Invisible Hand – Chapter Forty: Going to Town

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In which Niall, Steve, and Arnie go shopping.

Monzano seemed quiet, peaceful, even serene. There were only a few cars on the main street. The primary shopping center included a large sporting goods store so Niall headed for it but the sign on the door said the store wouldn’t open until 10:00am.

“It’s just as well they’re closed,” Niall said.” You guys need some new clothes. What you’re wearing will sort of stand out. Let’s see if we can’t get you outfitted.”

Steve was enthusiastic and Arnie was accepting so it was agreed that would be a good way to spend some time before shopping for guns. They could see a clothing store from the sporting goods store so it was no trouble to park and walk over. There was a section of standard issue things, in white of course, and a larger section of luxury clothes, mostly cowboy style with a number of business suits and such. Niall suggested they get some of the white work clothes since they were rather sturdy. While they were at it he also had them try on some work boots. Those were an immediate hit. The clerk raised his eyebrows a few times at the boys’ attitudes but seemed happy enough to outfit them. He asked if they were farmers and the boys admitted that they were.

“Yes, you don’t get calluses on your hands like those working in an office or clerking in a store,” the clerk commented.

The boys were suddenly self-conscious about their hands and quieted considerably.

Niall bought each of them a good hat and a leather belt, as well as getting some whites suitable for hard outdoor work and some work shoes for himself. The boys took their old clothes with them in plastic bags while Niall left his clothes at the store with a note to return them to the Payer School. Somehow the boys didn’t seem to notice that this would be an indication to the school as to where he was. Perhaps it was because of the excitement and pleasure in shopping for fine new clothes, better than any they could remember.

By the time they left the clothing store, the sun was getting pretty high (none of them had watches, the boys never had worn watches that they could remember and Niall’s had been taken during the search.) Niall wasn’t worried about time yet but he thought he should keep their time limit in mind just the same.

There was a fast food business nearby and Niall suggested that they get something to eat and, perhaps, something to take back to the others. The boys eagerly agreed and they walked over to the burger joint.

Niall led the way to the counter and asked Arnie what he would like. Arnie was almost speechless at the pictures of food and the gleaming, stainless steel kitchen equipment visible behind the counter. “I’ll have a sandwich,” he finally got out. Steve quickly added, “Me, too.” Niall ordered three burgers with everything and three salads with blue cheese dressing. In a couple of minutes there were three trays in front of them and they were carrying them over to the drinks area. Niall suggested coffee with cream and sugar and the three men took a booth in the corner where they could see the jeep easily.

Niall took the first bite and soon the others were greasily grinning around huge mouthfuls. “This is great. I’ve never had anything like it. How do they make the bread so soft?” Steve said when he came up for air. Arnie gingerly tasted the coffee and made a face. “It smells a lot better than it tastes.”

“So go get some soda or ice water,” Niall grinned at him.

“Right. And I will,” Arnie said rising and turning toward the drinks machine.

“What do you think of the coffee?” Niall asked Steve.

Steve carefully brought the steaming drink to his mouth and sipped. His eyes widened and he took a larger taste. “That’s wonderful. I’ve never tasted anything like that before.” He started to take a deeper swallow but the heat was too much and he coughed in mid-swallow with the natural result that the coffee sprayed all over his food. Niall quickly handed over his own napkin and raised his voice to Arnie to bring some more napkins. By the time they had cleaned up, one of the girls who worked behind the counter was out with another burger and a fresh salad. She took away the debris of the previous meal and patted Steve on the shoulder with a grin.

As she walked away, Steve said, “I think I’m in love,” looking after her with longing in his eyes.

“What will all this cost you?” Arnie asked Niall.

“Oh, this is ordinary food. It doesn’t cost us anything. If we were eating in a fine restaurant they’d have to charge us, of course, but anybody can have regular food like this without paying.”

The young men looked at each other, then down at their food, then at each other again. Arnie shook his head. “That’s just impossible. They can’t afford to give away food like this. Besides, somebody’s paying those women back there who made this food. They aren’t working for free are they?”

“Oh they’re being paid, all right. They’re paid to help folks get enough food to eat. You boys look hungry to them so they didn’t want you to leave without a good meal under your belts,” Niall said casually.

“But who pays them?” Steve said “Why would anybody do that? They don’t even know us. Or do they know you?” Steve was suddenly suspicious.

“No, they don’t know me from Adam. I’ve never been to this town before. I’m a stranger here, too.”

“Well I think there’s something up. Nobody gives away food like this without some good reason and the only reason I can think of is it’s some kind of a trap. Do you suppose it’s drugged or poisoned, Arnie?”

