I can do anything, p.1

I Can Do Anything, page 1

 

I Can Do Anything
 


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I Can Do Anything


  I CAN DO ANYTHING

  J. T. McIntosh

  (Galaxy, April 1961)

  Illustrated by Dick Francis

  When a man makes that claim, don't make

  the mistake of asking him to prove it.

  Trouble was brewing at Nick's. There was nothing surprising in that -- it was payday at the mines, and miners are the same all over the Galaxy. In some places, however, they're more the same than others, and Cronfeld was easily the toughest of the so-called civilized worlds.

  Rick Chiotza, the big Blue Star foreman, was in the early stages of the slow burn which in due course would inevitably reach the point of spontaneous combustion. Trouble was, somebody had stolen Ricky's girl. He didn't know who, any more than he knew precisely who his girl was, but if there was one thing sure it was that Ricky Chiotza was going to get the guy.

  Occasionally Chiotza shot black looks at Sammy Talbot, who had taken a hundred dollars from him in a poker game the night before. Except when he was drunk, as he was now, that slick so-and-so was too smart for his own good. Chiotza swore every week he joined the game never to play poker with him again -- and every week he joined the game in the hope of getting back what he'd lost the week before.

  Most of the ladies -- that was the polite name for them -- had scented the raw passion that was writhing in the garish, smoke-filled air of Nick's, and had prudently retired to powder their noses. Some thirty big, sweating unsteady, check-shirted, womanless miners were left, drinking neat whiskey like beer, talking in loud, belligerent tones and listening to nobody else.

  Sammy Talbot, the smallest man in the room, was rapidly reaching the state of furious drunkenness when he would tell the world at the top of his voice that he could do anything. When that happened, the effects were pridictable. Sammy's luck with cards didn't make him popular with the men who had been losing regularly to him for years. Nobody believed that he had any superhuman abilities, and it was quite true that with cards he hadn't -- he just happened to be a good poker player.

  Drunk, as he was now, Sammy wasn't so smart. Sammy was quite likely to pick a fight with Ricky Chiotza, who was three inches taller and thirty pounds heavier than Sammy. Afterward, someone would rustle up Cliff Burns from whatever high society function he happened to be honoring with his presence, and Cliff, after cursing for a minute or two, would come and scrape up what was left of Sammy.

  Outside Nick's it rained as it could rain only in Cronfeld. There was no wind -- there seldom was. Cronfeld had virtually no weather except blasting heat, rain fog and, occasionally, snow. The rain poured patiently out of the dark sky, keeping the paved road perpetually four inches deep in water despite the efficiency of the drainage -- drainage on Cronfeld had to be efficient or there was no use messing with it -- and elsewhere trying to prove, despite millions of years of experimental evidence to the contrary, that silicon dust would eventually dissolve in water.

  Across the street from Nick's was the Garden, the West End of the mining town. You couldn't be on the right or wrong side of the tracks on Cronfeld, there being no railroad. But you could be a miner, or something else. If you were a miner, you lived in the shacks or the hostels, fourght, drank, sweated, ate like a pig and died like a wolf, torn to pieces by the rest of the pack. If you weren't a miner, you lived in Garden City, wore expensive clothes or impractical clothes to prove you weren't a miner, and spent your whole life insisting vehemently that there really was cultured, educated society on Cronfeld.

  Thre is no upper set quite so frenetically gay, quite so extravagant, quite so artificial, as a privileged class which exists side by side with an exceedingly underprivileged group. The vast contrasts of the French Revolution, The Tsarist regime and the Great Depression weren't curious, inexplicable accidents.

  No more than two hundred yards from Nick's, Cliff Burns adjusted his already perfect white tie, smoothed his impeccable tails, and surveyed the scene in the Benjamin ballroom with carefully assumed boredom. There had been a mix-up and half the guests had thought it was a fancy dress ball and the other half hadn't. It didn't matter -- everyone agreed that this only made it a better party than ever.

  The floor and the walls were of glass, the drapes dull crimson. An enormous crystal staircase curved voluptuously into the ballroom itself, and in the center of the glass floor a fountain cascaded, lit by concealed colored lights. The guests were pale and antiseptically clean, for on a dirty, muddy world where it was easy to acquire a deep brown tan it was naturally a mark of quality to be spotlessly clean and pale as a white orchid. Everybody was having a wonderful time, and the gayest of all were the people who secretly wished they were in bed and asleep.

  The orchestra was playing a Strauss waltz. Strauss himself had been buried four centuries ago on a world 773 light-years away, but nobody thought there was anything odd in playing his music on Cronfeld. You could be cultured and still listen to Strauss, and he was a lot easier to listen to than Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart or any of that crowd.

  A blonde in black tights flicked her whip at Cliff's white tie, laughing shrilly, but he hardly looked at her. He was looking for Shirley Benjamin.

  He needn't have bothered. The daughter of the house could hardly be expected to make an ordinary, unheralded entrance. Abruptly the orchestra stopped playing Voices of Spring, went into Lovely to Look At, and Shirley slowly descended the crystal staircase, regally alone, to polite applause.

