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DAVID WRIGHT O'BRIEN
(WRITING AS CLEE GARSON)

THE MERCHANT OF VENUS

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First published in Fantastic Adventures, April 1943
This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library
Version Date: 2019-10-04
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Fantastic Adventures, April 1943,
with "The Merchant Of Venus"



Illustration

"Come to me, my love!" she bellows at me. And boy, she really meant it!




This guy certainly had something to sell! Just pills, they seemed to be, but it was what they did that was terrific. Usually love is a grand thing, but the emotion these pills aroused—wow!



THIS guy came walking into my office and my life at four o'clock that afternoon. He wore a bowler hat, a celluloid collar and an air of timid respectability. He looked around the single room that comprised the quarters of the Atlas Advertising Agency until his glance found me sitting behind a typewriter on the only desk in the place.

He smiled faintly and nodded politely.

"Are you Mr. Boswell?" he inquired. On the door, underneath the Atlas Advertising Agency slug I am listed as Stephen B. Boswell: President.

"Yes," I admitted. "I'm Boswell."

He gave me another faint smile and nodded again.

"I am Peter P. Paxton," he said, "and I am here on business."

He didn't look like a bill collector. They don't send people who look like Peter P. Paxton around to frighten debtors like Stephen B. Boswell. Maybe—just maybe—he was a client. I crossed my fingers.

"Advertising business?" I asked.

Peter P. Paxton nodded eagerly.

"You want me to place some advertising for you, Mr. Paxton?" I found the courage to ask.

He nodded. He seemed to nod to anything said in his direction.

"Yes, advertising business," he said.

I stood up and beamed, extending my hand and leaning toward him with a ghoulishly cordial grin.

"Pull up a chair, Mr. Paxton," I told him. "Pull up a chair!"

His handshake was like bread sopped in milk. He smiled again and nodded again, saw the chair beside the desk, pulled it around and sat down, plunking the brief-case he carried onto his knees.

"Your, ah, work," he began. "Are you sure I wasn't interfering with—"

I looked down quickly at the sheet of paper that was still in the typewriter. It was the beginning of a nasty reply to a nasty creditor. I took it out quickly, hid it under a stack of papers and grinned again at Mr. Peter P. Paxton.

"Not at all," I said assuringly. "Just a little detail work on an account I'm handling."

Mr. Peter P. Paxton seemed relieved. He smiled and nodded. Then he opened his mouth and closed it quickly again. He didn't seem to know where to begin.

"Have you ever placed any advertising before, Mr. Paxton?" I asked. Obviously, he hadn't. Otherwise he wouldn't be coming to the Atlas Agency with his business.

"Ah, no. No, not exactly," he said, confirming what I'd guessed.

I smiled, trying not to look like a cat munching the last wing bone of a canary. I now had Mr. Peter P. Paxton placed in my personal category of clients. I had him in class number two. You see, class number one is comprised of fly-by-night business who want quack advertising placed for quick and generally illicit returns. No financially solvent agency will bother handling their accounts. I got a lot of them. Class two comprise the dumb-bells and the ginks who didn't know any better than to come to a jerk agency like mine with their business.

Peter P. Paxton didn't look like the proprietor of a fly-by- night racket. He looked like a member of the dumb-bell group. Hence my classification of him.

"Then you aren't particularly well acquainted with the services a small, friendly, personally interested agency like Atlas can offer you, eh?" I asked.

"I know," said Mr. Paxton, saying the words as if he'd memorized them from a textbook, "that advertising means everything to the success of any business venture."

"That's good," I beamed. "Then I won't have to waste your time and mine proving what advertising can do for your business. Incidentally, Mr. Paxton, what is your business?"

"Potions," my client answered. "The Peter P. Paxton Potion Company."

I was surprised. I don't know why.

"Potions, eh? So you're a chemist? Or perhaps a drug firm?"

Mr. Paxton shook his head.

"Not exactly," he said. "Just, ah, plain potions. Potions to bring good luck. Potions to bring happiness. Potions to bring, ah, riches, and all that sort of thing."

I suddenly went bug-eyed. Not at his racket, but at the fact that I'd misjudged the guy so. He was a racketeer, a quackeroo of the first water, and I'd been so taken in by his appearance that I'd placed him in the respectable-but-dumb category!

"Potions, huh?" I repeated automatically, while my mental gears went rapidly into reverse on my opinion of the harmless- looking little guy.

"Pills, too," he put in. "Pills and Potions by Peter P. Paxton. I think that would make some sort of a slogan, don't you?"

"Oh," I said. "I see. Pills, too, eh?"

Mr. Paxton nodded. "Pills to bring good weather. Pills to perk you up. Pills to, ah, give you confidence, and all that sort of thing."

"Ummhum," I nodded. "I see. I see perfectly. But you say you never advertised before. How come?"

Mr. Paxton nodded. "I have not been in business long," he declared. "I, ah, have just lately been prompted to the conclusion that advertising would, ah, boom my products beyond my wildest dreams."

His business was his business. If he peddled the stuff from door to door previously, it was none of my concern. All that mattered to me was the fact that a small time quack wanted to branch out and reach his suckers through the printed word. That was my medium, and if he wanted to open an account—excellent.

"What sort of advertising do you figure on starting with, Mr. Paxton?" I asked. "I mean in financial layout, of course."

Mr. Peter P. Paxton seemed to have figured this out pretty well. At any rate his answer was quick enough.

"Oh, four or five thousand dollars worth in the first month or so," he said.

This was a surprise—and a pleasant one.

"Ah, yes. I see. I see you are a smart man, Mr. Paxton. You want to make a big, quick, clean—ah, boom in your product, eh?" I oozed.

Mr. Paxton beamed and nodded.

"Exactly Mr. Boswell. You see, I'd like to feature my latest potion-pill above all the others. I would like to focus, ah, all the attention on this latest pill. I have decided that an advertising campaign based around this latest potion-pill should put my entire business into a boom."


HE picked up his brief case from his knees and began to open it. I went into a cheery stream of chatter, thinking what a nice size of moola fifteen percent of four or five grand would be to the Atlas Advertising Agency and its practically penniless president.

"I think that's a top-notch idea," I said. "You see, Paxton, too many bandi—-ah, business men in your type of rack—ah, enterprise, try too hard to sell all their products at once. They don't have brains enough to concentrate. Why, would you believe it, a client just the other day—" And I went into the mythical details of an imaginary argument with a nonexistent client who didn't have sense enough to do as Paxton wanted to do. But Paxton didn't seem to be paying much attention. He was digging around in his brief case.

"Ah," he exclaimed suddenly, pulling out a small glass vial and holding it up for me to see. "This is it!"

I looked at the vial. It had a cork stopper on the top, and contained four, round, candy-ish looking pills inside. Each was about half the size of a marble.

"Very nice," I said. "What goes?"

"This is my latest potion-pill, the Paxton product I would like to feature in the advertising scheme—" Paxton began.

"Oh. Sure. Sure, of course," I broke in. "That's fine. What are those potion-pills supposed to do?"

My client colored like a schoolboy.

"They, ah, bring love, and all that sort of thing," he explained. He handed the vial to me.

"How nice," I grinned, glancing at the label that had been pasted on the vial. "And what a clever title you have for the potion."

"Casanova Capsules?" beamed Mr. Paxton eagerly. "You like that title?"

"Not bad," I admitted. "You could call it the Venus Vial of Casanova Capsules."

Mr. Paxton gurgled his glee at this suggestion.

"Wonderful, Mr. Boswell. Wonderful!"

"Thanks," I said. I put the vial down on the desk. "Now, if you're gonna feature this Venus Vial of Casanova Capsules, guaranteed to bring romance, what'll be the sales hook, I mean line, to go with it? I'd appreciate it if you'd outline a little more of what you want for your four or five grand worth of advertising."

"Certainly," Paxton nodded seriously. "This latest potion-pill I have developed, is guaranteed to make the person who swallows it fall madly in love with the first person of the opposite sex he or she encounters. Of course, the purpose of the pill is to enable young men and women to win the love of their choice by administering the pill personally to the selected party. Then, said selected party, on unknowingly swallowing the pill, looks up to see the person who has administered it, promptly falling in love with that person."

I held up my hand.

"Wait a minute," I begged. "You mean that if I gave this pill to, say, a dame I was nuts about and wasn't getting anywhere with, she'd look up after swallowing the pill and be instantly in love with me?"

Mr. Paxton beamed.

"That is right."

I gave him a look of disgust.

"Too juvenile," I said. "Mumbo-jumbo is too heavy. Have to be pretty big suckers to stomach that sort of advertising hogwash. Why don't you just plan your sales line on some general talk about how the pills, if taken by the purchaser, will make said purchaser irresistible to members of the opposite sex?"

