back in here
and slept it off. Maybe if I'd been sober I would have taken the scooter
and gone after him, but I was drunk."
"I see." And there just weren't any more questions I could think of to
ask, not right now. So I said, "I've just had a shaky four-hour ride
coming out here. Mind if I stick around a while before going back?"
"Help yourself," he said, in a pretty poor attempt at genial
hospitality. "You can sleep over, if you want."
"Fine," I said. "I think I'd like that."
"You wouldn't happen to play cribbage, would you?" he asked, with the
first real sign of animation I'd seen in him yet.
"I learn fast," I told him.
"Okay," he said. "I'll teach you." And he produced a filthy deck of
cards and taught me.
* * * * *
After losing nine straight games of cribbage, I quit, and got to my
feet. I was at my most casual as I stretched and said, "Okay if I wander
around outside for a while? I've never been on an asteroid like this
before. I mean, a little one like this. I've just been to the company
cities up to now."
"Go right ahead," he said. "I've got some polishing and patching to do,
anyway." He made his voice sound easy and innocent, but I noticed his
eyes were alert and wary, watching me as I struggled back into my suit.
I didn't bother to put my shirt back on first, and that was a mistake.
The temperature inside an atmosphere suit is a steady sixty-eight
degrees. That had never seemed particularly chilly before, but after
the heat of that dome, it seemed cold as a blizzard inside the suit.
I went on out through the airlock, and moved as briskly as possible in
the cumbersome suit, while the sweat chilled on my back and face, and I
accepted the glum conviction that one thing I was going to get out of
this trip for sure was a nasty head cold.
I went over to the X first, and stood looking at it. It was just an X,
that's all, shakily scrawled in yellow paint, with the initials "J-A"
scrawled much smaller beside it.
I left the X and clumped away. The horizon was practically at arm's
length, so it didn't take long for the dome to be out of sight. And then
I clumped more slowly, studying the surface of the asteroid.
What I was looking for was a grave. I believed that Karpin was lying,
that he had murdered his partner. And I didn't believe that Jafe
McCann's body had floated off into space. I was convinced that his body
was still somewhere on this asteroid. Karpin had been forced to concoct
a story about the body being lost because the appearance of the body
would prove somehow that it had been murder and not accident. I was
convinced of that, and now all I had to do was prove it.
But that asteroid was a pretty unlikely place for a grave. That wasn't
dirt I was walking on, it was rock, solid metallic rock. You don't dig a
grave in solid rock, not with a shovel. You maybe can do it with
dynamite, but that won't work too well if your object is to keep anybody
from seeing that the hole has been made. Dirt can be patted down.
Blown-up rock looks like blown-up rock, and that's all there is to it.
I considered crevices and fissures in the surface, some cranny large
enough for Karpin to have stuffed the body into. But I didn't find any
of these either as I plodded along, being sure to keep one magnetted
boot always in contact with the ground.
Karpin and McCann had set their dome up at just about the only really
level spot on that entire planetoid. The rest of it was nothing but
jagged rock, and it wasn't easy traveling at all, maneuvering around
with magnets on my boots and a bulky atmosphere suit cramping my
* * *
And then I stopped and looked out at space and cursed myself for a
ring-tailed baboon. McCann's body might be anywhere in the Solar System,
anywhere at all, but there was one place I could be sure it wasn't, and
that place was this asteroid. No, Karpin had not blown a grave or
stuffed the body into a fissure in the ground. Why not? Because this
chunk of rock was valuable, that's why not. Because Karpin was in the
process of selling it to one of the major companies, and that company
would come along and chop this chunk of rock to pieces, getting the
valuable metal out, and McCann's body would turn up in the first week of
operations if Karpin were stupid enough to bury it here.
