If There Were No Benny Cemoli
Scampering across the unplowed field the three boys shouted as they saw the ship: it had landed, all right, just where they expected, and they were the first to reach it.
“Hey, that’s the biggest I ever saw!” Panting, the first boy halted. “That’s not from Mars; that’s from farther. It’s from all the way out, I know it is.” He became silent and afraid as he saw the size of it. And then looking up into the sky he realized that an armada had arrived, exactly as everyone had expected. “We better go tell,” he said to his companions.
Back on the ridge, John LeConte stood by his steam-powered chauffeur driven limousine, impatiently waiting for the boiler to warm.
Kids got there first, he said to himself with anger. Whereas I’m supposed to. And the children were ragged; they were merely farm boys.
“Is the phone working today?” LeConte asked his secretary.
Glancing at his clipboard, Mr. Fall said, “Yes, sir. Shall I put through a message to Oklahoma City?” He was the skinniest employee ever assigned to LeConte’s office. The man evidently took nothing for himself, was positively uninterested in food. And he was efficient.
LeConte murmured, “The immigration people ought to hear about this outrage.”
He sighed. It had all gone wrong. The armada from Proxima Centauri had after ten years arrived and none of the early-warning devices had detected it in advance of its landing. Now Oklahoma City would have to deal with the outsiders here on home ground — a psychological disadvantage which LeConte felt keenly.
Look at the equipment they’ve got, he thought as he watched the commercial ships of the flotilla begin to lower their cargos. Why, hell, they make us look like provincials. He wished that his official car did not need twenty minutes to warm up; he wished —
Actually, he wished that CURB did not exist.
Centaurus Urban Renewal Bureau, a do-gooding body unfortunately vested with enormous inter-system authority. It had been informed of the Misadventure back in 2170 and had started into space like a phototropic
organism, sensitive to the mere physical light created by the hydrogen-bomb explosions. But LeConte knew better than that. Actually the governing organizations in the Centaurian system knew many details of the tragedy because they had been in radio contact with other planets of the Sol system. Little of the native forms on Earth had survived. He himself was from Mars; he had headed a relief mission seven years ago, had decided to stay because there were so many opportunities here on Earth, conditions being what they were…
This is all very difficult, he said to himself as he stood waiting for his steam-powered car to warm. We got here first, but CURB does outrank us; we must face that awkward fact. In my opinion, we’ve done a good job of rebuilding. Of course, it isn ‘t like it was before . . . but ten years is not long. Give us another twenty and we’ll have the trains running again. And our recent road-building bonds sold quite successfully, in fact were oversubscribed.
“Call for you, sir, from Oklahoma City,” Mr. Fall said, holding out the receiver of the portable field-phone.
“Ultimate Representative in the Field John LeConte, here,” LeConte said into it loudly. “Go ahead; I say go ahead.”
“This is Party Headquarters,” the dry official voice at the other end came faintly, mixed with static, in his ear. “We’ve received reports from dozens of alert citizens in Western Oklahoma and Texas of an immense — “
“It’s here,” LeConte said. “I can see it. I’m just about ready to go out and confer with its ranking members, and I’ll file a full report at the usual time. So it wasn’t necessary for you to check up on me.” He felt irritable.
“Is the armada heavily armed?”
“Naw,” LeConte said. “It appears to be comprised of bureaucrats and trade
officials and commercial carriers. In other words, vultures.”
The Party desk-man said, “Well, go and make certain they understand that their presence here is resented by the native population as well as the Relief of War-torn Areas Administrating Council. Tell them that the legislature will be calling to pass a special bill expressing indignation at this intrusion into domestic matters by an inter-system body.”
“I know, I know,” LeConte said. “It’s all been decided; I know.”
His chauffeur called to him, “Sir, your car is ready now.”
The Party desk-man concluded, “Make certain they understand that you can’t negotiate with them; you have no power to admit them to Earth. Only the Council can do that and of course it’s adamantly against that.”
LeConte hung up the phone and hurried to his car.
Despite the opposition of the local authorities, Peter Hood of CURB decided to locate his headquarters in the ruins of the old Terran capital, New York City. This would lend prestige to the CURBmen as they gradually widened the circle of the organization’s influence. At last, of course, the circle would embrace the planet. But that would take decades.
As he walked through the ruins of what had once been a major train yard, Peter Hood thought to himself that when the task was done he himself would have long been retired. Not much remained of the pre-tragedy culture here. The local authorities — the political nonentities who had flocked in from Mars and Venus, as the neighboring planets were called — had done little. And yet he admired their efforts.
To the members of his staff walking directly behind him he said, “You know, they have done the hard part for us. We ought to be grateful. It is not easy to come into a totally destroyed area, as they’ve done.”
His man Fletcher observed, “They got back a good return.”