“Well, I sure don’t feel drugged. I feel fine. Do you feel drugged? Besides, Niall here is eating the same food we are and he seems OK.”

Steve gradually settled down and even got more coffee, which he drank more carefully this time. Niall asked if it would be OK if he asked for some food to take with them so the others back at camp could have something besides potatoes and rabbit for lunch. Arnie said that would be OK so they left with a large sack full of hamburgers and some apples.

They only had to sit in the jeep for a few minutes before the sporting goods store opened and naturally, they were the only customers for a while. The two young men were wide-eyed at the merchandise on display. A sales clerk was at their side almost immediately asking how she could serve them. Niall took the lead saying that he had been visiting his brother’s family back in the hills and thought it would be a good time to take his nephews shopping for some camping equipment and some hunting rifles.

The boys seemed to want everything and had to be reminded several times that there wasn’t room in the jeep for the entire contents of the store all at once. They were told that they could return to the store tomorrow if they found that they’d forgotten something that they just had to have to keep body and soul together. Niall recommended that they buy lanterns and a small portable stove with some fuel. They also bought a small, four-person tent that folded into a really rather small package and four bedrolls. Then they approached the gun counter. In racks behind the counter were scores of hunting rifles and shotguns. Under the glass of the counter top were row upon row of handguns. If the boys had been excited before they were now in heaven.

“What’s that tube on top of some of the guns?” Arnie whispered to Niall.

“That’s a telescopic sight that lets you see your target as if you were up close to it,” Niall said quietly.

“Let’s get two of those,” Arnie said with decision.

“We can have those sights mounted on almost any of the rifles,” Niall said. “Pick your guns and then we can shop for sights.”

“We need ammunition, too,” Steve said quickly. “Lots of it.”

“Well you have to practice if you are going to become good shots so we’ll get plenty,” Niall said thinking that the boys were not helping avoid suspicion.

After much consideration and many changes of minds the boys settled on two rifles which used the same kind of ammunition. Niall said that he thought he might as well get one also since he had left all his own guns back home in Virginia. So he picked another hunting rifle with telescopic sight.

The clerk asked for references for the party.

“References?” Arnie asked. “What do you need references for? My uncle has money. Isn’t that good enough for you?”

“Before I sell anyone a gun I have to be sure he won’t misuse it. Since I know that your uncle is going to give these guns to you, I have to know that you young men are responsible enough for me to trust with guns as well, otherwise I won’t sell guns to any of you. So who are your references? I warn you that all of them absolutely will be contacted and their reputations had better be good or their word will be disregarded.” The clerk was beginning to frown a little as she spoke.

“Look, these boys live back in the hills, you know, sort of away from civilization,” Niall pleaded. “I don’t think their folks even have a telephone and they sure don’t have a TV. Can’t you just trust me and sell the guns to me on my references? Then if I give them the guns any blame for their misuse will fall on me not on you.”

“Mister, that ain’t the way it works,” the clerk said, leaning on the counter. “They go back at least three or four steps if a gun is used in a crime or kills somebody by accident. If you gave these boys each a gun and one accidentally blew the other’s head off, it would be a couple of years before I was getting full pay again no matter how good your references are. You may be willing to risk your income on some stranger’s judgment but I’m not. Now if you three got references and want to buy these guns then tell me who they are and maybe, just maybe, if those references are really good and really impressive, I might, possibly, sell you these guns. Otherwise you can forget it. What’s it going to be?”

“Okay, forget the guns,” Niall said,” We’ll just take the camping gear.”

“Wait a minute,” Steve almost yelled, grabbing Niall’s arm. “You promised we could get guns. At least buy one.”

“Son,” the clerk said straightening up. “I don’t care who your references are, I won’t sell you a gun. Now if you have everything else you came for, you can pay for that and I’ll get a hand truck to help you get your stuff to your jeep.”

“Well, guys, that’s our deal,” Niall said shrugging. “Do you want to leave empty-handed or take this stuff.”

“We’ll take the stuff,” Arnie said quickly before Steve could turn it down.

“Come over to the checkout counter,” she said. “This will only take a minute. Who is paying for these things?”

“I am,” Niall said.

The clerk passed each of the items in front of a TV on the counter and in each case, asked Niall if he wanted to buy the item she named at a price which she named and Niall replied, “I do.”

After a while Niall almost felt married. Arnie and Steve were watching in wonder and both jumped when the TV said the total price and asked if Niall wanted that amount deducted from his account and the ownership of the items transferred to himself. Niall said he did want the deduction and transfer of ownership and the clerk also indicated agreement. The TV announced Niall’s remaining account balance (still over $70,000) and the deal was done.