Ten hours between McCann's death and Karpin's departure for Chemisant
City. He'd admitted that already. And I was willing to bet he'd spent at
least part of that time carrying McCann's body to some other asteroid,
one he was sure was nothing but worthless rock. If that were true, it
meant the mortal remains of Jafe McCann were now somewhere--anywhere--in
the Asteroid Belt. Even if I assumed that the body had been hidden on an
asteroid somewhere between here and Chemisant City--which wasn't
necessarily so--that wouldn't help at all. The relative positions of
planetoids in the Belt just keep on shifting. A small chunk of rock that
was between here and Chemisant City a few weeks ago--it could be almost
anywhere in the Belt right now.
The body, that was the main item. I'd more or less counted on finding it
somehow. At the moment, I couldn't think of any other angle for
attacking Karpin's story.
As I clopped morosely back to the dome, I nibbled at Karpin's story in
my mind. For instance, why go to Chemisant City? It was closer, he said,
but it couldn't have been closer by more than a couple of hours. The way
I understood it, Karpin was well-known back on Atronics City--it was the
normal base of operations for he and his partner--and he didn't know a
soul at Chemisant City. Did it make sense for him to go somewhere he
wasn't known after his partner's death, even if it was an hour closer?
No, it made a lot more sense for a man in that situation to go where
he's known, go someplace where he has friends who'll sympathize with him
and help him over the shock of losing a partner of fifteen years'
standing, even if going there does mean traveling an hour longer.
And there was always the cash-return form. That was what I was here
about in the first place. It just didn't make sense for McCann to have
held up his celebration while he filled out a form that he wouldn't be
able to mail until he got back to Atronics City. And yet the company's
handwriting experts were convinced that it wasn't a forgery, and I could
pretty well take their word for it.
Mulling these things over as I tramped back toward the dome, I suddenly
heard a distant bell ringing way back in my head. The glimmering of an
idea, not an idea yet but just the hint of one. I wasn't sure where it
led, or even if it led anywhere at all, but I was going to find out.
* * * * *
Karpin opened the doors for me. By the time I'd stripped off the suit he
was back to work. He was cleaning the single unit which was his
combination stove and refrigerator and sink and garbage disposal.
I looked around the dome again, and I had to admit that a lot of
ingenuity had gone into the manufacture and design of this dome and its
contents. The dome itself, when deflated, folded down into an oblong box
three feet by one foot by one foot. The lock itself, of course, folded
separately, into another box somewhat smaller than that.
As for the gear inside the dome, it was functional and collapsible, and
there wasn't a single item there that wasn't needed. There were the two
chairs and the two cots and the table, all of them foldaway. There was
that fantastic combination job Karpin was cleaning right now, and that
had dimensions of four feet by three feet by three feet. The clutter of
gear over to the left wasn't as much of a clutter as it looked. There
was a Geiger counter, an automatic spectrograph, two atmosphere suits, a
torsion densimeter, a core-cutting drill, a few small hammers and picks,
two spare air tanks, boxes of food concentrate, a paint tube, a doorless
jimmy-john and two small metal boxes about eight inches cube. These last
were undoubtedly Karpin's and McCann's pouches, where they kept whatever
letters, money, address books or other small bits of possessions they
owned. Back of this mound of gear, against the wall, stood the air
reconditioner, humming quietly to itself.
In this small enclosed space there was everything a man needed to keep
himself alive. Everything except human company. And if you didn't need
human company, then you had everything. Just on the other side of that
dome, there was a million miles of death, in a million possible ways. On
this side of the dome, life was cozy, if somewhat Spartan and very hot.
I knew for sure I was going to get a head cold. My body had adjusted to
the sixty-eight degrees inside the suit, finally, and now was very
annoyed to find the temperature shooting up to ninety again.
Since Karpin didn't seem inclined to talk, and I would rather spend my
time thinking than talking anyway, I took a hint from him and did some
cleaning. I'd noticed a smeared spot about nose-level on the faceplate
of my fishbowl, and now was as good a time as any to get rid of it. It
had a tendency to make my eyes cross.