"But that would be reversing it," Mr. Paxton objected in a strangely shocked tone. "The pill does not work on the purchaser, for it is not to be consumed by the purchaser. It is to be administered by the purchaser to the person from whom he wants love. Don't you see?"

"Sure I see," I said, a trifle irritated. "I see the line you've worked out, all right. But I'm just giving you my professional advice on the matter. If you use my sales line in your ad copy, you'll sell a hell of a lot more pills. Customers won't go for that mumbo-jumbo as you have it now!"

"But my dear Mr. Boswell—" Paxton began.

I cut him off. "Do as you please," I shrugged irritatedly. "I'll work out a scheme on any line you desire. But I'm just giving you advice with my service, that's all. After all, it's your four or five thousand dollars that's going into this account, not mine."

"But if the purchaser were to take the pill himself, or, ah, herself," Paxton said, "it would not result in his or her becoming quite irresistible to the opposite sex. Don't you see?"

I looked at him in amazement.

"Of course I see. Do you think I'm nuts?"

Mr. Paxton colored. "What I mean is, if the purchaser of a Venus Vial were to take a Casanova Capsule, he or she would immediately fall in love with the first person encountered of the opposite sex." His voice took on a pleading note. "Therefore, I cannot see why you insist that I run the advertisement advising the purchaser to put the pills to such a potentially dangerous self-use."

I could only frown bewilderedly at the guy.

"Look," I said. "Maybe you know what you're saying, Paxton. But it doesn't make sense to me. You talk like the thing was a reality or something. But that's neither here nor there. You just tell me how you want the copy, and I'll write it anyway you say. I'm tired of trying to argue for your own good. After all, like I say, it's your four or five thousand bucks, and it's up to you to get what you want from it."


THE look that came suddenly into the eyes of Peter P. Paxton should have warned me. It should have, but it didn't. Maybe it didn't because what was to follow had never happened to me in all my days operating even the cheapest of agencies. At any rate, his next words spilled the beans and caused the sick shock that grabbed my stomach.

"Ah, that matter of four or five thousand dollars, Mr. Boswell," Paxton said apologetically, "is something I had better discuss with you now. Don't you think?"

Even then I didn't get it. I grinned.

"Sure. If you'd like to make a deposit before I swing into your account for you, that's certainly all right with me. Ha, ha, ha!"

Mr. Paxton shook his head anxiously.

"Ah, that isn't quite what I meant, ah, exactly, Mr. Boswell," he said. "I meant that I was hoping that your advertising agency could, ah, back my product by putting up the money for the first four or five thousand dollars worth of advertising. I'd pay you back with, ah, the profits from the campaign after the first month or so."

I could only gape at the guy in horrified astonishment.

"I'm sure that advertising would, ah, put my product over, Mr. Boswell. Then you wouldn't regret having backed me. No sir, you wouldn't. You'd profit handsomely, yes you would."

At last I found words. Many words. Hard words. Nasty words. Words that somehow escaped the attention of decent dictionaries. I let Mr. Peter P. Paxton have them all. If he had been a foot shorter and if I had been in better shape, I'd have let him have a fistful of knucks. And then I wound up wild and wrathful.

"Get out of here you cheap, nervy, lousy little grafter! Get out!"

But Peter P. Paxton was already halfway to the door, his face white and frightened. He got the idea.

"You are making a great mistake, Mr. Boswell," he said in shrill terror. "You are sending a great profit away from your door!"

I started across the office.

"Get!" I told him.

He got.


WHEN the door closed behind Paxton I unleashed any words I might missed in my first rash of rage. Then I lighted a cigarette and went gloomily back to my desk.

I sat there a while, thinking mad thoughts, then sad ones. I picked up the stall-off letter I'd been starting to one of my innumerable creditors and snarled at it. I rolled it up into a ball in my fist and threw it across the room.

Sickly, I thought of the quick mental spending I'd done of my fifteen percent of Paxton's advertising outlay. A few months back office rent, two weeks back room rent, a watch out of the pawn shop. Just a few little items on which I'd spent that nonexistent profit.

I looked at the cheap dollar watch I kept on my desk. Half the afternoon shot. Well, not exactly shot. That is, I didn't have anything to do except turn out a letter on a small account. I decided to have a little snort.

And then I saw the Venus Vial of Casanova Capsules. It was still on my desk. Pseudo-client Paxton had forgotten to take it along with him, since his exit had been so hasty.

I shrugged, picking it up. Pills, just pills. I tossed it back on the desk and got my hat ...


AT Eric'S bar, located right next to my office building, I was greeted with additionally cheering evidence of my status on Wall Street.

Nick, the day bartender, was polite but firm when I ordered a rye with a water wash.

"It'll have to be cash, Steve," he told me.

I glared at him.

"Since when is my credit here so lousy?" I demanded.

"Since this morning, when Eric was in," Nick said. Eric owned the joint. "He told me that we'd have to close off your credit until you made an effort to clear up a little of your back bar bill."

In my mental state at that moment I didn't even have the dignity to take my business elsewhere.

"I should depart in a huff," I said angrily.

"Sure," Nick grinned. "Sure you should, Steve."

I threw a half a dollar on the bar.

"But my feet are tired," I added. "Now give me that drink."

"Sure, Steve," Nick said cheerfully.

He brought the bottle, shot glass, and water over to me. I poured a rye, and he took the bottle away. I was too low even to resent the insulting implications of that gesture.

Babs Cartier came into the bar, then. Babs was a neat little blonde number who worked in the chorus at the Gaiety burlesque a block down the street. She had a form that had been made to be stared at. Her face was as pretty as a diamond, and as hard. She gave me a weary smile and took a seat next to me at the bar.

"How's the advertising big shot?" she asked.

"If you expect a drink," I said. "That type of gag won't get it. In fact, it wouldn't get it even if tight-fisted Eric hadn't cut off my credit as of this morning."

Babs tsked, sympathetically.

"When you start paying cash for drinks, things must be low," she said.

"Sister," I said, "you're getting the idea."

Nick came over, and took Babs' order for a stinger. When he went away to mix it, Babs said: "Well, Stevie, you're looking at a little gal who is of today among the unemployed."

"Huh? You mean you've quit the Gaiety?" I demanded.

"Cold," Babs said. "I told George Slonski he could take his job and the measly forty bucks a week and—"

"Sure, sure," I said, cutting her off. "I get the picture. But what happened. Why the itch to become footloose from cash?"

Babs laughed, and it was not temple bells tinkling, if you know what I mean.

"Remember Terry Fortescue?" she asked.

I remembered Terry Fortescue.

He was a heavy-sugared, wet nosed young playboy who had supported practically every swank night club in town single- handed for the last two years. I remembered, too, that Babs had mentioned several times of having been squired by young Fortescue to said swank bistros.

"I seem to recall your having mentioned once or twice that you would like to sink your red nails into some of his fortune," I said. "But I don't remember anything to the effect that you were getting anywhere with your plans."

Again Babs laughed. This time in knowing triumph.

"I ain't seen you since last week, Stevie," she said. "A lot can happen inna week. I think Terry is definitely getting that way about a certain young chorine who is me."

My eyes widened. Babs was a smart young wench. Cold and more than calculating, she knew damned well what she had always longed tor in life. She had always longed for a life that was spelled with a big dollar sign in front of it. It wasn't likely that she'd bandy such statements around without reason. And if she said she was getting close to the Fortescue millions, maybe there was something to it.

"Well," I said. "Well, I'm damned. You kidding, Babs?"

"Why you think I quit my job, Stevie?" Babs asked.

"Huh?" I asked. "Has he—"

Babs cut me off. "Oh no. Not that, Stevie. Don't jump at no conclusions like that. I don't want that part of the Fortescue cash. I want to be Missus Fortescue, nothing else. Guys like Terry find it a lot tougher to shake a dame they marry than a dame they just get mink coats for. A lot tougher, and more expensive. So I'm shooting for the Missus Fortescue role."

"But quitting your job," I said, "sounds like you figure you are practically walking down the aisle with Terry Fortescue right now. Has he mentioned anything similar to that?" Babs shook her head. "Not quite. But he has invited me along on a cruise on his yotch tonight, no less. We will watch the New Yawk dimout from the rails of said yotch and speak romantic lingo to each other, and I think I will hook him then and there."

I whistled. "Baby, if you can swing that young moneybags into a wedding ring, you'll—"

Babs cut me off. "An' that's why I quit my job today, see? My boss, Georgie Slonski, insisted what I should work tonight when I, wanted the evening off for Terry's yotch party, see? Nacherly, I told Slonski what to do with his job."