Hood said, “Motive is not important. They have achieved results.” He was thinking of the official who had met them in his steam car; it had been solemn and formal, carrying complicated trappings. When these locals had first arrived on the scene years ago they had not been greeted, except perhaps by radiation-seared, blackened survivors who had stumbled out of cellars and gaped sightlessly. He shivered.
Coming up to him, a CURBman of minor rank saluted and said, “I think we’ve managed to locate an undamaged structure in which your staff could be housed for the time being. It’s underground.” He looked embarrassed. “Not what we had hoped for. We’d have to displace the locals to get anything attractive.”
“I don’t object,” Hood said. “A basement will do.”
“The structure,” the minor CURBman said, “was once a great homeostatic newspaper, the New York Times. It printed itself directly below us. At least, according to the maps. We haven’t located the newspaper yet; it was customary for the homeopapes to be buried a mile or so down. As yet we don’t know how much of this one survived.”
“But it would be valuable,” Hood agreed.
“Yes,” the CURBman said. “Its outlets are scattered all over the planet; it must have had a thousand different editions which it put out daily. How many outlets function — “ He broke off. “It’s hard to believe that the local politicos made no efforts to repair any of the ten or eleven world-wide homeopapes, but that seems to be the case.”
“Odd,” Hood said. Surely it would have eased their task. The post-tragedy job of reuniting people into a common culture depended on newspapers, ionization in the atmosphere making radio and TV reception difficult if not impossible.
“This makes me instantly suspicious,” he said, turning to his staff.
“Are they perhaps not trying to rebuild after all? Is their work merely a pretense?”
It was his own wife Joan who spoke up. “They may simply have lacked the ability to place the homeopapes on an operational basis.”
Give them the benefit of the doubt, Hood thought. You ‘re right.
“So the last edition of the Times” Fletcher said, “was put on the lines the day the Misadventure occurred. And the entire network of newspaper communication and news-creation had been idle since. I can’t respect these politicos; it shows they’re ignorant of the basics of a culture. By reviving the homeopapes we can do more to re-establish the pre-tragedy culture than they’ve done in ten thousand pitiful projects.” His tone was scornful.
Hood said, “You may misunderstand, but let it go. Let’s hope that the cephalon of the pape is undamaged. We couldn’t possibly replace it.” Ahead he saw the yawning entrance which the CURBmen crews had cleared. This was to be his first move, here on the ruined planet, restoring this immense self-contained entity to its former authority. Once it had resumed its activity he would be freed for other tasks; the homeopape would take some of the burden from him.
A workman, still clearing debris away, muttered, “Jeez, I never saw so many layers of junk. You’d think they deliberately bottled it up down here.” In his hands, the suction furnace which he operated glowed and pounded as it absorbed material, converting it to energy, leaving an increasingly enlarged opening.
“I’d like a report as soon as possible as to its condition,” Hood said to the team of engineers who stood waiting to descend into the opening. “How long it will take to revive it, how much — “ He broke off.
Two men in black uniforms had arrived. Police, from the Security ship. One, he saw, was Otto Dietrich, the ranking investigator accompanying the armada from Centaurus, and he felt tense automatically; it was a reflex for all of them — he saw the engineers and the workmen cease momentarily and then, more slowly, resume their work.
“Yes,” he said to Dietrich. “Glad to see you. Let’s go off to this side room and talk there.” He knew beyond a doubt what the investigator wanted; he had been expecting him.
Dietrich said, “I won’t take up too much of your time, Hood. I know you’re quite busy. What is this, here?” He glanced about curiously, his scrubbed, round, alert face eager.
In a small side room, converted to a temporary office, Hood faced the two policemen. “I am opposed to prosecution,” he said quietly. “It’s been too long. Let them go.”
Dietrich, tugging thoughtfully at his ear, said, “But war crimes are war crimes, even four decades later. Anyhow, what argument can there be? We’re required by law to prosecute. Somebody started the war. They may well hold positions of responsibility now, but that hardly matters.”
“How many police troops have you landed?” Hood asked.
“Then you’re ready to go to work.”
“We’re ready to make inquiries. Sequester pertinent documents and initiate litigation in the local courts. We’re prepared to enforce cooperation, if that’s what you mean. Various experienced personnel have been distributed to key points.” Dietrich eyed him. “All this is necessary; I don’t see the problem. Did you intend to protect the guilty parties — make use of their so-called abilities on your staff?”
“No,” Hood said evenly.
Dietrich said, “Nearly eighty million people died in the Misfortune. Can you forget that? Or is it that since they were merely local people, not known to us personally — “
“It’s not that,” Hood said. He knew it was hopeless; he could not communicate with the police mentality. “I’ve already stated my objections. I feel it serves no purpose at this late date to have trials and hangings. Don’t request use of my staff in this; I’ll refuse on the grounds that I can spare no one, not even a janitor. Do I make myself clear?”
