Authors: Terry Hickman
The Strangers of Kindness
By Terry Hickman
Genre: Science Fiction
©2000 and 2013 by Terry Hickman
First published March 2004
by The Fiction Works
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced without written permission, except for brief quotations to books and critical reviews. This story is a work of fiction. Characters and events are the product of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Table of Contents
People Like Them
They surgically implanted the “tether” in his throat, snug against the jugular vein. This made it nearly impossible to remove without rupturing the vein, especially since only back-alley surgeons would ever attempt it, and then only under the kind of financial inducement that was by definition beyond a person in Theo’s situation. It made a small lump, and he could feel it there, with every heartbeat, even under the scraping pain of the sutured incision.
They were careful to explain its function. When he was sold, his owner would be given the control unit. The unit emitted a signal every sixty seconds which would “placate” the tether; if he moved out of range or the unit was damaged, the tether wouldn’t receive its signal and immediately a countdown would begin. At the end of two hours, it would disgorge its explosive contents and probably blow off his head. The owner could specify the distance over which the signal would effectively reach the tether.
It was also designed to deliver lesser punishment: small doses of extremely potent pain-inducers. The owner at a touch of a button could administer corrective “admonishments” which would reduce the slave to helpless agony for several hours. They wrapped a gauze bandage around his neck and sent him back to the cell to wait for the trip to the pillory.
* * *
There had been one moment of triumph, and then things just got worse and worse. The moment of triumph for Theo came when Fred Slitter realized that in attempting to include Theo’s bookstore in the Dahl assets he had gone too far.
Theo said, truly surprised, “But I don’t own it!”
Fred’s face lost some muscle tone.
“I don’t. I’ve got about $5000 of equity in the place. I’ve been working off the purchase price through an arrangement with Lou Brigiani. That leaves, oh, about twenty-five grand.”
Fred’s face went pasty. The cut-off point for irredeemable debt was $250,000. In his haste and greed he’d not checked carefully enough on the title to the book store. The loss of this additional $25,000 pushed Theo’s debt over the limit. The government automatically stepped in and took over Theo’s life, which was what Fred had hoped to do. He didn’t really care about the money, he had plenty, and he’d still get to gloat, but it wouldn’t be the same as making Theo pay him every month for the rest of his life.
Theo, too, had gone white. Fred’s dismay was a tiny, fleeting comfort in this nightmare that didn’t look like ending before Theo’s life did. The impact this revelation had on Theo’s situation was horrifying—even Theo didn’t realize how horrifying.
Theo’s and Fred’s fathers were neighboring farmers in rural Nebraska. Fred’s dad was a big landowner. Theo’s started from nothing, on land—100 acres—that Fred’s dad let him pay off much as Lou Brigiani was allowing Theo to pay off the book store. And because they were lifelong friends, there was no paper. Old School, the elder Dahl would tell Theo, “Gentlemen don’t need paper. The Dahl name is gold, always has been.”
Which was fine until both fathers passed away within weeks of each other. A cosmic joke but Theo couldn’t imagine who was laughing.
Because Fred, for some reason Theo had never understood, hated Theo. The two boys had always been as different as two people could be. Theo was lean and dark, Fred pale and chunky. Theo was never interested in sports, like boys were expected to be in small rural schools. His interests were in the arts and literature. Fred excelled in football, had a killer instinct that brought their team victory in underdog turnovers time and again. The girls loved him, and mostly ignored Theo. When they each went out on their own, they both happened to go to Omaha.
The few times their paths crossed, the incidents were always made unpleasant by Fred’s thinly-veiled contempt.
And the minute Fred’s dad died, Fred went through his papers scavenging for any hold he could get over Theo. What he found was so much better than anything he’d expected that he’d delayed going to his attorney for several days just for the joy of savoring it. Even though the elder Dahl had paid faithfully for thirty years, on the first of every month, and the place should have been nearly paid off by now, there wasn’t a scrap of paper anywhere to prove it. Old School, he’d paid cash.
So when Theo’s dad died it meant that Theo, with Fred claiming he owned not a square inch of that farm, and after counting the $5000 book store equity against the outstanding debts of farm machinery, seed and chemicals, was totally penniless. Totally. And that, in 2010, was a major crime.
* * *
The pillory was two iron pipes set into the sidewalk at the corner of 14th and Douglas in downtown Omaha. The District Court adjudicating Theo’s case was located in Omaha, and that’s where his sentence would be carried out.
When a debtor exceeded the $250,000 mark, the Court took over and the plaintiff, in Theo’s case Fred, was left with little except the choice between taking the debtor on as a slave, or selling him for as much as he could get.
Fred certainly didn’t want him, after rapidly figuring out how much it would cost to feed him. Fred was a “gentleman” farmer, meaning he didn’t actually work his land himself, he leased it out. His career was in grocery brokering. So he had no need for labor. And, he pointed out to Theo’s ex-girlfriend Susie, there are only so many pairs of shoes to be polished and dishes to be washed in an urban household. Susie agreed solemnly. There was nothing to do but sell the little creep.
But the plaintiff was also allowed, in compensation for such a grievous monetary loss, to assign punishment to the debtor before he was sold. The pillory was quite popular on either Coast, and it had just come to the Midwest. Courts had found it to be extremely effective in jarring hidden assets from debtors’ faulty memories. Plaintiffs had found that the public humiliation and physical torment of their enemies had their own rich rewards. Legislators and pundits called it “justice for the victims.”
