Либрусек (книги fb2)
The most dangerous game, said one writer, is Man. But there is another still more deadly!
Robert Sheckley Seventh Victim
Stanton Frelaine sat at his desk, trying to look as busy as an executive should at nine-thirty in the morning. It was impossible. He couldn’t concentrate on the advertisement he had written the previous night, couldn’t think about business. All he could do was wait until the mail came.
He had been waiting for his notification for two weeks now. The government was behind schedule, as usual.
The glass door of his office was marked Morger and Frelaine, Clothiers. It opened, and E. J. Morger walked in, limping slightly from his old gunshot wound. His shoulders were bent; but at the age of seventy-three, he wasn’t worrying too much about his posture.
“Well, Stan?” Morger asked. “What about that ad?”
Frelaine had joined Morger sixteen years ago, when he was twenty-seven. Together they had built Protec-Clothes into a million-dollar concern.
“I suppose you can run it,” Frelaine said, handing the slip of paper to Morger. If only the mail would come earlier, he thought.
“ ‘Do you own a ProtecSuit?’ ” Morger read aloud, holding the paper close to his eyes. “ ‘The finest tailoring in the world has gone into Morger and Frelaine’s Protec-Suit, to make it the leader in men’s fashions.’ ”
Morger cleared his throat and glancea at Frelaine. He smiled and read on.
“ ‘Protec-Suit is the safest as well as the smartest. Every Protec-Suit comes with special built-in gun pocket, guaranteed not to bulge. No one will know you are carrying a gun—except you. The gun pocket is exceptionally easy to get at, permitting fast, unhindered draw. Choice of hip or breast pocket.’ Very nice,” Morger commented.
Frelaine nodded morosely.
“ ‘The Protec-Suit Special has the fling-out gun pocket, the greatest modern advance in personal protection. A touch of the concealed button throws the gun into your hand, cocked, safeties off. Why not drop into the Protec-Store nearest you? Why not be safe?’ ”
“That’s fine,” Morger said. “That’s a very nice, dignified ad.” He thought for a moment, fingering his white mustache. “Shouldn’t you mention that Protec-Suits come in a variety of styles, single and double-breasted, one and two button rolls, deep and shallow flares?”
“Right. I forgot.”
* * *
Frelaine took back the sheet and jotted a note on the edge of it. Then he stood up, smoothing his jacket over his prominent stomach. Frelaine was forty-three, a little overweight, a little bald on top. He was an amiable-looking man with cold eyes.
“Relax,” Morger said. “It’ll come in today’s mail.”
Frelaine forced himself to smile. He felt like pacing the floor, but instead sat on the edge of the desk.
“You’d think it was my first kill,” he said, with a deprecating smile.
“I know how it is,” Morger said. “Before I hung up my gun, I couldn’t sleep for a month, waiting for a notification. I know.”
The two men waited. Just as the silence was becoming unbearable, the door opened. A clerk walked in and deposited the mail on Frelaine’s desk.
Frelaine swung around and gathered up the letters. He thumbed through them rapidly and found what he had been waiting for—the long white envelope from ECB, with the official government seal on it.
“That’s it!” Frelaine said, and broke into a grin. “That’s the baby!”
“Fine.” Morger eyed the envelope with interest, but didn’t ask Frelaine to open it. It would be a breach of etiquette, as well as a violation in the eyes of the law. No one was supposed to know a Victim’s name except his Hunter. “Have a good hunt.”
“I expect to,” Frelaine replied confidently. His desk was in order—had been for a week. He picked up his briefcase.
“A good kill will do you a world of good,” Morger said, putting his hand lightly on Frelaine’s padded shoulder. “You’ve been keyed up.”
“I know.” Frelaine grinned again and shook Morger’s hand.
“Wish I was a kid again,” Morger said, glancing down at his crippled leg with wryly humorous eyes. “Makes me want to pick up a gun again.”
The old man had been quite a Hunter in his day. Ten successful hunts had qualified him for the exclusive Tens Club. And, of course, for each hunt Morger had had to act as Victim, so he had twenty kills to his credit.
“I sure hope my Victim isn’t anyone like you,” Frelaine said, half in jest.
“Don’t worry about it. What number will this be?”