“You idealists,” Dietrich sighed. “This is strictly a noble task confronting us… to rebuild, correct? What you don’t or won’t see is that these people will start it all over again, one day, unless we take steps now. We owe it to future generations. To be harsh now is the most humane method, in the long run. Tell me, Hood. What is this site? What are you resurrecting here with such vigor?”
“The New York Times,” Hood said.
“It has, I assume, a morgue? We can consult its backlog of information? That would prove valuable in building up our cases.”
Hood said, “I can’t deny you access to material we uncover.”
Smiling, Dietrich said, “A day by day account of the political events leading up to the war would prove quite interesting. Who, for instance, held supreme power in the United States at the time of the Misfortune? No one we’ve talked to so far seems to remember.” His smile increased.
Early the next morning the report from the corps of engineers reached Hood in his temporary office. The power supply of the newspaper had been totally destroyed. But the cephalon, the governing brain-structure which guided and oriented the homeostatic system, appeared to be intact. If a ship were brought close by, perhaps its power supply could be integrated into the newspaper’s lines. Thereupon much more would be known.
“In other words,” Fletcher said to Hood, as they sat with Joan eating breakfast, “it may come on and it may not. Very pragmatic. You hook it up and if it works you’ve done your job. What if it doesn’t? Do the engineers intend to give up at that point?”
Examining his cup, Hood said, “This tastes like authentic coffee.” He pondered. “Tell them to bring a ship in and start the homeopape up. And if it begins to print, bring me the edition at once.” He sipped his coffee.
An hour later a ship of the line had landed in the vicinity and its power source had been tapped for insertion into the homeopape. The conduits were placed, the circuits cautiously closed. Seated in his office, Peter Hood heard far underground a low rumble, a halting, uncertain stirring. They had been successful. The newspaper was returning to life.
The edition, when it was laid on his desk by a bustling CURBman, surprised him by its accuracy. Even in its dormant state, the newspaper had somehow managed not to fall behind events. Its receptors had kept going.
CURB LANDS, TRIP DECADE LONG, PLANS CENTRAL ADMINISTRATION
Ten years after the Misfortune of a nuclear holocaust, the inter-system rehabilitation agency, CURB, has made its historic appearance on Earth’s surface, landing from a veritable armada of craft — a sight which witnesses described as “overpowering both in scope and in significance.” CURBman Peter Hood, named top co-ordinator by Centaurian authorities, immediately set up headquarters in the ruins of New York City and conferred with aides, declaring that he had come “not to punish the guilty but to re-establish the planet-wide culture by every means available, and to restore —
It was uncanny, Hood thought as he read the lead article. The varied news-gathering services of the homeopape had reached into his own life, had digested and then inserted into the lead article even the discussion between himself and Otto Dietrich. The newspaper was — had been — doing its job. Nothing of news interest escaped it, even a discreet conversation carried on with no outsiders as
witnesses. He would have to be careful.
Sure enough, another item, ominous in tone, dealt with the arrival of the black jacks, the police.
SECURITY AGENCY VOWS “WAR CRIMINALS” TARGET
Captain Otto Dietrich, supreme police investigator arriving with the CURB armada from Proxima Centauri, said today that those responsible for the Misfortune of a decade ago “would have to pay for their crimes” before the bar of Centaurian justice. Two hundred black-uniformed police, it was learned by the Times, have already begun exploratory activities designed t0—
The newspaper was warning Earth about Dietrich, and Hood could not help feeling grim relish. The Times had not been set up to serve merely the occupying hierarchy. It served everyone, including those Dietrich intended to try. Each step of the police activity would no doubt be reported in full detail. Dietrich, who liked to work in anonymity, would not enjoy this. But the authority to maintain the newspaper belonged to Hood.
And he did not intend to shut it off.
One item on the first page of the paper attracted his further notice; he read it, frowning and a little uneasy.
CEMOLI BACKERS RIOT IN UPSTATE NEW YORK
Supporters of Benny Cemoli, gathered in the familiar tent cities associated with the colorful political figure, clashed with local citizens armed with hammers, shovels, and boards, both sides claiming victory in the two-hour melee which left twenty injured and a dozen hospitalized in hastily-erected first aid stations.
Cemoli, garbed as always in his toga-style red robes, visited the injured, evidently in good spirits, joking and telling his supporters that “it won’t be long now” an evident reference to the organization’s boast that it would march on New York City in the near future to establish what Cemoli deems “social justice and true equality for the first time in world history.” It should be recalled that prior to his imprisonment at San Quentin —
Flipping a switch on his intercom system, Hood said, “Fletcher, check into activities up in the north of the county. Find out about some sort of a political mob gathering there.”
Fletcher’s voice came back. “I have a copy of the Times, too, sir. I see the item about this Cemoli agitator. There’s a ship on the way up there right now; should have a report within ten minutes.” Fletcher paused. “Do you think — it’ll be necessary to bring in any of Dietrich’s people?”
“Let’s hope not,” Hood said shortly.
