Life in the Fast Lane
by Mike Morris
“Joe Sullivan, Television Detective,” he said briskly, shoving me aside, looking at the small apartment with distaste. His crew followed with holocams, mikes and booms, gouging bits out of my wall. He shoved a mike in my face. “Well, Mr. ‘Loser’ Sherbo,” he sneered. “We finally tracked you down to this miserable hole, and now Mr. and Mrs. public will see once again how we deal with deadbeat dads and cowardly wife-beaters.”
“I’m not married,” I started to say, but he had already struck a pose for the cameras.
“This criminal left five sweet kids and a grieving wife six months ago without a credit to their name or a piece of bread to eat. Hungry and cold, they went to the local police to track down this miserable degenerate, who has been living in luxury while they starved.” A hologram shimmered slightly in front of me; a morose woman with five beady eyed infants. The largest child was unemotionally kicking her ankle.
“I’m not.” I started again.
“Oh yes you are,” the television detective snapped, and a slab of a man handcuffed and chained me. “Straight to the lock-up, where you will be kept until you get a job and support your family.”
“How can I..” I tried again, but he had shut off the mike.
“OK, guys,” he ordered, “In fifteen minutes we do Maggot O’Malley and his Holy Bikers. Make sure to get pictures of them beating up welfare bums and degenerates.”
“I am not..” I yelled at him, but he slapped a limpet on my face, and a bomb exploded in my head. When my eyes cleared my room was empty, and an excruciating voice was commanding me to proceed to the nearest precinct station.
Three weeks later, when I got back to my tiny apartment, what was left of my belongings was being kicked down the corridor by Mrs. Crennelli’s evil spawn. Her husband, scratching his dirty under vest regarded me with a gleam of respect in his piggy eyes.
“Don’t want no bigamists and child molesters here. People sayin’ them girls was onny thirteen, fourteen years old.. Jeez, if ida known, ida got em away from ya. Poor little things,” he drooled, thinking about it. “Damn, you’re a sly bastard,” he added admiringly, disappearing into his apartment.
I salvaged my backpack, and stuffed a few belongings into it. I wondered what other rumors were flying round. I could spend a fortune on a TV news ad, pointing out that the charges had been, reluctantly, dropped, and that the TV detective had sent me a form letter apologizing for the error. The morose wife had sworn that she wouldn’t be caught dead with a wimp like me. Unfortunately, three weeks in jail had cost me a fortune in rent. A fully furnished cell with food (literally) thrown in was not cheap, nor was the security fee I had to pay the privatized jailers to keep me alive. I stuffed what was left of my property in a plastic bag. I thought about various ways to get hold of one of those motorized shopping carts they had in the upscale shopping malls now. Some of them were even heated. I could scrunch myself in one of them and sleep for a while.
I was broke, which was why I was finally out of jail, and of course no-one wanted a bigamous pedophile on the payroll, innocent or not. My final pay, less the fine for quitting the job without notice, was enough to buy me a hamburger and fries.
I ordered a hamburger and fries at Joes Place, and he listened sympathetically. No, he couldn’t let me stay for a few days. His customers would probably burn the place down, me being a bigamous pedophile, even though I was innocent. Just then a customer walked in and he roared about bums and criminals invading his business, and threw me out, slipping me five credits in the process. I was in deep trouble.
These days, America is an efficiently run insane asylum. It was just a question of everything getting bigger and better and faster, something that the USA was superbly suited for. Scams, sleaze and squalor led the way. After the spectacular political rise of a well-known TV celebrity and his cabinet of talk show hosts, things started to go downhill rapidly, and many of us looked back on the puritanical administration of President Clinton with a certain amount of nostalgia.
I was one of a long line of middle-class academic achievers, which marked me as a troublemaker right away. I failed the mandatory talk show participant course and obtained abysmal marks in the karaoke and (very) basic humor classes, forfeiting all hope of getting a degree. As our president was fond of saying, “If you can’t make ‘em scream, or rip off their clothes, or beat each other up, what the Hell are you doing in show business.” And despite my disgustingly high IQ, I failed to realize for an amazingly long time that, in this brave new world, the only paying business was show business.
Robots and computers took care of everything else. Television ads glorified the new mass-produced trailer parks and bowling alleys, and the remaining airtime; five-minute news breaks every hour concentrated on the joys of sex, pizza, and bowling. Since what was laughingly called the news services now ignored riots, economic collapse and war, the general population was happy as pigs in shit, except for those who were being burnt-out, starved, or killed. Three-quarters of the electorate loved the government, and the out of luck minority had a short life span anyway. America had never been so stable and contented.
I wandered down the sidewalk, head down against the rain, half-reading the sidewalk ads. A final spurt of technological innovation had seen the marriage of technology and nanobiology, and the new computer display skins had procreated out of control before being banned, along with just about everything else, apart from booze and sex, by the new regime. “Hillary for President” ads from the past screamed hoarsely at me. “Tobacco kills!” Some of the skins were pretty senile by now. “Adopt a bomb,” one commanded me confusedly. I turned up my collar, and tried to ignore them. It wasn’t easy. One of them attached itself to my trouser leg, and I shook it off with a snarl. “Meet me in the fast lane,” it said as it crawled away.
I pounded the streets. All around me, honest citizens were sitting in their warm cubicles, watching talk show re-runs. It was getting colder, and I began to shiver. As a homeless (though exonerated) criminal, I was unable to apply for work, welfare, or a passport. So now, I was a vagrant, which made me a real criminal. Unfortunately, since I had no money, jail was not an option. I felt lightheaded, and some nagging sense of wrongness, which had been bothering me for hours, kept slipping away. For some reason, I was still walking towards the center of town, the grimy rain trickling down my neck, and the display skins worrying my trouser leg like small dogs.
Then it hit me. The most persistent one was following me. It looked a bit healthier than the others, thicker, and sort of blue instead of gray. But they didn’t follow people. They only spread by breeding, or accidental attachment. Maybe it had gotten stuck on me somewhere. “The fast lane!” it said urgently. “Meet me at the fast lane.” Damn thing was talking to me! I shook my head. I had to be delirious.
“Go away,” I told it. “Let me die in peace.”
It clung to my wet shoe. “Fast lane,” it said plaintively. I kicked out and flung it into the road. It disappeared under a churning garbage truck. I staggered on.
Close to the city center, skyscrapers crowded against the freeway. Gutted and used as distribution silos, they were ringed with guards and electric fences. Beyond the wire, boxy apartments gave way to a shantytown of corrugated iron, wood and cardboard. The freeways and ring-roads covered downtown like a concrete spider-web, and under them, makeshift hovels mushroomed. Some were covered in blue plastic, like flowers in the rubble. When I cleared the shantytown it was dawn, and I was wandering around under the road system. The city center was a traffic hub, and trucks swished along, high above my head, zooming over and under each other on the soaring roadways. Almost all of the traffic, far above me, was remote controlled. No one drove nowadays. I had no idea why I was here. The roadways were too high to offer any shelter, and this part of town was deserted. At least I could expire in peace. I stopped at one of the huge, reinforced concrete pillars that seemed to be gently swaying in the damp air. I was shivering badly now, and the world seemed unreal. I wanted to rest, but something drove me on, aimlessly. I started to slide down onto the ground and blissful oblivion.
“Meet me in the fast lane!” It was sliding towards me, almost sliced in half, looking distinctly frazzled. “The fast lane,” it repeated, and I could have sworn it was looking at me like a big torn blue eye. I blacked out.
When I came to, the sun was shining high above between two spans of road, and the ground was dry. I felt stronger, and clear headed in an empty sort of way. I’d been hallucinating. Then I saw the Skin. It looked sick, it hadn’t mended properly, but it was still haunting me. “The fast lane,” it croaked, and limped away towards dead center of the transportation hub. I followed it. If I was crazy, nothing much mattered anyway.
The central column was huge, maybe twenty feet around, and the Skin circled it to where a rusty service ladder stretched up into the distant sunlight. It had turned a muddy gray. It looked like the eyes of my grandmother as I had watched her dying years ago. “Up,” it urged, weakly. “Up, Up!” I grasped the flaky rails, and looked up into the sun, where the ladder stretched into the distance. I put my foot on the first rung, and then hesitated. Gingerly, I stooped down, lifted the cold unresisting Skin, and dropped it into my backpack. Then I started to climb wearily skyward.
My arms and legs were shafts of pain when I reached the top, and a demon was drilling a hole in the back of my head. The ladder stopped about ten feet below the overhang of the roadway, and I stared stupidly at the concrete above me. I closed my eyes and rested my forehead against the cool surface and thought about falling, effortlessly, to the ground below. Why had I allowed a jellyfish billboard to talk me into this? When I roused myself I noticed the outline of a door in the concrete. There was no handle, no hinge that I could see, but it was a door. Frantically, I pounded on the concrete. The sound of my feeble blows was lost in the thick material. I pounded until my knuckles were skinned and the concrete was unmoved. Then I realized that the Skin was struggling in my backpack. Gripping the ladder with one hand, I fished it out. “What,” I asked, feeling foolish. It tried to wriggle away from me, and I pressed closer to the concrete to keep my balance. Suddenly, it gave a clumsy squirming leap and landed with a plop on the door. I thought it was going to slip and fall six hundred feet to the ground below, but somehow it held on and fastened itself to the concrete. It started to wriggle and pulse clumsily, and the door swung open silently, almost knocking me off the ladder.
The skin slithered inside and disappeared into the darkness. I looked down at the ladder, vanishing into the distance below, sighed, and hauled myself wearily into the musty warm darkness. The skin glowed dimly ahead of me as it limped along the gently curving tunnel. I staggered after it. After what seemed hours, it stopped, shimmering in the darkness. Eerily, it turned its faintly glowing blue eye on me. “In the fast lane,” it said. In an Alice in Wonderland sort of way, it made sense. Above us, trucks and transports were whooshing along five lane concrete freeways, carrying the lifeblood of the country coast to coast, and I was talking to an animated advertisement in a service tunnel in the middle of a million tons of concrete. It made as much sense as the madhouse outside, I thought.
I realized why it had stopped. The horizontal tunnel ended, opening on to a vertical pipe, about as wide as my shoulders. It went up, to the street above, and down, into the bowels of the earth. Down through the concrete.
“Hey,” I said. “Fresh air,” I saw dimly, through the drain above me, thin shafts of sunlight, flickering on and off as the great trucks cut off the sunlight overhead.
The thing glowed palely at me. “Down,” it told me sadly.
It was an hallucination. I was dying, under the freeway. It was pretty comfortable, quite warm. I must be pretty far-gone. I wanted to sleep.
“Down,” it said again.
“I’ll just go up, and lie in the sunlight,” I told it.
“Die,” it said.
“I know, that’s Ok, I don’t mind. In fact, I’ll just lie down right here. I can see the sun. That’s good enough.”
