by ROBERT KIBBLE
thierry Ehrmann : il est interdit d'interdire | Flickr
“What do you mean, I’m out of credit? Already?” Jeb looked at the card, as if by looking it would become loaded again. As if it would turn from a purple ex-offender-release-credit card into one of the prized worker cards with their silver trim.
“Maybe, sir, you should get a job,” said the waiter, stepping towards the door.
“What job? There are no stinking jobs.”
“You won’t get anything out of him, Jeb,” said Ray. “Come on.” Ray put a hand on Jeb’s shoulder.
“I was better off inside,” said Jeb, still staring at the card. “At least we got filling meals.”
Ray pulled harder. “Well maybe you should have thought about that before you went before that parole board.”
“I didn’t do anything different. I didn’t make a release plan or anything. Couldn’t be bothered after the last times. I think it was some change of policy – that’s what they told me. Anyway, whatever it was they let me out. Into this.”
The two walked out of the restaurant. Jeb stopped suddenly and turned to Ray. “When’s your next food programme delivery due?”
“Tuesday,” said Ray.
“That’s four days, man.”
“You get used to it.” Ray was thinner than Jeb remembered. “You registered for the programme yet?”
“You need a fixed address first before you can apply, and then it’s four weeks. So, no food for me for a month.” Ray threw the cardful of no credit at the shop.
“Guess you can share mine.”
“Christ, Ray. That muck they give you. Way worse than prison food.” Ray squatted down to look at the now-useless card, lying in a puddle. “That card barely covered three days’ meals. No chance of getting my own place, so here I am, stuck sharing your muck in your dive of an apartment.”
“Whoa, no need to get personal.”
“I was better off inside.” Ray stood up again, looking through the restaurant windows. He shook his head. “Come on.”
“What do you mean, Jeb? Where’re you going?” Ray followed his brother back into the restaurant.
“Right,” said Jeb, and lifted up a chair.
“Please don’t, sir.”
Jeb launched it against the counter, where it bounced off, fortunately avoiding hitting anyone, leaving both it and the counter unharmed.
“Please, sir, I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”
“I’m just asking, sir.” The waiter tried to grab at the next chair before Jeb got it into the air, but failed.
“Jeb,” said Ray, behind him. “Please.”
Jeb hurled it across the room. A couple stopped at the window to watch this chair also bounce harmlessly off a display cabinet. Jeb dodged the waiter, grabbing at a table where another group were eating. He pulled at it, launching the food into the customers’ laps.
“Hey!” One of the group stood up and grabbed Jeb, holding him firmly.
“Now, sir,” said the waiter. “Please leave.”
“Or what?” said Ray. “You’ll call the police?”
“I don’t see what they’d do, sir.”
“I just tried to trash your restaurant!”
“There’s no law against it.”
“What? How not? It’s vandalism. Or something.”
“Not here, sir. Now,” said the waiter, turning to the infuriated eater, “If you help me get him out I’ll replace your food.”
Jeb slithered out of the hold. “Right, well if that’s not a crime, how about this,” he said, and went to punch the waiter.
The diner grabbed his arm. “I wouldn’t do that, if I were you.”
“Why? Because I’d end up in jail?”
“No. Because I’ll do this.” The diner punched Jeb in the stomach.
Jeb doubled over, collapsing first onto another table, then the floor.
“Assault,” he groaned, struggling to see straight. “Now the police get involved.”
“There’s no law against it,” said the waiter.
“What? Of course there’s…”
The diner kicked Jeb, while the waiter watched, only standing back to let Ray drag his near-unconscious brother out onto the street.
Jeb sat on the sofa, groaning and clutching his belly.
“What the hell were you doing?” asked Ray.
“I’m gonna get myself back inside. A man gets a proper meal in there.”
“You’ll be lucky. You heard him.”
“Yeah, what’s that about assault?”
Ray sighed. “I tried to tell you. There are areas where certain laws don’t apply. And right here’s one of the biggest.”
Jeb checked the map the next morning. It was two miles to the boundary of the Offense-Free Zone. Wouldn’t take him long, he thought, but after an hour he realised how wrong he’d been. The map had borne no relation to how the roads were now. Somehow every time he made a turn he found himself heading back to where Ray lived, looping round, as if you had to navigate a maze even to get out of Ray’s district. Finally he’d come up with a scheme to remember where he was, despite the app on his phone point-blank refusing to locate him.
He turned a corner, finally seeing a group of well-to-do houses he hadn’t seen before, only to be met by what at first sight looked like a car with red and blue police lights on it, but which had a smiling policeman’s face covering what would have been the front windscreen. Jeb had heard about these – fully automated police vehicles. As he walked up, the car jerked sideways to block his path.