“Lucky seven. Go to it,” Morger said. “We’ll get you into the Tens yet.”
Frelaine waved his hand and started out the door.
“Just don’t get careless,” warned Morger. “All it takes is a single slip and I’ll need a new partner. If you don’t mind, I like the one I’ve got now.”
“I’ll be careful,” Frelaine promised.
* * *
Instead of taking a bus, Frelaine walked to his apartment. He wanted time to cool off. There was no sense in acting like a kid on his first kill.
As he walked, Prelaine kept his eyes strictly to the front. Staring at anyone was practically asking for a bullet, if the man happened to be serving as Victim. Some Victims shot if you just glanced at them. Nervous fellows. Frelaine prudently looked above the heads of the people he passed.
Ahead of him was a huge billboard, offering J. F. O’Donovan’s services to the public.
“Victims!” the sign proclaimed in huge red letters. “Why take chances? Use an O’Donovan accredited Spotter. Let us, locate your assigned killer. Pay after you get him!”
The sign reminded Frelaine. He would call Morrow as soon as he reached his apartment.
He crossed the street, quickening his stride. He could hardly wait to get home now, to open the envelope and discover who his victim was. Would he be clever or stupid? Rich, like Frelaine’s fourth Victim, or poor, like the first and second? Would he have an organized Spotter service, or try to go it on his own?
The excitement of the chase was wonderful, coursing through his veins, quickening his heartbeat. From a block or so away, he heard gunfire. Two quick shots, and then a final one.
Somebody got his man, Frelaine thought. Good for him.
It was a superb feeling, he told himself. He was alive again.
* * *
At his one-room apartment, the first thing Frelaine did was call Ed Morrow, his spotter. The man worked as a garage attendant between calls.
“Hello, Ed? Frelaine.”
“Oh, hi, Mr. Frelaine.” He could see the man’s thin, grease-stained face, grinning flat-lipped at the telephone.
“I’m going out on one, Ed.”
“Good luck, Mr. Frelaine,” Ed Morrow said. “I suppose you’ll want me to stand by?”
“That’s right. I don’t expect to be gone more than a week or two. I’ll probably get my notification of Victim Status within three months of the kill.”
“I’ll be standing by. Good hunting, Mr. Frelaine.”
“Thanks. So long.” He hung up. It was a wise safety measure to reserve a first-class spotter. After his kill, it would be Frelaine’s turn as Victim. Then, once again, Ed Morrow would be his life insurance.
And what a marvelous spotter Morrow was! Uneducated—stupid, really. But what an eye for people! Morrow was a natural. His pale eyes could tell an out-of-towner at a glance. He was diabolically clever at rigging an ambush. An indispensable man.
Frelaine took out the envelope, chuckling to himself, remembering some of the tricks Morrow had turned for the Hunters. Still smiling, he glanced at the data inside the envelope.
His Victim was a female!
Frelaine stood up and paced for a few moments. Then he read the letter again. Janet-Marie Patzig. No mistake. A girl. Three photographs were enclosed, her address, and the usual descriptive data.
Frelaine frowned. He had never killed a female.
He hesitated for a moment, then picked up the telephone and dialed.
“Emotional Catharsis Bureau, Information Section,” a man’s voice answered.
“Say, look,” Frelaine said. “I just got my notification and I pulled a girl. Is that in order?” He gave the clerk the girl’s name.
“It’s all in order, sir,” the clerk replied after a minute of checking micro-files. “The girl registered with the board under her own free will. The law says she has the same rights and privileges as a man.”
“Could you tell me how many kills she has?”
“I’m sorry, sir. The only information you’re allowed is the victim’s legal status and the descriptive data you have received.”
“I see.” Frelaine paused. “Could I draw another?”
“You can refuse the hunt, of course. That is your legal right. But you will not be allowed another Victim until you have served. Do you wish to refuse?”
“Oh, no,” Frelaine said hastily. “I was just wondering. Thank you.”
* * *
He hung up and sat down in his largest armchair, loosening his belt. This required some thought.
Damn women, he grumbled to himself, always trying to horn in on a man’s game. Why can’t they stay home?
But they were free citizens, he reminded himself. Still, it just didn’t seem feminine.