Its pale blue eye looked at me balefully.
“Die,” it repeated, “Me.” I swear it sighed. “You kill me,” it said.
It was unbelievable. I was dying, and this slithering sandwich board was trying to tweak my conscience. My eyes started to close, I wanted to sleep. A truck rumbled by overhead, and I thought of the skin disappearing under the garbage truck, after I had kicked it into the wet, dirty roadway. I opened one eye. The thing was still looking at me with that one, giant baby-blue orb. It could have made a fortune on the Soaps. “Jesus,” I told it. “Just shut up, or I’ll drop you right down the middle of the shaft.” I got up wearily, and stretched towards it. It flowed up my arm, and into the knapsack.
“Rest,” it said, with a contented sigh. I groaned. Even my hallucinations had no respect.
At least it was easier going down. I started to count, tiredly. “About six hundred feet,” I thought. “Twelve hundred rungs don’t make a right.” I was babbling. I counted to thirty, my knees popping at every step. Eleven hundred and seventy to go. How long before my numb hands let go, and I fell down, to the middle of the earth. I could be asleep before I hit, I reasoned.
Suddenly, without warning, the side of the tube facing me opened up. A blaze of light hit me, blinding me, and out of it, a familiar voice spoke to me.
“Took your time, Sherbo. Where the hell have you been?”
I fell, exhausted into outstretched brawny arms, and was dragged into a large, book-lined study.
I was falling, turning gently, down the rabbit-hole, into the middle of the earth. All around me, doors opened into houses where rabbits and moles stared at me in astonishment, and in one instance, where a large frog, startled in the act of washing dishes, threw a soup bowl at me. Spiraling down with me, the skin winked his big blue eye.
When I woke up, I was between silk sheets in a round bed in a large, dim boudoir. The wallpaper was pastel blue with large pale yellow flowers. Matching lace curtains framed the windows, and a polished table with a lace cover hosted a sprig of heather and a silver bowl. I turned my head, wincing as my neck cracked, and a couple of cuts opened up. I saw the skin, stitched together with blue thread, sleeping contentedly at the foot of the bed. Strangely, it was a comforting sight, the only familiar object in a surreal universe. “Stitches,” I said idiotically, “I'll call you Stitches.” I slept again, and woke in the same room, smelling soup. Stitches was gone. I looked out of the window and saw the Nevada desert. In the distance the New York skyline was framed in purple and green, and the Las Vegas strip marched towards the arid mountains. It was wonderful, artfully lit, and skillfully painted on pale concrete. Apparently insanity had improved my imagination considerably.
“Do you like it?” The girl was small and pretty and vaguely familiar. “I painted it myself.” She took the top off the silver bowl and started ladling soup. I decided the asylum was much better than the real world. I wanted to stay here. I liked being crazy.
“Almost as beautiful as you,” I croaked. “I’ll check out the casinos.” I figured the crazier I sounded, the longer I could stay in this paradise.
She frowned and felt my forehead. “You must be hungry.” She eased my creaking body into a sitting position and started to feed me. For a while, I pretended to be weak, just to see the cute little frown on her forehead, but I couldn’t fake it for long, especially as the soup took hold. Her name was Molly, and something about her was naggingly familiar. I’d have remembered seeing her before, but although I didn't know her, something about her face was very familiar. She told me she lived in the freeway and that her family held the LA region freeway maintenance contract for life. “So we live where our work is,” she finished. It seemed to make as much sense as anything else. “We let the Shantytowners do a lot of the unskilled work,” she told me.
I thought about the brawny arms that had dragged me into the bowels of the freeway system. Suddenly, I remembered who belonged to that familiar voice. Five years slipped away like a bad dream, and I was the main man, the guru, City Hall computer whiz-kid. I'd somehow landed the job despite my social background, and I was so good that they just had to keep me. I worked twice as hard, and produced ten times as much, as anyone in the department. And I loved the job. I knew, and I improved, all the systems the politicians would let me get my hands on. I could do anything with the network, and even the clunky old mainframe code that still churned away, keeping the city chugging along. Then Malone came along, and worked on me for weeks, with his smooth words and his potato face, and his so reasonable little request. “A snip for someone as gifted as you, Sherbo,“ he said. It wasn't even anything important, except to Malone. It got me fired from my dream job.
“You have to be careful,” I told Molly urgently, “I just remembered, the guy who pulled me in here, little broad guy with a red face. Watch him, he’s the biggest con artist in LA.”
And right on cue, Malone strolled in, unchanged after five years, right down to the wicked grin on his potato face. “So that’s all the thanks I get for saving your miserable life, Sherbo,” he sneered. He advanced menacingly on the bed and I realized how weak I was.
“Stop teasing him, Dad,” Molly interrupted, and I realized why she looked so familiar. I had, not for the first time, placed my aching foot firmly in my mouth, if not halfway down my throat. But how could I be blamed for that? Who would have believed that an ugly criminal troll like Malone would have such a beautiful, sweet, innocent daughter. Something deep in my brain sounded a tiny soft warning, but I looked into Molly's big blue eyes and did my usual hatchet job on what was left of my common sense.
Malone laughed and produced a bottle of whiskey, seemingly out of thin air, like some mischievous leprechaun. Close to his radiant daughter, he seemed almost human, transformed in the warmth of a personality of someone who was, after all, his own flesh and blood. He handed me a crystal glass with at least two inches of amber liquid which soon slid down my throat like a soft explosion. I looked around at the clean room, the silk sheets and lace curtains. All in all, Malone and his daughter seemed to be doing pretty well for themselves. I decided to make the most of their hospitality. After all, Malone owed me.
For the next few days, I explored the premises, recuperated, and chatted with the delightful Molly, who responded enthusiastically to my attentions, not surprisingly, since I was the only male, apart from her father, who she had laid eyes on in weeks. There was plenty of room inside the freeway. Molly and her father had a labyrinth of cave-like chambers inside the supporting columns, and Malone, with his usual ruthless thoroughness, had scooped out passageways under the freeway bed, potentially weakening the whole structure. But freeways are what Los Angeles does best, and I felt like I was living in a huge rock solid castle. There was plenty of room, even for the other concrete dwellers, slithering around inside the freeway like snakes in a pipe.
I had almost forgotten about Stitches, and was ready to dismiss him as a starvation induced hallucination when I stumbled upon three skins, playing cards in a generator room near the roadbed.
“Hey, Sherbo,” Stitches seemed pleased to see me. “We friends now.” Five cards slowly turned up on his screen area, a full house. “Have a nice day!” He flashed at his partners in red and gold firework letters. “I win again,” he crowed, extending a pseudopod into a bare electrical socket. Lights dimmed, momentarily, and Stitches whooped like a man who'd just taken a large belt of whiskey. “Whee, that's good,” he said. “I think it makes my brain grow.” He shimmied towards the others. “Meet my friends, Sherbo,” he said. “You name me, and I give them names, also.” His big blue eye winked at me. “Meet Joe and Joe,” he said. “They're not too bright, and I win all the time.” Disconcertingly, he flowed on to my shoulders. “Wanna play some time,” he asked. “We sneak up here most evenings. Leave the wives and kids down below.”
“Wives and kids,” I repeated stupidly.
“Yeah, Minnie, Maisy, and Maisy, and the Juniors. Minnie's pretty smart, she used to sell pharma..., Pharma..., Pills to doctors and hospitals.”
Funny thing was, I was glad to see him. It seemed like we'd been through a lot together.
I must admit that the next couple of days were the best I'd experienced in a long time, something I'd have thought impossible with Malone on the scene. I'd lived in a rich businessman's house once, trying to teach his bovine daughter the rudiments of a third grade education. He soon realized that his darling eighteen year-old was interested in extracting something entirely different from me, and my life on easy street was over. During those short weeks, however, I'd gotten a good idea of how the moneyed class lived, and Malone and Molly lived like royalty compared to the rich tycoon and his nymphomaniac daughter, albeit royalty of a strange and unreal kind. King of the trolls fit Malone's position well. The service tunnels inside the freeway extended a long way, and Malone had made the best of them. His wine cellar was magnificent, or would have been had it contained anything other that Irish whiskey. His billiard and trophy room, where he entertained what passed for the leaders of the shantytown, would have done credit to a rock star, or one of the gold-plated rappers who had flourished in the waning years of the twentieth century. Stitches and his tribe did most of the housework. “All they ask for,” said Malone, “is an occasional jolt of electricity.”
While Malone had stamped his personality in the bowels of the service tunnels, Molly had floated towards the sky. We spent a lot of time together in her favorite rooms, which sucked the LA sunlight through innocent looking ventilation grids and the occasional opening between concrete blocks, illuminating the pastel colors and fanciful frescoes of her imagination. The whole setup was so appealing that I was almost able to close my eyes to the fact that their luxurious lifestyle was maintained on the basis of systematic and thorough highway robbery.
They hijacked the trucks that thundered endlessly overhead. Only about one in ten of these monsters contained a human driver. The rest were slaved together by radio. The particular concrete bowl of spaghetti above our heads was the busiest in LA, and most of the considerable engineering talent in the city had gone into making it safe. Automatic warning lights and relays could slow the convoys of trucks to a crawl, and Malone, Molly, and even the skins could climb aboard without trouble. Malone's operation was as simple and crude as the odd crate falling off the back of the truck. His contract with the city of Los Angeles stipulated that he take care of the local stretch of highway, and the trucks that rolled over it. Malone took care the trucks rolling over the highway were not overloaded. Relieving the trucks of some of their burden ensured less wear and tear on both the vehicles and the concrete they rolled on. Molly helped her father loot the system with innocent enthusiasm, and I knew that sooner or later they would try to drag me into the game.
“We're doing the world a favor, Sherbo,” Malone told me heartily, one day in the billiard room. “Who do you think feeds the Shantytown scavengers. They'd all be dead or starving if it wasn't for us. Why do you think LA Shantytown has grown so big?”
I wondered out loud why Malone had brought me to the bosom of his family instead of letting me exist on his handouts down below.
“Why, you're like one of the family,” he said, all wide-eyed innocence. “You're almost like a son to me.” He paused, seeing that he'd gone too far, even for an idiot like me. “Well,” he continued, “I guess I owe you for the dirty trick I pulled on you a few years ago.“
“Tricks,” I reminded him.
“Yes,” he said, a little put out. “But I've always liked you. “ I must have shown my amazement because his voice changed, much to my relief. I had begun to think I was still dying under the freeway, living out my life in a fantasy world. ”You've got brains, boy,“ he said sharply. ”No sense, but a lot of brains. I need someone to cook the books for me. I need someone to fix the computers so they can lie about what we're doing here.“ He stared at the damp concrete behind me. ”Things were fine when we were taking a little bit here, a little bit there. Nobody noticed, or at least, nobody cared too much. But now, you know how many people are in that shantytown below? About fifty thousand.“ He looked at me seriously. ”Fifty thousand bellies to fill. You know, we provide almost half of all the food and supplies they have. And still, they have to beg and lie and steal, just to survive.“
“What's in it for you,” I asked him flatly. For a moment, I thought he was going to hit me.
