THE crowd pouring down the corridor squeezed out of Phil his wincing recollection of Mitzie's last crack. He slithered his way along the wall, rubbed by shoulder and hip, trodden by heel and toe, set coughing by gray-blue clouds of tobacco, weed, and so-called Venus weed, and regaled by such remarks as, "Aaha, he could of thrown her any time he wanted to," and "What I don't like are those dumb women referees!"
Phil finally wedged his way into an eddy of the crowd near a side corridor. He unhopefully gasped, "Juno Jones." Old Rubberarm whispered throatily, "Come right in, Mack," and narrowly arched his gray arm to let Phil duck through at that point, meanwhile bracing his slaty length against a general surge of the crowd and whipping back the tentacle-end of his arm to stop a gent in brown with tennis-ball eyes who tried to duck in after Phil.
Phil wiped his forehead and took a deep breath. He felt a little giddy standing just by himself. A woman came out of the door ahead. She was dressed with an aggressive dowdiness: shapeless long frock, button shoes, wide brimmed flower covered hat, fur neckpiece and gloves. She looked like somebody's scrubwoman from past times out on a half-holiday. He didn't realize who it was until the crowd behind him began to cheer and to chant, "Juno! Juno!"
She waved to them, but her eyes were on Phil.
"Gosh, I'm glad to see you," she said, grabbing his elbow. Then she whispered, "Don't ask questions. Come with me."
The next moment she was hurrying him down the corridor away from the crowd.
The chanting of the crowd became disappointed and a bit sore. A shrill voice skirled over it: "Whatcha goin' off with the little shrimp for?"
Juno turned around and stood solid. "Listen, you mugs," she bellowed, and the crowd was silent while a telephoto spot glowed blindingly. "I know I'm your heroine and it makes me happy, but even I gotta have a love life! And don't you be insulting it!"
As the crowd yelped with laughter and started cheering again, Juno pushed Phil through a door. "I hope you didn't mind my saying that," she told him. "They're my fans and I gotta humor 'em."
Phil shook his head a bit dazedly. He had expected her to stop as soon as they got out of sight of the crowd, but instead she was hurrying him along a narrow hall.
"Say, look here, Mister -" she began anxiously.
"Phil," he told her. "Phil Gish."
"Well, look, Phil, could I take you to dinner?"
"Sure," Phil said.
"Good," she said with relief. Nevertheless she kept peering about, almost apprehensively, and didn't slacken their pace. "I know a good steak place. Quiet and they really know how to broil rabbit." They reached a narrow, shadowy stairway. Juno steered him toward it. He started up, but she jerked him back. "Not that way, Phil, for gosh sake," she warned him. "That's straight to Billig and the wasps. This place I'm telling you about is on the bottom level." And she started down. "We could take an elevator," she said apologetically, "but this is better," adding gruffly, "more private."
At the bottom of the stairs a narrow door led directly into a long dark room with a counter along one side and a row of booths along the other. With its browned chrome finishes it had to date back to 1960. The customers were truckdrivers, police, and a less definable category. There was an elevator door next to the one they'd come out of. Juno wagged her big hand at a couple of people and shouted to someone, "Whiskey and chops, and make sure you burn the edges. What'll you have, Phil?"
He realized he hadn't eaten since yesterday and mumbled something about a yeast sandwich and a glass of soybean milk. She looked at him, but passed on his order without a comment, then took him in tow once more. She had to answer a few familiar greetings, but she didn't spend much time on them and seemed relieved when she'd plunked Phil down in the booth nearest the front door, where the rumble of trucks was loudest and their headlights, mixed with the sodium glow, flashed on the scratched and dusty glastic. But there were, for a wonder, no jukeboxes or radios of any sort in the place. He also saw that the pushbuttons on the wall were labeled for out of date synthetic foods and had taped over them an "Out of Order" sign that must have been twenty years old itself.
He studied his companion across the table and realized for the first time that she looked dead beat. His glance began to trace on her large jaw the outlines of a recent bruise that was only partly concealed by hastily applied makeup. She dove into her pocketbook with a shy girl's flusteredness and started to dab at her jaw with a powder-puff, but then gave up, put back the puff and slumped forward, her meaty elbows on the plastic.
"Don't ever let 'em tell you the bouts are fixed," she assured him glumly. "Zubek bust a gut trying to get me tonight."
"You won?" Phil inquired.
"Oh, sure. Two falls, a spaceship spin and a free-fall-that means when you throw 'em up and out and they don't come back."
A tray came sliding along the bar. Juno went over and got it before Phil realized that it was for them. From the speed with which the order had been filled, he decided they still had radionic cooking in the place. Juno's seared rabbit chops were as big as small steaks-it must have been an octoploid bunny, at the least-while her whiskey was intimidatingly huge and brown. He nibbled his yeast sandwich and found it seemingly okay, though it always made him a bit uneasy to eat restaurant food that didn't pop out of a wall.