"Naturally," I agreed. "A shot at a million or more bucks doesn't stand a chance against a mere job." I sighed, thinking of how I might have been born a wise, hard, pretty wench like Babs instead of a guy who had to make his own million.

Nick came back with Babs' stinger, and I pulled out a half dollar and paid for it.

Babs looked at me in surprise. "You said you was broke," she said.

"I am," I agreed. "And that represents the second drink I was going to have for myself. But, what the hell, it isn't every day I get a chance to make a friendly gesture with a potential millionnairess."

"I will recollect you," Babs said with dignity, "in my will, my good man."

"Just remember me in the divorce courts, baby," I said, "in case you want some first rate publicity. I'll probably be down to that by then."

"Toojeers lamoor!" Babs said, raising her drink.

"Same to you," I nodded gloomily, picking up my hat. "And good luck, baby."


THERE wasn't much to do but go back to the office, although it was now almost six in the evening, and all respectable working offices had closed their doors. I'd decided against dinner, since I might need the dough if I got back to my rooming house and found myself locked out.

When I went back up to my office I found the lights on inside and the door halfway open. I could hear the scrape of things being moved and mops being wielded, and I realized that the night cleaning women were at work tidying up the offices of the building.

I went into the office to see what sort of rearranging Becky—she's the hatchet-faced, huge-bosomed scrub woman who generally supervised the cleaning of the offices on my floor—had done to the usual welter of papers and magazines on my desk.

She inevitably deplored the wild arrangement of everything on my desk, and invariably succeeded in dumping half the papers into the waste basket by the time she made them shipshape.

I could see her big broad back bent busily over my desk as I stepped into the office. And undoubtedly she had heard my entrance; for she straightened up swiftly, guiltily.

"Hello, Becky. Messing up my desk again?" I asked, mixing jollity with truth.

But Becky didn't turn around. She began, instead, to cough. A quick, gagging, choking cough.

I stepped swiftly over to the desk, thinking to pound her on her broad back; since her coughing sounded as if she'd something caught in her throat.

And at that instant she stopped coughing and turned—her hatchet face crimson—to face me.

Her face was crimson from coughing. But there was the damnedest look in her eyes. Almost a guilty look. And then I saw why.

The bottle of Casanova Capsules, the Venus Vial, stood open on my desk, cork stopper beside it—and there were only three pills left where once there had been four.

Becky had been sampling, and almost choked to death on one of the pills when I came into the room and interrupted said sampling.

I suddenly began to laugh at her expression. It was the startled glance of a frightened horse. And it was something else I couldn't quite place, but which was equally hilarious.

I continued to guffaw, while Becky caught her breath and fought for a return to her usually bovine calm.

Her breath returned. But her bovine calm just wasn't. There was something else. Something shining naked and unashamed from her blue, saucer-big eyes. Something that looked awfully like—admiration and breathless awe. But in an instant, I realized that it wasn't either awe or admiration. It was adoration. In short, love!

"Mister Boswell!" Becky exclaimed, wringing her big red mitts as coyly as a schoolgirl. "Mister Boswell, you frightened me!"

Then, so help me God, she flicked the pale lashes of her baggy eyes up and down rapidly and shot me an oh-you-marvelous-man stare!

I was crazy. I was certain I was crazy. But I stepped back out of range of Becky's immediate clutches. I couldn't be certain what her next reaction would be.

"Heh—heh," I muttered. "Sorry. Sorry I frightened you. But, everything looks spic and span; yes, it does. You, er, won't have to touch another thing. You, er, can just run along to the next office eh?"


BECKY took a step toward me, almost putting her size twelve foot into her scrub bucket. She simpered cutely at this near miss and batted her lashless lids at me again.

"I always try like to keep things spic and span, Mister Boswell," she cooed. "That's the way I keep homes. Clean like. I cook good, too."

I ran a finger around my collar and stepped back another pace. I recalled that Becky was married to a middle-aged giant in excellent shape who stoked flaming hearths in some steel mill.

"That's fine," I choked. "Your husband is a lucky man. Now, er, if you'll just excuse me, I think I'll get to work."

But Becky didn't seem willing to let the sordid matters of toil tarnish her new-found emotions. She moved toward me again, batting those unglamorous lids coyly.

"Mr. Boswell," she said huskily, "I think that I love you!"

I stepped quickly back, putting out my hands in self-defense. After all, Becky was at least five feet eleven and two hundred and forty pounds worth of women, and I wouldn't have much chance if she suddenly wanted to neck.

"Now look," I began. "You have a husband and a home, Becky. Undoubtedly you have children as old as I am, or, anyway, almost as old. I, er, just don't think any romance between the two of us would er, be appropriate under those circumstances. Do you?"

Becky sighed, her huge bosom heaving ponderously.

"I know I am loving you, Mister Boswell!" she husked throatily. "And nothing in the way of love stands!"

"Very nicely put," I muttered, making for the door.

Becky made a lunge for me, and I grabbed hard for the door handle to swing it open and make my escape. I missed, and Becky sailed headlong toward me in a massive rush of love-bent exertion. I ducked and scooted off to one side. She collided heavily against the door.

But that didn't stop her. She turned around, realigning her directions, and spied me trying to get behind the shelter of my desk. She beamed lovingly and sailed forth for the desk. I held my dash; keeping the desk between the two of us would be my best chance. Or so I reasoned.

Becky reached the desk, and I was on the other side. She started to her left, and I started around to my left, keeping a nice space of mahogany between us. She chortled coyly. Obviously, to her, we were playing a gay little game—a sort of lovers' romp.

But the romp had more than usual complications. For I now found myself wedged in between the desk and the wall, and realized that Becky was shoving the desk harder and harder into my stomach to trap me where I stood!

"Nothing," she said huskily again, "in the way of love stands!"

I tried desperately to squirm loose and make a dash for the door. But it was no use. I couldn't budge. And now Becky, lovelight glowing in her bovine blue eyes, held the desk fast with one hand and proceeded cautiously around the side toward me.

I made a gurgling cry of despair, and closed my eyes.

It was at that instant that I heard the door open, and the startled gasp that followed it.


I OPENED my eyes. Martha, a thin, dour scrubwoman who teamed with Becky, stood on the threshold staring at the scene bug- eyed.

"Becky!" she bleated. "And Mister Boswell!"

It broke the spell for Becky. Or, at least, it intruded enough on her private little love chase to make her crimson in sudden embarrassment and break into a fit of cowish sounds that were intended for girlish giggles. She released the pressure against the desk, and I was able to push it back and breathe freely.

Martha still surveyed the scene with wonder, her thin, sour little features grimacing in bewilderment.

"Heh-heh," I tried for Martha's benefit, "I was just showing Becky a dusty spot she missed on the floor."

But big Becky didn't help matters a bit. She repeated her giggling salvo at this, blinking her lashes—practically nonexistent—coyly in my direction.

But I'd already had enough. Martha's sudden appearance had been a Godsend, and I was determined to take advantage of her presence to make my escape. I mopped my brow quickly with a handkerchief, grabbed up the Venus Vial, pushed the cork stopper into it, slipped it into my pocket and headed for the door....


OUT in the street in front of the office building I stopped and caught my breath. My knees were knocking and my palms were moist. And a gradual realization of the cause for what had happened was creeping up on me. When it hit, it almost commandoed me into a coma.

I had had a subconscious realization of the cause of Becky's actions right from the minute I saw the open Venus Vial and realized that she'd popped a pill into her mouth. But her actions from that minute on hadn't given me any time for any further rationalization. I'd been too busy avoiding her clutches to give any thought to the reason behind them.

But now I knew. Knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that Peter P. Paxton's Venus Vial of Casanova Capsules had been the one and only cause for the sudden love for Stephen B. Boswell which had been inspired in the heart of Becky the behemoth scrublady.

And little inventor Paxton's words concerning the action of his Casanova Capsules came back coherently enough to make me aware that I had undoubtedly been the first person poor Becky encountered after trying the pill. The result—as little Paxton had predicted—was Becky's whole-hearted affection for me.

In short, the damned pills weren't phony. They were the genuine article, the very thing Paxton had said they were!

I pulled the Venus Vial out of my coat pocket and looked at it closely, unbelievingly, beneath the street lamp. I shook my head, awed, frightened a little but damned well convinced of the strictly weird powers they possessed.

Dropping the Venus Vial back in my pocket, I turned right, which took me straight into Eric's saloon.

Nick, who had only been the daytime bartender, was off duty by now. In his place for the hour before the other bartender came onto night shift, was Eric himself, owner of the joint. The man who had issued instructions to Nick that very morning that I was to be given no more credit.

"Hello, Eric," I said cheerfully, taking a stool at the bar.

