by David M. Brown
Attribute to L. Neil Smith’s The Libertarian Enterprise
Corby Vash got started on the fence.
He worked quickly. The work was simple but hard. The slats were aluminum and had a coating that made them very slippery. Despite his experience building a few other fences, Vash was no expert, not with these particular materials. But after he had installed a small section and redone it twice because of unevenness and inadequate anchoring of the slats and cross ties, the proper method, not fully explained in the instructions, became clear, and he was able to proceed with top efficiency. A YouTube video helped.
A few street kids in the neighborhood dropped by to observe. The street was where they lived, more or less. None of them was particularly attached to his family.
“Say, mister, is that some kind of fence you’re making?” asked the oldest of them, a 12-year-old red-headed black boy, with an air of plumbing philosophical depths. Three or four yards of the fencing along the east side of the front lawn had been erected by this time. The name of the redhead was Marcel Friese, often called the Freezer. He was the leader of the two others, a four-year-old Japanese boy, Tommy, and a freckle-faced nine-year-old Irish boy, Teddy.
“It is a fence,” Vash agreed, and continued digging.
“What’s it for, mister?” inquired the Freezer.
“The purpose is to alert persons to the fact that it is a boundary of private property and to discourage them from trespassing.”
“I see. I see,” said the Freezer, solemnly. “It’s because you hate people, right? I guess it’s because I’m black. Is that it?”
“Yeah!!” shrilled Tommy. “Cuz I’m black?”
“You just hate us black people,” Teddy added. “Why? Why do you hate us?”
“I’ll ask the questions,” the Freezer said sternly, glaring at Tommy and Teddy before returning his attention to the man, who was going on with his work. “Can you tell us, mister, why you hate us black people so much?” He held up a hand. “Wait. Let me retrack. I ain’t got no call to accuse you of the racism. That was out of line. It’s the race card. I’m sorry if I aggrieved you. I need to take a long hard look at myself. But let’s move on.” The other boys nodded. “Ya gotta admit, though, it’s awful strange. It ain’t even a bad neighborhood. What ya gotta build a fence for?” He plunked a fist on his chin. “I mean, seriously, mister. Just think about it for a minute. Why you be trying to keep people out like that? Why ya gotta be some kind of mean loner who hate people and want nothing to do with them and bottle yourself up like a bug? You won’t never get ahead in life that way, don’t you agree? For example, I could probably help you with chores, and I would charge only a hundred dollars an hour. But a fence, well, this is gonna impede our association, would you not agree, sir? Let me ask you this. It’s just a question. Are you gonna put a gate on this fence?”
“Will this so-called gate of yours be locked?”
“Will I get a key?”
“See, this is what I’m talking about. The distrust. It pains me. Why you gotta be like dat?” The Freezer kept talking, but Corby Vash didn’t answer him anymore. Then the Freezer started moving around jerkily, coming right up to the edge of the property, retreating, spinning around, scooting up to the edge again, stopping, retreating, jogging in place, humming, panting, gargling, flinging out his elbows, wagging his pinkies, spinning, and repeatedly seeming to be about to cross into the property proper without ever actually doing so. His two attendants repeated his movements, vaguely. But the dance was wasted on the man, who just kept working. After a while the gang drifted away.
“Well, see ya, mister,” the Freezer said by way of farewell in a sarcastic-friendly way as if he and Corby Vash had been chatting amiably for the last half hour.
Corby Vash had moved in several days ago. He did not bother anybody and he did not want to be bothered by anybody. He just wanted to be left alone.
His new home was a simple affair with two bedrooms and one and a half baths, living room, kitchen, no dining room, a half-basement, a half-attic. Enough for one person. He had little in the way of wardrobe, books, kitchen things and bathroom things. He did have a supply of food and water that could last him six months, contained in small, uniform, stackable boxes easy to move around. Stuff for his office was contained in larger uniform and stackable boxes.
Being methodical and steady, he soon finished the unpacking and setup.
Establishing his office in what was called the second bedroom had taken a bit longer than everything else. Still, within a few days of receiving the key from a puzzled real estate agent, a blond dynamo of uncertain sex and age, Corby Vash had settled in. The office had taken longer because everything was so complicated and delicate. The prefabricated elements were designed to interlock but couldn’t just be slung together. Things had to be calibrated and tested.
He was looking out a window at a squirrel scampering across his backyard, wondering if the eighty-fourth time would be the charm, when someone knocked on the front door.
Corby Vash knew that he would have to interact with others here at least a little, and that this in itself implied nothing about the willingness of those others to leave him alone, especially since he had not yet in any way indicated this preference.
His words would be simple and clear. As long as any possibility of misinterpretation were precluded, the requirements of fairness would be satisfied.
Soon, as he had sometimes done before, he would build a fence to make things even clearer. But it had been necessary to prepare the office first.
He opened the door.
The plump, elderly woman with the phony smile was his next-door neighbor, Dorothy Hilch. He knew the names of all residents within a two-mile radius, a circle that just about covered the whole town. He had gotten that information before buying the house.
Dorothy Hilch wore navy-blue slacks and a parrot-yellow blouse tinged with parrot-green, an outfit appropriate for watching television, light housework, and talking on the telephone. Most of the shows were junk, but she was always industriously doing other things too, dishes or crocheting or explaining things on the telephone. And sometimes she worked in the garden or read a book. The days of her heaviest reading were over, but once in a while she skimmed a few pages of the classics just to be able to say she still knew them. She had even gone so far as to peruse a bit of Filmer as a necessary counterweight to Locke. She lived alone. Her husband had died and her one child resided in another state. Mrs. Hilch was doing as well as could be expected under the circumstances. She thought of herself as a good neighbor, and she wanted to make sure that the new neighbor was a good neighbor too, is what she told herself.
“Hello!” she said as brightly as her blouse, looking up at his handsome, blank, enigmatic countenance.