As Juno munched her chops and drank her whiskey, she told Phil snatches of the story of her life. It turned out she was a farm girl who had come to the city young and suffered the usual disillusionments. "How's a girl going to get ahead these days," she asked Phil, "especially a dumb ox like me? Not that I didn't have a swell figure, but even then I was too big and strong. I scared the men I knew and I didn't know then the ones who would have liked what I had. So I tried scrub mothering for a while-you know, birthing babies for wealthy dames who didn't want to carry them the nine months themselves-but I knew there was no future in that. Ten years or so and I'd be sweeping up after some sweeping robot and trying to make throwaway paper dresses last a month. So I remembered how I could pin nine out of ten boys back home, and I entered some amateur wrestling contests and pretty soon they were grooming me for a pro." She shook her head dourly. "You should have seen my figure; it really was beautiful before they put me on hormones." She distastefully inspected her big hands, still white gloved though now gravy stained. "Even used pituitrin on me, the bastards." She sighed and shrugged. By now she had reduced her chops to bones and was working on her second whiskey. "So that's the way it was, Phil. Of course, I had to go and fall in love with a wrestler and marry the little skunk-most of the girls in the business make that mistake-but at least I eat rabbit, even beef, and a lot of dopes respect me."
Phil nodded eagerly. "You've made a place for yourself. Security."
"Are you kidding?" she asked. "Five years and I'll be through, ten at the outside if I get to be a character." She shook her head and leaned forward. "Actually it's much worse than that. Male-female's almost finished. Government's going to crack down."
"They always say that," Phil reassured her with timid cheeriness, "and it never happens."
She shrugged fatalistically. "This time it will."
"I heard the president talking about something like that tonight," Phil said, "but he sounded drunk."
"But Fun Incorporated is supposed to have all sorts of connections with the government," Phil continued to object.
She smiled oddly. "You're right. The best connections any syndicate ever had. Just the same, they're finished. Moe's been worried for weeks, worried bad. I can tell."
"Moe Brimstine. You saw him for a minute this afternoon."
"Oh, yes," Phil said, getting a vivid memory flash of the door-filling, dark jowled hulk, and then went on with a little laugh, "You know, it startled me when his voice was the same as Old Rubberarm's. He seemed too important a man to be a door-tender."
"I'll say he is!" she exclaimed, the boom returning to her voice for a moment. "You didn't actually think, Phil, did you, that he spent his time peeking through a one-way peephole and working that spring-rubber dingus? And would I be calling him a dumb robot? He just used his own voice to record Old Rubberarm's questions and answers. He gets a kick out of things like that." She lifted her heavy eyebrows. "Don't you know who Moe Brimstine is?"
Phil shook his head
"Where you been all your life? 'Scuse me, Phil, but Moe Brimstine is... why, he's on top of the syndicate, right next to Mr. Billig himself!"
When Phil didn't recognize the second name either, she quit trying. "Well, anyway, Phil," she said in her friendly, quiet voice, "there's Moe Brimstine, practically the boss of Fun Incorporated, which runs wrestling and amusement centers, all sales-robots, jukebox burlesque, and a lot of other things they don't talk so much about. And he's worried, real worried. Now I know Moe. He don't worry about nothing but the syndicate. So things must be real bad." She paused, then added cryptically, but with a sort of personal gloominess, "Lots of things are real bad."
Phil nodded. There was a silence.
"Say, Phil," she finally said huskily, watching her big, gravy stained finger rub her near empty glass. "That really was a-whadya call it?-delusion, wasn't it, this afternoon when you was talking about a green cat?"
"I thought so then," Phil said softly. "Now I'm not sure."
She let out a big breath and looked up at him. "You know," she said with sudden warmth, "neither am I. Say Phil, how valuable is that cat, anyway, if there is a cat? Could it be worth $10,000?"
Phil felt his eyes bug at the same instant he was thinking that Lucky's worth could never be measured in money. "$10,000?" he murmured. "I haven't the faintest idea. What made you think of that figure?"
"Well," Juno said slowly, "after the Akeley's-muck 'em!-had left this afternoon, Jack came in to me and started talking again about how dumb I was about you. Only this time it wasn't because I had let you in, but because I'd let you go. He says to me, 'You're dumb, Juno, you're deductively dopey. You don't recognize opportunity. Now I'm in a position to make $10,000 out of that little squirt, only I'm not going to do it, at least not right away,' he says, 'because there are higher things, Juno, there are higher things.'" And she rolled her eyes as if she were in the ring and approaching her spouse in his character of Swish Jack Jones, the Lady Killer.
"Well, anyway," she went on after a moment in a less outraged voice, "I didn't wonder too much about that at the time, 'cause he's always trying to needle me that way since he met Sashy (Jack hates me to call him that) Akeley. But then, just after I get out of the ring tonight, Moe Brimstine starts pumping me about a green cat. Seems he'd been playing Old Rubberarm's recordings of his conversations for the afternoon, and I'd talked about a green cat when I was talking to you. He pretended it was what you call idle curiosity, but that's something Moe Brimstine's got nothing of. Course I told him you were just a harmless nut with cats in your bonnet, but he didn't seem satisfied." She looked at Phil puzzledly. "You did think you were a nut this afternoon, didn't you? You didn't believe in any green cat then-I mean, after we'd argued you out of it?"
Phil had to nod.
"But now you've changed your mind?"
