- Author: Frederik Pohl
Read book online «The Knights of Arthur by Frederik Pohl (free novel reading sites txt) 📕». Author - Frederik Pohl
Illustrated by MARTIN
With one suitcase as his domain, Arthur was desperately in need of armed henchmen … for his keys to a kingdom were typewriter keys!
There was three of us—I mean if you count Arthur. We split up to avoid attracting attention. Engdahl just came in over the big bridge, but I had Arthur with me so I had to come the long way around.
When I registered at the desk, I said I was from Chicago. You know how it is. If you say you’re from Philadelphia, it’s like saying you’re from St. Louis or Detroit—I mean nobody lives in Philadelphia any more. Shows how things change. A couple years ago, Philadelphia was all the fashion. But not now, and I wanted to make a good impression.
I even tipped the bellboy a hundred and fifty dollars. I said: “Do me a favor. I’ve got my baggage booby-trapped—”
“Natch,” he said, only mildly impressed by the bill and a half, even less impressed by me.
“I mean really booby-trapped. Not just a burglar alarm. Besides the alarm, there’s a little surprise on a short fuse. So what I want you to do, if you hear the alarm go off, is come running. Right?”
“And get my head blown off?” He slammed my bags onto the floor. “Mister, you can take your damn money and—”
“Wait a minute, friend.” I passed over another hundred. “Please? It’s only a shaped charge. It won’t hurt anything except anybody who messes around, see? But I don’t want it to go off. So you come running when you hear the alarm and scare him away and—”
“No!” But he was less positive. I gave him two hundred more and he said grudgingly: “All right. If I hear it. Say, what’s in there that’s worth all that trouble?”
“Papers,” I lied.
He leered. “Sure.”
“No fooling, it’s just personal stuff. Not worth a penny to anybody but me, understand? So don’t get any ideas—”
He said in an injured tone: “Mister, naturally the staff won’t bother your stuff. What kind of a hotel do you think this is?”
“Of course, of course,” I said. But I knew he was lying, because I knew what kind of hotel it was. The staff was there only because being there gave them a chance to knock down more money than they could make any other way. What other kind of hotel was there?
Anyway, the way to keep the staff on my side was by bribery, and when he left I figured I had him at least temporarily bought. He promised to keep an eye on the room and he would be on duty for four more hours—which gave me plenty of time for my errands.
I made sure Arthur was plugged in and cleaned myself up. They had water running—New York’s very good that way; they always have water running. It was even hot, or nearly hot. I let the shower splash over me for a while, because there was a lot of dust and dirt from the Bronx that I had to get off me. The way it looked, hardly anybody had been up that way since it happened.
I dried myself, got dressed and looked out the window. We were fairly high up—fifteenth floor. I could see the Hudson and the big bridge up north of us. There was a huge cloud of smoke coming from somewhere near the bridge on the other side of the river, but outside of that everything looked normal. You would have thought there were people in all those houses. Even the streets looked pretty good, until you noticed that hardly any of the cars were moving.
I opened the little bag and loaded my pockets with enough money to run my errands. At the door, I stopped and called over my shoulder to Arthur: “Don’t worry if I’m gone an hour or so. I’ll be back.”
I didn’t wait for an answer. That would have been pointless under the circumstances.
After Philadelphia, this place seemed to be bustling with activity. There were four or five people in the lobby and a couple of dozen more out in the street.
I tarried at the desk for several reasons. In the first place, I was expecting Vern Engdahl to try to contact me and I didn’t want him messing with the luggage—not while Arthur might get nervous. So I told the desk clerk that in case anybody came inquiring for Mr. Schlaepfer, which was the name I was using—my real name being Sam Dunlap—he was to be told that on no account was he to go to my room but to wait in the lobby; and in any case I would be back in an hour.
“Sure,” said the desk clerk, holding out his hand.
I crossed it with paper. “One other thing,” I said. “I need to buy an electric typewriter and some other stuff. Where can I get them?”
“PX,” he said promptly.
“What used to be Macy’s,” he explained. “You go out that door and turn right. It’s only about a block. You’ll see the sign.”
“Thanks.” That cost me a hundred more, but it was worth it. After all, money wasn’t a problem—not when we had just come from Philadelphia.
The big sign read “PX,” but it wasn’t big enough to hide an older sign underneath that said “Macy’s.” I looked it over from across the street.
Somebody had organized it pretty well. I had to admire them. I mean I don’t like New York—wouldn’t live there if you gave me the place—but it showed a sort of go-getting spirit. It was no easy job getting a full staff together to run a department store operation, when any city the size of New York must have a couple thousand stores. You know what I mean? It’s like running a hotel or anything else—how are you going to get people to work for you when they can just as easily walk down the street, find a vacant store and set up their own operation?
But Macy’s was fully manned. There was a guard at every door and a walking patrol along the block-front between the entrances to make sure nobody broke in through the windows. They all wore green armbands and uniforms—well, lots of people wore uniforms.
I walked over.
“Afternoon,” I said affably to the guard. “I want to pick up some stuff. Typewriter, maybe a gun, you know. How do you work it here? Flat rate for all you can carry, prices marked on everything, or what is it?”
