"The Last Free Man"
Smith glanced around furtively, nervously, before slipping
around the corner into the alley. There had been a great deal of black-market activity there lately, and the authorities were bound to notice eventually. Three weeks earlier, a black marketeer had been shot for illicit trade in surgical gloves. The dusky murk of the city's late evening could not be trusted; it could conceal enemies just as well as friends. He wondered, not for the first time, why underground entrepreneurs always preferred to meet in darkness.
Finding his way more by touch than by sight, he descended
the uneven masonry steps to the basement apartment where, according to Christoffel, he would be able to trade his vitamin C for toilet paper. He knocked and waited. A weak light appeared through the door's peephole and was quickly blocked.
"Who sent you?" The voice was masculine, muffled. "Paul Christoffel." "Who are you?" "Roy Smith." "Are you armed?" "No."
"If you're telling the truth, you're a fool. If not, you're a dead man. Come inside."
The apartment was even dimmer than the alley. There were
three other men present. The one who had admitted him patted him down quickly for concealed weapons, as the others watched.
"Smith, carry something next time. It makes me nervous to
have an unarmed guest; I can't figure them out. I'm Frank Sweeney."
They shook hands. "I'm looking for toilet paper." Sweeney snorted. "Who isn't?" One of the others, a skinny, scruffy man who looked
remarkably like a giant ferret, shifted in his seat. "What've you got?"
"Vitamin C. A hundred tablets, a hundred milligrams each." Suddenly Smith had everyone's full attention. "You must need
toilet paper pretty bad, mister."
"I've got four kids." Smith reflected uneasily on the
undesirability of being the only unarmed man in a room.
"I haven't got any myself, but I might know someone." Smith
could almost feel the ferret-faced man's eyes probing his clothes for the vitamin C tablets. "How much paper?"
Smith swallowed hard and tried to exude bravado. "Sixteen
The ferret guffawed. "You figure to corner the market?"
"One roll is for you if the deal happens within twenty-four hours."
The ferret ceased chuckling abruptly. "Two rolls." "One, or you can trade your own vitamin C for it." "All right. Here, tomorrow, same time. I'm Earl Gladding." "Pleased to meet you, Earl." Smith turned back to his host.
"Thanks for the hospitality, Mr. Sweeney."
Sweeney grinned mirthlessly and extended his hand again.
"Call me Frank. Welcome to the club."
Smith was even more nervous walking home than he had been on
his way to the alley, as if the details of his transaction had been stenciled across his back for any passing secret policeman to read. It did not relax him to remind himself that he had done this many times before, that many other people were doing the same thing every instant, that many amenities and necessities could only be had through the black market. Shortages of almost everything had become the rule since the imposition of universal price control, three years ago. Those who sought what they needed in the underground had to entrust their lives to one another's senses of honor and decency, and the Hoarding Police had discovered that the offer of "finder's percentages" very effectively eroded those inhibitors to betrayal. The hops had not done nearly as well with offers of cash; there was too little for sale for cash since the price controls were instituted to make the risks seem worthwhile.
He reentered his flat to find his wife crying softly. For a
moment he felt absurdly flattered that she should fear for him so. Then his common sense reasserted itself and his anxieties surged as he wondered what could have reduced the pillar of his life to tears. He sat beside her and enveloped her in his arms.
"Carol, sweetheart, what's wrong? Is it one of the kids?" She nodded mutely; he waited. "Lloyd wanted to know where you were going. Every time
you leave the house lately, he starts asking questions. He's been making comments, too, about how we seem to have a lot of things his classmates' parents can't get at all, even though neither of us works for the government."
He shivered. There was no way of knowing what channels were
used to investigate individuals suspected of black marketeering, but if he were commander of the Hoarding Police and had access to a compulsory public-school system…
"Has he told you anything much about school lately? Any new
teachers, different programs or tests or, or…anything?"
She raised swollen, tear-streaked eyes to meet his. "You
know they're told not to talk to their parents about what happens in the classroom. He hasn't had a word to say about school since he was four." She closed her eyes and leaned into his embrace, breathing slowly and raggedly.