Eric is blonde, thin, with a creased face that always looks suspiciously at the world. He nodded his answer to my greeting glumly.

"I'll have a rye and water," I said. I really needed it, now that I was fully aware of the Venus Vials' incredible value.

"I am sorry I cannot let you have no more credit, Steve," Eric said. He didn't sound a bit sorry. "You want a drink, it will have to be cash you pay for it."

"I already know that," I said. "I was in once already today." I threw a half dollar on the bar. "Hustle along a rye and water."

Eric looked at the half dollar as if he wanted to bite it to make sure of its silver content. Then he moved off to get a bottle and the glasses.

I touched the outline of the vial lying there in my coat pocket, and a chill ran along my spine. My God—a guy who could make pills with powers like that was worth a million bucks a minute. I was already going over some tricky legal clauses in my mind. Legal nooses with which I planned to tie up Peter P. Paxton the minute I got my hands on him again.

For I was going to see him again, all right. Even if I had to turn out the entire town in a search for him. I was going to find that little guy and drag him back into the office with a tractor, if necessary, and take him up on the offer he had made that very afternoon.

Through my mind was running a recollection of some of the other pills and potions he'd mentioned. Pills to bring wealth. Pills to bring good luck. Potions to bring happiness, etc. It was staggering to think of. Supposing all the other pills and potions he'd mentioned were just as effective as his Venus Vial of Casanova Capsules?


ERIC brought back the bottle, shot glass, and water glass and scooped up the half dollar. He gave me a sour grimace as I filled the shot glass with an unsteady hand.

"Boozing it up?" he asked nastily.

Some of the rye slopped over the shot glass and onto the bar. Eric glared even more balefully at this. And then I had a sudden, wonderful idea.

"Pedro and Juanita on duty upstairs?" I asked.

Pedro and Juanita were the Cuban couple who served as chef and waitress in the tiny alcove dining room Eric maintained upstairs on the second floor of his place.

Eric nodded glumly. "They just came on duty. I had to give that Pedro hell for being late again. How he thinks I can work up any food trade when he's never around—"

Eric, as usual, was just grousing for the hell of it. He, and everyone else, knew that his joint's dinner trade didn't exist, and that the only function of his food service was for late sandwiches and snacks for his drinking trade.

But I grinned at his saying he gave Pedro hell. Pedro was a huge, angry giant of a Latin with a temper like a volcano. He was also too fine a chef to risk losin' by a bawling out.

"Have a drink, Eric?" I asked pleasantly, thinking of this.

Eric nodded quickly, a false smile sliding onto his sour pan. He grabbed a bottle of the very best brandy, took a glass, and filled himself a snifter which he spoiled with added soda.

"That's six-bits, Stevie," Eric said happily.

I reached into my wallet, pulled out a worn dollar bill, and tossed it on the bar. I cocked my head to one side, pretending to be listening.

"Say, isn't your telephone ringing?" I asked.

Eric had his telephone in a small room behind the bar. He cocked his head to one side.

"Don't think so," he said. He took up my dollar bill, rang up the cash register, and gave me back a quarter.

"Sure it is," I said.

Eric frowned, put his glass of brandy and soda on the bar, and went back into the tiny telephone room.

I got out the Venus Vial but quick. I took out a Casanova Capsule and dropped it into his brandy and soda. I didn't have to stir it. It dissolved like water, almost instantly.

Eric came back from the telephone room just as I popped the Venus Dial back into my pocket. He looked annoyed.

"Party musta hung up," he announced. "Least, they weren't ringing any when I got to the telephone."

Eric, fortunately, was a trifle deaf. His ear had been too long attuned only to cash registers.

I watched him pick up his brandy and soda. He took a long swig on it, smacking his lips. Then he frowned, looked at the glass, took another long swig, and put it on the bar.

"Funny," he said. "This doesn't taste quite right."

"Maybe," I suggested, "you watered the bottle too much."

He glared at me and picked up his glass for another long swig. It might have tasted like hell to him, but he wasn't going to waste it. Again he frowned and smacked his lips. The glass was now almost empty. He shook his head doubtfully, lifted the glass, and drained the last of the contents.

"I'll steer clear of that bottle," I smirked. "If it's that bad."

"There's nothing wrong with my stock—" Eric began.

And then I cocked my head to one side again, pretending to listen.

"Say," I said. "Your pretty waitress, Pedro's wife, is calling you."

Eric frowned. "I don't hear any call for anybody."

"That was Juanita's voice," I said. "I'd swear to it. Anyway, it came from upstairs and it said something about something being broken."

This was all Eric needed. "Broken?" he bleated. "Those stupid oafs ain't gonna smash stuff without it is deduct from their pay!"

I watched him move around to the front of the bar and start headlong for the staircase leading to the second floor dining alcove. He was carrying the contents of one Casanova Capsule inside him, and rushing up to confront the rather attractive waitress wife of a giant Cuban with a temper like a cobra and a pair of arms like twin pythons.

I grinned happily.

"Cut off my credit, will yuh?" I gloated.

I heard Eric's voice begin an angry sentence that suddenly changed to a sentence that was anything but angry. I heard Juanita's voice rise sharply in amazement. Then there was the crash of dishes and the sound of a loud slap. This was followed instantly by a shrill scream from Juanita. A scream for vengeance from her giant-chef husband.

My grin became Cheshire, and widened even more when my ears heard a bull-throated bellow from Pedro, arriving on the scene between his wife and Eric.

The sounds after that were faint, furious, tremendous. It seemed as if something like a sack of wheat was being thrown carelessly back and forth across the dining room alcove, smashing whatever it happened to land on.

Eric had undoubtedly fallen madly in love with Juanita on seeing her—the guaranteed result of a Casanova Capsule. And Pedro, her husband, had come down to lend physical resentment to Juanita's vocal disdain of Eric's newly born affection for her.

The sounds went on for another four or five minutes, in which time Eric's night bartender arrived to ask me what in the hell was going on upstairs. I shrugged, and told him that maybe he'd better wait until it was over, and that perhaps he might call the police and an ambulance.

While the night bartender got frantically on the telephone, Eric suddenly came down the staircase without touching a single step. He literally flew, like something hurled by a weight thrower. The weight thrower and his pretty and indignant wife clumped angrily down the stairs after their ex-employer a minute later. Both Pedro and Juanita wore their hats and coats and were far too irate to draw any back salary before severing connections with Eric's establishment. They stormed out of the door in a tempest of Latin verbs.

I looked happily at Eric's quite unconscious form lying there at the bottom of the staircase. Then I went over, rolled him on one side, and held him that way long enough to remove seventy- five cents from his pocket.

The night bartender, white-faced and frightened, came back from the telephone an instant later. He saw his boss and almost fainted.

"Maybe you better prepare to take over the management of this place completely for the rest of the night," I suggested. "Eric doesn't look like he'll be able to be much of a boss for at least the remainder of the evening."

"What am I gonna tell the cops when they come?" the night barkeep worriedly wondered.

I explained—with kind tact—that since Eric had been beaten up by Pedro because he'd gotten fresh with Pedro's wife, that it might be wise to skip that end of it entirely.

"Eric wouldn't want anything like that in the papers," I amplified. "I'm sure, if he were conscious, he wouldn't want any part of the mess to get to the ears of the cops. They'd drag Pedro and Juanita in, and there'd be a big stink. Better just say he fell down the stairs."

Which, as it developed ten minutes later when the cops and the ambulance arrived almost simultaneously, was just what the night bartender told. I chimed in as a witness, and they carried Eric off on a stretcher, convinced that he had had a most unusual fall down a remarkably short flight of stairs....


OF course, until other patrons began to float into the bar about a half hour later, Rollie—that was the night bartender's name—and I had considerable small talk over the unfortunate happenstance of Eric's. And the excited small talk called for buying drinks back and forth. This was easy enough to do, since Eric hadn't had time to tell Rollie that I wasn't to have any more credit. So Rollie and I got along famously, and he cheerfully marked up my chits on the pad beside the cash register, unaware that his boss would have lost his mind had he witnessed it.

For Stephen B. Boswell, life was indeed resuming its rosily cheerful tinge.

In my pocket was proof that one Peter P. Paxton was a chemical genius beyond even the wildest dreams of druids or alchemists. A genius who, I was firmly confident, would make Stephen B. Boswell the richest man in the world beginning promptly on the morrow.

What small qualms I might have had about his willingness to accept my backing, inasmuch as I had called him unpleasant names and tossed him out of my office, were easily dispersed by the realization that I would be dealing with a genius who was, fortunately, an utter, babbling ass.

