Authors: Alan Dean Foster
Alan Dean Foster
For Dick and Marge Green,
who helped move the Lazy Unicorn, with love and thanks.
It's very old, the protection racket. So are murder, prostitution, graft, and a number of other sordid frailties that technology cannot seem to cure. These faults are not exclusively human. They're found in other intelligent races. But it's in mankind that technological advancement has outpaced the social to a degree unmatched by any other sentient species.
Longevity institutionalizes vice as well as virtue. Sex has been for sale longer than salvation; stealing money has always been more popular than working for it. It was inevitable that a maturing society unable to eliminate such ills would learn to cope with them. Government was agreeable. Anything, which can be coped with, can be formalized, and anything, which can be formalized, can be taxed.
So it was that Kees vaan Loo-Macklin found himself outside the simple shop front in commercial corridor B of the hundred-kilometer-long cylinder that was the city of Cluria and considered how to go about killing his first man.
There wasn't much of a crowd milling about the darkening street. It was late in the afternoon, almost evening, close to closing time for most shops and businesses. Feeble light fell through the transparent, arching roof of the city, dirty yellow after its fight with the pollutants trapped beneath the permanent inversion layer that covered most of the world.
Within the parallel enclosed tubes that comprised the cities the air was reasonably fresh. The builders of Evenwaith's great industries had long ago given up trying to prevent the poisoning of the atmosphere. It was simpler (and cheaper) to seal each city inside the long glass-and-steel worms the inhabitants called the tubes so that the factories could belch their sulfur dioxides and ozones and chemicals into the sky without harming the human population.
Unfortunately, the native flora and fauna of Evenwaith had no tubes to retreat to, no gas masks to don. Outside the tubes the surface was barren scrub and gravel desert, leaden skies dominating a land of weeds and weak animals. Even the insects choked.
None of which troubled the busy people of Cluria. Business was good and there was plenty of work. What did it matter that you couldn't go outside? There was enough to do inside.
None of the preoccupied pedestrians spared Loo-Macklin a glance. He was clad in a brown shirt that was puffed at the sleeves and V-necked, loose black coveralls with straps over his shoulders, and a black cap.
From a distance he was easy to overlook. He was less than average height. Up close, however, he became suddenly more impressive, particularly if he turned to face you and you received the full impact of his stare. You would also note that there was a hundred kilos of muscle on that squat frame, most of it concentrated in chest and unusually long, massive arms. He wore his blond hair cut short, for in his profession long hair could prove a fatal encumbrance. Sleepy blue eyes examined the world from beneath a high forehead and there was about him an air of lounging insouciance.
It was only an air, however. Loo-Macklin absorbed everything that went on around him. He just didn't want the world to know it was being absorbed.
He had a very small mouth, a nose that had been broken many times, and those exceedingly odd blue eyes that never seemed to open more than halfway. They were certainly a striking color, almost a turquoise, and all the more remarkable for the fact that there seemed to be nothing behind them.
A well-dressed man and woman, hand in hand, came strolling down his side of the street. They passed him as though he weren't there. It was a talent he'd refined, the ability to become part of the scenery.
He followed them as they passed, looked the other way up the street, then put his hands in his pockets and walked casually across the pavement. He was twenty-two years old and had been a registered illegal for five years.
There were a hundred classes of citizenship, both legal and illegal. Of course, you could hold both, depending on your profession and avocations. Loo-Macklin was an eighty-third-class illegal and had spent two years in that status. He was tired of it. Any twenty-two-year-old would have been. But Loo-Macklin was very patient, which the average citizen his age was not. Patience was a prerequisite in his chosen line of work.
He'd started making a name for himself in Volea, a small semiagricultural city to the south of Cluria. A recommendation by the gang leader he'd worked for there brought him to the attention of powerful underworld figures in the metropolis. For two years he'd worked for one of the city's dozen criminal syndicates.
He'd learned the methodology of operating a large illegal concern. Learned it well, despite warnings from associates not to study beyond reasonable aspirations. He'd ignored them. Thus far it hadn't caused him any trouble. He wanted to be ready when the inevitable suggestion of promotion came along.
He punched in the code on the plastic buttons set into the security door. The code had been provided for him by the syndicate's computer. It slid aside and he entered.
There was a single aisle running the narrow length of the store. Each wall was a long, flat video screen. On them were displayed, elegantly lit and arranged, the store's wares.
Despite its somewhat seedy location, the store's stock was quite impressive. Some of the best citizens of Cluria, or their representatives, made purchases here. The real jewelry was kept locked in a securoom somewhere below street level and was brought up only when an actual purchase had been consummated and credit had cleared.
The system proved a very effective antitheft arrangement, though it was not perfect. Loo-Macklin could have cared less. He was not there to steal.
The owner came out of a back room. It was five minutes to sunset time and he was clearly impatient to close up. He was quite tall, well-built and middle-aged. He'd chosen to let natural baldness develop.
As he watched Loo-Macklin, he removed the contact jeweler's loupe from his left eye and slipped the sliver of plastic into the cleansing case he wore as a ring on one finger. Loo-Macklin stopped opposite a floor-mounted screen which simulated a display case. He still had his hands jammed in his pockets. The owner was on the other side.