A pall of weary despair descended on him. He could exclude
government propaganda from their home – had excluded it, trading away their television and never permitting a newspaper to enter the apartment – but his four children were beyond his protection ten hours each day, in the grip of a State-controlled institution he knew not how to fight. He knew the school could turn his intellectually defenseless children into anything the government wanted them to be. It was quite probable that his eldest son was helping the pincers of the Hoarding Police to close on him.
But Smith could not think of himself as anything but a free
man; he could not bring himself to surrender to circumstances. Unblessed by a special aptitude for any physical or intellectual field, he had relied on dogged persistence all his life. Alone it had often carried him past his competitors, and it had always won their respect. He had parlayed his average abilities and his unwillingness to concede into far more than many men of much greater talent had achieved. It could be no other way for him, not even now.
An analytical coolness came upon him as he assessed their
circumstances. Like all adult Americans, he had been attached to his job by the Labor Force Conscription Act; his absence from it for more than twenty-four hours would cause him to be declared a deserter. In that time, he and Carol must escape the city, must put as many miles between it and them as possible. They would have to carry what food they could, since no one would be willing to feed two strangers who were so obviously fugitives from the law. They would have to flee into the northern forests and try to live off the land and evade detection.
Suddenly he realized that he would be consigning his
children to the mercies of the government, and a bolt of pure agony seared through him. He breathed deeply several times and forced calm upon himself again. By all indications, the State had taken his children from him some time ago, and whatever he might once have tried, there was nothing he could do about it now.
"Carol, spend the next hour stuffing our backpacks with
whatever food we have that won't spoil in three days." His voice grew firmer as he announced his decision. "Tomorrow morning, after the kids leave for school, we're taking off."
She pulled back and studied him at arm's length. He fancied
he could hear her thoughts as she followed the chain of reasoning he had just forged; the suffering in her eyes was all too apparent.
"And what will you be doing for the next hour?" He rose and rebuttoned his overcoat. "Trying to trade the
vitamin C for a bow and arrows, or some other kind of distance weapon. I expect we'll appreciate that more than toilet paper."
As he turned to leave, she leaped from the couch and wrapped
her arms around him convulsively. The strength in her grip was shocking. His arms tightened around her in mute response.
At long last the embrace broke, and he left without words.
The crosstown walk back to the underground traders' den
helped Smith to steady his nerves and clear his head. As he approached the alley, almost nothing remained of his earlier thoughts but the clear resolve to escape. His pulse was steady, his step firm.
Out of the alleymouth emerged a tall, husky figure clad in
the grey uniform of the Hoarding Police.
Smith's blood seemed to depart his body all at once. In the
midst of the chill of fright he continued to think. All that he could do now was to walk past the alleymouth taking absolutely no notice of what might be happening there. To react in any way might cost him his life.
Struggling to keep his stride unchanged, he walked past the
alley and down the block. Were the hop's eyes tracking him as he receded? He could not afford to be concerned, to look backward. At the corner he turned and, suppressing the desire to break into a run or give way to the shakes, headed back for what would soon be his former home. What weapons he had, plus whatever Nature and his native ingenuity might provide, would have to suffice.
Twenty minutes later, he turned onto his own block and felt
himself grow cold again. There were three Hoarding Police cruisers parked directly in front of his apartment building.
All thoughts but of his family's safety fled his mind. He
raced up the stairs like a man possessed, not daring to anticipate what he might see. He burst through the door of his own home and came to a halt abruptly, transfixed by horror.
Five grey-uniformed figures were busily ransacking his
closets and cabinets, pausing now and again to stuff some choice discovery into their pockets, while a sixth, cradling a riot gun in one arm and hefting a half-full backpack in the other, stood over his wife's supine figure. Carol Smith's head and shoulders formed an inhuman angle.
Smith hardly noticed as the shotgun came level with his
face. His whole world was reduced to the sight of his wife's lifeless body. Presently, he realized that the shotgun-toting thug was speaking to him; the man's face was twisted into a contemptuous sneer. And then, from the bedrooms, his children emerged, each sucking on a sweet of some sort, no trace of disturbance or concern detectable on any of their faces.
The free man made his last decision. With a soul-cleansing
scream, Smith hurled himself at the creature that had murdered his wife. He felt a wild thrill as the thug's expression of contempt gave way to astonishment. Then the shotgun roared, delivering him irrevocably into the darkness.
Francis W. Porretto