He most certainly had to be a mental zero, I reasoned, to be walking around town at large with his incredible pills and potions, unable to make a nickel off them. No one but a nitwit would have taken such an approach to the problem of getting backing for the inventions of the age. No one but a hopelessly insipid little jerk like Peter P. Paxton would have thought of confining his sales appeal to cheap, fraudulent-sounding advertisements in obscure newspapers and magazines.

Paxton was a genius, no doubt of that. But he was also a dimwit who needed the guiding light of a Big Mind to lead him. And Stephen B. Boswell was going to be that guide.

It occurred to me then, that I might as well begin lining myself up a campaign of promotion for the Paxton Pills and Potions. And it occurred to me, also, that I might just as well begin to figure exactly how and where I was going to raise the fat hunk of cash which would be necessary to launch such a promotion.

Over my sixth or eighth rye and water, I began to do a little thinking on the matter.

There was, quite naturally, no one in the United States who would advance a stitch of credit to one Stephen B. Boswell. I couldn't blame anyone for this sound national attitude, of course, but it wasn't going to help matters any.

It was clear, nevertheless, that Stephen B. Boswell in control of a potential million billion bucks worth of chemical genius was an entirely different guy than Stephen B. Boswell, who was one jump ahead of the wolf, in a bottom rung, one-man advertising agency. On the strength of little Paxton, therefore, rested the lever with which I should be able to pry loose enough cash to get the thing rolling.

Any bank, any promoter, any—well, anyone with the dough and good sense, would advance all the cash you needed to promote Peter P. Paxton's Pills and Potions. All you had to do was tell them what you had and sit back and wait for the dough. Simple.

I grinned confidently at my glass and dipped my snoot for a short snort. It was simple, yessir.

Or was it?

It suddenly occurred to me what a hell of a time little Peter P. Paxton must have had making the rounds with his pills and potions. And it occurred to me that walking into a reputable bank, business office, or promotion den to announce that you'd developed pills and potions to win love, riches, good health, etc. would not be quite the simple task it seemed. You would, of necessity, encounter a great deal of skepticism. Skepticism such as I met Paxton with. The throw-em-out-immediately sort of skepticism.

But then, I reasoned, Paxton had been a dimwit, a mouse. A Great Mind, such as Steve Boswell for example, would be much more smooth in breaking the ice to announce the astonishing truth of the potent pills.

I was nodding emphatically to myself over this when I heard a voice at my side. I turned. It was Babs Cartier, the blonde baby who was supposed to be digging her claws into Terry Fortescue's million dollar heart at that moment.

"Hello," was all she'd said. Her hard, pretty little face was as dour as crepe at a wake.

"Well, well," I replied. "Fancy seeing you here. I thought you were supposedly yachting tonight with a million dollars and more."

"Hah!" snorted Babs Cartier unmusically. "Hah!"

"What happened?" I asked.

"The old stand up," Babs answered savagely. "The old bunkola. The heave-ho. A telephone call from little Terry Fortescue himself telling me how sorry he was to say that the yotch party was off."

"Sort of last minute-ish, wasn't it?" I observed.

"Hah!" Babs said again. She reached into her purse and pulled out a clipping from a local gossip column. She pointed to a paragraph in the column. "Read that," she commanded.

I read it. It was interesting reading, and—from Babs' point of view—strictly tragic information.

"The unexpected arrival of Marlene Marsh, Boston socialite beauty, today, had Terry Fortescue, young man about millions, in quite a dither. Young Fortescue, as you all know, has long been considered matrimony-proof. But friends of Miss Marsh and the young millionaire have long predicted an eventual merger between the two. All this column can say to such talk is that young Fortescue has definitely cancelled all other engagements while Miss Marsh is here."

I handed the clipping back to her.

"Ugh!" I grunted. "Right below the heart."

Babs put the clipping back into her purse.

"The stinker," she said. "The lousy double-crossing stinker."

"Have a drink," I invited her, "and cool off." I signaled Rollie the bartender. "A stinger for Miss Cartier," I said.

"I thought you was broke," Babs said suspiciously.

I waved my hand expansively. "My dear young lady, that is the way fortune changes. I am now by way of being close to several million dollars."

Rollie came over with her stinger and Babs took a sip. "Don't tell me that," she said. "A horse musta come in for you in the last race."

I smiled tolerantly. I could afford to be tolerant. Besides, I was getting a little tight.

"As you wish, young lady. But tonight the liquor is on me."

And it was precisely that. Every drop of it—which must have totalled gallons. I really celebrated, on credit of course, It must have been around three or four in the morning when they finally poured me out of the place and into a taxi. I was drunk- smart enough to borrow ten bucks from the bartender and have it put on my bill.

If the landlady had waited up to catch me for my back room rent, she'd given up the ghost by the time I stumbled up to my room. At any rate, she wasn't there with her hand out, and I was able to fall into bed undisturbed by crass problems of finance.

I remember that my last muddled thought before falling off into a dead sleep concerned the irony of Fate which had so reversed the scheme of things to smile on Babs one moment and me the next. ...


THE morning of my first day of search for Peter P. Paxton, the eccentric little merchant of Venus, dawned bright and late. It was almost noon before I came out of my alcoholic slumber. The reconstruction of the previous night's happenings was quick and complete up to the point where the fog set in in the wee hours at Eric's bar.

I looked in the pocket of my coat immediately, and sighed in relief to find the Venus Vial still there. Two pills were left, since Becky had eaten one, and I'd slipped the other maliciously to Eric.

However, the amount of pills left wasn't really important in face of the fact that I'd have all—and all types—I wanted as soon as I located little Peter Paxton.

I managed to slip out of my room without running into the landlady, and I had a light breakfast of tomato juice and bromo seltzer in a nearby drugstore. There I plotted my first moves in the hunt for Paxton.

Several advertisements in the personal columns of the daily papers would be the first step. Then I could discreetly contact all the agencies to which Paxton had probably gone before he came to mine, in the hope that he might have left his address and telephone number with one of them before getting thrown out on his ear.

I got to a telephone and called the dailies, inserting an ad to run two days in each, simultaneously.


"P.P. Paxton," it said briefly, "get in touch with Boswell Advertising Agency at once. To your profit."


If he saw it, or if anyone who knew him saw it, it would bring results. Feeling good about having begun my chase, I headed for the office.

There was no mail at the office. But there was a sheet of note paper, folded and scented with coarse soap, which had been shoved through the letter slot on the door.

I picked it up, curious, and opened it.

It was a personal note written in a huge, scrawly hand with a smudgy pencil stub.


Deer Stivun:

Nothing in tha wey uv luve stans.

Yrs ferever, Becky.


I sighed and tossed the note in the wastebasket, wondering how long the force of the Casanova Capsule was supposed to last, and making a mental note to be out of the office that evening before Becky arrived for cleaning.

Then I got on the telephone and began check calls to all the advertising agencies or promotional outfits Paxton might have tried before he ended up at my office.


AFTER more than an hour of this, one rather strange fact was clear. Peter P. Paxton hadn't visited another advertising or promotion outfit in town. Mine had been the first, and apparently only, place he'd come!

Damned puzzled, I'd left word with each place that, should a jerk answering to his name and description wander in, they should send him immediately to my office. I knew that they'd all do so only too willingly.

My head was still splitting a trifle, and I decided on a little of the hair of the dog that bit me. I went down to Eric's bar. Nick was on duty behind the spigots.

"How's Eric?" I asked him.

Nick's expression became pained. He shook his head in genuine bewilderment.

"They let him out of the hospital at eight this morning, and whatta you think he done?"

I shrugged.

"He headed over to the house where Pedro and Juanita live," Nick said in awe. "Can you imagine that?"

"What for, to have them arrested?" I asked.

Nick spread his hands wide in futile dismay. "Not on your life. He went over there to try to take Juanita away from Pedro—the nut!"

Again I wondered how long the Paxton Venus Vial Casanova Capsule held effect.

"Where is Eric now?" I asked.

"Back in the hospital," Nick said despairingly. "Banged up even worse this time."

I hid a grin behind a yawn.

"A rye and water, Nick," I said....


FOR two days I waited patiently for results from either my personal column ads or my calls to places Paxton might visit with his pills. But nothing happened, aside from the fact that Eric got out of the hospital once more and tried to woo Juanita, only to get sent back to said hospital by the now thoroughly incensed Pedro. And, oh yes, Becky left me two more notes, pretty much like the first, and I thought I saw her prowling around the neighborhood of my rooming house on the second night.

But as for Peter P. Paxton—no soap.

I was getting a little bit desperate but not completely so, if you know what I mean. Calmly, I reasoned that such a search would take a little time. Maybe three days, or four, or even five.

But I cooked up a scheme to put into action on the third day, if I still hadn't found Paxton. And when the end of the third day came along with no merchant of Venus, I put it into effect.