  Frowning, Cliff moved forward to meet her at the foot of the stairs. Before he could say anything, she giggled and said: "I know, Cliff. You're angry because I'm not wearing your ring. Don't be mean, Cliff. That would spoil it. Don't you see the idea? No earrings, necklace, ring, bangles -- "

  "I see the idea all right," Cliff growled.

  She laughed again. "Oh, I get it. You don't want anybody to see me like this but you, is that it? Go ahead, Cliff, be jealous. That's all right."

  He choked back his annoyance with an effort. He simply couldn't afford to quarrel with Shirley. She represented his one chance of escape from Cronfeld.

  "Well, if you aren't going to ask me to dance," she said, piqued, "I can easily find someone else . . ."

  The orchestra was playing a slow drag. He took her in his arms and they moved out on the floor. If he had dared he would have sent her back upstairs to put on more clothes. But there was too much at stake -- and you didn't tell Shirley Benjamin what she could and couldn't do.

  Mamma and Pappa Benjamin were looking on dotingly. No hope of support there. In their eyes Shirley could do no wrong. Unwillingly Cliff admitted to himself that it was just as well that they felt like that, for if Shirley hadn't been allowed to do exactly as she chose there wouldn't have been much chance of Cliff Burns ever succeeding in becoming engaged to her.

  Gradually Cliff's annoyance subsided. Every man in the room envied him, he knew, and probably most of them knew that Shirley wasn't going to close her bedroom door on him after the ball. Long ago, when he was planning his campaign to marry Shirley and escape from Cronfeld, he had decided that Shirley was the kind of girl who would be easier to marry afterward if he'd seduced her first, who would be easier to hold if she thought she had to work to hold him.

  Naturally he had never allowed her to suspect that he'd have married the sleaziest girl from Nick's if that would have gotten him off Cronfeld.

  He was just beginning to enjoy himself when he felt a tug at his sleeve. "Excuse me," the butler murmured, "Phone call."

  Cliff stepped away from Shirley with a muffled curse. Why couldn't Sammy keep out of trouble for just one night? He forced his lips to smile. "Excuse me, darling."

  It was Bill Monkton, phoning from Nick's. Uptown and Downtown had only one thing in common -- the telephone system. But even that wasn't as egali
tarian as it might be. Every instrument in Garden City had a red light on it which lit up warningly whenever the call was from the Jungle. And if you didn't want to be soiled by even telephonic contact, you didn't need to take the call.

  The red light was on now.

  "Sammy's going to get hurt," Monkton whined. "Chiotza is spoiling for a fight, and any moment Sammy is going to oblige him. Chiotza will kill Sammy."

  Monkton wasn't very bright, Cliff thought, if it had never occurred to him that nothing would suit Cliff better. But despite the trouble Sammy was alway getting into and the number of fights he lost, Sammy never did get killed, and Cliff was getting impatient.

  "What's the good of telling me that?" Cliff demanded. "I can't come over there and drag Sammy out of it, can I? Call again if anything happens."

  He hurried back to the ballroom. Shirley was on the bandstand, her supple torso writhing rhythmically in an exhibition that was five per cent dance and ninety-five per cent sex. Cliff pulled her down from the stand, not very gently. He was angry again. It offended his dignity that the girl he was going to marry should act like a tramp.

  "That low-life pal of yours again, Cliff?" Shirley said. "What's he got on you?"

  "We knew each other on Earth," Cliff said easily. It was a lie -- he had met Sammy for the first time on Cronfeld.

  They had barely started dancing again when Cliff was called to the phone once more. This time he didn't muffle his curses. Shirley giggled and blew him a kiss.

  "He ain't hurt bad," Monkton said over the phone. "You've seen him a lot worse."

  "Where is he?"

  "In the gutter outside Nick's."

  Cliff cut the connection and called a taxi. It came right to the door, close against the canopy, so that he could step into it withoug getting wet. "Nick's," he snapped.

  The cab splashed diagonally across the road and stopped beside a limp form face down in the gutter. "Lift him in," said Cliff.

  "I can't do it alone," the cabbie complained. "I need help."

  He got it, but not from Cliff. A slight figure dashed from the side door at Nick's, a figure in a shapeless raincoat. At first annoyed, for no particular reason, Cliff suddenly smiled. This girl, whoever she was, could see Sammy home, and he could go right back to the party.

  Between them the taxi-driver and the girl hoisted Sammy into the back of the car and propped him in a corner. Cliff kept well into the opposite corner, hoping his immaculate clothes weren't going to be soiled.

  "Get in," Cliff told the girl curtly.

  She blinked, but obeyed.

  Suddenly Sammy turned his head and saw Cliff. he tried to get up. "I'm not staying in the same room with that guy," he said indistinctly but vehemently.

  "You're not in a room, you're in a taxi," the girl siad soothingly.

  "Suzie . . . What are you doing here with this heel, Susie? Let get at him and I'll -- "

  "You ought to be ashamed of yourself, Sammy. Every time you get into trouble, Mr. Burns always comes and gets you out of it."