Half an hour later the CURB ship, through Fletcher, made its report. Puzzled, Hood asked that it be repeated. But there was no mistake. The CURB field team had investigated thoroughly. They had found no sign whatsoever of any tent city or any group gathering. And citizens in the area whom they had interrogated had never heard of anyone named “Cemoli.” And there was no sign of any scuffle having taken place, no first aid stations, no injured persons.
Only the peaceful, semi-rural countryside. Baffled, Hood read the item in the Times once more. There it was, in black and white, on the front page, along with the news about the landing of the CURB armada. What did it mean?
He did not like it at all. Had it been a mistake to revive the great, old, damaged homeostatic newspaper?
From a sound sleep that night Hood was awakened by a clanging from far beneath the ground, an urgent racket that grew louder and louder as he sat up in bed, blinking and confused. Machinery roared. He heard the heavy rumbling movement as automatic circuits fitted into place, responding to instructions emanating from within the closed system itself.
“Sir,” Fletcher was saying from the darkness. A light came on as Fletcher located the temporary overhead fixture. “I thought I should come in and wake you. Sorry, Mr. Hood.”
“I’m awake,” Hood muttered, rising from the bed and putting on his robe and slippers. “What’s it doing?”
Fletcher said, “It’s printing an extra.”
Sitting up, smoothing her tousled blonde hair back, Joan said, “Good Lord. What about?” Wide-eyed, she looked from her husband to Fletcher.
“We’ll have to bring in the local authorities,” Hood said. “Confer with them.” He had an intuition as to the nature of the extra roaring through the presses at this moment. “Get that LeConte, the politico who met us on our arrival. Wake him up and fly him here immediately. We need him.”
It took almost an hour to obtain the presence of the haughty, ceremonious local potentate and his staff member. The two of them in their elaborate uniforms at last put in an appearance at Hood’s office, both of them indignant. They faced Hood silently, waiting to hear what he wanted.
In his bathrobe and slippers Hood sat at his desk, a copy of the Times’ extra before him; he was reading it once more as LeConte and his man entered.
NEW YORK POLICE REPORT CEMOLI LEGIONS ON MOVE TOWARD CITY, BARRICADES ERECTED, NATIONAL GUARD ALERTED
He turned the paper, showing the headlines to the two Earthmen. “Who is this man?” he said.
After a moment LeConte said, “I — don’t know.”
Hood said, “Come on, Mr. LeConte.”
“Let me read the article,” LeConte said nervously. He scanned it in haste; his hands trembled as he held the newspaper. “Interesting,” he said at last. “But I can’t tell you a thing. It’s news to me. You must understand that our communications have been sparse, since the Misfortune, and it’s entirely possible that a political movement could spring up without our — “
“Please,” Hood said. “Don’t make yourself absurd.”
Flushing, LeConte stammered, “I’m doing the best I can, summoned out of my bed in the middle of the night.”
There was a stir, and through the office doorway came the rapidly-moving figure of Otto Dietrich, looking grim. “Hood,” he said without preamble, “there’s a Times kiosk near my headquarters. It just posted this.” He held up a copy of the extra. “The damn thing is running this off and distributing it throughout the world, isn’t it? However, we have crack teams up in that area and they report absolutely nothing, no road blocks, no militia-style troops on the move, no activity of any sort.”
“I know,” Hood said. He felt weary. And still, from beneath them, the deep rumble continued, the newspaper printing its extra, informing the world of the march by Benny Cemoli’s supporters on New York City — a fantasy march, evidently, a product manufactured entirely within the cephalon of the newspaper itself.
“Shut it off,” Dietrich said. Hood shook his head.
“No. I want to know more.”
“That’s no reason,” Dietrich said. “Obviously, it’s defective. Very seriously damaged, not working properly. You’ll have to search elsewhere for your worldwide propaganda network.” He tossed the newspaper down on Hood’s desk.
To LeConte, Hood said, “Was Benny Cemoli active before the war?” There was silence. Both LeConte and his assistant Mr. Fall were pale and tense; they faced him tight-lipped, glancing at each other.
“I am not much for police matters,” Hood said to Dietrich, “but I think you could reasonably step in here.”
Dietrich, understanding, said, “I agree. You two men are under arrest. Unless you feel inclined to talk a little more freely about this agitator in the red toga.”
He nodded to two of his police, who stood by the office doorway; they stepped obediently forward.
As the two policemen came up to him, LeConte said, “Come to think of it, there was such a person. But — he was very obscure.”
“Before the war?” Hood asked.
“Yes.” LeConte nodded slowly. “He was a joke. As I recall, and it’s difficult… a fat, ignorant clown from some backwoods area. He had a little radio station or something over which he broadcast. He peddled some sort of anti-radiation box which you installed in your house, and it made you safe from bomb-test fallout.”
Now his staff member Mr. Fall said, “I remember. He even ran for the UN senate. But he was defeated, naturally.”