I went to a police station and registered a complaint of robbery and assault. Then I described Peter P. Paxton as accurately as I could remember him, and said that that was the description of the bandit assailant.

Which started the gendarmes searching for my man.

They didn't seem to be doing much good, but I renewed the personal column pleas for another two days, and made another check on all the agencies and promotion spots I'd tried at first. No. They still hadn't seen a sign of anyone answering to that description or name.

By the fourth day the furrows in my brow looked like plow ruts. There was still not a trace of Paxton. I thought of hiring a private gumshoe agency to get on Paxton's trail. But aside from not having nearly enough dough to cover such a costly search, I wasn't sure that they could do more than the cops could.

There was nothing to do but wait, and grow gray.

Eric made the newspapers on the fifth day. He had tried to see Juanita after getting out of the hospital again, and Pedro, after mauling him to beat hell, had called he cops. They tossed him into a hospital, where he waited hearing on a malice count sponsored by both Juanita and Pedro. But I was too worried to appreciate the fine good humor of this.

There were flowers, weedy things, in a glass jar on my desk that fourth morning. Around the wilting stem of each was wrapped a love note from Becky the scrubwoman.

By the end of the fifth day, I was beating my brow to a pulp with my palm. My nails were gnawed to bloody stumps, and my nerves were as frayed as a pair of pants in the Reich. I had to do something, inasmuch as every passing minute proved more and more conclusively that Peter P. Paxton didn't seem to want to be found. But what could I do that I hadn't done already?

It was then that the horrible suspicion hit me. Supposing Peter P. Paxton couldn't be located because of the simple fact that someone, some promoter or guy wiser than I'd been, had listened to him, found out the incredible truth about Paxton's potions and pills, and signed him up tighter than a drum?

The thought made me want to vomit. And yet, the more it tugged at the sleeve of my mind, the more I was forced to admit that it was not too illogical. After all, Peter P. Paxtons don't just disappear into thin air. And the methods I'd used to locate him were as thorough as any fairly inventive mind with no income could concoct.

I felt like a guy tied to a chair and forced to watch millions of dollars used to light an idiot's cigars. For millions of dollars would certainly be mine if I could corral the Paxton phantom. But every minute that passed without my finding him, meant more and more of my dream dough going up in smoke.


MAYBE it was because I was beginning to resign myself to the fact I wouldn't find Paxton, or maybe it was because I was feeling more and more certain that somebody else already had Paxton—but at any rate, on the morning of the sixth day I went to a chemical analysis outfit with the Venus Vial in my pocket.

There I turned over ope of the remaining pills, telling them that I wanted the thing broken into a thousand atoms, if possible, to find out precisely what its contents were.

If I couldn't find Paxton I could at least make an effort to find out the secret of one of his most incredible potion-pills. That would be certainly better than nothing.

I sat in the waiting room of the chemical analysis company going quietly mad while a tall, bespectacled young man in a stained smock put the pill through their deductive analysis lab.

The wait was over an hour. Finally, however, the tall, somber young chemist came out and blinked at me through his horn rimmed specs. He was shaking his head wonderingly, and a trifle apologetically.

"Well?" I bleated, my voice cracking like a choir boy's. "Well, did you discover what's in it?"

The young man sighed.

"I have absolutely no idea, sir. It is the strangest stuff I've ever seen. I can't begin to tell you what elements, chemical or otherwise, are contained in that pill. We put it through every sort of test. We broke it down to ground dust and tested that. Still no results. Our final test, a solution immersion process, dissolved the dust utterly."

I groaned feebly.

"Perhaps," said the young man, "you could give us another one of those pills and we could run a second test. Maybe that would disclose something."

I shook my head hysterically. "No," I gurgled. "No. Absolutely no. It's the last one I have left!"

The young chemist stared at me in astonishment.

"Very well, sir. Just as you like. It's entirely up to you."

I left the joint at practically a dead run. The single Casanova Capsule left in the Venus Vial bounced tauntingly around in my pocket.

The rest of the day I spent checking most futilely my trap lines on Paxton. Of course there was nothing doing. Not a sign, not a trace, of the maddening little man.

In the meantime I went through the torments of the damned wondering about the chemical analysis that had been made on the pill. I wondered if the chemists had known their stuff. I wondered if perhaps they hadn't blundered in testing the pill. I wondered if another chemical analysis company might not succeed where they had failed. I thought of submitting the last pill to such a test. But of course, I didn't dare. For if they gummed up the works on the analysis, I'd have nothing left. For, even with just one pill remaining to my name, there was some fragment of hope left for me in case I couldn't find Paxton. And all the handwriting on any wall pointed to the fact that it didn't look like I'd ever find him.


I WENT into Eric's bar about six o'clock that night, badly in need of the stimulant I sought.

Rollie was on duty, and the only other customer in the place—with whom Rollie was discussing Eric's coming malice trial worriedly—was Babs Car-tier.

I slid onto a stool before the bar.

"The usual thing," I croaked. "Only double."

Babs turned a woeful pair of brown eyes on me.

"Well, well," she said listlessly. "For a guy who was buying for the house the last time I saw you, you don't look so gay. What become of that million dollar deal you was yapping about all that night, palsie?"

I grunted dismally, sliding the verbal knife turn-about into her ribs.

"You have nothing to wheeze about," I said. "How's your ex-boy friend and millionaire catch you were sure of about that same time? Has he gotten engaged to Marlene Marsh of the Boston Marshes yet?"

Babs Cartier sighed. But her brown eyes were angry.

"I'd like to fix that louse good," she said. She picked up a newspaper at her elbow. "He cost me a lot of dough."

"Dream dough," I said. "His dough. Dough that you were already spending before you landed the fish."

Babs had opened the newspaper to the society pages. She pointed to a picture spread two-column in the center. Atop the pix was the caption: "Engagement Announcement Tonight."

I recognized the soft, rather nice-looking guy in the pix as no one other than Terry Fortescue himself. The girl, a lean, hungry-looking dame—in the approved Vogue style—with a horsey, society caste to her features, was unknown to me. But the blurb beneath the picture identified her as Marlene Marsh of Boston.

To one side of the two column spread of the picture, there was another two column spread of newsprint dealing with nothing but the fact that the engagement of Miss Marsh to Mr. Fortescue was to be announced that very evening on his yacht. A special party for the occasion was, of course, in order. And all the intimate friends and family members of both the prospective groom and bride would be there.

My eyes widened, and I gulped the double rye Rollie brought me. I turned to Babs.

"Well, do you concede defeat!" I asked.

She nodded glumly. "What else could I concede—victory?"

"The Marsh dame's victory," I pointed out.

"Ah, and I had the whole thing planned so perfect-like," Babs snorted disgustedly. "I figgered two or three months as Missus Terry Fortescue, buying up all the clothes and cars and things I wanted—"

"Not cars," I reminded her.

She ignored this, going on with a recounting of her thwarted plans. "I figgered after a few months robbing the till fer all it was worth I could head fer Reno on a wave of big time publicity," she said despondently. "Think what alla publicity, photos an all, would mean to my stage ambitions, and such, after the divorce," she ended lamely.

"Not to mention," I added by way of adding to her remorse, "the neat stack of dough you could have collected by way of a divorce settlement. Why, I'll bet it would have amounted to at least six or eight hundred grand!"

"Yeah," said Babs tiredly. "I think I'll have another stinger on that."


WHILE she ordered her drink, I took a squint at the picture of the Marsh dame again. She looked to be strictly the hunt club and pain in the neck type, if you get what I mean. I suddenly felt a little sorry for the poor little rich boy Terry Fortescue. Even if the Marsh dame hadn't stepped in, he probably would have been hooked by Babs, or some hard, chiseling little creature like her. He couldn't win no matter which may he turned.

After the next drink, Babs and I dropped our mutual verbal rub-it-ins. We drank for another hour in silence for the most part, each of us wrapped up in his own problem.

Me, I was turning over my woes about Paxton and his apparent nonexistence again and again in my mind. The more I knocked myself out with these worries, the more certain I became that my sum total in assets from Paxton would never amount to any more than the one Casanova Capsule I still had left in the Venus Vial.

And the more I realized this fact, the sicker and sicker I got. What could I do with one pill—even if it was the incredible potion that I knew it to be?

I could sell it at auction, I told myself with bitter bad humor. Or I could use the Venus Vial, capsule inside, as a paper weight and everlasting reminder of the fact that I once almost had a million bucks in my hands. Or I could down it with my next rye and water and shoot myself for falling in love with Babs Cartier. Oh, yes, I could do all of those things. But where could I make a nickel from it?

There didn't seem to be any answer to that one. And another hour of mutual silence passed while Babs and I drowned our sorrows.