He stared at me suspiciously. He was a monster; six inches taller than I, he must have weighed two hundred and fifty pounds. He didn’t look very smart, which might explain why he was working for somebody else these days. But he was smart enough for what he had to do.
He demanded: “You new in town?”
He thought for a minute. “All right, buddy. Go on in. You pick out what you want, see? We’ll straighten out the price when you come out.”
“Fair enough.” I started past him.
He grabbed me by the arm. “No tricks,” he ordered. “You come out the same door you went in, understand?”
“Sure,” I said, “if that’s the way you want it.”
That figured—one way or another: either they got a commission, or, like everybody else, they lived on what they could knock down. I filed that for further consideration.
Inside, the store smelled pretty bad. It wasn’t just rot, though there was plenty of that; it was musty and stale and old. It was dark, or nearly. About one light in twenty was turned on, in order to conserve power. Naturally the escalators and so on weren’t running at all.
I passed a counter with pencils and ball-point pens in a case. Most of them were gone—somebody hadn’t bothered to go around in back and had simply knocked the glass out—but I found one that worked and an old order pad to write on. Over by the elevators there was a store directory, so I went over and checked it, making a list of the departments worth visiting.
Office Supplies would be the typewriter. Garden & Home was a good bet—maybe I could find a little wheelbarrow to save carrying the typewriter in my arms. What I wanted was one of the big ones where all the keys are solenoid-operated instead of the cam-and-roller arrangement—that was all Arthur could operate. And those things were heavy, as I knew. That was why we had ditched the old one in the Bronx.
Sporting Goods—that would be for a gun, if there were any left. Naturally, they were about the first to go after it happened, when everybody wanted a gun. I mean everybody who lived through it. I thought about clothes—it was pretty hot in New York—and decided I might as well take a look.
Typewriter, clothes, gun, wheelbarrow. I made one more note on the pad—try the tobacco counter, but I didn’t have much hope for that. They had used cigarettes for currency around this area for a while, until they got enough bank vaults open to supply big bills. It made cigarettes scarce.
I turned away and noticed for the first time that one of the elevators was stopped on the main floor. The doors were closed, but they were glass doors, and although there wasn’t any light inside, I could see the elevator was full. There must have been thirty or forty people in the car when it happened.
I’d been thinking that, if nothing else, these New Yorkers were pretty neat—I mean if you don’t count the Bronx. But here were thirty or forty skeletons that nobody had even bothered to clear away.
You call that neat? Right in plain view on the ground floor, where everybody who came into the place would be sure to go—I mean if it had been on one of the upper floors, what difference would it have made?
I began to wish we were out of the city. But naturally that would have to wait until we finished what we came here to do—otherwise, what was the point of coming all the way here in the first place?
The tobacco counter was bare. I got the wheelbarrow easily enough—there were plenty of those, all sizes; I picked out a nice light red-and-yellow one with rubber-tired wheel. I rolled it over to Sporting Goods on the same floor, but that didn’t work out too well. I found a 30-30 with telescopic sights, only there weren’t any cartridges to fit it—or anything else. I took the gun anyway; Engdahl would probably have some extra ammunition.
Men’s Clothing was a waste of time, too—I guess these New Yorkers were too lazy to do laundry. But I found the typewriter I wanted.
I put the whole load into the wheelbarrow, along with a couple of odds and ends that caught my eye as I passed through Housewares, and I bumped as gently as I could down the shallow steps of the motionless escalator to the ground floor.
I came down the back way, and that was a mistake. It led me right past the food department. Well, I don’t have to tell you what that was like, with all the exploded cans and the rats as big as poodles. But I found some cologne and soaked a handkerchief in it, and with that over my nose, and some fast footwork for the rats, I managed to get to one of the doors.
It wasn’t the one I had come in, but that was all right. I sized up the guard. He looked smart enough for a little bargaining, but not too smart; and if I didn’t like his price, I could always remember that I was supposed to go out the other door.
I said: “Psst!”
When he turned around, I said rapidly: “Listen, this isn’t the way I came in, but if you want to do business, it’ll be the way I come out.”
He thought for a second, and then he smiled craftily and said: “All right, come on.”
Well, we haggled. The gun was the big thing—he wanted five thousand for that and he wouldn’t come down. The wheelbarrow he was willing to let go for five hundred. And the typewriter—he scowled at the typewriter as though it were contagious.
“What you want that for?” he asked suspiciously. I shrugged.
“Well—” he scratched his head—“a thousand?”
I shook my head.
I kept on shaking.
“All right, all right,” he grumbled. “Look, you take the other things for six thousand—including what you got in your pockets that you don’t think I know about, see? And I’ll throw this in. How about it?”
That was fine as far as I was concerned, but just on principle I pushed him a little further. “Forget it,” I said. “I’ll give you fifty bills for the lot, take it or leave it. Otherwise I’ll walk right down the street to Gimbel’s and—”
“Whats the matter?” I demanded.
“Pal,” he said, “you kill me. Stranger in town, hey? You can’t go anyplace but here.”
“Account of there ain’t anyplace else. See, the chief here don’t like competition. So we don’t have to worry about anybody taking their trade elsewhere,