She could glimpse a fair amount of his living room, which, aside from a chair, a sofa, and a bookcase, was empty. No television. No lamp. No painting or print on the walls. Granted, he had just moved in.
His eyes were not quite on her, and he did not acknowledge her greeting. Her first impression was not positive, but she was determined to draw no invidious conclusions. Sadly, people too often judged books by their covers. Not she.
“I’m Dorothy Hilch, your next-door neighbor?” Mrs. Hilch was suddenly glad that she had not brought the brownies she had been thinking of bringing, and especially glad that she had not used the last of her walnuts to prepare them. In fact, she did judge books by their covers and did have an immediate impression of her new neighbor, a very negative one, if inchoate. In any case, she divined that he would not have been receptive to brownies. “Just thought I’d drop by and say hello to welcome you to the neighborhood. I’m not intruding, am I? This isn’t a bad time, is it?” She willed herself to stop talking.
Corby Vash accepted all initial impressions, however incomplete and subject to amendment in light of further information. He accepted them for what they were worth and found that they were often borne out. He did not downplay parts for being parts, but he also always waited until enough evidence were available to draw an appropriate conclusion about the whole. Perhaps Dorothy Hilch as she was right at this moment, angry, fearful, false, did not represent her true entire self. Perhaps she really was as she seemed, but others in town were different and better. But the bit of Dorothy Hilch and of the other townsfolk he had seen so far tended to invite pessimism. Just one or two small parts often did indeed prefigure the whole. And when all the parts kept adding up to the same thing.…
“You are intruding,” he told her, not unkindly, though not kindly either.
“Oh!” Mrs. Hilch was flustered. But she hung on. Perhaps he was ill. Perhaps he had an appointment soon. Perhaps he was dealing with an emergency, a plumbing problem or a death in the family. Perhaps it was his bedtime, at 4:30 p.m. not too likely, but within the realm of possibility. Perhaps he had been in the middle of watching his favorite program in whichever room had the TV. Perhaps he had been juggling bowling pins and had to keep practicing or lose his concentration. Perhaps he was sunk in depression and could not abide company just at the moment. Perhaps he had ordered a pizza that would arrive any minute. “I’m so sorry. Why don’t I come back another time?” She spoke in her most accommodating and understanding tone.
“Do not come back another time,” he advised her. “I do not wish to be disturbed for any reason.”
“Oh!” Well this was too much. She had been trying to be friendly. “If that’s how you feel about it.”
“Perhaps confusion has been caused by the lack of a fence around the property. I will show you a relevant document.”
A relevant document?
Her response, if any, died on her lips as Vash turned, crossed the living room in a few strides, entered another room, apparently reached a desk, and before she could begin to speculate returned with a green-bordered sheet of paper.
“As you can see,” he said, exhibiting the document, “I own the property. The deed describes the lot exactly, reporting location in terms of latitude and longitude and specifying boundaries in relation to identifiable features of the land, such as a nearby street sign. You had to cross the southern boundary in order to approach my front door.”
Mrs. Hilch crimsoned with shame, as if she had been caught burgling the place. Several possible comments occurred to her, about mail delivery, common sense, common civility, how no man is an island entire of itself. But she turned and left without another word.
He thought about the fence. A fence with a locked gate would preclude any reasonable doubt about whether he welcomed casual visitors. A chain link fence could be climbed fairly easily. He would use long slats or posts. No one would mistake them for an open invitation. Another possibility was erecting a chain link fence and then adding slats. But that would take somewhat longer. And his patience was running out. Let’s see. Let’s see whether they will do anything differently this time.
With a couple kinds of shovels and a clamshell digger he could build a sturdy enough fence by himself. It would not be impenetrable. But nobody would be able to breach it casually. He ordered the materials.
Before he could get started, a visitor from the mayor’s office came, a person who called himself a vice mayor, who took a while to get to the point, and who would not leave when asked. As Joel Kibbenbocker continued to talk, Vash closed the door. Vice Mayor Kibbenbocker knocked again. Corby Vash was sure that his words had been clear, but he supposed that installing the fence would eliminate any doubt about whether he were serious.
After pounding on the door for another ten minutes, Kibbenbocker finally went away. He had reason to be vexed, being a very important man in the town, almost as important as the mayor. More important, really, since the mayor seemed to think that the town could run itself.
The town required no independent political structure. Utilities, firefighting, policing, and trash pickup were handled by the county. Nevertheless, in addition to a mayor and a vice mayor, its government included a town recorder or secretary and a couple of other officials, volunteers who tracked the scant goings-on of the area and who were ready to act in case of emergency. For example, after a hurricane had swept through five years ago, they had leapt into action to distribute notices urging the townsfolk to clean up their properties within a certain number of days or face fines.
Regular meetings about town affairs were held once a month at the town hall, i.e., in the special meetings room of the public library on the corner of Oak Avenue and Tenderly Lane. This was the room with the children’s books.
The most regular attendee was Vice Mayor Joel Kibbenbocker. A newcomer was Dorothy Hilch. Four persons in all attended the present meeting, two members of the town government and two mere citizens.
Kibbenbocker and Hilch shared concerns about the new resident of the town. Nothing very specific. But Corby Vash didn’t seem to have much respect for the niceties, and he seemed to be hiding something. Having discovered their mutual concern some days before the current meeting, the vice mayor had graciously invited Mrs. Hilch to attend. Her new neighbor would be on the agenda and her perspective would be appreciated.
Like every other town, this one had its share of unneighborly neighbors, and you had to take the good with the bad. But Corby Vash seemed to be a special case.
It had been the bad luck of Mrs. Hilch that such a person should move in next-door. But now the town itself was involved, and she began to feel a little better about the situation. Even before the meeting, she felt very validated by the interest and solicitousness of the vice mayor, whom she had hitherto dismissed as a grating nobody.