"Hello." Loo-Macklin spoke quietly. He always spoke quietly, never yet having encountered a situation, which required him to raise his voice. Nobody yet knew what he would sound like if he ever got really angry.
"Hello yourself, citizen." The owner's head nodded toward the doorway. "If you've come to make a selection today you'd better hurry. I'm closing in a couple of minutes." He eyed Loo-Macklin up and down, added, "The cheaper jewelry is in the third section, right-hand wall and in the middle of the screen."
"I'm not here to buy," Loo-Macklin informed him, "I'm here to collect."
The man's eyebrows rose and he appeared amused. He leaned forward, his hands resting on the top of the display screen.
"I'm not aware that I owe you anything. In fact, I don't even know you."
"That's not necessary. I'm here on behalf of someone you do know. Hyram Lal."
The man sighed and looked bored.
"Not again. Look," he said tiredly, "I've told Lal that I'm doing just fine on my own. There hasn't been an attempted break-in here or in my vault for nearly half a year. Maybe he can frighten some of the other merchants on the street into paying him protection money, but the police in this section of the tube are reasonably honest and efficient and I haven't had any trouble. I'd rather pay the police anyway." He smiled wickedly.
"No, that's not quite true, what I just said about trouble. I have had a few problems. About a month ago a couple of sickly looking ghits wandered in and threatened to smash my screens if I didn't succumb to your friend Lal's blandishments. It was really funny, like something out of a history tape. They brought alumin pipes and the first time they took a swing at one of my screens and intercepted the shieldfield I've got running over them they both lit up like a pair of mollywobbles. Took me an hour just to properly deodorize the store." His smile widened.
"I find it peculiar that Lal would send one ghit where two had failed."
Loo-Macklin gave a barely perceptible shrug. "I don't know about the two men you're talking about or anything else that's spizzed between you and Lal. I only know that I'm here to collect. One hundred credits for six months back insurance and another hundred for the rest of the year."
The man laughed, shook his head in disbelief. "That's another thing about your boss Lal; he's overpriced as well as stupid."
"He's not my boss," said Loo-Macklin quietly. "I work for him."
"Doesn't that make him your boss?"
"Not necessarily," Loo-Macklin replied. "It makes him my employer. 'Boss' has a different connotation."
"'Connotation,'" murmured the smiling owner. "Oh, I get it. He sends along two idiots with alumin bars to try and beat me into submission and when that doesn't work, he decides to send a semanticist to try and talk me into it." He leaned forward over the screen, his expression turning nasty.
"Well, I'm not interested in your spiel, I'm not afraid of your boss, and I'm not worried about however many ghits he decides to have visit me! He can send along fools to talk or strike and it won't make me pay him a half-credit.
"The security arrangements for this shop are very elaborate, the best available in Cluria and the equal of anything that can be brought in from Terra itself. So I'll run my business, thank you, without your boss's 'protection.' Tell him to fibble off and go bully someone else. He doesn't frighten me. I've got friends, too. Legals. They buy a lot of merchandise from me and they'd be damned upset if anything happened to their source of supply."
Loo-Macklin waited until the owner had finished, then said patiently, as if speaking to a child, "You owe Hyram Lal one hundred credits back insurance and another hundred for the remainder of this year."
The owner shook his head slowly. "A deaf semanticist he sends, no less."
Loo-Macklin extended his right hand. "You can pay in cash or by transfer, but please pay now. You are overdue."
The joke seemed to be wearing thin on the other man. "Oh, come on, I've got to lock up. Why don't you just leave while you're still in one piece and go tell the ghit you work for it will be a hell of a lot cheaper for him to just leave me alone."
"If you don't pay me right now," Loo-Macklin told him, "I'm going to have to kill you." This declaration was made in such a calm, utterly emotionless tone that the shop owner's expression twisted. He lost half his smile, replaced it with half a frown, and ended up only looking baffled.
"Really?" His hands tensed ever so slightly. "You killed many people?"
Loo-Macklin shook his head. "I've never killed anyone . . . before now."
"Well, I have something to tell you, young man. Why I bother I don't know, except that you're obviously so unsuited to what you're here for I suppose I feel a smidgen of pity for you. You notice the position of my hands?"
Loo-Macklin's eyes didn't move from the other man's face. "I noticed them when I walked in. So?"
"So you cannot have a very large-caliber explosive weapon in either of the pockets where your hands have been since you came in. For the last couple of minutes, both of my hands have been resting on specially keyed portions of the fake display screen that stands between us.
"This keyed screen runs directly into the power control, which operates this store, which in turn is linked to Tube Power Central. If you're holding a ray weapon on me, it won't have sufficient power to knock me aside, either. Should I fall forward and my hands thereby come in contact with the lower portion of this screen, with any part of it, the metal meshing which underlies the entire aisle on which you are currently standing will instantly become electrified. Very strongly electrified, I might add." He peered downward.
"I see that you are not wearing insulated footwear." The nasty grin returned. "You may kill me, but you'll end up just another cinder on the floor, just like the other two your boss sent after me. Only you'll dance longer. So why don't you just leave?"