Read by Jim Cogan
“What are you?” the old woman asked as darkness muscled in on our campfire. I’d met her on the road an hour before dusk, adjusted my pace to match. Offered to help carry her load, though she’d laughed at that. It was only when she was searching for firewood that I found out why. Her tattered canvas bags were filled with nothing more than bulbs stripped from car headlamps, each one tenderly wrapped in a rag.
I prayed these delicate items would earn her respite from the oncoming winter, perhaps somewhere with a working wind generator or scavenged solar cells. I did not ask where.
“I’m Justice,” I told her, and she eyed me with the same suspicion and fear as when first I’d spoken to her.
“Justice?” she spat into the flames, a brief sizzle and a plume of ash. “What need is there of justice, these days?”
“For someone on the road, none,” I agreed. “But where people gather together...”
She harrumphed and said nothing. I wondered how long she’d been out here, whether she only survived because she lacked anything anybody wanted. As if that were enough to keep you safe.
I knew I’d be arriving at my destination the next day, so I’d been free with my remaining supplies. She in return had shared what little she knew about the road ahead. A fair trade, I thought.
I left her shrouded form by the burnt-out fire as dawn began to soften the night sky, walking quietly between silent cars, most of which, now I paid closer attention, had had their eyes put out by the old woman, or others like her. Blind dinosaurs from another age.
That somewhere there was still electric light was a good thing. Odd that the most significant consequence of the push for green energy had been a greater resilience. Where preppers would once have hoarded diesel generators, now they had solar arrays or wind turbines. The batteries wouldn't last forever of course, any more than the diesel or light bulbs would. But it softened the blow. Allowed time to adjust.
In the liquid gold of late afternoon I descended on Crowhorne. Once, only people who lived there knew its name, now it was what passed for civilization in these parts. Had even grown a little since my last visit: a couple of ramshackle structures sheltered under the canopy of the Texaco, their entrances pointing inwards, tight-knit and defensive.
A gaggle of half-clothed kids saw me coming up the trail and there was a brief chorus of alarm before I was recognised. After that, the larger of them escorted me in, offering to “carry your bag, mister?” and asking “What news? What news?”
I gave them nothing and took nothing in return.
On the porch of the Diner that was the hamlet's largest building, a reception of elders gathered, armed with shotguns, most of them broken open to show peaceful intent.
“Justice,” acknowledged the wire-haired woman who was evidently now in charge. I wondered what had happened to Anton, the big red-faced man she'd replaced, but these days, there were far too many possibilities to count.
“Ma'am,” I greeted her in return, “Any work here?”
If there wasn't then I'd come a long way for nothing and would head on to the next hamlet tired and empty of stomach.
She rubbed an ugly scar that ran along her chin. An old one thankfully, from the collapse, or thereabouts.
“Some,” she admitted. “A day's worth, I'd say.”
I nodded. A day was good.
“Got a Capital, though,” she added, and the attitude of the rest of the committee made sudden sense. I hadn't expected to be welcomed, but there was an air of nervous excitement, dampened by a solemnity that I'd guessed meant bad news.
“I'll start an hour after dawn,” I told them, “I'll hear the Capital last. Someone show me where I'll be bedded for the night?”
The woman gestured to a grizzled rake of a man. “Anderson's got room. Food – we dine together. You'll hear the gong.”
They'd rigged oil-drum barbecues out the back of the Diner. It was mostly rabbit, along with a smoky, charred bread and a stew of beans and corn. Simple fare, but hearty. I sat at a banquette with the town's leader, whose name turned out to be Miller. Anderson and his shrewish wife reluctantly joined us.
“The new arrivals?” I asked, peering round the crowded Diner, “Under the Texaco?”
Anderson sneered and Miller's lips pinched thin. “They don't join us.”
“Okay,” I said, neutrally. “No objections, I hope, if I acquaint myself with them?”
“After the judging,” Miller said, confirming what I already knew. Whatever the crime that carried a death sentence was, it had to do with that pop-up shanty. No wonder they kept themselves apart. Looked like I was going to have to earn my keep.
Most of the morning's cases were petty grievances. Questions of ownership in a world where everything you had was once someone else's. I had to weigh need against a fragile hierarchy, ease of replacement against the age old law of finders keepers. Miller whispered occasional advice in my ear. Mostly, things ended up shared. Mostly, nobody was entirely happy nor entirely aggrieved by the new arrangement. Peace was kept.
We cracked on at a good pace. These were, after all, merely the under-card. I'd been wise to keep the main business to last.
The sun dipped behind the hills Crowhorne sheltered in and, after lanterns had been lit, Miller stood and the Diner fell silent. I looked up, curious, as a number of late arrivals filtered in at the back, a half-dozen hard-faced individuals, presumably the adult population of the shanty.
“Y'all know me,” Miller said, to a murmur of assent. “Most of you know the Justice here, who we thank for his careful deliberations.”