“I’m not saying that Corby Vash is a criminal,” Dorothy Hilch was saying. “But I truly suspect that something is going on that should be investigated. I truly do. He wants to hide away in that property of his—it’s his property, he has the deed to prove it!—and he has even gone so far as to build a fence to prevent anyone from knocking on his door, as if knocking on the door of a neighbor were the crime of the century! Good Lord. If someone had a legitimate reason to speak to him, I don’t know how the person… I mean, how would this man even receive a delivery, a grocery delivery or anything like that? A piece of mail?”
One of the patrons in the library, who was at the circulation desk waiting to check out a book, turned toward the children’s room and put a finger to his lips and said “Ssshhh!” Because the town meetings were held in a room wide open to the rest of the library, they were usually conducted in hushed tones. Mrs. Hilch was embarrassed. She should have realized.
The other layperson in attendance was Joe Handy, a semi-retired older gentleman. He said: “He keeps to himself. Is that supposed to be the problem, Mrs. Hilch?”
Mrs. Hilch reared up. “He’s hiding something,” she whispered vehemently. “He’s most definitely hiding something. We have a right to be concerned.”
Vice Mayor Joel Kibbenbocker said: “I feel I have an idea of what you are getting at, Dorothy. Have you met Corby, Joe?”
“No, Mr. Kibbenbocker. But I’m not sure—”
“Then let me suggest, no offense, that you don’t know what you’re talking about. Now, you said an interesting thing there, Dorothy. You said something about a fence. You say he’s built a fence on his property? Is that right? I dropped by there a week ago, and I did not see a fence at that time.”
Her hands fluttered. She made a little hammering motion, as if pounding nails in the air. “I saw him myself. Building that fence.” She nodded. “Yep.”
“Is it finished?”
“Yep,” she said. “Fast worker, give him that. Something to hide!”
“Perhaps he likes his privacy,” Handy said. “Plenty of fences in the world. Plenty of people build fences on their property. Perfectly normal.”
“Well, I think that’s enough about our antisocial new resident,” the vice mayor said. Dorothy Hilch looked startled. “There are no other items, so this meeting is hereby adjourned. I’ll talk to the county about the problem with the brush pickup. Thank you, everybody. Mary, I would like to dictate a letter while I have you.” Mary nodded. She was the town recorder. She never said anything at these meetings. “Dorothy, if you can hold on a minute, I’d like a word. Thank you again, Joe. Will we see you next month?”
Everyone—the three other persons at the table—looked at Joe. Joe looked at everyone. He stood, smiled, and walked out of the children’s section. But before leaving the library he went to one of the four computers available to patrons in the central area of the library to do some research.
“Does the fence entirely enclose Corby’s property?” Vice Mayor Joel Kibbenbocker asked Mrs. Hilch.
“That’s right,” Dorothy Hilch said, nodding firmly, and proudly, proud that she had been retained for this post-session session. Mary was scribbling.
“I could be wrong, and, Mary, I’m going to want you to look into this if you don’t mind, but I don’t believe that Corby has secured a permit to alter his property. The county has a code for a reason. These applications don’t go through us, but we are usually copied as a courtesy. In any case, all permits are part of the public record.”
“It would not surprise me,” Mrs. Hilch said grimly, “if in fact Corby Vash never applied for the permit. It wouldn’t occur to him. Wouldn’t cross his mind. All he knows is that it’s his property. You don’t take society and your connection to society into account if that’s your mind set. He’s the king, absolute ruler of his domain. I bet he could cite a thousand common-law precedents. I hope I’m wrong, but I really don’t think I am.”
It didn’t occur to Kibbenbocker to ask about the height of the fence. But he would learn soon enough that it was a foot higher than the maximum height that the county allowed for fences on residential properties.
Joe Handy had printed out his research, studied it, made a quick phone call, and driven to the home of Corby Vash. And now he was thwarted. He had gotten out of the car, but damned if he knew what to do next. That fence they’d been talking about, there it was, long aluminum pickets, and it wasn’t as if he could climb it even if he wanted to. There was no phone number. He saw no mailbox. Was mail even being delivered here? What could he do? Yell? He felt soggy and useless.
He turned. Flanked by two younger children was a black boy with red hair. Joe Handy had seen him before but didn’t recall the name.
“Hello,” he said, and looked again at the fence.
“They call me the Freezer,” the boy said. “And this is Teddy and this is Tommy.”
“Nice to meet you. I’m Joe.”
“Yeah, Joe. Joe.” The Freezer nodded. “Great name. It suits you perfectly. But hold on. Don’t touch that dial. I got something to tell you. It’s like this, Joe. I’m the guy who runs things in this sector, ya kapeesh? Anything you need, gotta go through me. I’ll arrange all the arrangements. For a price. Got it?”
The old man nodded. “So you’re the fellow to talk to if I want to get something done in these parts.”
“Exackly. Exackly.” The Freezer nodded, and his two little sidekicks also nodded.
“Well, the biggest thing is that the doctors tell me I have only five or six years left to live if I play my cards right. Is there anything you can do so maybe I get another ten or twenty years?”
The Freezer shook his head mournfully, and his two adjutants also shook their heads mournfully. “I am so sorry to hear about your death sentence. But like I always say, ain’t nobody get outta here alive. It’s the mortality, Joe. It get everybody in the end. Lemme ask you this. Have the doctors said about eating right and exercising and taking your medicine, and don’t get aggravated?”
“They have, Freezer.”
“Then only thing you can do when the day come is prove them sumbitch doctors wrong and extrack more time using your power of will. That’s all you can do, Joe. Ten dollars.”
Joe Handy pulled out his wallet and removed some bills. “I’ve only got seven on me. Can I owe you the rest?”
“Uh, sure. I know you’re good for it.” The Freezer took the money and the two smaller boys looked at each other and giggled. They had chosen their leader well. “What else?”