“Good morning, sir. Do you have a permit to be in this area?”
“Why would I need one? I’m a free man.”
The car edged closer to him, stopping only when it was almost touching. “You are a free man, Mr Jebediah Sotriano, but this is not an offical free area. Observe the signs to the side.”
“Homewatch – we protect our own” signs were attached to each lamppost.
“Sure, but that’s keeping a lookout. A free man’s allowed to walk down the street of a free country, isn’t he?”
“If you have reason to be here, sir, I will be most happy to pass on any message to anyone you need to see. Do you have an appointment?”
“I’m walking, goddammit, I’m exploring!”
“Well then, sir, I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to explore somewhere else.”
“Is this not a public street?”
“And I’m a member of the public?”
“Then I should be able to walk down here.”
“Do you have an appointment?”
“Right, that’s it.” Jeb ran back and found a loose piece of paving slab on the street, and picked it up. He walked back to the car, and launched it at the car’s window. It bounced off, harmlessly.
“I would ask you not to do that, sir.”
“Or what? You’ll call the police? Good. Do it. Just do it!”
“Why would I call the police, sir? There’s no law against it. I would politely ask you not to, though. Please do not attack me.”
“Or?” He picked up the slab again and launched it a second time. Again it bounced off.
Jeb ran to the side, but the car was too quick. He ran the other way, and again it blocked his path. A few moments later the car was joined by four others, now making a half-moon shape round Jeb, shepherding him away.
“I’m here to commit a crime,” said Jeb, childhood baseball bat in hand. The only other man in the police station looked up, surprised.
The station officer behind the glass looked up from his magazine. “You mean report, sir?”
“No. Commit. Right, wait for this.”
Jeb lifted the bat and smashed it against the glass. “Threatening behaviour, felony within a police station.”
“Not any more sir. No law against it. If that could break the glass we would be negligent in our duties of care to our own officers.”
“So I wait until you get out, and then I attack.”
“Unlikely, sir. We go in armoured cars. Now, if that’s everything?”
“Well what about that man over there. I’m going to attack him.”
The elderly man waiting his turn suddenly looked scared. Jeb lifted his bat. The old man stood.
“I would rather you didn’t, sir, but strictly speaking, there’s no law against it.”
“What? This is a police station!”
“No, sir. This is a police station.” The policeman indicated the line behind the glass.
“Out there is public access, and since the National Overall Law-Abolition Ward Bill came into effect, certain areas are now outside of our jurisdiction.”
“But I want to go back to prison.”
“That is unfortunate to hear, sir, but your fellow inmates in general do not see it that way. Recidivism post-bill has fallen by a staggering…”
“Let me guess. One hundred percent.”
“Well, not quite, sir. Some people attempt suicide.”
“OK. I can do that.”
“It’s only a crime if they succeed.”
“So you’re telling me if I died, you’d send me back to prison?”
“No, sir. That would be stupid. No, you would then count in the statistics for those that prison did not reform. Which would be a shame, given you’re doing so well.”
“Well? I’ve got no money, no way of getting any, I’m reliant on my brother’s food deliveries for a month…”
“I’d advise you to get a job, sir.”
“There are no jobs.”
“I have a job, sir.”
“Well, that’s nice, isn’t it. You have a job. Would you mind letting me in there so I can roll your job up really tight and ram it where the sun don’t shine?”
“Obviously that won’t be possible, sir. Along with the great bill and its savings on prisons came a huge investment in defensive crime-fighting, which has been remarkably successful in lowering offenses against the police. Not one has been injured on active duty this whole year, you know. We’re very proud.”
“Do you ever step outside of your armoured cars?”
“To investigate crimes, of course, sir.”
“How can anyone commit crimes? There doesn’t seem to be anywhere you can do anything that counts, to you, as a crime. I can do what I like out here and you just tell me it’s fine, so I’m asking you – what constitutes a crime?”
“Sir. Really. What a strange question. Lawbreaking isn’t something to joke about.”
“I’m not joking, I’m serious. And I’m going to keep standing here shouting until you tell me.”
The policeman leaned back. “Well, sir, you can if you want, because after all…”
“Oh, please for the love of God don’t.”
“There’s no law against it.”
When not writing, or suffering the burden of a very much less creative day job, Robert is unusually-upset about the lack of a single Russian oligarch with a preference for recreating zeppelins over buying soccer teams. If you are a Russian oligarch reading this, please correct this sad imbalance.