My shirt was sodden and wrinkled by this time anyway, having first been
used to wipe sweat from my face and later been rolled into a ball and
left on the chair when I went outside, so I used it for a cleaning rag,
buffing like mad the silvered surface of the faceplate. Faceplates are
silvered, not so the man inside can look out and no one else can look
in, but in order to keep some of the more violent rays of the sun from
getting through to the face.
I buffed for a while, and then I put the fishbowl on my head and looked
through it. The spot was gone, so I went over and reattached it to the
rest of the suit, and then settled back in my chair again and lit a
Karpin spoke up. "Wish you wouldn't smoke. Makes it tough on the
"Oh," I said. "Sorry." So I just sat, thinking morosely about non-forged
cash-return forms, and coincidences, and likely spots to hide a body in
the Asteroid Belt.
* * *
Where would one dispose of a body in the asteroids? I went back through
my thinking on that topic, and I found holes big enough to drive
Karpin's claim through. This idea of leaving the body on some worthless
chunk of rock, for instance. If Karpin had killed his partner--and I was
dead sure he had--he'd planned it carefully and he wouldn't be leaving
anything to chance. Now, an asteroid isn't worthless to a prospector
until that prospector has landed on it and tested it. Karpin might
know that such-and-such an asteroid was nothing but worthless stone, but
the guy who stops there and finds McCann's body might not know it.
No, Karpin wouldn't leave that to chance. He would get rid of that body,
and he would do it in such a way that nobody would ever find it.
How? Not by leaving it on a worthless asteroid, and not by just pushing
it off into space. The distance between asteroids is large, but so's the
travel. McCann's body, floating around in the blackness, might just be
found by somebody.
And that, so far as I could see, eliminated the possibilities. McCann's
body was in the Belt. I'd eliminated both the asteroids themselves and
the space around the asteroids as hiding places. What was left?
The sun, of course.
I thought that over for a while, rather surprised at myself for having
noticed the possibility. Now, let's say Karpin attaches a small rocket
to McCann's body, stuffed into its atmosphere suit. He sets the rocket
going, and off goes McCann. Not that he aims it toward the sun, that
wouldn't work well at all. Instead of falling into the sun, the body
would simply take up a long elliptical orbit around the sun, and would
come back to the asteroids every few hundred years. No, he would aim
McCann back, in the direction opposite to the direction or rotation of
the asteroids. He would, in essence, slow McCann's body down, make it
practically stop in relation to the motion of the asteroids. And then it
would simply fall into the sun.
None of my ideas, it seemed, were happy ones. If McCann's body were even
at this moment falling toward the sun, it was just as useful to me as if
it were on some other asteroid.
But, wait a second. Karpin and McCann had worked with the minimum of
equipment, I'd already noticed that. They didn't have extras of
anything, and they certainly wouldn't have extra rockets. Except for one
fast trip to Chemisant City--when he had neither the time nor the excuse
to buy a jato rocket--Karpin had spent all of his time since McCann's
death right here on this planetoid.
So that killed that idea.
While I was hunting around for some other idea, Karpin spoke up again,
for the first time in maybe twenty minutes. "You think I killed him,
don't you?" he said, not looking around from his cleaning job.
I considered my answer. There was no reason at all to be overly polite
to this sour old buzzard, but at the same time I am naturally the
soft-spoken type. "We aren't sure," I said. "We just think there are
some odd items to be explained."
"Such as what?" he demanded.
"Such as the timing of McCann's cash-return form."
"I already explained that," he said.
"I know. You've explained everything."
"He wrote it out himself," the old man insisted. He put down his
cleaning cloth, and turned to face me. "I suppose your company checked
the handwriting already, and Jafe McCann is the one who wrote that
He was so blasted sure of himself. "It would seem that way," I said.
"What other odd items you worried about?" he asked me, in a rusty
attempt at sarcasm.
"Well," I said, "there's this business of going to Chemisant City. It
would have made more sense for you to go to Atronics City, where you
"Chemisant was closer," he said. He shook a finger at me. "That company
of yours thinks it can cheat me out of my money," he said. "Well, it
can't. I know my rights. That money belongs to me."