Joe Handy pointed a thumb at the fence behind him. “I need to talk to the guy who lives here. His name is Corby Vash. Do you know him?”
The Freezer shrugged. “Sure. I’m his personal secretary and whatchacall in charge of sundry and whatnot.”
“I see. So you’re in pretty regular communication with him?”
The Freezer stroked his chin. “Well, um, not as yet, not as yet. So far it’s an aspirational position, as you could call it.”
“But hold on, Joe. I got a ten-point plan. And let me tell you something. I interviewed this Mr. Corby Vash while he was building his fence. I know all about him.”
“Like he mind his own business and he want other people mind they own business.”
“So I’ve heard. What else?”
“Man of few word. He do what he do and that’s it.”
“Do what? Like what?”
“Fence! Ain’t you been listening?”
“Right. Well, I’m no closer to the solution to my problem. Does he ever come out?”
The Freezer shook his head. “Never. Never. Out of the question. Not since he build his fence, no sir. He ain’t that type.”
“Never,” Teddy said.
“Never,” Tommy said.
“To come out.”
“I’d like to communicate with him. Does the mailman ever deliver anything?”
“Of course. He get all kind of shit.” The Freezer pointed to a box several feet away from them, just to the right of the gate. The box was covered in a plastic garbage bag weighed down with bricks that the mailman had been trained to remove and replace whenever he delivered something. An index card saying MAIL FOR 2355 was taped to the fence just above the box. Joe Handy walked over to the box, peered, and removed the brick, plastic, and slotted box lid.
“Hey! Hey! Hey!” said the Freezer. “That’s official private mail, buddy! You are committing postal violations!”
The two other boys started screaming.
The box was full of supermarket flyers, post cards with offers to buy the house, reminders of the importance of dentistry and oil changes, and other junk mail. So far as Joe Handy could tell by riffling through the pile, nothing at all was personally addressed to the current occupant.
“Shaddap!” yelled the Freezer. Tommy and Teddy fell silent.
“So the postman is okay using this is a mailbox?”
“Sure. I told him that—”
“But if I put a note in here, Mr. Vash will never get it.”
“Not as such. But do not ever interrupt me again, Joe. You never know what you could miss.”
“Do not interrupt!”
“Do not interrupt!”
“Tell ya what I’m gonna do, Joe. This is because I like you. I personally will take the full responsibility to deliver your message. It’s because of the kind of person I am and the kind of person you are, and this historical moment, which acts incumbent on us all.”
“Are you saying you can climb this fence, Freezer?”
“I’m not saying I can and I’m not saying I can’t. It is also not the issue at hand, okay? You better think about it, because this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It’s a commitment. To do what, you ask. Well: to deliver the message. Got it? If I say I’m gonna do something, count on it. Don’t you know that by now?”
“I suppose this will cost me.”
“It’s a premier service. But tell you what I’m gonna do. You get it gratis so I can prove this service is for real.”
“Well, that’s fine. Let me write the note. Will you kids be hanging around for a while?”
Joe returned to his car. He had a pad of paper and some pens in the glove compartment. He took a few minutes to think about what to write and twenty minutes to write it. Using a minute and legible cursive, he managed to get it all on one page of one sheet, which he carefully folded over twice, making sharp creases. He got out of the car and handed it to the Freezer.
“Don’t read it. It’s confidential. Just give it to him. How are you going to do it?”
“Okay.” The Freezer opened the paper.
“What did I just tell you?”
The Freezer looked up from the paper and stared fixedly at Joe Handy for a few seconds. “Think about it, Joe. Suppose something happen to the note? I can’t deliver a message which I don’t know what it is if the message is lost, am I right or am I right, pick one. ‘Dear Mr. Vash. My name is Joe Handy.’ So far so good. ‘You don’t know me, I’m just a guy in town here. I happened to be present earlier today, Saturday, when a town official by the name of Joel Kibbenbocker implied that he would take action against you because you had built a fence without obtaining the proper county permit to do so. Although he did not know for sure that you lack a permit, my own research confirms that no permit has been issued to you for this purpose. Or at least none is on record. Mr. Kibbenbocker will also discover this soon enough, and I have no doubt that he will try to cause trouble for you. I suggest that you head him off at the pass by speaking to Edgar Mills in the county office that deals with licenses, permits, and inspections. I have myself already spoken to Mr. Mills, and he is ready to issue the permit as soon as he hears from you. I do not believe that you will even have to fill out an application. A phone interview will be enough. The cost is twelve dollars. Here is his contact information,’ blah blah blah, ‘Sincerely, Joe Handy. P.S. If I can be of any further assistance, please feel free to call me at’ blah blah blah.
“Joe, this is supremo stuff. You seem to be the best friend good old Corby ever had.”
“Thank you, I guess. But since he and I have never met, I don’t think we qualify as friends.”
“Well, it’s the thought that counts,” the Freezer said. “Ain’t that right?” He was addressing his subordinates.
“Right!” Teddy said.
“Right!” Tommy said.
“Enough tomfoolery,” Joe Handy said. “Are you a man of action as well as a man of words?”
“What that supposed to mean?” asked the Freezer in a wounded tone. “It’s because I’m black, ain’t it?”
“We’ve got a time problem. I can’t call Corby Vash. Don’t have his number. I can’t mail him. Mail won’t get to him. I can’t wait around until he leaves the house to go to the store or whatever. Who knows when that might be. I’m not going to climb his fence. I am relying on you, Freezer. And I don’t want you climbing the fence either.”
“Look. Do you see that rock?” The Freezer pointed at a rock on the curb, a few inches in diameter and somewhat like an oblate spheroid, and walked over to pick it up. “Who got a rubber band?”
“Yo,” Tommy said.
“What I tell you about that ‘yo’ shit, bitch? That’s cultural opprobriation.”