* * *
Two armed guards took him to the corner before dawn on a chilly October morning. Leaves blew across the concrete as Theo watched them prepare the device. The guards fit his wrists into the brackets, and locked them in place. The posts rested at a height that made it impossible for his knees to touch the sidewalk, but he couldn’t stand up all the way, either. He could hang by his wrists to relieve his back, or squat. He stood half bent over, and thought that whatever else happened to him while he was there, this distortion of posture would be the worst torture.
They fastened the Court’s notice onto the posts where everyone walking by could read it. Then they gagged him.
They double-checked the set-up and walked away. They hadn’t spoken a single word to him. “So I’m officially Nobody now,” he thought, “I get the picture.”
The sun was irritatingly slow in rising this morning. They’d only let him wear his jeans and a T-shirt, and sneakers without socks. He was chilled through in minutes. He hoped the sun would warm up the air.
The city woke up with a blast of semi-trucks’ horns and the noxious wind of rush hour traffic. Farting MAT buses ejected people onto the sidewalks, dressed in their power suits. First dozens, then hundreds, marched along the sidewalks, heading for work. Delivery boys with huge covered trays of donuts maneuvered among the marchers. The smell of fresh-baked donuts made Theo’s stomach growl. Three days! With no food? No water?
How could even Fred be such a bastard?
He soon realized that to the downtown army he was invisible.
When they’d first started emerging from cars—quick good-by peck on the cheek to the wife—he thought he’d die of embarrassment.
“Not shame,” he insisted to himself, “I haven’t done anything to be ashamed of, dammit!” But it was excruciating. He’d thought some would make fun of him, or stop and ask him what he’d done, or read the sign, or maybe one or two would offer sympathy—but no.
By noon he knew: To them, he didn’t exist. Even a few that he recognized as occasional customers at his shop ignored him. He saw none of his friends.
He did see one fellow whose eyes went round on spotting him there in the pillory, and whose face went pale. That man had a slave’s scar on his throat, too. He ducked into the pedestrian crowds and disappeared as fast as he could go. After that Theo saw a handful of other slaves, but none of them even glanced his way. Their misfortune had befallen them before this ignominious device had come to the Midwest, and they didn’t want to see it.
Noon brought the corner hot dog vendors with their torturous aromas, and folks walking past with their fast-food fries. The Mall filled up with three-piece suits and middle managers in white shirts and ties.
Noon also brought the wives, in their autumn browns, burgundies, greens and golds, challenging the cheerful leaves blazing on the Mall’s trees and bushes. They pushed toddlers in strollers or walked preschoolers, bringing the kids to visit Dad on his lunch break. It was then he saw a new horror: Mothers actually hiding their kids’ faces from him when they went past, or crossing the street to avoid him. The moms wouldn’t look at him, either. Theo’s hatred of Fred grew.
Autumn in Nebraska can be 95 during the day, then down to 30 at night. He was lucky; it had only reached 93, and there was a front moving in for the night but they only forecast (he heard on a passing car radio) the mid-40’s for the night’s low. By mid-afternoon he’d given up on the wretched bent-over position that was breaking his back. He hung there, sweating, his knees two inches off the pavement, his shoulder ligaments screaming, his eyes shut tight. He wished they’d blindfolded him, too, but they wanted him to see all the “decent” folks walking past, people with jobs, incomes, property.
When Fred drove past in his ‘09 Infiniti, with Susie sitting next to him, Theo’s eyes were shut. Not good enough. “Hey, Theo, how’s it hangin’?” Fred called.
Theo opened his eyes and saw Susie in the car and the agony was complete. Fred grinned at him and gunned it. Surrendering at last to total despair, Theo sagged in the pillory and wept.
So black was his funk that he didn’t even register rush hour at the end of the day. When the temperature dropped with the oncoming front, it roused him. His shoulders were numb, but the flesh around his hands and wrists was raw, and he got up on his feet again to relieve them. There was a pause of maybe half an hour while downtown shifted from daytime to evening mode. Leaves of the World Herald swirled around his legs and he kicked at them in rage. Then restaurant- and theater-goers and night-clubbers appeared, as if from nowhere. There weren’t too many night spots near his corner so most of them didn’t even see him.
But as the night wore on and the fun-seekers emerged from the bars, some looking for entertainment spied him and ambled over, their judgment overcome by alcohol and curiosity.
“It’s a new art piece,” one cashmere-clad effete told his girl. “I heard about this at the latte shop last week.” They stood in front of Theo like he was a sculpture.
“I don’t think so,” the lady said doubtfully. “I think he’s a criminal. Look at that bandage. I think—” She peered at him, laboriously focusing her eyes. “This is no fun, Al, let’s go.” She tugged at his arm. “Come on, I don’t want anybody to see us here.”
The crowd coming out of a bar on the less-upscale side of Douglas wasn’t so refined. One of the boys took a leak against Theo’s leg. He didn’t even move, just glared at the sot from above his gag and wished him all the evil in the world. A couple of them poked at him a little, just to see what he’d do, and when he only responded with a reflexive flinch, they sauntered away, bored.