He knew that, historically speaking, the Emotional Catharsis Board had been established for men and men only. The board had been formed at the end of the fourth world war—or sixth, as some historians counted it.
At that time there had been a driving need for permanent, lasting peace. The reason was practical, as were the men who engineered it.
Simply—annihilation was just around the corner.
In the world wars, weapons increased in magnitude, efficiency and exterminating power. Soldiers became accustomed to them, less and less reluctant to use them.
But the saturation point had been reached. Another war would truly be the war to end all wars. There would be no one left to start another.
So this peace had to last for all time, but the men who engineered it were practical. They recognized the tensions and dislocations still present, the cauldrons in which wars are brewed. They asked themselves why peace had never lasted in the past.
“Because men like to fight,” was their answer.
“Oh, no!” screamed the idealists.
But the men who engineered the peace were forced to postulate, regretfully, the presence of a need for violence in a large percentage of mankind.
Men aren’t angels. They aren’t fiends, either. They are just very human beings, with a high degree of combativeness.
With the scientific knowledge and the power they had at that moment, the practical men could have gone a long way toward breeding this trait out of the race. Many thought this was the answer.
The practical men didn’t. They recognized the validity of competition, love of battle, strength in the face of overwhelming odds.
These, they felt, were admirable traits for a race, and insurance toward its perpetuity. Without them, the race would be bound to retrogress.
The tendency toward violence, they found, was inextricably linked with ingenuity, flexibility, drive.
The problem, then: To arrange a peace that would last after they were gone. To stop the race from destroying itself, without removing the responsible traits.
The way to do this, they decided, was to rechannel Man’s violence.
Provide him with an outlet, an expression.
The first big step was the legalization of gladiatorial events, complete with blood and thunder. But more was needed. Sublimations worked only up to a point. Then people demanded the real thing.
There is no substitute for murder.
So murder was legalized, on a strictly individual basis, and only for those who wanted it. The governments were directed to create Emotional Catharsis Boards.
After a period of experimentation, uniform rules were adopted.
Anyone who wanted to murder could sign up at the ECB. Giving certain data and assurances, he would be granted a Victim.
Anyone who signed up to murder, under the government rules, had to take his turn a few months later as Victim—if he survived.
That, in essence, was the setup. The individual could commit as many murders as he wanted. But between each, he had to be a Victim. If he successfully killed his Hunter, he could stop, or sign up for another murder.
At the end of ten years, an estimated third of the world’s civilized population had applied for at least one murder. The number slid to a fourth, and stayed there.
Philosophers shook their heads, but the practical men were satisfied. War was where it belonged —in the hands of the individual.
Of course, there were ramifications to the game, and elaborations. Once its existence had been accepted it became big business. There were services for Victim and Hunter alike.
The Emotional Catharsis Board picked the Victims’ names at random. A Hunter was allowed six months in which to make his kill. This had to be done by his own ingenuity, unaided. He was given the name of his Victim, address and description, and allowed to use a standard caliber pistol. He could wear no armor of any sort.
The Victim was notified a week before the Hunter. He was told only that he was a Victim. He did not know the name of his Hunter. He was allowed his choice of armor, however. He could hire spotters. A spotter couldn’t kill; only Victim and Hunter could do that. But he could detect a stranger in town, or ferret out a nervous gunman.
The Victim could arrange any kind of ambush in his power to kill the Hunter.
There were stiff penalties for killing or wounding the wrong man, for no other murder was allowed. Grudge killings and gain killings were punishable by death.
The beauty of the system was that the people who wanted to kill could do so. Those who didn’t —the bulk of the population—didn’t have to.
At least, there weren’t any more big wars. Not even the imminence of one.
Just hundreds of thousands of small ones.
* * *
Frelaine didn’t especially like the idea of killing a woman; but she had signed up. It wasn’t his fault. And he wasn’t going to lose out on his seventh hunt.
He spent the rest of the morning memorizing the data on his Victim, then filed the letter.
Janet Patzig lived in New York. That was good. He enjoyed hunting in a big city, and he had always wanted to see New York. Her age wasn’t given, but tojudge from her photographs, she was in her early twenties.