The clerk called a young man in from the back room, who brought a hand truck and the purchases were in the jeep and ready to go in short order.

Niall drove toward the outskirts of town and stopped in the shade of a tree. “Look guys,” he said. “If we try the same routine at the next place, we’re likely to have the same problem. How about if I go in by myself next time and just buy one gun. There are several towns around here. I saw the names and mileages on some of the road signs.”

“No you don’t,” Arnie said.” If we let you go in there alone, you can spill the beans and have us followed. Where you go, we go.”

“Wait a minute, Arnie,” Steve said. “Niall has a point there. We can’t get references and if we’re with him and try to buy several guns it looks like he’s buying them for us. So he has to look like he’s buying them for himself and the only way he can to that is to seem to be alone.”

“So how do we keep him from having us followed?” Arnie said as if talking to a simpleton.

“It’s easy,” Steve explained. “One of us goes in as if shopping for something, whatever is near the gun counter. Then Niall goes in and deals for the gun. Then the other one of us comes in and the first one leaves without buying anything. We can hear what they’re saying and see what he’s doing the whole time and yet we won’t seem to be with him at all.”

With that arrangement finally agreed to, they headed for Torreon. Upon arrival, Niall pointed out that they needed gas, so he pulled into a gas station.

They decided that it would be best to separate and, keeping Niall in sight, wander around town as if they were not together. So while Niall pumped and bought the gas, the others sauntered down the street looking in the several stores. When they found a gun store, they could put their plan into operation. Since the town only had one real business street, they had no trouble finding a store that sold guns.

Steve entered first and went to the section where the fishing gear was located. After a few minutes Niall came in and went straight to the gun counter. The only clerk was discussing the best way to catch trout with Steve, but a boy of about 12 years who was reading a book in a chair near the front window of the store came over and asked Niall if he needed any help. Niall, remembering how helpful the boy in the airport had been, replied that he was on vacation and thought he would do some hunting but his own hunting gear was back in Virginia. He asked the boy if he had any recommendations for a deer rifle for hunting Western, mountain deer. The boy immediately launched into a discussion of the relative advantages of bolt action and lever action, of scope sights over good hunting technique, and of ammunition quality and striking power. Niall was rapidly in over his head and was reduced to asking questions that showed he really was no expert. The boy soon realized that Niall should be treated more like a beginner and suggested that he should use a low power scope and not shoot at anything more than 50 yards away. He also emphasized that since there were a lot of tourists in the woods, he should be sure to wear a bright orange vest and hat at all times.

By this time, Steve had decided to get some fish hooks, since they were in short supply back in the colony. He brought out a handful of silver coins that were in use as money back home and asked the clerk if he would accept them as a means of payment. The clerk asked what they were. Steve answered that they were one ounce silver dollars.

“Silver dollars? What are you, some kind of POM fanatic?” the clerk said with a shocked voice and literally drawing back from Steve as if Steve carried some disease.

Steve got an angry look on his face and spit out, “What’s the matter? Ain’t my money good enough for ya? It’s pure silver and rings true.”

“You can’t buy things here with that. Take them over to the jewelry store. Maybe if you give them to Gerardo he can make something out of them. Then when you have some real money you can come back and I’ll sell to you. But I’m not taking any of that POM off of you or anybody else and I never will.”

Steve said, “Have it your way,” turned and stomped angrily out of the store.

Arnie had gotten there in time to see the offer of silver coins and looked studiously at some pocket knives in a display case nearby. He never so much as looked up as Steve went by.

The clerk turned from Steve with a flushed face, said in passing to Arnie, “I’ll be with you in a moment, sir, right after I help this gentlemen,” with a nod toward Niall.

“I guess that guy has been back in the hills too long,” Niall said. “Sounds like he never heard of the transition.”

“Maybe,” the clerk replied with an exasperated shake of the head, “but maybe he was just trying to make trouble for me. If I accepted POM for payment that guy could say to my suppliers that I was cheating them out of their money by trading their goods for myself. Then when they stopped giving me things to sell he could try to get them to set him up in business here. There isn’t enough trade for two stores in this little town. I don’t make much as it is. I sure don’t want another business like mine.”

“But you have these beautiful mountains and the weather’s so pleasant. I’ve loved it here the last six months. You’d still have those things,” Niall said trying to mollify the clerk.

“My wife and daughter like to ride horses. Do you have any idea how expensive that is? It’s all I can do to pay the upkeep on those animals and for the occasional horse show. And then there’s the trailer and the SUV to pull it. It takes about all I can earn here just to break even.”