“I should have let you starve for a while,” he said grimly. “Let you beg and scrabble for an old piece of bread or a half-eaten hamburger. People like you need to know what it's like to be poor.” He ran his hand through his graying hair and sighed. “No. I can't blame you for that last remark. When have I ever thought about anyone but myself; and her.” He looked upward towards where Molly was painting, close to the sunlight.
We were quiet for a moment, and then he broke the spell, as if ashamed to have shown part of himself that wasn't selfish and conniving. “Anyway, my boy, I have a job in mind for you. It's a sort of con job that even you can pull off. If it works out, I'll even let you stay here, help me run the whole operation. I tell you, boy, we're about to become big-time operators.”
I looked at him. “You want me to become assistant head of a large criminal organization? You must be out of your mind. I'm the only person I know who doesn't cheat on his taxes.“
His blue eyes twinkled mischievously. “The title is under boss, and you don't pay taxes now. In fact you're already a criminal. Vagrancy is a serious crime. Think of it, you can be a starving criminal, or a rich one, helping other poor slobs to survive.” He leant over the slate table and sank the black. “Ten bucks you owe me,” he said absently.
I spent the next two games losing non-existent money and telling him that there was no way that I was going to become his right-hand man in crime. Ethical arguments left him cold, but I finally wore him down with a long recital of my major shortcomings as a potential criminal.
Finally he said,“OK, Sherbo, you're right. I don't know what made me think I could turn you into a thug. I know you have too much integrity and common-sense for that. Look, I won't bother you about it again. You can stay with us, help Molly decorate, supervise the skins.” He stuck out his hand. “No hard feelings?”
He had finally realized that he couldn't con me. Well, the old leprechaun was being magnanimous about it. I felt almost grateful to him. I shook his hand and he slapped me on the back. “Should have known you were too slick. We still friends?”
“Sure,” I told him. “You know, I owe you. Anything to help, so long as it's legal.” I tried to extricate my hand, but he held on to it, looking at me warmly.
“Don't worry,” he said. “As long as we're friends.” He continued to hold my hand. “I'm just thinking, though,” he mused. “You know, there is one small thing you can do for me. Perfectly legal, now we know where we stand.”
“Sure, sure, anything,” I said, showing him that I could be magnanimous too, and he proceeded to tell me about his plans for organizing Shantytown, and his problems with a local scavenger politician called Harold.
“You know,” he said, “Harold cares for Shantytown in his own way, but he's too confrontational. He's a little local tyrant who's arming his men for a fight with the outside. Now, you and I know that's crazy, bound to lead to disaster for all of us, but Harold's a fanatic, and he's upsetting a lot of people, splitting Shantytown into two camps. He needs someone to talk some sense into him, someone educated like you. Sure, he's a big fish by Scavenger lights, but he's too limited to be an effective leader.“ Malone pulled a pint of whiskey from his pocket and offered me a swig. I took some to be polite, and he went on; ”He's beginning to be awkward about the food distribution, trying to get an unfair share for his constituents. You know what politicians are like.“ Malone took a quick drink and handed the bottle back.
“Yeah,” I said hoarsely. The whisky tasted pretty good.
“Well, you're just the man to talk to him,” Malone continued. “With that silver tongue of yours. Weren't you in politics yourself?”
“I guess,” I mumbled confusedly, taking another swig. “Well, I was in the debating club at college.”
“That's right, I knew you had the gift of the gab. Brains and a talent for oratory, that's how I always thought of you, Sherbo.”
I rubbed my eyes, which seemed to have gotten a little blurry. “Wait a minute, Malone,” I said suspiciously. “Nobody can blarney like you. Why don't you talk to him?“
Malone looked at me sadly. “Sure, I'm a pretty good con man, but I don't have the intelligence for this kind of thing. Last time I spoke to Harold, well, I was a bit undiplomatic, you might say. I mean, something like this, politics,” he shook his head.. “Well, for that, you need brains and good judgment, the sort of thing that comes naturally to someone like you.”
I had to agree. “I was always very persuasive in the debates,” I agreed. “I have a certain gift of persuasion. I'm very persuasive,“ I repeated, finishing off the whiskey. I recalled that, five years before, Malone had persuaded me out of a large sum of money, and the only decent job I had ever held, but that was five years before, and I was wiser now. ”Still,“ I thought sagely, ”better make sure he realizes I'm a different person now. He better know he can't fool me twice.“
“I realize,” Malone went on, “that you're a different person from the last time we met. You can't be fooled, I know that. Someone like Harold will be putty in your hands.” He rummaged absently in his tool drawer and fished out another pint of whiskey. “Anyway, I'll be right there to help you, right there, me and Stitches. Between us we can't go wrong.“
“Stitches,” I said slowly, trying confusedly to sort it all out.
“I'll explain it all,” he said.
That's how, the following night, we came to be in the back room of the only bar in Shantytown, a drinking place for derelicts, buried under the rubble of the old Coliseum and a few thousand tons of garbage in the middle of the city of tents and cardboard shacks.
The trip down to the surface had been easy. Malone grabbed two large sacks, we climbed into a sort of dumb-waiter and dropped a couple of hundred feet down a service shaft in the middle of the massive main support column. I stood under the soaring concrete ribbons, four and five decks looping over each other and listened to the night sounds, while Malone breathed the warm evening air like a tourist just off the plane. “Nice to be out for once,” he said, looking at the dim fires of the settlement, listening to the thin sounds of scavengers, human and otherwise, a few hundred yards away. “Here, take this sack,” he ordered, striding off confidently. I followed him, gingerly.
He seemed to know most of the scavengers who flitted like ghosts between heaps of trash and blue plastic tents, pale faces flickering in the light of the endless small fires. The area was surprisingly tidy, and every recyclable scrap was neatly bundled and stacked. A few kids played in the dust, and a woman, naked and unconcerned, was washing in an old water-filled tank, and talking to a peculiar Latino in a tattered tuxedo, pants held up by a rope belt.
A thin young black man stepped from one of the tents and waved at Malone. “He keeps his little area in pretty good shape,” Malone whispered to me. Used to be an engineer until he annoyed some local bigwig.
“Got anything for us, Malone?” The man asked.
“Nah, just some chocolates for the kids, Tony.” Malone might have been visiting friendly, but distant relatives. He pulled a couple of neatly wrapped cartons from one of the sacks, and Tony handed them to one of the older kids.
“Share 'em out properly,” he ordered sharply.
“Meet Sherbo,” Malone waved at me. Tony's gaze flicked disinterestedly across my face. “He's going to fix things with Harold.”
Tony looked at me again, this time with interest. “Him,” he said. “You sure?”
“No problem,” Malone told him. “Look, let's go inside. We got stuff to talk about.”
I squatted down by one of the fires and smiled at the young girl who had distributed the chocolate. “Hi,” I said inanely, “What's your name?”
“She's called Pat, after my grandfather, Patrick, and my grandmother, Patricia.” The naked woman approached, wrapping a sheet around herself. “Go play, now,” she ordered, “while I talk to this man.” She was a couple of years older than me, attractive, the sort of woman who would have been full-figured on a normal diet. She started to comb her dark hair with an old comb and I was aware of her strong arms and long fingers. I must have been staring because she strode off to one of the tents and came back wearing a flowered dress.
“Modesty's the first thing you lose”, she said, sitting beside me. “But it's a trade-off. If I didn't wash, I'd feel less than human.” She sounded well-educated, and very feminine and human. I told her so and she finished the sentence for me, “for a scavenger.” I floundered, because she had read me correctly. “People don't recognize me any more,” she said, “and that's a relief.” She wouldn't tell me any more about herself. Curious, I asked how long she had been a scavenger.
“Seven years,” she answered, surprising me. “It was a lot worse before Malone came along.”
“Um,” I answered, neutrally.
“I know he's a rogue, but his heart's in the right place.” She looked at me with a disturbing directness. “When he first finagled himself into the road-maintenance job he used to think like you.” I made some gesture of denial, but she went on. “It's natural. You see us like this, and you know you could never live like we do.”
“I've been on the streets,” I told her, thinking of my trek through the city, with Stitches one blue eye haunting me, all the way to the door into the freeway.
“And you figured that you'd sooner die than be a scavenger.” Again, that direct look. I couldn't argue. It was true. I told her that, after a while it was a lot easier to give up than to figure out how to stay alive. Without Stitches, I wouldn't have made it. She sighed. “I didn't have that luxury. Pat was four years old. I had to stay alive. And Malone helped.“ She sighed again. ”Didn't have to. There was no love lost between us. But he did it, for Pat.“ She settled herself more comfortably. ”And then he started helping the others.“
I asked her how someone so obviously talented and educated as herself had ever gotten into this mess. “How did you end up here?” She retorted. I told her, it was just an accident, a crazy chain of events that couldn't happen again, and she looked at me as if I'd told her I was the tooth fairy. “There are thousands, millions of scavengers, all over the country,” she said carefully. “They didn't ask to be scavengers. They're just as well-educated and hard-working as the drones in the state apartments. More so. Look around you. You'll fine more teachers, engineers, scientists here than out there in the concrete suburbs.”
I was about to gently change the subject when a thought struck me. “You knew Malone before? This Malone?” I must have sounded surprised because she smiled again.
That was all she would say about Malone, so we talked some more about life in Shantytown, her face calm in the dim light of the fire, her educated voice soothing and musical.
“What's your name,” I interrupted. “Christine,” she answered. “We're pretty old-fashioned in my family as far as names go. And you're Sherbo, the guy who's going to fix Harold and his crew.“
Before I could answer, Malone and Tony came out of the tent. Malone looked hard at Christine and she smiled at me and disappeared into one of the tents. “Nice lady,” I said to him, and he nodded. Tony was looking at me with a peculiar stare. “You sure he knows..,” he started to say. “He gets his final briefing at the Garbage Tavern ,” Malone said quickly. “We're going there now.”
On the way, I tried to ask Malone about Christine, but he was uncharacteristically silent. We trekked through different 'neighborhoods' , across piles of rubble, between the little fires that burnt day and night and the recycled rubbish of the real city that lay outside the loop of the downtown freeway system. One little band of Scavengers lived in a village of rusted-out cars and trucks, the residue from some forgotten junkyard. They were friendly but watchful, and Malone handed out cartons of powdered soup as we passed through.
“This stuff is just token merchandise - free samples,” he told me. “Helps us move through. We normally deliver direct and in bulk.“ He grinned when I asked what he meant. ”Well, I ain't talking about UPS,“ was all he would say. I noticed that the further we got into Shantytown, the more we detoured, skirting makeshift barricades of old oil cans, rotting furniture and rubble that sliced across our path with increasing frequency.