Frelaine phoned for jet reservations to New York, then took a shower. He dressed with care in a new Protec-Suit Special made for the occasion. From his collection he selected a gun, cleaned and oiled it, and fitted it into the fling-out pocket of the suit. Then he packed his suitcase.
A pulse of excitement was pounding in his veins. Strange, he thought, how each killing was a new excitement. It was something you just didn’t tire of, the way you did of French pastry or women or drinking or anything else. It was always new and different.
Finally, he looked over his books to see which he would take.
His library contained all the good books on the subject. He wouldn’t need any of his Victim books, like L. Fred Tracy’s Tactics for the Victim, with its insistence on a rigidly controlled environment, or Dr. Frisch’s Don’t Think Like a Victim!
He would be very interested in those in a few months, when he was a Victim again. Now he wanted hunting books.
Tactics for Hunting Humans was the standard and definitive work, but he had it almost memorized. Development of the Ambush was not adapted to his present needs.
He chose Hunting in Cities, by Mitwell and Clark, Spotting the Spotter, by Algreen, and The Victim’s Ingroup, by the same author.
Everything was in order. He left a note for the milkman, locked his apartment and took a cab to the airport.
* * *
In New York, he checked into a hotel in the midtown area, not too far from his Victim’s address. The clerks were smiling and attentive, which bothered Frelaine. He didn’t like to be recognized so easily as an out-of-town killer.
The first thing he saw in his room was a pamphlet on his bed-table. How to Get the Most Out of your Emotional Catharsis, it was called, with the compliments of the management. Frelaine smiled and thumbed through it.
Since it was his first visit to New York, Frelaine spent the afternoon just walking the streets in his Victim’s neighborhood. After that, he wandered through a few stores.
Martinson and Black was a fascinating place. He went through their Hunter-Hunted room. There were lightweight bulletproof vests for Victims, and Richard Arlington hats, with bulletproof crowns.
On one side was a large display of a new.38 caliber sidearm.
“Use the Malvern Strait-shot!” the ad proclaimed. “ECB-approved. Carries a load of twelve shots. Tested deviation less than.001 inch per 1000 feet. Don’t miss your Victim! Don’t risk your life without the best! Be safe with Malvern!”
Frelaine smiled. The ad was good, and the small black weapon looked ultimately efficient. But he was satisfied with the one he had.
There was a special sale on trick canes, with concealed four-shot magazine, promising safety and concealment. As a young man, Frelaine had gone in heavily for novelties. But now he knew that the old-fashioned ways were usually the best.
Outside the store, four men from the Department of Sanitation were carting away a freshly killed corpse. Frelaine regretted missing the kill.
He ate dinner in a good restaurant and went to bed early.
Tomorrow he had a lot to do.
The next day, with the face of his Victim before him, Frelaine walked through her neighborhood. He didn’t look closely at anyone. Instead, he moved rapidly, as though he were really going somewhere, the way an old Hunter should walk.
He passed several bars and dropped into one for a drink. Then he went on, down a side street off Lexington Avenue.
There was a pleasant sidewalk cafe there. Frelaine walked past it.
And there she was! He could never mistake the face. It was Janet Patzig, seated at a table, staring into a drink. She didn’t look up as he passed.
* * *
Frelaine walked to the end of the block. He turned the corner and stopped, hands trembling.
Was the girl crazy, exposing herself in the open? Did she think she had a charmed life?
He hailed a taxi and had the man drive around the block. Sure enough, she was just sitting there. Frelaine took a careful look.
She seemed younger than her pictures, but he couldn’t be sure. He would guess her to be not much over twenty. Her dark hair was parted in the middle and combed above her ears, giving her a nunlike appearance. Her expression, as far as Frelaine could tell, was one of resigned sadness.
Wasn’t she even going to make an attempt to defend herself?
Frelaine paid the driver and hurried to a drugstore. Finding a vacant telephone booth, he called ECB.
“Are you sure that a Victim named Janet-Marie Patzig has been notified?”
“Hold on, sir.” Frelaine tapped on the door while, the clerk looked up the information. “Yes, sir. We have her personal confirmation. Is there anything wrong, sir?”
“No,” Frelaine said. “Just wanted to check.”