“Maybe I can help by buying a gun. This young man here has given me all sorts of good advice. He says this is the one I should get and about ten boxes of ammunition so I can practice for a while before I try to shoot a real deer.”

“I’ll need your reputation and several references. It will take about a day for me to talk to them all. Oh, and at least one has to be from this area.”

“Why do you need all those references and background checks?” Niall asked. “I’ll be careful.”

“I have to be confident that you’re good at being careful. If you’re the kind of guy that keeps having accidents, you’ll need to find someone else to sell you a gun because I can’t afford to take that kind of risk. It’s a big responsibility selling guns and I take it seriously because it’s the only way I can be sure to make money.”

“Okay, just curious,” Niall said holding up both hands in mock surrender and smiling. “You can feel free to go over my reputation all you like. I know a farmer reasonably well who’s from this area, Marty Martinez, perhaps you know him?”

“Oh, sure, he’s got a big farm North-west of here. I thought he became a Payer, though.”

“Anything wrong with that?” Niall asked. “Does that mean he can’t be a reference for me?”

“Not at all. He’ll do fine. It’s just that I don’t know whether he can drop in for a chat. I might have to use the telephone to get in touch with him.”

“Jeeves, are you there?” Niall said toward the TV on the counter.

“Yes, sir. What can I do for you, sir?” the TV responded.

Arnie almost broke and ran at the TV talking to Niall but controlled himself visibly.

“Give this clerk anything he asks for about me for the purpose of my buying this hunting rifle here. Let him know anybody that knows me who might know something about whether I can be trusted with a gun.”

“Very good, sir. Right away, sir.”

“I think that will do it, sir. If you will come back tomorrow, I hope I can sell you this gun and the ammunition you want at that time,” the clerk said with a smile.

Niall thanked him and turned to leave.

A few minutes later he was back at the jeep with Steve not far behind.

“Are you out of your mind?” he said to Steve. “Were you trying to get us all in trouble back there? What’s the big idea of pulling out those coins? He’s going to remember you for weeks for that stunt. Don’t you understand that they don’t use physical object money any more? All the money is in computer accounts.”

Steve was still a little angry, “That money is perfectly good. That… that whatever he is was just being a snot because I took so long over a small sale like fishhooks. I saw the prices on them and they were just a few cents each. I had enough there for lots more than I wanted to buy. He was just being arrogant.”

“No, Steve,” Niall said, “He thought you were trying to get him in trouble with his suppliers, the people who gave him those fishhooks and guns and stuff to sell for them. He thought you were trying to trap him and get his business.”

“But it’s perfectly good money. We even copied the lady liberty on the coins.”

“Sure. They’re worth an ounce of silver but they aren’t money to these people. You have to remember that for the last 15 years or so they’ve been living with an entirely different way of doing business. For example, that shop owner doesn’t pay anyone for the goods he sells. And he doesn’t get any of my money when I buy something in his shop. He gets paid for the service he gives us, by people whose job it is to make sure he’s rewarded for being good to us. The people who make the things he sells are also rewarded by other people whose job it is to make sure they are rewarded for making useful things. In other words, if he trades you those fish hooks for those coins, then all the people who contributed to making those fish hooks wouldn’t be paid or at least perhaps not paid as much. So those fish hook makers would be less likely to give him their hooks to sell next time. He could put himself out of business by taking your money because he’d have no way to compensate all those other people who did things to get those hooks into his store for him to sell. Does all that make sense?”

“You mean that guy doesn’t own those fish hooks?” Steve asked incredulously.

“Well, in one sense he does and in another sense he doesn’t,” Niall said. “He didn’t buy them from the folks who made them. Those folks sent them to him so he could sell them. After all, if the people who made those hooks just kept them in a big box at their factory, then no one would use them and no one would get paid for making them. But if they give them to the owners of stores like this one here, then people will have a chance to buy them and thus get some good out of them. That way the hook makers deserve to get paid and will get paid both for making those hooks and for giving them to people who’ll sell them to folks like you and me who will get the pleasure of catching fish with them. So in one sense, this store owner doesn’t own the hooks, he’s just selling them for the real owners, the people who made them. But on the other hand, he does have possession of them and he can do with them what he wants. He controls them. He can decide to sell them or not just as he did in your case. So in that sense he does own them.”

Arnie was approaching with an angry look on his face. “Have you got no more sense than to wave your money around in town? Now the folks here will know we have real money and we’ll have bandits coming to steal it. You idiot, you could get us wiped out!”

“Oh, calm down. From what Niall says they don’t want our money anyway. You saw that clerk. He acted like I had some bad disease or something. He wouldn’t even touch my money. What makes you think they’d want it bad enough to risk getting shot?”