"I wish," Babs broke the silence long enough to observe as she lifted her sixth stinger, "that I could be on that damn yotch of his tonight. I'd scratch that Marsh dame's eyes out, and kick that Fortescue-you-know-where. Where's she figger she's so much? She probably has ideas on his moola just like I had."

I shrugged, taking my mind momentarily from the problems of pills, potions and missing Paxtons.

"She's rich as hell, probably, baby. She isn't after his dough," I answered.

Babs eyebrows went up angrily. "Rich, is she? Why, the greedy little minx. She's got dough and wants more, that's her trouble!"

I managed a weak grin at this reasoning.

"I just wish I could be there, though," Babs repeated. "I'd raise some hell they'd never forget."

"It's a pity they didn't invite you," I said. "It must have been an oversight, undoubtedly. After all, you're more or less of an intimate friend of the groom, and it said in the newspaper that—"

My voice trailed off and my eyes must have started blinking like beacons. For it was in the middle of that last sentence that the Great Idea hit me in the cranium.

"Babs!" I blurted, grabbing her arm. "Babs—we got something, baby!"

She blinked at me as if I'd lost my mind. But I had climbed off the bar stool, and still had hold of her arm.

"Come on upstairs to the dining room alcove, baby. We'll be able to talk this over alone up there. It's terrific!"

"Listen—" Babs began petulantly. But the gleam in my eye and the excitement in my voice brought out her female curiosity.

"Okay, okay," she said. "Only don't break my arm in that bear trap clutch." I released her arm and started upstairs to the dining room, Babs right behind me. There was no one in the alcove, so we had all the privacy our conversation would need.

"Listen," I said, pushing her into a chair, and pulling up another across the table from her, "you said you'd like to be on board that boat tonight, didn't you?"

"Huh?" Babs asked, blinking bewilderedly.

"You said you'd like to be aboard Terry Fortescue's yacht tonight for the party which is to announce his engagement to Marlene Marsh, didn't you?"

Babs' jaw went hard and her eyes cold.

"Brother, you're talking," she agreed emphatically.

"Now look," I said, putting a hand on her arm to brace her for the coming shock, "how'd you like not only to be aboard, but to wind up this evening engaged to Terry Fortescue?"

"You're outta your mind!" Babs said.

"How'd you like that?" I persisted. "How'd you like it, eh? Engaged to him by the time the party is over tonight, and married to him inside of another day. How'd you like to have that happen?"

"How do cats like canaries?" Babs inquired by way of answer. "But let's cut out this reefer talk. What're you driving at?"

"Now listen," I said. "You gotta listen, and you gotta trust me. You gotta have faith and confidence. Blind faith. Is being Mrs. Terry Fortescue worth the risk of a little blind faith in me?" I demanded.

"Brother," Babs said, "I'd believe in Santa Claus if it could make me Terry Fortescue's wife!"

"All right," I said excitedly. "That's swell. That's fine. That's magnificent. You gotta remember, then, that you're to do everything like I say. If you do, I promise a Mrs. Fortescue rating for you, baby."

Suddenly Babs' eyes narrowed.

"Wait a minute," she said. "Before we go any farther, tell me what's in all this charity for you?"

I grinned. "Frankly, baby, there's plenty in it for me. You see, if I fix it so you marry the young billionaire, you kick back lots of the take to me the minute the wedding bells have stopped ringing, get it?"

"How much of the take?" Babs asked.

I closed my eyes and thought.

"A hundred thousand smackers, baby," I said.

"Are you nuts?" she asked impolitely.

I shook my head confidently. "Not a bit, baby. As Mrs. T. Fortescue you could put your paws on that dough inside of two days after your marriage. Why, he'll probably give you a wedding present of a few hundred grand in your name, just as a starter. And if it isn't worth that much to you, why—" I spread my hands expressively.

Babs' eyes glittered.

"I still think that what you think you can do as a splicer between I and Terry is a pipe dream, dearie," she said. "But if you can do what you say you can, you get the hundred grand. Only," she paused, her eyes speculative, "how do you know I won't welsh on you?"

"I've figured that out, too," I said. "Before we get going on my plan you'll scratch out a brief, informal, but strictly legal promise to pay me a hundred grand on completion of our bargain. It'll hold in any court, and annul your marriage without a cent if you try to welsh and I produce it as evidence."

Babs nodded. She had gained some confidence in my yet undisclosed scheme just by the fact that I was sold on it to the extent of thinking so far ahead.

"Okay," she said. "Now shoot. What's the dope? Spill it, brother, before I have a heart attack."

I took a deep breath and a firm grip on the edges of the table, and spilled it. Spilled most of it, that is. Among the things I didn't mention was the name of Peter P. Paxton, my attitude, ambitions and search in regard for said character. I just stressed the angle of the Casanova Capsule and what it could do when it was used according to instructions. Only I didn't call it the Casanova Capsule, or mention that it was contained in the Venus Vial, or any of that stuff that would have hooked it up to the point where it was too damned phony for her shrewd but dumb noodle to grasp.

Of course, my first rendition didn't cut any grooves in Babs's enthusiasm. She just listened open-mouthed, staring at me as if I were giving her a pep talk for my candidacy for president. But I'd expected this, and I tore into my talk again, fitting it a little more closely to suit what I'd gathered of her attitude from her first reactions.

"Listen," I repeated, "you gotts have confidence in what I'm telling you. Utter confidence."

"I gotta be crazy," Babs said. "But tell it all to me again, slowly."

Once more I spilled my Big Idea, explaining as much as needed about the pill as I went along. When I finished she looked dubious, which was a distinct improvement over her first reactions. I took a deep breath, then, and went through it all again.

"It's simple," I concluded. "You've been on his boat before. You know how you can start enough of a scene to get him away from his party. You can probably get him to take you to his cabin, so's you won't embarrass him in front of everyone. Then you insist that you're gonna break up the whole thing, and he pleads with you not to be so silly. Then you have a crying jag, see? And when that's over, you dry your tears, smile bravely, and admit that you've been silly and a bum sport. You say you'll leave the yacht right away, and that pleases him no end. But you add that he'll have to promise to have one last drink with you for old time's sake, then and there. The rest is easy. You know how to slip a pill in a guy's drink, certainly. You've worked as a hostess. Once he's slipped the pill, he's hooked. He's yours." I paused to catch my breath, then added lamely, "See?"

There was a long silence in which Babs regarded me soberly and intently. Then she spoke.

"Okay," she said. "I understand it all. Every bit of it. And I can carry it out. But what about the pill? Are you sure you aren't off your trolley on what that'll do to him?"

"That," I said, "is where you gotta have confidence."

There was another long silence while Babs made up her mind, or rather, her brain. Then she nodded suddenly.

"It's a go. We'd better get started pronto, Stevie."


SHE rose, picking up her purse, her eyes filled with the unmistakable fever glint of gold. As for me, my palms were moist. But I wasn't too excited to be asleep at the switch.

"Just a minute, baby," I said, pulling out a big white envelope from my pocket. On the back of the envelope I scratched a brief, legally tying agreement concerning the hundred thousand bucks reward I was to get as Cupid on the forthcoming Babs vs. Fortescue match.

"Sign just below," I said, shoving her the paper and handing her my pen.

She did so, her pink tongue thrust out of the corner of her mouth at the literary effort involved in spelling her name correctly. Then I signed under that, and took the envelope back, stuffing it into my wallet.

"Incidentally, baby," I asked. "You got about twenty bucks?"

Babs looked surprised, then angry.

"Listen," she began. "What's the—"

I cut her off, oozing diplomacy. "Frankly, I'm broke, baby. We're gonna need dough for a cab to the pier, and more dough to hire the motorboat to take you out to Fortescue's yacht. After all, you'll be worth millions in a day or two."

The last did it. She opened her purse and pulled out a couple of tens which she tossed haughtily onto the table in the manner of a duchess.

"That makes only ninety-nine thousant, nine hunnert and eighty bucks I owe you on that contrack," she said.

"Babs!" I protested, "millionaires don't act cheap like that!"

"Hah!" she snorted shrewdly. "That's how they stay millionaires, brother!"


IT was a little after ten o'clock when we piled into a cab outside of Eric's saloon. And it wasn't more than twenty minutes after that when we'd crossed town and arrived at the pier where I knew a guy who rented motor boats. It took me fully five minutes for me to explain to him what I wanted done.

And then he looked skeptical.

"I dunno," he said. "It's strictly against regulations, y'know."

"Sure I know," I said. "And I know you get about two bucks ordinarily for such a trip. I'm willing to hand you ten for your trouble."

He looked at Babs, eyes narrowing.

