WORD CRIME • by Ken Poyner

He hated to be here. The stalls were uneven, some narrow, some wide, some with a draw curtain, many with a rope stretched side to side with hanging rags on that rope as a door front. Many looked like they would come down if a sneeze fell against them.

At some, vendors peered out, looking sheepishly side to side, ready to give the alarm if the police came wandering through. Others sat back in the chattering dark of their stalls, prepared to consider the breadth and width and smell and need of an exploring potential customer — each professionally certain they would recognize the repeat customer, the thrill buyer, the undercover agent.

The silence was expectantly oppressive, as it always is in these knock-about markets. This was not a place where words were wasted; but neither were they pristinely cherished. You could find warily dissimilar verbs sold together in the same overwrought matchbox. Prepositions lay barely a decibel deep in thimbles. Nouns of mismatched species could be found forced together in the same tattered envelope. As little respect for the words as for the customers.

Every time he had to come here, he promised himself he would forevermore marshal his words more wisely. But at least every other month he would come to some dry midweek with his seven-day quota of words spent. He could certainly remain unspeaking until his quota was restored for the next week. But he loved telling his neighbors children to get off his precious lawn, or making amorous suggestions to his wife, or politicizing at work. Oh, he could make gestures and broadly act out desired outcomes. But words were immediate: they slithered into the outline of a process, they bounded about as meticulous orders.

So here he was, buying jumbled black-market words — words that ruefully taciturn people had left over from their quotas, words orphaned by sudden death, words taken by force from those unable to protect them.

If only the Government or some reputable corporate entity managed the reclaimed unused words — but it was illegal to reclaim words. They could only go to surplus storage, be resorted, be placed into the common warehouses, be resupplied to the public in individual quotas. But there were back channels.

He passed the first few stalls without looking. The early stalls are the most picked over, favorites with the grab-anything-and-get-out crowd, the scared, the first-timers. He selected a stall about a third of the way into the line of illicit shops. It had a full, not overly threadbare, curtain to restrain its private inner chambers from the street proper. It looked like its owner had customized much of its rickety skeleton for quick set-up and take-down. Perhaps its owner had a plan to take his inventory and stall quickly to freedom if the police appeared and began working the end of the line. Down and packed and off into the dark between legitimate businesses.

Plastic cups of verbs, coffee cans of nouns, a petri dish of adjectives, an old pill bottle of adverbs.

Of course, no one could be sure of potency, or even gender, or consistency. An adverbial phrase gets mixed in with a verb. A preposition is tangled with a noun. An amen corner of pronouns falls in with a gang of adjectives. It can be potluck.

In quick order, he selected five vials, unsure of the contents other than no real belief that the labels on each reflected what was actually inside. Words. He would review them and arrange them into the best sentences he could.

He was imagining what he might have collected — possible combinations, potential sense, limits to syntax — when he heard the police whistle. Standard police whistle number two, a call to attention and suspicion. Short blast after short blast, demanding everyone stop, making everyone hurry.

If he were caught wordless, it would be over. It would be assumed he was here to obtain the illegal black-market words, not simply caught on the wrong street at the wrong time. Not a star-struck bystander, but a black-market denizen, surely buying bootleg words.

Already, the police had cleaned out the first shop, its owner handcuffed by the alley wall, one terrified customer being handed a printed card with his rights listed on it. No words to be wasted on these criminals. A police van was loading the shop’s store of words into its heavily guarded side panel door.

They would be on him in seconds — so he dumped his new words on an abandoned table top, the owner having made off with his words and half his stall a split in time ago, and began assembling them in what he hoped was a sensible enough order. He would spend his treasure of black-market words immediately, being wordless again, but free if he could fool the coming officers.

“Hey, you there, stop. Stop. Let me see what you have.” The police officer was only seven feet away and coming like unleashed ellipses at him.

Quickly, he stepped forward to block sight of the just-then-emptied vials.

“Draft wishing Mesmer quickly grass skirts,” he said, trying to look surprised and as scared as an innocent civilian caught in a police raid might look. The words slammed in a jumble out of his mouth, crisp in the air like rifle shots, jostling disconnected in the revealing atmosphere.

The brooding police officer, now but a foot from him, reached one harvesting hand firmly out for the captured man’s right arm, fumbling with his other hand for the suspects’ rights card ready in his top pocket.

Ken Poyner’s collections of short fiction, Constant Animals and Avenging Cartography, and his latest collections of speculative poetry, Victims of a Failed Civics and The Book of Robot, can be obtained from Barking Moose Press, as well as most on-line book outlets. He serves as bewildering eye-candy at his wife’s powerlifting affairs, where she continues to set world raw powerlifting records. His poetry lately has been sunning in Analog, Asimov’s, and Poet Lore; his fiction has yowled in Spank the Carp, Red Truck, and Café Irreal.

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