Tommy pulled a rubber band from his pocket and handed it to the Freezer.
“Well, I need at least two more, don’t I?”
Tommy found a few more rubber bands and handed them over. The Freezer used them to bind the note to the rock.
“Geronimo!” he yelled, and threw the note and rock over the fence.
“Yo! Geronimo!” Tommy shrieked.
“Yo! Geronimo!” Teddy yelled.
“Special delivery for Mr. Corby Vash! Pick up the note!” the Freezer yelled.
Teddy repeated it. Tommy repeated it. The Freezer yelled it again. Then all three yelled it together and kept up the chorus for about five minutes.
“Okay, that’s it,” the Freezer said, chopping the air.
“What if he doesn’t get the message?” asked Joe Handy. “What if he never picks it up? What then?”
“Your worries has no meaning. Corby Vash ain’t the type to be so stupid. He focused on security, right? If he focused on security and people shouting his name say look, look at the message, you think he gonna say no, no I don’t want to look at no message, just to prove he’s better than everybody? Trust me, I told you I would deliver. You got one point. If Mr. Vash shoot himself in the head, he won’t never read the message. The chances of which is totally unlikely. He gonna say to himself, why they shouting about the message? For a good reason or a bad reason? He don’t want to be bothered, but he ain’t stupid.”
“If it works, it works.”
At that moment, another car drove up to the house and parked. Even if Joe Handy had not recognized the vehicle, he would have recognized the person who emerged from it. Vice Mayor Joel Kibbenbocker, self-satisfied and determined. With him was the town secretary, Marie or Mary or something like that.
Kibbenbocker cast an eye at the assembled personages, the kids and Joe Handy. He also inspected the fence. He shook his head. “Just had to see it,” he said to Joe, ignoring the boys. “For myself. Is it so hard to fill out a form and pay a small fee?” He regarded Joe speculatively. “What do you think, Joe? Some people are just too good for the rest of us, eh? No permit, and I don’t think that’s regulation height, either. In fact, I’m sure it isn’t. Insult to injury, am I right?”
“Mr. Kibbenbocker,” Joe Handy said, barely polite.
“Joe. Hi. I know why I’m here, but I’m not sure I know why you’re here.”
Joe Handy grunted in a way that could mean twenty different things.
“Care to tell me?” Joel Kibbenbocker said.
Obliviously, Joe Handy was moving toward the driver side of his own car when the high gate, too high by a foot, swung open to reveal Corby Vash on the other side of the fence.
“Just—just the man I want to see,” Joel Kibbenbocker said after a moment of disorientation.
“Mr. Handy,” said Corby Vash. “Can you step inside for a moment?” He was looking right at Joe Handy, although the latter was darn sure that they had never met.
Joe Handy did not hesitate, for despite his surprise he had not forgotten his purpose. He advanced a few steps and slipped through the gate.
“Now hold on—” Joel Kibbenbocker hurried forward also but was stymied by the efficient movement of the property owner. The gate was closed and the lock was in place. A moment later, the door of the house had opened and closed, as those in the street could hear but not see.
Joel Kibbenbocker turned to glare at the boys, who were staring at him with frank curiosity.
“What’s been happening here?” he snarled. The studied impassivity of the three little brats was not soothing.
“Who might you be?” the Freezer asked. “You can call me the Freezer. These here are my boys, Captain Teddy and Corporal Tommy.” The two younger children thrust out their chests at the news of this field promotion. “As you can see, we are patrolling the vicinity to ensure peace in the land. You not being a familiar quantity in these parts, I’m gonna have to ask you to leave. Nothing personal, mister, but no intruders allowed. Hope you can understand it.”
“Look, punk, I’m not here to play games. I’m with the town. I’m here on town business. So take your little army and get the fuck out of here before I have you arrested for impeding official proceedings.”
“Official impeding proceeding what, what you say? Come again? Proceeding official impeding? How it go?”
“Prossing fishal peding!” Tommy shouted.
“Proceeding official impeding!” Teddy shouted. “Official! Official! Official, it’s official!”
Tommy said: “Fishal! Fishal! Fishal! It’s a fishal!”
Teddy shook his head. “Official! Official! Official, it’s official!”
Joel Kibbenbocker said: “Go. Go now.” He was angry. As for the lady with him, she was just standing around, seemingly indifferent, but ready to perform a task if called upon to do so.
“Official! Official! Official, it’s official!”
“O-FISH-ul! O-FISH-ul! O-FISH-ul! O-FISH-ul, it’s o-FISH-ul!”
The Freezer raised a palm. His boys stopped chanting instantly.
“We just trine figure out what you is about,” he explained amiably. “Like why you wanna cause trouble and so forth. What you gotta understand about Mr. Vash, he just want everybody leave him be. It ain’t as peculiar as it sound. Now you come to bother him. But hold on. Let me point out: it’s the flat opposite of what he want. And it his property. Man got a right, right? So let me just tell you something, and it’s for your own good.” He paused theatrically.
Joel Kibbenbocker regarded the boy wryly for a few seconds. “And what might that be?” he asked through his teeth.
“This!” The Freezer kicked Kibbenbocker in the groin as hard as he could. When the official doubled over, screaming, the Freezer yelled: “R-u-u-u-u-u-n!!!!”
In a flash, the boys had turned three different corners. Joel Kibbenbocker was writhing on the ground, wheezing. Mary, arms akimbo, looked confused. For the first time in seven years, she didn’t know what to do. Finally, she used her cellphone.
“Perhaps you wish to be seated,” Corby Vash said. The two men were in the living room. Since the owner was taking the chair, Joe Handy took the couch.
“Never stand when you can sit,” Handy said. “You know the rest.”
“No. What is the rest?”
“Uh, never sit when you can lie down.”
“Feel free to lie down.”
“Uh, thanks, but…”
“What is the action that Joel Kibbenbocker plans to take against me, and what is his reason?”