“Idiots,” Malone grunted. “Working together, they can barely make it. If they start fighting amongst themselves...” He broke off. “Aha, my boy,” he yelled “there she blows.” The Garbage Tavern loomed out of the darkness, the biggest structure, no, the biggest garbage dump I had ever seen.
“It's a big pile of garbage,” I told Malone.
He looked hurt. “At least wait till you try their whisky,” he said. “Before you criticize.” We approached the looming junk pile. “Used to be the old Coliseum,” Malone remarked. “Then, along came the fancy Staples Center, and people started to come less and less, so they put a big bubble dome over it, but it made no difference because by then the good citizens of this town had started to shut themselves up in their little boxes, watching their other little boxes, and the gates closed for the last time, and the weeds pushed through the concrete. Finally the bubble dome broke, and the LA Coliseum became the LA garbage can.”
“But,” I said lamely, and a little man leapt out of the ground in front of me like a demented troll. He looked like Malone’s half-size brother, same potato head and red bulbous nose, all reduced in scale.
“Malone,” he boomed in a giant voice. “Dooley,” Malone yelled back and I expected them to go dancing off into the dark mountain of junk that used to be the Coliseum, a pair of goblins, disappearing back into the ground. Instead, Malone gestured towards me with a flourish. “Dooley,” he said. “This is the man.“
”Sherbo,” he continued, “this is my cousin, Dooley.“
Dooley looked at me, disappointed. “He's not Irish, then.”
“We can't all be so lucky.” Malone clapped me on the back. “But he's got a silver tongue and a heart as cold and hard as an Englishman's, and that's a rare combination. You'll see, he'll bring Harold around for us.”
I wondered, in this dark, phoneless town of Scavengers, just how the news of my mission had spread so quickly. Christine, the half-size Dooley, probably half the population of this crumbling city between the freeways, all seemed to know our business. Presumably, the mysterious Harold had also heard.
“Come on, you two,” Dooley the dwarf suddenly disappeared up to his nose, and I made out a rough passage snaking into the depths of the garbage pile.
I had felt like I was falling down the rabbit-hole when I arrived, half dead at the freeway, with Stitches in my backpack. This time, though, I was fully conscious as Dooley dodged and weaved through the garbage pile. The passage was well-used and struts and planks shored it up for most of the way, giving it the appearance of a hastily built, badly designed escape tunnel, through which the prisoners of Shantytown could flee to a pale imitation of the bars and restaurants that existed in the real world. Occasionally, we had to duck round an old stove or rusty car body that was too big to smooth down.
Finally, Dooley stopped, so suddenly that we almost banged into him. A heavy oak door, scavenged from an old hotel or long-gone bank, blocked the way. Dooley picked up a rock and hammered on it. It looked as if it was used to this sort of wear and tear. After a few seconds a muffled voice mumbled something unfriendly. “It's Dooley, you old fool,” Dooley boomed in his giant voice, and the door creaked open to reveal the interior of the Garbage Tavern.
It must have been the food court at one time, and it was pretty big. Dooley disappeared back to his watchman duties, and we wended our way round rickety tables to sit at a red plastic decorated counter top. A dozen Mickey Mouse faces grinned up at us, and Donald Duck leered from behind a motley collection of beers. Old soda fountains seemed to contain generic whiskey and vodka, and even more dubious alcoholic concoctions. Somewhere, a generator hummed, keeping the dim lights alive and the air breathable, while a juke box struggled with the variable electricity to produce a recognizable tune, and a few ragged scavengers danced in the gloom. All in all, it compared favorably with the bars on the surface, on the other side of the freeway.
The barman smiled toothlessly at us. “On the house, gents,” he said slapping down two tumblers of whiskey before I could protest.
“That's Ryan, the richest man in Shantytown,” Malone told me, watching the man's retreating back as he hurried to serve another customer. “Nothing but a bum,” he continued, unaware of the irony, “until he stumbled on this place.” He looked around at the crumbling walls and rusty pipes. “Still hooked into the sewers after all these years.” Malone finished his whiskey and wandered around to the other side of the bar. “Come on, finish up.” He reached under the counter and pulled out a bottle of whiskey. “Let's have some of the good stuff.” “I get to drink free here,” he explained. “I ship in the booze at reasonable prices, and all the furniture and equipment.” He gestured at the rickety tables and the ragged dancers, as if they were all part of his munificence. “Pretty soon I'll have him hooked up to the LA grid, and he can donate his generator to one of the communities, although I know the bastard will want to keep it as a backup.”
He saw me watching one of the dancing couples and grinned. “Yes, he even gets an occasional outsider in here.” I was looking at an odd couple dancing lightly among the tables. He was the Latino man, still dressed in a dirty ragged tuxedo, pants kept up with a length of rope, but she had on a smart dress and new stylish shoes. Even in the dim light her skin glowed, fresh from a shower and she looked larger than life among the shantytowners.
“Quite a story to those two,” Malone continued. “Her name’s Betty, and she's the daughter of a well-known actor, and the man with her was a professional dancer. They met, they fell in love, and daddy told her a dancer was not good enough for her. She laughed in daddy's face, so he ruined the guy. Poor slob couldn't get a job, couldn't leave town because daddy had tied him up in some sort of contract dispute. At first, he was too proud to accept money from her, but then he took it to survive, so daddy got him thrown into jail on some trumped up charge. I guess he was slowly starving in there, and daddy promised to get him out if they never to saw each other again.“
“Quite a story,” I agreed. I thought about my conversation with Christine, about shantytowners being real people with real and complex lives.
“Oh, the story's not finished yet,” Malone answered. “You see, she was ready to give him up, just to save him. To save his life really. Daddy was going to get him a job in Seattle, or somewhere far away. He promised his little daughter that. Then he had Carlos the dancer beaten up and thrown off the freeway. It was just a little low freeway; daddy just wanted to cripple him, you see. But Carlos hit a telephone wire on the way down and bounced off onto a pile of old furniture and crap, and ran off into Shantytown.“ Malone paused and served us two more drinks. ”Somehow, Betty found out he was still alive, so she grabbed a few things, makeup and jewelry and changes of clothes and fled to find her lover.“ Malone sipped his whiskey and gazed at the couple floating to the music of the discordant jukebox. “She almost lost her mind wandering around Shantytown, and then when she found him, she got sick and almost died. Couldn't take it. Shantytown was too much for her. She would have died, along with a lot of others, but Carlos persuaded, no, ordered her to go back. He brought her to me, and I drove her out and called daddy.“'Yes sir, your honor, I found the poor wee thing wandering about by the freeway, sir, and seeing as she's sick, your honor, I got her to tell me where she lived, and I brought her to yez right away, sir.' Bastard offered my money, but I wouldn't take it. 'I'd just like to call on the wee thing, make sure she's all right when she's rested, that is, thank you sir.' Well, he wasn't very happy about that, but I had saved her life. So, I fixed things so she can see him occasionally, in here where it's pretty safe.“ He watched the thin young man, whirling his elegant partner around the rickety tables, floating across the crumbling floor, two people unaware of their surroundings, totally immersed in each other. ”Sometimes I think they'd both die if they weren't able to see each other occasionally,“ he murmured. “He'd give up and lie down and die in the garbage, and she would find some way of drugging herself out of the bright, vicious life her father provides for her out there.”
Malone had surprised me again, showing compassion for the young dancer and his shallow girlfriend. “You did a good thing, Malone,“ I told him awkwardly. ”You can be proud.“
“Jeez,” he said, “here I'm talking a bunch of nonsense and we have to get you ready for Harold. Ryan,” he yelled, “we'll be in the back room for a while.” And he grabbed a full bottle and dragged me past the dancers to a small door which led to a small, comfortable room. Inside, with the door locked, the discordant sounds of the jukebox faded to a steady hypnotic thump thump as the Shantytown dancers enjoyed their brief moments of happiness.
“OK,”, he said, all businesslike, pouring me another drink. He relieved me of the second sack and dumped Stitches out on the table. “Right, roll up your shirt,” he ordered. Puzzled, I did as I was told, and Stitches, yawning, wrapped himself around me. Other than a slight tingling sensation, I felt nothing.
“Now, will you tell me just how Stitches is going to help us,” I asked.
“Stitches is the way,” Malone said, “that we communicate with each other.” He patted Stitches, curled not too comfortably around my stomach. “Now, I know you’re not going to need much help, but, just in case – I’ll be right there with you.” It was quite hot in the room, and I had trouble focusing. Malone droned on. “Say something sub-vocally. You know what I mean?”
“Sure,” I told him, not quite sure what he was talking about.
“Then don’t say it out loud,” he told me irritably. “Keep your mouth shut and say something, very softly.”
“You mean, like this,” I muttered inaudibly.
“You mean, like this,” Malone parroted.
I whispered the first paragraph of ‘A Tale of Two Cities’, so softly that even I couldn’t hear it, and Malone repeated it back, word for word.
“How do you do that?” I asked, astonished.
“Stitches,” he grinned. “He’s sensitive to the slightest vibration of your throat. He’s extended a thin filament of himself up by your neck.” My neck started to itch. “So don’t scratch,” he said.
“But how does he tell you,” I asked.
I didn’t know Stitches could do that,” I said, surprised.
Malone looked at me balefully. “He’s a living billboard. He was designed to broadcast. Regular voice, radio frequencies, subliminally.” Malone poured us another drink. “OK,” he said monotonously, “let’s just go over it again, take it easy, listen to what I say, remember what I say.” He droned on in a monotone quite unlike his usual forceful tones. I began to wonder if I had taken a little too much whiskey. We’d had quite a journey, and the Garbage Tavern, and this little room were quite relaxing. I didn’t want to miss what Malone was saying, I didn’t want to get lost, and I certainly didn’t want to mess up my assignment.
“And you won’t,” Malone said loudly in my ear.
I jumped. The room was gone, the tavern was gone, and there was no sign of Malone. Stitches shifted slightly underneath my shirt. I was still somewhere in Shantytown. I hadn’t thought it possible, but this particular district was dirtier, bleaker, and more miserable than I’d seen before. A large fire flickered on the faces of a crowd of large, ragged, evil looking toughs. Looking round, I saw that I was well within the confines of one of the barriers we had passed earlier in the evening.
“Remember what I told you,” Malone’s voice sounded in my head.
“Ambassador,” I whispered. “Emissary.” I was a little ashamed that I’d gotten drunk after Malone had spent so much time preparing me for this mission, but I felt confident. I knew I could pull this off. I strode up to the motley gang, hand outstretched. “Hi,” I told them. “I’m here to speak to Harold, and nobody else. He’s got to deal with me now, not Malone.” They surrounded me, gaping. “Harold,” I said, patiently and clearly. “I have an ultimatum for him.” They stared at me uncomprehendingly. ‘Really,’ I thought, this Harold has picked up some pretty dumb supporters. “Take me to Harold, now,” I said firmly and one of the reception committee threw a sack over me from behind, and they dragged me what seemed to be several miles across a rock-strewn field.
