Consignment

by Alan Edward Nourse

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: In the jungle the vicious man-killer is king, but what chance would a tiger have in the Times Square traffic.

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

The three shots ripped through the close night air of the prison, sharply, unbelievably. Three guards crumpled like puppets in the dead silence that followed. The thought flashed through Krenner’s mind, incredibly, that possibly no one had heard.

He hurled the rope with all his might up the towering rock wall, waited a long eternity as the slim strong line swished through the darkness, and heard the dull “clank” as the hook took hold at the top. Like a cat he started up, frantically, scrambling, and climbing, the sharp heat of the rope searing his fingers. Suddenly daylight was around him, the bright unearthly glare of arc lights, the siren cutting in with its fierce scream. The shouts of alarm were far below him as he fought up the line, knot after knot, the carefully prepared knots. Twenty seconds to climb, he thought, just twenty seconds--


Rifle shots rang out below, the shells smashing into the concrete around him. Krenner almost turned and snarled at the little circle of men in the glaring light below, but turning meant precious seconds. A dull, painful blow struck his foot, as his hands grasped the jagged glass at the top of the wall.

In a moment of triumph he crouched at the top and laughed at the little men and the blazing guns below; on the other side lay the blackness of the river. He turned and plunged into the blackness, his foot throbbing, down swiftly until the cool wetness of the river closed about him, soothing his pain, bathing his mind in the terrible beauty of freedom, and what went with freedom. A few dozen powerful strokes would carry him across and down the river, three miles below the prison fortress from which he had broken. Across the hill from that, somewhere, he’d find Sherman and a wide open road to freedom--


Free! Twenty-seven years of walls and work, bitterness and hateful, growing, simmering revenge. Twenty-seven years for a fast-moving world to leave him behind, far behind. He’d have to be careful about that. He wouldn’t know about things. Twenty-seven years from his life, to kill his ambition, to take his woman, to disgrace him in the eyes of society. But the candle had burned through. He was free, with time, free, easy, patient time, to find Markson, search him out, kill him at last.

Hours passed it seemed, in the cold, moving water. Krenner struggled to stay alert; loss of control now would be sure death. A few shots had followed him from the wall behind, hopeless shots, hopeless little spears of light cutting across the water, searching for him, a tiny dot in the blackness. Radar could never spot him, for he wore no metal, and the sound of his movements in the water were covered by the sighing wind and the splashing of water against the prison walls.

Finally, after ages of pain and coldness, he dragged himself out onto the muddy shore, close to the calculated spot. He sat on the edge and panted, his foot swollen and throbbing. He wanted to scream in pain, but screams would bring farmers and dogs and questions. That would not do, until he found Sherman, somewhere back in those hills, with a ‘copter, and food, and medication, and quiet, peaceful rest.

He tried to struggle to his feet, but the pain was too much now. He half walked, half dragged himself into the woods, and started as best he could the trek across the hills.


Jerome Markson absently snapped on the radiovisor on his desk. Sipping his morning coffee thoughtfully as he leafed through the reports on his desk, he listened with half an ear until the announcer’s voice seeped through to his consciousness. He tightened suddenly in his seat, and the coffee cooled before him, forgotten.

“--Eastern Pennsylvania is broadcasting a four-state alarm with special radiovisor pictures in an effort to pick up the trail of a convict who escaped the Federal Prison here last night. The escaped man, who shot and killed two guards making good his escape, dived into the river adjoining the prison, and is believed to have headed for an outside rendezvous somewhere in the Blue Mountain region. The prisoner is John Krenner, age 51, gray hair, blue eyes, five-foot-nine. He is armed and dangerous, with four unsuccessful escape attempts, and three known murders on his record. He was serving a life term, without leniency, for the brutal murder in July, 1967, of Florence Markson, wife of the now-famous industrialist, Jerome Markson, president of Markson Foundries. Any person with information of this man’s whereabouts should report--”

Markson stared unbelieving at the face which appeared in the visor. Krenner, all right. The same cold eyes, the same cruel mouth, the same sneer. He snapped off the set, his face white and drawn. To face the bitter, unreasoning hate of this man, his former partner--even a prison couldn’t hold him.

A telephone buzzed, shattering the silence of the huge office.

“Hello, Jerry? This is Floyd Gunn in Pittsburgh. Krenner’s escaped!”

“I know. I just heard. Any word?”

“None yet. We got some inside dope from one of the men in the prison that he has an outside escape route, and that he’s been digging up all the information he could find in the past three months or so about the Roads. But I wanted to warn you.” The policeman’s voice sounded distant and unreal. “He promised to get you, Jerry. I’m ordering you and your home heavily guarded--”

“Guards won’t do any good,” said Markson, heavily. “Krenner will get me if you don’t get him first. Do everything you can.”

The policeman’s voice sounded more cheerful. “At any rate, he’s in the eastern part of the state now. He has four hundred miles to travel before he can get to you. Unless he has a ‘copter, or somehow gets on the Roads, he can’t get to you for a day or so. We’re doing everything we can.”

Markson hung up the receiver heavily. Twenty-seven years of peace since that devil had finally murdered his way out of his life. And now he was back again. A terrible mistake for a partner, a man with no reason, a man who could not understand the difference between right and wrong. A man with ruthless ambition, who turned on his partner when honesty got in his way, and murdered his partner’s wife in rage when his own way of business was blocked. A man so twisted with rage that he threatened on the brink of capital punishment to tear Markson’s heart out, yet Markson had saved him from the chair. An appeal, some money, some influence, had snatched him from death’s sure grasp, so he could come back to kill again. And a man with such diabolical good fortune that he could now come safely to Markson, and hunt him out, and carry out the fancied revenge that his twisted mind demanded.