“His reason? Well, I don’t know for sure, Mr. Vash. He’s the type that likes to run things. Trying to feel important. Taken a dislike to you, I suppose. Hard to say.”
“The motive is unclear.”
“Well, some people are like that,” was all Joe Handy could add on the question. “I think he could, or the county could, I think the county could fine you and maybe force you to tear down the fence.” He cleared his throat.
“On what basis? My title to the property is unambiguous.”
“Oh. Well, no one’s disputing that. No. I mean, not anybody reasonable. Me personally, I’m with you one hundred percent. But Mr. Kibbenbocker—the county, that is, which is being egged on by Mr. Kibbenbocker—they are likely to interfere. Head ’em off at the pass is what I suggest. Just get the permit. I don’t think it’s too late. Though, who knows, now that he’s got his dander up, I mean Mr. Kibbenbocker, he’s probably going to want to teach you a lesson. Point is, though, you’re in a much better position if you get the permit. Do it fast. Um. Also, when you’re doing that, this other thing I want to mention, I didn’t quite realize, I don’t think I talked about it in the note, which is that the fence is apparently not regulation height. Mr. Kibbenbocker just said something about it. But maybe you can get a special dispensation for that extra foot when you’re getting the fence permit. Nothing guaranteed of course, but if you bring the matter up yourself, explain the oversight, you know, just talk to the person in the county office, I gave you that info.… Can you read my handwriting? Sorry about the way the kids got the message to you, but it’s a matter of some urgency. There’s a time problem here. I assume that there was no damage to anything—or I hope—”
“There was no damage.”
“Phew! Kids, right? I did not tell them to do that!”
“Thank you for your information and effort,” said Vash politely.
“So you’re going to call?”
“I will not ask permission of anyone or pay anyone to permit me to use property that I have already paid for and to which I hold legal title,” said Vash, still politely. He did not seem angry or worried.
Maybe there was something missing upstairs?
“Oh now, now, you might wanna rethink that. I’m with you there, I’m with you one hundred percent, but—”
“Thank you again. Goodbye now.”
Corby Vash stood up and Joe Handy awkwardly stood up. They left the house together and walked to the gate. Vash unlocked the padlock and swung the gate open.
As Joe Handy walked from the property through to the street, Joel Kibbenbocker, shoving his way past, herky-jerked from the street onto the property.
“Hey, Corby. You and I need to have a little chat. You and I need to—”
His hands on the vice mayor’s shoulders, Corby Vash spun him around, pushed him back through the gate, locked it, and went back inside his house. Meanwhile, a police car was pulling up. Officer Wilson.
“What happened?” Mary asked her associate.
“That sonofabitch!” Kibbenbocker screamed. He yelled at the fence: “This isn’t over!”
“Are you all right, sir?” asked Officer Wilson as he emerged from his vehicle.
“Look!” The vice mayor pointed at the fence. “Look!”
Mary said: “I called the police because of the assault.”
“Are you hurt, sir?”
“Officer Wilson. Yeah, in the groin. Kicked me in the groin, the little shit.”
“Do you need medical attention?”
“No. Thank you for your concern. You’re looking for a black kid with red hair, probably not very many in the neighborhood, five foot four, five foot five, twelve, maybe thirteen. Palling around with a couple other little shits.”
“All right, I’m gonna need more details, sir, and there’s a procedure that we have to follow.”
“Mary, you’re a witness, you deal with him.” Joel Kibbenbocker stalked to his car, square-banged himself into it, and drove off. An hour later, he was in his office surfing the Internet when Mary showed up.
“They found him. They arrested him. And then they released him. Because—”
“Do you want to pursue the matter?”
Joel Kibbenbocker pointed to the monitor. “Do you know who sold the house to that Corby Vash? Sally Borgo. Who moved to Michigan.”
“Is that important?”
“No. I don’t know. No. I don’t think so.”
Mary took a seat. This wasn’t her office, and she wasn’t even a full-time employee of the town, but she often dropped by when it seemed that the vice mayor might need her. It was something to do. Her primary responsibilities supposedly pertained to assisting the mayor, but the mayor never did anything. If the vice mayor had been similarly indolent, the town would have just sat there on the map like a lump on a log, never doing anything apart from whatever the residents did in their own little lives.
“What are you looking for?” she asked.
“Wasn’t there a Walmart looking to expand into that part of town?”
“The northeast? Yes.”
“Two or three months ago. The county conducted a hearing about it. And then what happened? I can’t find anything.”
“I believe that Walmart is still thinking about locations. Not much land is available near the two main shopping areas, and everywhere else is unsuitable for one reason or another. I don’t know how active the search is.”
“Huh. Corby Vash’s place is not very far from Tread Shopping Center. His parcel is large enough for a good-sized Walmart store. Perfect for them.”
“I don’t suppose Mr. Vash is planning to sell.”
“Get Al Brandish on the line.”
Brandish was an attorney who handled matters for the county. He knew how to get things done.
At the next town meeting, nothing was said about Corby Vash or his too-tall fence, and Handy wondered whether he had been more effective than he had thought in persuading Vash to secure a permit. Joe Handy didn’t know how the vice mayor would react to being reminded of his failure to find a way to tear down the fence, if indeed he had failed. Handy did not wish to spur the vice mayor into action if the matter had been forgotten. So Handy said nothing. He assumed that Kibbenbocker would have been eager to report progress against the Vash fence if there had been any progress. In any case, Joe Handy had done what he could.
Seven weeks after Vice Mayor Kibbenbocker spoke to Al Brandish, several persons were gathered before the home of Corby Vash: the vice mayor, the county chief of police, two other policemen, the next-door neighbor, two little kids, two men in a hydraulic excavator, one man in a dumpster truck, and a foreman who was not usually sent on small demolition jobs but who was present now for ass-covering purposes because of the apparent recalcitrance of the homeowner. It was the day of the demolition.