“And that was the last of him?” Hood asked.
“Oh yes,” LeConte said. “He died of Asian flu soon after. He’s been dead for fifteen years.”
In a helicopter, Hood flew slowly above the terrain depicted in the Times articles, seeing for himself that there was no sign of political activity. He did not feel really assured until he had seen with his own eyes that the newspaper had lost contact with actual events. The reality of the situation did not coincide with the Times’ articles in any way; that was obvious. And yet — the homeostatic system continued on.
Joan, seated beside him, said, “I have the third article here, if you want to read it.” She had been looking the latest edition over.
“No,” Hood said.
“It says they’re in the outskirts of the city,” she said. “They broke through the police barricades and the governor has appealed for UN assistance.”
Thoughtfully, Fletcher said, “Here’s an idea. One of us, preferably you, Hood, should write a letter to the Times.”
Hood glanced at him.
“I think I can tell you exactly how it should be worded,” Fletcher said. “Make it a simple inquiry. You’ve followed the accounts in the paper about Cemoli’s movement. Tell the editor — “ Fletcher paused. “That you feel sympathetic and you’d like to join the movement. Ask the paper how.”
To himself, Hood thought, In other words ask the newspaper to put me in touch with Cemoli. He had to admire Fletcher’s idea. It was brilliant, in a crazy sort of way. It was as if Fletcher had been able to match the derangement of the newspaper by a deliberate shift from common sense on his own part. He would participate in the newspaper’s delusion. Assuming there was a Cemoli and a march on New York, he was asking a reasonable question.
Joan said, “I don’t want to sound stupid, but how does one go about mailing a letter to a homeopape?”
“I’ve looked into that,” Fletcher said. “At each kiosk set up by the paper there’s a letter-slot, next to the coin-slot where you pay for your paper. It was the law when the homeopapes were set up originally, decades ago. All we need is your husband’s signature.” Reaching into his jacket, he brought out an envelope. “The letter’s written.”
Hood took the letter, examined it. So we desire to be part of the mythical fat clown’s throng, he said to himself. “Won’t there be a headline reading CURB CHIEF JOINS MARCH ON EARTH CAPITAL?” he asked Fletcher, feeling a trace of wry amusement. “Wouldn’t a good, enterprising homeopape make front page use of a letter such as this?”
Obviously Fletcher had not thought of that; he looked chagrined. “I suppose we had better get someone else to sign it,” he admitted. “Some minor person attached to your staff.” He added, “I could sign it myself.”
Handing him the letter back, Hood said, “Do so. It’ll be interesting to see what response, if any, there is.” Letters to the editor, he thought. Letters to a vast, complex, electronic organism buried deep in the ground, responsible to no one, guided solely by its own ruling circuits. How would it react to this external ratification of its delusion? Would the newspaper be snapped back to reality?
It was, he thought, as if the newspaper, during these years of this enforced silence, had been dreaming, and now, reawakened, it had allowed portions of its former dreams to materialize in its pages along with its accurate, perceptive accounts of the actual situation. A blend of figments and sheer, stark reporting. Which ultimately would triumph? Soon, evidently, the unfolding story of Benny Cemoli would have the toga-wearing spellbinder in New York; it appeared that the march would succeed. And what then? How could this be squared with the arrival of CURB, with all its enormous inter-system authority and power? Surely the homeopape, before long, would have to face the incongruity.
One of the two accounts would have to cease… but Hood had an uneasy intuition that a homeopape which had dreamed for a decade would not readily give up its fantasies. Perhaps, he thought, the news of us, of CURB and its task of rebuilding Earth, will fade from the pages of the Times, will be given a steadily decreasing coverage each day, farther back in the paper. And at last only the
exploits of Benny Cemoli will remain.
It was not a pleasant anticipation. It disturbed him deeply. As if, he thought, we are only real so long as the Times writes about us; as if we were dependent for our existence on it.
Twenty-four hours later, in its regular edition, the Times printed Fletcher’s letter. In print it struck Hood as flimsy and contrived — surely the homeopape could not be taken in by it, and yet here it was. It had managed to pass each of the steps in the pape’s processing.
Your coverage of the heroic march on the decadent plutocratic stronghold of New York City has fired my enthusiasm. How does an ordinary citizen become a part of this history in the making? Please inform me at once, as I am eager to join Cemoli and endure the rigors and triumphs with the others.
Beneath the letter, the homeopape had given an answer; Hood read it rapidly. Cemoli’s stalwarts maintain a recruiting office in downtown New York; address, 460 Bleekman St., New York 32. You might apply there, if the police haven’t cracked down on these quasi-legal activities, in view of the current crisis.
Touching a button on his desk, Hood opened the direct line to police headquarters. When he had the chief investigator, he said, “Dietrich, I’d like a team of your men; we have a trip to make and there may be difficulties.”