“Man, that’s real silver. Of course they want it. They aren’t crazy are they?”

“Maybe they are, Arnie. Niall says that they just give stuff to each other. I mean besides the food we got for lunch and the clothes. They even give things like guns and knives to each other.”

“What’s he talking about, Niall?”

“We were discussing why the clerk acted the way he did about being offered silver coins for the fish hooks. I was explaining how the store owner got the things he has for sale,” Niall said.

“We haven’t got time to shoot the breeze. We have to get on to more towns if we can get only one gun per store. It’s getting late.” Arnie shoved Steve toward the jeep and Niall quickly got in the driver’s seat and made ready to move on.

The sun still had a couple of hours to go before slipping behind the mountains when they left the third town and headed back to where they were supposed to meet the others. They had even more stuff in the Jeep now, as Niall had acquired more camping gear for the young men. As they approached the place where they would turn off the road onto the dirt track, Niall pulled over and asked Steve if he would drive.

“What for?” Steve asked.

“Well, Cal told you to drive and he expects to see you at the wheel when we get back. I don’t want him to get any ideas that something’s wrong and start shooting. You remember how nervous he was when we left, don’t you?”

“Oh, yeah. But I bet he’s calmed down quite a bit my now. I mean, we aren’t even close to sunset yet. We must have at least an hour to go.”

When they got to the turnoff Arnie said, “Stop! Stop right here! Something’s wrong.”

“What is it? What do you see?” Steve asked in a whisper.

“Several people have walked up the hill over our wheel tracks. None of those prints were made by us. Something’s going on here. Let’s put the jeep back down the road a ways and come back on foot through the woods.”

“Good idea, Arnie. Niall, how do you make this thing go backwards?”

“Please let me do it Steve. Backing up is a little tricky until you get the hang of it.”

“Oh, all right but go right where we tell you.”

“Sure, Steve. Where do you want to go?”

Arnie said, “Back about half a mile the trees come down close to the road. Let’s see if there’s a place it will fit in those trees.”

“Okay. I’ll just turn around then,” Niall said.

“No, don’t. I don’t want any more tracks here showing we came back this way. Just back up so you don’t have to get off the hard part of the road,” Arnie said.

“All right, you’re the boss.”

After maneuvering the jeep in amongst the trees and covering their tracks with some leaves and pine needles, the three left the road and circled around to come at the campsite from another direction than they had had left it. As they went over the ridge, Arnie said very quietly, “We should have changed back into our other clothes. These white things will show up much too easily, even after sunset.” But he kept going, motioning the others to stop and wait for him several times as they neared clearings. Finally they had a vantage point from which they could see the camp site. The lean-to was still in place but there were no people and no blankets and no camp fire. The pit in which they had maintained their fire had been filled in. There was no sign that anyone was around. Even the plastic bottles that had held their drinking water were gone.

Arnie motioned them back the way they had come. After moving about 50 yards to a clump of brush they huddled and discussed the situation in little more than whispers.

“It looks to me like they left and I bet they left as prisoners.” Arnie began.

“Why do you say that?” Niall asked rather surprised.

“They covered the old campfire,” Steve said. “If Cal were still in charge, they wouldn’t have covered the campfire where we expected to spend the night. There’s no point in digging a second campfire pit if you already have one. Also, there weren’t any improvements to the lean-to and no second lean-to. They’ve had all day with nothing to do but wait for us. They’d have improved the camp with that kind of time.”

“He’s right,” Arnie said. “They’d have made a second lean-to and gathered branches to sleep on and firewood, for goodness sake. But everything was gone or they hid it real good. I think they were caught by someone from home. Taken by surprise I’d say. I didn’t see any signs of a fight, did you, Steve?”

“No, it all looked pretty peaceful to me. Like they just up and walked away.”

“So what do we do now?” Niall asked. “Do we track them or go back to town for help or what?”

“Go back to town? Oh, you mean back to one of those places we went today. No we won’t go anywhere. I think from the tracks that it’s some of the mayor’s men who got ‘em. I think the only thing we can do is get more guns and slip in with them and get our guys armed well enough to overthrow the mayor.” Arnie was rather grim faced.

“Yeah,” Steve said rather enthusiastically. “Can you picture how they’ll sit up and take notice when we pick off a couple of guys with those telescope guns? They won’t know what hit ‘em.”

“Steve, you aren’t going to get anybody free of the Mayor by shooting a couple of his guards from two hundred yards away. Just cool it and let me think.”

“But Arnie, it’s going to be at least a couple of days before we can get more than a few guns. Can we wait that long?” Niall was rather worried about Natalie and the others.

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