Nothing but fat cats


 People kept saying Rick Heller was a bad sort, one of those creepy little men who thought they could buck the Empire with a reign of petty crime.

 Indeed, Heller did a lot of bad things, and in fact, few men could equal his meanness.

 You could tell how mean he was from his face, the way the muscles tightened around the neck, and from his eyes that seemed to say he hated you the minute you said "Hello."

 He had hard icy eyes, greyish in color, though his interplanet passport mistakenly called them "Blue."

 Most people who have had dealings with him came away with the impression that he was crazy, though a doctor might better have discribed him as a soci-path, that kind of fellow who never bothered developing a conscience, and thus never worried about other people's feelings when he did business with them.

 He'd as soon as cut your throat as become your partner, and thought he made a lot of money for a lot of people, most of those with whom he delt, never delt with him twice, counting themselves lucky at having survived their first effort.

 Even then, he cheated people, from the sharpest of business people to the weakest of widows.

 "It's my nature," he told me once. "I've got to do to folks before they get a chance to do something to me."

 He told me he learned it all as a kid.

 We spent some times together at his final home in Quarry Prison where most people figured he would spend the rest of his life. I wasn't so sure. Nor did I understand just why he had started talking to me, saying things he'd refused to say to any of the prison psychologists.

 I know some inmates got close to their guards over time, but we'd just met and he just starting spilling everything, as if he didn't figure on living long caged up and needed someone to tell it all to before he went crazy.

 I didn't see him as crazy, the way many others did. But I did acknowledge his being mean, but a mean man is still a man, and sometimes I felt sorry for him. You can't get around knowing somebody like him, or thinking about his dying.

 You begin to think too much and wonder if the punishment really fit the crimes.

 From his talk, I gathered Heller had shot a lot of people over his long career, and for a lot of reasons. He killed some people, he said, to keep them quiet. He killed others, for revenge.

 "But I never killed nobody for no reason," he told me. "Not the way other folks do."

 We sometimes played gin together before his scheduled execution, and he never cheated me once.

 When I asked him about this, he just laughed and said: "I don't cheat nobody unless I got a good reason. It don't pay. You get into the habit and you forget just what it is you wanted to do."

 When I asked him what it was he wanted to do, his hard eyes would glaze over a little, and he would give me a shrug.

 "I guess I just wanted to be free," he said. "My pop was a drunk, mean as a brick, but never so mean I didn't love him. I cursed him plenty when he beat me up, but that didn't make me want to kill him or nothing. I just kept dreaming of a time I could get away. Hell, he even told me he was toughening me up, saying that if I ever expected to make it in the universe I was going to have to handle men meaner than him, and he was right."

 Heller told me that he had hopped a space trader to get away.

 "You know the kind I'm talking about, one of those rust buckets that shifts from planet to planet, collecting junk one place to sell it for cash someplace else," he said. "It's harder work than people give credit, like trash collectors on old Earth, taking up things people don't want, cleaning them up so other people will want them."

 But Heller exceeded at his trade, eventually going from a stowaway to the ship's owner with intermitten steps about which I didn't ask for details.

 We were three days away from his execution, and Heller seemed in a rush to tell me it all even in an abridged version.

 "Local officials and business folks started siding against me," he said. "They complained about me cutting into their profits. It seems they had a monopoly on some of the things I sold and didn't like me sliding in under them with better deals than they were willing to offer. Hell, they called me a thief when even I could see how bad they were ripping off their own folks, pretending they were being so honest and upright, yet doing everything to squeaze empty the pockets of anyone doing business with them. I wasn't no sweetheart, and I didn't sell low because I loved people or nothing. But a lot of those people reminded me of where I'd come from and I sort of took some pleasure in selling under those rich and rightous folks."

 Heller found himself jailed often, and the contents of his ship confisicated.

 "The sons of bitches would sell my stuff, saying it was so I could make bail," he said. "Then they would send me on my way with just enough fuel and food and oxygen to get me to the next system, where I would do some deals to get myself started again, only to have it happen to me again when I got enough to make a profit."

 Heller said they treated him "like a crook" for so long, he got to thinking he might as well be one.

 "I'd make more money that way and not have to live hand to mouth each time they let me out of jail again," he said. "I wasn't looking to hurt nobody small. I wasn't going to squeaze the pockets of people who couldn't afford it. I just wanted to get even with those rich bastards who were doing all the squeazing, and that's what I did."

 Heller started small. He didn't even kill anybody right away, not until the rich people struck back, and he found himself forced to put them out of the way.

 Part of it was the nature of the business in which he was suddenly immersed. Because of the nature of supply and demand, he knew he could make more money by supplying those things most desired in every system: drugs, women, alcohol.

 "Folks want what they can't have," he told me, his tongue loosened a little by the whisky I had snuck in for him. "And rich folks only make things illegal for two reasons. If they can't control the sourse so they can make money off the deal, they pass a law agains it. Back on Old Earth, marijuana was banned, not because it hurt anybody, but because the alcohol industry couldn't control it the way they could moonshiners. The more popular the stuff became, the more the government cracked down, supposedly acting in the public good."

 "And what's the second reason something would be made illegal?" I asked.

 Heller laughed. "That one's easy," he said. "It's when the rich folks have a lot of their own money invested in the stuff and want to see the price go up. It's when the little guy gets in and starts undercutting the market, that this game goes haywire, and why I'm sitting here on Death Row now. It's the same reason they used to put me in jail when I was dealing junk. They didn't want me messing up with their deal. They wanted to squeeze out the money from poor people all for themselves. Only now, instead of shipping me off to some new planet system, they're shipping me off to the grave. They know if they don't kill me, I'll be back in business within a year."

 "You don't think all the killing you did has anything to do with it?" I asked.

 "Na, that's just the excuse."

 Later, only hours before the time he was scheduled to die, I sat with him again. His face was red. I had supplied him with enough whiskey to help ease the anxiety and he had fully taken advantage of the offer. He looked young again, the lines around his eyes and mouth easing. Only his eyes showed the pain and fear of what was to come, not fear of death so much, but what lay beyond death. He didn't like the idea of not knowing what to expect.

 "You know," he said. "This is really sad, them wanting to kill me."

 "Why's that."

 "They accuse me of killing people without feeling, and maybe I did, and maybe some of my reasons were bad. But over all, I didn't mean to hurt nobody. In fact, if you look at it, I was always trying to help the little guy, the guys I'd seen that reminded me of pop, but no one would let me, and no one's letting me help anybody now."

 Several hours later, Heller was dead, and while I didn't agree with his last sentiments, I thought about them a lot, wondering if truth wasn't somewhere down deep in his words, only slightly distorted.


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