All proper notices had been mailed to the address. Mr. Vash, occupant, had made no move to stop the proceedings. He had also made no move to move.
“If the man is still in there, we don’t want to start tearing things up just yet,” said the foreman, Jess Doung Majob, surveying the property beyond the fence.
The two police officers from the county regarded him blankly.
Vice Mayor Joel Kibbenbocker sighed between his teeth. Finally, he said: “If what you mean is that we don’t want to kill the occupant of a condemned property, no, we don’t. Let’s not kill him. Thank you, Mr. Majob. Point taken. Chief, we don’t normally kill people during eminent domain proceedings, do we? That’s not standard?”
The last eminent domain proceeding in the county had occurred twenty-three years ago.
County Chief of Police Bob Benderton said mildly: “I wouldn’t call it standard operating procedure. Any situation where physical force is involved, sure, there’s a chance of escalation. Gotta to be prepared. But we’re not really expecting trouble here. From everything we been told, the man isn’t a lone vigilante or anything. He just don’t wanna leave. Standing on his rights, from what I gather. He hasn’t responded to any of the notifications?”
“He doesn’t see any of his mail,” piped up Teddy. “He doesn’t look at it. It just piles up.” He ran to the box covered in a plastic garbage bag weighted down with a couple of bricks about three yards away from where everybody was standing. He pulled off the bricks and a box lid with a slot that the mailman could use, and he tipped the box. Flyers and envelopes spilled out.
Chief Benderton walked over and looked through the pile. “Junk mail—and notifications from the county. Maybe he doesn’t even know about the proceeding. Have you called him?”
“A bit late in the day for second-guessing a proper legal proceeding,” Vice Mayor Kibbenbocker said.
“Have you spoken to him at any point about the eminent domain action against his property?”
Joel Kibbenbocker shook his head angrily. “Not the issue. He’s been hiding himself in a bubble precisely so as to pretend to be oblivious to any such proper notification. If you make yourself ignorant of any information that might reach you if only you let it reach you, you cannot then complain that you are not being properly informed. Okay? Nor is this something that police can or should adjudicate. Especially not at this point. This is an enforcement action that has been authorized by county and town.”
“May I say something here?” asked Dorothy Hilch as Joe Handy’s car slowed into a curb.
Ten minutes earlier, Joe Handy had just been getting up when the Freezer had come banging. It was about eight in the morning. The Freezer had seen what was happening at the home of Corby Vash but had not made himself known, leaving his two boys posted there as he ran to get Joe.
“Joe! Hey! Hey! Hey! Joe! It’s an emergency, gotta wake up.” He banged some more. “Hey, man, are you there, Mr. Handy? Wake up sir! It’s your man the Freezer. They gonna bust him up. You gotta come. Emergency. Emergency. They’re doing it. They’re going after Mr. Vash, it’s the end!”
The door opened.
“Jesus, kid, pipe down, you’ll wake up the whole neighborhood. Something about Mr. Vash?”
“They’re going after him, it’s the city, with bulldozers and such, gonna tear it down. That prick, he’s behind this. How can you be in your jammies at a time like this?”
“Hold on.” Joe Handy walked away for a moment. Then he was back. He tossed a set of keys to the Freezer.
“Start the car while I put some pants on. It’s the key with the black rubber. They’re tearing down the fence?”
“Fence? Fence? They’re gonna rip up all of it. His house, where he live. What he ever done but nothing to nobody?”
“Start the car.”
Vice Mayor Joel Kibbenbocker was screaming at the chief of police and pointing a finger.
“I want him out of here! Arrest him!”
“You can’t arrest me,” the Freezer said. “I already been arrested. It’s double jeopardy. And you’re the one who should be arrested, for trying to destroy this property. This house don’t belong to you. What are you, some kind of asshole?”
“Let’s settle down here,” the chief was trying to say. “What is it again that you want me to arrest him for?”
The vice mayor’s countenance went slack. “Nothing. It will be educational. Kids should learn.”
The foreman said: “You want us to keep just standing around? The police gotta enter and remove the occupant.”
“We know that,” said Vice Mayor Kibbenbocker. “We’ll give it a few more minutes. Would be nice if we could just call him, but no, that would be too easy.” All attempts to turn up a phone number had proved fruitless. “But he’s gotta be seeing us and hearing us out here. Maybe we’ll get lucky and he’ll come out and we will be able to advise him peaceably that he’s not living here any more, so he can peaceably vacate the premises.”
For no very good reason, Joel Kibbenbocker hated Corby Vash. But he also feared him. He wanted the destruction to be done without any trouble if at all possible, with the clear if reluctant assent of the victim. But the town as incarnated in the vice mayor would wait only a few more minutes.
SWAT should be here. But the county had ignored him when he had tentatively suggested he be given a team. He supposed they were right. A few county cops were more than enough. He looked around. Three. And now another car was pulling up, so two more cops. All were armed, a couple of them with hand-me-down military equipment, a bazooka, a mortar. Plus two battering rams. Two? Neither of the two doors on the house looked as if it were reinforced, and if you just busted through the front door it would take only moments to secure the premises. Vash did not have a lot of places to hide in the small single-story home. The vice mayor was familiar with the floor plan. There were dozens of houses in town just like it.
But it would be better if Vash vacated the premises of his own free will.
“I’m gonna try again,” Kibbenbocker announced as he swung up a megaphone.
“Corby Vash, you have been duly informed that.…” He barked for about a minute before letting the megaphone drop.
Now Handy was saying something. “What on earth are you—”
“Shut up, Joe. Wanna watch, fine. But don’t be yapping at me. We’re in the middle of this. Take your complaints to the next town meeting or write a letter to the editor.”