After, all, it was no one’s business if the girl didn’t want to defend herself.
He was still entitled to kill her.
It was his turn.
He postponed it for that day, however, and went to a movie. After dinner, he returned to his room and read the ECB pamphlet. Then he lay on his bed and glared at the ceiling.
All he had to do was pump a bullet into her. Just ride by in a cab and kill her.
She was being a very bad sport about it, he decided resentfully, and went to sleep.
* * *
The next afternoon, Frelaine walked by the cafe again. The girl was back, sitting at the same table. Frelaine caught a cab.
“Drive around the block very slowly;” he told the driver.
“Sure,” the driver said, grinning with sardonic wisdom. From the cab, Frelaine watched for spotters. As far as he could tell, the girl had none. Both her hands were in sight upon the table.
An easy, stationary target. Frelaine touched the button of his double-breasted jacket. A fold flew open and the gun was in his hand. He broke it open and checked the cartridges, then closed it with a snap.
“Slowly, now,” he told the driver.
The taxi crawled by the cafe. Frelaine took careful aim, centering the girl in his sights. His finger tightened, on the trigger.
“Damn it!” he said.
A waiter had passed by the girl. He didn’t want to chance winging someone else.
“Around the block again,” he told the driver.
The man gave him another grin and hunched down in his seat. Frelaine wondered if the driver would feel so happy if he knew that Frelaine was gunning for a woman.
This time there was no waiter around. The girl was lighting a cigarette, her mournful face intent on her lighter. Frelaine centered her in his sights, squarely above the eyes, and held his breath.
Then he shook his head and put the gun back in his pocket.
The idiotic girl was robbing him of the full benefit of his catharsis. He paid the driver and started to walk.
It’s too easy, he told himself. He was used to a real chase. Most of the other six kills had been quite difficult. The Victims had tried every dodge. One had hired at least a dozen spotters. But Frelaine had gotten to them all by altering his tactics to meet the situation.
Once he had dressed as a milkman, another time as a bill collector. The sixth Victim he had had to chase through the Sierra Nevadas. The man had clipped him, too. But Frelaine had done better than that.
How could he be proud of this one? What would the Tens Club say?
That brought Frelaine up with a start. He wanted to get into the club. Even if he passed up this girl, he would have to defend himself against a Hunter. Surviving that, he would still be four hunts away from membership. At that rate, he might never get in.
* * *
He began to pass the cafe again, then, on impulse, stopped abruptly.
“Hello,” he said.
Janet Patzig looked at him out of sad blue eyes, but said nothing.
“Say, look,” he said, sitting down. “If I’m being fresh, just tell me and I’ll go. I’m an out-of-towner. Here on a convention. And I’d just like someone feminine to talk to. If you’d rather I didn’t—”
“I don’t care,” Janet Patzig said tonelessly.
“A brandy,” Frelaine told the waiter. Janet Patzig’s glass was still half full.
Frelaine looked at the girl and he could feel his heart throbbing against his ribs. This was more like it—having a drink with your Victim!
“My name’s Stanton Frelaine,” he said, knowing it didn’t matter.
“Nice to know you,” Frelaine said, in a perfectly natural voice. “Are you doing anything tonight, Janet?”
“I’m probably being killed tonight,” she said quietly.
Frelaine looked at her carefully. Did she realize who he was? For all he knew, she had a gun leveled at him under the table.
He kept his hand close to the fling-out button.
“Are you a Victim?” he asked.
“You guessed it,” she said sardonically. “If I were you, I’d stay out of the way. No sense getting hit by mistake.”
Frelaine couldn’t understand the girl’s calm. Was she a suicide? Perhaps she just didn’t care. Perhaps she wanted to die.
“Haven’t you got any spotters?” he asked, with the right expression of amazement.
“No.” She looked at him, full in the face, and Frelaine saw something he hadn’t noticed before.
She was very lovely.
“I am a bad, bad girl,” she said lightly. “I got the idea I’d like to commit a murder, so I signed for ECB. Then—I couldn’t do it.”
* * *
Frelaine shook his head, sympathizing with her. “But I’m still in, of course. Even if I didn’t shoot, I still have to be a Victim.”