After a pause Dietrich said dryly, “So it’s not all noble reclamation after all. Well, we’ve already dispatched a man to keep an eye on the Bleekman Street address. I admire your letter scheme. It may have done the trick.” He chuckled.
Shortly, Hood and four black-uniformed Centaurian policemen flew by ‘copter above the ruins of New York City, searching for the remains of what had once been Bleekman Street. By the use of a map they managed after half an hour to locate themselves.
“There,” the police captain in charge of the team said, pointing. “That would be it, that building used as a grocery store.” The ‘copter began to lower. It was a grocery store, all right. Hood saw no signs of political activity, no persons loitering, no flags or banners. And yet — something ominous seemed to lie behind the commonplace scene below, the bins of vegetables parked out on the sidewalk, the shabby women in long cloth coats who stood picking over the winter potatoes, the elderly proprietor with his white cloth apron sweeping with his broom. It was too natural, too easy. It was too ordinary. “Shall we land?” the police captain asked him.
“Yes,” Hood said. “And be ready.”
The proprietor, seeing them land in the street before his grocery store, laid his broom carefully to one side and walked toward them. He was, Hood saw, a Greek. He had a heavy mustache and slightly wavy gray hair, and he gazed at
them with innate caution, knowing at once that they did not intend him any good. Yet he had decided to greet them with civility; he was not afraid of them.
“Gentlemen,” the Greek grocery store owner said, bowing slightly. “What can I do for you?” His eyes roved speculatively over the black Centaurian police uniforms, but he showed no expression, no reaction.
Hood said, “We’ve come to arrest a political agitator. You have nothing to be alarmed about.” He started toward the grocery store; the team of police followed, their side arms drawn.
“Political agitation here?” the Greek said. “Come on. It is impossible.” He hurried after them, panting, alarmed now. “What have I done? Nothing at all; you can look around. Go ahead.” He held open the door of the store, ushering them inside. “See right away for yourself.”
“That’s what we intend to do,” Hood said. He moved with agility, wasting no time on conspicuous portions of the store; he strode directly on through.
The back room lay ahead, the warehouse with its cartons of cans, cardboard boxes stacked up on every side. A young boy was busy making a stock inventory; he glanced up, startled, as they entered.
Nothing here, Hood thought. The owner’s son at work, that’s all. Lifting the lid of a carton Hood peered inside. Cans of peaches. And beside that a crate of lettuce. He tore off a leaf, feeling futile and — disappointed.
The police captain said to him in a low voice, “Nothing, sir.”
“I see that,” Hood said, irritably.
A door to the right led to a closet. Opening it, he saw brooms and a mop, a galvanized pail, boxes of detergents. And — There were drops of paint on the floor.
The closet, some time recently, had been repainted. When he bent down and scratched with his nail he found the paint still tacky. “Look at this,” he said, beckoning the police captain over.
The Greek, nervously, said, “What’s the matter, gentlemen? You find something dirty and report to the board of health, is that it? Customers have complained — tell me the truth, please. Yes, it is fresh paint. We keep everything spick and span. Isn’t that in the public interest?”
Running his hands across the wall of the broom closet, the police captain said quietly, “Mr. Hood, there was a doorway here. Sealed up now, very recently.”
He looked expectantly toward Hood, awaiting instructions. Hood said, “Let’s go in.”
Turning to his subordinates, the police captain gave a series of orders. From the ship, equipment was dragged, through the store, to the closet; a controlled whine arose as the police began the task of cutting into the wood and plaster.
Pale, the Greek said, “This is outrageous. I will sue.”
“Right,” Hood agreed. “Take us to court.” Already a portion of the wall had given way. It fell inward with a crash, and bits of rubble spilled down onto the floor. A white cloud of dust rose, then settled.
It was not a large room which Hood saw in the glare of the police flashlights. Dusty, without windows, smelling stale and ancient… the room had not been inhabited for a long, long time, he realized, and he warily entered. It was empty. Just an abandoned storeroom of some kind, its wooden walls scaling and dingy. Perhaps before the Misfortune the grocery store had possessed a larger inventory. More stocks had been available then, but now this room was not needed. Hood moved about, flashing his beam of light up to the ceiling and then down to the floor. Dead flies, entombed here… and, he saw, a few live ones which crept haltingly in the dust.
“Remember,” the police captain said, “it was boarded up just now, within the last three days. Or at least the painting was just now done, to be absolutely accurate about it.”
“These flies,” Hood said. “They’re not even dead yet.” So it had not even been three days. Probably the boarding-up had been done yesterday.
What had this room been used for? He turned to the Greek, who had come after them, still tense and pale, his dark eyes flickering rapidly with concern. This is a smart man, Hood realized. We will get little out of him.
At the far end of the storeroom the police flashlights picked out a cabinet, empty shelves of bare, rough wood. Hood walked toward it.
