[This short story first appeared at Liberty’s Torch V1.0 on September 19, 2017. — FWP
Harmon grimaced. “You’re asking a lot from people who just want to be left alone. Like their whole futures. Maybe even their lives.”
I nodded. “I know. And I know that putting my own life and future on the line right next to theirs is puny reassurance and no compensation whatsoever. But it’s time, Jack. Either we act now or we can kiss what remains of the Republic good-bye.”
I stood to stretch, and my head poked a deep dimple into the canvas roof of the tent. Our grins were reflexive. “Seriously now, can’t you afford…?”
He chuckled. “Realism, Don. And a smidgen of egalitarianism to go with it. Most of my men are six feet or less. What you and I would greatly appreciate, they don’t need and wouldn’t be willing to pony up for. Speaking of which, what about transportation? Air travel is right out, so how—”
I waved it aside. “Already taken care of.”
He looked at me dubiously. “And paid for?”
I nodded, and his eyes widened. “Don, tell me you didn’t.”
“Okay, I didn’t. Happy now?”
It silenced him. He sat back in his lawn chair and looked away. I let the silence run its course. He seemed to need it.
Presently he said “The twenty-second, right?”
“At noon. The permit covers us from eleven AM to two PM.”
“No. Motorhomes. Fifty of them.”
“What? Is Eli in on this too?”
“He’s providing some of the rolling stock, yes.”
His eyes narrowed. “Some.”
“About a third.”
“And the rest?”
He looked aside again. “I can’t make it an order.”
“I don’t think you have to. Two hundred would be more than sufficient. Actually, I don’t think the motorhomes could transport and house more than that.”
“That could be a problem,” he said. “Because you’re likely to get more volunteers than that. Like, maybe all of them.”
I nodded again. “I expect we will.”
Harmon’s coordination scheme worked better than I’d expected. Despite the irregular dispersion of the RV camps we’d used as mustering points, his people converged on the Charlottesville mall at eleven forty-five exactly. Harmon personally sought out the police lieutenant on the scene, showed him the permit, and cluck-clucked perfunctorily about the thinness of the PD security screen. Four of his men set up a small dais, a lectern, and a portable amplifier. The rest adopted convincingly relaxed yet expectant postures, eyes on the dais as if expecting a long-anticipated speaker. It looked as innocent as any free-speech rally ever held.
Our adversaries were only a few minutes behind us.
They outnumbered us substantially. As we’d expected, every one of them was dressed and masked in black. They carried a variety of makeshift weapons: sticks, fluid-filled bottles, some rocks. I saw no guns or knives. I prayed that there were none hidden. This would be risky enough.
At noon I mounted the dais and went to the lectern. That seemed to be the signal our adversaries had awaited. They moved toward our group with unconcealed hostility.
The police, of course, moved back.
I bent to the microphone and spoke a single word: “Now.”
Almost as one, Harmon’s men turned away from me, toward their would-be silencers, and pulled their launchers from concealment.
The launchers were the cheapest part of the scheme: ordinary-looking children’s toys that use compressed air to fire sponge balls. The “magazine” in the “stock” that could hold thirty such balls. I’d had them modified somewhat to increase their power and range, as the balls they were designed to fire were dry. The ones we’d loaded were not.
The men had practiced with them to the point that every one of them could zero a four-inch-wide target at twenty-five yards. Within twenty seconds they’d hit half of our adversaries. Another twenty seconds and the engagement was over. All those who had come to do us harm had gone down screaming and clawing at themselves. None remained standing.
I spoke into the microphone again. “Cease fire.”
As one, Harmon’s men laid their launchers on the grass at their feet.
The police, of course, moved on us at once.
The district attorney was furious, mainly at his own impotence. I let him rave until it was all out of him, then set back with my hands behind my head and murmured “So what are the charges?”
He glared at me. “It’s quite a list. I hope you’ve got a good lawyer.”
I smiled. “I am a good lawyer. So enlighten me. What are you planning to charge us with for bringing children’s toys to a public, duly permitted rally and firing sponge balls at masked men who were charging us with weapons?”
He bared his teeth. “When I have the police lab report on what was in those guns—”
“You will find,” I interjected, “three perfectly legal chemicals. DMSO, caffeine, and water. Absolutely nothing else. So?”
“It’s still assault!”
I shrugged. “You might be able to make that stick. But we have complete video of the event from several angles. The clips have been posted to several video-sharing sites. One of them has already racked up over a million views. What do you suppose indicting us for assault would do to your prospects for re-election? Especially considering that the police effectively sided with our assailants.”
That stopped him cold. A strange sort of cold, to be sure. His boiled-ham face said nothing good about his cardiovascular health. But he could think of nothing to say.
I couldn’t resist one last twist of the blade. “So, Counselor, have you arrested any of the guys who were masked in public and carrying potentially lethal weapons to a peaceful, entirely legal rally? Aren’t both of those things against Charlottesville’s municipal ordinances?”
Within two hours of being detained, we’d been released without charges.
“It wasn’t cheap,” Harmon said.
I swigged at my beer. “Tell me about it, Jack. I’ll be hearing it from Marcie for months. She had her eye on a beach house in Aruba.”
“I still don’t get it, Don. Why?”
I cocked an eyebrow. “Why me, or why now, or why the method?”
“All three, but in reverse order.”
“Why the method is pretty simple: it put the fear of God into a bunch of bastards who desperately needed it, but without killing or maiming anyone. Now they know that there’s a counterforce that’s willing to act and has a method that will get the results we want. Why now? Because if we hadn’t, the next free-speech rally was going to feature a few fatalities, and that would have been enough to persuade every damned pansy-assed city council in the country to deny all further applications for free-speech rallies. In the law we call that a heckler’s veto.”
He grimaced. “Okay. I might not agree with the timing, but you definitely got their attention. So why you?”
“Because someone had to do something more than just complain,” I said. “And because I’d gotten really bloody tired of waiting for someone else to step forward. And while it took me too long to do it, when I finally asked myself the key question, I realized that I had no answer.”
Harmon’s eyebrows knitted together. He’s a smart guy, but there are some things to which he’s conceptually blind, probably because he’s never needed to ponder them.
“What was the key question?” he murmured.
I smiled. “Why not me?”
His mouth dropped open. “Oh.”
I drained my bottle and stood. “Another beer?”
Copyright © 2017 Francis W. Porretto. All Rights Reserved Worldwide.
I seldom write fiction in the first person, but the story above has me wondering. Why not you and I, Gentle Reader? Hmm? By the way, please also read Wes Rhinier’s column of today. He has a point. Most of us wave it aside, but should we?