“But why don’t you hire some spotters?” he asked.
“I couldn’t kill anyone,” she said. “I just couldn’t. I don’t even have a gun.”
“You’ve got a lot of courage,” Frelaine said, “coming out in the open this way.” Secretly, he was amazed at her stupidity.
“What can I do?” she asked listlessly. “You can’t hide from a Hunter. Not a real one. And I don’t have enough money to make a real disappearance.”
“Since it’s in your own defense, I should think—” Frelaine began, but she interrupted.
“No. I’ve made up my mind on that. This whole thing is wrong, the whole system. When I had my Victim in the sights—when I saw how easily I could—I could—”
She pulled herself together quickly.
“Oh, let’s forget it,” she said, and smiled.
Frelaine found her smile dazzling.
After that, they talked of other things. Frelaine told her of his business, and she told him about New York. She was twenty-two, an unsuccessful actress.
They had supper together. When she accepted Frelaine’s invitation to go to the Gladiatorials, he felt absurdly elated.
He called a cab—he seemed to be spending his entire time in New York in cabs—and opened the door for her. She started in. Frelaine hesitated. He could have pumped a shot into her at that moment. It would have been very easy.
But he held his hand. Just for the moment, he told himself.
* * *
The Gladiatorials were about the same as those held anywhere else, except that the talent was a little better. There were the usual historical events, swordsmen and netmen, duels with saber and foil.
Most of these, naturally, were fought to the death.
Then bull fighting, lion fighting and rhino fighting, followed by the more modern events. Fights from behind barricades with bow and arrow. Dueling on a high wire.
The evening passed pleasantly. Frelaine escorted the girl home, the palms of his hands sticky with sweat. He had never found a woman he liked better. And yet she was his legitimate kill.
He didn’t know what he was going to do.
She invited him in and they sat together on the couch. The girl lighted a cigarette for herself with a large lighter, then settled back.
“Are you leaving soon?” she asked him.
“I suppose so,” Frelaine said. “The convention is only lasting another day.”
She was silent for a moment. “I’ll be sorry to see you go. Send roses to my funeral.”
They were quiet for a while. Then Janet went to fix him a drink. Frelaine eyed her retreating back. Now was the time. He placed his hand near the button.
But the moment had passed for him, irrevocably. He wasn’t going to kill her. You don’t kill the girl you love.
The realization that he loved her was shocking. He’d come to kill, not to find a wife.
She came back with the drink and sat down opposite him, staring at emptiness.
“Janet,” he said. “I love you.” She sat, just looking at him. There were tears in her eyes.
“You can’t,” she protester’ “I’m a Victim. I won’t live long enough to—”
“You won’t be killed. I’m your Hunter.”
She stared at him a moment, then laughed uncertainly.
“Are you going to kill me?” she asked.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” he said. “I’m going to marry you.”
Suddenly she was in his arms.
“Oh, Lord!” she gasped. “The waiting — I’ve been so frightened—”
“It’s all over,” he told her. “Think what a story it’ll make for our kids. How I came to murder you and left marrying you.”
She kissed him, then sat back and lighted another cigarette.
“Let’s start packing,” Frelaine said. “I want—”
“Wait,” Janet interrupted. “You haven’t asked if I love you.”
She was still smiling, and the cigarette lighter was pointed at him. In the bottom of it was a black hole. A hole just large enough for a.38 caliber bullet.
“Don’t kid around,” he objected, getting to his feet.
“I’m not being funny, darling,” she said.
* * *
In a fraction of a second, Frelaine had time to wonder how he could ever have thought she was not much over twenty. Looking at her now—really looking at her—he knew she couldn’t be much less than thirty. Every minute of her strained, tense existence showed on her face.
“I don’t love you, Stanton,” she said very softly, the cigarette lighter poised.
Frelaine struggled for breath. One part of him was able to realize detachedly what a marvelous actress she really was. She must have known all along.
Frelaine pushed the button, and the gun was in his hand, cocked and ready.
The blow that struck him in the chest knocked him over a coffee table. The gun fell out of his hand. Gasping, half-conscious, he watched her take careful aim for the coup de grace.
“Now I can join the Tens,” he heard her say elatedly as she squeezed the trigger.