“Okay,” the Greek said thickly, swallowing. “I admit it. We have kept bootleg gin stored here. We became scared. You Centaurians — “ He looked around at them with fear. “You’re not like our local bosses; we know them, they understand us. You! You can’t be reached. But we have to make a living.” He spread his hands, appealing to them.
From behind the cabinet the edge of something protruded. Barely visible, it might never have been noticed. A paper which had fallen there, almost out of sight; it had slipped down farther and farther. Now Hood took hold of it and carefully drew it out. Back up the way it had come.
The Greek shuddered. It was, Hood saw, a picture. A heavy, middle-aged man with loose jowls stained black by the grained beginnings of a beard, frowning, his lips set in defiance. A big man, wearing some kind of uniform. Once this picture had hung on the wall and people had come here and looked at it, paid respect to it. He knew who it was. This was Benny Cemoli, at the height of his political career, the leader glaring bitterly at the followers who had gathered here. So this was the man. No wonder the Times showed such alarm.
To the Greek grocery store owner, Hood said, holding up the picture, “Tell me. Is this familiar to you?”
“No, no,” the Greek said. He wiped perspiration from his face with a large red handkerchief. “Certainly not.” But obviously, it was.
Hood said, “You’re a follower of Cemoli, aren’t you?”
There was silence.
“Take him along,” Hood said to the police captain. “And let’s start back.” He walked from the room, carrying the picture with him.
As he spread the picture out on his desk, Hood thought, It isn’t merely a fantasy of the Times. We know the truth now. The man is real and twenty-four hours ago this portrait of him hung on a wall, in plain sight. It would still be there this moment, if CURB had not put in its appearance. We frightened them. The Earth people have a lot to hide from us, and they know it. They are taking steps, rapidly and effectively, and we will be lucky if we can —
Interrupting his thoughts, Joan said, “Then the Bleekman Street address really was a meeting place for them. The pape was correct.”
“Yes,” Hood said.
“Where is he now?”
I wish I knew, Hood thought.
“Has Dietrich seen the picture yet?”
“Not yet,” Hood said.
Joan said, “He was responsible for the war and Dietrich is going to find it out.”
“No one man,” Hood said, “could be solely responsible.”
“But he figured largely,” Joan said. “That’s why they’ve gone to so much effort to eradicate all traces of his existence.”
“Without the Times” she said, “would we ever have guessed that such a political figure as Benny Cemoli existed? We owe a lot to the pape. They overlooked it or weren’t able to get to it. Probably they were working in such haste; they couldn’t think of everything, even in ten years. It must be hard to obliterate every surviving detail of a planet-wide political movement, especially when its leader managed to seize absolute power in the final phase.”
“Impossible to obliterate,” Hood said. A closed-off storeroom in the back of a Greek grocery store… that was enough to tell us what we needed to know.
Now Dietrich’s men can do the rest. If Cemoli is alive they will eventually find him, and if he’s dead — they’ll be hard to convince, knowing Dietrich. They’ll never stop looking now.
“One good thing about this,” Joan said, “is that now a lot of innocent people will be off the hook. Dietrich won’t go around prosecuting them. He’ll be busy tracking down Cemoli.”
True, Hood thought. And that was important. The Centaurian police would be thoroughly occupied for a long time to come, and that was just as well for everyone, including CURB and its ambitious program of reconstruction.
If there had never been a Benny Cemoli, he thought suddenly, It would almost have been necessary to invent him. An odd thought. . . he wondered how it happened to come to him. Again he examined the picture, trying to infer as much
as possible about the man from this flat likeness. How had Cemoli sounded? Had he gained power through the spoken word, like so many demagogues before him? And his writing… Maybe some of it would turn up. Or even tape recordings of speeches he had made, the actual sound of the man. And perhaps video tapes as well. Eventually it would all come to light; it was only a question of time. And then we will be able to experience for ourselves how it was to live under the shadow of such a man, he realized.
The line from Dietrich’s office buzzed. He picked up the phone. “We have the Greek here,” Dietrich said. “Under drug-guidance he’s made a number of admissions; you may be interested.”
“Yes,” Hood said.
Dietrich said, “He tells us he’s been a follower for seventeen years, a real old-timer in the Movement. They met twice a week in the back of his grocery store, in the early days when the Movement was small and relatively powerless. That picture you have — I haven’t seen it, of course, but Stavros, our Greek gentleman, told me about it — that portrait is actually obsolete in the sense that several more recent ones have been in vogue among the faithful for some time now. Stavros hung onto it for sentimental reasons. It reminded him of the old days. Later on when the Movement grew in strength, Cemoli stopped showing up at the grocery store, and the Greek lost out in any personal contact with him. He continued to be a loyal dues-paying member, but it became abstract for him.”
“What about the war?” Hood asked.