Harold was a big man in his part of Shantytown. His status, though, had nothing to do with charisma, brains, or social skills. He lived in the biggest tent, in the most convenient spot because he was big and mean, and his friends were almost as big and mean as he was. My honor guard dragged me up to his tent where he was scratching his huge chest. I thought of several new ways to dismember Malone. “I'll tear your head off and roll it down the freeway,” I sub-vocalized at Stitches, coiled snugly and uncomfortably around my waist. Stitches yawned in my mind, and said in a reasonable imitation of Malone's nasty Irish twang, that now was the time to use the talent for expressing myself that I was always boasting about, and that I might want to use my talent on Harold, rather that trying to impress him, Malone. Malone suggested, via Stitches, that I do him the small favor that I had promised, and stop griping and whining. I looked at Harold the ape-man and his army of bodyguards and mentally played soccer with the Irishman’s ugly potato-head.
“Don't be a cry-baby,” Malone whispered at me via Stitches, “there must be a hundred ways of getting out of this, you silver-tongued devil.”
Harold the ape-man was pawing the ground restlessly. His little bloodshot eyes peered at me from a rock-like cranium that would have done justice to a Neanderthal. I took a deep breath. “Look,” I said carefully, “forget Malone. I'm telling you now, you stupid Gorilla, that, if you don't go along with us, I'll personally tear off your right arm and beat you to death with it.” I stepped up and faced him, nose to chest. “You got that Sonny Boy?”
From the corner of my eye, I saw the mob shrinking back, like a crowd nervously surveying an unexploded bomb. Even the bodyguards looked nervous, and I knew they weren't nervous about me. Straining my neck to look up, I saw the beginning of a puzzled frown working its way across Harold's craggy face, as if a relatively subtle and complicated thought was straining to gouge a neural pathway through the inert walnut of gray matter lodged in the massive head above me. I realized, much too late, what Malone had been up to during that mesmerizing conversation in the back room of the Garbage Tavern.
“I'll kill you, M...”, I screamed at my mental image of Malone, but the rest of the tirade came out as “Monkey Face.”
Harold was having trouble getting all of this, and it seemed as if the unexpected mental effort was giving him a headache. He'd probably never met a lunatic quite so determined to commit suicide before, and the effort of dreaming up sufficiently horrible ways to accommodate me was definitely overheating his brain. His mouth slowly opened, revealing teeth that any self-respecting tiger would have been proud of. A deep rumble, distorted somewhat by the effort to produce a recognizable word rather than an unintelligible roar, emerged.
I was swept into the tent in the wake of his receding bulk, and the flap closed behind us.
“Don't do that again, man,” he whispered so softly that I almost imploded. “You know, I gotta keep up appearances.” His chest swelled, and he let out a bellow of laughter that almost blew the tent away. “I like a man with guts,” he roared. “Crazy little Mother like you must have guts. Look,” he whispered. “I can't loose face.” He looked at me like some giant friendly bulldog. “No hard feelings, huh?”
“Not at all,” I started to say, not really understanding, and he picked me up in one beefy hand and tossed me back into the crowd.
“Man's got guts,” he rumbled, striding out after me. “I like that. Get him some food and treat him right.”
I shook my head, and spat out one or two dusty pebbles as the stringy arms of the crowd helped me up and brushed me down. Grimy hands shook mine and patted me on the back. Ragged women smiled at me. I was in like Flynn. “Now that wasn't too bad,” Malone’s voice sounded in my head.
They cleared a place for me close to the biggest fire, and a ragged scarecrow nervously offered me a bowl of awful smelling soup. Apparently, any friend of Harold’s was a man to be feared. I told the scarecrow no, and he groveled away, gulping hungrily.
“OK, Malone,” I whispered, “this guy's a killer, not a politician. I don't know what you did to me in the Garbage Tavern, but threatening to beat up a crazy Neanderthal is not my idea of negotiating with the local authorities.“
“You're in. You've won. You can make Harold do anything you want,” Malone crowed. “You need to get some sleep, and we can talk about it tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow,” I squeaked, and a couple of the closer scarecrows turned to look at me, hastily turning back when I glared at them. “How do you know I'll be alive, tomorrow, let alone in control.”
“Because, if Harold had seen through your little act, you'd be dead now,” Malone said reasonably.
“And what about my little act,” I sputtered. “I threaten...”
Malone interrupted. “I just gave you a little auto-suggestion, just something to stiffen your backbone. I know Harold. Threats and force are all he understands.”
“Just why would Harold feel threatened by me?” I tried to shout and whisper at the same time.
“Because,” Malone said patiently, “I told him you were a very scary fellow from outside. I told him you had a habit of making people disappear - important people.” He paused. “Harold's impressed by that sort of thing.”
“Why couldn't you impress him,” I snapped. “You seem to know him pretty well.”
“That's the problem. I know him, and he knows me. Knew me years ago on the outside, enough not to be impressed.” Malone sighed. “Too many people know me.” He sighed again. “Look, I'm staying at the Garbage Inn. I just called to congratulate you on a job well done, not that I expected you to care. Anyway, I left drinks and a card game to talk to you. I gave you this chance to do something for your community, and all you do is whine and snivel.” I started to say something. “Jeez,” he said, “just shut up and go to sleep.”
I don't know whether it was all part of the auto-suggestion, or just plain exhaustion. I looked once around the miserable field of tattered scarecrows, yawned, and went to sleep.
When I woke it was cold and I ached. All round me tattered scraps of humanity muttered and groaned in their sleep. “Alright, get up,” I roared.” Time to take the barriers down.“ Malone's conditioning was obviously as strong as ever. Well, I'd said it now. Nothing much to do but go along. I could, of course, run away and hide somewhere. I thought seriously about this while the piles of rags around me stirred and groaned and gradually came to life. Yelling at Harold was one thing. I'd entertained his troops, I was the camp comedian, under his protection. Tearing down the barriers that guarded his little empire was another. Even if he believed I had powerful friends outside, there was no way he could let me get away with this.
“Malone,” I hissed. “Are you listening. This is all wrong, it'll never work.” But if Malone was listening, he wasn't talking. I had no choice, I had to get out, and I didn't think he could stop me. Survival is a pretty strong motivator. All around me, shantytowners were milling about like ants without a leader. I swear they even bumped into each other. I looked around for a quick way out. One of the tattered figures weaved towards me.
“Sherbo,” he said plaintively, “what's going on. We can't do this. Harold'll kill us.”
“Come on, you guys,” I roared again, for want of anything better to do. “Let's get moving.” A few more of them wandered bewilderedly towards me. Pretty soon, I wasn't going to be able to escape. It was dawn in Shantytown, and the sun was just coming up above the rubbish dumps. I figured I could outrun my starved companions, if I started now, while they were still half-asleep.
The guy who had spoken moistened his lips. “Take the barriers down?” He quavered. He looked at me with a peculiar expression. There was fear in it, and weariness, but way down deep in his sunken eyes I saw a glimmer of something rare in Shantytown, a small spark of hope. They were mostly awake now, all around me, closing in. Did any of them still hope for something better? Or was it my imagination. The man in front of me was waiting, head down, for hope to be dashed.
“What's your name,” I demanded. He had to think. Probably no-one had called him by name since the long gone time when he was a citizen, with a roof and a job, however lowly. “Alec here is going to take five of you to pull down the Figueroa barriers,” I shouted. “The rest of us are going to clear up Sixth.” They were unmoving, watching me in disbelief. It wasn't going to work. “I've been talking to Harold all night,” I told them. “We're taking the barriers down.” They looked at me steadily. “You,” I yelled at one of them, a small wizened figure who looked to be the slowest. “Go get Harold. Tell him I'm having trouble getting these bums awake and working. Move it!” He hobbled away.
They were looking at each other, bewildered. They were used to taking orders, at least from Harold. On the other hand, I was a crazy stranger with a death-wish.
Alec stepped in front of me. “You, you, you, you, and you,” he said, pointing. “Get your asses out here now!“ And they stepped forward.
“Nice work, corporal,” I said. “Sergeant,” he told me softly. “Long time ago.”
We started towards the barriers, Alec and his band moving to the left. Once started, the mob was content. They were taking orders, they had something meaningful to do. Malone came in, loud and clear, via Stitches. “What the hell were you doing sending someone to wake up Harold?” He yelled. “Just get rid of the sentries and knock the barriers down.”
“Shut up,” I said. “Get some help to Alec, over at Figueroa. Don't start anything, just keep them talking.” I paused to marshal my motley army of ragged men, marching across a landscape of ruins and small fires. I wondered if it had been like this in Tennessee and Georgia during the Civil War. “I know you have people waiting at the barriers,” I told Malone. “Tell them to get rid of any weapons they're carrying. Get them some flags and colored handkerchiefs.” Malone sputtered in a most satisfactory way. “I'm here at ground zero,” I told him. “This is my battle. If you don't like it, go back to your hole in the freeway, otherwise do things my way.” He was quiet, and I knew I'd scored a hit. Malone was a fighting Irishman, and I'd done his fighting for him. The fact that it couldn't have worked any other way didn't matter, it still galled him. And then Stitches spoke in another voice.
“I'm glad you're still alive,” Christine said.
“Christine.” For some reason I got short of breath. “What..”
“It wasn't all his idea,” Christine told me. “When I heard you were staying with Malone, I got the notion that you could be useful.” Her words cut through me. “My daughter and I have lived here for seven years. If Harold takes over, who knows what will happen.”
“I guess I'm expendable,” I said dully.
“We had a different plan,” she said. “Malone cooked up this crazy scheme. Cooking up crazy schemes is his specialty.”
I expected Malone to protest, but he was quiet. “I didn't know you when we started this,” Christine continued. “Believe me, I'd have told you our plan. The real plan, not Malone's foolish idea.” Again, Malone was uncharacteristically silent. She paused, waiting for me to speak. “Well, you have a right to be angry. I wanted to tell you the night we met, but I thought if I told you what Harold is really like, you'd not want to help.” 'Damn right,' I thought. “But I didn't want this,” she continued. “Sending you in to talk to Harold was not my idea.” I was beginning to feel a little better. “Sherbo,” she said. “Sherbo, you believe me don't you?”