"I guess you're doing pretty well without McCann," I said.
His angry expression was replaced by one of bewilderment. "What do you
"They told me back at Atronics City," I explained, "that McCann was the
money expert and you were the metals expert, and that's why McCann
handled all your buying on credit and stuff like that. Looks as though
you've got a pretty keen eye for money yourself."
"I know what's mine," he mumbled, and turned away. He went back to
scrubbing the stove coils again.
I stared at his back. Something had happened just then, and I wasn't
sure what. He'd just been starting to warm up to a tirade against the
dirty insurance company, and all of a sudden he'd folded up and shut up
like a clam.
And then I saw it. Or at least I saw part of it. I saw how that
cash-return form fit in, and how it made perfect sense.
Now, all I needed was proof of murder. Preferably a body. I had the rest
of it. Then I could pack the old geezer back to Atronics City and get
proof for the part I'd already figured out.
I'd like that. I'd like getting back to Atronics City, and having this
all straightened out, and then taking the very next liner straight back
to Earth. More immediately, I'd like getting out of this heat and back
into the cool sixty-eight degrees of--
And then it hit me. The whole thing hit me, and I just sat there and
stared. They did not carry extras, Karpin and McCann, they did not carry
one item of equipment more than they needed.
I sat there and looked at the place where the dead body was hidden, and
I said, "Well, I'll be a son of a gun!"
He turned and looked at me, and then he followed the direction of my
gaze, and he saw what I was staring at, and he made a jump across the
room at the revolver lying on the cot.
* * *
That's what saved me. He moved too fast, jerked his muscles too hard,
and went sailing up and over the cot and ricocheted off the dome wall.
And that gave me plenty of time to get up from the chair, moving more
cautiously than he had, and get my hands on the revolver before he could
get himself squared away again.
I straightened with the gun in my hand and looked into a face white with
frustration and rage. "Okay, Mister McCann," I said. "It's all over."
He knew I had him, but he tried not to show it. "What are you talking
about? McCann's dead."
"Sure he is," I said. "Jafe McCann was the money-minded part of the
team. He was the one who signed for all the loans and all the equipment
bought on credit. With this big strike in, Jafe McCann was the one who'd
have to pay all that money."
"You're babbling," he snapped, but the words were hollow.
"You weren't satisfied with half a loaf," I said. "You should have been.
Half a loaf is better than none. But you wanted every penny you could
get your hands on, and you wanted to pay out just as little money as you
possibly could. So when you killed Ab Karpin, you saw a way to kill your
debts as well. You'd become Ab Karpin, and it would be Jafe McCann who
was dead, and the debts dead with him."
"That's a lie," he said, his voice getting shrill. "I'm Ab Karpin, and
I've got papers to prove it."
"Sure. Papers you stole from a dead man. And you might have gotten away
with it, too. But you just couldn't leave well enough alone, could you?
Not satisfied with having the whole claim to yourself, you switched
identities with your victim to avoid your debts. And not satisfied with
that, you filled out a cash-return form and tried to collect your
money as your own heir. That's why you had to go to Chemisant City,
where nobody would recognize Ab Karpin or Jafe McCann, rather than to
Atronics City where you were well-known."
"You don't want to make too many wild accusations," he shouted, his
voice shaking. "You don't want to go around accusing people of things
you can't prove."
"I can prove it," I told him. "I can prove everything I've said. As to
who you are, there's no problem. All I have to do is bring you back to
Atronics City. There'll be plenty of people there to identify you. And
as to proving you murdered Ab Karpin, I think his body will be proof
enough, don't you?"
McCann watched me as I backed slowly around the room to the mound of
gear. The partners had had no extra equipment, no extra equipment at
all. I looked down at the two atmosphere suits lying side by side on the
metallic rock floor.