"You say the young lady'll wanta have me wait alongside fer her?" he asked. "Running a risk agin getting picked up by harbor patrol, thataway," he said.

"She'll come back with you, or give you a message to send to me," I said. "In either case, you're to wait."

"Dunno," said the man who rented motor boats. "Dunno if it's worth the chance of getting myself in trouble."

"Fifteen bucks," I said, "and that's our last offer."

The man who rented motor boats held out his hand.

"You said it was the Fortescue yacht?" he asked.

I gave him the money. Then I turned to Babs. I took out the Venus Vial in which the last Casanova Capsule remained. I handed it to her.

"Keep it in this vial until time to slip it into his drink," I hissed. "That way there's no chance of losing it. And don't forget. Try to get back here, but if he insists on your staying later, send word back with the motor boat skipper here. Good luck, baby. Remember, I knew you when."

I took her hand and gave it a tight squeeze. The motorboat man was walking out along the damp planks of the wharf to the spot where a speedboat was tied. Babs grinned, nodded, turned and followed after him.

I reached into my pockets for a cigarette. When I lighted it I realized for the first time how badly my hands could shake when they wanted to.

A ferryboat hooted in the harbor, and the motorboat man, already behind the wheel of his craft, helped Babs into it from the slippery pier.

I took a deep drag on the cigarette and tried to remember how to pray. One hundred grand. One hundred thousand bucks. It made me dizzy to think of ...

TIME passed. A lot of time. I couldn't tell how much. Four cigarettes worth of time. That was about half an hour, maybe. Maybe longer. I had smoked them chain-fashion down to quarter inch stubs.

It was chilly by the water. But I was cold sweat all over. The ferryboats hooted out in the harbor and over on the rivers. I told myself that every second passing was a better and better sign that Babs was playing it right.

I began to wonder if she'd try to welsh on that hundred thousand bucks. This gave me something else to think about, and helped pass a little more time.

A little later and I'd smoked up two more cigarettes.

Then I heard the sound of the motorboat coming back toward the wharf. I held my breath and tried to decide if it was the one that would mean everything. I couldn't tell. But the sound of the motor got closer and closer and I was able to see it through the darkness, then.

It was the boat with Babs, all right!

I ran down on the wharf, almost breaking my neck on a slippery spot. By the time I'd picked myself up, the motorboat was less than twenty feet from the mooring, and sliding in purringly at low speed to the wharf.

"Baby!" I yelled, for I couldn't stand the suspense any longer. "Baby—is it set?"

Babs stood up in the back of the motor boat. Her voice rang loud and shrill and angry.

"You blankety blank sonuva blankblank!" she shrieked.

I almost fell headlong into the water. Sick nausea grabbed at my stomach and I leaned back weakly against the boathouse for support. My knees were turning to water and everything was taking on a gray blur before my eyes. I was but barely conscious that the motorboat was now being tied up expertly, the owner jumping out, and that Babs was being helped up to the wharfside.

I remember trying to keep my knees starched, and that the wet wharf was determined to make my feet go out from under me. I heard the voice of the guy who rented motorboats yelling.

"Derned fool—lookout, ye'll bang yer head on that piling!"

And then I must have banged my head on "that piling," for something cracked the back of my head with sharp, nasty, blackening explosiveness....


SOMEONE was cursing steadily, unmusically, in my ear. And my aching head was being jounced from side to side. I opened my eyes, and after a minute became conscious of the fact that I was propped up in a taxi, beside Babs. Babs, of course, was making with the nasty words.

And suddenly, in spite of aching dome and all, I got red-eyed mad. I sat bolt upright and glared at her.

"So, you've come around, you—" she began wrath fully.

I gnashed my teeth, and cut her off with my own tirade.

"You thick-witted little bundle of blond bovinity!" I snarled. "How in the name of LaGuardia did you mess it up?"

She bared her pearlies in an answering snarl.

"I messed it up!" she choked. "I messed it up? Why, you blank-blank descendent of a blank-blank-blank, I carried the whole thing off like perfect! I got on the yotch. I damn near broke up the party carrying on and yowling for Terry. Just like we plan, I get him off in private and carry the rest of the deal out, so that finally he is mixing us a couple of drinks. I put the lousy pill in his glass when he wasn't looking, and then, before either of us takes a sip from our drinks, I manoover him out onto the moonlighted deck where we're alone with our drinks next to a lifeboat, gazing romantic-like over the rail at the harbor."

I gnashed my teeth again. "That makes it worse!" I cut in. "If you got that far and messed it up, that makes it a hundred times worse than before!"

"Listen, you lying louse!" Babs flashed back, eyes blazing. "I didn't mess nothing up! I did everything like you say I should. I have even got him out there, like I said, on the deck in the moonshine and all. He's got his glass in his hand, and in that glass is the fake pill, just like I have put it there."

"Fake pill!" I broke in indignantly. "Where do you get that fake pill business?"

"Because it don't work, that's how I get that fake pill business, you liar!" Babs shrilled.

"Listen," I snarled in seething rage, "if you used the pill I gave you, it wasn't fake. It was the pill that would make him your set-up for good!"

"Yeah, sure!" Babs laughed in harsh sarcasm. "It sure did. I am standing there in the moonshine with him and my back is to the rail and he is standing before me, raising his glass for his first sip. He says to wish him luck and happiness with that Marsh dame. He says we'll make a toast out of the drink to our future fren'ship. Then he lifts his glass inna long, gulpin' swallow of the stuff."

I forgot my rage long enough to blurt: "Then what?"

"Then he coughs a little, and looks up quickly," Babs went on. "But he don't catch my eye, even though I tried to catch his. He looks over my shoulder, staring, kind of, not even noticing me, his glims glued to something out in the harbor. 'My God!' he says suddenly, his voice real funny-like, 'She's the most beautiful creature in the world!'"

"He said that?" I bleated. "Terry Fortescue said that about you? Then what did you do, you bungling idiot?"

Babs' voice was strident. "He wasn't saying that about me!" she yelled. "You big jerk, he wasn't saying that about me at all. The damn fool was saying that about what he saw over my shoulder out there in the harbor moonlight."

"Well what in the hell did he see in the harbor?" I bellowed frantically.


BABS's lips went grim. "That's what I wondered. I turned around to look. There was nothing out there that he couldda been staring at but the Statue of Liberty!"

"The Statue of Liberty?" I gasped. "You mean he'd been staring at the Statue of Liberty and said 'she' was the most beautiful creature in the world?" I demanded.

"Nothing else but," Babs said in grim fury. "In other words, you lying faker, that pill didn't do anything at all other than make his mind wander. For he jest stared at the Statue of Liberty like I wasn't even there. And then he repeated that crazy talk about it being the most beautiful creature in the world. I tried like crazy to get his mind back on me, but I might as wella been in Asia. He didn't even know I was there. And then, when he started the crazy talk at the end, I ran off screaming mad and got back in the motorboat waiting alongside."

"Crazy talk?" I asked sickly. "You mean what he said about the most beautiful creature being the Statue of Liberty?"

"Kinda like that," Babs snapped. "Oney more so. He blabbed to hisself about how 'she'—meaning the Statue—was gonna be his oney girl, his oney sweetheart, his oney wife until 'she' was rescued from her defamers, or something like that."

I shook my head slowly from side to side. It had never ached more. For it was all clear now. All terribly clear. The Goddess of Liberty there in the harbor had been the first female to meet Fortescue's eyes when he'd swigged down the pill. And he'd fallen in love with the statue!

Babs was still shrilling on indignantly about what a louse and liar Steve Boswell was, and loudly demanding her twenty dollars back right then and there. But I was in no mood for explanations, or rebuttals. I leaned forward and told the driver to stop the cab. Then I got out, while Babs screeched indignantly from the cab that she wasn't going to get stuck with the bill.

It had started to rain, so she didn't get out and chase after me, for which I was faintly happy. The rain felt good on my aching head as I walked along the deserted side-street.

I could see the headlines in the papers of the following morning. I knew they'd feature the break-off of the Fortescue engagement. And of course they would double-spread his enlistment in the U.S. Armed Forces.

But no one would ever know the story behind the idle young rich boy's sudden carrying of the torch for an ideal called Liberty. Terry Fortescue himself wouldn't know, and neither would his jilted society sweetheart or Babs Cartier the little burlesque chorine, or Peter P. Paxton who'd disappeared into nowhere.

Stephen B. Boswell would know, however. Oh, my yes, he'd know! He'd know and ache inside and out every time he thought in terms of the big dough he was never gonna have.

And Becky the scrubwoman—even though she wouldn't know—would be still babbling the theory that explained the thing most briefly. Babbling it in her own quaint way. I could just hear her.

"Nothing in the way of love stands," she'd say....


THE END


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