"Yes, I have. You see, I finally took your husband's advice and went to see the analyst."
"That lousy psycher the Akeleys put him onto!" she snorted.
Phil sketched the essentials of his episode with Dr. Romadka. When he had finished, Juno burst out, "I get it all right. If he locks you up and calls in some hoods and they demagnetize the law tape chasing you, then that green cat's no weed dream, brother!"
"They didn't look like hoodlums," Phil objected doubtfully. "Besides, Miss Romadka didn't seem to think the green cat was important."
"That sexy little she-punk!" Juno dismissed Mitzie contemptuously.
Phil was startled-he hadn't realized he'd told Juno so much about Mitzie.
"Besides," Juno went on conclusively, "Moe's interested in the green cat, or he wouldn't pump me about it, and anything Moe's interested in has gotta be real. Oh, the poor little mutt."
"Who, Moe?" Phil asked confusedly.
"Course not. I mean Jack, specially after Moe catches up with him and finds he had that green cat and then didn't deliver." Her brow furrowed excitedly. "Look, Phil, this is the way I figger it: Moe tells Jack and some of the other punks, 'Boys, I'm paying $10,000 to anybody who brings me a green cat.' $10,000 is Moe's favorite figger dealing with smart jerks like Jack."
"But why would Moe Brimstine want a green cat?" Phil objected. "Did you ask him tonight when he was pumping you?"
"Brother, you don't ask Moe Brimstine anything," Juno assured him.
"But you do think now that your husband and Cookie stole the green cat while Old Rubberarm was keeping me out?"
Juno's look implied he stated the obvious far too often.
"Has Mr. Brimstine been asking your husband questions?" Phil asked.
"Jack wasn't billed for tonight," Juno explained. "He went off somewhere."
"To the Akeleys'?" Phil asked, a blurred memory nudging at his mind.
"This isn't the night," Juno said. Her voice became for a moment bitterly mincing. "They only receive wunct a week! Most likely Jack's gone off with Cookie somewhere."
"But if your guess is right about Mr. Brimstine offering $10,000 for a green cat, and Jack stole the cat, then why hasn't he taken it to him?"
Juno rolled her head like an angry bull. "Oh, it'd be something those Akeleys put him up to; something they flattered him into. Maybe they even got him to give them the cat. They can really twist him."
Phil felt all at sea again. "But what would the Akeleys want with the cat?"
"What do screwballs like that want with anything?" Juno countered. "What do they want with Jack?" She snuffed and looked at Phil. "Get one thing straight," she said gruffly, "I love Jack, the little rat. I've taken a lot from him, but I haven't minded too much. Oh, it hurt when I found out he thought more of Cookie and those other punks than he did for me, but I didn't let it show through my skin. After all, if a man knows you can lick him, I suppose it's bound to affect him. But when those Akeleys discovered him and began to play up to him and change him, that was too much for me. They're intelleckchuls, you see, and they flattered Jack and filled him up with a lot of gux about how he had a hidden artistic talent and how he was Zeus or some name like that battling the female principle and so on. Well, he falls for it see?-goes into a complete free-fall. Starts to buy reading tapes, printed books even! Next thing he's insulting me-using a lot of words I never hardly heard of. Keeps talking about how great Mary is, with her art and her magic figures or whatever they are, and how wonderful Sashy is, with his great ideas about understanding and love and a lot of other junk. Tells me to my face that I'm a dumb bell, a stupe semantically!" And having done well with that last word, Juno slugged down the rest of her drink. "Look, Phil," she went on, "I could fight Cookie and the others, because they're on my level, but I can't fight intelleckchuls. They're lifting Jack away from me and I can't do nothing about it. And now they've done and got him into some real trouble, I bet, with this green cat business. Because Moe Brimstine isn't impressed with intelleckchuls or anything." She carefully took the glass out of her hand and made claws. "If I had the little rat here," she said, "I'd strangle some sense into him. But until Moe Brimstine talked to me, I didn't really suspicion anything was wrong, and now I can't do nothing."
Phil's blurred memory suddenly came clear. He told Juno about how, racing to Dr. Romadka's, he had seen Jack, Cookie, Sacheverell, and Mary driving somewhere in the ancient electric.
Juno slammed the table with both fists. People looked around. "That black hearse-box!" She roared. "I should have known it. Tonight's so important they're receiving special." She jumped up and grabbed Phil by the wrist, fumbled for her glass, got Phil's instead, recognized it just before draining the last of the soybean milk, set it down with a shudder and yanked Phil out of the booth. "Come on," she told him. "We're going to the Akeleys! To the temple!"
Opening the doorway leading to the sub-street, Juno had to pause. Phil got a chance to look back the long length of the bar. As he did, the elevator door at the far end opened. A fat form filled it. Dark glasses were twin patches of smut.
At that moment, Phil got an unannounced demonstration of Juno Jones' strength. He was lifted off his feet and lightly swung some ten feet through the doorway into the sub-street roaring and glaring with trucks.
"That was Moe Brimstine," Phil gasped.
"I know," Juno told him as she yanked him toward the escalator leading to higher levels and cab phones. "He didn't see us."
Phil wasn't so sure.