“I'm stuck with Malone's plan, now,” I said. “You can tell me your scheme when this is over. Meantime, make sure that none of our people show any weapons. Flags, bright colors only, got it?” We were walking down Sixth now, one of the few unflattened areas around, and I could see the barriers, ugly piles of rusting appliances and rotting furniture, piled across the road between the old buildings. Harold's guards were lounging in the street, and I could see a couple of them on the upper floors of the old stock market. “Well,” I thought. “We got this far. Stay here,” I said to my ragged, unarmed band. I walked towards the guards, Hands outstretched. “You must be insane,” I told myself. The leader of the bunch was one of Harold’s bodyguards, one of the men who had dumped me unceremoniously in front of his tent what seemed like a lifetime ago. “Hey,” I said heartily, “did Harold get in touch with you yet?” He looked at me blankly. He wasn't quite as large as Harold, but I hoped he was just as dumb. “Harold will be here in a couple of minutes,” I said airily. “We're going to take down the barriers.” He laughed, not a pleasant sound.
“'Kin ijit.” He mumbled. This was going to be easy.
“I've talked things over with Harold, and he agrees that the best course of action, at this juncture, will be to dismantle the barriers and integrate our economy with the rest of Shantytown.”
He peered at me dimly and scratched his head. “'Kin ijit,” he repeated. I was beginning to see Harold in a different light. Compared to his lieutenants, he was a mental giant.
Behind the ramshackle barrier, I saw the citizens of Free Shantytown congregating in doorways, behind trash heaps, looking nervous, clutching bits of cloth. The midget Dooley was flitting among them, urging them to get closer to the barricade. “Well,” I babbled, “Looks like party time.” Harold's bodyguard was looking distractedly over my shoulder, and I turned to see Harold, followed by an army of lesser giants, striding down Fifth Street toward us. “Told you so,” I said to the gaping guard. “Told you. Harold and I are going to take down the barriers. Excuse me.” Casually, I slipped his rifle from his nerveless fingers, and turned towards the ape-man and his army. “Hey, Harold,” I yelled hysterically, grinning like an idiot and waving the gun in the air. “Am I glad to see you.” I figured I had a few seconds before they filled me full of holes. “Ah,” I pantomimed an idiotic gape of surprise. “Sorry, sorry,” I yelled crazily, turning back to the guard and returning his gun. “Harold, you're just in time.” This time I was running empty handed towards the giant. I hoped the bunch of thugs in front and behind would be suitably confused. Then the man next to Harold raised his rifle and I prepared to die.
Harold casually raised his arm and knocked the man to the ground. “What's going on,” he rumbled.
“Harold,” I grabbed him like we were brothers who'd been separated for life. “Harold, it's about time. The citizens of Shantytown have prepared a great reception for you.” He stiffened, and I continued hastily. “They want to celebrate the peace. They realize now, Harold, that you are, not only a great leader, but a statesman, with a vision. I told you, Harold, I represent some powerful people, and we want to make a deal with you.”
Harold grunted. “You mean, we can be a great place for all the shady deals, gambling, and prostitution. All that stuff” I realized that, contrary to appearances, a functioning brain did exist inside that rock-like head. I said goodbye to the last of my bourgeois principles. “Sure,” I said. “That's what my people are offering. That, and tourism, and development money, and status. Not right away,” I added hastily. “The government out there,” I nodded to the west, across the freeway, towards Century City, gleaming in the Southern California sunlight, “is a lot more corrupt than we'll ever be. But,“ I told him, and I realized with some surprise that I believed what I was saying, ”It's all going to come down. Soon. Hey,“ I said, ”this is California. Everything starts here.“
Harold grinned at me. “Well,” he said calmly. “Far as I can tell, you're crazy, and if you are, I'll just kill you. So let's see what the good people of Shantytown have to say.”
He waved imperiously at the guards, and they dragged some sort of packing case up to the barrier. With one giant step he stood on the creaking platform and looked down at the crowd. I had to admit, he had guts. Now, it was up to Malone. I hoped he was able, and willing to give my plan a chance. “Well,” Harold said. “I'm here.” He told them his name and swapped stories with men and women in the crowd below who he seemed to know. He was quiet, then noisy, gesturing towards them, even joking, impressing them with his energy and size. He surveyed the crowd. “I know you people don't like me. Me and mine, we got guns. We kill people.” I shifted uneasily. This was not going too well. “But I don't want to kill Shantytowners. I'm mean, and I'm angry. You know why I'm mean and angry?” He asked, and the crowd on both sides of the barrier was quiet. “My daughter died in here,” he said, “and my wife. And my mother.” He drew himself up, a huge figure. “They were innocents, they were good people, and they were too good to live here.” He paused. “But we're not good people. We're survivors. Right? He asked. ”Survivors.“ The crowd was nodding, shuffling, like some beast rousing itself. He raised his fist above his head. ”I'm mad,“ he said. ”I'm mad as hell. I want you to say it with me. Come on, say it!“ They were with him now. ”I'm mad as hell,“ he roared, ”I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it any more.!“ He lifted his arms and they roared together. >From both sides of the barrier, the ragged voices combined in a roar that rolled across the blighted townscape. ”I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it any more,“ and the fact that this whole scene had been stolen from some old movie made no difference at all. I wondered what we'd unleashed here.
The Shantytowners were cheering, waving their flags and handkerchiefs. A citizen ran forward and lifted up a smiling little girl holding a bunch of flowers. Harold looked at her, frowned and thrust her at me. I grabbed her clumsily, and she wriggled, surprisingly strong in my hands. “Keep your hands off my tits,” she snarled at me, and I realized she was a midget, who looked like, and probably was, Dooley's sister. And we started to dismantle the barriers.
That night, we holed up in Malone's billiard room for a council of war. The barriers were down and Harold and his men were swaggering through Shantytown like an occupying army, ostentatiously armed but still, so far, friendly. Malone and Molly, Christine and I sat round a card table. I had insisted on Christine’s presence, and Stitches was babysitting Pat. I wanted them to be safe as possible. Molly was not pleased. Malone, on the other hand was positively enraged.
“Sherbo, you crazy bastard,” he yelled at me, “we were supposed to disarm Harold, not give him the keys to the city.”
“Malone,” Christine interrupted, “You started this. You sent the man in there to take the barriers down, and that's what he did. Now you complain because he did the job too well.” She was angry too. “This was not the plan we discussed.” She glared at him. “You outsmarted yourself this time.” She shook her head. “Did you think we'd follow you? You're an outsider, Malone. Whatever else Harold is, he's one of us.” She looked at us fiercely, and I was amazed that, after seven years in Shantytown, she still had some spirit left. Haggard, with old patched clothes, she was a scavenger. Sitting here comfortably, we couldn't imagine what she'd been through. Of course the scavengers would follow Harold, he was one of them.
“We have to get him under control,” I said. “Make him do what we want.“
“How can we make him do anything?” Malone asked sarcastically. “He has the guns, and now he has the whole town behind him.”
I turned to Christine. “Last night, I saw you talking to Carlos. Do you know Betty too?”
She hesitated. “Yes, she carries messages out for me sometimes.”
“And you know her too, Malone. Well, she's going to bring the cavalry to rescue us.” They all looked at me like I was crazy, so I told them my plan.
“Well, it could work,” Malone admitted after an hour of heated discussion. “We don't have any other plan.“ He stretched. ”I can get away for a few days. Molly and myself are free citizens, we can still move around and use our credits. And Betty owes me.“
“It has to be done in the next couple of days,” I told him, “Otherwise Harold will have this place locked down so tight that it will need an army to pry him loose.”
“Which could happen,” Christine said, somberly.
“As long as it's my army,” I told them. Remember, twenty or more actors to play gangsters for one day. We can steal enough from the trucks to make it worth their while.“ My scruples appeared to have vanished completely. “Another thing,“ I added. ”I want Chris and Pat to stay here, where it's safe.“
“Now look here,” Malone said, glancing at his daughter, “you're in no position to bargain. You can always join her in Shantytown.”
“Fine,” I said calmly. “We'll hop a truck to San Francisco, and leave Harold for you to deal with.” I held my breath. It was a pretty thin bluff.
“Ah, let 'em stay,” Molly said, angrily. She shot me a vicious look. “Chris can have the room next to mine, away from you oversexed males.” She stood up. “That's settled, then. Dad, I'll stay here and keep an eye on Casanova Sherbo.” She smiled tightly at Christine. “You won't even have to speak to him, unless you really want to.”
Christine looked uncomfortable, and Molly's smile softened. “Come on,” she said. “You're close to my size. Let's see if we can find you some decent clothes, and we'll make something up for Pat.”
Two days later, I was waiting under the freeway lights as the trucks swooshed by on their endless journey, watching a squat, ugly truck as it pulled on to the shoulder. A worn-looking Malone got out of the drivers cab. “Haven't slept for two days,” he said. I waited expectantly for my army to jump out. The back of the truck opened and a thin young man climbed gingerly down. I waited for the others, and finally looked inside. The truck was empty, apart for a couple of black plastic guns, a slim rectangular box, and a hamper full of stage clothes, and a lumpy sack. I rummaged in the hamper, and pulled out a wide-shouldered black pin-striped suit, circa Chicago, 1930. “All I could get,” Malone said wearily. He saw my expression. “Betty says this guy is the best actor in Hollywood since Al Pacino.”
“One man?” I asked dazedly. “Plastic guns?”
The thin man looked at me, hand on hip. “Well, Malone,” he lisped. “I was expecting a warmer reception than this.” He looked at the shantytown below us and wrinkled his nose. “Oh, dear.” I've worked in some pretty awful places, but none quite so, ah, uncivilized as this.“
Malone looked at me dispiritedly. “His name’s Lovelace Langdon. He sighed, “I think,“ he said. ”I'm losing my touch. Come on, let's get this stuff unloaded.”
Later, we were round the card table again, and Malone filled us in. The actor, still complaining shrilly, was crammed in with Stitches and his skins somewhere above us, presumably learning his lines. The trucks were hidden in a service bay, and I was just beginning to realize just how thin my plan really was. “One man,” I said. “It's not enough. We'll never pull it off.“
“Four,” Malone corrected. “There's you, me, Molly, and Christine. No, Five, counting Carlos. We've got plenty of costumes.”
I thought about it. “There's a man called Alec. We can trust him. He may be able to pull some others in, if we can find him.”
“Name's not much good,” Christine said. “Give me a description and tell me everything you know about him, and I can find him.”
“You're not going out there,” I protested, but, of course, she was the only one who could do it. “I'll get Carlos to help,” she said. “I'll start as soon as we've finished here.”
“Did you get any real guns?“ I asked Malone.”
“Well,” Malone said. “I got some fireworks and flares, and I managed to steal this for you from City Hall. Thought you'd need something to cheer you up.” I wanted to ask him what he was doing in City Hall, but thought better of it. He handed the rectangular box, and I saw it was a laptop computer.
“What am I supposed to do, throw it at Harold like a Frisbee?“ I said, and he glared at me. I figured that, if I survived, I’d be chief hacker for the new Shantytown, running Malone’s extended empire. We talked a bit more, finalizing our plans, such as they were. Christine slipped away, and I hoped, anxiously, that she would be all right, knowing in my heart that she was much more capable dealing with Shantytown and it's dangers than I. I didn't think I'd sleep that night, but I passed out right away and dreamt that I was flying with her, high above Harold’s campfires.