Two atmosphere suits. The dead man was supposed to be in one of those,
floating out in space somewhere. He was in the suit, right enough, I was
sure of that, but he wasn't floating anywhere.
A space suit is a perfect place to hide a body, for as long as it has to
be hid. The silvered faceplate keeps you from seeing inside, and the
suit is, naturally, a sealed atmosphere. A body can rot away to ashes
inside a space suit, and you'll never notice a thing on the outside.
* * *
I'd had the right idea after all. McCann had planned to get rid of
Karpin's body by attaching a rocket to it, slowing it down, and letting
it fall into the sun. But he hadn't had an opportunity yet to go buy a
rocket. He couldn't go to Atronics City, where he could have bought the
rocket on credit, and he couldn't go to Chemisant City until the claim
sale went through and he had some money to spend. And in the meantime,
Karpin's body was perfectly safe, sealed away inside his atmosphere
And it would have been safe, too, if McCann hadn't been just a little
bit too greedy. He could kill his partner and get away with it;
policemen on the Belt are even farther apart than the asteroids. He
could swindle his creditors and get away with it; they had no way of
checking up and no reason to suspect a switch in identities. But when he
tried to get his own money back from Tangiers Mutual Insurance; that's
when he made his mistake.
I studied the two atmosphere suits, at the same time managing to keep a
wary eye on Jafe McCann, standing rigid and silent across the room.
Which one of those suits contained the body of Ab Karpin?
The one with the new patch on the chest, of course. As I'd guessed,
McCann had shot him, and that's why he had the problem of disposing of
the body in the first place.
I prodded that suit with my toe. "He's in there, isn't he?"
"Think I should open it up and check? It's been almost a month, you
know. I imagine he's pretty ripe by now."
I reached down to the neck-fastenings on the fishbowl, and McCann
finally moved. His arms jerked up, and he cried, "Don't! He's in there,
he's in there! For God's sake, don't open it up!"
I relaxed. Mission accomplished. "Crawl into your suit, little man," I
said. "We've got ourselves a trip to make, the three of us."
* * * * *
Henderson, as usual, was jovial but stern. "You did a fine job up there,
Ged," he said, with false familiarity. "Really brilliant work."
"Thank you very much," I said. I was holding the last piece of news for
a minute or two, relishing it.
"But you brought McCann in over a week ago. I don't see why you had to
stay up at Atronics City at all after that, much less ten days."
I sat back in the chair and negligently crossed my legs. "I just thought
I'd take a little vacation," I said carelessly, and lit a cigarette. I
flicked ashes in the general direction of the ashtray on Henderson's
desk. Some of them made it.
"A vacation?" he echoed, eyes widening. Henderson was a company man, a
real company man. A vacation for him was purgatory, it was separation
from a loved one. "I don't believe you have a vacation coming," he said
frostily, "for at least six months."
"That's what you think, Henny," I said.
All he could do at that was blink.
I went on, enjoying myself hugely. "I don't like this company," I said.
"And I don't like this job. And I don't like you. And from now on, I've
decided, it's going to be vacation all the time."
"Ged," he said, his voice faint, "what's the matter with you? Don't you
"I feel well," I told him. "I feel fine. Now, I'll tell you why I spent
an extra ten days at Atronics City. McCann made and registered the big
Henderson nodded blankly, apparently not trusting himself to speak.
"Wrong," I said cheerfully. "McCann went to Chemisant City and filled
out all the forms required for registering a claim. But every place he
was supposed to sign his name he wrote Ab Karpin instead. Jafe McCann
never did make a legal registration of his claim."
Henderson just looked fish-eyed.
"So," I went on, "as soon as I turned McCann over to the law at Atronics
City, I went and registered that claim myself. And then I waited around
for ten days until the company finished the paperwork involved in buying
that claim from me. And then I came straight back here, just to say
goodbye to you. Wasn't that nice?"
He didn't move.
"Goodbye," I said.
Next: We Start On A Very Long Voyage