“It’s out of all civilized bounds. You—”
“He’s had every opportunity,” said the hovering Dorothy Hilch, who had been waiting for a chance to get a word in. Both men turned to look at her. She cleared her throat. “I’m just saying that he’s had every opportunity.” She swept a flabby arm around. “We all know that the fence is in violation of code. We all know that it is, it’s black and white, and this man doesn’t give two hoots about it. Even though he lives here and those are the rules. Rules which he may disagree with but which he is duty-bound to obey when the command is clear. But the problem is much more fundamental. It’s a kind of terrible alienation from everything, in, if I may say, a sort of cocoon of anti-social attitude. Now, we can’t all make our own law. Corby Vash—”
The Freezer said: “Bitch, he only want to be left alone. You gotta tear down his house? What are you, some kind of asshole?”
“No man is an island, entire of itself. He is a piece of the continent, a part of the main area of the continent, as it were. If it were my decision to make, no, child, I don’t think I would be tearing down his house. Most probably not. On the other hand, I am not aware of all the considerations that the town government has to take into account. They are the ones responsible for formulating policy. A lawful command has been issued. And when you see how this situation evolved, when you see how much—”
The Freezer: “I don’t believe this shit. Make them stop, Joe!”
Kibbenbocker: “Don’t push your luck, punk.”
Handy: “Maybe we can all take a step back before things really get out of hand here.”
“—how much he conspired with his own fate in this matter… well. It grieves me to say so, but when you refuse every lifeline, every possible form of connection to the people around you, just cut yourself off, it’s not surprising that—”
The front door of the house opened.
“Finally,” breathed Joel Kibbenbocker, unaware that he was speaking out loud.
Corby Vash advanced toward the gate of his property and opened the gate.
“Mr. Corby Vash, are you ready to accept the reality of the situation?” asked Vice Mayor Joel Kibbenbocker. He kept his voice as calm, formal, and emotionally uninflected as possible.
“I am,” said Corby Vash, also without emotional inflection. He used a purple rectangle in his left hand to blast Joel Kibbenbocker, blast the workmen, and blast the police officers. He was efficient. Ten human beings were rapidly reduced by ten bright beams to stinking, essentially indistinguishable bloody heaps. The blaster also reduced much of one of the police cars to slag, since its two occupants had not yet emerged. The purple rectangle emitted a laser or something like a laser, concentrated and powerful.
The survivors—Joe Handy, the Freezer, Tommy, Teddy, and Dorothy Hilch—could not move or make any sound, except that Tommy and Teddy were sobbing. You could hear them, but it was one of those things on the margin of consciousness like the birds chirping and the basketball thumping and the dog barking down the block. Nobody had screamed.
Now there was another small gadget in the other hand, some kind of measuring device with a screen and a flickering needle. Vash pointed it at the Freezer.
“Marcel Friese,” he said. “What has been the attitude of Dorothy Hilch this morning regarding the efforts of Joel Kibbenbocker to expel me from my property?”
The Freezer froze. For several seconds the tableau was still. Corby Vash waited for an answer with no visible sign of impatience. The Freezer struggled to force himself to act. He could handle anything. He could handle this. Finally he managed to speak and he sounded almost like himself.
“She was trying get those mofos to stop, Mr. Vash,” said the Freezer. He nodded. He wasn’t audibly weeping. “Yeah. We all were. Me and Mrs. Hilch and Mr. Handy and my two boys. We know this is your property. Yeah. These bastards wanted to take what don’t belong to them. You shoulda heard her, Mr. Vash. ‘Affront,’ ‘outrage,’ ‘despicable,’ ‘command without moral force,’ ‘flagrant violation of ancient rights’ and whatnot, and other words I didn’t understand. She was gonna stop ’em with her bare hands and all those legal threats and history and political philosophy like you wouldn’t believe. But it’s like talkin’ to a brick wall. She did everything she could. Everything. You’d a been so proud the way she stuck up for you. I felt the pride too.” He thumped his chest.
Corby Vash shifted the measuring device slightly so that it now pointed at Joe Handy. “Do you agree with this account, Joseph Handy?”
It also took a while for Handy to get going. He too gathered everything he had and poured it into his words. “Yes,” he said finally, knowing that simplicity was the only chance. He would be almost himself, the way the Freezer had been almost himself. “That’s the way it was.”
Corby Vash skewered Dorothy Hilch with a ray from the purple rectangle. Why couldn’t they just leave you alone? “This fucking planet,” he muttered in his own language as he walked back into the house. Enough was enough. He would send the signal.
Because the others had been waiting for it this time, they had been able to observe in detail as the form of Mrs. Hilch exploded and dissipated into a stinking mound of blood and bone and roasted flesh. It had not happened instantaneously. It had taken about a second.
Now the wailing of the two younger boys was louder. The Freezer grabbed their wrists and began pulling them down the street, away from the house.
“Come with me. Gotta come with me,” Joe Handy shouted. “You come with me.”
“All due respect,” the Freezer said. He ran as fast as he could, and the younger boys managed to keep up, barely. In moments they had gone where no out-of-shape elderly person or four-wheeled vehicle could follow. Joe Handy hauled himself into his car and drove. He didn’t return to his home. He drove and kept driving. He had no plan.
The boys had settled down. It was dark now. They were in a park fifteen miles away, lying on wet grass, taking in a moonless, starlit sky. The three of them would stay here until the Freezer said let’s go somewhere else. They were still afraid, and they couldn’t escape the sickening replays in their heads. But they had stopped crying.
The Freezer stared at the sky with widening eyes. “Hey, what’s that white glow?”
Teddy said: “Yeah, what’s that white glow?”
Tommy said: “Yea—”
David M. Brown is a freelance writer and editor. His books The Case of the Cockamamie Killer, Omelet: A Tragedy of Bill Shake-a-speare, and The Flying Saucers Are Very Very Real are available in Kindle editions from Amazon.
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