About six the next morning, she was back with Carlos and Alec. Alec saluted me almost cheerfully. “Hey, lieutenant, thought I'd join you. Harold's after me anyway, so I might as well die with friends.”
We woke Lovelace and dressed him in his mob suit, but he refused to wear the black fedora for fear of disturbing his silken locks.
“When I'm ready to act,” he said, “I'll wear the ugly thing.” We tried with Alec, but whatever we did, he still looked like a shantytown scarecrow. So none of us, except for the actor, got to dress up. Surprisingly, Alec and Carlos got on well with Lovelace, and they were soon chatting about actors and Hollywood like old friends. Lovelace engaged them in earnest conversation in a corner of the room while the rest of us got on with what I considered to be real work. All I had to do was convince Harold that I was a big man on the LA mob scene, and that Lovelace was one of many cold-blooded killers controlled by me. Having frightened Harold out of his wits, we then had to disarm him and his followers, turn them into more-or-less law abiding citizens, and start organizing Shantytown ourselves.
“Easy as pie,” Malone said. “You’ve got Lovelace and Alec and Carlos, and we’ll be rooting for you back here.” The few hours sleep he’d gotten seemed to have revived his talent for putting my life on the line. I glanced at Lovelace. His back was turned, but Alec, listening to whatever he was saying, had a peculiar look on his face. I figured he was as scared as me.
We arranged to see Harold that day, and a few hours later we picked our way between smoldering fires towards what was left of Sixth street. I was nervous and Lovelace didn’t help at all. He’d dismissed Alec and Carlos; “we don’t need them yet,” he told me, and he bounced beside me in his gangster suit, ooh-ing and ah-ing at the scavengers and the beacon fires that never seemed to go out. He looked like some fastidious voyeur, disgusted and fascinated in equal parts, babbling endlessly in his high-pitched voice about the hardships that a struggling actor had to endure in the course of an honest days work.
“Wait till you meet Harold,” I snapped at him. “If you can’t convince him we mean business, he’ll probably roast us over one of those fires.”
He looked at me wide-eyed. “I’m a professional actor,” he reminded me. “No-one has ever complained about the quality of my work. I’ve had to impress men a lot tougher and more vicious than this pathetic bum we’re going to see.” I must have looked skeptical. “Casting directors,” he finished dramatically.
“You’re sure you can do this?” I asked him, hoping fervently that we could turn back without losing too much face. “How many gangster roles have you played.”
He looked at me haughtily. “I usually play more demanding roles,” he said. Sensitive, conflicted characters with some depth to them.”
I groaned inwardly. Our chances for survival were diminishing to the point of invisibility. Possibly, Harold would laugh himself to death once Lovelace opened his mouth. “Anyway, Lovelace chirruped, “I’ve arranged for a little demonstration, something to persuade this Harold that we mean business.”
“I saw you talking to Alec and Carlos,” I said. “You’d better have some sort of plan.”
“I’m telling you,” Lovelace began, but just then a couple men with old rifles appeared from one of the tents, and I realized we were in Harold’s territory.
“Just shut up,” I muttered. “Maybe we can survive for a few more minutes. Lovelace gave me a hurt look, and we trudged on in silence, followed by the guards and a growing crowd of onlookers.
Harold had moved up in the world. His new headquarters were in what was left of the old Stock Exchange on Sixth. He’d grown reckless since his rise to power, and I wondered how long it would be before his nervous neighbors in the high-rises across the freeway decided to call in some real hard-hitters like the LAPD. He stepped onto the street in front of us, hands curled like a gunfighter, and Lovelace gave a breathless yip at the sight of his massive frame, and I prepared to die. Lovelace turned his back, and I thought he was going to run screaming back towards civilization, but he settled his fedora on his head, and faced Harold. I looked back at a stranger, an olive-skinned man with flat, empty eyes, and a vicious pistol in his hand. The change was so smooth that the guards didn’t take it in until the small deadly man was six feet away from Harold, gun lazily waving in the direction of the big man’s stomach.
“So you’re Harold.” The voice was soft and deadly, as if no human feelings had ever existed behind the soulless eyes, and the big man stared into those eyes like a rabbit caught in the headlights of a giant car. The soft voice continued inexorably, cold and menacing. “Harold, I don’t like having guns pointed at me.” The gun was still waving gently at the giant’s belly. “I thought we were here to talk, like businessmen, with some respect. I don’t see respect, Harold.” Lovelace’s eyes flicked at me and in spite of myself I felt fear, more fear of the little man with the toy gun filled with blanks than of Harold and all his armed guards. The gangster beside me continued softly. “Mr. Sherbo told me you were a businessman, a leader of the community.” Waves of contempt washed over Harold with those words and he seemed to shrink a little. “Tell them to get out of here,” Lovelace nodded towards the guards. “I don’t negotiate with guns pointed at me.”
Harold was wilting, ready to cave in, but he managed to croak out a few words. “Why should I do that when you have a gun pointed at me?”
The actor looked around lazily, gun still pointed at Harold, and I noticed a hooded figure who vaguely resembled Alec, shuffling conspicuously about a hundred feet behind the guards. The gun roared, everyone jumped, and Alec crumpled realistically. And again, Lovelace was pointing his weapon at Harold. “Oh, my god,” somebody in the crowd muttered, and Lovelace turned towards Carlos. “What did you say?”
“Nothing,” Carlos whispered, and he wasn’t acting. The little man had us all under his spell.
“Go drag the body into an alley somewhere.”
Carlos looked pleadingly into the dead eyes and slowly turned round. Lovelace let him get almost to Alec, then shot him in the back.
Then Lovelace was facing Harold again, and we were all locked in a nightmare that no-one would forget. “Harold and his thugs are amateurs compared to this guy,” I thought foolishly.
“Tell them to put down their guns and leave,” the actor said softly, and it was all over.
A couple of days later, after hacking into the LA City computer system with the stolen laptop, I started to divert some of the city’s wealth towards the scavengers. In the five years I’d been away from the clunky mainframes, no-one had bothered to alter the passwords, and nothing much else had changed. I couldn’t do anything about legitimizing the status of the scavengers, which now included my own status. Vagrancy was a federal condition, and all the dispossessed in all the shantytowns in all the States of the union were likely to stay that way.
I did, however, manage to automate the truck hijackings. Each day, about 200 trucks rolled down the freeways out of LA, and each day, one in ten rolled off the crumbling downtown exit ramp. Harold and his men stripped them, and distributed whatever they carried to the ragged hungry citizens of Shantytown. I diverted a shipment of electric trucks, which worked well in the rubble and greatly speeded up the process, and I acquired a shipment of DPW yellow slickers for our distribution crew so that they wouldn’t attract too much attention. Tying up all the loose ends in the computer kept me busy at first, but I soon had time to worry about our increasing prosperity. As the scavengers began to pull themselves up by their bootstraps they began to look less like scarecrows and more like real people. A few new shacks rose from the ashes, and I was afraid that the citizens across the freeway might notice and become nervous.
Problem was, we were all still trapped in Shantytown. Identity is based on credit, and credit is based on citizenship. Federal law decrees that a citizen must be part of a city or a federally recognized area, and the federal computer system, unlike the ramshackle LA network, was protected like Fort Knox. “You see,” I explained one day to Molly and Chris, “the feds have an unbreakable firewall. It’s not even under human control any more, and I can’t get close.” We’d been daydreaming about life outside, which didn’t seem any closer than before the taming of Harold. “It’s catch-22,” I explained. “We have to have an address to have an identity, but without an identity, we can’t get work or credit, so there’s no way we can get an address.”
“Shantytown is part of LA,” Molly ventured, and I shook my head.
“Not true. About twenty years ago, the citizens of this desirable piece of real estate voted to break away and form a separate town.”
Molly shook her head in amazement. “Why would they do that?”
Chris laughed mirthlessly. “Even twenty years ago, this place was a mess. Skid Row. Derelicts, drunks, and drug addicts. The city wanted to dump the whole mess, and it was easily enough arranged. Even the bribes were small.”
“Yes,” I agreed, “and the citizens of LA were happy to dump the place and seal it off. No more welfare payments, no more bums wandering into ‘respectable’ neighborhoods, no more clearing out tent cities, only to have them mushroom up somewhere else within days. The split was ratified, and after two years, when the derelicts still hadn’t formed a local government, the place was unincorporated and cast adrift, and Shantytown was born. I turned to Chris. “You know a lot about this stuff, don’t you? Malone told me you used to be a pretty important person.”
“I suppose so,” Chris answered. “By marriage. You remember Senator Banks?” I nodded. “At one time, he might have changed things. He might have headed a loyal opposition with real teeth, and at least have restrained the Feds from some of their worst excesses.” She sighed. “I married Senator Banks. I was very young and starry eyed. I thought he still had some principles, some ambition to make things better. He’d sold out years before I met him.” She rubbed her eyes. “It wasn’t healthy being married to him, and still having scruples. That’s how I ended up here.”
“Things are better now.” Molly put an arm round her shoulder. “We’ll take care of you and Pat.”
Chris looked at me. “You were wrong about one thing. The local politicians were never very good following through on things. The break with LA never did get ratified. At least, they hadn’t gotten around to it seven years ago.”
I stared at her. “You mean, we’re still part of LA?”
“Unfortunately not,” she told me. “We were still unincorporated, remember.”
“Maybe not.” I was beginning to feel a touch of excitement. “Depends what the unincorporation was based on. All we need to do is harass the City enough, and we might just be able to wring some concessions out of them.”
“Tell me, Sherbo,” Chris said flatly. “How do we do that? How do we harass them?”
“Lawyers,” I said excitedly. “We hire some hot-shot lawyers and light a fire under these third-rate local politicians.”
“How do we pay them?” Chris looked tired. “Believe me, Sherbo, I’ve dealt with a lot of lawyers. They won’t pick up a phone without a retainer.”
“There must be free legal services somewhere,” I said in frustration.
“Where have you been for the last twenty years.”
“Wait,” I said, excitedly. Maybe there are some lawyers here, in Shantytown.”
“Sure there are,” Chris explained patiently. “Some of the best. Trouble is, they can’t practice because they don’t exist.”
I was pacing the room in frustration. We were helpless because we didn’t exist. We couldn’t prove, or improve our status. “What about Molly and her father?” I asked. I can funnel some money into an account for them. They can take action.”
“With all due respect to Molly’s father, I don’t think it would do much good. Five minutes of investigation, and they’d have him in jail for life, which in his case would be short and not too sweet.” Chris shook her head. “We need someone with a lot of power and motivation and money. I’m sorry, Sherbo, I don’t want to be a wet blanket, but I’ve spent seven years trying to figure a way out of here.”
“What about oil?” Molly piped up.