Markson took the visiphone in hand again and dialed a number. The face of a young girl appeared. “Hi, dad. Did you see the news report?”

“Yes, I saw it. I want you to round up Jerry and Mike and take the ‘copter out to the summer place on Nantucket. Wait for me there. I don’t know how soon I can make it, but I don’t want you here now. Leave immediately.”

The girl knew better than to argue with her father. “Dad, is there any chance--?”

“There’s lots of chance. That’s why I want you away from here.”

He flipped off the connection, and sighed apprehensively. Now to wait. The furnaces had to keep going, the steel had to be turned out, one way or another. He’d have to stay. And hope. Perhaps the police would get him--


The elderly lady sat on the edge of the kitchen chair, shivering. “We’ll be glad to help you, but you won’t hurt us, will you?”

“Shut up,” said Krenner. The gray plastic of his pistol gleamed dully in the poor light of the farm kitchen. “Get that foot dressed, with tight pressure and plenty of ‘mycin. I don’t want it to bleed, and I don’t want an infection.” The woman hurried her movements, swiftly wrapping the swollen foot.

The man lifted a sizzling frying pan from the range, flipping a hamburger onto a plate. He added potatoes and carrots. “Here’s the food,” he said sullenly. “And you might put the gun away. We don’t have weapons, and we don’t have a ‘phone.”

“You have legs,” snapped Krenner. “Now shut up.”

The woman finished the dressing. “Try it,” she said. The convict stood up by the chair, placing his weight on the foot gingerly. Pain leaped through his leg, but it was a clean pain. He could stand it. He took a small map from his pocket. “Any streams or gorges overland between here and Garret Valley?”

The farmer, shook, his head. “No.”

“Give me some clothes, then. No, don’t leave. The ones you have on.”

The farmer slipped out of his clothes silently, and Krenner dropped the prison grays in the corner.

“You’ll keep your mouths shut about this,” he stated flatly.

“Oh, yes, you can count on us,” exclaimed the woman, eyeing the gun fearfully. “We won’t tell a soul.”

“I’ll say you won’t,” said Krenner, his fingers tightening on the gun. The shots were muted and flat in the stillness of the kitchen.

An hour later Krenner broke through the underbrush, crossed a rutted road, and pushed on over the ridge. His cruel face was dripping with perspiration. “It should be the last ridge,” he thought. “I’ve gone a good, three miles--” The morning sun was bright, filtering down through the trees, making beautiful wet patterns on the damp ground. The morning heat was just beginning, but the food and medications had made progress easy. He pulled himself up onto a rock ledge, over to the edge, and felt his heart stop cold as he peered down into the valley below.

A dark blue police ‘copter nestled on the valley floor next to the sleek gray one. It must have just arrived, for the dark uniforms of the police were swarming around the gray machine He saw the pink face and the sporty clothes of the occupant as he came down the ladder, his hands in the air.

Too late! They’d caught Sherman!

He lay back shaking.

Impossible! He had to have Sherman. They couldn’t possibly have known, unless somehow they had foreseen, or heard--. His mind seethed with helpless rage. Without Sherman he was stuck. No way to reach Markson, no way to settle that score--unless possibly--.

The Roads.

He’d heard about them. Way back in 1967 when he’d gone up, the roads were underway. A whole system of Rolling Roads was proposed then, and the first had already been built, between Pittsburgh and the Lakes. A crude affair, a conveyor belt system, running at a steady seventy-five miles per hour, carrying only ore and freight.

But in the passing years reports had filtered through the prison walls. New men, coming “up for a visit” had brought tales, gross exaggerations, of the Rolling Roads grown huge, a tremendous system building itself up, crossing hills and valleys in unbroken lines, closed in from weather and hijackers, fast and smooth and endless. Criss-crossing the nation, they had said, in never-slowing belts of passengers and freight livestock. The Great Triangle had been first, from Chicago to St. Louis to Old New York, and back to Chicago. Now every town, every village had its small branch, its entrance to the Rolling Roads, and once a man got on the Roads, they had said, he was safe until he tried to get off.

Clearly the memory of the reports filtered through Krenner’s mind. The great Central Roads run from Old New York to Chicago, through New Washington and Pittsburgh--

Markson was in Pittsburgh--

Krenner started down through the underbrush, travelling south by the sun, the urgency of his mission spurring him on against the pain of his foot, the difficulty of the terrain over which he travelled. He was too far north. Somewhere to the south he’d find the Roads. And once on the Roads, he’d find a way to get off--


He stopped at the brink of the hill and gasped in amazement.

They ran across the wide valley like silver ribbons. The late afternoon sunlight reflected gold and pink from the plasti-glass encasement, concealing the rushing line of travel within the covering. Like twin serpents, they lay across the hills, about a mile apart, the Road travelling east, and the Road moving west. They stretched as far as he could see. And he could see the white sign which said, “Merryvale Entrance, Westbound, Three miles.”

As he tramped, across the field he could hear the hum of the Roads grow loud in his ears. An automatic, machinelike hum, a rhythm of motion. Close to the westbound road he moved back eastward along it, toward the little port which formed the entrance to it. And soon he saw the police ‘copter which rested near the entrance, and the uniformed men with their rifles, alert. Three of them.

Krenner fingered his weapon easily. It was almost dark; they would not see him easily. He kept a small hill between himself and the police and moved in within gunshot range. He could see the rocket-like car resting on its single rail, waiting for a passenger to enter, to touch the button which would activate the tiny rocket engines and move it forward, ever and ever more swiftly until it reached the acceleration of the Roads, and slid over, and became a part of the Road. Moving carefully, he slipped from rock to rock, closer to the car and the men who guarded it.

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