The murmur was a couple of degrees cooler. (Video continues the story; for the rest of the text please see below)
Whether my judgements were popular or not, they had to live by them, or risk being expelled from town. What they didn't have to do was live with me, except maybe two or three days a year. I was neutral and distant. I could be harsh where necessary, as long as I was seen to be fair. A charade, really; I had no power other than what they gave me.
“There are those who arrived more recently, that you don't know so well.”
The murmur became ominous and I looked askance at their new leader and then for the nearest exit. This speech was shaping up for a lynching. She let the noise swell and then proved my fears wrong.
“But that don't mean the law don't apply. It doesn't mean they're not protected. And it don't mean doing them wrong goes unpunished. Bring forth the prisoner.”
There was a commotion behind me as the kitchen's swing door rocked and then banged open, a big man pushed forward flanked by guards. His hair was unkempt and his hands bound by a plastic strip. It wasn't until he raised his head that I recognised him. Anton: the former leader of this hamlet.
Sometimes my decisions are complicated. Nuances of, if not necessarily justice, then common sense, of cause and effect, punishment and crime.
Other times, I'm there just to make things official. This was one of those.
They wouldn't have arrested their former leader without good cause. Wouldn't have replaced him if his guilt wasn't certain.
The story was as old as man and just as tired. A girl, Neha, was called forth. Tall and slim and young and pretty, despite reddened eyes, she was the daughter of the Shanty group's leader. Anton had made a play for her and her father warned him off. Whether Neha encouraged Anton, innocently or otherwise, or he'd just assumed he could do what the hell he liked, he hadn't taken it well. And then Neha’s father turned up stabbed to death.
Anton's knife was found wrapped in a bloodstained shirt, tucked in a dead tree trunk. Any claims of self-defence were already looking shaky when a witness popped up, a child, traumatised and hiding in the cab of an abandoned pick-up.
I had to listen to it all, to ask careful questions. Had to interrogate Anton, face down his belligerence. Question the girl and gently coax information from the young boy who had seen it all. Had to interrogate Miller as well, confirm to everyone listening that her assumption of power was legitimate. There could be no discussion, after, that due process had not been observed.
“Who now leads the newcomers?” I asked.
A woman stepped forward. “I do. Name's Lorrie.”
She looked an older version of Neha. I couldn't tell if she was mother, or sister. The dead man's wife, or daughter. The years are harsh on people these days.
“If you're going to stay,” I told her, “there can only be one leader. If you're going to stay here, your group must move into the town's buildings. Winter's coming.”
Miller nodded, obviously a message she'd already tried to give. Lorrie stared defiantly back for a long moment before bowing her head.
“I hope you do stay,” I said, “I feel for your loss, but the people of Crowhorne are good people and together you are better off than divided.”
“Will the accused stand?” I asked. The guards at his elbows tried to lift him but he shrugged them off, struggled to his feet.
“Anton. This is not a duty I relish. It is clear that yours was a moment of madness, a crime of passion. Whether you intended to kill or not, the result is the same and there can be only one penalty for murder.”
I took in deep breath.
“The punishment is death.”
The Diner erupted. Lorrie and Neha hugged at the back of the room, in relief or sorrow. Anton snarled and his guards gripped him all the tighter.
I held up my hand, waited until silence descended. “Who here will carry out the sentence?”
Miller was the first to speak. Quietly, she said “I thought the Justice –”
I spoke aloud. “I'm no executioner.”
The murmur became a tide of resentment. I stared at the hardened men in the crowd, watched them wilt. Turned to a suddenly pale Lorrie, who bit her lip and shook her head.
“This town has agreed to be civilised,” I told them, “You cannot permit a known murderer to reside in your midst.” People looked down and away, embarrassed, fearful. Angry.
I thought back to the lightbulb lady, the feel of the sharp blade she’d held to my throat in the middle of the night, the kick of the gun I'd hidden in my bed roll, and sighed.
“Though the sentence is death, there is another way. You can send him back out on the road. Should he ever return to within five miles of this town, he must instantly be put to death.”
The road was harsh and lawless. I wondered if Anton would thank us for this cruel mercy.
Turning my back on the Diner, I headed for the swing door, hoping for an exit, a way back to Anderson's. I would not be dining with the people of Crowhorne this evening and would once again skulk away at first light. Perhaps even before Anton.
That might be for the best. I didn't want him lying in wait for me, even if he'd not fallen quite so low, not yet.
I called back over my shoulder: “Death or exile. Your choice! And may the Lord God have mercy on his soul.”
(c) Liam Hogan, 2016
Liam’s stories for Liars' League have included statues, aliens, vampires, zombies, steeplechases, time travellers, deals with the devil, tattoos, demons, witches, rats, and of course, the obligatory elephant. Find them all on the Liars' website, or via http://happyendingnotguaranteed.blogspot.co.uk/p/lies.html
Jim Cogan (right) is a scriptwriter, documentary maker and occasional voiceover artist based in Oxford. He studied Creative Writing atBirkbeck College and was joint winner of the Liars’ League (London) Most Valuable Player writers’ award for 2015. This is his first time as reader for the League.