  Cliff was startled. Although he'd never seen this girl Susie before, apparently she knew all about him.

  "He gets paid for it," Sammy muttered.

  "Sammy!" Cliff exclaimed. "Watch what you're saying."

  "You're my keeper. You get paid to keep an eye on me. You wish I was dead, but any time I get in trouble you've got to haul me out in cas I die and you're held responsible. But you're really only looking for a chance to finish off the job some time when you're absolutely certain the first guy is going to get blamed for the whole thing -- "

  Forgetting his concern over his clothes, Cliff brushed Susie aside and slapped Sammy hard on both cheeks. Instantly he found himself struggling with the girl. And she was winning.

  "Look," he gasped. "I've had enough of this. You -- what's your name? -- Susie, will you see that Sammy gets home?"

  She stopped struggling, puzzled. She couldn't make out whether Cliff was Sammy's friend or not.

  "Sure," she said. "Sure."

  The taxi crossed the street again and Cliff got out. He paid the driver and stood back under the canopy of the Benjamin house. The car sloshed away, sending out bow waves like a sppedboat.

  Sammy's room at the miners' hostel was untidy, but not dirty. There were signs that he wasn't just an ordinary miner -- books, a water color to two, a chess game he was working through.

  Such evidences of a not uncultured background weren't unknown among the miners. The only good reason to become a miner on Cronfeld was to escape the law, and usually men who chose this way of escape were quite unaware that the law was perfectly satisfied to know that they were there. Occasionally men escaped from jails and often men were released from jails. But nobody ever came back from the minefields of Cronfeld.

  Once a miner, you were stuck on Cronfeld for life. There was nothing to stop people from the Garden traveling on the space freighters which carried the more valuable ores back to the inner worlds. It was easier, however, to get through the eye of a needle than to make the short journey from the Jungle to the Garden. Money didn't help. The miners were reasonably well paid, and it was no secret that Sammy, the poker king, must have thousands stashed away somewhere. But money alone couldn't get him into the Garden. No social door had ever been more tightly bolted and barred than the door of the Garden against the Jungle.

  The authorities on many worlds were well aware of this. Criminals and undesirables were often helped on their way, without having the faintest suspicion of the fact, by the police of the country or world they were leaving.

  Susie found a rag and soaked it at the cracked sink.

  "I c'n do anything," Sammy uttered.

  "Sure you can," said Susie, working on his injuries, which weren't serious this time.

  Susie wasn't as pretty as Shirley Benjamin. In fact, she wasn't pretty at all, although she had a passable figure. A girl didn't have to be pretty on a world like Cronfeld. Merely to be young was enough, and Susie was about eighteen. She had nevertheless been one of Nick's girls for six years, which meant that in some kinds of experience she was as old as time.

  "I c'n do anything," Sammy insisted, turning his head petulantly away from her. "If I liked, I could . . . Susie, I've told you before. They sent me here because . . . Look, Susie, I'm not a killer or a thief or a brute like the rest of them. I never did anything really bad -- no more than you'd expect when a fellow can do anything he likes."

  "Sure, honey," said Susie tenderly.

  She had no other name but Susie. Having been sold to the proprietors of Nick's at the age of three months, and then boarded out with one of Nick's girls for twelve or thirteen years until she should become a commercial asset, Susie had naturally known very little tenderness in here life. Not that she had any complaints -- people who have things tough right from birth rarely do have complaints. When she met Sammy, however, it had been like a door of a prison opening into a lovely, sunny valley.

  Sammy wasn't much. he was always pitying himself, and getting drunk whenever he had a chance, and playing the same old bombastic I-can-do-anything record whenever he got drunk. But Sammy was nice to her in a way no one had ever been before.

  Sometimes she cried when she thought of it. Imagine anybody realizing she had feelings! And not merely realizing she had feelings, but respecting them.

  Once he had tried to give her money, a lot of money. She hadn't counted it, but it seemed to Susie's astonished eyes to be more money than she had believed, to that moment, existed in all of Cronfeld.

  "Go on, take it," he had said. "It's no good to me. I can't use it to get off Cronfeld. You might, if you went the right way about it."

  But when he had seen that she was refusing the money because of finer feelings than he had credited her with, he apologized sincerely, treating her with such respect and courtesy that she felt ashamed. At the same time, womanlike, she loved him more for it.

  It was a pity that he got drunk. Susie had grown up with hard liquor, trained to make the men wi
th her drink as much as possible, and Sammy was the only man she ever tried to stop drinking. Drunk, he was like any man. Sober, there was something fine about Sammy.

  "That Cliff Burns . . ." Sammy whispered, with loathing.

  "Honey, I don't get it about you and him. Does he really get paid, like you said? Like Norma was paid to look after me?"

  "I'm not supposed to talk about it."

  "Sure, honey, but you keep talking about it all the same. You keep saying that you can do anything, but you're not supposed to, and you're not even supposed to talk about it, and Cliff Burns gets paid for looking after you, but you're not supposed to talk about that either."

  Although when other people said such things Sammy flew into a blind rage, Susie's tone was so warm and sympathetic that he couldn't be angry.

 
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