“Oil?” we asked together, giving her a blank stare.
“I’m surprised you don’t know, Chris,” Molly said. “Why do you think all those little fires keep burning. I don’t know how much there is, and I think it’s more like tar, but it keeps getting sucked up out of the ground by those little fires.”
I thought about the little pumps, dotted around LA, still struggling to bring up oil, and the Athabasca tar-pits, long abandoned by a TV bound population. The chances of optioning a patch of Shantytown were about the same as for selling the Brooklyn Bridge. Still, a few half-crazy prospectors wandered the deserts of California, looking for gold. “Maybe I can interest someone,” I said.
I worked for three days without stopping, except for an occasional nap, shower, and snack. I grabbed a business directory off the Internet and spammed every potential investor in the city, and then the state, neighboring states, and even the big cities on the east coast. You send out a million emails and someone will reply. Those that did vanished like rabbits when I mentioned Shantytown. Pretty soon, I was a mysterious billionaire, a mad altruistic foreigner, willing to share the opportunity of the century, just for the sake of bringing wealth and success to the lucky American who happened to receive one of my pleading emails. And still they ran like rabbits. I got a long electronic essay from a professor of economics who explained in great detail just how impractical my scheme was. Even if Shantytown was about to float away into the Pacific on a sea of oil, it was, he said, legally impossible for anyone, except the federal government to profit from the unincorporated dung-heap between the freeways. Solid citizens suggested I do the world a favor and torch the whole area. Far from helping, my idea seemed to be stirring up a lynch mob.
I changed tactics and crafted another email. I bounced it around the Internet to cover my traces, and sent it to every lawyer in LA. I described all the illegal activities that could flourish in an unincorporated area, from girls to gambling. A smart lawyer could keep the local cops away, I said. A smart lawyer could make it all more or less legal, I said. A smart lawyer could make a fortune. All a smart lawyer needed was an in with the natives. No-one answered me. I gave up in despair.
And then, in the middle of the night, while I was staring at the computer screen with my mind circling aimlessly round the problem, I got an instant message. The man was fresh, wide awake, and looked like a million dollars. I was glad, with my two-day stubble and crumpled clothes that at my end I had no camera. “Who am I speaking to?” he asked in real time.
“John Smith,” of Hong Kong,” I told him.
“Ah,” he said gently. “I hope I didn’t wake you up.”
“I usually stay up after 2 am,” I told him tiredly, and realized I’d more or less given away where I was located.
“It’s morning in Bermuda,” he told me.
He was wide awake and very smart, and he described his proposition for me. He was a very high-priced international lawyer, and the proposition was from his very wealthy client. For almost an hour he gave me the details. Everything had been well-thought out and researched. If anyone could push this through, his client could. His client wanted a sizeable piece of the action. I started to dicker, and he shot me down right away.
“I can guarantee,” he said, “that you have no other offers on the table. And I can guarantee that what you and your fellow scavengers really want is your identities back” He steepled his hands and continued smoothly. “Quite frankly, I’ve strongly advised my client not to pursue this venture. A man of his wealth and power has many more lucrative and less risky schemes to choose from.”
“I’m certainly impressed by your clients offer,” I said hastily. “I’ll have to consult with my partners, but…”
He cut me off. “Malone will need to fly to Sacramento tomorrow. I’ll email you the details shortly. He’ll be met at the airport.” It was obvious that this urbane, high-powered lawyer knew exactly who, and where, I was. He paused and glanced to my left. Someone else was obviously in the loop. For the first time his smooth mask slipped a little. “I don’t advise..” he started to say, then the left half of my monitor blanked out, and remained empty.
“I have a question for you.” The harsh, vaguely familiar voice was self-assured to the point of arrogance. “How long have you been in that place – Shantytown.”
“Seems like years,” I said noncommittally. “And I don’t believe I like you, whoever you are.” I thought.
“Hm. Do you know of a woman named Chris Banks?”
“I know her,” I told him. “She’s quite a lady.”
Then he was gone, and the lawyer took over. E-tickets would be cut, and confirmation would be on my printer shortly. “I don’t have a printer,” I said, taking some sort of childish pleasure in upsetting his well-laid plans. “I’ll send it to your fax software,” he said, without missing a beat.
And then the connection was broken, and I let out an excited whoop and thought about freedom and the outside world, and the possibilities opening up. Excited, I climbed the narrow staircases to Chris’ quarters and banged frenziedly on the door. After what seemed an eternity, she opened the door, looking surprised and somewhat annoyed. I gabbled out the whole story, and she listened, smiling and strangely calm. “Pretty soon, we’ll be able to go anywhere we want,” I finished excitedly. I paused, a little puzzled. There was something about the way the room felt. It was as if someone else, a grown-up, was with us, or had just left. I shook my head and forgot about it. The only adults in residence were Molly and her father and me. “And you don’t know who the guy might have been?” I asked. She laughed gently and calmed me down.
“I’m happy for all of us. Now let’s get some rest. The real work will begin when Malone gets back from Sacramento.”
“Tourism,” Malone said wonderingly. “Who’d have thought it.”
We were watching the buses as they rolled down the newly repaired ramp. We’d taken over the semi-derelict old skyscrapers, ‘skid row’, circa 1975, was newly renovated, and brand new tourist stalls, colorfully decorated in blue plastic, manned by picturesquely ragged scavengers, rapidly running to fat, artfully guided tourists through carefully cleaned and sanitized junk piles. Ryan, of Garbage Inn fame had become Shantytowns first millionaire, and the noise from the neon ringed Coliseum could be heard half way across LA. Japanese, and newly rich Chinese men with camcorders and trotting wives in tow stared wide-eyed at the chaos, while Harold and his men, carrying clubs and dressed in loincloths and leather jackets growled convincingly at suitably appalled respectable citizens.
It had been easier than we thought. Los Angeles had grown too big and arrogant for the state of California, and a threatened invasion of Shantytown by the LAPD was stopped dead in its tracks by the timely appearance of large numbers of the National Guard. In desperation, Los Angeles turned to the Feds for support, but the barely ambulatory President was now directing a new talk show, aptly titled ‘Savage!!’ in which Harold was rapidly becoming a star attraction, and the City caved in, deciding to embrace us as a cash-cow. We were citizens with special privileges and we all lived in a city within a city that was a cross between Las Vegas and Disneyland.
“So, you’re going to leave us,” Malone said, staring at a half-naked bag-lady stripper who had become quite rich by accepting tourist money to get dressed.
The days of wine and roses had been a big letdown after a very short while. Most of the Shantytowners, returned from limbo, became rabid capitalists overnight, buying up property in Beverly hills and commuting to work in Skid Row seven days a week in a frantic attempt to acquire ever more conspicuous wealth. The semi-independent Shantytown council banned all outsiders from working in Shantytown, and acquiring property there, although a special exception was made for Malone and Molly.
I’d decided to leave with Chris and travel to Sacramento and points north. She was a citizen now, and still knew, I was sure a lot of powerful people. I had a confused idea of cultivating Shantytowns all over the country, watching them rise phoenix-like from the ashes, and guiding them to a maturity that placed proper emphasis on culture, thrift, and honesty. The bag lady was stuffing wads of Yuan and yen and good old dollars down her ample bosom as I thought about lost dreams and opportunities.
I knew Molly would be broken-hearted. She’d always been interested in me, and now that I’d single-handedly saved Shantytown, I was a man of status. But I needed someone serious and mature like Chris. I saw our little family, setting up communities, moving with the movers and shakers, little Pat turning into a stylish young woman.
When I walked into Chris’ room with my proposal, I was surprised to see her and Molly and Pat, companionably sorting out clothes and chattering about some sort of arrangements they were making. I wondered how to break the news gently to Molly.
“He’ll be the first one to know,” Chris said happily, “apart from your dad, of course.” I tried to marshal my words, but Molly beat me to it.
“We’re going to get married.”
“Who to,” I asked stupidly, and they all laughed gaily.
“To each other, naturally,” Chris said, and the companionable silences between them, the girlish hugs and innocent kisses all fell into place. I remembered waking Chris up in the middle of the night and the strange feeling of someone else in the bedroom, glances between them, Molly’s real affection for little Pat. Sherbo the naïve idiot had blundered again.
“Ah, that’s marvelous,” I babbled. “We should drink to that.” I extracted a pint of Malone’s whiskey from my pocket and took a hearty swig. “Yes, indeed,” I gasped, choking slightly. “I’ll drink to that. Where’s Malone?” and I hurried out waving the bottle.
“Did you propose to Chris?” Malone asked innocently, “Or was it Molly? I don’t remember.”
“You sonofabitch,” I told him. “Why didn’t you tell me.”
Since then, we’d all been carefully polite with each other, and now I was getting ready to board the bus to Sacramento and points north. Everyone seemed to have made money apart from myself, but Malone and Chris pressed a fair sum of cash on me, and Harold, surprisingly, had donated a large wad of money when he heard the news.
“Have a word with, you know, the big guys for me,” he said quietly. “Tell Lovelace come and visit. I really want to see his scars.” And he wandered off to make money.
“I’m going with you,” Stitches had told me unexpectedly. Frequent jolts of electricity had improved his vocabulary tremendously, but he occasionally suffered from the shakes, and Minnie had left him for one of the quieter, more stable skins.
“Well, I suppose I should thank you for getting me into all this,” I said to Malone as the bus drew up, He tried to look innocent. “The Television Detective didn’t just happen to mistake me for a dead-beat husband,” I said, “and I didn’t just happen to stumble upon Stitches, and your little nest in the freeway. You were expecting me.”
I got on the bus, and Stitches flowed around my shoulders like some psychadelic cape. “By the way,” I called to his dwindling figure, as we swept up the ramp. “I left you a little present – in the computer system.” I saw his startled look, and grinned as I moved up the bus, watching the broad ribbon of the freeway as it unrolled on the way to a new Shantytown in the north.
© 2003-2004 by Mike Morris. I live in the US, but I was born and raised in the UK, where I worked in the factories and foundries of the industrial midlands. Britain was pretty drab after World War 2, and I spent my early life cleaning dirt from under my nails and watching high-energy American movies. You might say that Gene Kelly and Doris Day invited me over here. I learnt data processing for the sole purpose of emigrating.
I have published essays and short stories, and I have written articles for Nerdworld (www.nerdworld.com), and IQInternet (http://www.iqinternet.com/) I have also written for PlanetExpat (http://www.planetexpat.com/), New2USA and Suite101 (http://www.new2usa.com/) (http://suite101.com/), and WriteforCash
(http://www.write4cash.com/). I have written for various print magazines, including Computer Contractor, and Baja Travel.
Recently, I had three SF stories published: - 'War is Heck' www.anotherealm.com , 'Deathboat' www.alienskinmag.com , and 'Mail Call'
www.neomythos.com/penumbric . This one's a bit longer. Hope you like it.