“Shortly before the war Cemoli seized power in a coup here in North America, through a march on New York City, during a severe economic depression. Millions were unemployed and he drew a good deal of support from them. He tried to solve the economic problems through an aggressive foreign policy — attacked several Latin American republics which were in the sphere of influence of the Chinese. That seems to be it, but Stavros is a bit hazy about the big picture… we’ll have to fill in more from other enthusiasts as we go along. From some of the younger ones. After all, this one is over seventy years old.”
Hood said, “You’re not going to prosecute him, I hope.”
“Oh, no. He’s simply a source of information. When he’s told us all he has on his mind we’ll let him go back to his onions and canned apple sauce. He’s harmless.”
“Did Cemoli survive the war?”
“Yes,” Dietrich said. “But that was ten years ago. Stavros doesn’t know if the man is still alive now. Personally I think he is, and we’ll go on that assumption until it’s proved false. We have to.” Hood thanked him and hung up.
As he turned from the phone he heard, beneath him, the low, dull rumbling. The homeopape had once more started into life.
“It’s not a regular edition,” Joan said, quickly consulting her wristwatch.
“So it must be another extra. This is exciting, having it happen like this; I can’t wait to read the front page.”
What has Benny Cemoli done now? Hood wondered. According to the Times, in its misphased chronicling of the man’s epic… what stage, actually taking place years ago, has now been reached. Something climactic, deserving of an extra. It will be interesting, no doubt of that. The Times knows what is fit to print. He, too, could hardly wait.
In downtown Oklahoma City, John LeConte put a coin into the slot of the kiosk which the Times had long ago established there. The copy of the Times’ latest extra slid out, and he picked it up and read the headline briefly, spending only a moment on it to verify the essentials. Then he crossed the sidewalk and stepped once more into the rear seat of his chauffeur-driven steam car.
Mr. Fall said circumspectly, “Sir, here is the primary material, if you wish to make a word-by-word comparison.”
The secretary held out the folder, and LeConte accepted it. The car started up. Without being told, the chauffeur drove in the direction of Party headquarters. LeConte leaned back, lit a cigar and made himself comfortable. On his lap, the newspaper blazed up its enormous headlines.
CEMOLI ENTERS COALITION UN GOVERNMENT, TEMPORARY CESSATION OF HOSTILITIES
To his secretary, LeConte said, “My phone, please.”
“Yes sir.” Mr. Fall handed him the portable field-phone. “But we’re almost there. And it’s always possible, if you don’t mind my pointing it out, that they may have tapped us somewhere along the line.”
“They’re busy in New York,” LeConte said. “Among the ruins.” In an area that hasn’ ‘’t mattered as long as I can remember, he said to himself. However, possibly Mr. Fall’s advice was good; he decided to skip the phone call.
“What do you think of this last item?” he asked his secretary, holding up the newspaper.
“Very success-deserving,” Mr. Fall said, nodding. Opening his briefcase, LeConte brought out a tattered, coverless textbook. It had been manufactured only an hour ago, and it was the next artifact to be planted for the invaders from Proxima Centaurus to discover. This was his own contribution, and he was personally quite proud of it. The book outlined in massive detail Cemoli’s program of social change; the revolution depicted in language comprehensible to school children.
“May I ask,” Mr. Fall said, “if the Party hierarchy intends for them to discover a corpse?”
“Eventually,” LeConte said. “But that will be several months from now.”
Taking a pencil from his coat pocket he wrote in the tattered textbook, crudely, as if a pupil had done it:
DOWN WITH CEMOLI
Or was that going too far? No, he decided. There would be resistance. Certainly of the spontaneous, school boy variety. He added:
WHERE ARE THE ORANGES?
Peering over his shoulder, Mr. Fall said, “What does that mean?”
“Cemoli promises oranges to the youth,” LeConte explained. “Another empty boast which the revolution never fulfills. That was Stavros’s idea… he being a grocer. A nice touch.”
Giving it, he thought, just that much more semblance of verisimilitude. It’s the little touches that have done it.
“Yesterday,” Mr. Fall said, “when I was at Party headquarters, I heard an audio tape that had been made. Cemoli addressing the UN. It was uncanny; if you didn’t know — “
“Who did they get to do it?” LeConte asked, wondering why he hadn’t been in on it.
“Some nightclub entertainer here in Oklahoma City. Rather obscure, of course. I believe he specializes in all sorts of characterizations. The fellow gave it a bombastic, threatening quality . . . I must admit I enjoyed it.”
And meanwhile, LeConte thought, there are no war-crimes trials. We who were leaders during the war, on Earth and on Mars, we who held responsible posts — we are safe, at least for a while. And perhaps it will be forever. If our strategy continues to work. And if our tunnel to the cephalon of the homeopape, which took us five years to complete, isn’t discovered. Or doesn’t collapse.
The steam car parked in the reserved space before Party headquarters; the chauffeur came around to open the door and LeConte got leisurely out, stepping forth into the light of day, with no feeling of anxiety. He tossed his cigar into the gutter and then sauntered across the sidewalk, into the familiar building.